I am living with death.
A week and a half ago, prior to beginning a new clinical trial, my oncologist said to me, “I am very worried. Plan for the worst, and hope for the best.”
While this may seem harsh, he spoke in the most gentle and caring manner. He was touching my knee and looking directly at me. Because of Covid-19, I was alone with him, as Kathleen, my wife, is not allowed to come in for appointments.
I was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, totally out of the blue. Diffuse, large B-cell lymphoma is highly treatable and has a good prognosis. Over the last 11 months, I have received three different types of chemotherapy and one round of CAR T-cell immunotherapy, and now I am participating in a brand-new clinical trial combining two cancer drugs that have never been used together. I am the first patient in the clinical trial. While the various treatments have initially been promising, they have all “petered out,” so that the cancer continues to grow in my body.
I am not ready to go. I was going to live into my 90s, as both my mother and father did. I was planning to attend my 50th Williams reunion, just as I attended my 25th, with no big expectations but some small wonderings and curiosity. Since the diagnosis, I have given much thought to the 50 years since graduation, who I was at Williams and who I am now.
Living with death is an unusual and unexpected place to be. There is a kind of exhilaration focused on taking in whatever is happening in the moment. I have come to love sitting in bed in the morning with a cup of hot tea as Kathleen and I discuss… whatever. I never used to sit in bed; I had to get up and get going. I had projects to do.
Living with death is terrifying. It’s full of sadness at the prospect of not seeing my children and grandchildren grow into who they are becoming. It’s frustrating, as I can barely do physically what I used to do. When flushing the toilet is painful, I wonder what will happen next.
Yet I am also grateful, because I am in this state and am able to think, feel and talk about it. I am still able to connect with people.
I don’t know if I will make it to the reunion. If I do, I look forward to the connections that can happen. If I don’t, you who are there will know that I am there in spirit.
John Hubbell ’71 died on Jan. 17, 2021. This piece is adapted from his 50th reunion book essay, which you can read—along with his 25th reunion essay—at alumni.williams.edu/200/john-hubbell/