This is my youngest daughter Carolyn. She likes milk, cuddling, and getting attention by threatening to climb the stairs. She is turning one-year-old on June 2. Unlike my older daughters Sophie (6) and Quinn (3), she is too young to have formed any permanent memories of me, which was just the saddest thing ever while I was in the ER with a brand new cancer diagnosis. As I was waiting to tell Jing the bad news, I made a voice recording for Carolyn, in case the worst should happen. I’m tempted to share it here, but after some reflection, I’ve decided it’s too sad and too personal. Besides, there weren’t any really original sentiments. The outline was something like: 1. I just discovered I’m sick, 2. I’m going to do everything humanly possible to survive this, 3. I love you more than anything, 4. Take care of your mom for me. I have sent the voice recording to Carolyn’s permanent email address, to be sure to traumatize her as soon as she is old enough.
There are no truly original ideas, and this one in particular isn’t terribly original. To wit: there is a mediocre Michael Keaton movie from the 90s with the same premise. And while I’m obviously sympathetic to the impulse, in retrospect, I am very much opposed to making posthumous messages. I have two related reasons to support this potentially controversial position. First, I once heard a story on NPR about a father with a terminal illness who wrote birthday letters for his daughters up until their 18th birthdays. His daughters appreciated the letters very much, but said they were devastated when they realized there were no more letters after their 18th birthday. They said it was like losing their dad a second time. Second, related to this, I’m thinking about all the various challenges my daughters will face, and how thoroughly inadequate a 90-second voice memo is, especially since it was recorded while I was scared and confused and in a great deal of pain. The whole point of these posthumous messages — at least according to my understanding — is to ease your mind by ensuring that nothing important is left unsaid. In practice, I can rely on Jing and the rest of my family to communicate the most important message: “I love you, Carolyn.” All the rest just brings awful thoughts to the table, like all the important stuff you might miss out on, and is quite contrary to keeping a disciplined, optimistic, and ultimately brave outlook.
Mark Helprin’s ‘North Light’ from “Ellis Island (and other stories)”
The best thing I have ever read on the subject of bravery was written by Mark Helprin in his short story ‘North Light’ in the collection “Ellis Island (and other stories)”. I’ve included the Amazon link above, because after extensive searching, I cannot find a copy of this story online, just a bunch of term papers written by English majors. I encourage you in the strongest terms to read it. The short story is a brisk 3 pages, and any reputable library should have a copy. The story is set among a group of soldiers waiting to be ordered into battle. The narrator, himself a soldier, draws a clear line between the young soldiers, facing battle for the first time:
“The young ones are frightened because, for most of them, this is their first battle. But their fear is not as strong as the blood which is rising and fills their chests with anger and strength. They have little to lose, being, as they are, only eighteen. They look no more frightened than members of a sports team before an important match: it is that kind of fear, for they are responsible only to themselves.”
This is in contrast, according to Helprin, to the married men:
“Married men, on the other hand, are given away by their eyes and faces. They are saying to themselves “I must not die; I MUST NOT DIE.” […]
“As younger men who badly wanted to fight, we thought we knew what courage was. Now we know that courage is the forced step of going into battle when you want anything in the world but that, when there is every reason to stay out, when you have been through all the tests, and passed them, and think that it’s all over. Then the war hits like an artillery shell, and you are forced to be eighteen again; but you can’t be eighteen again, not with the taste of your wife’s mouth in your mouth, not with the smell of her perfume on your wrists. The world turns upside down in minutes. How hard we struggle in trying to remember to remember the easy courage we once had. But we can’t. We must either be brave in a different way, or not at all. What is that way? How can we fight like seasoned soldiers when this morning we kissed our children?”
Returning to the subject of un-original thoughts, Helprin’s soldiers realize that anger is the secret to having the right frame of mind for battle. George Lucas / Darth Vader aren’t the only ones who appreciate the virtues of anger. Incidentally, this is the foundation and key insight of the #fuckcancer campaign. Eventually, Helprin’s soldiers are ordered into battle:
“The young soldiers are no longer afraid, and the married men are in a state of perfect sustained fury. Because they love their wives and children, they will not think of them again until the battle is over.”
Ultimately, no matter how carefully and thoroughly done, posthumous messages are going to be an inadequate substitute for the real thing. Much better to do everything possible to keep the genuine article still in the mix. I’ve mentioned before that depression, despair, and negativity are allies of cancer, and everything humanly possible should be done to keep them at arms length. When I recorded that message for Carolyn, I thought I was clearing my mind to concentrate on the proper battle, but in retrospect, all it did was bring some awful thoughts to the forefront of my mind. Such as, what are graduations and weddings going to be like, if I’m not there? Like Helprin’s soldiers, I think it’s a much better idea to put all that temporarily out of mind, and win the immediate battle(s).