In an April 2nd column I wrote about my pending “battle” with cancer. I wrote then that I didn’t consider myself engaged in conflict against the disease:
If I had sorcerers instead of physicians, and if those wizards could conjure and embody cancer to stand before me, fists raised, then I’d fight – if that were the way to a cure. But I’m simply cooperating with the protocols. And may God’s will be done.
A couple of weeks later I was saying, “There’s nothing like being treated for cancer to finally make you feel sick.”
Before chemotherapy and radiation began on March 19, I hadn’t felt the least bit sick. But after seven Monday sessions of chemo and thirty (Monday thru Friday) sessions of radiation, I was sicker than I’d ever felt in all my 70 years: worse than the worst flu I’d ever had; worse even than the bad reaction I had when I got both cholera and smallpox vaccinations before an ill-fated trip to Asia in 1969.
But being “cured” of cancer is a tricky business because the disease has a way of “hiding,” which word I put between quotation marks because cancer has no conscious agency. It’s a dumb thing, although it’s not wrong to say it continues to stump some of the best scientists on earth.
But I have good news, which I have reason to believe will be welcome news for the many TCT readers who have sent me wishes for a full recovery and have insisted that I keep them informed. A PET scan (positron-emission tomography) on July 17 detected no cancer remaining in my body. As I say, I can’t proclaim a cure. Indeed, I’ll be back at Memorial Sloan Kettering in three months for a follow-up and then regularly after that – for five years. Then, if I haven’t been run down by a bus on 5thAvenue or struck on the noggin by a meteorite – THEN we’ll be able to say I’m cured.
I have many bad memories because many bad things happened in my life, especially before I entered the Church in my mid-twenties and married in my mid-thirties. I have regrets, and – despite frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Penance – some of them rise almost to the level of haunting. And in some ways, having cancer was far from the worst thing that ever happened to me.
It may actually have been a good thing, a very good thing.
I learned of the concern of friends, including readers of this website, and that’s near the top the list, although at the very tippy-top is my wife, Sydny. In that earlier column, I noted that my prayers when I was laid out on the table getting radiated were for friends but also for strangers, especially those Syd and I saw in the reception areas at MSK who were clearly there alone. I have something of a reputation for being a tough guy, and I suppose I could have managed the last year alone, but – as I said to one of the staff at MSK – “It’s good to be married.” I didn’t think I could love Syd more. I was wrong, but I don’t regret that.
But there was an even greater love. Speaking of Confession, I recall once admitting to a priest that I wasn’t sure I loved God: “I love my wife and my sons and my friends and my work. . .but . . .” And he interrupted: “The love of God is an intellectual thing. Well, it is until it isn’t.”
It isn’t for me anymore. To love God, to love Jesus, to love the Holy Spirit is to surrender. It’s what the Last Rites are intended to affect and what most of us have heard said many times – and the saints have said it: “You must surrender to the love of God!” Those words have merit, but what has occurred to me out of my recent collision with mortality (and what a dying man grasps when his time is at hand) is that the Trinity is family. Heaven is family. Heaven is home.
Robert Frost put it superbly in the sad and beautiful “The Death of a Hired Man” (which is today’s TCT Notable). Mary and Warren sit on the porch discussing Silas, an elderly seasonal worker, returned to their farm out of season. Warren is weary of the old man’s comings and goings. Mary says, “Be kind.” She is sure Silas, sleeping inside near the fireplace, has come home to die. Warren:
‘Home,’ he mocked gently. . . .
[then he adds:]
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
[And Mary says:]
‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’
Our heaven-home imagined is mysterious. Isaiah (in 64:3 and Paul quoting him in 1 COR 2:9) warns us that “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (Isaiah says, “wait for him.”)
What I realized as I loved and prayed, confessed and received Communion, and as I waited and let go, allowing myself to embrace the reality of death . . . is that I am where I’m going. Home. I’ve always been home. My body isn’t dying, as such, at the moment, but it will and when that day comes, I’ll happily cross the threshold into my eternal home.
I’m sure I could still be startled if I came upon a snake in the grass, but I don’t see what else there really is to be frightened of.
My love is supposed to be imperfect; Christ’s is not. He loves me, and that’s all the love I need to spur me to prudence, courage, temperance, and justice, and that is loving God.
*Image: St. Peter Invited to Walk on Water by François Boucher, 1776 [Château de Versailles, Versailles, France]