“Good morning,” said the doctor and cleared his throat.
“Morning,” said Robert.
“I have called you here for the reason that…”
“Yes?” asked Robert calmly.
The doctor turned to look at his screen for a couple of seconds and clicked his mousepad a few times and then turned back to Robert: “I have called you here because I have some unpleasant news to tell you. You have cancer, Robert, a nasty one. Very nasty.”
Robert looked at the doctor quite calmly and said: “All right. What does it mean… in practise?”
“It means that we are going to do our best to fight the disease and take whatever means necessary to give you more time… but you must understand, Robert, that this cancer that you have, it’s an extremely rare form of cancer. More specifically, it’s a pancreatic cancer which is very hard to treat, and… and the prognosis is usually quite bleak. I’m sorry, Robert, but I cannot promise you more than a few months to live. I’m so sorry.”
Robert looked at the doctor straight in the eyes, and the doctor didn’t see any change in him, no trembling, no tears, nothing. He was sure that Robert was in shock. There was a moment of silence, and the two just stared at each other. It was only rarely that the doctor had had to give such a dire verdict to a patient, and he was as at a loss of words as he always was when he had to sentence someone to death.
But then Robert broke the silence and said: “A few months? Well that’s plenty. Thank you, mr. doctor.”
The doctor looked at Robert in a slight amazement. “I know this is a big shock… to hear something like that, and I ask you to take your time to think it through and sort your head out. You may not yet quite realise the implications of this disease, but that is perfectly understandable. No one wants to hear that they have only so little to live…”
Robert interrupted him and said: “You have totally misunderstood me, mr. doctor. I am not in shock, nor am I in grief.”
“It is such a sudden strike, and it always comes as a total surprise, like a blow straight in the belly,” said the doctor. “It will take some time to get used to the idea that there really is only a limited time left, but it will happen, trust me. Just go home, talk to your wife and children, talk it through and think it over. It will get better, believe me, Robert. Many patients with terminal cancer have reported to me later on, nearing the end of their existence, that the agony and despair wears off and is then replaced by an acceptance, a kind of surrender to destiny.”
“You are wasting your energy,” said Robert. “I don’t need your comforting words, mr. doctor. You see, I don’t believe in death. Or actually, I do believe in it, but I believe that it is very different than most people think.”
The doctor was baffled. He didn’t know that Robert was religious, and that seemed to make it more difficult to make Robert realise that in fact he was going to die within a couple of months.
Robert continued: “To you death must seem very real, naturally, because you see disease and death in your work on a regular basis, am I not correct? You see people who one moment are filled with life, jumping, dancing, screaming in pain, bleeding, crying or laughing, and the next moment they may be lying motionless on the metallic bed of the morgue with their skin all cold and grey. Of course death seems real when you see that. But you must understand, mr. doctor, I don’t see it the same way you do. I don’t think the life that is in a human body is generated by the body, but that the life only uses the body for a little while and then, when the time comes and the body wears off, it simply moves out, just like when a radio breaks up, it can no longer receive the frequencies, but the frequencies themselves are not affected by the breaking of the radio device. This is why I am neither afraid nor sorrowful.”
The doctor was secretly pitying and judging his patient as a religious nut by now, but of course he couldn’t say it to him. After all, he was a dying man with terminal cancer and only a few months to live at best. The least he could do for him was to go along with his comforting beliefs.
So the doctor said: “That is interesting, Robert. You may have a point there. That’s what I have been thinking myself. I think you are right.”
“You don’t have to lie to me, mr. doctor. I know that you think I’m not only dying, but also crazy from head to toes. But that’s all right. I don’t mind.”
The doctor was feeling uneasy, and all he wanted was to get out of the situation, but at the same time he couldn’t just leave the room and abandon his terminally ill patient.
“Look, Robert, I think that everyone should be allowed to have their own religious beliefs. But the truth is that whatever you believe, it won’t change the fact that this disease will kill you. There is nothing that can be done to stop that, even if we could postpone the end by a several days or weeks. You are going to die, Robert. I just want you to understand that. And it is also my job and my responsibility as a doctor to help you come to terms with the truth in a way that will not make you debilitated to make arrangements for the, umm… for the time beyond, and to say goodbye to your loved ones. Robert, I have seen hundreds of people, each with their own quirky beliefs about death, die literally before my eyes, and whatever it may have been that they believed, each and every one of them died the same and so far no one has come to me afterwards and told me that death doesn’t exist. No one has come, Robert.”
“And yet, here I am, telling you exactly that,” said Robert. “So what seems to be the matter?”
The doctor scoffed and said: “Yes, but you are still alive, Robert! Don’t be ridiculous. If you’ll come after I have seen your body go cold and lying on the metallic bed of the morgue and tell me death isn’t real, then I will believe you. But right now your words are just the words of a religious nut who cannot face reality. Just blind belief, Robert, blind belief that provides a superficial sense of comfort and numbs you from the truth of your disease and the truth of your impending death. Now, as your doctor I advise you to go home, make arrangements for your unavoidable death, hold your wife for a little while and accept your fate.”
The doctor noticed that a smile was growing on Robert’s face. He said: “Why it seems to me that my disease and my death seems to affect you more strongly than it affects myself, mr. doctor? And even if my words indeed were just the words of a delirious fruitcake, would it hurt anyone if I died at peace knowing — or believing — that life goes on even after the destruction of this physical body?”
“Of course not!” the doctor exclaimed. “But as a man and representative of reason, it is my duty to stay with the hard facts and the hard facts only, and not try to distract my patients with fairytales just to bury the truth.”
“You shouldn’t worry about me, good doctor. I know I cannot change your determined mind about this, and I won’t even try. But I want you to know that whatever happens at the time of death isn’t as dramatic or scary as you may think, and that I know for sure. Your fear arises only because you think that life will end when the body dies. But mr. doctor, how can life end? Isn’t it the body that evolves as an organic result of the earth’s biosphere? Isn’t it the earth that gives life to what seems to be a human being? And isn’t it the the sapling that grows out of the rotten trunks and leaves of his predecessors? How can life end when after the death of one form another immediately is born? We are like the trees in the forest, mr. doctor. We go on forever and ever, because we are part of life’s eternal cycle, not separate from it. Not separate. That is why I am not afraid.”
Robert smiled gently, stood up, shook the doctor’s hand and left the room.