Recently MichiganChet wrote a pair of excellent diaries about J.R.R. Tolkien and his canon:
My Favorite Authors: J.R.R. Tolkien and more on the Lord of Fantasy and Imagination and My Favorite Authors: JRR Tolkien, the Lord of Fantasy and Imagination, which inspired my writing today. In the comments of the first diary, wasatch mentions "The Long Defeat", which accounts for the sadness that underpins the books.
No matter what the elves do, no matter how diligently they strive to preserve their realms, no matter heroically they fight against, first Morgoth, and then, Sauron, they are doomed to defeat at the hands of time. They will leave Middle-Earth. That knowledge shadows the Trilogy. At the end, Frodo has joined the elves, not in immortality, but in that knowledge that things might be preserved, but not for him. He has recognized the Long Defeat.
Today Levon Helm is dying. Dying from cancer.
What has this to do with the long defeat, you may wonder? These two disparate items have hooked up in my mind. Levon Helm has fought the long defeat, as I fight the long defeat. As does everyone--but most people don't realize. Please allow me to explain:
I'm a long-term cancer survivor. Done the whole show. Bought the t-shirt, wore it out. I've lived long enough to see my child become a young man; I've lived much longer than I was supposed to. Odds did not give me much chance for more than two years' survival, but I endured.
At first I wanted to live to see my son out of elementary school. Then I wanted to see him out of middle school, then high school. Now he's in college, and I want to be around for graduation. He's planning to enlist after college, so now I'll have to live long enough to see him through that.
Over the years, my fear of dying has subsided from an acute stab to a dull ache (although it can come back in full force with a single muscle twitch, and does). With every holiday that passes, I try not to think, Will this be my last ...? Birthday or Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Years. I try to banish those thoughts, but they creep up and mug me in odd moments.
Even so, I manage to put them away, if only for a while, and enjoy the day that Is. That's what living with cancer is, and that's what it teaches: living in the moment. We try to dance in the sunlight. That's how we fight the long defeat. It's not a fight we'll win, but it's one we fight.
In that, we're all in the same chorus line. No one gets out of life alive; no one survives this world. The comforts and promises of religion offer a hope that our personalities, our essences, will survive beyond this life--it's a strong hope, not an assurance, but a hope (because that's what faith is). I understand its attraction, even though I don't feel it, myself. The fact is, we all die, but most of us manage to ignore that fact, to postpone it until the inevitable, necessary, and surprising Later.
Cancer does not allow for such postponements. It brings death face to face with us so we can take a good long look. We all grapple, and eventually come to terms, with the fact of mortality. We try to make peace with it. It doesn't work, because we all still fight hard for that last scrap of life, that chance that will let us stay here longer.
At first, after diagnosis comes panic. A feeling of doom, of crisis, of despair. But human beings can't live in crisis; we're not built for it. Over time, we adjust to a new normal. So what if that normal includes regular chemotherapy, surgically-implanted catheters, blood tests, no sensation in odd parts of the body (for me, the latest is that I've lost feeling in my fingertips and toes, and inside my nose--very strange). It's always something. But we deal with it and adjust, put it out of our minds and attend to the daily joys of living.
One thing that never fades from the mind, though, is the knowledge of death, that it may be postponed but will eventually arrive and, like a bad houseguest, will not leave. I try to keep it at arm's length.
And usually succeed. But it comes crashing back whenever I hear of someone diagnosed, or someone's cancer recurring, or someone approaching the last days. Or when someone I know of, someone I know did exactly what I'm doing now, has finally let the houseguest in.
Levon Helm is dying today. I hope, I believe, that in every day that followed his diagnosis he saw and embraced all the good in life. That's what cancer can teach, if you can let yourself learn the lesson. Not everyone can--some people are so swallowed up in fear or anger or resentment or rage that they reject it; some are so filled with rage and fear they strike out and separate themselves from the human family, and dwindle away alone.
But if you can open yourself enough to let the lesson in, you realize that, even in the darkest of days, you can find a ray of sunlight in which to dance. Dancing, physically or metaphorically, in the sun, is how I fight the long defeat.
One day my dance will come to an end. It won't be today. It won't be tomorrow. I intend to keep dancing. However, every death from the disease we share causes us--causes me--to stop, to die a little myself, to think of the family that's gathering, the hard goodbyes that are being said, and I hope that Mr. Helm is still himself enough to know that, even as he leaves this world that the Anglo-Saxons called middaneard or middle-earth (because it's midway between heofon and helle) he gets to say farewell and board the ship at the Grey Havens. We all get there; some of us are aware of every step of the journey.