How to Talk to the Dying

10142094Since being diagnosed nearly seven years ago with a lethal cancer, I have backed my old friends and new acquaintances into a quandary. What do you say to a dying man?

Strangers don’t seem to have any difficulty. Now that chemo­therapy has reduced me to a tattered coat upon a stick, I am routinely praised, when out in public with my four young children, “Oh, isn’t that sweet, you’re spending the day with your grandkids.” Under the guise of being nice, Americans can be breathtakingly rude. After about the hundredth time I was called their grand­father, I tried out a new reply: “These are my children. I am dying of cancer. The disease has prematurely aged me.”

Am I being cruel? Or merely repaying a pretense of frankness with the reality of frankness? The late Christopher Hitchens warned those who were blunt with their questions about his esophageal cancer to expect blunt­ness in return. [Read more...]

Light One Candle

Every week after Mass I light a candle. I love the smell of hot wax and matches, the action of my own hand kindling one small flame that will burn for hours, a visible sign of my unseen petition flickering beside the anonymous hopes and burdens of others. I’ve always clung to this little ritual.

In those moments of life when I’ve felt most powerless, when I’ve felt there’s no comfort at all for myself or a suffering friend beyond a cry for divine help, lighting a candle has made me feel like I’ve at least done something, turned my body and my heart to some purpose, performed an act of faith that has changed the atmosphere of the dark night even for just a moment and lit the room with prayer.

“Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” is the motto of The Christophers, an organization that recognizes work that “affirms the highest values of the human spirit.” Last month at their annual awards ceremony, The Christophers honored Love and Salt, the book I wrote with my friend, Amy Andrews.

It felt really good to win something, especially for this book, which grew out of years of personal letters chronicling the crushing grief that followed my mother’s death, and so soon after my co-author Amy’s conversion to Catholicism, the stillbirth of her first daughter.

[Read more...]

Pondering Prayer

I had a problem with prayer. It’s not that I didn’t think of God or talk to him; I did every single day. But I didn’t understand what made me do it, didn’t know what it accomplished, wasn’t sure what I was doing was prayer.

You see, I just can’t pray as Sister Clare taught us kids in Catechism. I don’t say formal prayers except at Mass—not the Confiteor, not the Our Father, not the Hail Mary—and even then I don’t actually say them; instead, I listen to the congregation’s voices, straining to focus on the words.

And I can’t pray like my Lutheran colleague Laura, who asks the people in our office to hold hands and spins extemporaneous prayers whenever one of us is ailing—Dear Lord, healer of the sick, we turn to you as our friend John faces knee surgery. When she does this, I lose her thread almost from the start, so urgent is my need to drop my neighbors’ palms.

Nor can I pray like my old friend Fran, who at all times carries a binder, each page with a scripted prayer meant for a particular person, addressed to a specific saint, repeated several times each day—O glorious St. Joseph, faithful follower of Jesus Christ, to you do we raise our hearts and hands to implore your powerful intercession on behalf of Tom. Whenever she asks me to join her, my mouth iterates the words, but my mind remains unengaged and my eyes seek the bottom of the page.

[Read more...]

Friendship, by Guilt or Grace

In February I published Love and Salt, a book of letters I wrote with my friend Amy Andrews, and found myself in the uncomfortable position of being expected to talk and write about the subject of friendship.

I’ve become something of an expert on the topic. I can quote Cicero and Aristotle and Montaigne and Lewis on the subject. I can tell you stories of great friendships in literature, from Ruth and Naomi to Frodo and Samwise. I can even call up statistics that show friendship is on the decline in the digital age and a scientific study that posits women are biologically hardwired to make friends.

But here’s my dirty little secret: my knowledge is all academic. The truth is, I’m not a very good friend.  Growing up, my closest and most treasured friend was a long-distance pen pal I only saw a couple of times a year.  Thirty years later, nothing has changed but the pen pal.

[Read more...]

Lamenting an Imperfect Friendship

Walking on the sidewalk of Spokane, I read an email that made me stop still. I’d just left a reading of North of Hope on my first trip away from my husband and two young children, when I checked my iPhone, compulsively, as I do, having no one to debrief with in person, looking for some kind of connection through cell signals and electrons.

It was a warm spring evening, and I thought I’d find a good glass of wine along the river. I was the only one in a sweater, an old comfortable one I liked. Everywhere there were bare arms and shoulders, street musicians on sidewalks from which heat wafted like a smell, carrying the sounds of the saxophone player and three shirtless college-aged guys with beards playing ordinary objects as percussion.

It was an email with just a name in the subject line, the name of a long ago friend I’ve maintained occasional contact with. She had dinner at our home when she was at a work conference a year before, and sent a note when our second son was born a few months ago. Just a couple of weeks ago I’d had a note from her on Facebook saying she’d received her copy of North of Hope and was excited to read it. [Read more...]


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