Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lessons from a Cancer Journey

Today has been a day for relaxing and writing. I spent the morning working on a flyer and doing other stuff for the Parliament. I wrote article for "The Western Friend." Then I made lunch for a friend who came for a visit. Finally, I planted some impatiens outside my door. This involved swinging a pick axe and yanking up some spider plants. I made sure I apologize to the plants I was whacking.

Tonight I am going to a free concert at Marina del Rey with Cathleen and Ruth, members of my Meeting. I am looking forward to hearing some Vaugh Williams, Debussy, and Rach's 3rd.

Here's what I wrote in my article, called "Live Your Life as if Everything that Happens is Something you Prayed For: Some Lessons from a Cancer Journey"

I have learned many lessons from [my cancer journey], but I want to share just a few here.

To married couples who have expressed admiration for how Kathleen and I behaved during our cancer journey, I say: Everyone who marries, and is faithful, will probably undergo something similar to what we experienced. When you marry, you make a vow to love someone “in sickness and health, till death do us part.” Sooner or later, you will have to decide whether or not to keep that vow. Not everyone does. Some decide to divorce their spouse, or have an affair, or act in other ways that seem to me deplorable. But if you decide to be faithful, you will have an opportunity to deepen your love in ways beyond imagining. I enjoyed twenty wonderful years of marriage, and in many ways the last year was the best. When my wife had beautiful long hair, it was easy to love her. When she became bald and had a tube sticking out of her chest, it was still easy to love her. As Shakespeare says, “Love does not alter when it alteration finds.” Despite, or perhaps because of our adversities, our love grew stronger. We drew closer to each other, as well as to our family and friends and to God.

I also learned that that our Quaker testimony on community takes on new meaning and importance during a life-threatening illness. It takes a whole community to bring healing and hope to those facing a health crisis or the loss of a loved one. I can’t imagine how anyone could endure such experiences alone, or without some kind of religious faith.
Community can be especially important to those who are unmarried. Our spiritual community can become our spiritual family.

From the very beginning, my meeting set up a care committee to meet with Kathleen and me. Over the course of our cancer journey, this committee visited us at home as well as in the hospital. These visits included times of worship as well as sharing and were enormously helpful.

We also received phone calls, cards, and emails that cheered us up and reminded us that we were not alone. Our caringbrige blog became a way to stay connected with our friends and family on a daily basis.

We took part in a cancer support group at the Wellness Community and become part of the wider cancer community by going to conferences and other events geared towards cancer patients.

I came to know in a new way people who had survived cancer and had life-changing experiences. One of them was Rolene Walker, who survived breast cancer and is now walking from San Diego to Santiago, Chile, spreading a message of environmentalism. Rolene and I have been friends for twenty years. When she heard about Kathleen’s situation, she called us from Mexico City to give us support and encouragement. I was deeply touched.

During this past year, my heart has opened up in new ways to people who are struggling with health issues. I started taking elderly people to the hospital, and listening with more care and attention when people told me of their bouts with sickness.

Little by little I came to understand what “pastoral care” means. Quakers do not have paid pastors, but we nonetheless need to provide pastoral care for each other as we go through life’s challenges. It is helpful to be trained for this role—and many Friends who give pastoral care have been trained as psychologists or social workers. But sometimes experience is the best teacher.

For most of my life as a Friend, I have seen myself primarily as a peace activist. But during the past year, and especially now that my wife has passed on, I also see myself also as a kind of pastor. A pastor is someone who listens compassionately, who cares deeply, and is present for those going through difficult times. This is what I now feel called to do. It is something that I feel many Friends [and others] could also do, if we helped them to discern this gift and to develop it.

You don't need to be a professional to be pastoral: you just need to listen with your whole heart!


  1. I really hadn't gotten to know her... but that memorial handout you gave me was the next best thing--an amazing human being! (Like you!)

    From a poem to Anne, long ago:

    "Ice cream is sweeter
    when you help me eat it;
    holding your hand
    makes sunsets worth a look.
    ... [How did that go?!]

    The sensible thing to do
    was to never have gotten attached.
    I could see us being sensible
    eating ice cream all alone
    watching sunsets with dark glasses;

    We haven't been sensible at all

    [and here once again the ensuing lines
    were not deathless
    and no doubt you could write your own version.]

    We're hoping to be jointly stepped on by the same elephant after some thousands of years of perfect health, but I suspect it'll be something less pleasant
    and ultimately better. I know I've lost some good people over the years, but generally felt that it had been the right time for them and that they were basically okay, sometimes even sending postcard dreams to confirm that... Where'd I use the line about being "saved by disaster from something worse"?

    I dunno about telling God "I love you." (Maybe we need to know each other better first?) If you say that to God, it's a blessing! Sometimes I do feel it, intensely, the way God is making beauty out of the most unlikely materials. (Anne, by the way, just came through a nasty cataract operation, seeing better than she had in a long time! & that makes a lot of troublesome recent events seem pretty unimportant!) Troublesome?--That last yearly meeting sent me home floating two feet off the ground--& I was determined to go on hovering at least an inch high, at least for awhile--but being in the middle of that much divine love was exhausting!

    Sitting through a loving conflict there, then returning to a less loving conflict with our landlord; I'm not even sure why we're staying here except that there are a few people here trying to put this place to spiritual use. This too will turn out somehow meaningful!

  2. Thanks for your comments full of your unique blend of wit and wisdom. I find that saying "I love you" to God helps me to feel more loving to those who push my buttons. When my heart is full of love, I don't sweat the small stuff as much. As for conflict, it's a necessary part of the love process. I conme to expect and even welcome it. It's an opportunity to grow spiritually.

    Please give Anne my love and greetings. I'm glad that her cataract operation was successful and she can see better.

    Another exercise I do: I give thanks for everything, starting with: Thank you that I can see. Thank you that I can hear music. Thank you that I'm breathing. Thank you that I have a friend to write this email to. Etc. Or look around and notice how many things I see were given to me by a friend or family member. So much to be thankful for!

  3. I was afraid to comment, and had to--because what happened to you was such a horrifying mystery! It would be unbearable not to love, while loving implies that our very heart and soul has become hostage to the implacable Love and Wisdom who gives what we need even when that turns out to be suffering! And how can we possibly know we won't ever need that?--as we have needed it in the past?

    It is surely a blessing that you can still love God and life! But none of us can envy it! All I can do about it is babble--knowing that what's happened to you is life, and I'm as vulnerable, potentially! And think about Paul Simon singing: "Sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears!" But you wouldn't want to have missed knowing her!