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Adieu, Adieu: Poems Of A Cancer Survivor

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Some topics are difficult to talk about. This is one of them.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, John Smelcer

In the fall of 2022, I was diagnosed with Stage 2, non-specific, non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I would spend the next six months in and out of the hospital for chemotherapy and immunotherapy. By Christmas, my body had wasted away to skin and bones. I looked like the living dead. One friend told me recently that he remembers one day he came to see me. He didn’t say anything at the time, but he was shocked by the way I looked. He told me that he was certain it would be the last time he would ever see me alive. Another friend said something similar.

The thought that I was near the end was never far from my mind, especially in those last couple of months. One day, while my wife was at work and our daughter at school, I was walking through the kitchen when suddenly I felt feint. The world turned black and I felt myself falling to the cold linoleum floor. I vividly remember the single thought that went through my mind. Is this the moment of my death? In that instant, I felt sorry that either my wife or my daughter would find me crumpled and dead on the floor. I worried about how that experience might scar them for life.

But I didn’t die. I came to, probably only seconds later. I don’t know for sure. But the experience made me think more urgently about what I would like to have said to them in the event I would never get to say goodbye. There were things I needed them to know, like how much I loved them and how sorry I was that I left them so soon (my daughter was only twelve). I sat down in our sun room and video-recorded a brief message to my family, to be viewed in the event of my demise. After recording the message, I watched it. I was astonished at how ghastly I looked, my face pale and gaunt, my head hairless, my speech slow and slurred. At times, I gasped for air the way a fish gasps out of water. I saved the video on a thumb-drive and slid it into an envelope with a note to be watched in the event of my passing.

For me, the knowledge that my message was preserved for my family was like a great burden lifted off me. I knew my loved ones would be able to hear me tell them how much I loved them and what they meant to me. I told them that they would miss me in their lives, and that they would hurt. I reminded them that I still hurt whenever I think about my brother who died 35 years earlier at the tender age of 22. But I urged them to be happy, to love and to be loved, and to help each other. I told them how they had given me the gift of a life I hardly deserved.

To this day, my family has never seen the video. They may never see it. Friends tell me I should destroy it now that I have recovered. I tend to think I will keep it to remind myself how cancer took me to the brink of death. Seeing it may remind me to live more fully and to appreciate every moment. But you may want the peace of mind of getting the chance to say what you would want to say, what you want your loved ones to know. Many people die without ever getting a chance to say goodbye. There’s nothing wrong with making such a video, no admission of defeat, no white flag of surrender. It is about love and about what the people who go on living will take with them.

Throughout my cancer treatment, I wrote almost a hundred poems about my experiences. Some were amusing. Others, like the one below about that terrible day, were not so funny. The poems are genuine and human, full of strength and weakness, humor and despair, doubt and faith. In the poems I ask questions like, "Why me?' and "What did I do to deserve getting cancer?" Anyone who has cancer or loves someone who has cancer should read this book. If I learned anything from my experience, it's that one does not fight cancer; one surrenders to the cure. The collected poems appear in Running from the Reaper: Poems from an Impatient Cancer Survivor, which is now available on Amazon and elsewhere. The small book is a perfect gift for anyone going through cancer, or for anyone who cares for someone going through cancer treatment and recovery.

AS I LAY DYING

Lately, it feels as if Death is squeezing my heart

in his boney grip, wringing the life out of it.

All day yesterday,

I felt like I might keel over and die at any time.

I was alone when suddenly I blacked out

and crumpled to the floor.

I imagined my wife and daughter finding me hours later,

rigored and dead as a doorknob.

My last thoughts before blackout were,

“This is it! This is what it’s like to die.”

Death is like that sometimes—

lonely as a sailor’s ghost at the bottom of the sea.

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