Opinion » Viewpoint

The Open Boat

Life isn't fair; it's just something you have to live with.

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My friend is sick with cancer, and he may not survive. What am I to make of this?

I don't believe his sickness is part of some god's plan. I don't believe it is his destiny. I don't believe he did something to deserve it. He is an extraordinarily nice, humble, considerate man. He has wonderful grown children and a terrific wife. He takes care of himself, is extraordinarily fit, doesn't drink or smoke, and eats a vegetarian diet. For him to get stomach cancer makes no sense. It's just plain bad luck.

My friend doesn't want visitors or phone calls while he's sick. I understand that. He has work to do -- the work of getting well -- and he doesn't need distractions from that work. He is also a proud man; it probably embarrasses him to be sick in front of other people.

I once knew a man who had broken his neck in a diving accident. He had no use of his legs and very limited use of his arms. Despite this, from his wheelchair, he was a successful university professor. I admired this man, but my more permanent response to him was this: Ever since I met him, every time I find myself carrying five grocery bags at once, two in my arms, two gripped in my fingers, another under my armpit, I immediately think of my friend in the wheelchair and remember how extraordinary and pleasant it is for a human being to be able to carry five grocery bags at once. Likewise, a few years back, a colleague of mine came down with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Gradually, over two years, he lost his ability to talk or walk or pick up his 3-year-old son. A delightful man, my colleague had been a fine golfer in his health. Every time I play golf now, I think of my friend with ALS and feel how extraordinarily lucky I am to be able to walk a golf course.

My friends' sicknesses have, perversely, heightened the pleasure I take in my own health. This seems a horribly selfish reaction, but I can't help it. Some people would say that that should be a consolation to those who are sick, that it gives their sickness some meaning: Their plight has increased others' pleasure and appreciation of life's joys.

I had another friend die, unexpectedly, a few years ago. My reaction to his death was simply to realize, a bit more vividly, that the trapdoor could open under any of us at any time, so we'd better concentrate a little harder on the living part of being alive.

I suppose having friends get sick from heart disease or cancer or ALS should spur me to give money to research in those diseases. But every disease has its victims, and I try to give money to research into lots of diseases. I don't choose which ones based on whether they hit close to my own home.

I remember Stephen Crane's famous short story "The Open Boat." In it, a group of men are in a lifeboat, their ship having sunk. They're trying to row to shore in a storm. Some are strong, some are weak, some are competent, some are incompetent. Some make it and live. Some drown. Nature, says Crane, doesn't really give a damn about human beings. It's all a crapshoot.

Once, when I was unhappy over something, I complained to a philosopher I know that I hadn't done anything to deserve that unhappiness. He looked at me over his beer and snorted, "You think only bad people get hit by trucks?"

Okay, so good people get hit by trucks too. And by cancer. I can live with that. Yes, I'm happy and sad to say, I can live with that.

Ed Weathers, a former editor of Memphis magazine, writes a weekly column for the Flyer Web site, MemphisFlyer.com.

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