Friday, October 24, 2014

A Prognosis of Life

Seventeen years ago my fifty-three year old mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It came out of nowhere and with a fierce aggression that left us reeling.

Mom was given 6 months to a year to live. And that was with radiation and chemotherapy.

Jan Corson, 1944-1998
I went to Mass with my family following my mother's diagnosis with cancer. As I entered the church with my wife and children, I was filled with emotions: self-pity, sorrow, anger, fear. But when I looked up at the crucifix above the altar, something happened in me. I was drawn out of myself, my eyes riveted to the figure of Christ hanging on the cross, and I found myself confronted by a choice: run away from this cross, or embrace it.

I made a conscious decision, kneeling at the pew, to do the latter. I prayed, Lord, my mother is terrified. Let me be Christ for her. Help me not to focus on myself and my grief, but on her and her needs.

I had the privilege of walking the journey with Mom for the eleven months she lived with cancer, taking her to radiation and chemotherapy appointments, writing her letters with Scripture passages and encouragement, and caring for her in the final stages of the illness.

Even my children got to be deeply involved in her care. My dear wife sacrificed much time with me, without any complaint, as I did vigils during the hospital stays, stayed days on end at Mom’s cabin in the woods north of the city to help care for her and help my stepfather, Jack, with the chores.

It was a long and difficult road. I watched the cancer (and its treatment, ironically) devastate Mom’s body, but also saw how living with cancer strengthened her character, her will, and her faith.

Mom taught us so much about life and goodness and faith in those eleven months. We were students in an immersion course in an intense school of love.

One moment I will never forget is Mom sitting at my kitchen table as I prepared Christmas Eve dinner. She had recently received chemotherapy and looked exhausted, even haggard. She wore a scarf to keep her bald head warm. It was strange to see my mom, still a beautiful woman, looking like she had aged fifteen years in a few short months. Her usual cheery presence (even in Cancer-World) was stifled by a dark weariness that seemed to fill the room. She looked at me with a terrible earnestness and said, “Sometimes I wish the Lord would take me home now. I'm just so tired.” It broke my heart.

Each time she got through a really rough time like that--- and there were several---she came out stronger, if not physically---because her body was weakening day by day, her weight dropping rapidly--- spiritually and emotionally. I was astounded by her will to live and her ability to laugh, and how she worked so hard to encourage us.

In the final months of her life, I was able to visit Mom's home a couple of days every week. We had amazing conversations. There was a night about two weeks before her death that we talked into the night. We had a conversation that I will treasure till the day I die. We had many moments like that in those final weeks. My children spent themselves in service to her, waiting on her hand and foot, delighting her with their attention and loving presence. We were all with her on her final day, gathered around her bedside in the sunroom of the cabin, praying and singing songs to her as she faded.

They were some of the hardest months of my life, but some of the most beautiful, too. My faith was tested and strengthened, and my realization of the tender love of God the Father, the peace of Jesus Christ the Son, and the joy of the Holy Spirit was deepened in extraordinary ways. There were very hard days and even some terribly low points, but there was never despair, never a loss of hope and joy in the midst of the pain.

The Lord grew me up a great deal as a man. In the trenches of Cancer-World, having to carry my mom’s frail body to the bedside commode, cleaning up the inevitable messes, staying up into all hours to care for her so that Jack could sleep, witnessing the tender love in my wife's care, and comforting my children in their grief, I learned a great deal of what love really is.

There’s been a lot of media coverage of a young woman on the west coast who recently decided to end her life on a prearranged date following her diagnosis of a terminal diagnosis. She has committed her remaining time to promoting people’s right to assisted suicide and the benefits of such a right.

I will not judge her. I have no right to do that. I can’t imagine being in her shoes right now. But I will pray for her and I will hope that before she goes through with her tragic decision, she will come to know the love of Jesus Christ, who came that we might have life and have it in abundance (Jn 10:10).

I can’t imagine if Mom, in her lowest points, had expressed a desire or intent to take her own life. If she had taken the route of assisted suicide, it would have left such deep wounds in us. It would have cheated us of the opportunity to be gift of self for her in those final days, when she couldn’t do anything for herself. And it would have cheated her of the incredible transformation from fear to faith and hope that I saw in her those last weeks of life, as the surrender of her physical faculties seemed to reflect her surrender of her spirit, and her family's welfare, entirely to the care of the Lord. It concerns me deeply that our society is coming up with "sophisticated" ways to escape our suffering through assisted suicide, and more so that many in our society don't see the immense shadow in that.

I have deep compassion for those who face terminal illness. I also have it for their family members. They are the ones who will have to live on in this world, to continue to function carrying that void in them that is impossible to ignore or hide from. The survivors have to walk through that fog of grief (and grief really is like that--- it seems to have a substance to it that you have to sort of push through) while having to work, be present to family and friends, and tend to mundane responsibilities every day.

The road of suffering when united to Christ is transformative. But I don’t feel qualified to take that thought any further. All I can share with any authority is my experience with my mom on her own journey with cancer. She was a fighter, and she fought cancer with dignity and grace, but she surrendered her life to the will of God. What a gift it was to be able to walk the whole way with her until the day the Lord chose to take her home. And I believe, with confidence, that in embracing her cross and entrusting her life into the hands of God, all the way, she experienced graces untold.

I will link to a letter by a young seminarian who is facing his own terminal illness, and who, to my mind, has more right than I do to speak to a terminally ill person tempted to take the route of assisted suicide. Go HERE to read his beautiful letter to the young woman. It is a letter full of life and faith and hope.