Local Commentary

The Unfathomable

By Samuel Waters

I sit on the sofa again today. This time not nestled in pillows, rather suffocating into them. I’m trapped. I couldn’t move if I tried, and what would be the point anyway? My lungs would just shake feebly as they try to take air into the ever shrinking space in my chest. I turn to my right and don my oxygen mask to try force some air down. I begin to relieve the tightness I’m feeling, this growing sensation of drowning.

I had a chat with my oncologist recently, reviewing the scans we had done last week to use as a new baseline for my current health situation. The results were daunting. The cancer has accelerated to an alarming rate of growth and I now have tumors strewn throughout my lungs, liver, spleen, arms and neck (at a minimum). When I asked how many there were, the response was “too many to count.”

Thinking about life after death can be a strange sensation. When I was very young, I would try to imagine what it would be like to die and go to sleep forever. Not a sleep with dreams or the hope of waking, but an unconscious and dark sleep of non-existence.

A black endless space that consumed every thought and every breath. Being a child with a great capacity for creativity and imagination, I would delve so deeply into the image in my mind that I’d suddenly come up gasping for air when I began to realize the implications of such an existence (or lack thereof).

I couldn’t fathom it. How could I possibly just stop thinking or feeling anything at all after I died? Everything about this life, my thoughts, emotions and spirit, were so real and vivid.

I distinctly remember riding home from school one evening when I was seven and looking out the window at the sunset. I asked myself, “How could the deep and visceral connection I feel to the persimmon and gold colored skies and the thick green of these trees turn into a big black nothing, as if it never happened?” (Or in so many words as a seven-year-old might conjure up). My brain would tuck it away for another time.

Then I’d try to imagine a life of eternity. The picture that always arose in my young mind was sitting on some golden cloud strumming a harp and going to church six times a day…every day…of every week…of every year…of every millennium…of every… I’d stop and catch my breath panting again. My head would start to spin. “I don’t want that.” I thought to myself. “I don’t want to be stuck in a life of dressing up nice and going to church forever and ever, never getting the chance to do anything fun or exciting.”

Every time I allowed myself to dwell on that word “forever” my brain felt like my dog chasing its tail. This too was unfathomable, and I would just have to forget about it for now. Someday, when I was old enough, someone smarter would explain everything more fully to me.

The years went by and I trusted in that idea. I trusted in my Christian upbringing and the concept that there probably was a life after death, that God was there and that it would be, on the whole, a generally positive experience. I didn’t have any physical proof to offer but that was how most things I had been taught thus far in life had worked out. An adult would explain the concept to me, and then eventually, I would come to realize why it was true. Why should this be any different?

But as I grew into my late teens, I began to realize that I wasn’t really any closer to understanding my place in the universe than I had been 15 years prior. I would look at the faces of the adults who were there to answer my existential questions and observed that many of them seemed perfectly satisfied and at peace with the answers they gave me. They seemed to believe them as fact, why couldn’t I?

The answer to this question and my searching can be found in next week’s column.


A 22-year-old from Falls Church and graduate of George Mason High School, Samuel Waters is a vocal performance student at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, but is now home battling the progression of the cancer, rhabodomyosarcoma, that he has been fighting for five years.