WASHINGTON — In my mid-20s, I had a new bride, a plum job on Capitol Hill, and, apparently, the beginnings of a cancerous tumor on my right kidney. For 20 or 25 years — the best estimate of my doctors — it accompanied me at birthdays and on holidays and at the delivery of my children. It was quiet and kept to itself. Undiscovered, it would have donned camouflage and killed me in the end.
A cancer diagnosis is the experience of about 13 million Americans. Mine came early enough for surgery to make a difference.
As an instinctual Calvinist, I'm not prone to ask “why me?” — as though mortality were carrying out some kind of personal vendetta. But my first impression was the apparent arbitrariness of it all. I have no family history of kidney cancer. I've never smoked. I haven't worked in a uranium mine. Any philosophy of life must take into account that random, witless developments — a tumor, an aneurysm, a drunken driver — can be highly consequential. At some point, many of us will feel “as flies to wanton boys.”
In my case, this realization of the radical contingency of events gave way to more constructive thoughts. They are not observations I can universalize. They don't apply to those in constant pain, or address the incomprehensible suffering of children with cancer. My experience left me less able to understand such horrors.
I was fortunate to see mortality in the near distance. Stepping outside that experience — as writers tend to do — it had elements of a physics experiment. As I awaited to learn my fate, I noticed an effect on matter — an odd intensification of physical experience. Things around you offer more friction and hold your attention longer. Commonplace things like the bumps on tree bark. The light filtering through floating dust. The wetness of water. A contrast knob is turned, revealing the vivid pleasures of merely existing.
This heightened awareness applies to strangers in the street, who suddenly have faces. An unsolicited smile, the obvious creases of worry or pain, engage your emotions. There is nothing more democratic than mortality. Even if we are insects, we are insects (said Dickens) on the same leaf.