Autumn descends upon the land with its ephemeral blessings of slanting light, bracing winds and flaming hues. Now the oaks that line the river robe themselves in saffron, a poignant valediction: the trees’ vitality draws inward, their raiment shines most brilliantly as it dies.
This change of seasons marks a full year that I’ve been contending with cancer. I hadn’t expected this to last so long. Now, it seems, it will be another twelve months before the struggle will be over. And just how, in the next year, will it all be over? How will this end — in renewed life and healing, or in premature death and departure?
I know that I must face this question. The facts are plainly before me. There is a strong possibility that the treatments ahead will restore me to full health. My oncologist steadfastly declares my condition to be ‘curative.’ Here’s what’s planned for me: three or four more infusions of a new, more powerful chemotherapy, followed, in all likelihood, by surgery to remove half my liver. Then will come some procedure to attack those lesions lurking on the other half of that organ. If all that goes well and there is no further sign of active cancer, they’ll address the ongoing fistula in my colon with further surgery. In the middle of that operation they’ll decide just what kind of internal plumbing I’ll be living with for the rest of my days.
That’s the most hopeful scenario, the grand strategy for my cure. But there is another possible set of circumstances that I must consider: the prospect that, instead of recovering, I may die from this illness. Now that this tumor has metastasized and spread from colon to liver, my cancer rating has climbed from a stage three to stage four. The carcinoma remains localized in my liver for now, but that could change. I am seventy-three and still vital, but my body, once so sturdy and reliable, has taken a beating over the past year. I am mortal. I will die some day. But I hadn’t thought it would be anytime soon. I must consider the possibility that I could be facing death much earlier than I ever expected.
Some will tell me this is dangerous thinking. They’ll say that I shouldn’t waste energy on morbid rumination, I ought to concentrate all my efforts on fighting and defeating this cancer. To consider death is to give up hope, as they see it. I understand and appreciate their concern that I stay positive, but I don’t quite see things their way. Yes, I love being alive — oh, do I ever. But I don’t want to live a life driven by the fear or the outright denial that someday I will die. Right now, it’s not the prospect of dying that troubles me. It’s the timing of that great, inevitable event that perplexes me.
For the fervent St. Paul, it didn’t seem to matter whether he lived or died: living was a fruitful prospect for him, while dying, he was convinced, would gain him everything. (Philippians 1:21-24) I don’t feel quite that way about what I’m facing. I do pray that when I die, I’ll go with a heart brimming with gratitude.
My life thank-you list is long and includes being thankful for surpassing moments of overwhelming joy that I’ve known in the praise and presence of God, gratitude for the blessings of my extraordinary, deeply satisfying marriage, thanksgiving for those precious ones who call me dad or brother Eddie or uncle Ed or Pop-Pop, thanks for the unexpected and so often unconditional love that beloved friends continue to show me, appreciation for the privilege of living in a place of wondrous beauty surrounded by nature, and gratefulness for the joy of my work and for those who have accepted and honored me as their pastor and priest over the many years.
The irony in all this is that these same daily graces and benefactions that I expect to be grateful for when I die are the very things that make me so fervently desire to live. When I consider the goodness of my life, I’m not just grateful, I’m also greedy. I haven’t gotten enough of it; I’m still so eager for more.
I could go on about what life means to me. As for death, it’s no surprise that I don’t have the words for dying as I do for living. That’s because our deaths, until we die, will ever be clothed in mystery for us all. Here is what I can say, however, what I’m able to affirm with the conviction of faith and see with the eyes of the spirit. Just as I have always known that there is more to life than surface living, so I am certain that there is more to death than just dying. Death, I am convinced, is not an end-point, it is a passageway. Dying is a transition, a transformation from life to life. When death does come, it will not arrive as some final concession of defeat. It will come as the crowning adventure of my life in the form of one last, great, enduring surprise. In dying, I will arrive home to something more, to what will finally be enough.
That’s enough for me to go on when it comes to dying. And it’s more than enough — I note happily, and somewhat perversely — it’s more than enough to make me eager to go on living for a long time to come. Coming to terms with my eventual death gives me the courage and confidence to plunge ahead in this, my present, blessed life with vibrancy and joy.