I have lived my life in fits and starts in many ways. Several years ago, I put down a novel with less than 10 pages to go and never picked it up. It remains unfinished on my bedside table.
Lately, I have become the voracious reader that I was as a child only the genre has changed. I used to devour biographies to learn about impactful people, what made them great and how they came to be recognized for their achievements. Now my genre could be best described as memoirs of people who died of cancer. I want to learn all I can about what is coming for me.
Cory Taylor, Nina Riggs and Paul Kalanithi all wrote their memoirs in the terminal stage of their illnesses. Cancer came for them in different ways attacking different parts of the body but ultimately invading the complex systems within the body. It is called metastatic cancer. I have metastatic prostate cancer and though I am not terminal, I know my cancer will ultimately kill me. Cancer came for Paul and Nina in their mid to late 30’s, Cory in her 50’s and me in my 50’s. Paul and Nina did not live long after their diagnosis, Cory lived for more than a decade and I am in my 4th year, with an undetermined expiration date.
I think all of us struggle with finding meaning in our lives but we damn sure struggle to find meaning in our deaths. Most of us don’t think about death but it is inescapable, a law of nature.
I’ll speak for myself, but I read in Paul, Nina and Cory’s writing a need to make sense of our deaths to understand or attempt to understand if our lives mattered. Or maybe I have it backwards, we struggle to understand how or why our lives mattered so that we may better understand our deaths.
Before I go too deep, I want to point out a beautiful part of Paul and Nina’s stories. Both their spouses found each other and have partnered and are raising their children together. I know a big part of facing our deaths is our concern for our loved ones and the impact of our leaving. At least Paul and Nina can look down and be comforted knowing that their spouses and children are in very capable hands.
Paul wrote about a rough patch in his marriage which began to heal when he shared his diagnosis with his wife. She put her head on his shoulder and he whispered, “I need you”. These are words that are hard to say and even harder to hear. I leaned into someone I loved and told her I needed her and she simply vanished. Evaporated. Despite my pleas, I have never spoken with her again. I prefer to think she cared and I scared her but it could be that she never cared at all. My family and my friends have been and continue to be my salvation, but I don’t have that intimate, deep connection that I so desperately crave. Maybe that is why I am so unsettled.
When I shared my diagnosis and prognosis with Lisa, my lovely therapist, she asked me if I had grieved properly. I told her I thought so and I moved on in our conversation. I could not have been more wrong. Like Paul, I am working backwards thru the five stages of grief. Anyone with basic knowledge of metastatic cancer knows where it leads and thus acceptance was easy for me. If something can be done ass backwards, I’ll find a way to do it.
As I contemplated starting this project, it felt awkward to put myself in the company of Paul, Nina and Cory. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and a neuroscientist with additional degrees outside of the medical profession and wicked writing skills. Nina Riggs was a writer, poet and professor. Cory Taylor was a freelance film and television writer. I don’t belong in their company, but I feel the need to tell my story, to make sense of what brings me to this stage of my life. Each of these individuals impacted countless lives, what did I have to say for myself?
To answer that question requires an explanation which I am usually reluctant to share because it is so difficult to explain. In cocktail party speak or casual conversation, I will say that I am a headhunter or a recruiter which usually suffices and allows the conversation to move on. The problem is that I am neither of those things and I find the terms to be derogatory. I have spent 22 years of my career as a professional search consultant which means that I am hired to help companies identify, attract, hire and retain people for critically important roles. The complexity is astounding if you do your job well and not many do. My work has contributed billions of dollars of value to the global economy. Some of my early work produced the current leaders in several Fortune 500 companies and over 400 small to midsize companies. I have contributed to our national defense and infrastructure in ways that I cannot disclose. I get paid very well to do what I do.
I am not relaying this information to brag, I needed to synthesize the impact of my professional life in order to better understand myself and the mark that I will leave on the world. I tend to shy away from the spotlight, fame and praise mean nothing to me, money means very little and none of these things give my life meaning. People give my life meaning. My professional life has made the lives of my clients and my candidates better, richer and more fulfilling which is all I need to know. I had the best job in the world. It was hard but rewarding, it put a nice roof over our heads, allowed us to travel and my son to get an education. Despite an expensive divorce, I have a couple of nickels left to rub together and travel the world until I can’t.
My personal life is a different story and the one I want to tell. My greatest weaknesses are what made me great at my profession. I understand people in a way that others don’t. My bullshit filter is unrivaled except when it comes to women and our intimate relationships.