It looks to be about 10′ by 10′, I’m not that good at eyeball measurements though, it may be a 12′ by 12′. Beige colored walls reach about 10 feet vertically to connect with the white tiled ceiling above my head; a solitary light fixture at center – very bright. To my left, a workstation with a stainless steel sink, cabinets above and below. A paper towel dispenser, hand sanitizer, a few magazines, a sharps disposal container, two boxes of examination gloves and a tube of some kind of ointment sit neatly on the countertop. Directly across from where I sit, in a relatively comfortable chair (my wife seated next to me), an examination table that I will occupy when the doctor comes into the room.
It was about six months ago when I got the news of having cancer. It was a simple follow-up visit for a procedure performed a couple of weeks earlier. The doctor had discovered a diverticulum in my bladder so that instead of draining, as it should, the bladder was retaining urine that if left untreated could lead to a breach of the bladder wall and a few other lesser, yet important complications, he had said; a simple prostate resectioning procedure should take care of the problem and get me back to normal in no time at all. Previous biopsies were good, no issues of concern or need for alarm indicated. It would be a quick, see the doctor, pay my co-pay and go to lunch kind of day.
My urologist entered the examination room his jovial self. No change in demeanor, nothing that would indicate the curve ball he was about to throw. I had bounced into his office a half-hour or so earlier looking forward to an all is well, coast clear, see me back here in six months report. In no way was I ready to hear the information he was about to dispense – cancer.
Have you ever had the wind knocked out of you? Been unexpectedly kicked in the gut? Startled and shocked? All three at the same time, simultaneously taking you to your knees in one horrifying swoop? I wasn’t in that room, sitting in a now extremely uncomfortable chair for this reason. Not the purpose of today’s visit, but it was what it was; it is what it is.
My heart sank deep into the pit of my stomach and began to burn, breathing became a little labored, but I tried hard not to let it show. Fighting back the moisture attempting to exit my eyes, I squeezed my wife’s hand; she squeezed mine, a poor attempt at reassurance. It’s time to die, I thought; and the more I tried to process the unexpected news, the more I tossed the thought of dying around in my head, the more nauseating were my thoughts and the more difficult damming up my tear ducts became.
An abstract snapshot of the disease formed in my head taking center stage. It was that of a hideous demon unleashed in my body to destroy it, a foul imp-like creature busy about getting his assigned work done of which he was quite proficient – a talon here, a spur there. My internal organs were in a state of decay, rotting; a stench filled my nostrils. Had payment for my sins come due? Was this the price tag attached to the indiscretions of my youth? Had my many transgressions and improprieties finally caught up with me now to exact vengeance?
A thousand scenarios began to play out in my mind, not one of them good. What will my wife do after I am gone? How will she make it? My kids, they will be devastated. My grandchildren, what will they do without pawpaw around to cheer them on at the ballpark? My precious friends at church, men and women I have grown to love and so look forward to being with each week; my family. Dammit! I’m not ready to say goodbye. Furthermore, I’m a hospice chaplain, I suppose to be the one helping not the other way around; No-no-no, this isn’t happening.
A deceitful web had been spun and I was trapped, held fast in its stickiness unable to free myself. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock: time was moving much faster now. An increased heart rate and quickened pulse set off a slight throbbing at the base of my skull that escalated into a full blown migraine. I saw myself as if standing on a landmine and I couldn’t help but wonder; when will weakness in my trembling legs override the strength I desperately need to stand and the bomb explode? How long do I have?
In that hour a chain reaction of thoughts was set into motion and spinning recklessly out of control; each one morphing into something far more hideous than the disease itself – the picture I saw of me.
It’s one thing to have had a heart attack, which had happened almost ten years ago. But cancer, cancer is different, it’s nasty, it’s ugly; a bile like corrosive, a battery acid of sorts eating away at your flesh making you ugly. You’re ugly now, Pat, I thought to myself, and you know no one likes ugly; no one wants to be around ugly. Come on, be a realist guy, be honest with yourself and accept the facts. Do people frequent the gym just to buff up? No, but to look good. Women don’t put on makeup for health benefits, do they? No, but to cover up their perceived imperfections and be attractive – you know it. We are by nature social creatures and in order to fit in, to gain acceptance and the degree of respect our ego decrees we must have, we’ve got to look good but it ain’t happening for you brother. In fact, Pat, old friend, you really don’t look good at all.
Furthermore, man, you’re going to die. You don’t see people hanging out at the funeral home for social purposes do you – to make friends? Of course not. They’re just there paying their dutiful respects. Truth is, they’d just soon stayed at work and not lost a few hours pay. People don’t like death, they don’t like to talk about it and prefer to not think about it. Dying sucks, and since the dying represents death, and death is taboo, who’s going to want to be around you? Yep, you got it – nobody. Face it, dude, you’re done with. You may be breathing at the moment, but you are going to be an ugly abandoned outcast. Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, find yourself a Wilson; a soccer ball, basketball, whatever; dress it up a little and give it a name. At least, you’ll then have a little company to join you on your trip to the grave.
You may think such thoughts to be a little overboard but believe me, they’re not. This is my personal testimony; a preconceived self-image shrouded by the unexpected, unfortunate and unwanted news of having cancer, and I am but one of so very many in a similar boat paddling upstream. Those battling life-limiting illness and disease (the aging too), daily struggle with fears of no longer having purpose and meaning, of no longer being useful and of being abandoned. Yes, as believers, followers of Jesus, we are aware that in the spiritual realm we are never alone and that our relationship with Christ is to us an ongoing supply of comfort and a source of encouragement even though unseen. But those who struggle often need a physical hand to hold and a warm body to sit close by and just listen.
Dear Reader, It is so important that we learn to care and are able to tune in and hear the silent cries of those who struggle, who are in a fight they will not and cannot win. They often know it, and that in itself is a major force in the battle they must contend with.
Me, I’m good, at least for now. The cancer is confined to the prostate and in an early enough stage to not warrant chemo or any other advanced measures of treatment. But as we all know, things change, sometimes more quickly than we’d like. Yes, life has a way of taking unexpected turns often winding up in a traffic jam. For many, however, those less fortunate than myself; they need someone who won’t mind riding shotgun. Someone to get in the car with them, not turning the radio on, but listening to a song they need to sing, their song, a ballad telling a story about life and loss.
Please, will you step up to the plate? Will you sit with a person who has gotten terrible news and is lost in it? Will you with tender mercies, care, and compassion, not looking for or seeing the disease or the aged face but the person in front of you; will you hold their hand in reassurance and comfort? Don’t be distracted by the disease, it’s on the inside; outside there is a person, a man, woman, boy or girl who is the most beautiful creature in the world to God and they need to be reminded of that. Sooner or late it will be my turn, and yours.
Personally, having a wonderful wife, family, and great friends through our church community group; and above all else, through faith in my God who I know loves me and has promised saying, “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10 ESV), and knowing confidently that “. . .he will not forsake his saints.They are preserved forever. . .” (Psalm 37:28 ESV); I look to each day in hope of tomorrow and expectation of a good long life still ahead. But if you’d like to walk with me, or others such as myself, we’d be happy to have you alongside.
IMPORTANT NOTE (Please Read): If you feel a tug at your heart strings and would like to walk with the terminally ill in their journey. Talk to your pastor about people in your church who might benefit from your visit with them. You might also contact a local Hospice provider and become a volunteer, or visit with the Social Worker or Activities Director at a Nursing Home or Assisted Living Facility. If you live in the Dallas, Texas area, as the Director of Chaplains for Cornerstone Hospice Care, I would love to talk with you and share the many ways you can get involved.