Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth to Touch the Face of God

I traveled to Antarctica a little over eight years ago.  There, in the midst of its vast unearthly and breathtaking beauty, I felt as I had never before the presence of a higher power so much greater than myself, and in so doing, like perhaps I was glimpsing another planet, another dimension, possibly the afterlife.  In this week during which I celebrated my 38th birthday, observed the six-month anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, continue to process and prepare for the impending death of Kathryn Finn-Blume (who I mentioned in my previous post) and learned of the cancer-related deaths of two individuals, one of whom was a veritable celebrity in the colorectal cancer community and the other I had known and worked with shortly before my unexpected diagnosis, I’ve been thinking a lot about my time in Antarctica, trying to use that profound experience to make sense of life and death. 

A witty retired widower from Indiana who I’d met a year earlier during a safari in South Africa told me he’d been to Antarctica and that it had been a very spiritual experience.  I was intrigued and so the seed was planted in my head.  After a particularly exhausting transaction closed at work in October 2005, I booked a last minute trip to Antarctica for late November, several weeks ahead of my 30th birthday.  It was an expensive proposition but I justified it by saying that it was an appropriate gift to myself to honor my 30 years on this earth.  I went alone, (or as alone as you can when going to Antarctica since there really is no way for the ordinary tourist to get there other than to join a group), making my way down to Tierra del Fuego, to the very tip of South America from which all the Antarctica-bound ships in the western hemisphere depart.  Together with 43 other tourists from all over the world, I boarded a Russian reinforced ice vessel and embarked on a turbulent two-day crossing of the Drake Passage to reach the Antarctic Peninsula.

On Thanksgiving Day, as we approached land with the ship breaking through the occasional sheets of ice that had formed on the water’s surface, I stood on deck, gazing in absolute wonder at the massive glaciers in infinite shades of white, blue and green rising above the water, majestic arches and craggy mountain made of old and new ice sculpted by Mother Nature over time, more glorious than anything ever made by any human being.  The blue of the cloudless sky, the light of the sun that, at that time of year, shone for 20 hours a day, and the perfect whiteness of the land itself was so intense that it was almost too much to bear.  Over the next seven days, I and a select group of fellow travelers would escape the noise of the ship that was serving as our temporary home to kayak, paddling through the deepest quiet and silkiest waters that rippled with each stroke, waters that unfailingly reflected the sky’s mood.  Contrary to popular belief, Antarctica is not all white; it is yellow, pink, red and purple in the light of the quasi-rising and setting sun; it is black and gray in the volcanic rock that covers the beaches where the snow has melted for the season.  It is orange in the penguins’ beaks, green in the shallow waters and brown in the seals’ coats.  And to it all, there is a vibrancy, purity and beauty that never failed to make me breathless and tearful, that made me grateful to whatever gods may be for having given me sight despite my blindness at birth and, more fundamentally, life on this earth so that I could behold such magnificence.  And yet, I had the distinct knowing when I looked upon that beauty that it was suggestive of a greatness and grandeur not found on this planet, in this physical life or in this physical plane of existence; indeed, I felt like the fingertips of my soul were reaching out to touch the face of God – and I use the word God not to refer to the one depicted in any institutionalized religion’s teachings but rather a spiritual being that may very well be a force comprised of all the life that has been and is and will be, a force that is incomprehensible to the human mind but perhaps just barely understandable by the human soul.  And within the shadow of that greatness and grandeur, I felt small, insignificant, a little life spanning a second in time on a little blue planet, in a solar system, in a galaxy, in a universe that goes on forever and ever, an infinitesimal blip in space and time.

Feeling small and insignificant is a rarity in the course of our daily lives.  Sure enough, once I returned from Antarctica, I again became consumed by the happenings of my life, happenings that often felt important and momentous – navigating family and friend dramas, drafting hundred page contracts late into the night and vehemently negotiating with opposing counsel over little words like it all mattered so much, feeling annoyance at the guy who cut me in line, planning a wedding, buying an apartment, agonizing over which crib to buy, battling the kids over teeth brushing and TV watching and on and on with all the stuff of life.  We live everyday not in the shadow of greatness and grandeur but within the confines of our little but seemingly enormous lives which from our self-centric perspectives is all-consuming and all-important.  It is a natural way to be; after all, we must live our lives.

And then things happen that jerk us out of our complacency and make us feel small and powerless.  Most of the time, they’re not spiritual trips to Antarctica or the like.  Most of the time, they are events that we hear about on the news or from friends of friends, those tragedies that end in death that happen to other people in other places that make us sad but also guiltily relieved and grateful for we think, “I go there but for the grace of God” – destructive hurricanes and earthquakes, violent shootings and explosions, car accidents and, of course, insidious illnesses.  When we learn of those events, we are shaken to the core because we are reminded of our mortality, of how impotent we truly are in the face of unseen forces of nature that would cause the earth to tremble and a human mind deranged enough to kill and cells to mutate and grow uncontrollably within one’s own body.

My cancer was one such event for not only did it shatter mine and Josh’s world but it disrupted the lives of my family, friends, colleagues and even people who only knew of me.  An otherwise healthy 37-year-old mother of two little girls has colon cancer – how could that possibly be, I and everyone else asked.  Even so, the initial shock passed and I and everyone who had been horrified by the news came to grips with the new reality.  The phone calls, messages, emails and notes died down as people moved on with their lives, and I got used to the new rhythms of living with chemo treatments and busied myself with writing and going to DC and meeting new people in my efforts with the colorectal cancer community.  Yes, even for those of us who have cancer, life can become complacent again, until that is something else happens to us or someone we know, as was the case this week.

John was a partner at my law firm, a distinguished looking man in his mid-50s, who despite having lived all over the world practicing law, hadn’t managed to rid himself of his Midwestern accent.  I didn’t know him as well as I knew many other partners of the firm, but I was briefly assigned to work on a transaction with John last June, right when I was first experiencing symptoms.  He was one of those partners who was always involved, who actually read the documents and called to check on the status of various aspects of the deal.  Of course, I was going on vacation to LA in early July (the vacation during which I would be diagnosed and would have surgery) so John decided to replace me with another associate.  Little did either of us know then that deadly tumors were thriving in each of our bodies.  In early December, I learned that John had just been diagnosed with brain cancer and the prognosis was dim.  I was shocked.  He died this past Monday.  He was diagnosed more than four months after I was diagnosed and yet he’s gone now and I’m still here.  How can that be?  He lived two months after being diagnosed.  It took me two months to barely process the fact that I had cancer.  It happened so quickly; he didn’t even have the opportunity to put up a fight.

John passed away the day after Gloria died of colon cancer-related complications.  I didn’t know Gloria personally but I read her entire blog when I was first diagnosed, which chronicled her 3.5-year battle.  She had a loud voice in the colorectal cancer community since she’d started her own nonprofit to raise money to find a cure for colon cancer.  Diagnosed with aggressive Stage IV disease that involved widespread metastases  at age 28, she was given one year to live, two at most.  She was known for her warrior attitude, relentless positivity and even enthusiasm for fighting the disease – so seemingly fearless, positive and enthusiastic was she (for she never really wrote of her fears or sadness) that according to her own blog posts some people doubted her sincerity and genuineness.   Sincere or not, to those of us who followed her progress through her blog and Facebook postings, it certainly seemed like until the day she passed away she truly believed that she would beat the cancer, that the cancer had picked the wrong person, that in her words, “Cancer, your time is up.”  Many in the colorectal cancer community were shocked by the news of her death, in part because she’d been quiet publicly about her decline and in part because people believed that by virtue of her unyielding ferocity in the face of this deadly disease, that she would indeed somehow win her war. The fact that her body had succumbed to the disease alarmed many who drew inspiration from her and felt that if the fierce WunderGlo (her self-proclaimed nickname) couldn’t overcome, how could they?  Her death unsettled those of us who have the same disease because it made us wonder how close we ourselves are to death.

And then there is lovely, lovely Kathryn, a tall, fifty-something Minnesotan who has lived long past her initial prognosis.  She’s been a dedicated source of support and information for others and a devout builder of the colorectal cancer community – she was the one who found me and brought me into Colontown (a support group on Facebook).  I’ve met Kathryn but honestly don’t know her well at all.  Rather, I judge her by how she made the brave decision to stop all chemo a few months ago (a decision that she explained to all of us in Colontown).  I judge her by how she is spending the last days of her life on this earth, at home in hospice care, with her family and friends; even as her body is slowly being starved to death because a tumor is obstructing the path into her stomach, even as she is constantly vomiting what little water she can ingest, she makes the effort to post on Facebook to inform everyone (many of whom have never met her in person) as she has always done of the details of her medical condition and her mental state, which is calm and so gracefully accepting of her coming death.  In so doing, she is demystifying the process of dying, helping all of us who will also one day die be less afraid.  In so doing, she is giving those of us who love her (even if from afar) a chance to bid her farewell, to say our piece.  When my time comes, whenever that may be, I can only hope that I will have the same opportunity to prepare and that I will die with the same grace, dignity and peace that Kathryn exudes.

Those of us who face cancer, any type of cancer, are prone to using the metaphor and language of war to describe the way in which we deal with our disease; I myself have described chemo as the most powerful weapon in my arsenal, the receipt of bad news as a defeat in one battle among many and all of my supporters as my army.  In many respects, it’s an appropriate and useful metaphor because it lends a visual image to an often long and arduous process with an uncertain outcome in which the mind and body are brutalized; it fires up passion and gets the adrenaline flowing and can push one to keep enduring.  But what happens when the body can no longer tolerate further treatment?  What happens when death is the outcome of the war and not life?  People hate to think that Kathryn, Gloria or John have ultimately “lost” their personal wars against cancer, and yet there is no denying that reality; John and Gloria are gone and Kathryn will soon follow.

As I’ve said before, battling cancer occurs in not just the physical realm, but also the non-physical realm, where the mind and spirit are challenged to find the will to keep fighting, to feel happiness despite the sadness, to find light amidst the darkness, to laugh through the fear, to live with abandon and joy under the specter of death.  I hope that no matter how difficult the physical war becomes for me and no matter how I may struggle through the non-physical war, I will always confront my disease with the same kind of courage, honesty, grace and acceptance that Kathryn has exhibited, she who learned so much about her disease and its treatments, both established and experimental, she who shared that knowledge as no other, she who recognized the time when chemo was compromising the quality of her life during what little time she had remaining, she who chose to recognize and accept with dignity the overwhelming power of the cancer in her body.

Cancer is a force of nature that acts within the human body, just as the winds and rains from a hurricane is a force of nature that acts on land and the inhabitants of that land.  Notwithstanding the marvels of mankind’s ability to build sturdy structures that will protect us from the elements (or, as in the case of cancer, the marvels of modern medicine that allow the lucky to defy that force of nature that is cancer), ultimately both are more powerful that our physical beings can overcome should those forces choose to unleash their full strength.  We are so small, insignificant and powerless in the face of those unleashed forces.  There comes a time when one must admit that powerlessness and evacuate ahead of the deadly hurricane, rather than remain behind to ride out the storm and make some kind of empty symbolic gesture of “fuck you.”  Similarly, there comes a time when one must recognize the futility of continuing the personal physical fight against cancer, when chemo is no longer a desirable option, when one should begin the process of saying goodbye and understand that death is not the enemy, but merely a part of life.  Determining that time is a highly personal deliberation that each of us must make with our hearts and souls.   This is what Kathryn has done; she respects the force of nature acting on her body and has no delusions about somehow still overcoming the cancer beast; she made the cogent decision to evacuate ahead of the hurricane.  To me, she has won her war against cancer so valiantly fought in the non-physical realm.

President Ronald Reagan said of the astronauts who perished in the Challenger explosion (quoting from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.), “they…waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”  John and Gloria have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and Kathryn will soon do the same.  My hope is that they passed and will pass from this world knowing that they had lived and died in a manner that will make their souls soar in the afterlife.  My hope is that their souls have found and will find a place of such unparalleled and unearthly beauty and grandeur, filled with the purest and most vibrant of colors, a thousand times more glorious than that which I beheld in Antarctica.  My hope is that their souls touch the face of God.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sanjeet Malik
    Jan 10, 2014 @ 12:15:24

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece.


  2. Anne Marie
    Jan 10, 2014 @ 12:52:35

    That is lovely, Julie. Nature is where I most often go to find spiritual solace. It awes me both in its immense calm and utter brute force. As I was reading your piece I was reminded of particular moments – looking out at hurricane ocean rollers from a granite perch on an island in Maine, sitting on Stone Hill pondering the purple mountains, stopping to catch my breath and watch the soaring prehistoric-looking condors while backpacking the Grand Canyon – all of which brought me joy and comfort and a sense of some greater all-encompassing energy in the world. Oddly enough, your piece reminded me most of a moment years ago, just after my aunt Jane died on Flight 800 and before her remains were found. I went hiking with Sue (and Martha – I don’t remember if you knew her) and at one point alone on the trail halfway up the mountain, I stopped at an overlook to take in the horizon. I found myself speaking aloud, wondering where Jane was, out there in the great blue abyss of sky and ocean, but also just simply wishing her well. It brought me a kind of peace and acceptance of what was to merge my memory and thoughts of her with the nature which had always surrounded and embraced us both. With this memory in mind, the poem you ended your post with was even more powerful to me. Beautiful. Thank you.


  3. David Pitman
    Jan 10, 2014 @ 16:31:15

    Beautiful and thoughtful. Thank you for sharing your insights. Keep fighting!


  4. kathy
    Jan 11, 2014 @ 01:36:32

    Wow. That was beautiful. Thank you so much for writing that and sharing that with us.


  5. Tanya Gee
    Jan 11, 2014 @ 05:29:36

    This post is a masterpiece. Expertly written, throught-provoking, and — best of all — comforting. I suspect I’ll turn back to it often.


  6. Debbie whitmore
    Jan 11, 2014 @ 08:51:30

    You are such a gift to the colorectal cancer world! Your writing and stories are so beautiful and thoughtful. Thank you!


  7. Ann
    Jan 12, 2014 @ 15:48:02

    A lovely piece…thanks for sharing it with us at The CC. I also wanted to wish you good luck in your cancer journey. I experienced something similar to what you have gone through…all of my cancer growth was confined to various areas within the abdomen, while other major organs were unaffected. It’s taken five big surgeries, but I have now been NED for over two years, which is a pretty big step from the near-terminal state I was in at one point. So it can be done, and from reading the rest of your blog, I would say you are off to an excellent start to a complete recovery!


    • julielyyip
      Jan 31, 2014 @ 11:27:48

      Ann, I wish for you continued NED. Thank you sharing your experience. Five surgeries sounds daunting to me but hearing that it’s possible gives me some hope.


  8. Lisa
    Jan 27, 2014 @ 03:35:25

    Julie, this piece was incredibly insightful and beautiful to read. You are so right, for me, somehow those brave souls who find peace at the end of their paths, make it easier for us survivers to deal with such loss too. Somehow I too am shocked when someone is posting like a mighty warrior, only to hear the next week that that person passed away. I so admire Kathryn for her honesty and I find it empowering. Yet each of us will chose our own death and we have a right to do so. Keep up your brilliant writing.


  9. louise peters
    Mar 06, 2014 @ 23:02:33

    Julie, I heard about you through my dear friend Rachel. She was diagnosed with stage iv colon cancer August 2013. Just wanted to let you know that your writing is so gripping that I have been reading your posts in all my spare time for past 2 days. Tonight you even inspired me to run my usual route a second time in your honor. I am fighting with you. Thank you for finding the courage to share your war against cancer so candidly.


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