Archive for Cancer

Sacred Silence & Hospice

SilenceBefore meeting my new patient, I admired her Ford Mustang. The well-kept red convertible was parked on the street, by her brother’s driveway.

The license plate frame declared: Fly Away!

While I didn’t know for sure it was her car on that first visit, the frame’s message was a solid clue. Based on the medical charts I’d scanned, she was a flight attendant in her early forties.

This was years ago when I was a hospice chaplain. I recollect visiting her a half-dozen times. From our first awkward handshake to the final time I sat beside her hospital bed in her brother’s living room, our patient-chaplain relationship strengthened. I sensed that she learned to trust me. I certainly learned from her as she continued living and loving while cancer recklessly attacked her body. Even at my last visit, her short gray-blonde hair was stylish. Her make-up, aided by her sister-in-law, was impeccable.

In all of our time together, she never spoke one word to me. Read More →

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Even Slow Death Feels Sudden

He was solo climbing the Matterhorn. Eric fell. Eric died. A phone rang . . .

He was solo climbing the Matterhorn. Eric fell. Eric died. A phone rang . . .

My father’s dying spanned the better—or worst—stretch of a decade. Though not on his death certificate, Dad died from dementia. His decline was slow, like a daily drop of water filling a tub.

My mother’s dying occurred in the hottest stretch of a singular summer, a handful of weeks from diagnosis to death. Though not on her death certificate, Mom died because of an opportunistic, savage cancer. But her rapid decline also unfolded like a film stuck in slow motion. A solitary hour holding her hand in intensive care could feel like a week.

Then, in the midst of their dying, the phone rang. It rang while I wished my father’s cruel dementia would please, please, please come to an end. It rang while I longingly, lovingly prayed for an impossible miracle to spare Mom more pain.

In one call, my older sister informed me Dad had died. In the other, a year-and-a-half later, a nurse spoke on a phone down the hallway from Mom’s hospital room to tell me about the death. Read More →

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The Emperor of all Maladies

names1In the weekly team meetings at my hospice, we print a list of patients.

Everything on these stapled pages is confidential: the patient’s name, age, patient’s doctor, date of entry into hospice care, clinical staff assigned to the patient, and their disease.

I will tell you this. The names blur. Because I’ve lived in this community for several decades, I’ll occasionally recognize a name. But usually not, since there are nearly 2,000,000 residents in the region my hospice covers. Every week, scores of patients appear on the spreadsheet, some newly admitted, some served by our staff for weeks and months, and even—more rarely—for over a year.

But I study their names. I try to remember each is a gift. I try to remember they are brothers, aunts, fathers, grandmas, best friends, moms, bosses, colleagues, and children. My hospice has cared for members of street gangs. We have cared for the rich and famous. Are they that different? Ralph Waldo Emerson bluntly wrote, “Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest know nothing.” Read More →

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