Remember, Lord, how short life is, how frail you have made all flesh. Who can live and not see death? who can save himself from the power of the grave?
Psalm 89: 47, 48 Book of Common Prayer
Another of my ovarian cancer sisters died recently. It doesn’t matter that we were together only a handful of times since I first met her. By then, she was already declining, but bubbly still, with flashes of wit and insight that let me know this was no dotty woman a few years my senior. The care and devotion her sister gave was enough to make me regret, once more, never having had a sister.
I watch those of us with cancer trying treatments that promise to extend our lives. Some opt for clinical trials, like the woman at my church who told me that the treatments hurt, but she would do anything to keep one more person from having her rare cancer. Others try another chemotherapy drug when the cancer comes back, or head for more surgery.
We are all going to die. We forget this in the midst of busy lives and just-around-the-corner dreams and goals. I once regularly told God on my walks in the woods, “I want to do this for another twenty years, please.” I imagined myself, possibly frail enough to need a walking stick even when walking on level ground, or in a motorized wheelchair hitting the trails that accommodated such vehicles. After my first surgery, what I most wanted was to get back to the woods, and I was grateful to the friend who took me there and made sure I didn’t overdo it that frosty morning. Now the idea of another twenty years seems preposterous some days. According to statistics that my oncologist urges me to ignore, I have a 50-50 chance of surviving for five years with ovarian cancer. (He says the stats are not accurate, lumping all patients together, when some of us have improved our odds through a successful surgery or enough chemo.) I feel fine today, but I’ve learned that how I feel doesn’t mean anything.
Our flesh is frail. I didn’t know this in my early and midlife years. Not really, not in my body. I was never athletic or especially graceful, and I’ve spent many years living in my head only. But I could count on my flesh to be there—it was sturdy and complained very little. Now, between the cancer that revisits and the normal aging processes, I am aware of frailty.
We are all going to die. The good news for most of us is, not today. How, then, to invest these twenty-four hours with meaning and goodness? That is the real question, Prince Hamlet. I will assume I am going to continue to be, for today at least, and I will not let myself be consumed by the trivia and effluvia of the wider culture. Do what matters, hopefully for someone besides just myself. Because my flesh is frail, too, and I will not be here forever.