Column, The Movie Diary

Signs of life

By Dom Cioffi

I’ve had several people ask me if my outlook on life has changed since my recent cancer scare. I suppose it’s a valid question. We all face the quandary of mortality, but under the auspice of a life-threatening diagnosis, forming (or reforming) a viable life thesis can take on a much greater urgency.
Figuring out what death meant (or life for that matter) seemed to be the one thought that constantly nagged me throughout the early stages of my treatment. Sure, there was anxiety about how my family might move forward without me, but when it got right down to it, the selfish part of me wondered, “What does my dying mean to me?”
Of course, I tried not to obsess on this thought. Most of my energy was spent trying to stay alive. But just in case things went awry, I wanted to have a comforting understanding of death in place.
I thought about death as much as the next guy, prior to my diagnosis. But once I was told I had Stage 4 cancer, things changed. Like all people faced with this challenge, thoughts of not being around anymore flooded my psyche. I initially went through the typical “How did this happen to me?” and the “This isn’t fair” stages. But before long I was contemplating the more metaphysical questions like, “Is death the end?”
My earliest conceptions of death were religiously based with the thought that some essence of me would travel to the hereafter and bask in the glory of heaven with all those who predeceased me. However, as I matured I began to think that this concept was too easy; it was too closely related to real life and therefore not profound enough to be viable.
Later, I did a complete 180-degree turn and adopted the belief that the end was the end, a black void of nothingness (a typical 20-something atheist period). Then, a bit later in life an interest in Eastern religious philosophy forced me to question the validity of the “self” and whether life was an illusionary construct. Some form of that opinion has held true for me throughout most of my adult life.
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that death, whenever it arrives, is more than likely going to be an epic unveiling. Something tells me that at the moment of death, the mystery of life will all make sense. This won’t make sense on a personal level but rather on an experiential level (the raindrop blending into the ocean metaphor works for me).
I have absolutely nothing concrete to base this opinion on and I don’t pull this subscription from any religious beliefs. It’s just a gut feeling.
I remember reading that Steve Jobs’ last words before he slipped into death were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” Reading about that comforted me. His words didn’t affirm an afterlife or give credence to the immortality of the soul. His words simply hinted at something profound; a sense of wonder and recognition at that critical moment.
Sure, you can find a thousand scientists who will claim that those moments are simply the brain releasing chemicals while in its death throes, nothing more than neurochemical reactions that cause odd hallucinations. That may be true, but it’s a hell of a lot more comforting to me to think of it as consciousness dissolving into the soul of the universe.
During the latter stages of my treatment, when things were at their worst and I was horribly sick, mentally drained and physically beat up, I had periods when it occurred to me that dying might be a relief. However, I found that at those darkest moments there was always a part of me that wanted to live.
Holding onto life can be hard at times. But maybe it wouldn’t be so hard if we all viewed death as something special—something that makes you say, “Oh wow.”
The question of life was the central theme to this week’s feature, the appropriately titled “Life,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds.
Set aboard the international space station, this film imagines how scientists might react when microscopic samples uncovered from the surface of Mars suddenly show signs of life. Initial excitement at the discovery soon leads to fear when the tiny life form begins to exhibit a superior intelligence.
While the quandary faced in this film may be a very real concern for scientists in the future, I highly doubt it would manifest in this depiction. Then again, time after time, what we think could never happen often does.
Check this one out if you like the combination of intelligent science fiction coupled with a claustrophobic thriller.
A soulful “B” for “Life.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at

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