This time the doctors are serious. Before, when they told me the risks of surgery, they always listed “death,” but I don’t think they considered it a real risk, and neither did I. This time it’s different. The risk is very real. We still think I’ll survive, but....
Six years ago I was finally able to agree with Dan Meenan, S.J., who years before had spoken and even preached about his own cancer as “gift.” I wrote “The Gift of Cancer” (America, 11/20/99) as a testament to Father Dan and as a way to set down my own newly acquired appreciation for how a “bad” thing like cancer can be seen as—indeed can be—a good. Since then, each time the cancer has come back, we’ve joked about its being “the gift that keeps on giving.” It has been that indeed.
Now, because of this cancer, I have been given another gift. That is the gift of being forced to confront my own mortality in a very abbreviated time frame: a week and a half until the surgery, which has now dwindled to a mere three days. So much of this week was spent just trying to get things organized, getting “stuff done.”
Now, finally, I have a brief few hours alone to try not only to pray a bit, but also to write down a few thoughts—words of wisdom, I hope—for you, my much-loved children (of course with a copy to your mom).
I want to tell you about what is important to me now, at age 62, as I try to look back and forward at the same time. Some of what I say is tinged with sadness—a sense of wasted opportunity—for I have not necessarily accomplished what I urge you to do.
First, it is not just cancer that is a gift—it is all gift: the good things and the bad. It is all about faith, trust and, ultimately, love. With everything that happens in our lives, God is watching and aware. Nothing happens that God does not allow. Even tragedies that bring us to our knees somehow have meaning in our walk with and to the Lord. But it won’t be until that day when we see him face to face that we will finally understand.
Second, it is all about love. I know that to love is to choose for the other. But it is so much easier to choose when we are in love. I think this is the way Jesus feels about us—what he meant when he said, “Love one another as I have loved you!” He has fallen in love with us—with me and with you. And that is amazing!
I believe our goal is to nourish the “falling in love” part—and not just with our spouses. The more I fall in love with Jesus, the more I am able to fall in love—and stay in love—with your mom. I didn’t always understand that. For a long time I thought that to love Jesus in the way the saints did somehow meant not being able to be in love also with someone else. I lost a lot of years holding back on prayer because of this fear. Only in the last few years have I realized that being “in love” with Jesus is the catalyst and fertile earth that allows for being “in love” with everyone else.
I am enamored of the mystics. How did they fall in love with Jesus? Either by pure, unsolicited gift from the Lord, or by asking him for that gift and then by doing their part—spending ample time alone in prayer with Jesus—to allow for the gift, once given, to take root and flourish.
If we are all called to holiness, as the Gospels teach, then we are all called to be “in love” with the Lord. We are all offered the gift. We all have the potential to be persons of prayer—perhaps even mystical prayer.
I have struggled for years to make time every day to pray. I wonder now what my spiritual state might have been if I had spent time each day just being quiet and trying to be present with the Lord—or getting to know him—by reading the Scriptures and other spiritual books. Suddenly, the time to do that may have passed. One reason I hope to survive this surgery is to make up for lost time and opportunity.
Why do I tell you this? Because I think that taking the time to pray is the most important thing you can do in life. So I encourage you to make the effort, to spend time every day being with the Lord. Advocates of centering prayer suggest two periods each day of 20 minutes. With the press of your busy lives, that is tough, especially in the beginning. But never should there be less than one 20-minute period, if you truly seek God’s grace.
When I say good-bye to your mom before they put me under anesthesia next Monday, I will tell her how much I love her, that being in love with her has been a lifetime adventure and a joy. But I hope that the last name on my lips and my last conscious thought will be of that other One who loved me first, who, in the words of St. Francis Xavier, “hugged me to his heart upon the cross.”
I hope I will wake up to see your mother’s smiling face. But I know (in hope) that one day—perhaps this day—I will wake to see another smiling face. I also hope that by the time that day comes, I have more adequately responded to his gift—the one inviting me to be “in love” with him.
I pray each of you will know this great gift, and have the courage and generosity to respond to it. That’s the only advice I offer and all you will need: to walk side by side with Jesus in everything you do.
I love you very much, and thank God for you. Please pray for me!
Friday, Sept 23, 2005
Postscript: I am delighted to report that I have been the recipient of a constant stream of miracles—this surgery and the next one six months later were successful, and for the past 20 months I’ve been on a number of chemotherapy programs. Currently the cancer is again advancing, and the future is uncertain. The only thing that is certain is that I remain as always in the hands of the Lord.