Looking back with gratitude, looking forward with hope

My life focus has indeed changed from “normal” to “this is my new job.” And it’s full-time.

I’ll be 65 years old in April and I’ve lived half of those years here on Vashon Island.

Before I moved to the island, I had a life full of travel and adventures from the time I finished high school — when I hitch-hiked around Europe for nine months, to the cross-country road trip I took in 1990, from Cape Cod to Seattle, when I found Vashon Island and my new home.

I’ve worked on a kibbutz in Israel, sailed a Viking ship in Denmark, played golf in Kashmir, hiked in the Himalayas and played music on the streets of Berlin. Really, too many fun times to relate in this commentary.

Some of the highlights of my life were spending two years living in a little village in Nepal working as a Peace Corps volunteer, and traveling the world from Kathmandu, around China — which included protesting with the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989 — and across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express.

I raised two thriving children who I took out of school for six months to travel all the way around the world, I’ve played music in many different countries with too many people to count, took two two-month motorcycle trips around Eastern Europe as well as several trips to New Zealand and to Vietnam, Ireland and Mexico — meeting and befriending so many people in so many places. And I designed and built two houses for myself here on the island.

The reason I’m writing about my life now is that I was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last month. I’m still not sure of the prognosis, but right now, it doesn’t look too good. And I’m finding that, with this new realization, thoughts of mortality and of the full life that’s behind me arise.

Having this condition, this type of cancer, has made me think about, not just my life, but about the cause, the reason. Why me? How is it that I got this disease? Was I a bad person? A selfish person? Was I unkind? Did I lead an unhealthy life and abuse my body? Am I being punished?

Of course, the answer is no, none of this is true. I know so many people —sadly — who have had cancer and who have died but were extraordinary people in so many ways. It has nothing to do with how they lived, how they treated others or the planet, how they spent their money or how they spent their time. I realize now that it’s not a punishment, it’s simply fate.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a documentary I watched on “Nature,” about a massive school of sardines moving up the California coast and all of the predators that followed them: pelicans and cormorants flocked in the skies above, dolphins and seals prowled in the water below, all trying to feed themselves on this swirling, migrating feast. The fish were in a kind of panic, all trying to avoid being eaten, all thinking that they were going to be okay because there were so many of them, but then, BAM! Some got picked off and swallowed. Just like that.

That’s how I feel — like I’m one of the fish that got picked off. Just pure chance….

And though I’m tempted to think, “why me,” I can’t, because, if not me, then someone else? I’m sure that everyone who gets a diagnosis of cancer is at first in shock and disbelief, not quite being able to grasp the total reality of their new situation. And that’s what it is: a new life situation. Everything changes. Expectations, focus, energy levels, work and play, how we spend our time, and our relationships with other people.

If someone had told me last year that I had only six more years to live, I would have been devastated! What? Only six years to live? That’s terrible! But if someone told me today that I have six years to live I would feel elated! Yay! Six more years of life!

For me, the outpouring of support and love and compassion has been surprising, touching and so very encouraging. Despite the troubling prognosis, I’ve been assured by everyone I know that I have a good life energy and a strong constitution and, if anyone can “beat this thing,” I will.

I hope they’re all right. But my life focus has indeed changed from “normal” to “this is my new job.” And it’s full-time. I happen to live near a city with extraordinary cancer care facilities and practitioners as well as a family and group of friends who are truly there for me 24/7.

I often say that I can’t complain (but sometimes I still do…), that I’ve lived an active, adventurous and good life, and that death is just a part of that life. But I had plans to keep going, to grow old on this island sailing with my friends, digging in my garden, playing music and watching sunsets.

As many of you who have read some of the commentaries I’ve written over the years for The Beachcomber know, I usually write about climate change, energy use, the earth and its limited resources, and the like. Well, this one really must have an element of that, too.

As I’ve navigated the world of cancer treatments, I’ve come to realize that it takes an enormous amount of time, energy and money to treat illnesses. I’ve been over to the city more in the past three weeks than in the past year! And even though my car runs on vegetable oil, I feel that my impact on the environment has increased more than I’d like.

And when I think about all of the other cancer patients out there doing the same thing that I’m now doing, well, I almost feel guilty about seeking treatment at all — especially since the treatments might not work for very long.

As I stood at the reception desk at 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning, I was chatting with the woman behind her computer. She asked me the standard two questions — name and date of birth — and went on to print the wristband that I’ve become accustomed to wearing throughout each appointment.

I thought about my trip from Vashon to the south end of Lake Union, leaving my warm house in the dark, scraping ice off the windshield, driving up to the boat and across the Sound, then up I-5 to the Mercer Street exit. I thought about other cancer patients and wondered how they managed to get to their own appointments, about those who might not have a car, who would have to take busses through the frigid dark morning to get their lab tests and to see their doctors.

And I found myself feeling grateful for my relative affluence, for my own personal car that enabled me to drive right into the hospital parking garage to receive treatments for this new disease of mine, as well as for my health insurance provided through my work at the winery.

I realized that there are many people living in the Seattle area and around the country who do not have access to either easy transportation or world-class healthcare, and that there is a divide between those who can treat their illness and those who struggle to do so.

As much as I strive to keep my carbon footprint small and to consume as little energy as possible, I feel gratitude for my prerogative to use my car, to drive myself right up to the hospital doors and then home again after the trying experience of biopsies, lab work or CT scans.

Though my life has been devoted to zero waste and to conserving energy, it somehow feels okay to use some of our limited resources to take care of myself. And to know that so many others are working —and using fossil energy — to take care of us with compassion and empathy and who are searching for new treatments and possible cures for cancer.

I can only hope that they will come up with some treatment and cure for me in time …

Scott Durkee is a freelance factotum, artist and winemaker. He lives on Maury Island.