When I returned to the United States from Nigeria in 2000, I was assigned to work in a downtown parish of New Orleans, where Harry Tompson was the only Jesuit and pastor. Harry, who had cancer of the prostate, was not afraid of many things, if anything. He used to say, “It’s not death I fear, but dying.” Because he had many friends, Harry did not need me much for his cancer adventures—they washed him and fed him, especially after that night when he fell like a sack of potatoes. (My room was right below Harry’s, and I helped him back into bed.) In those days certain television programs gave us something to look forward to week by week. But the Rosary was a daily occurrence. And I still say the Rosary with Harry, who died in 2001.
For now I am the one dying of cancer.
Back in 1993, long before Africa was a dream, I had driven from New York, where I was on the staff of America, to the Jesuit center in Wernersville, Pa., to visit another dying Jesuit friend, Joe Whelan. The article I wrote about this visit was really Joe’s—people loved Joe and they would be interested not just in his welfare, but in his prayer, since he was an expert. The article was about praying at the time of dying, with all the pain Joe then experienced. (“How I Pray Now,” Am. 11/20/93).
Now it is my turn, not that I have the pain so far. Having reported so meticulously on Joe’s passing over, I thought it might be good to report now on the passing of the person who reported.
First, there is a surprising variety of medical opinions. One doctor says, “four to six months”; another, “a year or less.” They do not know for sure. After radiation, another understands my insistence on quality of life, not quantity of days. Maybe the fact that I am a priest makes for understanding. They are so kind. But I am firm, so I wait for Christ to make his move.
Others have been here before me, after all. Think of those soldiers in the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” aboard landing boats at Normandy. They knew ahead of time that like soldiers everywhere, some of them would be blown to bits. Or think of Philip Evans, an English Jesuit who was told he was to be hanged the next day. At the time (the date was July 20, 1679), Philip was playing tennis. He continued his game. As they prepared to execute him, he proclaimed it was the best bully pulpit he ever had. St. Philip (he is a martyr saint), pray for me.
So what does it feel like to die?
It feels like a slackening of powers and a tendency to fall like a ragdoll. I cannot swallow, have not been able to for months now. That is the worst of it, although for some time I have been deaf and blind on the right-hand side. Doing anything on the right is difficult—so that writing now is like what left-hand writing used to be. Down to 118 pounds, I move at night with caution; though if I fell, I would not make much of an impression.
Talking is more and more difficult, and this is confirmed by others’ having more and more difficulty understanding my guttural attempts at speech. God never closes one door without opening another, they say. So all this has been felt as numbness, not pain, though doctors warn that pain may come. Who would have thought that dying felt like midmorning and midday exhaustion? Well, perhaps one who has had more experience than I. But in any case, just to be left alone to sleep seems a great blessing. The doctor recommends that I speak with the oncologist. But even to speak with him requires paperwork that I can do only with difficulty—hence, I rely on the kindness of a Jesuit superior who will do it for me.
Such is the quality, or non-quality, of life these days that I am like the nun in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” crying out: “O Christ, Christ come quickly.”
All of which may sound self-absorbed, I know, but that is part of illness, I find. Joe Whelan had pointed this out in 1993, but that was only a warning, not a feeling. To continue the Joe Whelan sort of talk, I would say that my prayer, amid all the feedings and what goes with them, is mostly the Rosary—and the Gospel of John, particularly those wonderful moments when the Lord is feeding his people.
So this is how it feels to die. Who would have thought?
Thomas H. Stahel, S.J., was born on Jan. 5, 1938, in New Orleans, La., and grew up in Greenwood, Miss. One year after being ordained a priest in June 1971, he became an associate editor of America and served in that capacity until 1977, when he became the provincial superior of the New Orleans Province. After finishing his six-year term, he spent two years in Paraguay as a counselor to the young Jesuits of that province and then returned to America, where he served as executive editor from 1985 to 1994. He then went to Nigeria as director of novices.
On July 6, 2006, Father Stahel died in New Orleans after a difficult battle with cancer. At the Mass of Christian Burial, Leo O’Donovan, S.J., described him as a "man wholly of the church in council, opening and renewing itself to be a sign of hope in the world, and of the Society, appropriating the church’s renewal through its proclamation of the Gospel and promotion of justice.... While celebrating Mass together one day last fall, I mentioned after the Gospel that he was living beautifully the patience it recommended. He responded simply, ’Leo, this is my latest assignment from God.’ Tom Stahel was indeed a man on mission. Or, as the provincial of another American province said to me recently, ’Tom was a good man who was easy to find when you needed a good man.’"
Shortly before his death, Father Stahel wrote the reflection published here.