a-ha at the crossroad

i am catching up on the series, “breaking bad,” which i had started watching some time ago, but i got sidetracked and lost the thread. so, through the magic of the interwebs, i have been able to go back to the beginning and start from season one, episode one. not only has this confirmed my feeling that this is commercial TV at it’s best, but i found a big a-ha moment, a crucial turning point for the people in the story, that i could relate to on a very personal level.

without wanting to give too much away, the main character, walter, has inoperable, probably terminal lung cancer. even though a former business partner has offered to pay for the very expensive treatment, walter refuses. his family, all of whom seem to be stunned and angry at this refusal, gather for what is essentially an intervention. they sit on the sofa and pass around a “talking pillow,” (guess they couldn’t find an appropriate stick) and express their feelings. they tell him that he is being very selfish, and that the only “right” choice is the one they all want, that he needs to have the treatments.

at the end of the circle, walter finally gets his say. he says that he is refusing because he wants a choice.  all his life, he says, he’s done what other people wanted, followed the path that other people wanted him to. and that for once, he wants to make his own choice. the only certainty he faces are the side-effects of the chemo and radiation – loss of hair, feeling so weak he can’t even get up, feeling too sick to enjoy a meal, financial ruin, loss of independence (a-ha!), all of that. at the end of it all, he will likely still die from cancer. he says he is choosing to live whatever time he has left on his own terms – in his own house, in his own bed, and, as much as he can, enjoying that time without feeling so sick he just wants to die. he explains that he is not giving up, as they all accuse him of doing, but choosing to be as alive as he can be until he dies.

everyone feels sorry for him, and “just want to help,” when he knows they can’t really help him. he’s the one with the cancer, he’s the one facing progressive illness and death. and he wants to do it on his own terms – not beholden to anyone.

in the end, he re-evaluates and changes his mind, and agrees to the treatments. but it is his decision. he is not doing it because everyone tells him to, but on his own terms. he makes his choice for the love of his family. he makes some adventurous and creative choices to finance the treatments, again, on his own terms. but walter holds onto whatever independence and dignity he can by making the decisions his own, and that i can very well understand.

we all face crossroad type decisions, either/or choices. sometimes at those points everyone might tell us we  have to choose “A” over “B”, and while they might be right, we want the choice to be our own, to retain as much control over the situation as possible. perhaps people with chronic, progressive illness, especially ones for which the only future is continued debillitation, can understand this best. we face a future over which we have, in the end, no real control. the only control we can exert over our health is in choosing this treatment over that, or perhaps in chosing no treatment at all. others around us who genuinely care cannot possibly understand, and to them, our attitude might seem selfish and foolish.

maybe it is. but it is our choise, perhaps one of the few, perhaps the only, one we have any say in. we are in an essentially powerless situation, and this kind of decision might be the only power we have. in the end, it gets hard to hear so many voices telling us what to do, and we have to gather ourselves, and listen to our own hearts. for better or worse.


Author: Stephen

Stephen Harris is a writer, painter and a photographer who lives with his family in Maine.

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