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Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Time to Live - a Time to Die

It is a season of death and today, the message and reminder came to roost.

We are watching the world around us wither away and die, and although this death is characterized by brilliant colors, even as those colors peak the sounds and sights and smells of life are changing, drying, withering, and disappearing, life ebbing away.

Tuesday morning I had to be to work earlier than usual so took my dog out to walk in the pitch-darkness of October's pre-dawn.  A huge storm was encroaching upon us, massive hurricane-like winds predicted, sustained over the next 36 hours or so. It was raining a little, and the wind was nearly still.

As we walked among the scattered wet leaves, as the rain fell upon us, as we made our way in the darkness, I took note of the stillness. I reflected upon the fact that I could not hear the birds chirping anymore; they had all fled. Weeks ago. Each day seemed to be more silent than the last.

The only sound other than the wind in the trees, was our footsteps, but even those were muffled in the wet darkness that encompassed us. I stopped to let my dog sniff at a particularly interesting tree (to her, anyway), sensing the approach of the monster storm, feeling the pressure, my hands aching, sometimes sending piercing pain up my arms, like nails at the base of my wrists.

A piercing pain suddenly shot through my ankle and I had to limp the block back home, through our silent and apparently-sleeping townhome complex.

I was reminded that every day, we are dying, too.

In the summer, even the mourning doves sing when a storm approaches, but even they are silent now, having fled the oncoming Minnesota winter.

The geese, usually so vocal during those early morning hours, remained mute, not daring to take to the skies. It was too dark to see them in the nearby field where they normally gathered, but I knew they were there, hunkering down, staying together.

Even the crows, those carrion eaters so ubiquitous especially in late summer through fall and winter, often aggressive in their presence had nary a caw to offer.

Ah, yes, the season of death makes its true advent. Ahead of the violence of the storm, all are silent, as if awaiting the judgment to come, taking the opportunity of the rapidly decreasing barometric pressure to be a sign to lay low and wait; which, for we humans, tends to call us to reflection and repentance.

We can learn a lot from the behavior of animals; from their presence and from their absence.

It's been very dark and dreary these last several days, and between yesterday and today, the midwest has been terribly battered by a massive storm doing massively bad things to people and property.

And in the midst of this terrible storm, a friend and volunteer of mine received his own earthly judgment.

Is it a time to live? Or a time to die? 

He came in to talk to me tonight, his demeanor grim, but...mundane. He's not an alarmist, but even in crisis has the patient air of someone who has been through everything. Something about his expression tonight, about the tone in his voice told me that his request to talk to me was of priority and could not wait. It didn't matter that five other people were waiting to speak with me regarding their also very important questions or comments or business. Or that several others came to wait in the crowd needing attention.

Last year he was diagnosed with cancer and although had given a commitment for his volunteer work, he wasn't sure if and when he could show up as scheduled. He wanted to be present as much as he could. We needed him and of course, he wanted to continue his life as much as his cancer treatments would allow. Everyone was praying for him, and when his cancer went into remission, we all rejoiced with him.

Recently, he revealed they thought his cancer had come back and they were, of course, "doing some tests". They weren't sure yet.

But tonight...tonight, he gave me the update, and he got the news only today:  9 weeks to 11 months left.

Not "left until the last chemo treatment" or "left until he gets to go on vacation", but...left.  As in the end of earthly life.

The cancer has spread to his brain, and now he's having seizures. They are minor ones limited to appendages, but they could manifest in any way. He had to talk about "A Plan", at the behest of his doctor, because he intended to continue in his service. I considered asking if he'd rather not, but of course, I know this man; he'd rather die in the traces for he was happy in his life of service and prayer. I did ask him what his plan was (in case he wanted an easy way to say he wanted to step down), but no, he is going to push through, and was going to talk to his class so that they would know what to do if he "went down".

The entire conversation was surreal, and although I knew other people were gathering, needing things, asking questions, it didn't matter. It was as if we were in a pocket of silence, and oddly, people didn't insist on intruding as they normally do. It's as if they somehow knew that this conversation was, quite literally, life and death.

I knew he would not have wanted tears, and by God's grace, they were kept at bay as I focused on the tasks at hand for his behalf.  As soon as he left the office, I fielded all the others who were there, and ran up and down the hallway, making decisions, taking care of business; all those things required of my job.

As if I hadn't just heard the most devastating news, knowing the friend we were losing, wondering how we would handle this, help him and respond to the grief of all those who will be touched by this. Wondering who to tell, who not to tell.

Having to remain silent about this news, even with other volunteers, until my co-workers knew, and my superior was busy in another part of the building.

I had to be silent about this terrible, devastating news of terminal cancer of a man who only recently lost his brother to the same disease.

After I had handled all the "fires", I went into my office and sent out prayer requests, blinking back tears. There was no time for tears; there was work to be done. It didn't matter that people would sympathize and want to pray for the man; it wasn't the time. Among the living, work must be done on behalf of the living, and right now, my friend is still living. He's tough; he would not want to see sorrow, but hope.

He doesn't want pity, but prayers for God's will for him.

If nothing else, he needs time to truly come to terms with the news of his terminal status, and even with that, find a place for hope that maybe it is not yet so; he is not ready to leave for eternity.

But yes, it's hard, and this evening was a hard evening. I was thankful for the "busy-ness" of it for it kept me from being able to reflect upon my own sorrow by redirecting me to the needs of others in that moment. It allowed me to retain a professional demeanor so that I could respond to some other very serious needs without being emotional about any of them.  I could smile and joke and pretend to be normal, having received a blow that was anything BUT normal.

I don't know what's going to happen. It's possible that his cancer will again go into remission. That IS possible and his doctor is doing all he can and my friend is holding on to this hope even in the face of the honesty he may not be with us in this earthly pilgrimage for much longer.

As devastating as this news is, I so love that he is determined to not let anything change. He is continuing to live his life as he is able and I am humbled at the humility he is exhibiting as he passes through this dark valley. I am humbled by his family, through their prayer for him in Eucharistic Adoration.  I am humbled by his own faithful witness in the face of this news and, truth be told, it was his own strength and no-nonsense attitude that  kept my own emotions at bay tonight.

Before he left, I gave him a hug and promised prayers, not just from me, but from all those I know.

Please pray for him. I can't tell you his name or where he is or anything that identifies him, but know he is a faithful Catholic, a dedicated father and grandfather, a retired teacher, a volunteer, friend to more souls than one can count, a mourner, a cheerleader (if more along the lines of a drill sergeant), a man of deep prayer, a man of deep faith who knows that death doesn't erase dignity, but only carries it to a higher place; one that is eternal.

Right now, he is embracing his time to live, if only to prepare for his time to die.

God's will be done.


Mulier Fortis said...

Prayers for your friend, Adoro.

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

I am praying for your friend. You describe him so lovingly, he must be a very good man.

belinda said...

It was two days ago when these thoughts hit me as well and even though I've heard it all of my life it finally meant something to me... We ARE dust and to dust we shall return (and so will our things) and as I drove past beautiful homes ,shops and all things lovely, it dawned on me that so very much of how we live our lives is totally in vain and is getting us no where in the next world.

When we die with awesome things around us, I considered for a moment the high cost of these things which have many times been gained by forsaking other people, God and even ourselves.
I will pray for you and for your friend. God bless him.

DominiSumus said...

He will be in my prayers.

Banshee said...

Praying. He sounds like quite a man.