We're all facing death, like characters in an action film. Some phrases don't make it easier.
I feared for my life yesterday. But I did what needed to be done. No, I wouldn't call myself a hero. But you're free to, obviously, little lady.
Orthodontically perfect teeth gritted in a macho sneer, I drove through the barrier without stopping. 12 MPH and I didn't even care. It was quite late, though, and the barrier was up. I did slow down to check. It said 'free to enter'. So (in a Clint Eastwood voice), that's exactly what I did.
I pulled up outside the target building and laid low, awaited orders. "Meet me in the cafeteria," they said. "And buy me a tea cake." Roger that. I combat-rolled from my vehicle. Well, sort of. Inadvertently. I did spend some time on the ground. And then I got up. Tied my shoelace. I'm getting too old for this...
I was being watched. I think one of them might have tried to help me up. No, sir. Not today. I put on my best Bruce Willis crazy eyes (to match my vest and tracky bottoms) and strode past them. Crossed the road a full 20 yards from the nearest patient crossing zone. Yippee ki yay.
I had a date with some radioactive materials.
Well. A CT scanner. That's a giant 3D X-ray machine. They use its radiation to tell if the cancer you hoped was clear after the first operation (and which came back a year or two later) has spread any further. It does not give you super powers (although, how would I know? I've never been bitten by a spider inside it). But it does give you part of the action hero experience: it brings you face to face with the fear of dying.
And this is what I wanted to say to you. About that fear of dying. Do you think it's weird? Bad, even? Some people do. Like it's a bit of a failure, a bit disappointing. Hard to understand.
"But, you have your faith, though, so you'll be fine," the non-Christians say. "You don't need to be afraid," the Christians tell me. "Because even if you die, you know where you'll go."
This is well-meaning. And probably should be true. For truckloads of Christians I'm sure it is, and I'm sure they find it as reassuring as Rambo finds an extra grenade on his belt to throw and I would find a more up-to-date action hero reference to draw on.
But here's the thing: I don't want to die.
I don't want to leave my wife alone, grieving for years (please, Jesus, let it just be a few), spending nights in an empty house, and days remembering the funny, stupid, maddening and sweet things I used to do. In the garden. On that sofa. Around this kitchen.
I don't want her to have to endure the horror of dating. I don't want her to feel alone. I don't want her to cry. I don't want my mom to cry. Or my dad. I don't want the people I love to wonder if they did enough. In the years when I had the luxury of spending more time longing for death rather than fearing it, I'm sure these considerations were what kept the razorblades from the wrong side of my arm. And they still upset me.
But that's all super-altruistic. Like the A-Team. Did they ever take payment? What was their business-model, exactly? Unsustainable. That's why you don't hear about them. The C-Team, on the other hand... Once you join it, you realise you can't avoid hearing about it. Every TV show. Every movie.
Mostly, as I run up to cancer scans and wait for results like Schroedinger's patient, sentenced to both death and life until someone gets around to opening my results, my fear of death is 100 per cent selfish. Like, James Bond level selfish. Me, me, me, Moneypenny.
I'm so afraid of that moment, you know? That moment you see in a million movies, where someone knows that they are about to die. That their heart is going to stop beating and their brain is going to go dim. That, like when the anaesthetic is injected before an operation, consciousness will be taken from me. And, also like an operation, that the person or people I love – the ones to hold the hand and stroke the hair and make it better, just a little – won't be there. Just strangers. Well-meaning strangers.
And then into the unknown. An initial fade to black. And if I persist, I'm stepping over the threshold alone. I'm afraid of getting on a plane alone. And there's no returning from this. And I don't know where I'm going.
Yes. That's what I said. I don't know. Honestly, I disappoint myself with this. What the hell kind of witness is it to a faith in eternal life (I'm still conservative enough to believe in it), that I don't know what it means? That its prospect doesn't make me all warm and fuzzy inside. That I'm not sure – not 100 per cent sure in myself, enough that it can comfort me every time I get afraid – whether it will be real.
Am I letting the side down? Lord, I hope not. But maybe.
I believe, in theory. And, most of the time, I know. If you ask me for you, I know. Yes. It's real. There is hope. But when I think about me dying, I'm just not sure. Have I got it wrong? Have we? Is this limitless grace thing something even I can rely on? I really, really hope so. And a lot of the time I believe it. Almost with the same certainty I did when I was 18. But not always.
And I'm afraid of the process. The pain. The loss of dignity. The loss of independence. The way people will start looking at me differently. The loneliness and the stress on my wife and the vomiting and the eventual slide into inevitable, inescapable jaws. Oh God, I can't bear it.
And here's the kicker. I don't even know if I'm sick. I'm still waiting. I'm not sure I could write this if I knew. And here I am, creating drama, sharing exaggerated and embarrassing fears when there are real people out there right now, going through real suffering. Facing real death. I know, I know.
I'm just saying that it's scary. Even for a Christian. Even for someone who believes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is real and God is good and God is loving of us all. And it's a scary that we'll all have to face, cancer or no cancer. We're all dying.
I hate it.
I don't want to say goodbye to trees. Or sunny afternoons. Or coffee with that pretty girl from the office. Or the feeling of a brand new song you love, played loud. Or developing a crush. Driving on a warm summer's night. Swimming in the sea. Long grass and thorn trees in Africa. Singing in the car with my wife, or dancing with her, or holding her hand, or the way she strokes my hair when I've been crying.
Or breathing. Or waking up every morning.
I wish the fact (it is a fact, I know it is) that I am likely (I can stretch that far) to live eternally thanks to Jesus, would make facing death easier. Maybe it has. Maybe this would be way worse.
But the words don't really help me.
That doesn't mean you should stop saying them to everyone, or even to me. This is just to say sorry if I don't perk up at the mention of them. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sly Stallone might at the threat of death.
Like Bruce Willis in his little white vest. He's got the right idea. To die is hard.