One of our group members wrote me a long letter and handed it to me with a couple of poems. His hope is that we might be able to exchange letters via the group, but it is against the rules for volunteers to correspond with prisoners beyond the scope of the group. I am going to have to tell him this (he knows the rule, but is hoping we can work around it) and tell him that I won’t be able to write him letters in return. I’ve been thinking about his letter for a couple of weeks now, wondering if I should respond anyway, screw the rules. But I don’t want to be responsible for getting the entire group in trouble – one misstep by a volunteer can get our whole program shut down. I’ve been thinking about all that was in his letter – his thoughts on death and disease and questions to me on the same subjects. His thoughts on Washington’s recently passed assisted suicide bill. His thoughts on life after death. Of course I want to respond!

 

So, I decided that in lue of writing a real letter to Bill, I could write a letter and post it here. Readers of this blog won’t get to see Bill’s letter, but you’ll be able to infer their content from my response.

 

It’s crazy to me that I can’t write to a man serving a life sentence about life and death, regardless of the fact that he knows me as a volunteer. It seems counter-productive to his health and wellness on the inside and, for that matter, to my health and wellness on the outside. But then, I don’t know that anyone is advertising the US correctional system as an advocate for health and wellness.

 

*******

Dear Bill,

 

Thank you for your letter. It is timely for one main reason. This week I had to go back to the hospital for a follow up CT scan. The doctors have been watching a small spot on my lung for about nine months now, most likely nothing, possibly metastasized cancer from my original melanoma, possibly…well you know how it is. So, your questions about life and death and disease are weighing heavy on me this week.

 

I am lucky in that I did not have to ever have an Interferon treatment. I am sorry that you had to go through it. I hear that it is pretty terrible and your story confirms that for me. The doctors had told me I would have had to most likely drop out of graduate school if I went on the treatment. Imagine. I wouldn’t have met all of you in our Hero’s Journey group. I understand that it must have been difficult to choose to stop the treatment, regardless of the side effects. We all hope that there is indeed a miracle cure for the diseases that ail us. Alas, sometimes you have to consider quality of life over quantity of life. At least in my humble opinion. I can understand why your brother would have been upset with you. Disease is difficult on family for many reasons.

 

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have spent 32 years in prison already and to know that you will spend the rest of your life there. You write that the prison hospital is no place to spend your final days and that is why you have considered, when the time comes, taking your own life. I would never try to sway you one way or another, but I do believe strongly that how we die, when possible, should be up to us. As I said in the group the other night, if it is true we are all going to die, then shouldn’t there be some respect and dignity in the act itself? So much of our culture is about denying that we will die that everyone is so unprepared (I’m thinking of family and friends) when it does ultimately, and predictably, happen. That just makes it harder for everyone, I think.

 

Because I was so young when I was diagnosed with cancer the whole idea of death and how I wanted to die took me by surprise. I hadn’t, honestly, had to give much thought to it at 27. People tell me that it’s unfair that I had to deal with cancer at such a young age. I don’t know anymore if that is true. I certainly felt that way in the beginning, but now, on the good days, I think that maybe I am lucky to have had a brush with death so early as it allowed me to begin to ask some of those big, complex questions. I feel like I have time now to really decide what is right for me should I ever get sick again, or even what is right for me when I am old and grey and approaching my final days.

 

I do envy that you have found a spiritual path that calls to you. My own spiritual life continues to more of a mystery. I think I am more spiritual since my experience with cancer (how can you not be, right?), but I still can’t bring myself to look to any particular tradition to tell me how I ought to live (or die for that matter). I would be interested in hearing more about your walk with Buddhism.

 

I have a friend who believes firmly that it is my own thinking on the subject that will have the greatest impact on whether I stay healthy or not. He’s an eternal optimist. And while I’m not a die-hard pessimist I have a hard time always holding on to what he’s saying. Can you believe you are going to live and stay healthy, but still consider death without canceling out your “good” thoughts? How practical do you have to be about the limits of the body – particularly when your body has already exposed its weaknesses to you? I’d be interested to know what you think (if indeed you were to ever see this question).

 

So, Bill, this is long enough for now. I feel like I’ve only begun to touch on all you put in your letter, so perhaps I will write a second letter soon. I’m sorry that we can’t actually exchange letters. I’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on these subjects. I’d be interested in your stories from prison and before prison.

 

Thank you reaching out. I wish I could reach back.

 

Sincerely,

Erika

 

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