Short of a miracle, my friend will be gone within the year. There is no question about his diagnosis, cholangiocarcinoma. No question of the prognosis either—as of this writing, only five to ten months left this side of the grave. Surprisingly, while he is not happy to leave his wife and children, he feels blessed.
Over the past several weeks he has shared this journey and his views at parishes as part of Lenten programs. I have not walked the path of a terminal diagnosis, and find some of what he talks about…challenging. I try not to focus on what is sorrowful, finding a different wisdom from my soon-to-pass friend.
Some of what he’s shared…
A terminal diagnosis grants the unique opportunity to say goodbye, to make funeral arrangements with priests and plan a Requiem Mass. For the dying there is time—though limited—to connect with friends, to reconcile if needed, and to speak of love in ways previously unexpressed. There is a liberation. To the ones left behind, the transition through grief is tempered.
On the other hand, an unexpected death—accident, heart attack, stroke, suicide—jars family and friends unprepared for the separation. There is rarely joy in a sudden death.
The other night he shared the story of a woman who was first on the scene of a fatal accident. The semi-truck driver was shaken but unhurt; but another car lay upside-down in the field. As she ran to help, she recognized the car as her teenage son’s. He was sprawled on the ground a few feet away, and would die in her arms before paramedics arrived. We can only imagine the initial horror of that mother. And yet, the story told that she in that moment of profound grief found joy. Holding her child, as he looked to his mother and took his last breath, she was fully present, desiring no other place.
In the light of day, we can see the beauty that is near. There is happiness in, as Wendell Berry says, the “given life.” But for all the gifts from God we can see in the light of day, our vision is limited to a certain distance, only about three miles.
The joy that comes in facing death, in our darkest moments, is like—as a priest had said—looking into the night sky. There in the darkness, without the light of day keeping us focused on earthly things, we can see past our immediate world and into eternity.
I can only pray when faced with the end of life that, as my friend has modeled, to have such clarity—our ultimate goal IS to go home to God. This is the joy of dying; to enter the darkness and eagerly anticipate the embrace beyond the stars.
Image by Pixel2013, pixabay.com, CCO Public Domain.