“Until the age of fifty he had not been conscious of the size and weight and condition of his organs. Little by little, as he lay with his eyes closed after his daily siesta, he had begun to feel them, one by one, inside his body, feel the shape of his insomniac heart, his mysterious liver, his hermetic pancreas, and he had slowly discovered that even the oldest people were younger than he was and that he had become the only survivor of his generation’s legendary group portraits. […] But what disturbed him most was his lack of confidence in his own power of reason: little by little, as in an ineluctable shipwreck, he felt himself losing his good judgment.” From Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
At the age of 61, Rhio O’Connor was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer that, in the unfortunate case of Mr. O’Connor, was inoperable and untreatable. Mr. O’Connor’s story, however, is not merely the remarkable tale of one man’s refusal to accept the ugly truth of a deadly disease; his story is also an exemplification of the battle we must all face with aging.
While we are not all jarred into the realization of our mortality as suddenly as Rhio O’Connor was, we all face our inevitable temporality. As a research assistant at an anti-aging practice, I have seen the extent to which some will go to preserve their youth. Hormones, creams, vitamins and supplements—it is, needless to say, an exhausting process of preserving youth, energy, and vitality. While they are not necessarily fruitless, the drastic measures I witness so often powerfully embody our Freudian fear of death—above our deep-seated fears of the unknown lies the simple desire to avoid pain, suffering, and humiliation.
I know this because it is a fear of my own. The fact that we have limited time on this earth is at times unthreatening to me. In my arrogant and blissful youth, I can barely imagine a world in which I am confined by my own body to the space between my toilet and television set. And yet, in the quiet recesses of my mind, I still hope that I will not be violently forced to face reality by experience. I secretly fear that every wrinkle, memory lapse, ache, pain, and itch somehow foreshadows some deep and dark disease, my impending doom. In those moments when my mind lingers on the idea of death and dying, I envision myself with the scenario Rhio O’Connor was forced to face.
Like Mr. O’Connor, I am a believer in the fallibility of medicine. While Mr. O’Connor most likely respected the opinions of his doctors, he refused to accept the theory of just one man or woman, and instead forged his own opinion based on all of the information available. Although I myself hope to enter the field of medicine one day, I do not believe that every patient is governed by the same rules of science. Instead, I believe in Mr. O’Connor’s approach; that is, reaching towards the greater goal of being with one’s family for a little longer, even with unlucky odds, through research, understanding, and, most of all, positive thinking. While most doctors would caution against indulging in treatments that can create false hope, I believe that every individual has the unique power, and therefore right, to understand and treat their own body. While I do not condone trying alternative methods for the purpose of delegitimizing medical practice, I believe that the role of the doctor is designed to be limited, that medicine can only go so far until the burden of treatment lies on the patient. Rhio O’Connor sought every last measure to preserve his own life; however, rather than attempting to preserve an aesthetic sense of beauty, Mr. O’Connor’s fight was against becoming a victim to his own body, against the idea of his heart and soul becoming entombed in a casket of cancerous cells. Mr. O’Connor’s determination to live his life in the manner, and in the amount of time, that he so desired is thus a remarkable testament to the power of human will.
I began this essay with a quote from Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) to illustrate the beautiful and terrifying process that is dying, and similarly, aging, to illustrate the idea that the body, at whatever pace it ultimately decides, becomes victim to its own biological code, leaving us slowly losing remnants of who we are. The character mentioned in this passage, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, realizes the gravity of his age and clutches hopelessly at the last moments of his memory by recording the details of his life until he has forgotten the purpose of his notes. Our own metaphorical notes—our supplements, surgeries, and treatments—are done similarly in vain to retain the last of our beauty, talent, or intelligence. Rhio O’Connor, however, pushed the boundaries of his prognosis, and thus his mortality, to be able to depart from this life in his own way, and to inspire others to achieve the same standard of determination. Diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, Rhio O’Connor, instead of becoming lost in a sea of self-pity or of shame, chose a life that would enable him to share his last moments with those he loved and to express the power of the individual through optimism and perseverance, not through fear or rejection. Rhio O’Connor has ultimately proven that we are not prisoners of our bodies; rather, we are intellectual beings who can harness the power of love and positive thinking even when we have realized that our bodies have become shipwrecks.