My friend Mike died last week.
We were the same age. We grew up together in Marinette in northeast Wisconsin. Worked our way through Boy Scouts together. Played at each other’s houses. Studied in the same classrooms. And then, over time, we drifted apart. Until this past year. That’s when I learned that Mike was dying of cancer.
In less than 12 months, we re-established a friendship and Mike and his wife, Nancy, taught me amazing lessons about living with the prospect of dying.
In our initial contacts, Nancy wrote of Mike:
“He is doing well with his treatments. I am amazed, each day, how well he handles this journey we are on. Never once have we asked ‘why us?’ We feel so blessed that we have each day to love each other and enjoy our retirement one day at a time. Not everyone is so lucky to have a long goodbye with the one they love.“
Just a note about the actual diagnosis. Mike had stage IV small cell lung cancer that had metastasized to his bones and a bit to his liver. The initial diagnosis came on May 2, 2012, with the expectation that he might live for about a year. He beat that by about a month.
We lived 300 miles apart, but we managed to meet three times face to face over the past year. We communicated in between by email. And we held each other in prayer all along the way.
An email Mike sent out to a network of friends in late July of 2012 offered clues to his attitude:
“The chemo is working to slow the cancer down… I am losing a lot hair, but I have discovered the joy of hats! … I am happy and fulfilled. This is wonderful journey, and the biggest adventure of my life. And I am getting plenty of time to be ready for the big event.”
He understood that Nancy and their kids and grandkids were not quite as thrilled with this big adventure, but he was not about to let a simple thing like dying cramp his style.
Mike wrote me in early December to say that the growth of the cancer had slowed enough so that the resumption of chemo had been postponed. “Spiritually, new wonders everyday,” he added.
That’s what really seemed to matter to him. He was experiencing a sense of God in wholly – and holy – new ways.
Dying also shifted Mike’s view of the world a bit. Our conversations often touched on religion and politics. I thought Mike might enjoy one of my favorite magazines, Sojourners, so I got him a subscription. He liked it, noting that:
“Liberal values without spiritual values are bleak. I hate judgmental liberalism, just as I hate judgmental conservatism. Sojourners looks at liberal values with a strong Christian feeling of hope and love. It looks at what we can do to build, not to defend or destroy.”
Later, he would strive for greater peace within, writing:
“I avoid all things that thrive on negative energy, like the news, gossip, cruelty, conflict, or bad humor (the cruel, the meanly sarcastic, and the sacrilegious). I can look out our bedroom window and see our snow covered hill, trees, sunrise and moonrise.”
Mike sent a health update on Groundhog Day – Feb. 2. Continued growth of the cancer, more pain and fatigue, chemo about to resume. But he also sent a second message that day to those who were more attentive to his spiritual journey:
“Spiritually, I feel healthier than ever. My prayer and meditation life is rich … Since I can't volunteer outside the home anymore, I was able to join our parish prayer ministry, since I now have plenty of time to pray. I really enjoy praying for all of you in Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, etc. who are praying for me … God is good. God is great. Hope is eternal.”
If hope was eternal, so was Mike’s sense of humor about a situation that would lead many of us to despair. By mid-February, Mike could really feel his body slowing down:
“My material world is shrinking, and so is my body. Just like the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz, ‘I'm melting! I'm melting!’ We had to get a handicapped parking permit for our car. I walk like a crooked old man, with a crooked old stick, but let's face it, that's what I am …”
Within the next few days, Mike shifted from the chemo regime to palliative care with hospice. He was thrilled:
“Now I can look forward to a happy, peaceful death surrounded by loving family, friends, and a fully qualified, fully experienced and fully compassionate medical team. Nancy is a little weepy, but happy/sad weepy. I feel like the Packers just won the Super Bowl.”
And then a pitch for prayer:
“So anyway, keep praying for a happy, peaceful death for me. If you are praying for me, let me know, as I add you to my prayer book and I will pray for you too everyday and I hope to pray for you when I get to heaven. ... God willing. Bless you all with love, peace, and joy,”
In late April, Mike sent out a detailed medical update, laced with his own brand of humor.
“I just wanted to send you the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of my final earthly journey, focusing on the old jalopy called my body that is on its last miles … I am so grateful for this last year to get to contemplate my life, reach out and discover old friends, strengthen my ties to my family, reach out to others who are suffering from a loss, and even reconcile some emotions stemming from the past. Fruitful!”
He recognized God in the care that others showed for him, especially that of his beloved Nancy.
“I have never felt so loved by God and so close to Him.” He signed off, “May we all live forever in love, peace and joy.”
His final email went out on May 21, just nine days before his death.
“I have shared with many of you how well I am doing spiritually,” he wrote. “I feel so close to God, I feel like I can almost touch his face and feel his breath.”
Mike died early in the afternoon of May 30 – the traditional date for Memorial Day, the day his father’s plane was shot down during World War II. Nancy was at his side, the kids were in the house. Now he is with God.
Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis.