The Death Bird

Posted in Uncategorized by Sean Holton on August 24, 2009

BirdOfDeathI’ve been thinking lately about why the idea of the individual case of terminal cancer commands such enduring dramatic interest in our society. There are plenty of other life-ending cards people are dealt that are just as horrible and way more tragic in the end. People can be struck dead in a random instant in all kinds of ways — by lightning, in a car or airplane crash, in a shooting or fire, in an accidental fall from a great height. There are other incurable diseases that are equally or more debilitating over the long haul — those who suffer from multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis come right to mind. People have heart attacks and die on the sidewalk all the time. They get hit by buses. Or they suffer from mental illnesses that lead to suicide or fatal substance abuse. Or they waste away with Alzheimer’s disease.  And let’s not even get ourselves started on the tragedy of the individual deaths that pour forth from wars, genocides and natural disasters.

Right now, I’d rather be dealing with my terminal but potentially manageable brain cancer than to be in any of the situations I just listed. In that twisted sense, I feel lucky.

So what is it about terminal cancer, then, that seems to set it apart and get people so wound up, so personally invested, time after time? How is it that there is this ready-made narrative that people seem to know by heart and are able to latch onto so instinctively? I think it’s because people naturally respond to drama, and lots of cancer cases have all the classic elements that make for the best drama. At the core of the cancer drama is that it is viewed paradoxically as “incurable” but at the same time is known to be “beatable.” There is sadness, yet it is mixed with hope. From that essential conflict, you can just cue up the basic, five-act narrative structure that has been a bankable formula for packing cinema multiplexes and theater houses since Shakespeare made it so popular in Elizabethan England, and going back even further than that to when it was perfected by the ancient Greeks. Act One unfolds by introducing us to both the too-young-to-die protagonist and the evil villain that is the devastating diagnosis. Then Act Two carries things forward by bringing in more complexity and texture, more medical details, the rallying of doctors, family and friends, the wearing of yellow bracelets and bandanas or the shaving of heads in solidarity. In Act Three, we get the marshalling of all available scientific resources to confront the dark force as we approach the climax of the uphill battle against all odds to “beat” the “unbeatable” disease. But dramatic tension is preserved because the final outcome is still unknown (this is crucial). Acts Four and Five take us through either the heroic recovery of the protagonist or his tragic death and the resulting fallout from either outcome. And either ending does make for a good story in a strictly dramaturgical sense. So that’s that.

Now let’s look at the other examples I mentioned of how death commonly expresses itself in individual human stories and consider how they fail on the level of sustainable drama:

1. Sudden accidental death of any kind. Failing: The play is over before it can begin.

2. Wasting incurable, diseases of all sorts. Failing: The outcome is known from the start, there’s not a lot of action to follow and the movie runs too long.

3. Mental illness, substance abuse and suicide. Failing: Too dark. People don’t like talking about it, and they just turn away. Nobody’s going to buy tickets for that.

4. Alzheimer’s and old age: See #2 and #3. 

5. Wars and natural disasters. Failing: These make good action movies, but individual human lives are mere props here. (See Joe Stalin: “An individual death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”)

I don’t go into all of this to be blithe about the nature of my specific illness, nor to minimize the real human pain that cancer doles out to its individual victims and their loved ones. But all of those other manifestations of individual death and disability I mentioned deal out equally intense human pain at all of the very same levels. I saw a slice of this myself when I was coming out of my fog in the intensive care unit after the surgery to remove my tumor. Whole families would file past my door and down the hall, wide-eyed and wondering what they would find when they stepped past a curtain into their loved-one’s room — a loved one who most likely had suffered a sudden, unexpected heart attack or been mortally wounded in a common accident or shooting. And often I would see those families going back the other direction a few minutes later in tears, adults and kids devastated and crying, holding up each other for support as they walked away. Chances are, I thought, there is to be no further drama in those sad stories. The outcomes have already been written. No one will be shaving their heads in solidarity with those people. They’ll just be going to a funeral in the next day or two and scattering some ashes or shoveling dirt on a grave.

People ask me how I can remain so positive and upbeat about my situation in the face of such uncertainty. Part of the reason is that I don’t see my cancer diagnosis as a drama. I don’t conceive of it as an uphill battle against all odds to beat something that is unbeatable. As a 49-year-old man who already has experienced a lot to be grateful for and who has no immediate dependents, I’m not really interested in that kind of story right now anyway. Right now I see my diagnosis as something else entirely. It is a gift that will give me the opportunity to learn more than I thought I would ever know about the mysterious line between life and death. In the meantime, it will teach me to love the people I love even more, and to hold them more closely than ever. It will bring me incredible amounts of life-giving strength from the support of friends, past acquaintances and even total strangers. Many people don’t ever get that chance. They either just live, or they just die, and they never get to see what’s in between. But my diagnosis puts the idea of death in slow motion. It lets me pick up death in my hand and turn it over again and again to study it in its every small detail. I can hold it up to the sunlight each precious day that I remain alive and see it illuminated from any angle I choose.

It is as if Death has softly perched itself on my shoulder in the form of a wild and rare bird. In this form it will neither kill me immediately nor has it yet chosen to kill me slowly and inevitably — as it routinely does to so many people in its so many other, more fearsome forms. Instead, it will allow me to hold it for awhile and to look it calmly in the eye. It may even talk to me. After that, of course, the Death Bird may decide to burrow itself into my head and build another nest to lay a second egg-shaped tumor in my brain — and so kill me in that fashion. Or it may just fly away from me as unexpectedly as it landed, never to visit again until the time comes for it to return to me years or even decades from now; not as a bird, but in another of its myriad forms.

I hope the bird does fly away one day, and I think there is a pretty good chance it might. I guess then I will be able to say I have “beaten” cancer. But I will not gloat, because I will not have beaten Death. No one ever does.

The digital image “Bird of Death” is by the artist Judith Barath, more of whose work can be found at:


32 Responses

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  1. RebelliousRenee said, on August 24, 2009 at 8:10 am

    you are an amazing writer. I couldn’t help but think about all the people in my life I’ve known with cancer while reading this post. Some I’ve lost and some are still here… including my mother… a 10 yr survivor.

    Everyone I’ve known who has beaten cancer has had an attitude similar to yours. They’ve all called their disease “a gift”. Keep on believing it buddy!

  2. Patsi Bale Cox said, on August 24, 2009 at 8:15 am

    What an amazing piece, Sean. You never fail to amaze!

  3. Nancy Pate said, on August 24, 2009 at 8:28 am

    Ok, Sean, you are my hero, however sappy that sounds. But you opened the door w/Shakespeare and the Greeks!

  4. Tiffini said, on August 24, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Hi Sean. I am enjoying reading your wonderful blog. Since you stated in this entry, “It is a gift that will give me the opportunity to learn more than I thought I would ever know about the mysterious line between life and death,” I thought I would share a book recommendation with you. Yesterday I read “Transformed by the Light” by Melvin Morse and I found it to be a fascinating exploration of that very line.

    Best wishes and hugs to you.

  5. Flatus said, on August 24, 2009 at 9:17 am

    I’ve ‘watched’ (through the Usenet news groups) many people, and their families, on their journey with breast cancer. People either got into remission or they didn’t.

    Every once in a while there would be a tremendously articulate person such as Sean, who could describe the journey in wonderfully eloquent terms. No matter what the final outcome, those with breast cancer and their families’ were helped along their journey by those words.

    I think we tend to think that those with cancer are smart like ourselves. In fact, those on the journey run the gamut from dumb-as-a-stone to absolutely brilliant. Words, such as those that Lard is writing, help all these people in recognizing what the devil is going on, and by giving them a framework for living with the disease no matter what the final outcome. Once again, I’m talking about both those with cancer and their loved ones.

    The newspaper people out there really need to get Sean’s words syndicated nationally, if Sean will agree. The good that will be done is beyond my ability to describe.

  6. Katherine Graham Cracker said, on August 24, 2009 at 9:51 am

    I’d like to associate myself with Rebel Renee’s remarks

  7. Colorado Bob said, on August 24, 2009 at 9:59 am

    If there’s one thing death can’t stand , it’s someone smiling back at it.

  8. Jamie said, on August 24, 2009 at 10:03 am

    From an entertainment viewpoint (what a concept), Cancer is familiar. In whatever part of the body it occurs, the “CRAB” has been identified for more than a millennia. Galen was describing the symptoms less than 200 years after the birth of Christ. The “audience” knows what to expect. They can join in with positive offers of help, care, and comfort with the full knowledge that at some point it could very well be their turn.

  9. Fran said, on August 24, 2009 at 11:03 am

    I am the only sibling living in the town where my family lived. As such, I’ve been witness to my parents’ death in one case, decline in the other. I watched my dad struggle with prostate cancer, which eventually killed him after about three years. My mother, who is 87, lives in a nursing home. Her decline has been gradual, but the past year has seen a rapid deterioration of her quick and clever miind. But the part I never saw coming is the place that she has reached now. The woman who worried about everything now worries about nothing. She can’t remember my name, but when I visit, she knows I’m someone who loves her. The mom I remember would be horrified by the fact that she wears diapers. But this lady doesn’t question it.
    It’s quite a change — but the difference only worries me, not her. I feel for her former self but she’s perfectly content. It really has taken me quite by surprise.
    What does this have to do with you, Sean? Nothing more than you prompted me to put in writing what I’ve been dealing with and how it makes me feel. Leak a little tear out as I work. Shh. Don’t tell anyone!

  10. bluedevil said, on August 24, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Seanboy, it occurs to me that your story has pretty profound implications for those of us who have not as deeply probed the thin line between life and death. Your perspective on your own life pre-The Death Bird is a reminder of the possibility that lingers along the edges of daily living for all of us but gets nudged aside by the pressures of survival or the triviality of heavy traffic. I would like to be able to say at any point in time that it has been a good life, that I have been a positive in the lives of others in exchange for what they have given me. I think your recognition of having that for yourself — the “gift” — is a grand testimony. Either that or you’re nuts. Or maybe a little nuttiness is what has helped make the trip so good. I hope you have many miles to go, brother, and that we’ll tread many of them together. Meanwhile, I’ll try to focus a little more attention on making good memories to have in my kit when The Death Bird raises the curtain on my final act.

  11. Chloe said, on August 24, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Sadness is so much easier to endure, when it is mixed with hope. Your hope is what jumped out at me, in all those beautiful things you just shared. It’s you we’re relating to Sean, more than the cancer. Love you.

  12. Shel said, on August 24, 2009 at 12:58 pm


    You don’t know me, but I’m a friend of Judy’s. Judy and I not only share a history of time spent working for the local newspaper in Tallahassee, but more importantly, we share the devastating experience of losing a child to brain cancer this past year. While the pain of that experience is way to raw to see cancer as a “gift”, I do know that during my 20 year old son’s 2 1/2 battle, he taught me more about what’s truly important in life than I’ve learned in the 50+ years I’ve been on this planet. It is true what you say….many don’t ever get that chance. I can tell you are blessed by the love and caring of many. I will hold you in my thoughts and prayers.


  13. Seth Borenstein said, on August 24, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    You are in my thoughts and prayers. It has been a rough recent time of transition. If there is anything I can do, let me know. I am so impressed and heartened by your attitude, it is as uplifting as can be. My 20-something nephew was diagnosed with gioblastoma 18 months ago the day after proposing to my niece. They still got married and any day now will have twins. He went on an experimental arsenic treatment that has worked wonders. I can find details if you need.
    Your old colleague,

  14. Tonyb said, on August 24, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Hey Sean
    Wow,thanks for sharing.Your an inspiration to us all…Tonyb39

  15. fish said, on August 24, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    thanks for saying this so eloquently…

    having experienced both the long, drawn-out death of cancer or old age and the sudden experience of lightning bolts (twice) gave me a lot to think about.

    it concerned me that my mother’s decline into cancer, ending with dementia and a few months in a nursing home, was far worse on her, while it gave her family time to at least adjust to the idea that she’d one day be gone. we could make whatever effort we could to do fun things with her, tell her we loved her. but her final months were terribly difficult on everyone. (i won’t even get into the health-care debate here.)

    it’s far more jarring to survivors when a close friend is here one day, having drinks or leaving a funny message on the phone, then they’re gone the next. the shock of losing Catherine and Christopher – struck by lightning in two different states, years apart – made me realize how fleeting life is. you’ve gotta do what you can to make your life and the lives of others worthwhile today, because there might not be a tomorrow.

    on a far less sober (figuratively and literally!) note, this also makes me feel really guilty about how messy my basement is, because if i’m struck by lightning on the way to class this afternoon, someone else will have to clean it up!

    thinking of you,

  16. Ann Hellmuth said, on August 24, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Great to see Romenesko linking to your blog.

  17. Mike Griffin said, on August 24, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Excellent piece, Sean.

    You know, you ought to think about taking up writing for a living.

  18. Elaine Kramer said, on August 25, 2009 at 8:39 am

    You continue to amaze.

    Send this one to Harper’s.

  19. Joshua Moody said, on August 25, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Lovely post.

  20. Joshua Moody said, on August 25, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    To add, I believe I will have my college freshmen English class read this essay during our fall quarter, unless you have any objections.

  21. Justin said, on August 25, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Wow nice post. Enjoyed the read.

  22. paul lester said, on August 25, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    FLY AWAY BIRDIE, LEAVE SEAN ALONE! Excellent post, once again. So inspiring. Thank you for writing it. Love reading the comments as well. I feel like this blog is place where all of us can come for healing.

  23. dead bard said, on August 26, 2009 at 12:16 am

    death bird… its an inspiring read. Thanks…

  24. Minghua said, on August 26, 2009 at 12:54 am

    Hi Sean:

    Nice piece. Please also make sure to acknowledge the artist (judith barath) for the nice art piece of the bird.

    • Sean Holton said, on August 26, 2009 at 7:29 am

      Ming…thanks for the heads up. I put a link to her website at the end of the post.

  25. greg dawson said, on August 26, 2009 at 7:46 am

    How diabolical is this bird named Death? Sometimes it comes on the wings of great beauty, even magic. Write on, Sean.

  26. Doriard said, on August 26, 2009 at 7:52 am


    Well, I’m a “survivor” of cancer myself, but my case was easy, a week at the hospital and then I was back in my routine (except the fact that I had a lung compressed and had to re-train it to breath correctly).

    I met a brain cancer patient there, as here in Peru (a Latin American country) we have only one cancer hospital: the “Instituto Nacional de Enfermedades Neoplasicas”, so we shared a room, 6 patients in each room.

    He, the brain cancer patient, went blind -temporally- because of it, and, not trying to take a “hero” role, but more of trying to put myself in his place, I talked to him everyday, and tried to help him as much as I could with my own illness (after the surgery I managed to walk but in a painful way…) with the urinary, calling the nurses and with the food as far as my natural clumsiness allowed me to.

    There were other 4 patients there, and I got to know their stories.

    So, I managed to get this experience, i got to know these people and to learn more about problems and people surpassing them, thanks to my cancer, and it turned to be a really interesting experience for a Communications’ Sciences student as me, even though I’m not going to be a journalist (but I still can take that path).

    What do I mean commenting this? well, I also think of the cancer as an experience, something that sometimes comes as a gift, or in my case, a lesson to train my humbleness, to know that even though I think I suffer, even though I DO suffer, there are some out there that suffer more than me, (“there is always someone above you” if I can put it that way) and that maybe this illness has it’s pros.

    Right now I’m clean of the cancer, and treating my once-ill zone with radiotherapy to avoid another cancer to grow there, so I still haven’t forgotten my cancer patient condition. And even during the therapy I learn new things and see new things.

    I don’t wanna say I feel identified with you, because our cases are way too different, but I roughly know what cancer is, and I just wanna say I agree with you: Sometimes, it can be a gift, something with a lesson added to it, In my case, I surpassed it and i can continue my life, also knowing that the illness might come back, but I got a second chance to live, thanks to the fact that we (my family) found it quickly.

    I’m 19 years old, and chose not to live my illness as a drama, just as you said.

    And, to finish my long speech (god I CAN BE REALLY TALKATIVE), I think your post is really interesting, and maybe will take it and translate it for my spanish blog, IRASSHAIMAS3! (even though is a light themed blog, I like to put some stories into it, and this one might be interesting and inspiring) if you allow me to.

    Bye, and well, thanks for a good story and kinda of a life lesson.

  27. Rob said, on August 26, 2009 at 10:32 am

    I think you answered your own question, really. The cardiac, Altzheimer, accident, etc. patient don’t stare down “the bird.” It’s less drama and more instruction and empathy, I think. We all live in the shadow of death, but only as an unknown. The terminal cancer victim is transformed within the now-known(ish) terminus. Who will you be? How will you deal? What should I learn from your example? Okay, yeah, that’s drama, but it’s so much more. With drama we suspend belief; with you it’s an arrow to our true beliefs, non-suspended, suddenly on view, at least to ourselves.

    Who would I be?

  28. Elwood Larf said, on August 26, 2009 at 11:50 am

    One day some kid said to me “I gonna be a medical assistant, Mista Larf!” and then he went on this rant about how he did stuff like emptying bedpans and pushin around the cart with all the old folks’ food on it. He said one day someone vomited in the hall and him and some other football player cleaned it up.

    That’s not a medical assistant.

  29. Nikki Hahn said, on August 26, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Nice blog. Stay positive. :o)

  30. john kennedy said, on August 26, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Nicely done. The clarity you’ve found amid the brine of this diagnosis is amazing. It helps us all.

  31. bwlight said, on August 30, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Memorable blog. I’d read it a few days ago and was thinking about that bird again.

    Do hope you’re doing well!

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