Grieving the Life that Is Not; Accepting What Could Be

In this post I examine my deep sadness, and I find it grounded in the notion that I grieve the life that is not: not the life that I live now, but the life that could have been, if I pursued another path, but did not, and so I grieve the loss of that life that is not; not what is, but what could be. Grieving has manifested with great sadness, but by the end of this post I find my way toward new possibilities grounded in acceptance.

On its face, one would think grieving a devastating medical diagnosis (c71.3) would manifest sadness involving the future loss of one’s life that he is accustomed to living and the attendant worries about his spouse, their children, family, friends, relatives, coworkers, and so on. We fear our deaths, and we fear how others will fare after our passing, and so it is reasonable to guess that we grieve the loss of our actual lives, as they exist today. This is grieving the life that is.

Surprisingly, I grieve the loss of my life as it could be, what I have called, the life that is not. I grieve the many possible lives that could be mine, or could have been, but now fold under the faculty of imagination. I stand only to lose the life that I lead today. Most generously, the life I could live in five or six years time, which significantly limits the range of possibilities that once were.

I acknowledge this grief is self-centered, and I offer little defense of this perspective other than to gesture toward the careful end of life planning and estate documents I have prepared with my wife, the commitment I have made to my children to seek happy moments for memory-building each day–difficult as those moments are to find some days, and to remind myself and others that my motivation toward writing, speaking, and meeting with researchers, clinicians, and those in training, is to leverage my experience in service of benefitting other patients who face their own grieving for the loss of what could be, but is not.

Quantum mechanics describes a wave function. The wave function describes probable positions of theoretical constituents of a quantum system where the exact position of entities cannot be determined, or predicted, without taking a measurement. This is a very sloppy summary, but it is helpful. Stay with me.

In more plain language, by way of example, here is a picture of physics pre-quantum revolution. We could take the initial conditions of a baseball duel between pitcher and batter, accounting for pitch speed, bat speed, ball spin, pitch trajectory, initial moment of impact, and so on, using classical mechanics, a physicist may derive an accurate prediction of exit velocity, trajectory, and distance travelled of the ball leaving the bat. The physicist could say, “here is where the ball will land,” and we could find the ball actually landed in just that spot.

Classical mechanics, though fraught with some intractable problems, is elegant because the theory space between what is predicted and what is actual, is narrow. Given a complete set of initial conditions, classical mechanics could predict the past and future universe. All of it. The first grand system to unify earthly and cosmic phenomena. Think of the scope, power, and satisfaction of theoreticians working in this domain! Little in a classical system is left to uncertainty. The world is determined.

In the quantum system, we no longer have bats and balls. There are instead theoretical entities such as electrons, which are very little like a ball as we conceive of the term, but are “smudges” in spacetime that can never be fully accounted for. The physicist instead accounts for the electron’s position by way of a wave function, a mathematical prediction of the many possible locations of an electron. A measurement can be taken to more accurately define the position of the electron; once the measurement is taken, the wave function, the description of possible locations, ‘collapses.’ The quantum system is uncertain, its theoretical picture of the world is unverifiable, if we take verification to be something we “see” with our eyes, and not merely detection by computerized instruments. Einstein famously resisted adoption of the quantum world finding it to be too indeterminate.

My life no longer resides in the determinate world of classical mechanics. I am an uncertain entity defined by statistical possibilities.

I grieve the approaching collapse of my wave function.

I accompany Whitney to work each Wednesday. She treats patients admitted to the hospital. I sit outside of the Starbucks, drinking coffee, reading, and writing. This is my favorite activity because it places me in the presence of surgeons, oncologists, internal medicine physicians, radiologists, nurses, therapists, and medical students.

I eavesdrop on conversations about rounds and residents. I discern what the med students are studying by listening closely to their peer-to-peer flash card quizzes. I listen for terminology that I may be able to define.

On pains of extending a metaphor beyond its usefulness, I imagine a possible world where I became a surgeon to resect my tumor, not the patient. That wave function has collapsed on my present location, outside of the Starbucks, jeans and flannel shirt, not in scrubs and gowns, stethoscope tasseled around my neck, leading the cadre of residents into the operating room.

Naturally people often ask me how I am doing. “I am doing well,” I say, “I am rebounding from my last chemo round, and my energy is coming back.” Of course this is a superficial response to a superficial question, but it is how we get along in the world, interacting with others, prioritizing politeness over candor for the sake of cooperative living, and insofar as I tend toward politeness, I have few complaints with these social norms.

Though should I be candid.

I am very, very sad.

I am not sad for losing my actual life–the life that is. My wife is strong, my kids are emotionally mature, our extended families are active in our lives, our communities of support share our values, our life insurance policies, college funds, and savings accounts will not support my family indefinitely, but all will be well beyond my passing. There is sadness here, but there is also my supreme confidence that Whitney, with an army of support behind her, will see our kids through, toward successful lives, relationships, and children of their own.

When I reflect on my deep sadness, I find this feeling grounded in the loss of the life that could have been, but is not. The range of possibilities narrow more each day. I stick my nose into medical journals and pre-med text books in a naive and misguided pursuit of theories and terminology that at some future time I apply to a school of medicine. I yearn for a career in medicine. We have terrific accounts of physicians turned patient, why not patient turned physician, I wonder. To dwell more on this failing and naive hope for the future is to further exaggerate the life that is not, proportional, if not causally connected, to my deep sadness. The determinate and certain classical world is now overthrown by the uncertain predictions of statistical probabilities.

Friends, as I take myself to be in the presence of narrowing possibilities, sitting outside of the hospital Starbucks, know that I am pressing myself to learn more, to work harder, to meet more clinicians, to schedule more speaking events. Grieving is a process toward acceptance, and acceptance of a current state is a measurement taken. With new data in hand, perhaps it is time to revise my initial conditions and be open to a refreshed range of possibilities that exist in this new reality of not what is, but instead, what could be.

Self-Depracating Journey Through My Higher Education Past and Uncertain Future

In this post I begin with more confession than narrative when I juxtapose my innate intelligence with my poor study habits. My intellect is wasted when my scholastic will fails to promote my best interests. I then lament the loss of potential that I imagined for myself with a future career in higher education. I conclude by recapturing at least some of that potential, struggling to make sense of where to find my place and values amidst chronic illness. Could I contribute to science or health communication?

 

A favorite instructor of mine during undergrad said (and I am paraphrasing here) that the aim of a philosophy education is to make good philosophers, not good students. On one reading, the suggestion is student duties are subservient to quality philosophy. On another reading, probably the correct interpretation, it is presupposed that budding philosophers are already equipped with fundamental scholastic skills before pulling up a chair to the philosopher’s table, but for me, in that moment, the interpretation was not important. The prima facie reading was good enough: good philosophy trumps poor study habits. This was something I desired to hear, and so the philosophical truism remains appropriate: there is no value-free observation.

Here are two further claims, the first often spoken to me, the second often said of myself, each standing juxtaposed in a binary characterization of those features describing Adam as a student, a scholar, and (though I resist common use of the term) a thought-leader. The accurate statement is likely somewhere in the middle of this dichotomy, but for effect, let’s continue.

(1) Adam is the smartest person I know.

(2) Adam fucked up some of his education.

Let’s take each in turn. On the one hand, I excel at my endeavors when I manage to see them through. I continue to meet monthly with a group of four philosophers. These are past professors who shaped my life and academic career: a director of graduate studies and accomplished metaphysician, a current chair of philosophy and well-published philosopher of science, a leading Kant scholar, who, as the story was told to me, is someone who took the MCAT exam more-or-less only to accomplish the task, and not only was the task accomplished, the job done, but he performed strongly, and finally, an emeritus professor of philosophy who chaired a department for 30 years, publishing in the field of ethics. My professor who offered the quote discussed in the previous paragraph is one member of our five-person group. Our first unofficial official gathering of this band of philosophical brothers [1] occurred while I was inpatient at an acute rehab facility, confined to a wheelchair, living in room 202 of the locked brain injury unit. Here we are, interested in Einstein, my focus at that time, while the nurses and doctors round, take vitals, administer meds, and so on. Each of these friends display excellence in their fields, and I am driven to be better, to work harder, and consider more deeply after our coffee talks (“I’m verklempt.”) During our last discussion, one topic–and these topis always arise from the ether, interesting to one of us, at that moment, and then pursued by all while coffee cools and the dregs come into view: “is aging a disease.”

I recently read an NIH paper that correlates glucose metabolism and increased symptoms of agedness. The author compared diabetes and aging. Maybe I will bring up this paper next time we meet. We never managed to settle on an adequate answer, but it was discussed that our question hinged on to further objects of conceptual analysis: just what is ‘disease,’ and what is ‘treatment’ as the concepts are importantly related.

After my diagnosis some months ago, I began a journey to become a patient expert of my disease, and I am proud of my knowledge gained in only a short period. I have zero clinical knowledge, I have no idea how to diagnose a patient, I could not draw a vile of blood, place an IV, much less shunt, stent, or suture. I do not know the molecular markers of non-small cell carcinoma. I could not make sense of the morphology of a slice of tissue taken from a brain tumor. Though, if I were to slip in the back door of a neuro-oncology conference, I could make it through the morning sessions before my identity is embarrassingly revealed at lunch.

I have always been a natural public speaker, and this is not to suggest that I could stand up and speak on anything, at anytime. I certainly must put in the effort, do the work, to learn the topic, to weave together the network of vital information. Though, I am quite good at digesting a few papers and quickly drawing out the key information, synthesizing that information, and presenting that information in way that is digestible for large audiences.

Let these be my pieces of evidence in support of the first claim.

On the other hand, in support of the second claim, I mention it took me longer than it should have to finish my undergrad. During grad school I often submitted excellent work, several days past the deadline. I still have a grade of Incomplete in one of my grad school classes (Note: this professor to whom I still owe a paper is also a member of the philosophers coffee group). I took the GRE and achieved at best a mediocre score. I only applied to one PhD program–relocation being out of the question for my young family. My options were limited, and I applied to the only program that made geographic sense while still recognized in the speciality area I intended to study. PhD acceptance rates in philosophy programs are more competitive than acceptance to Harvard Law School (fact check; not fake news). PhD acceptance for the program to which I applied looks something like this: 330 annual applicants, usually 5-7 candidates accepted. I was waitlisted. This means I was not accepted. I was on the bubble. I wasn’t thrown out at first glance by the admissions committee, but neither was I considered a must have. On balance, applying to only one program and being waitlisted at that one program is viewed somewhat as a success so far as the competitvive nature of PhD program admissions are concerned. Often applicants apply to a dozen or more programs with the hopes of gaining acceptance to one. Though for me, I intended to earn a PhD, and decisions less than acceptance I viewed as a rather unsuccessful outing. My professor, again, to the rescue, confided that maybe I could accomplish more as an “independent scholar” than I would manage to achieve during the seven year slog to earn a PhD. At any rate, I intended to sit out a year before applying again, securing an adjunct faculty position at a community college to scratch the academic itch. Later, the private sector came calling. Then, *ahem* brain cancer. Here I am, lost, a rather lackluster academic career behind me, all the connections, conference attendance, and research of a graduate or PhD candidate, and the technical skills and foundational knowledge to excel in a strong program. Yet, I haven’t proved able to commit to the grind of earning my spot.

Here I sit in the gray area between claims (1) and (2). Stories like, ‘Einstein couldn’t get a job,’ or ‘Einstein’s kindergarten teacher said he couldn’t read,’ or ‘Einstein was a janitor at a university and solved math problems on the board and then he and Matt Damon watched Patch Adams and solved for the speed of light in a vector space’ do little to raise my spirits. The reality is I have done little to help myself out, and before cancer would dash my hopes for a long, rewording career in academia, I did it to myself.

How is that for painful acknowledgment and confession?

I have been holding out hope for some time that after navigating cancer treatment, maybe after getting a year or 18 months of stable MRI scans under my belt–hell, I’m eight months stable now, I would rally around my academic potential, retake the GRE, dust off my writing sample, and once again apply and gain admission to a PhD program. I reflected recently that the liberal arts, and a graduate education in the liberal arts, teaches one how to effectively learn. This facilitates plug and play content to learn at will. Naive, maybe, or arrogant, but, see claim (1). I have been neck deep in molecular biology and biochem textbooks, I am able to summarize the two rival theories of carcinogenesis (SMT and TOFT), I am able to speak to the Metabolic Theory of cancer, and I have an opinion on reductionism vs holism in constructing useful biological explanatory narratives. Maybe my return to academia would be a triumphant dissertation motivating deeper exploration of a robust philosophy of the life sciences.

 

Today I accompanied Whitney to Eskenazi Hospital, her employer, and home to my future primary care provider. We are strategic in this selection, choosing a hospitalist who is usually rounding on the inpatient floors and only holds clinic a day or two each week. We figure we can get in with him on clinic days, and when my disease progresses to require hospitalization, Dr. will already be familiar with my case.

Excited to be in a hospital and not on a gurney, I looked forward to meeting a new doctor today. I have come to regret not pursuing medicine in school. Regardless, here we are navigating a beautiful hospital campus, and I am overcome with the familiar light headedness of overstimulation. The activity, flourescent lights, shiny floors, and automatic doors, I begin to put more weight through my cane to steady myself. My pace slows. My eyes shift downward to limit focus. I fear an impending seizure, or fainting episode. Anxiety or neuro-chemical imbalance? Is it the nerves? Is it the meds? Is it the brain cancer?

How will I navigate a similar environment daily in university halls.

Sunday, March 5, we will see when I address 150 or more gathered to hear me present my journey with brain cancer. Will my ingelligence carry the day? Have I limped my way through school adequately to earn my role as part storyteller part instructor?
What potential fuels the next chapter?

Notes:

[1] Philosophy has long struggled with the demographic composition of its students and faculty: typically all male, white, middle income background. Few women. Few persons of color. Few persons with disabilities. The discipline recently has been rocked with charges of sexual harassment, and the very real problems of systemic discrimination, problems within the realm of academic philosophy to address, have failed to sway the discipline in a meaningful way toward public action. Philosophy is my love, and it is my passion to defend, but the discipline has faced an ongoing intervention from within and outside the field for some years. I wish not say more here, but the representation of my group of close friends and philosophy faculty being all white middle aged men is problematic, but they are also men I respect dearly who have impacted my life in immeasurably positive ways, and I ask at least for your suspension of judgment, if only through the duration of this post.

Scan Day!

At every occasion I’ll be ready for the funeral. Even if we read too much into the meaning, no matter, turn it up as you read this post. Here are the lyrics.

Welcome to scan day, everybody! Our every-eight-week-installment of what is happening inside Adam’s head. I get to wear scrubs, the techs are friendly, I see my neuro oncologist and his terrific nurse coordinator, and I get a Starbucks after; sometimes a pastrami on rye with mustard. What’s not to like?

Keep the following acronym in mind today, friends: PFS–progression free scan.

Watch the fluids, not too much coffee, I’ll get a bag of IV saline, contrast dye, and no bathroom  breaks for 30-/40-odd minutes while high frequency magnetic resonance aligns the proton spins in my tissue to capture radio images of my brain. Hey, hey, enough with the science.

It’s like this: *bang bang bang bang*, and then we get pictures.

Lie still.

Last night was the first-Sunday-of-the-month #BTSM (Brain Tumor Social Media) chat. Topic: Death and Dying. We enjoyed engaging with patients, caregivers, palliative care docs, and hospice providers. I look forward to these monthly discussions to connect with my community–and even though we’re conversing at 140 characters, I have developed meaningful relationships through these chats.

The topic, death, dying, advanced directives, and so on will show up here soon enough. For now, the key take-away from last night is that preparing for end-of-life is a conversation that should occur  openly and often between patients, loved ones, and medical teams.

At every occasion, we’ll be ready for the funeral, and preparing ourselves helps us live into every moment, seeking meaningful relationships and pastrami sandwiches.

Cheers- AH