Three weeks have now passed since my urologist visited my hospital bed to share with me the results of the biopsy on the tumors he had removed from my bladder some 36 hours earlier. Almost a week has passed since I sat in his consultation room to review the diagnosis and discuss treatment options.
The details matter only to me—along with my family and closest friends—so I shall not review them here.
However, I would like to offer a personal reflection on this new phase in my life.
In doing so, I draw partly on some of the journal entries I have made in the past three weeks.
Lady Cancer has moved in with me.
Turns out, for some time now she has probably been quietly setting herself up in a corner of my ‘house’ to which I have paid little attention. In any case, she has now announced her arrival and it falls to me to respond to this uninvited companion.
Following a chance conversation with a colleague while attending the Australian Anglican Deans conference in Bendigo over the first weekend of August, I have been reading, Die Wise, written by Stephen Jenkinson. This is not a review of his book. I may write a review at some stage, but there is already a thoughtful review on the Seven Ponds web site.
Jenkinson has spent decades working in palliative care, in the ‘death trade’ as he puts it, and offers a distillation of his own insights into what constitutes a good death within the wider context of the human story and the story of Earth.
Once upon a time folk would have looked to the church for wisdom on dying well. These days the churches have mostly lost their confidence to speak about such topics, and joined the conspiracy of silence in our death-denying culture. Those believers who remain confident to hold forth on the topic of death have mostly shredded their credibility on the subject by exploiting fear of death as a lever for doctrinal conformity and moral compliance.
Early in chapter two, Jenkinson points out that dying is something we do, and not something that happens to us. In English it always occurs in the active voice, and never in the passive voice. Too bad that we do not have a middle voice in English!
In a sense, a cancer diagnosis is an invitation to embrace the awareness that I am dying — even if I continue to live, and continue to enjoy life, for many more years yet.
Death changes from a theoretical possibility for someone else to become a personal existential reality for me.
Once we know that we are dying, then we can become an active, aware and morally responsible agent who participates in our own dying. This does not mean that we hasten our death, but rather that we live each moment deeply engaged with others, with the world around us, and with our own dying — even if our death may be some considerable time away.
The certainty of my own death is now firmly on the agenda of my life.
That changes how I choose to live. It will now permeate my ministry as a priest and scholar. And it informs how I hope to die.
The challenge, the opportunity and the privilege of being a dying person is to live each and every day from now on in such a way that the joy of being alive is affirmed, the meaning of life is explored, and the reality of my own death serves to magnify and sharpen the delight of being alive.
I expect to live for many more years yet, while also knowing that may not be the case for any number of reasons (many of them unrelated to my recent diagnosis).
I want to spend those years living with and for the people that I love. But I feel that the cancer diagnosis has been a wake up call. And for that I am grateful.
Like everyone else, my days are limited. One day I shall die. It may not be immediate, but it is ‘soon’ and inevitable.
‘Lady Cancer’ has moved into my home, and she will never leave. She will be my companion on the journey from now until my death, and her arrival makes me aware of my dying as well as inviting me to choose how to live my dying in the meantime.
I choose not to repel her as an unwanted intruder. She has every right to be in my house.
For me, Lady Cancer is not draped in the garb of the Grim Reaper. Rather, she is the incarnation of Lady Wisdom, Holy Sophia, who we find in both the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament.
Here is one of many beautiful texts that speak of Lady Wisdom:
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals,
she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant girls,
she calls from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”
As a Christian, I encounter Holy Sophia in the humanity of Jesus, the sage of Nazareth, the prophet of God’s irresistible reign, and the human face of God. He lived a life that was holy and true. His death reflected the character and quality of his life. He died well. As his disciple I aspire to do the same.
However long it proves to be, I intend to live this time of my dying with hope, with gratitude, with courage, with compassion, and with love for those who have a special place in my heart.
This is a declaration of life and love, and not a resignation into death.
Amen, my brother.
Thank you Greg for sharing this very moving, thoughtful and indeed inspiring reflection. I keep you in my prayers. Judith
The Ancient Christians knew what they were about when they prayed for a quiet and holy death. Even though many of our prayers hint at the fact that “in the midst of life we are in death” modern life does not consider this. As a palliative care volunteer with NCAH some time ago I found that many who had time to consider and had time to become a companion of Lady Death did in fact die well and peacefully. Many of our formal prayers can teach us, if we pay attention and “Support us, O Lord, all the day long of this troublous life, …then, Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last..” comes to mind. Continuing prayers. Camellia
Thank you for this beautiful reflection. It moved me deeply. My father, a minister and scholar, walked this journey until he died peacefully and quietly with a gentle smile on his face just over six years ago. Having experienced a major stroke in his 40’s and cancer in his 50’s, he lived into his early 70’s with a fair amount of pain from the effects of surgeries and treatments ever cognizant that we will one day die. My family and I and certain close friends had the privilege of walking this journey with him, and your post has reminded me to stay true to what I learned from him. Even before his illnesses, he knew without a doubt that there is nothing more important than our spiritual journey. As Teilhard de Chardin said so articulately, “We are not physical beings on a spiritual journey, but spiritual beings on a physical journey.” Many best wishes to you and those who will be walking with you, Deb Saxon
[…] from hospital this morning, I have been on a journey of grace, a pilgrimage to wholeness. My initial reflection on this close encounter with Lady Cancer, aka Holy Wisdom, was published on August 17. This update […]