I wrote my memoir. Should you write yours?

An excerpt adapted from Being Authentic: A Memoir.

Our existence is fragile. I learned that in many intricate ways, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, so I do not take today for granted. I do not know what tomorrow will bring. I do not even know if tomorrow will come.

On the eve of Thanksgiving 2016, I received the diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. Patients with cancer can have progressions of their disease after periods of stability. They also die from infections as their cancer weakens their immune system. Next to dying, I fear the spread of cancer to my brain and losing my ability to think, speak, or write. This loss would be devastating to me. I do not assume that I will be here in a few months, let alone in a few years. COVID-19 made that fear even more salient in my mind. I know that my existence is finite.

The fragility of life and awareness of my finitude made me seek authenticity. I wrote my memoir to be authentic—we become our true selves when we author our story. With writing my narrative, I can view it, reflect on it, and edit it. By doing so, I also invite others to write theirs.

Rare are the spaces in which we can look inwardly at who we are. There is no horizon to do so more intimately than writing one’s biography. I wrote my story so I can reflect on what I am and who I am. I knew as I wrote my memoir that my answers were never fixed and would likely never be. The question of what constitutes my identity is pertinent, even if the answer will not last. Writing in this context comes to provide some guidance. The goal is not only to summarize the life I’ve lived; it is also to investigate the future. Writing is not a story of becoming. Instead, writing is becoming.

As I become, and as I live my story, I have the eagerness to share it. Rare are the times when all humanity is tuned in to an equalizing existential threat. After the outbreak of COVID-19, folks understand it better when I say, I do not wish to complete my project and publish it posthumously. While some issues are easier to deal with by not dealing with them in one’s lifetime, I aspired to tell my story as I live it.

I am afraid of being forgotten. Death does frighten me. But more than dying, I am scared of having no one remember me or, even worse, of being recognized differently from who I was. At the same time, I have never thought that I was entitled to ask others not to forget me. But, not to be forgotten is precisely what I yearn for. We forget, and life goes on. To imagine or to aspire not to vanish from someone’s memory is a delusion. Still, that is what I aspire to.

I told my story, so those who wish to remember me can have it. I make it available for them to know me as who I am. I have lost many, and it troubles me how easily we can forget. We have lost thousands of people every day to this pandemic, and it agonizes me that they may be forgotten. I hope we can keep their memory alive, and I worry about letting them die again if their stories are not told. Perhaps writing is my way of defying death.

Only I can write my biography with access to my memory, my intentions, and my desires. Others can describe my life from the outside and explain why I did certain things in specific ways. But no one can share my life encounters as I lived them, describe the joys I had or the struggles.

I had an urgency to complete the project of writing a memoir. My cancer can spread at any time. I’ve become apprehensive about any bodily symptoms that could indicate disease progression. I have become overly aware of my body, and at times, even subtle symptoms disturb my peace. A bad headache, twitching in the muscles on my face, a lingering cough, or chest pain are not the same for me as they are for a non-cancer patient. I have found myself doing neurological exams to test my sensation or checking the symmetry of my face to ensure my brain is still intact. It is not until I receive the scan showing “no cancer recurrence,” that I feel relieved. I welcome the news as a temporary pass and say, “Phew, we survived this time!”

Since COVID-19 came to Seattle, I have been on almost complete lockdown staying home alone with my dog. Fortunately, I was able to provide patient care through telemedicine. I also continue to read, write, and participate in public discourse. I am still alive; I have a voice and can contribute.

Because of my fear of being forgotten, I write to invite as many people as imaginable to know me. I also mean to tell as much as I can about myself. While doing that, I transcend the focus on myself to find matters about which others can be curious. But neither will I fixate only on my error, nor this book is an attempt to redeem myself from my mistakes. I have not omitted the mistakes, and I have opened ample space to reflect on what was not consistent with who I thought I was. I leverage this space to relate to those who err every day. They are the brave among us who choose to continue to act. I, like these people, hope to keep on doing things, and that means to err more.

While I write for the other, I am simultaneously writing for myself. I am one of the readers and will judge the subject as it gets written. My criteria are stricter. I need to say, “This is my narrative.”

Morhaf Al Achkar is a family physician and author of Being Authentic: A Memoir and Roads to Meaning and Resilience with Cancer.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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