Contents: UU World Back Issue

What Matters Now

by Richard Taylor

What do you do when you learn that your name is on the death warrant? My reaction to the bad news surprised me as much as the news itself. I was at first shattered, but this quickly gave way to something quite different.

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The story began with a trivial cough. A touch of bronchitis, perhaps. My doctor thought it might be emphysema. An X-ray was scheduled, then a CAT scan, which disclosed a lung tumor that had already invaded the liver. There is, I learned, no cure. The best that can be expected is a holding action, but the cancer will win in the end.

How strange that not long ago this doctor shook his head in disbelief that I could be in such buoyant health. He had never seen a cholesterol level like mine except in children. My vital signs were excellent. I felt immortal.

I am faced with the most stark reality. I wondered what it would cost me in lost sleep. In fact, I have lost no sleep over this at all. If I awaken in the night it's to wonder who is going to tend the coal stove, or the tractor mower. The sense of despair that I assumed would ensue never did. My life took on a new seriousness, but I have not been troubled. Maybe that will change as the effects of the chemo become more severe and I feel life ebbing, but somehow, I think not. This is not due to any courage on my part. It is just the way things are, and that has surprised me.

I felt an immediate urgency to put my affairs in order, to get all my documents sorted and labeled, my investments reviewed, savings for the children's education itemized, insurance policies checked, last wishes composed. I have written letters to my teen-age children to be delivered at intervals after I am gone, to maintain contact with them and to express my love. I recalled Plato's admonition that one's life should be a preparation for death. Of course he had in mind the cultivation of the immortal soul; my concerns are more mundane.

People who can turn to God have a strength that is denied me. I have a friend of long standing who is religious. I have seen him face all kinds of tragedy with perfect equanimity. The other day I finally asked him what he believes. He said he accepts Jesus as his redeemer, to save him from sin and death. That is comforting, but I cannot embrace what I regard as an illusion. My life has been governed by the wisdom of the ancients, who knew the meanings of profound myths but cared nothing for theology, and I cannot abandon it. Epictetus declared that if death were something to dread, then Socrates would have feared it, and that wonderful ad vericundiam is my comfort.

I think back about my life, nourishing the rich memories, passing over those I'm not proud of. I relive the day I met and fell in love with my wife and the wealth of happiness that has flowed from that. I recall the hours with my friends and the births of my beautiful children, when tears of joy flowed down my face. I have taken some foolish turns, nearly ending in disaster, but it is as if some guardian angel had kept me pointed in the right direction.

It has been a full life, better than I have deserved, and somehow I do not mind letting go. My doctor has promised that he will not let me linger in pain. I find a kinship with the large ranks of other victims. I see some of them coming and going for their tests and treatments, and I see something of myself in their faces. We all die, some sooner, some later, and I know that my wife and maybe my children will be at my side. I will not be alone, and I shall be at peace. That is what matters now.

Richard Taylor has held professorships in philosophy at Brown University and the graduate faculty of Columbia University. He is a member of the First Unitarian Church in Ithaca, New York.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

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