The Common Good

Reflections Along the Way of Terminal Illness

Today, three years to the day after my daughter Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) death (May 9, 2010), we inter her cremains.

Man with an umbrella in a flood, photobank.kiev.ua / Shutterstock.com
Man with an umbrella in a flood, photobank.kiev.ua / Shutterstock.com

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IT’S RAINING, IT’S POURING” was written the day we learned that Katie’s incurable Leiomyosarcoma had taken a turn for the worse. In memory of Katherine (“Katie”) Elizabeth Slaikeu Nolan.

Gordon C. Stewart Feb. 11, 2009

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is snoring
He went to bed and he bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning

It’s a day like that. I bumped my head on the illness of a 33 year-old loved one. It’s raining sadness. I’m having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Terminal illness has a way of doing that unless you believe in miracles of divine intervention or you have extraordinary powers of denial.

My spirituality has become increasingly like that of Rebbe Barukh of Medzobaz, an old Hasidic master in Elie Wiesel’s tale of Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy. When he prayed the customary Jewish prayer, “Thank you, Master of the Universe, for your generous gifts – those we have received and those we are yet to receive” – he would startle others with his weeping. ‘Why are you weeping?” one of them asked. “I weep,” he said, “in thanksgiving for the gifts already received, and I weep now for the gifts I have yet to receive in case I should not be able to give thanks for them when they come.”

For my family at this critical time, the real miracle has already occurred – the shared gift of love – and it will come again in ways I cannot now anticipate when the last page of the final chapter of our loved one’s life is over.

The miracles are more natural, nearer to hand. Although I don’t believe in selective divine intervention, I am on occasion a sucker for denial – except on days like this when it’s raining and gray and I’ve bumped my head on the hard fact that cancer is ransacking my loved one’s body. A certain amount of denial, too, is a blessing in disguise, one of God’s generous gifts to keep us sane when the rain pours down and clouds are dark.

Faith comes hard sometimes. In college mine was challenged and refined by Ernest Becker's insistence that the denial of death lies at the root of so many of our problems. My faith has been refined along the way by the courage of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to face the meaninglessness of the plague, the faith and courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich who stuck their fingers in the gears of Nazism, and the humble witness of Mother Teresa working in the slums of Calcutta with more questions than answers and some anger at God.

The job of faith, as I see it, is to live as free as possible from illusion with a trust in the final goodness of Reality itself, despite all appearances to the contrary. Faith is the courage and trust to look nothingness in the eye without blinking or breaking our belief in the goodness of mortal life.

When I look into my loved one’s eyes I see that courageous kind of faith that defies the cancer to define her, and a resilient spirit that makes me weep tears of joy over the gifts we’ve already received and the ones we have yet to come.

It’s still raining and it’s still pouring, but I refuse to snore my way through this. I’ve bumped my head on the news of a loved one’s terminal illness, but I’m getting up in the morning.

Gordon C. Stewart is a social commentator, writer and radio commentator on Minnesota Public Radio's "All Things Considered" (MPR).  He is pastor at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn. Visit him at http://gordoncstewart.com/

Image: Man with an umbrella in a flood, photobank.kiev.ua / Shutterstock.com

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