Tag Archives: dying

What I learned from unexpected events

This week, Christians celebrate that God became human in the form of an infant child. The story is full of unexpected twists and turns—Mary becomes pregnant even though she is a virgin; Joseph stays true to his commitment to marry her because an angel appears to him in a dream; and Mary and Joseph trek to his hometown for a census, only to find no room for them at the inn.

It is easy to imagine the people in this story saying, “I didn’t expect that” or “I didn’t see that coming.”


“How was the past decade for you?” someone asked on a radio show this week.

My first reaction was “Ugh!” The past decade was a tough one for me—full of unexpected twists and turns. Many times, I said, “I didn’t expect that” or “I didn’t see that coming.”

If someone had asked me at the end of 2009 to predict what the next decade would bring, I would not have been able to guess most of what happened over the past ten years.

It started in December 2009, when my cousin died from pancreatic cancer. Her death rocked my world on several levels. She was near my age (too young to die) and she lived away from family (as did I). She was unwilling to talk about her illness and seemed to be in denial that she was about to die.

I grew up in a house where denial was a way of life. Years of therapy have helped me learn a different way, but my cousin’s death made me wonder if I would revert to the fallback position of denial if something catastrophic happened to me. I began to ask myself how I would react if I was diagnosed with cancer or another terminal illness.

Of course, we only know what we will do when we are faced with the situation, but my cousin’s death made me face my own mortality.

Over the next six years, five friends died from cancer and one (who was only twenty-six) died from a heart attack.

Plus, I moved back to my home state to be near my family.  

It was a decade of change and loss, and I am happy to put it behind me.

At the same time, I learned a lot during this decade.

I am not the same person I was ten years ago and much of that change happened because of the challenges I had to face.

I learned that I really would step up in a crisis, take someone into my home and help him to have the kind of death he wanted.

I learned to be more honest and realistic, to let go of unmet expectations and accept reality.

I learned to spend more time and energy on what really matters and give little time or energy to petty problems or contrived dramas. “Is it brain cancer?” I ask.

Unexpected events happen; how we respond to them is what makes the difference.  

God-hope-letting go

Holding on and letting go

A woman I know became sick a few months ago—suddenly. I learned about her illness through social media. Her family asked for prayers and said she was “gravely ill,” but it was not until they used the word “hospice” that I realized how gravely ill she was. In a matter of a few weeks, she went from posting pictures of her husband, children and grandchildren on social media—to dying.

Life is so fragile.

When death is near, what is happening in the rest of the world seems distant and unimportant. The passing of a loved one becomes the most important thing and offers great clarity about what really matters.

I try to remember those moments—the times when I had great clarity about what truly matters in life.God-hope-letting goThese thoughts came back to me while reading the Gospel of Mark. I wonder if St. Mark had clarity as to what was really important, if he had a sense of urgency about spreading the story of Jesus’ life and message.

I thought of how God uses us to spread the Good News. Was Mark a writer? Or was he just compelled to write the story of Jesus? As I pondered Mark’s mission, I was reminded of some notes I received when my friend Jim was dying from brain cancer.

Several friends wrote to me during Jim’s illness reminding me that we were living the Paschal mystery—facing death and resurrection every day. It was true that we knew Jim would die soon and yet every day we found a way to laugh and every day we recited our litany of gratitude.

Jim was unable to read for most of the time he was sick, so I read his mail to him, and I also read any notes I received. One of the notes about the Paschal mystery sparked a conversation about the everyday deaths we faced.

Jim’s physical decline was an obvious death, but there were others that seemed as significant. We kept being faced with situations where we needed to let go so that we could truly live.

Holding on and letting go was part of our daily conversation.

At some point, I realized that it was not just at the time of one’s death, but that living the Paschal mystery was a continual invitation to see things in new ways, to look from different angles and to be open to change.God-hope-letting goAs I reflected, the words to Unsteady by X Ambassadors, popped into my mind.


Hold on

Hold on to me

‘Cause I’m a little unsteady

A little unsteady…If you love me, don’t let go.

Holding on can offer a sense of security and stability, but there’s always the question, What am I holding on to?

While our world may seem to be spiraling out of control, Christians are called to remain “steadfast in faith” (1 Peter 5:9), not caving in to popular culture or the “prowling Satan” but holding on to Jesus’ message of hope.


Earthen Vessels

The readings the other day included 2 Corinthians 4:7-15: “…we hold this treasure in earthen vessels….” As I read, I was transported back almost thirty years to the chapel at Villanova.

I had been working at Villanova Law School, coordinating clinical programs. Gerry was one of the students in the Juvenile Justice program who regularly visited my office. By the time he graduated, we had become friends.

During the summer after graduation, while he was studying for the Bar exam, Gerry developed a kink in his neck. It got progressively worse and he sought medical help. “Tension” was the diagnosis, and he began to take aspirin for relief.

Gerry passed the Bar in the fall and went to work for a law firm in Rehoboth Beach, MD. But, by mid-November, the stiffness in his neck had gotten so bad that he could barely turn his head. On a trip home to Connecticut, he visited his family doctor, who ordered blood work.

“Leukemia” was the real diagnosis, and a bone marrow transplant was the only hope for a cure. Gerry was told that if no compatible donor could be found he only had two years to live.

“They can tell that?” I asked skeptically. It turned out they could.

When his sisters were determined not to be compatible donors, a bone marrow donor drive brought out hundreds of Gerry’s former classmates and friends. None was compatible, and Gerry died two years later.

While he was sick, Gerry taught me a lot about living well and dying well. He continued working until just a few weeks before he died, carrying on in the same calm, understated way he always had. He would not talk with me about being sick or knowing he was dying or how he was preparing to die—all things I desperately wanted to talk about. He just wanted to live until he died. I learned to let go of my need to process and just be with him and enjoy our times together.

“Earthen vessels” was one of the readings at a Memorial Mass for Gerry held at Villanova’s chapel. He had also recorded two songs to be played before Mass: Lean on Me and At this Moment.

I sometimes hear Gerry’s songs (that is how I think of them, as “Gerry’s songs”) played back-to-back on random radio stations. At those moments, I remember him and am grateful for his presence in my life, even for so short a time.

I am glad he left these reminders; little gifts from him that always make me smile when I stumble across them—and sometimes produce a tear over what I have lost.