A dangerous experiment

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On May 5, 2010, my husband, Jeff Stamps, went to his primary care physician for his annual physical. He had stomach problems, “dyspepsia,” he said. I was skeptical of his self-diagnosis as his skin had turned sallow and he was eating less and less.

Within six hours of that appointment plus a trip to the emergency room, an ultrasound, and a CT scan, we had learned that my always-healthy, athletic, and in-very-good-shape 66-year-old husband of 38 years had Stage IV pancreatic cancer, with metastases to the liver and possibly the lung. Barely 1% of Stage IV pancreatic cancer patients survive beyond five years; most are dead within months.

Jeff lived—and lived well—until June 11, 2011, thirteen months and six days post-diagnosis. Eight weeks before he died he skied black diamond trails on his beloved Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire; three weeks before he died he did a shoulder stand while practicing yoga; the week he died he went for a walk.

His physical strength was one remarkable aspect of his dying; the other was how he embraced his “test.” Here is an excerpt from his memoir, 'A Dangerous Experiment', a phrase taken from Camus’s 'A Happy Death': “To have time was at once the most magnificent and the most dangerous of experiments.”

Jessica Lipnack 

Beginner's Mind

How did I feel when a dear friend told me I was terminal?

Calm.

At the level I have been processing the incoming news about my condition since the ultrasound, I am not surprised, although the time frame is considerably shorter than what I expected. For reasons I cannot fully understand, I seem to move immediately to acceptance.

Acceptance does not seem passive. Rather, it’s an unavoidable reorientation to a new reality. A point of action, I see now, it begins the period of conscious living/conscious dying that I now identify as my Terminal Bardo (a term my friend Jeff invented, taken from the Tibetan concept of the time between death and reincarnation). My calm seems real, but my mind is racing to unpack how I must really feel. Fatal and fast-growing, this is no ordinary diagnosis. This is a once-in-a-lifetime test.

How did I get to the place of acceptance? I wonder where denial and anger are, even as I am soaking in the full awareness of the diagnosis. Familiar for decades with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on the stages of grief, I test the expected emotional pathways.

Non-denial seems easy. First, I am not expressing denial, or hoping for a lesser charge. No one around me is denying it, no family or friends or medical professionals have expressed mitigating possibilities. Here we are all helped by the clarity of the CT data interpreted by a range of doctors.

For my personal crystallized clarity, I am enormously lucky that the prognosis is provided quickly by a profoundly trusted doctor. Nowhere to hide, a new reality bounds my life. Seeing clearly so early in the process is a gift that spreads from perception of my own condition to more clarity about the world around me.

More surprisingly, there is no anger. I am no stranger to anger, having struggled mightily with it over the years. Here there is no anger. At 66 I don’t feel cheated, robbed of time rightfully mine. Nor do I feel “sentenced” for some misdeed or “punished” for a badly lived life. Besides, I begin to say aloud, no one has suggested that anger helps at all. It is just a waste of time. This no-anger attitude, never complete, persists and has a big effect on my social surrounds and, I believe, a big non-effect on my chemical physiology.

Then there is no bargaining. I accept the terminal parameters. However, within the stage IV context, I will have choices, even if treatment options are limited and in any case are palliative not curative.

Some basic choices seem already made. Yes I will follow treatment to maximize the prognosis, but I will choose with high consideration for the quality of my remaining days. I will aim for a conscious death at home. I will not rush around trying every cure, trying to buy a few more weeks, although I’m open to hearing all options. What I will do is offer my body and the therapies applied the best possible mental attitude for their success.

Depression, too, is largely absent. Intellectually, I understand why it appears in the gap between bargaining and acceptance when the bargain is lost. Often the dying person begins to shut down the social network and retreat into grieving. I find myself opening up to an ever larger network of care—family, friends, people I know only tangentially.

Finally, acceptance, the last stage. I still cannot fully fathom how I am able to reach this point, apparently spontaneously: calm with terminal clarity. Acceptance with no hint of passivity. An acceptance that frees me to live intensely and in the moment while preparing for life’s biggest event beyond birth. This active, every-day-is-precious acceptance also permeates the new culture of intimacy with my nearest and dearest.

Don’t get me wrong. While the stages did not unfold in the prescribed manner, there was and is grieving. Most grieving seems to happen in small groups, and, with respect to me, is largely private. I don’t grieve much at the beginning, in the calm. Later it comes, but then not a lot, given the magnitude of the impending event. It comes and goes.

One other feeling cuts across the stages and then stands nakedly before you upon reaching acceptance. Fear (or not) of death. You can’t fake it, not to yourself, particularly in the quiet moments, or the dark of night. Fear, or its absence, will have an inescapable guiding influence on your inner experience of progress towards death.

For me, blessedly, so far fear has been absent. Anxiety sometimes arises about the unknown, but these are fleeting moments even then. Indeed, all of my old fears regarding that long off distant dying have disappeared, not surprisingly. Most especially I will not die like my estranged father, who at 91, may well out live me, in an assisted-living facility gripped by late-stage Alzheimer’s dementia and depression. Long life is not always wonderful.

I offer an ease with death without fear as a gift. Some say they feel less fear about their own death from my example.

These are the emotional “facts” as best as I can describe the indescribable. These feelings and their absences are all simultaneously present in the early morning light of my “terminal initiation.” Even as I experience “not-denial,” “not-anger,” and “not-bargaining,” I wonder why. Maybe the shock and denial are so massive I am dissociating from reality. Yet the emotional state that comes on in the hospital remains fairly stable as I approach the two-month mark and the beginning of this memoir.

For me, the word that best describes my state is equanimity. 

Whence cometh this state? I do not know, but I hope to understand more through this exploration of my Terminal Bardo.

  1. Diana

    Wham bam thank you, ma’am, my questions are answreed!

  2. Jack

    Groove tools

 

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