Whether I Live or Die

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.

12 Thoughts on “Whether I Live or Die

  1. John C Parish on October 23, 2018 at 7:04 am said:

    Edward – So elequently said! Your perspective on life and what follows is heartwarming. Liz and I wish you all the best as you continue on your journey. Please continue to share your thoughts.

  2. l’chaim !

  3. Anne Burton on October 23, 2018 at 7:10 am said:

    Dearest Edward
    How grateful I am to have the pleasure of meeting and knowing you during this period of our lives when the inevitability of death is most real and still its timing is a mystery! Being a fellow traveler, knowing and being aware is indeed a gift as well as, at times, a burden as you clearly know.
    Still, the promise and the hope of our Faith allows me and, I hope you, to look forward to the future as a fulfillment and not an end. You remain in my heart and head! My prayers for your recovery and the continued joy of watching each sunrise and sunset. Your sister in Christ, Anne Burton

  4. lawrence jockel on October 23, 2018 at 8:03 am said:

    Uncle Ed
    That was beautiful. Poignant. Stoic.
    You remain in our foremost of thoughts and prayers and are, and will always be, in our hearts. We were so blessed and are so grateful that you married us. Whenever we speak about our wedding we speak of how it was perfect in every way imaginable and the cornerstone for its perfection was you and your sermon and all you did for us.
    Much love and continued strength through prayers,
    Lawrence and Colleen.

  5. Virginia Drewry on October 23, 2018 at 8:04 am said:

    Cheers to your greediness, and gratitude for each burning bush and festively adorned tree that catches your interest and lights up this part of your journey, wherever it may take you.

    Blessings on your caregivers (especially Elizabeth); on the healers; on those who persevere towards finding and making available better treatments such as your new medication; on those who faithfully tend souls as you do with this reaching out even in your illness; and, particularly, on you as you face and find your way through new challenges.

    May you ever remain open to joy.

  6. Oh, your words are music that dissolves the wall between life and death. Thank you for this reminder, “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.” You bring to mind the eloquence of our mentor, Henri Nouwen when he names our death as “Our Greatest Gift.” Like you, he didn’t prefer death. He just dissolved the boundary between life and death. For those who don’t know Henri, his book, “Our Greatest Gift” is published by Harper Collins, 1994.,

  7. Anne Stribling on October 23, 2018 at 9:26 am said:

    John and I read your post as our morning meditation. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, fears, and expectations with us. Particularly appreciate the handsome photo of you in Boston and the spectacular tree which I assume is in Maine. May you continue to live with gratitude and eagerness for each and every day!

  8. Gunilla L. Kettis on October 23, 2018 at 9:43 am said:

    Dear, Dear Edward and Elizabeth,

    You are brave, yes, the bravest man I know! You face the world so straightforwardly and fully.
    The Fall is a time of harvest and reflection and your vantage point at the river is to be envied.
    You are surrounded by beauty and rich in love.

    You are giving, as always, to others by sharing this frightful journey. We are all praying – May your strong faith and your remarkable spirit carry you back to renewed health. I believe it will.

    Gunilla

  9. Judy Miller on October 23, 2018 at 10:19 am said:

    Edward,

    What a beautiful reflection on life and death. Your life, your words and your being that you have shared with so many have given us so much meaning to life. Thank you for sharing your experiences so that we might face our own lives.
    My prayers are with you and Elizabeth. May this next year and the medical procedures facing you are less traumatic than last year and each step brings you closer to a total cure.
    Prayers and Blessings,
    Judy

  10. Judy Madson on October 23, 2018 at 4:32 pm said:

    I agree with you Edward, that to give thought to your own dying and death is not in any way to give up on your fight for life, but is a task that presents itself when given the diagnosis of cancer, especially metastatic cancer.

    Continued thoughts and prayers for you both.
    Judy

  11. Philip M. Howe on October 23, 2018 at 7:59 pm said:

    Eloquent courage, graceful strength. Thanks for showing the way, dear friend..

  12. Bettina on November 6, 2018 at 6:46 pm said:

    No easy answers, only powerful insights and questions. Journey on.

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