Spill-over Thoughts on Death, Camp Kesem, and Cancer

Dear friends,

I’ve just finished an essay for my Illness module, and I chose to write about death. Specifically, I tried to answer the question, “Is death tyrannical?”

This question was inspired by a short fable written by Nick Bostrom, called The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, where Bostrom writes mainly about how he views ageing to be the fictional dragon-tyrant of his story. I took the metaphor a little further and asked myself if death itself could be tyrannical. I thought I would have enough space within the word limit to work in most of my thoughts, however I was surprised as to how little space I ended up having. Hence, I had some spill-over thoughts that didn’t make it into my essay, but I thought were worth sharing.

I won’t bore you with what I ended up writing on for the actual essay, but there was one topic I wanted to write about for which I couldn’t find a good spot, and that is my time with Camp Kesem. I have written about camp in an older post, but I don’t think I devoted too much time to explaining the matter. In short, so you don’t have to go back to that post, Camp Kesem is a student-run organisation that provides a week-long summer camp for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer. The kids go free to camp, and the counselors raise the money necessary to put on a fun-filled week of camp. We use this time to let the kids get away from their lives at home, to be the centre of attention, and to give them a second family to turn to in good times and in bad. A fun little quirk about this camp is the fact that we all go by fake names – my name’s Spice, and there are names ranging from Gumbo, to Private Hurley, to High Ballistic Squid, to Snoopy, and Bud… We just like to have fun, I guess.

Naturally with a camp hosting kids who have all had to experience cancer in their lives, it’s not uncommon for a camper to have lost one or both of her parents to this malady. These kids have to deal with death at an age when they have absolutely no reason nor necessity to think about what death means to them. This forced encounter with mortality is but a nightmare for some kids, especially when they’re old enough to have been able to fully, autonomously loved their parents, yet young enough to not know why they only come home to one parent after school. Perhaps it may be that all they can feel is sadness, and when that sadness is not justified in any way, but only hurts so deeply as what a lost loved one can cause, this child may feel total agony.

In Bostrom’s fable, there comes a time when a little boy shows up at a town hall meeting, where the meeting is in place to discuss what the society should do with the dragon-tyrant who keeps killing people daily. Some say that the dragon should stay, because having the dragon (ageing) in this society is an unfortunate yet necessary, defining part of humanity. But the boy has a different opinion, as shown in this excerpt:

~~

“I want my granny back,” said the boy.

“Did the dragon take your granny away?”

“Yes,” the boy said, tears welling up in his large frightened eyes. “Granny promised that she would teach me how to bake gingerbread cookies for Christmas. She said that we would make a little house out of gingerbread and little gingerbread men that would live in it. Then those people in white clothes came and took Granny away to the dragon… The dragon is bad and it eats people… I want my Granny back!”

~~

Oftentimes, we may feel angry at death because it may be so cruelly ripping away our loved ones from our lives, when we mean to make plans with them, when we hope for a future together. This is so utterly painful, especially when those who death takes from us have not completed what we believe to be the proper ‘shape’ of a life (e.g. when a child outlives her parents).

As is the state of biomedicine, we don’t have yet the technology that can stave off death forever. Hence we have to come up with some way to console ourselves in learning how to cope with this inevitability. Some turn to religion, others to philosophy, some simply turn to a community such as Camp Kesem.

In the middle of the week at camp, we have a day that’s called “Empowerment,” where the campers and counselors alike get to share their experiences with cancer. This day tends to lead to a lot of self-reflection, bonding, and shed tears. Of course, if a family member dies, we are totally justified in missing them, in crying over them, in being angry or emotional as to why they may have had to leave our lives early. Death of a family member terribly, utterly sucks. (There’s no place for an elegant word in the former sentence.)

I was trying to figure out, then, how to find some sort of good in death, or some sort of way to lift anyone up who has lost a parent, grandparent, or other loved one to cancer. Where is the good in death? Perhaps, I thought, when death is inevitable, it allows us to cherish who we’re with for the time we’re with them. But when they leave us, we feel a giant void in our lives that should be filled by one person only, who cannot ever come back to fill that void.

When mourning the loss of a loved one, we look for them, and they are nowhere to be (physically) found. However, we forget to look in one of the most important places we could look, which is inside ourselves. Genetically speaking, we are literally half of each of our parents, but moreover, we forget that we are, in some aspect, a representation and embodiment of what came before us. Our parents are as much a part of us as we are a part of them (as hard as that may be for some readers to realise or believe). So at Empowerment, I felt compelled to remind my fellow campers and counselors alike – that no matter how much we miss our parents, they’re still with us, within ourselves.

Here’s where I believe the tyranny of death doesn’t reach: after death, humans tend to show up in other things around them (this sounds creepy but it shouldn’t), whether it be a piece of music they composed, something they wrote, or, most importantly, their kin and their friends. The beautifully innate social nature of humans tends to be exemplified in death, and I believe that this is at least some sort of good, some sort of freedom, that we can find through experiencing death in our lives.

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