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A Letter from my Father 20 May 2010

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Surveying Sion

November 2nd, 2005: my father wrote to me just prior to my coming home for Thanksgiving. This morning, I found that letter while cleaning out my bedside table. His words offer a coda to the thought I posted about DC a few days ago.

Andrew,

Both Mother and I look forward to seeing you on the 22nd. It seems as though a hundred years have passed since Mama’s memorial service. I got an email from [your sister] this morning–she and S- are house-hunting, something further north and closer to the G- family insurance agency. She and S- haven’t made concrete plans for T-giving yet, and I have no idea when they will. It’s possible, I suppose, they will be in town, but if I were betting, I’d bet they stay in Chicago.

You made an interesting comment on the phone the other day. You said something about being homesick for people who think as you do–and that got me thinking. Most of the resident folks at Roanoke were from the Northeast and all, or almost all, were more more liberal than I. So I have some idea what you mean when you you use “homesick” in this context. I also found out, though, that the different viewpoint was somewhat helpful. I was (forced) exposed to a different opinion, and that made me examine my own opinion. When that examination occurs, one of three things can result. One, your opinion remains unchanged (and this often happens with the “bedrock” principles). Two, you can abandon your opinion and convert to whatever you have heard. Third, and this is more likely, I think, is where your opinion undergoes some change. Sometimes, the change is rather significant; other times, there isn’t much movement at all. What I found to be most infuriating was not the opinion, though, it was the smugness of the individual: “You’re not from New Jersey, Linc, so I can see why and how you’re so behind in your thinking. ” It wasn’t really arrogance, it was just a sense of superiority, I guess. These people, or many of them, it seems, were so sure their approach was right that they tended to view (and treat) those who disagreed as they would some lesser being.

This certainly was not the case for all, but there were times when those who acted this way seemed to comprise the majority. Hang in there–learning to tolerate the almost insufferable is a mark of maturity and wisdom. But I do think being almost forced to examine your own positions is crucial to development. It may have been Camus, probably someone else, who said the unexamined life is not worth living. He wasn’t advocating suicide, but he was suggesting that a person who does not examine himself and his opinions loses out on self-development and his existence is diminished because of it.

Reading two pages of my handwriting is enough for anyone, so I won’t keep you on the page much longer. Again, we look forward to the 22nd and hope you will find time to spend a little bit of your break at home–but both Mother and I know that there are other attractions awaiting you. See you soon.

Love,

Dad

No doubt, I appreciated the perspective at the time but never stopped to consider the implications. Seven months earlier, my golf coach had stopped me on the practice green. “Peters, now you’re going to one of those East Coast schools, right?” he asked.

“That’s right, coach. Virginia.”

“That’s what I thought. I’m sure you’ll like it there, but I want you to remember where you came from when they start teaching you that we were all monkeys”.

“I understand. No worries about that,” I said, and missed my four-foot putt.

Two years later I sat in my biology professor’s office with a waning belief in creationism, trying the best arguments I’d heard, and that summer, I made up my mind: evolution better explained the progress of life on earth.

The value of college, I think, derives not so much from the courses taught but from its role as a marketplace of ideas. Staying home, staying local, staying “homesick” for those who think alike does indeed stunt our intellectual growth. Our beliefs stand stronger when we have considered and rejected others.

2 a.m. edit: Turns out the quote came from Socrates.

That discussion you’d rather avoid… 17 January 2010

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Reading through the Times’s “Week in Review” this afternoon, I came across an article by Denise Grady I’d missed on Monday, an exploration of doctors’ end-of-life discussions with patients. You get to the heart of the issue fairly quickly:

Guidelines for doctors say the discussion should begin when a patient has a year or less to live. That way, patients and their families can plan whether they want to do everything possible to stay alive, or to avoid respirators, resuscitation, additional chemotherapy and the web of tubes, needles, pumps and other machines that often accompany death in the hospital.

Grady goes on to point out, however, that most MDs eschew these guidelines and the hard questions they require in favor of mollifying patients with tangential information (“your treatment regime involves x, y, z”) or avoiding the subject all together until it appears that death is imminent.

Over the course of my father’s own, unsuccessful, battle with cancer, I don’t recall that we ever got around to chatting about these sorts of things, and instead found ourselves at a loss for what do when he died unexpectedly in the hospital — without a will. Yes, he and my mother had planned on laying out everything in advance, but the exigencies of his illness intervened in that last month, leaving those hard questions unanswered.

In fact, in the six-month interim between Dad’s terminal diagnosis and his death, death itself never came up. Euphemism obscured the inevitability of it. We were going to “circle the wagons” or “dot the i’s and cross the t’s,” as if the family were closing on a house. Never once did anyone in an official capacity say and ask, “You are going to die. How would you like to spend your remaining time on Earth?”

The chemo regimes were a given, and every time my father arrived home from a visit to oncologist, he’d carry with him a new tome on the various cocktails which, according to the 5-year morbidity charts I’d been reading, might prolong his life another month. But it was on the government’s dime, so why not spend $20,000 a treatment? When Avastin and company failed, the questions still lay buried, this time under a mound of new information on Erbitux and its side effects that, frankly, seemed worse than the cancer itself.

I’m not angry that the oncologist never forced the issue of Dad’s terminal illness–I had already come to terms with mortality on my own–but rather that the culture surrounding cancer makes such discussions taboo. So much of the self-help literature, of which I’ve admittedly read very little, assumes that every cancer patient can win the fight, that indeed there is a fight to be won at all. And I think it’s just that assumption that makes it so difficult for a doctor to sit down with a patient like my father and say, “You will lose. This is not a question of whether but of when.” As Americans, we reassure ourselves with the presumption of individual agency. But by extension, that means terminal diseases represent just another obstacle to overcome: if the victim were stronger or more determined, she’d win.

If that’s what we believe, then, can we really expect our doctors quash any hope we may have, right from the get go? I think not, and that’s ashame. We’d do well to acknowledge that mortality is not simply a matter of willpower. To accept death is not to deny a love of life.