Bill Moyers visits a group of cancer patients at the Commonweal Program in California healing through a support system of mutual love and understanding.
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BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] On the western edge of the United States just north of San Francisco, is a retreat for people with cancer.
MICHAEL LERNER:, Founder and President, Commonweal: Do you have a sense of what in your own mind you attribute the development of the cancer to?
SYLVIA MITCHELL: There is no history of this in my family.
BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] They do not come to be cured. Com-monweal offers no cure for cancer. Medical doctors confront the ravages that disease works on the body. Commonweal addresses the afflictions that rack the mind and spirit.
HOWARD ECKEL: Lately, there’s been more bad news and it’s been hard for me to handle.
BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] They arrive as strangers, and over the course of a week, discover there is a common bond in facing their illness together. Healing is possible, they learn, even when a cure is not. Dr.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN:, Medical Director, Commonweal: What we begin with is the first and most powerful technique of healing which is simply listening, just listening, you know. One of the greatest gifts you can give another person is your attention.
BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is the medical director of Commonweal.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: And the way we do this, is, in any order that feels good to you. You talk until you’re finished and nobody says anything. Everybody just listens and what we’re going to be talking about is how we got here. How did you get into this room?
SYLVIA MITCHELL: A year ago yesterday about 12:00 noon, I was getting ready to go to a wedding and I usually examine my breasts not religiously every month but, you know, every now and then.
BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] Sylvia Mitchell is a retired nurse.
SYLVIA MITCHELL: As I raised my arm, I thought I saw something, you know. Just like that, I thought I saw a little point and I got so scared. I knew it was cancer. It’s weird. I’ve taken care of patients all my life with cancer. I’ve had dear friends who’ve had cancer, some of them living. Some died. Some people have had lumps that I know and it was benign, but I knew I had cancer. It’s weird. It was weird. I’m absolutely-so, anyway, I went back in the bathroom trying to find this little thing, you know. It reminded me-it’s funny. You’re going to hear this story. It reminded me of a lentil on the side, you know, turned-standing up. That’s what it reminded me of, but I just knew it was bad news. I broke out in a cold sweat. My stomach was roaring. I was urinating even though I had no need to. It was weird. I got dressed and I went to the wedding. I had a great time. That’s what everybody thought. It’s a regular game that I played all my life, that everything was fine, I’m big and strong. The cancer was saying, “Enough”, you Know. So, I feel-and I’m getting to why I’m here. I think that-forget about all that stuff I put on the paper. Why I’m really here is that I need to learn to take care of myself.
MICHAEL LERNER:When people get a diagnosis of cancer, their whole world turns over, but it opens up an opportunity to look at life anew and that opportunity to look at life anew is often missed.
BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] Michael Lerner is founder and president of Commonweal. [interviewing] Why did you start Commonweal?
MICHAEL LERNER: I started Commonweal because I was interested in the conditions under which people can explore physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually what they can do to recover from life-threatening illnesses and we have found that simply caring in a very intense way for people for a week characteristically produces very important and lasting shifts in people’s experience of their illness.
BILL MOYERS:Have they give up on traditional medicine?
MICHAEL LERNER:We don’t take people who are not under mainstream medical care, and by the way, my brother’s an oncologist. My father his life was saved by a great oncologist. I have huge respect for biomedicine and I see it as the great contribution, of, you know, modern science to healing and to treatment, but what has been lost in that, is the human experience of illness.
SHERRY MERICLE: When Sylvia started talking last night, the terror was just right there. It was awful.
BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] Sherry Mericle is 47. A year ago, she dis-covered she had cancer.
SHERRY MERICLE: And so I went to bed thinking a lot about that and Frank reminded me at breakfast that I hadn’t shared my, my cancer story. I was taking a shower and getting ready to go to the doctor to have my mammogram at Children’s Hospital and it was totally routine and I was putting body lotion on and I felt this lump, a 3-l/2-centimeter lump, I mean, a huge lump and, you know, I immediately said, “No, it can’t be,” and I went and looked in the mirror and you could see it, it was huge and, subsequently, I had a segmental mastectomy. They removed half of my right breast and I have-eight out of 18 lymph nodes are positive and I told the surgeon that I wanted to see all the stuff that they took out of me. So, I went to the lab and they were wonderful about it. You know, I got my-got the gloves on and we opened up the window and they were in these little deli containers, you know, but I was fairly obsessed about it. I really wanted to see, you know, what they took out of me and I looked at all the slides under the microscope and looked at all the lymph nodes and looked at the tumor. I found it very interesting. It didn’t upset me and I would go back again if they would let me. I don’t think, I don’t think they have it anymore.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: I remember when they took my colon out. I was very young. I wanted to keep it. I wanted it to be buried with me. [to Bill Moyers] I’ve had something called Crohn’s disease for 36 years.
BILL MOYERS: Crohn’s disease?
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: Yeah, it’s a disease of the intestine and the joints and It’s one of the auto immune diseases and I was 15 when I first became ill and I don’t have most of my intestine anymore. I have had major surgery seven times and I think I could fairly say that without the doctors and the nurses who helped me, you know, I would have died, and as a matter of fact, when I was first diagnosed, what I was told was that I would have multiple surgeries, there was no cure for this disease and that I would be dead by the time I was 40, you see, and it was true. I had the multiple surgeries and I’ve been dead now for 13 years.
BILL MOYERS:Do you remember the feelings you had when you learned at the age of 15 that you had Crohn’s disease?
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: Yeah, I really do and they’re very much the same feelings that every single person who comes here feels. I feel separated from the whole human race, you know, that somehow it was like looking at the whole world through a plate of glass. You could see them, but you couldn’t touch them or be with them.
BILL MOYERS:Well, that’s loneliness.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: Yeah, and that’s what most people who come here talk about. In fact, just about everybody. Everybody here is wounded and they can’t cover it up the way the rest of us do because, you know, there are only wounded people in this world, right. Everybody has pain. Everybody is wounded, and because they can’t cover up their woundedness now that they have cancer, right, they can trust each other.
HOWARD ECKEL: What I had real trouble with over the last few months is the people who are really close to me because some of them-the ones that are closest to me-they don’t really want to hear-my children, for example, are not really too anxious to hear how really they don’t want to hear about my terror. They’re used to a guy who handles himself and if I don’t do well and fall into that role-
BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] Howard Eckel is 74, a retired college professor. He has Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
HOWARD ECKEL: I’m making somebody else uncomfortable because the old guy, you know, is-he’s not like he generally is. Everybody wants me to be the way I’ve always been regardless of how sick I am and so I had the issue with my daughter who kind of let me know that she has two little girls to raise and she just has so much energy to handle the kind of heavy stuff and, of course, I don’t blame her for that. I understand that. So, it raises a lot of questions about how you handle this yourself and how-who else can really help you?
DYANNE HOCHMAN: Howard, right? I mean, I feel-I don’t know-I don’t know you, I don’t know your daughter, certainly, and yet I feel a sadness and anger that-partially that you’re very complacent and so accepting that she’s so busy to be available for you. I don’t think there is such a thing as business. I mean, such an opportunity in her life to have a moment with you, you know, I mean, and you’re offering it. Why, I’d be so grateful, you know.
HOWARD ECKEL: You know, I don’t want that much. All I really want, actually is just to be there, but I think it’s her thing that she feels like she ought to be doing something for dad.
DYANNE HOCHMAN: Right. HUWAKU: And I, and that’s not my thing for her. That is not what I want. I just want to be there and to say, “OK. You’re welcome.”
DYANNE HOCHMAN: And have you had this conversation, with her, as simply as this?
HOWARD ECKEL: Not quite. But it has to, it should come soon.
DYANNE HOCHMAN: Yeah.
HOWARD ECKEL: I have a very special affection for my daughter, and I think she has a very special affection for me too, and I love the little girl. So, that’s what I’m working on.
DYANNE HOCHMAN: Yeah. That’s great.
HOWARD ECKEL: Well-
DYANNE HOCHMAN: Yeah. Thank you.
HOWARD ECKEL: Thank you, thank you.
BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] Encounters with strangers are at the heart of Commonweal. For some, the illness has reached a crisis. Others wait in remission. All help heal one another, but they do more during this week than talk. They share the deep relaxation of daily yoga classes, techniques like sand tray that invite the unconscious to reveal itself. And the comforting touch of massage.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: Touching is a very old way of healing and so we try to touch people with the same tenderness that a mother would touch a child with because what a mother is saying to a child in that touch is, “Live.” Many people when they have cancer talk about being touched as if they were a piece of meat, or one woman actually said to me, “Sometimes,” you know, “when I go for my chemotherapy, they touch me as if they don’t know anybody’s inside this body.” Touch is something which is deeply reassuring. There’s something about touching maybe that strengthens the will to live in us and isolation weakens us.
BILL MOYERS:Do you really believe there is a will to live?
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: Yeah, I do.
BILL MOYERS:Can it be evoked?
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: Yes, I think that’s what healing is, is evoking a will to live in another person, and I think it’s evoked not by doing something but by receiving another person, by letting another person know that their pain and their suffering, that their fear matters. It matters.
CHRIS SAXTON: I’ve always been one of those people who didn’t be-lieve that I got sick. I didn’t get sick and went in for what I thought was going to be the removal of a polyp and my general practitioner sent me-who I’d seen all of twice in my life, sent me to a gynecologist, who, after examining me sat me down and said, “I haven’t met you before.”
BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] Chris Saxton was 43 when two years ago, doctors diagnosed cancer.
CHRIS SAXTON: “There are only two things that this looks to me like it could be,” and he spent about 30 seconds talking about an infection of the uterus and the next half-hour talking about cervical cancer, and he was right. They were absolutely certain that it was still localized and there shouldn’t be any problem with metastasis, but then I began to have trouble with my leg. My oncologist responded instantaneously, and within a week, it was clear that I had a recurrence of the cancer m my abdomen, and m the last week of my radiation for the abdominal tumor, I began to cough and it was finally diagnosed as metastasis of the lung. I thought I’d come close to facing my own death after the first round of treatment and encounter with the idea that I had cancer and I guess I thought I had again when it-when I was going through my tranquil period after the surgery, but I think that going through chemotherapy has brought me closer than anything else because it feels in so many ways so much like death is actually invading your system. It’s all through you and it lingers in a way that to me is-I haven’t been able to sort of bounce back up from it in a way that I’d been so convinced I was always going to do.
YOGA INSTRUCTOR: Feet are together. Slowly lifting the right leg, the leg is straight. Lifting the leg as high as possible, and at that point, pulling the toes toward the body and slowly lowering the leg. Now relax the right leg. Going back out into shavasana. Relax the upper arms. The mouth and the shoulders-just letting them sink. Relaxing down toward the floor. Just become aware of the entire body. Soft, relaxed, and light.
MICHAEL LERNER: A cancer diagnosis is like being pushed out of an airplane with a parachute into a jungle into a guerrilla war with no training and no weapon and the expectation that you’ll survive and the sense is that only the medical professionals need training. And that the person with cancer really doesn’t need training. And it seems to me that one does need training to deal with this. And this program, as you can tell, is overwhelmingly interested in a the human experience. That’s what we’re really here about. And the human experience is the dimension of medicine that is coming in more and more strongly into mainstream medicine, but it is not yet fully present.
BILL MOYERS: If I hear you, you’re suggesting that there is a difference between the person’s experience of illness and the physician’s attention to that illness.
MICHAEL LERNER: It’s the difference between how you feel going through this experience of cancer, what it’s like for you, and what the biopsy slide looks like to the physician. Now you may have 1,000 women with an absolutely identical biopsied breast cancer, the disease is identical for each one, but there may be 1,000 different illnesses, 1,000 different human experiences of what that’s like, 1,000 different relationships to that disease.
BILL MOYERS: But realistically, don’t you think they’re hoping to be fixed?
MICHAEL LERNER: Yeah, I think realistically everyone with cancer hopes to be cured in some sense, but one of the most fundamental distinctions we start with is the distinction between healing and curing and how curing is what halopathic mainstream medicine has to offer when it has that to offer and that’s what the physician brings to you. And healing is what you bring to the encounter with cancer, the encounter with mainstream medicine. Healing represents the inner resources that you bring to it. But sometimes I will have some idealistic person who believes that they’re going to cure themselves as well as heal themselves just through diet and imagery and meditation and so forth without using the mainstream medicine and I will say to them, “Look, I’ve looked for 10 years, and if I thought there were a cure for cancer among the adjunctive, complementary approaches, I’d be the first to say so, but I have not seen a cure for cancer.”
CHRIS SAXTON: Friends are forever telling you about this or that story, of some remission they’ve heard somebody’s mother or somebody’s son or so on and so forth and I am down for three now and I’m not sure I want to hear about all these miracle recoveries.
HOWARD ECKEL: Because what’s wrong with you that you can’t have a remission if everybody else is?
CHRIS SAXTON: That’s right, and there is such an obsession with control, you know, the sort of new age notion that I gave myself cancer. You know, if you take that-the implicit flip side of that is, “Well, if I gave it to myself, however much I want to guilt trip myself about it, there’s also always that chance that I have control over it, that I can change that and I can get rid of the cancer,” you know. There is about life that which we don’t control. There is about living and being that which we don’t control which is really a wonderful acceptance, scary, but, God, what a release.
HOWARD ECKEL: That’s the thing that I’ve been talking to Michael about. You know, I’m 74 years old, and even under the best circumstances, how many more years do I have of really high quality. The term of “Thy will be done” has a greater meaning to me and I’m not talking about-that God is up there pointing us out saying, “It’s time for you.” I just mean there’s, there’s a time someplace that’s written on this old business of the larger clock, that you have a clock wound up, and when the clock winds down, you’ve had your time now. Sometimes, you can fiddle with the clock and get it to run a little bit longer, probably not very high quality, but when the clock runs down, it’s, it’s all finished.
SYLVIA MITCHELL: I don’t know. I still believe as long as there’s life, there’s hope and I’ve seen hundreds of patients die and let me tell you the ones that I saw die consciously-they all fought to live, to the very end.
CHRIS SAXTON: Last year after the first bout with the cancer, I, I had this time that I could be normal and-but since the first recurrence last fall, there’s never been a moment. Things just went from bad to worse, but just to have myself physically again being able to pause long enough to see the way the light is on the leaves and there is in that vision too, a longing to be able to share with somebody those kinds of moments. I’m not involved in a relationship. These past two years, I haven’t been for the first time since I was 23 and there’s a real sense of loss to that. I’ve often felt it was hard to see my tracks behind me and sometimes I think that’s good and sometimes it makes you feel really sad. That’s it.
HOWARD ECKEL: My son is very dear to me. I have no complaints about my son as a son. He’s been wonderful. I don’t think any father and son could be closer. I’m only saying that, that if I’m dying that there’s some different kind of relationship that’s necessary and 1-or would be helpful and I don’t really quite know what it is. With my daughter, it’s a little different. Somehow, I feel that there’s unfinished business there which I never can quite get time with her to actually deal with it.
MASSEUSE: Howard, if you’re heading out, well, then these are the issues that you want to resolve.
HOWARD ECKEL: I know.
MASSEUSE: She’ll probably be as happy as you to have that conversation, Howard, and it will happen at the right time, you know.
HOWARD ECKEL: Yeah, I just get one more of these don’t I, and then I’m on my own.
MASSEUSE: [singing] Let me help you count your sheep / One in the garden / Two in the meadow / Three in the nursery / Fast asleep
HOWARD ECKEL: When I came in this morning, I was going to pull rank and just say wham -because in the first place, I’m older than anybody here.
SYLVIA MITCHELL: Are you sure?
HOWARD ECKEL: Lacey, Lacey, Lacey kind of referred to me as maybe around 55 this morning. She also kind of intimated that maybe we might be an item and, God, what a wonderful thing. Nothing better has happened in a long time, but really you’re a little bit too old for me, but-
CHRIS SAXTON: But what would your husband think?
HOWARD ECKEL: Oh, well, I’m not worried about her husband.
SYLVIA MITCHELL: Let her worry about it.
HOWARD ECKEL: But that was lovely. We walked together and talked together and held hands and I’m glad you’re here.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: It’s my sense that creativity and healing are related and writing poetry is just one way of getting at that. We started writing poetry here as a way of helping people to begin to listen to the part of themselves which is unconscious. And which has great power and strength and wisdom and to be able to speak what’s true for them in a simple and real way. And that is a healing experience for many people. We don’t prepare at all. We just take about 20 minutes and see what we can come up with. Most people think at first they won’t be able to do it, but we’ve never, ever had anybody fail.
SHERRY MERICLE: I left my notebook at the big house, so I’m a little disorganized. I mean-I didn’t have enough paper, is what I meant. “Through a wall, I heard a voice say that my tumor is quite large and has already spread. Can they possibly be talking about me? Surely this is a mistake or an error. I know they must be talking about someone else. The reason I know it can’t be me is that I am not ready. A person can’t die until they’re ready. That’s a rule. And these kinds of rules can’t be changed or broken. It’s universal. I have too many things left to do and I’m the only one who can do them. Remember a person can’t die until they’re ready.”
MICHAEL LERNER: That’s beautiful.
SHERRY MERICLE: Thank you.
HOWARD ECKEL: Well, I’ve just got a few lines. ”We talk of love. When we flow together, the worries of my symptoms drop away. We talk of love and our language of love is fun and laughter,” and then the bell rang. I really think there were a couple of lines that I had in my head that were probably superb.
CHRIS SAXTON: “Once I used, ….. once I used to walk these beaches and these hills with Brian. He had an art. Time he could make timeless. Perfection he could extract from the humblest fragments of the ocean, but Brian is dead. And I, back to find the timeless in the fragments on my own, have found a different family and a new home.” Thanks, you guys. It’s a nice place.
MICHAEL LERNER:Well, I’ll read mine. “My father and I wait in the gray and shabby corridor of the great hospital. We wait to enter the room where they will make moving pictures of his heart. Small, very old and very sick, attached by tubes to his I.V. bags, he sits hunched forward in a wheelchair. We are parked in a line with others on wheelchairs and stretchers. The others sit or lie in postures of resignation or despair. My father leans toward me, spending what strength remains to tell his eldest son what he has learned from 50 years of study of the cycle of civilizations, his love for ideas and for me bright in his eyes.” [crying] I’m OK.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: I brought my mother to live with me in the last years of her life and she had a very severe heart condition. She must have had eight or 10 cardiac arrests in the middle of the living room each one of which I resuscitated until finally she did eventually die. “At 9:15 . a.m., somewhere between the kitchen and the bathroom, my mother’s heart stopped. By 3:30, she was playing bingo. ‘How did it go,’ I asked. ‘Oh, I never win anything. The luck of the Remens.’
SHERRY MERICLE: A couple of days ago, I had started to do an art project. I did a headless, armless torso. It had breasts that were shaped the same as mine and it made me feel really, really sad. It seemed like all my life when people described me, you know, they always described me as pretty, but they never described me as bright or, you know, intelligent or insightful. I had an advantage in that most of my life looked five to 10 years younger than I was. I think cancer’s sort of taken care of that. I think I’ve caught up now. I gained 35 pounds with chemotherapy and now people are starting to really, you know, recognize me for, you know, having intelligence and, you know, I’m being appreciated for my mind and maybe it’s me. Maybe my focus is different, that it’s enabled people to see parts of me that maybe before were simply not visible or not as visible.
SYLVIA MITCHELL: I keep thinking-remember that song in the ’60s, ”What’s It All About, Alfie?” I keep saying that to myself all the time, you know. I’m not sure what answer I want to get. It’s amazing.
CHRIS SAXTON: When I was a kid, I used to draw a lot and I had totally given it up and I didn’t do anything about it until I was diagnosed and then it was like all of my outlets had been cut off, so I turned to drawing. So, I wanted to share some of these and talk about them. I also was told from the beginning that the treatment they were going to do was going to-though they weren’t doing surgery, it was going to be effectively a hysterectomy. And I had-as I think most women tend to, regardless of their feelings about having kids, I had a strong reaction to that. I have a few motifs that go throughout most of my work and they turn up in this. I’m very deeply involved with mountains and this came totally sort of spontaneously. I just started drawing lines, but this is-on the one hand, it’s talus boulders. On the other, it became cells and the sort of flow of light pouring out of the vagina of the figure. The first set of drawings all happened in the first week after the diagnosis. That was-I think it was the third and this was the fourth. To me, this is the one where all of the elements came together and, of course, the fetus and the child that wasn’t to be. I had seen that-one of those high-magnification photographs of white blood cells consuming cancer cells. It was not as inspired, but the name I was kind of fond of. It’s “Consuming Passion.”
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: For me, I see the mountains in there.
CHRIS SAXTON: Yeah. Oh, they’re everywhere. You’re absolutely right. LACEY: Which are the white blood cells, the circled ones or the white-white?
CHRIS SAXTON: The-[crosstalk] Yeah, it’s very sci fi, you know, these[crosstalk] Yeah, the big white ones.
CHRIS SAXTON: Oh, look at the crab. There it is right there, you guys.
SYLVIA MITCHELL: Cancer the crab.
FRANK: FRANK: He’s not afraid.
SHERRY MERICLE: Yes he is.
SYLVIA MITCHELL: “I want to live.”
CHRIS SAXTON: I knew it was coming, I knew it.
SHERRY MERICLE: Where did he go?
CHRIS SAXTON: I think he went swimming.
SHERRY MERICLE: Oh look at Frank. Frank be careful. Pretty good, hey, you didn’t get very muddy. So, what was it like out there?
FRANK: It was great. You have to give it a toss.
DYANNE HOCHMAN: How do you do it?
SHERRY MERICLE: Yeah, but mine just sinks, and goes in…. I know. He gets three skips out of every one.
CHRIS SAXTON: You know, I feel like especially the other day I rambled a bit trying to find out what it was I was trying to say.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: My sense is the worst thing that happens in life is not death. The worst thing that happens in life might be to miss it. We all want physical health, but we need more than that for ourselves. Some people are jogging and eating the health food as if the physical health of their body is their goal in life. I don’t think health is a goal. I think it’s a means.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: To serving purpose in life. In other words, being healthy is a means to doing what is purposeful or meaningful in life. You can do that easier sometimes if you’re physically healthy, but people do it anyway even when they’re not physically healthy.
BILL MOYERS:If I had come to you in your other life as a medical doctor and I had cancer, I think the greatest gift you could have given me would have been to cure me and get that thing out of me.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: It’s not always possible, Bill. It’s not always possible. We don’t know how to do that with everybody.
HOWARD ECKEL: What I’m primarily interested as a person who may be on the verge of death, is what-how much solid stuff I have around me because, over the last two or three months, I have felt that my situation is really extremely shaky, that-you know, that I haven’t made gains. Incidentally, I have felt better up here. I expect it would help me a lot if I just moved in up here, but I have felt good about, about being up here.
CHRIS SAXTON: And you say you feel like-often like you’re close to death and-can I ask you to talk a little bit about that and how it feels?
HOWARD ECKEL: Yeah, I think preparing to die-to me, what I’ve tried to do is-as much as possible, is to be fully aware that that can happen and to look at my life mainly in terms of days rather than weeks or months. It could be a very fine line, but it could just as well be death as it could be life and so what I’ve tried to do is accommodate both as much as I can and I think if you have a lot of unfinished business, that maybe that’s where the pain comes from dying.
ART INSTRUCTOR: Take your time and just trust what you’re attracted to completely, whether it’s color or shape or whatever.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: Sand tray is just another way of putting people in touch with their inner wisdom, with the fact that not everything we know is in our conscious mind. It’s like a waking dream. When you talk about the healing mind, you’re not necessarily talking about the conscious mind. You might be talking about that deep intelligence in every human being that knows what is needed for healing.
CHRIS SAXTON: I started thinking about places I might like to go to die. They invariably had a pool of water and a little grassy knoll and some kind of trees and rocks that were sort of protected and I realized that I was thinking about places that might very well, if I were to go them, end up healing rather than, you know, providing me with a place to die.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: You talked about these beautiful places that were natural. There were no people there. Do you plan to die alone?
CHRIS SAXTON: I’ve thought about that a bit. I have this thought of it should ultimately be alone, that dying is something you do alone, but I also felt that it was a terrible burden to put on somebody else. I’ve thought about asking people to help me get there and I just sort of related this fantasy to a friend of mine and she said, well, she’d certain help me and I said, “Well, I-” you know, I thought of it as being really a burden and she said, “Not at all. It’s an honor to,” you know, ”be asked to do something like that.”
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: Did that surprise you?
CHRIS SAXTON: Yeah, I guess it did. Yeah.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: It’s intimate.
CHRIS SAXTON: It is. Absolutely. An honor to be with somebody when they die and, of course, 1-you know, that makes perfect sense, but I guess what surprised me was the thought that somebody would think it was an honor to be with me when I die.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: From the very first evening when you started talking, like everybody’s in your lap, everybody wants to be near you, close to you.
CHRIS SAXTON: Well, see, I don’t-pick that up -I’m-last night, I felt a little indulgent because, you know, I was just sort of lying there on the couch and, you know, people were coming over and holding my hand and hugging me.
RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: Sure. I can’t imagine you dying alone.
CHRIS SAXTON: I know. It’s probably true.
YOGA INSTRUCTOR: Raise the head, neck and shoulders. From here, quite natural to go into the child’s pose, bringing the buttocks to the heels. Stretch the arms as you bring the forehead to the floor.
MICHAEL LERNER: I would give anything to help someone recover physically from cancer, but from the beginning of time, this has been the human condition and the wisdom is coming to have a different perspective on it and it’s a perspective that absolutely includes all the pain and all the anger and the sorrow, but the possibility is to open up whether there’s anything besides pain and sorrow, is there anything worthwhile in this very difficult thing that you’ve been given, and when people get out of here, they discover with each other that
there’s a great deal that’s worthwhile.
SYLVIA MITCHELL: It was the first time that I’ve ever had a vision. All of a sudden, there was this view of this city. It was really a city and it-I can’t believe that my eyes in this dimension could see a whole city in front of me. You know, I wasn’t looking out a window, and interestingly enough, the buildings were all in gold and the whole meadow was green and it seemed as if I was looking for miles and miles at all these buildings, you know, and it was such a large space. It was a city. It was really a city. It’s a place where I would want to go, you know, because it’s-to me, it’s a place that makes you happy because I felt happy, you know, and I get the feeling that there’s a place like
that, but it was just a beautiful sight. I wish I could have shared it with all of you, said, “Oh, wake up. Look. Look at — -” you know, I —
MICHAEL LERNER:What Rachel and I thought we’d do this morning is to give each of you a chance to talk about what you are taking home with you from the week.
HOWARD ECKEL: One strange thing happens to me once in a while and it’s almost like a dream, that sometime I go to sleep and I wake up and I’m healed. Well, that’s one of those kinds of dreams and still it seems sort of possible and it seems sort of real. The other thing-the other lesson or the other reinforcement is the beauty of being close to people. It isn’t that I haven’t been close to people before, but it’s a reminder of what it’s like to be really close to people and I’m kind of amazed that it can happen so fast. This has been just a beautiful experience. I really-sometimes I can’t quite believe it. I think that’s just about my story. Thanks, everybody.
CHRIS SAXTON: Not to be a pessimist and end this on a pessimistic note, but I keep doing little flashes of what going home is going to be like, but I guess it’s partly that what I go back to along with another treatment is the-a lot of hard decisions that have yet to be made about where to go from here and I know, you know, there’s a way in which that’s – that holds promise and excitement, but it’s also very scary and for all that we’ve gone through and all of the feelings that we’ve explored amongst us, all the pain that has come up, there’s also been a wonderful peace for me in being here and being able to share at this level of intimacy. I’ll certainly miss it and all of you and treasure this time.
HOWARD ECKEL: [group photograph session] Somebody’s always trying to-
SHERRY MERICLE: What do you mean by yourself? What about the rest of us?
FRANK: Now everybody say, “Orgasm!”
BILL MOYERS:[voice-over] After she left Commonweal, Chris Saxton sent back a poem. The last line reads, “I still can see you gathered, such an unlikely family, and I know I can find my way home.” Soon after, Chris died surrounded by family and friends.
This transcript was entered on April 16, 2015.