Balázs Birtalan

On The Fact I Am to Die

This post was originally published in Hungarian on January 25, 2016, at the author’s Sorskönyv nélkül blog on psychology (“Without a Script”, in reference to Eric Berne’s transactional analysis). Its title is from Endre Ady’s poem “Autumn passed through Paris.” The introductory image was chosen by the author as a sign of the Deathly Hallows in the Harry Potter series. Original text: Arról, hogy meghalok; translated by Fábián Sebestyén.

The mere fact that I will die is not something to write about. On the one hand, everyone dies. On the other hand, it has no news value that “everyone” includes me; I have been aware of it since about my preschool years.

In the Christian period of my life, I prayed every day for “the grace of a happy death.” It is a complex concept which includes among other things not facing death unprepared. Whether there is someone to listen to prayers I do not know, but this prayer of mine seems to have been listened to. Now I can know that death will not find me unprepared. I have a few weeks, at most some months (according to the most optimistic estimate: half a year) left in this life.

However, this information is worth a piece of writing: not primarily for myself but for all those relatives, friends, acquaintances, and readers who to this day keep deluding themselves and (probably out of pure good will) keep nagging me that I’m a “very strong” man who will “fight cancer,” and saying “so many people love me that it will certainly cure me.”

I have no doubt that I’m loved by many. Not only do I not doubt it, but in the past weeks and months I received from you all so many and so diverse manifestations of love that it surpassed all my dreams.

Therefore I know that you love me. I also know that I am strong. I have proved it on numerous occasions both to myself and to my environment, including my doctors.

Yet, I won’t fight cancer, if only because I don’t consider cancer (and except for the first days of shock, I have never considered it) an enemy. I am not fighting with cancer, but I take part in a process with it. In this process I did for my recovery all that could be done in accordance with common sense and my beliefs. And I didn’t do a lot of other things that would have contradicted either my beliefs or my common sense. I love to live – but not at all costs. For example, not at the cost of spitting my human dignity in the eye, whining with fear of death, rushing from magicians to charlatans, in case someone would know the secret chant to heal me: I was not, and am not, willing to do that.

But I accepted whatever medicine could offer for my recovery, whether it was pleasant or unpleasant. (And it was usually not pleasant.) In two-and-a-half years, seven kinds of chemotherapy protocols were tried on me, including ones that are internationally deemed the best for the type of malignant tumors that I have. I got over 43 chemotherapy treatments; there are virtually no intact veins on my arm ready for pricking; the number of the other needle sticks (blood tests, injections, etc.) is probably in the four digits.

By early January it became clear that medical ideas had run out. To be more precise, there is no end of ideas to structure my time even until the last moment. But there are no more of those ideas that could be expected to bring truly substantive improvement and the extension of high-quality life. It has been known for a good while that the treatments received don’t aim at healing but at the prolongation of life. Now we have reached the point of stopping these treatments as well. In other words, I now receive no treatments intended to lengthen my life by one or two weeks, months, or years, and especially none with the prospect of recovery.

I am not left without medical care. As I have been struggling with serious pains since last summer (yes: as opposed to cancer, I am indeed fighting pain, which I want to overcome), doctors strive to improve my comfort with ever stronger painkillers and anti-nausea medications.

Because this is the goal: improving comfort for the time left. There are fairly good and effective means to this purpose in medical practice, so I can rightfully hope to be confronted with a relatively low level of suffering in the remaining weeks and months.

So once again: I will die soon, because I won’t be exposed to anything supposed to cure me. However, it doesn’t mean that I “gave up.” What’s more, I refuse the accusation of having given up (and the equivalent encouragement of “not to give up”). If someone understood otherwise from what I wrote above, they should read it again. Or even better: they shouldn’t read it again, nor read on.

That was about the physical part of the matter.

The spiritual part is very complex and it exceeds my strength to elaborate it. So I would only like to mention three things in brief.

The first is that I am not afraid of death. For a long time I was pretty much afraid of the suffering before death, but now that I am actually walking this path and discussing the topic with my doctors, this fear of mine has subsided. Death itself is, however, not fearful or frightening. Though I am unsure about my own image of the afterworld, yet – to quote Professor Dumbledore – I tend to think of it “like going to bed after a very, very long day.”

The second is that there is no anger in me. Neither towards cancer, nor towards fate or God or gods. I don’t think some injustice happened to me; I don’t think that “my career was ruined.” Without a doubt, if I could live one, five, ten, or fifty more years, I could do a lot of great things. But – and I won’t overdo modesty when looking back from the gate of death – I still see that I did a lot of great things. And I am not convinced that the fullness and value of life can be measured piecewise by the great things performed.

The third: life is commonly viewed as a one-dimensional reality that can be evaluated with one single meaningful measure, its length. I don’t agree with this. Apart from its length, life has at least two more relevant dimensions. One is its breadth: how varied one’s life has been. I don’t want to compete with anyone, but if I recall the breadth of my life – which comprised so many things, starting from monastic life and theology, through poetry and law, till gay activism and therapy – I have no complaint about its breadth. It had room for a fifteen-year-long gratifying relationship and many beautiful friendships. It had room for a few trips, which are not too many by piece yet multiple times more than what I had ever imagined. It had room for several changes of world view, behind each change thoughts reworked, through suffering of nights and days. No, I have not a single word against the breadth of my life.

And there is the third dimension: the depth of life. This is the most difficult to speak about and the most difficult to measure. I might be able to illustrate what I mean with an example: book reading habits. Among book readers, there seem to be basically two habits. One could be called “extensive,” meaning that someone reads quite a lot of books, most of them only once. The other could be called “intensive,” meaning that a person reads significantly fewer books by piece than an “extensive” reader, but they read most of them several times and discover layers in the text that remain inevitably hidden after a single reading.

But the movement between different depths of life can be applied to any of the examples listed for breadth. Many people travel – but how much do they see at a new place? Many people have friends – but how much of the time spent together is in the sphere of intimacy and how many transactions get stuck at the level of pastimes or rites? One can encounter conversion stories at every step – but how much do these changes permeate the deep layers of one’s belief system and personality?

The questions can be continued at one’s discretion.

It is not my task to claim how deep or superficial a life I have lived; I have my own idea about it, which gives me contentment. What others think of it is not my business anymore.

On the whole, I see that I am about to leave a “sufficiently large” (although of different extent in different dimensions) and rich life behind.

And one practical thing: I very rarely have the energy to sit in front of the computer and do anything worthwhile. I don’t even have the energy to read (neither extensively nor intensively). My emails and Facebook messages are read out to me by Tomi and he answers them based on my oral instructions. This present text was written by myself, but that is not the rule: it is the exception.

There might be more exceptions like this, but the chances are less and less. I don’t want to give detailed news about my own condition anymore, but it’s not impossible that shorter or longer texts will be born in the main topic of the blog. It’s not impossible but far from certain. Unfortunately I cannot predict my strength at all. It is just as likely that this was the last post in this blog. In that case I say goodbye here and now to all my readers, and I thank you for your attention, patience, understanding, and trust.

(Balázs Birtalan died on May 14, 2016.)

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