Walking to the hospital with Elizabeth this morning to get my test results from my oncologist, I imagine I’m headed to my own Sentencing Hearing. A steady rain is falling gently on the brick sidewalks of Boston’s Beacon Hill. We pass an open doorway where a beautiful blonde haired rain slicker-bedecked three year-old sings, “Rain, rain, go away . . . “ She suddenly stops in confusion as we pass and sees me looking at her. In a moment we’re further down the street and out of sight. We hear her take up her chant: “Rain, rain . . .,” as soon as I’ve gone away.
The oncologist’s news is dramatic: nine confirmed cancerous lesions found in the liver — eight on the right side, one on the left. There’s to be four more sessions stretching over eight weeks of a different sort of chemotherapy, the kind that doesn’t cause neuropathy, but leaves you with nausea and hair loss instead. The balding doesn’t bother me. As I see it, the question that drives this calculus is this: what’s very little to start with minus whatever’s left to lose, leave you with?!
As to the treatment plan, first another CT-scan, my fifteenth is to be scheduled back in Maine to see whether the cancer has also spread to my lungs, a common stratagem for colo-rectal disease. If the lungs prove clear, then comes the therapeutic poison followed by liver surgery and then maybe other modalities, on an as-needed basis. My soft-spoken oncologist reminds us that his goal is still curative. Very often the metastatic cancer confines itself to the liver only. I sit there wondering how anyone could want to be an oncologist. What a gloomy specialty! And then I realize that the strong encouragement he’s just offered is an important part of his job. The principal reason he’s there is to offer you a pathway of hope, not to oversee the sealing of your coffin. What a courageous vocation!
Later in the morning we pause for a cup of coffee. I check the email responses to last night’s essay announcing the prospect of a cancer that has spread. Reading these quickly becomes an unexpected exercise in gratitude. I am overwhelmed, brought to tears. Here’s a sample of the torrent of messages that I’ve received today. Just this once I feel compelled to share these treasures that have come my way so often over the past months. They were all, of course, written particularly for me, in light of my circumstances. But somehow, I believe, they are meant for us all.
From a lovely friend: “Dear Edward, Oh, my friend and fellow mortal, my heart goes out to you. Please know that you are being upheld in love and prayers, and that you don’t need to feel anything different from what you actually feel right now. Whatever you are feeling and experiencing, our crucified and risen Lord is experiencing it with you. Jesus will love you to the end, and beyond the end. Thank you for your honesty and faith, your courage and integrity. Your spirit remains intact and whole, even if your body is weak and fragile. I write with love and in hope.
An innkeeper writes: “It is late and I ache for you, dear friend, as I read these words written with your heart. Tonight I once again pray for you as I consider my all-the-time “go to” verse: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) This, from a woman who, while she is making up a bed, says a prayer for the as-yet unknown person or persons who next will sleep in it.
From the best of friends: “Your great gift for sharing your experiences is especially heartrending this time. Your gift for writing creates a sense that we are with you in the numerous tests and medical conferences and in the dark of night when anxiety and fear can most easily suspend faith. We hope you know how deeply honored we are to be among those with whom you share this most difficult journey. We are hopeful that the proposed treatments will achieve successful results and that fly-fishing, cruising, publishing and all reconciliation are soon possible! Meanwhile, we are with you on this difficult journey, dear friend. You compliment us by asking for any help you need or want.
From a former parishioner: “Dear Pastor, I remember the sermon you preached at our wedding: “Three Is Stronger than Two.” You said that we thrive when we are braided together with Jesus. His is the strength that gets us through. I need to be reminded of that often. And so do you in this moment. Thank you for being there for us all those years ago. I hope that through our prayers, we can be there for you now.”
From a dear family member: “Love to you, my uncle Freddie. You have the right to feel this way. I have the right to feel this way for you, too. You accepted this battle and you have fought hard, and you are still fighting! You are a man of faith and strength. You have followed through with everything they told you to do. Know that you are loved by so many. You are not alone. I love you my uncle Freddie, Your goddaughter.
From a musician friend who calls me brother: “We both wept as we read your account of these devastating developments in your life and your long, ongoing struggle with cancer. How I wish that I could say something that would bring light into this night of despair that has descended upon you. In the face of this news, my mind turns to Bach’s Cantata 38 based onthe German chorale Aus tiefer Not (Martin Luther, 1524), which I know is familiar to you as part of your Lutheran heritage, Movement 1 (Chorale: Luther’s Verse 1): Out of deep need I cry out to you,/Lord God, hear my call;/bend your gracious ear to me/and open it to my pleading! (Movement 5, SAB trio): When my melancholy as with chains/binds one disaster to another,/then will my Saviour deliver me,/so that everything suddenly falls away from me./How soon the morning of consolation dawns/upon this night of distress and worry! At this point, your night of distress must seem long and unending, and the image of the morning of consolation appearing soon may seem at best unrealistic. So this is simply to say that we, part of your community of faith, are deeply committed to holding you (and Elizabeth) up in prayer — by day and by night — even as we understand how discouraging these developments must be.”
From my beloved wife Elizabeth, writing to her family and closest friends: “Chemo is no fun and we have no idea now what the surgery will entail. What I do know is that your love and support have been very important as we have travelled this road together. Your prayers, loving wishes and encouragement mean a great deal to us.”
From a rabbi friend: “Your quote from Matthew reminded me of the final three verses of Psalm 91:“Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him;/I will set him on high, because he has known My name./He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him;/I will be with him in trouble;/I will deliver him and honor him./With long life I will satisfy him,/And show him My salvation.” The “he”, I believe, is someone like you who “knows His name.” Our prayers are that these verses may be fulfilled for you. Shalom.
From another rabbi friend: “I write not with any sermonic platitudes or worn-out clichés. I write simply to express my sorrow and love for you. While I have not known your sadness yet, I share your fear, anger and despair. I embrace both you and Elizabeth.”
From a friend from our Paris days: “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!! The pouting child in me is at it again – – this is just not one bit fair!! I’m devastated for you, for all you have gone through and what may be ahead. And, I am so, so glad that you are able to write. Thank you for including me on this list. Your thoughts and words, your honesty, your descriptions of what’s happening are all so very much indicative of who you are, in depth, in beauty, in hope, in fear, in your willingness to share what is happening so that we, too, can be part of it and can move with you on this path to new learning and new life in whatever form that takes.”
From a colleague with whom I worked nearly thirty years ago: “In all you’re going through you continue to use your gift of writing to share with all of us. You invite us into the struggle between faith and doubt, a place where each one of us lives much of the time. As long as I have known you, you’ve been an amazing man of faith and an amazing teaching theologian. Please know of my love and support for you — and please keep up your thoughtful, educational, faith (and doubt!) -filled writing. I believe our faith grows as we doubt – and that God has very broad shoulders and can take it from us!”
From the most mild-mannered friend I have, a psychologist and theologian: “Oh F___!”
From another psychologist friend: “Damn. Maybe that is an appropriate response — that first rejection of bad news. It is unwanted. It is unwelcomed. It is unacceptable. It is rejected, castaway or as Kubler-Ross said, denied. But it is also what makes us human. I don’t know what all this bad news actually means. I gather you don’t know yet either. I do know that you are loved by so many. I know that love is more powerful than death. I know that to listen to the creative force of life in moments of anxiety is unbelievably difficult and exactly what the heart, soul, and body need. You are in my quiet thoughts with Love. Tell me when I can visit.”
From a fellow writer comes this story: “In the book, The Last of the Donkey Pilgrims, the author, who is circling the whole of Ireland with a donkey and a cart, finds an old man waiting by his gate somewhere in Cork to ambush him for a conversation. While they are talking, another old man comes out of the house across the road. The first old man greets him and asks about his mother who lives with him. He says something like ‘Last night she was meaner than an alley cat.’ The first old man replies with, ‘We all have our crosses to bear.’ Then the other old man says, “It’s not the cross I mind, it’s the slivers.’”
From another writer-colleague: “Oh Edward… what a hard, mean moment…what beautiful and painful words…may the nearness of God blast through your doubt and lift you up..and may the love of all your friends and family surround you in this hard time
From a priest friend: “Thank you for sharing this, Edward. I am holding you tightly in my heart. Please let me know if you would ever like a visit from a colleague with whom you/we can feel safe to “let God have it”. God knows I have done it more than once!”
From another priest: “How hard it is, and what a long road you have had to travel! There are few words that can meet your challenge – because you already know them all. I only offer you the Jesus story – the long road to Jerusalem, often with friends who understand little of what Jesus is enduring. And perhaps that is all we can be – those who walk along even though we cannot share fully in your journey. Know that you are always in my prayers, and that I walk at a distance behind you with God at your side.
From an English friend: “We know that you are a fighter and will find your way through this possible setback.”
From a friend in Germany: “Edward, I am looking forward to many more years of your inspiring messages.”
From my pastor, (for whom I’m also her pastor): “Oh my dear Edward. I have no words. Just an immense amount of love for you and a promise to be with you in whatever ways you choose. There is in this life a portal through which the other world does shine. Our calling is to make this visible for one another whenever possible. I will try to do so for you, even as you do so for me. That’s the deal we made with one another. So, buck up, buckeroo! You need to be there for me, too!”
From a gifted church woman:“Your words are a blessing. And your life will go on, with or without your betraying body. “
From a beloved niece: “All I can say to you is that I am with you. I am with you in all your emotions. I am with you however your body is, or is not. I am with you. I can’t change anything, I offer no miracles or hope, but I am with you, as a 100% human. I choose to believe that if I am with you, the divine is definitely with you. I will believe for you. Let all of us believe for you. I love you.”
From a ninety-five year old parishioner: “Remember, Pastor, God will take care of you.”
With loved ones like these, (and so many others who have written me and sent funny and encouraging cards, and have provided delicious meals, and have created art for me and have sat down at the piano and serenaded me), how could I not wish to live and thrive for them, and with them? Elizabeth and I are decided: we will see this adventure through to renewed health. I will write my way through to it, as well.
And, I’ll add, if, in the end, restoration is not to be, then I will do what I can to die a good and holy death, the singular path to that rich and abundant life that lies ahead for us all.
© Edward R. Dufresne, 2018