“Hello, Stephen. This is Dr. Kroll’s office. We just got a call from the hospital. The radiologist found a number of dark spots, but can’t tell if they’re in your lungs or ribs so wants you to get a CAT scan done as soon as possible.”
I got this message before I’d even made it home from getting the chest x-ray my doctor had ordered after I finally went to see him about what I thought might be bruised ribs. I’d been having pains in various places for probably a month before I finally saw him. I was waiting to see if they’d go away on their own. I don’t much like going to the doctor. It’s so annoying to call their office only to get put on hold before being told that the next available appointment is in three weeks. But I did it. My doctor didn’t think I had bruised any ribs, but was at a loss to explain why my chest area hurt, so had ordered the x-ray.
When I got the message I knew it was serious, but didn’t freak out about it. In my work as a chaplain I’ve seen a lot suffering and death. Because of that, I’d made a decision about what I’d do if I were ever to be diagnosed with cancer or some other fatal disease.
The next day, a Friday, found me at the hospital lying on my back inside a big white cylinder, otherwise known as a computerized axial tomography machine. Every minute or so the technician would move the platform on which I was lying and tell me to hold my breath while the tube revolved around me. When it was over I was told that a radiologist would read the scan within 24 hours and write a report for my doctor.
My doctor doesn’t work weekends. That meant I’d have to wait until Monday to find out the results. But I somehow just knew that I had either terminal bone or lung cancer. I don’t know why I knew, I just did. Realizing that my body was hosting a disease process that would end my life was thrilling. My first response was: “What a relief!” And then: “Thank God I won’t have to put up with any more of this crap. No more disappointment, no more abuse, no more loneliness and despair. It will soon all be over.”
A few years back I had decided that if I were to be diagnosed with a terminal illness I wouldn’t have it treated; maybe palliative care for pain management in order to give me a better quality of life while I made the most of the days I had left, but that’s it. Nothing curative. I’d “had a good run” as they say in the theater. I mean, over all, I’ve had a really great life, even with all the ups and downs and the inevitable suffering that’s part of living. I’d also had enough. I lived alone, my beloved dog had recently died, and I’d just been separated from a vibrant ministry that had been a joy to co-create with some pretty amazing church folks. But it was taken from us and we had lost our community and were adrift. The thing that had burned brightly at the center of our lives had been destroyed. I was tired of struggling and overwhelmed by the prospect of the unending loneliness and despair that I thought lay ahead of me.
I would never take my own life. I believe it’s wrong. God gives life so only God can take life. So suicide was out of the question. Then the “Big C.” came into the picture. Hallelujah! I now had a legitimate way to make an exit from this toilsome existence.
I knew exactly how I wanted to die: peacefully and fully conscious, so as to be able to invoke and reflect upon God’s presence. The apostle Paul says in I Corinthians, “We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” and in the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says, “Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me. Do not doubt this. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying; always they will tend toward that state of being.” Sounds good to me! But I also wondered what I would do with the time I had left. It didn’t take me long to come up with a list:
- Give away all my possessions.
- Drive around the U.S. and Canada visiting friends and family saying my goodbyes.
- Go to Paris for two weeks.
- Rent a flat in London for six weeks.
- Go to Germany to say goodbye to my half-sister.
- Spend six weeks in Jerusalem.
- Travel to India to spend my last days at the hospice run by my Yoga lineage.
- Have my ashes released into the Ganges.
It felt so right and also really dramatic. I could see my story being optioned for a major motion picture. I even thought of who should be cast in the starring role: Ralph Fiennes. Sure, he’s ten years younger than me, but we all want to appear younger than we are, right?
Well, Monday came around and with excited trepidation I called my doctor only to get a message saying the office was closed for the week! What? How dare they! I’m dying and the whole office is on vacation? So I took matters into my own hands. I changed into my clericals (a pastor gets more respect when he wears them—at least in the Bible Belt) and drove to the hospital, parked, and walked into the imaging department to ask to speak to a radiologist, but was told that radiologists can only speak to referring doctors.
Having worked in hospitals I know about patients’ rights so asked to be given the report of the scan. I was told to have a seat. A few minutes later the same technician who did the scan walked into the waiting room, greeted me and said, “Reverend, please follow me.” He led me down one hallway after another, then down a staircase into the basement, and then after navigating some more hallways, we got to a door marked Medical Records. He opened the door and a woman behind a desk said, “How can I help you?” The tech told her what I wanted and after signing a couple of release forms she said to me, “It will just be a few minutes, Reverend. Have a seat at one of the tables.” She then disappeared into a room behind her desk.
A few minutes later she returned and handed me a manila folder that contained the radiologist’s report as well as a DVD of the CAT scan. I sat there for a few moments, feeling my heart pounding in suspenseful expectation. Which cancer will it be: bone or lung? I opened the report and started to read, wading through a lot of medical and technical terminology before getting to Diagnosis and Prognosis: “Multiple benign nodules of approximately 5mm in both lungs appearing to be scar tissue perhaps due to exposure to chemicals or other such environmental factors. Recommendation: further imaging in 12 months to assess any changes in the nodules.”
“What? I don’t have cancer? I’m not dying? Come on!” I had just planned my final days! I thought I was finally being released from the bondage of life, but now it was back to dealing with reality and what to do with the years that lay ahead of me rather than just the next few months. I was not amused.
Suddenly I realized I was hungry. It was after five o’clock and I hadn’t had lunch. Somehow I made my way back up out of the basement and found the cafeteria. I made a salad, grabbed a soda, and paid the cashier. I walked into the seating area and saw it was deserted except for a middle-aged woman seated at a table with a slightly disoriented-looking elderly woman in a wheelchair.
Wanting to be alone, I found a banquette in an area away from the tables and sat down. Usually I say grace before meals, but as I sat there I didn’t know what to say. “God, thank you for not having cancer?” “Thank you for giving me more years of heartache?” I gave up and just said, “Thanks for this food, and those who prepared it. May all be blessed. Amen.” I started to eat.
I’d only had a few mouthfuls when I heard a voice say, “Stop being so stupid! Just eat the food, dammit!” It was the younger woman. I then heard what sounded like a wheelchair being pushed.
Oh, dear. I immediately knew that the older woman must have Alzheimer’s or some sort of cognitive impairment and that the younger woman was her daughter. I’ve heard that sort of exasperation before by overwhelmed caregivers. I just wanted to sit and eat in peace so I could figure out what to do with my life now that I wasn’t dying, but it didn’t seem like that was going to be possible.
Then the daughter said, “Mom, I can’t take this anymore.” I knew I had to do something. I ate the last of my salad, got up from the banquette, and walked back toward their table. I slowed as I walked past in order to gather more information from what I observed before looking at the daughter and saying, “Hello.” I exited the cafeteria, walked to the information desk in the lobby, and said to the receptionist, “Pardon me?”
She looked up and replied, “How can I help you, Reverend?” I briefly told her about the mother and daughter and what I’d just overheard. In response she asked, “What do you think should be done?”
What should be done? I didn’t even know what I should do about myself and here she’s asking me what should be done for these women?
Well, having worked as a hospital chaplain I actually did know what had to be done so replied, “Could you page the social worker on call?” She said, “Absolutely.” As I stood at the desk and waited while she placed the call, I was filled with compassion for the old woman and her daughter.
A moment later the phone rang. It was the social worker. The receptionist relayed my story and then said, “Thank you.” She looked up at me and said, “The social worker will get here as soon as he can.”
I waited a few minutes, but something told me that I needed to go be with the women so told the receptionist to tell the social worker that I’d be in the cafeteria. I walked back into the dining area and slowly approached their table. The daughter looked up while her mother stared vacantly into space. I said, “Pardon me. I don’t mean to intrude, but I couldn’t help but notice that you seem to be rather overwhelmed at the moment.” She looked at me tentatively and nodded her head. I then asked her, “Is it all right if I sit down?”
Again she nodded her head, and said, “Yes, Father.”
As soon as I sat down I forgot about myself and the worries I had about what I was going to do with my life, and became what I am—a pastor. I slowly got the daughter to talk about the challenges she was having taking care of her mother, how exhausting it was, and how alone she felt. Her mother would occasionally look up at me and smile while she struggled to feed herself.
We sat like that for maybe fifteen minutes before the social worker walked in and introduced himself to us. His name was Brad. He was young, probably just out of social work school and still full of optimism and hope. Good thing, because those things were in short supply at that table. I certainly had none.
I let him take over and do the work he was trained to do. I took the old woman’s hand and held it while he talked to the daughter about various programs and assistance that were available for her and her mother. She was like so many family members who care for loved ones, fiercely protective of their privacy, but also running on empty, and knowing she needed help.
When Brad finished gathering information from the daughter we all got up to walk together to the hospital entrance. I pushed the mother in her wheelchair. While the daughter went to get their van I stooped down next the old woman, looked her in the eye, and asked, “Are you alright?” “Does she hurt you?” These are the hard questions that must be asked and it was the time to do it. The social worker caught my eye and I could tell he knew he should have been the one making that assessment now that the daughter was not with us. But it didn’t matter who asked. It just needed to be asked.
The old woman looked at me for a moment then patted my hand before saying, “No. She’s good to me. She’s a good daughter.” Brad and I looked at each other and nodded, knowing she was telling the truth. The daughter loved her mother and was doing the best she could under the circumstances. That was evident to both of us.
The daughter then pulled up in their van. It was old and gray. “Just like me,” I thought to myself. I pushed the wheelchair outside and then let the daughter do what she obviously had done hundreds of times: help her mother into the van. Before she got back into the driver’s seat, Brad said, “If I don’t hear from you by Tuesday I’m going to call you.” The daughter assured him that she’d call, then hesitated a moment before closing the door, and for just an instant, smiled.
As they drove away Brad and I walked back into the hospital and when we got to the lobby he stopped and while we shook hands he said, “Thanks, Reverend. It was a good thing you were here today.” I stood there for a moment and then walked back through the lobby and out into the parking lot where I had left my car when I’d come to the hospital to find out how many more months I had to live.
I got in, closed the door, and then just sat there, slowly realizing what had happened. I was still needed. God needed me to do his work. There was still a reason for me to live: to help others using the gifts I’d been given and the skills I’d learned in my training for the ministry. I was chagrined. Here was that daughter, devoting her life to caring for her mother—the woman who had given her life—while I pitied myself for not having the life I wanted, for not valuing the life I did have. I thought of the list I had made of things I would do in my last months, smiled and thought, “Yeah, I’ll do those things, but not yet. Not yet, because I need to get back to doing God’s work.”
I’m still needed.