When we’re born we come into the world in anger and confusion: all this cruel light, this abrasive air, the tyranny of gravity, these harsh voices… And then, as we breathe deep and the world embraces us, we embrace the world.
From which point the heart becomes that eternal clock, the one whose muffled, unregarded tick never falters. And life lives us, drawing us on through pleasure and pain, rewarding the activated senses and healing the spirit and the flesh. We need do no more than eat, drink, sleep, love and be loved and, however disorientating the nighttime dreams, we wake into certainty and rise into light.
All of which – within the constraints of occasional pauses for existential reflection – was my experience until 7 years ago when I got cancer. From the point of diagnosis I had to begin the entirely counter-intuitive process of recognising that within me now was the agency of my death. If simply ignored, at some point the cancer would grow to untenable size and it would metastasise, moving onto soft tissue and bones so as eventuality to stifle life functions, at which point I would die.
Fortunately progress towards its blind self-extinction inside the host that, if ignored, it would certainly kill has been slow. With the help of my oncologist, I have been able to monitor its movement and he has assured me that, with necessary management by him, I should be able to head towards my 80s in whatever strength and vigour I can maintain through self-care. By which time, he asserts with all the informed optimism of a medical man whose own health will be subject at that point to the depredations of ageing, dynamic strategies currently in preparation will then be readily available.
I’m close now to the beginning of the treatment processes necessary to keep the cancer under control. Nothing as invasive and peripherally destructive as chemotherapy, but still involving the introduction into my system of materials not natural to my metabolism. I shall have to exercise and I shall have to regulate further a diet that acknowledges cancer already so that my general health – whose overall robustness reflects both my parents’ genes – will be sustained.
None of which practical activity alarms me greatly. Bridges will be crossed on arrival and provided that I know they’re a firm and stable part of the route, I’ll negotiate them readily. What will take a great deal more courage, resolve and positivity is anxiety management. Since 2008 I have been prone to chronic attacks of dread and the despair that results when all reason fails to dispel it. Both counselling (most of it useless, some of it invaluable) and self-analysis have begun to account historically for these terrifying and disabling torrents of emotional activity and the anxiety is now in the main spasmodic and transient. But there remains at its root a simple, undiluted fear of dying. Not of death as such, but of my atrophying, dwindling, withering towards extinction with those I love and who love me fading away around me. A common enough horror, of course, but one whose detailed, narrative malignancy is unique to each individual.
So I’m about to move from that state of personal immortality – the quiet, unarticulated certainty that, for all the sometime terrors, life is living me and I need do no more than float within its current – to a state of staying alive as result of direct intervention. I must indeed now ‘strive officiously to stay alive’. What I can’t know at this point is how that’s going to affect my existential consciousness – whether it will provoke in me a sense of massively increased fragility and vulnerability or whether it will promote instead an enhanced sense of the value-beyond-reckoning of the moment. I have a notion that although the assaults upon its integrity will many and constant, the latter sense is more likely to prevail.
Finally, I have to make it clear to the demons and saboteurs whose work confounds our best hopes and intentions (and a tenacious, bone-deep apparent belief in whose existence confounds my atheism!) that I am aware of the certainty of raid and ambush. That the interposition of nothing malign and morbid – heart attack, neurological decay, dementia – would surprise me on my way towards, into and (who knows?) through my 70s and 80s. Staying alive is an aspiration backed up by my oncologist’s knowledge of my now long histology; the precise vicissitudes of everything else are as unpredictable as the next moment. Or the next, or the next…