Today I had the first of at least twelve or up to sixteen weekly infusions of chemotherapy to come, the exact number of weeks depending on my physician’s evaluations as to how well I’ll be doing down the road. I think of submitting to these treatments as taking a kind of blessed poison: ‘poison’ because of the effects this therapy has had on my body and ‘blessed’ because this rigorous regimen might well be what it now takes to keep me alive and going.
Without taking this weekly cocktail, I may well die. I say ‘may well’ because I have not really checked in with my medical team on the question of just when I may be checking out. I’m told, nevertheless, that currently I’m demonstrating an exceptionally good response to some extraordinarily noxious stuff. I certainly don’t feel as good as I’d like to, especially now that I’m in the throes of recovering from major abdominal surgery. So the chemotherapy seems to be the best alternative for me right now, one that may not cure me, but does promise to sustain me. People do tell me that I’m looking better than they’ve seen me look in some time. I tell them that I’m spending all my days trying to live up to my physicians’ effusively hopeful prognosis for me! Nonetheless, I do believe in a vague and trusting way in their optimistic outlook for me.
Vague and trusting, that’s where I am in all this, and there’s a good reason for it. I suppose many people in my shoes would by now have asked their attending physician, “How long do I have left to live, doctor?” Or they might well have chosen to divine the answer for themselves from late-night Internet searches. That’s not for me. It’s not what I want for my life, not now or in the future. My calling right now is simply to live each day I’m given as fully as possible. For me, speculating on my life’s possible term limits would only color my days with anxiety. It would only encourage me to view my death with sadness, self-pity, and fear. I would become, as Martin Luther put it, incurvatus se, ‘curved in on oneself,’ which is his incisive definition of sin!
I want to be free to live and love life, to thrive and serve others as well as I can in these days, in this moment, at this time, and all through this ordeal. I don’t see my cavalier attitude toward the when and how of my dying as death-denying. In fact, it’s the best way I know to prepare for dying whenever my death may come, be it sooner or later.
In the Middle Ages there grew up a tradition of practicing the ars moriendi, the ‘art of dying well.’ Manuals were published even up through the 18th century with recommendations for prayers and practices that might help someone who was close to death get through the ordeal. Over the years, I have thought a good deal about this idea of ‘dying well’ and I’ve concluded that, while dying well is as important as living well, living well is what I should concentrate on as I approach my own death. And what I mean by living well is simply this: to see my life as a gift full of beauty and a blessing full of love. It means not living for myself alone, but living for others as best I can. It means faithfully trusting in a God whom I have always loved and who, I know has never stopped loving me. And it means wanting “all that I love to keep on living,” as Pablo Neruda wrote in his Sonnet of the Night.
The reason I choose to live as fully as I can at this time is because I do not see dying as ending my life. Death for me is not the opposite of life. It is not life’s terminus. It does not bring life to a full stop. On the contrary, I see my entire life, including my death, as a great transition. I believe that my continuing life and eventual death leads straight on to new life. On both sides of death, it is all about living in the fullness of life. So it makes sense to me to go on ‘living well,’ as I’ve described above, as the best way I know to prepare for my death.
In the time when I will face my imminent death, I hope I will be able to do so following the example of two men who have marked and changed my life, Henri Nouwen, spiritual writer and Mark Dyer, gifted churchman. At different times of my life I was privileged to have both of these enlightened souls serve as my spiritual director. In the last few days and hours of his life, Henri sought to remind everyone who visited him that he was full of gratitude for the life he had lived and for the life he looked forward to after death. Bishop Mark in his dying days embodied in speech and manner a maxim that a friend urged him to consider: “Trust the Mystery.” To face death with these two virtues, gratitude and trust, is a great gift which must take a lifetime of living well to put in place.
I feel blest that I still have time to prepare in this way. In marked contrast, there is one dimension of the ars moriendi tradition with which I’ve never agreed and which I utterly reject for this stage of my life. It is tied up in the momento mori, the ‘remember that you will die’ tradition. This is where people of faith were told they had to disparage, devalue and renounce their past lives in order to embrace a higher, more spiritual plane of living and so become acceptable to God and gain salvation.
I don’t think that I have ever loved my life so well and so deeply as I do now. I continue to hold it dear even as I recognize, deplore and resist life’s evil elements that plague us in these paradoxical times. As my death approaches, I hope to be ready for it by living this good, this difficult and blessed life now, as well as I can. I trust in and am grateful for the profound and inseparable connection between my life in these days and my life ahead after death. That strong and sure connection I know to be Goodness and Mercy following me all my days.
© Edward R. Dufresne 2019