It was official. I was going to die.
Not in the normal way that everyone can sense their creeping mortality over their shoulder. I hadn’t really had that problem since I was eleven and learned about freezing brains. After that, I’d always expected to grow up, get old, end up with a popsicle head, and revive after a few years or decades. Sure, the precursor to The World’s Worst Brain-Freeze was going to suck, but it’d all be worth it when I got to stick it to the Post Modernists. Oblivion my ass.
That was until last year. Last year I was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Don’t get me wrong, all cancer is shit, but I’m pretty sure my variety was a special kind of shit. This was the shit you had when you ate week-old Mexican food at a run-down gas station. It was a work of art.
I still thought I could make it, though. I could rely on the medical tradition that had killed smallpox, beaten up measles, and was currently shaking down malaria for its lunch money. With that kind of muscle at my back, who was seriously going to try messing with me?
Well, as it happens, cancer cells are human too – and humans fight dirty. Pretty much any poison that can kill a cancer cell will also kill your non-treasonous cells too. Modern Medicine had rid the world of the Devil’s Kiss but was often outmanoeuvred by the Emperor of all Maladies. I was learning first-hand why armies just shot traitors as soon as they found them. My personal fifth column was cutting off my oxygen supply-lines and winter was coming. I was breathing purified oxygen through a straw and I still felt like I was drowning.
However, that wasn’t when I realised I was going to die. You see, I still had hope that I could save the game and respawn later. There had to eventually come a time when we knew how to kill the Emperor and blow up the Death Star. I just had to bide my time in a cooler. No, what sealed my fate was when my parents found Religion™.
It wouldn’t have been too bad if my parents had just found religion. They’d never been the type to go to church, but it would have been of no consequence to me if they’d started. Unfortunately, when normal medical treatment failed to do more than postpone the inevitable, they turned to Religion™ to solve the problem. Starting with faith healings and making the gradual, winding journey that led to crystals, homeopathy, and “Ancient Chinese Medicine”.
The last of these was annoying for the same reason that names like “the Holy Roman Empire” are annoying. After all, Ancient Chinese Medicine wasn’t ancient, it certainly wasn’t medicine, and it wasn’t even all that Chinese. It was what Mao’s government had started peddling to make people think their Communist Paradise had world-class medicine in the interim while they tried to import real doctors. Did this matter to the people making money off of desperation? Not one bit.
The end result was that, last week Tuesday, I learned that I was going to die. For good. It turns out that, while talk is cheap, woo is expensive. That was the day my folks told me that there was almost no money left in any of their accounts. My parents had used up almost all their money chasing the ancient Chinese dragon, and now they didn’t have much in the budget for anything else. Like, say, cryonics. By then I had two months to live and, when I died, my brain would be warm. I’d join the billions of others who had rotted in the ground before me. Needless to say, I was not pleased.
I was 16 and had no money to freeze myself with. What little money I’d managed to earn and save for myself had been “repurposed” for the greater good of rubbing some shiny rocks on my back. The money I had been able to accumulate probably wouldn’t have been sufficient to freeze myself with anyway, but it still pissed me off that my guardians were allowed to just take away what I had and use it on obvious bullshit. If cancer had been polite enough to wait a few years I wouldn’t be in this mess because I’d have had a job and my parents wouldn’t be empowered to piss away my property. Why couldn’t they have been sensible, like me, and believed in the coming of the Robot Gods, planet-sized computers, pollen-sized factories, and the Great Paperclip Seas?
I’d been stewing in existential angst for the past six days when they arrived. The poster children for prioritising warm fuzzies over actual results. The people that we world-weary grownups knew better than to give money to when there were better ways to donate it. Like, for example, literally throwing wads of cash at poor people. They were here now – right out in the hospital’s hallway.
My mother opened the door and let a man and a woman, both dressed in fancy formal clothes that were worth over a hundred malaria nets, enter my room.
“These nice people are from the Make A Wish Foundation,” my mother said excitedly. She was all smiles for the first time in over a week. I couldn’t help but notice the way they were introduced. Anyone fluent in Parentese knows that “nice people” is a sign of one of three things:
1) You’re three years old.
2) They’re goddamn liars and these people want to rip out your kidneys and eat them. (I learned this the first time I was introduced to a police officer. In my defence, banning painkillers in schools is 130% ridiculous, and distributing them to my classmates doesn’t make me a drug dealer by any sane definition.)
3) You’re dying and your parents seem to think that, if they don’t condescend to you enough, they’ll somehow make your imminent demise worse.
The woman with the ridiculously expensive shoes walked over to the side of my bed and sat in a chair. “We want to know what you’d wish for if you could have anything in the world, sweetie.” I supressed a cringe at “sweetie”. I knew I was a bit small for my age – genetics and cancer did a number on me – but I certainly didn’t look like a three year old. Instead, I contemplated her question. The first idea that came to mind was “I wish for you to pre-commit to saving the lives of any drowning children you may come across in the future, even if it means ruining your hyper-expensive shoes.” Needless to say, I kept thinking.
“I type… faster than… I can speak.” I told them. Lung cancer has been known to impede communication. “Laptop?” I asked pointing at the laptop my parents kept on the nightstand next to my bed. My mother brought it over to me, and I began communicating the way people should. Speaking out loud was so last century.
>Attempt #1 – I wish to not die.
I turned the laptop around to face Expensive Shoes Woman and watched her face go through a variety of interesting transformations as she read and, presumably, reread my request.
“I’m sorry, baby.” She cooed. “We don’t actually know how to do that… But I would if I could, of course.”
Seriously, were these people that bad at estimating age by sight? I was tempted to show them an online profile that prominently displayed my age, but my mother would tell me to stop being passive aggressive to people who only meant well. I bore it and typed a response.
>I didn’t actually expect you to, of course. If all the medicine I’ve ever heard of couldn’t manage it, I wouldn’t expect a non-medical charity to succeed. I asked because checking whether a wish-granting entity is literally magical is some pretty low-hanging fruit and, if you guys actually were genies, and I died because I didn’t bother checking, I’m not sure which would be worse – my death or my embarrassment.
This time Expensive Shoes Woman was reading over my shoulder as I typed and, while this is rude, it didn’t really bother me because I was trying to communicate with her, after all. I eventually regretted letting her do this because, I later learned, her facial expressions as she read this were even more interesting than the last set.
>Attempt #2 – I wish to die before the cancer has a chance to reach my brain (assuming it ever metastasises that far) and, upon my death, I wish to be cryonically preserved. I don’t think these should be counted as separate wishes since the first is merely intended to facilitate the second. I wouldn’t want to carry a brain tumour with me into the future. Hopefully, nature takes care of that by itself so don’t worry about it too much for now.
Expensive Shoes Woman abruptly stood up and said, “James, I think you may want to see this,” waving at my laptop. James of the Fancy Suit walked over to the side of my bed and looked at the laptop’s screen. This time I could see the facial expression. It looked like the gas station’s week-old Mexican food was kicking in.
“First off,” he told me firmly, “we do not kill children.” I wondered if, by Gricean Implicature, he meant to say, “We only kill adults”.
“Secondly,” he continued, “I’ve never heard of ‘cryonics’ so I don’t know if I can give it to you. I’ll have to speak to the higher-ups. This isn’t a standard thing like Disney World or meeting Justin Bieber. Are you sure you wouldn’t want one of those?” I was pretty sure I preferred living long enough to get up-close and personal with Saturn’s rings over seeing a bored employee in a silly suit tell kids he was “the real Mickey Mouse”. I told them as much, and also made sure to explain what cryonics was.
“Well, I’m sorry, honey,” the Expensive Shoes Woman said, “but I don’t think that that’s something we do, right James?”
“No, Sarah, I’m pretty sure it’s not.” James replied. He watched me intently, as if trying to estimate how likely it was that I was completely insane.
“Is there anything else we might be able to do for you?” Sarah asked me. “Maybe not Disney World, but there are tons of thing we can do. We make kids happy all the time and I’m sure we could do the same for you.”
I wasn’t happy, though. I was angry. I’d actually been hopeful about getting my head frozen and now hope was dashed yet again. I was even angrier at the various Alternative ‘Medicine’ practitioners who’d done all manner of nonsense to me. Not only had they swindled my parents’ money, but they’d given them hope and taken it away so many times. Now I knew what that felt like. Now I just wanted a way to express all the anger.
>Attempt #3 – Is there any way I can cash in my wish for some symbolic gesture that would qualify as a great big “fuck you” to death itself? Like, basically, a gigantic middle-finger?
“We are not building a child a derogatory statue!” James declared, clearly appalled at the notion.
>I didn’t mean that literally. I want to order a metaphorical middle-finger. Any ideas?
“None that I can think of, I’m afraid.” James said, still watching me warily. “Where kids these days even get the notion…”
I slumped in on myself. It was clear to all present that this visit had not been particularly enjoyable to me.
“Look, why don’t you sleep on it?” Sarah asked me. “We’ll come back tomorrow to see if you’ve thought of any, um, grand gestures. We’ll see what we can do, alright?”
I nodded a little glumly. Yeah, I’d think. I never give up on a problem without thinking about it for at least five minutes. I’d be ready by tomorrow.
The next day, the same pair came back to my hospital room. However, this time, I was ready.
“Do you have an idea for a wish this time, darling?” Sarah asked me with a bright smile. She clearly intended to provide enough happiness for both of us. I wondered if she called everyone “sweetie” and “darling” and if the others found it as off-putting as I did. Regardless, I had an answer to her question.
>Yes, I do. First, I have a question of my own: what’s your budget for a wish?
Sarah stared blankly at the screen and then at me. “What?” She asked. “You shouldn’t be asking those questions! We handle the financial side of things. Don’t worry about that stuff.”
>Good thing I didn’t count on you being helpful there and did my own research. According to your website, as of March 2012, the average you spent on a single wish was $7,500. I don’t know how much that’s changed but I think it’s safe to assume that $10,000 is within your price range.
James looked at me sceptically. “What do you want that costs $10,000?”
>Your website lists, among the potential wish categories, “I wish to give”. Well, I wish to give $10,000 to the Against Malaria Foundation. That’s my big “fuck you” to death itself.
Sarah bit her lip. “Um, I don’t know exactly what the ‘Against Malaria Foundation’ is, but it sounds like a charity and we don’t donate money to other charities.* After all, we’re a charity, and if our donors wanted to support the Against Malaria Foundation, they would have sent their checks there instead. It was their decision.”
>Yeah, but the point of the Make A Wish Foundation is to use the power of middle class disposable income to make a couple kids who are about to die happy. I’m a kid, I’m about to die, and the thing that would make me happy is for some other kids to not die. I’m already a lost cause but if, in the process of biting it, I save three more lives, that’s sort of worth it, right? Don’t get me wrong – I don’t like dying – but I don’t think the kids in Malawi do either.
At this point Sarah was tearing up a little and had to wipe at her eyes. “You’re really strong, you know?” I rolled my eyes. I knew it wasn’t a nice thing to do, but I was freaking dying. Being strong was immaterial at this point.
Sarah got up from the chair by the side of my bed. “I’ll see what I can do, OK? I’ll talk to some people. They might be willing to bend the policy – but no promises yet.” I was careful to restrain my enthusiasm as they left the room. I didn’t want my hopes rising up and crashing down again. Chances were nothing would come of it. Getting around established policy was an uphill battle and I shouldn’t expect too much from them.
On Friday my mother handed me a local newspaper while grinning from ear to ear. She told me to turn to page four and I did so, feeling a bit confused. That was when I saw it. The article was entitled: “Feisty Young Cancer Survivor Uses Her Wish To Save Lives”. I was too elated to even complain about them calling a kid with two months to live a “survivor”. I read through the article and learned all about how the people at the local chapter of the Make A Wish Foundation had been so moved when they heard about my self-sacrifice – y’know, the usual bull.
It turns out they put up a notice online about how much a certain cancer “survivor” cared about the global poor and asked others to contribute to making her dream come true. Over a hundred people pitched in and the original $10,000 had become $24,000. I’d never expected so much. I hadn’t cried that much since the day I was first diagnosed with cancer. However, through all the jubilation, I couldn’t get one question out of my mind:
Did they seriously just call me ‘feisty’!?
*I don’t actually know if giving to other charities is against the MaWF’s policies, but this wouldn’t surprise me.
If you want to support the Make A Wish Foundation, click here.
If you want to support the Against Malaria Foundation, click here.
If you want to know why the latter is a better choice than the former, click here.
#that one post with the thing #storytime #effective altruism #cancer cw #death tw #like really strong warnings here‚ be careful #abuse cw? #illness tw? #embarrassment squick? #I think about this post every time I come across a personal-finance blogger #(or‚ occasionally‚ a personal-finance academic-article-writer) #talking about ~dying with zero~ #dying without having spent all of your retirement fund is not a worse outcome than dying *with* having spent it all! #why the fuck would I want to ride the knife’s edge of broke-ness? #and why the *fuck* would I want to make *Plan As* that *depend on my death*? #Plan A is immortality #Plan B is that if the Grim Reaper wants me‚ he’s gonna have to give up as many plague deaths as I can negotiate for in exchange #adventures in human capitalism