FACES can be revelatory. The oncologist’s was. He stared at my CT scan results.
“You asked me to be honest. I’m afraid this has spread. It is terminal.”
“How long have I got? Months? Years?”
“I’m afraid it is impossible to predict that with any degree of accuracy.”
The first thing to hit me was disbelief. There was I, receiving an epoch-making prognosis, and the hospital was going about its business as usual — porters wheeled trollies along endless corridors, theatre staff walked past in spectral gowns and masks, cleaners buffed, and doctors strolled nonchalantly, stethoscopes dangling.
Outside, crocodiles of excited Japanese schoolchildren weaved their chattering way through the medieval streets of York. Buses roared by in a haze of fumes; the River Ouse rolled, smooth and stately, towards the sea; and a traffic warden issued parking tickets.
In short, the world had not ruffled a feather.
THE next day, bizarre events marked the hours. I found that I had put the car key in the fridge, and forgotten our home telephone number. To cap it all, I walked off with somebody else’s laden trolley in the supermarket.
It was time to absorb the impact of the doctor’s words; so I made my way to that haven of solace, the allotment, and sat down on a battered plastic chair among the rows of prolific broad beans.
A concept wafted back from my distant student past: the second law of thermodynamics. The world is entropic, and all its systems gradually degenerate. In plain terms, everything is running down like an old-fashioned wristwatch; and no one and nothing can escape from the finality of this.
Some astronomers say that the universe is like an elastic band: it expanded at the instant of the Big Bang, and will ultimately be pulped and extinguished in the big crush as everything implodes. So, too, the sun will die, in the unimaginably distant future.
But, nearer to home, planted broad-bean seeds will burst into life, mature, and fade away, as it will be with all the worms, birds, rabbits, and beetles that inhabit the allotments.
Humans are an integral part of this process. That is the way creation operates, inexorably and with great complexity. It is not to be feared. It is no more than the unfolding of a pattern. I recalled visiting a farmer who was ill in hospital. He had been given a three-month prognosis.
“Are you afraid?” I asked. His reply was serene.
“No, Vicar. All my life I’ve watched beasts be born and die. My time has come, and that is it.”
This came as a great reassurance, and I began to view the consultant’s pronouncement less tremulously. The words of the writer of Ecclesiastes seemed singularly apt: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die.”
I liked his matter-of-fact philosophy. It took the drama and shock from death, and depicted it as natural and unremarkable.
I LEFT the allotment determined not to view it all as a total disaster. The pathway leading to the end of life was not a write-off, a time solely for depression and dismay. It was to be no less than another interlude in the extraordinary concatenation of events that make up our living.
As with all journeys, it would doubtless be peppered with pains, frustrations, and fears. But it also held a strange hint of fascination — the awareness that this was to be the exploration of a hitherto untrodden path, in the company of all that I loved.
Maybe it would contain nuggets of delight, such as the time we came across a family of wild tortoises, high up in the mountains behind a Greek village, surrounded by olive trees and blazing sunshine.
I felt a bit like Burke and Wills, setting out to explore the mysterious continent of Australia. I wondered what lay ahead, what I might find.
There was curiosity, too. How would I handle the tough outback territory that had to be crossed?
IT PROVED to be a surprisingly busy time. There were mundane practicalities to sort out. The Inland Revenue would not be happy with incomplete returns. Arrangements had to be made so that bank accounts and savings would not be frozen on my demise. Wills needed checking, and houses revalued, before possible resale and downsizing.
The real spadework revolved around choice. The consultant had clearly outlined the alternatives: try chemotherapy, or do nothing. Both courses had their advantages and pitfalls; each offered a valid route. Treatment might improve the chances of a continuing existence. Possibly it would hit the disease hard, and knock back its rapacious approach — for a while, at least.
There were what the professionals euphemistically call “contra-indications”. The side effects can be unpleasant, but they apparently vary from person to person. You may get off lightly, or it could take its toll.
The logistics of travelling to hospital twice fortnightly, and having prolonged invasive treatment sounded unappealing. There was a further risk of incurring infection, and a possible hospital stay. Finally, the treatment might not work.
Do nothing, and you were transposed into the palliative-care file. Symptoms would be treated if and when they appeared, and a valuable telephone link with the hospital cancer nurse would be maintained. Effectively, this shuffled me from the consultant’s waiting room to the GP’s surgery.
It also meant that I could maintain the status quo for a while — carrying on pottering about in the garden, driving through the Yorkshire Dales, and taking my turn with the household cooking. The downside was that it might deprive me of future years to be enjoyed with a modicum of comfort.
DOMESTIC considerations had to be integrated into the equation. Any decision would affect other members of the family. Whatever I decided could cause them distress, increase their workload, or leave them feeling short-changed. It was only fair to sound them out. Hovering over it all was the razor-edged balance between quality of life, and quantity.
I felt only too keenly the existential angst at the heart of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy. The price of our autonomy is the agony of choice. Situations such as this throw us into a turmoil of indecision, and the bugbear is that we cannot stand on the sidelines and opt out of choos-ing. To do nothing is itself to elect for a particular course.
Like it or not, I had been forced into a corner. A decision had to be made. This called for space, quietness, a touch of spirituality, and a safe place for reflection. So we went to the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham for a few days.
There, amid the incense, with the residue of past prayer and the power of present intercession surrounding us in a miasma of holiness, I made my decision. I would opt for no further treatment.
THERE were hymns to choose for the final send-off, no matter how far in the future it might lie. There was no problem there: pride of place went to Charles Wesley’s “O Thou who camest from above”. Its profound theology, revolving around the reciprocal love that emanates from God’s sacred fire, with the potentiality to burn inextinguishably in the human heart, is unsurpassable.
Then, as a close runner-up, came “All my hope on God is founded”. It crystallises for me the meaning of life, and the essence of the spiritual journey. “Be still for the presence of the Lord . . . is moving in this place” was a must. Always it evokes a sense of the numinous: hear this sung, and you can feel the holiness of the ever-present Lord pulsating around.
As for music, there was always Messiaen’s “Angels” from his La Nativité du Seigneur. It would certainly raise some eyebrows, and leave the rafters ringing with glory. And the organist would have a field day.
TO REMAIN positive in the small hours was a challenge not always met; and, at times, Isaiah’s “Lilith the night-hag” lurked behind the bedroom door, bringing uncertainty and unease.
That said, consolations abounded. Interpersonal relationships took on a poignancy and joy deeper than ever before. Building dens, or incompetently trying to assemble Lego with a grandson was a delight, not a chore. Watching my one-year-old granddaughter trying to pull herself up on two legs and thrusting a book at me, made my day.
There was a thankfulness for the years of marriage I have been given, and immense pleasure when family and close friends called in. On top of that came a great surge of concern from churchgoers and former parishioners, coupled with the promises of prayer, lighted candles, and practical help and support.
Like the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya in her freezing cell in one of the gulags, I seem sometimes to feel a sudden sense of joy and warmth, and a resounding note of love; and I guess that someone is thinking of me, petitioning the Lord for me.
Perceptions are heightened, and it is as if, with William Wordsworth, I have reverted to a time “when meadow, grove, and stream . . . seem Apparelled in celestial light”. We took a trip to a hidden chalk quarry in the Yorkshire Wolds and found bee and pyramid orchids, and rare butterflies, and the psalmist’s words came alive: “I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord, with my whole heart: even before the gods will I sing praise unto thee.”
I can understand how Keats thought it impossible to fear death after hearing the sublime song of the nightingale: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain.”
Humour — that music of the universe — had its place, too.
“What have you decided to do?” the cancer nurse asks.
“I have decided not to have chemotherapy, and not to die just yet,” I reply.
She smiles and pats my arm. “Good on you.”
SPIRITUAL consolations throw us on to more tenuous ground. The pertinent question revolves around whether there is a continued existence after death. True, Christ said that there were many mansions in his father’s house, and that those who trust in him will never die; and St Paul was adamant that not even death could separate us from God’s love. But they could have been speaking metaphorically, or in the parabolic form beloved of Jesus.
The resurrection presents us with another insoluble problem. Is it to be viewed as historical fact, or is it a pictorial explication of the fact that no human situation lies beyond redemption, and that hope, love, and compassion can spring like fresh green corn out of the final part of the human journey and death itself?
We may have resounding faith in eternal life, or our thoughts may veer towards an agnosticism and the iteration “I just don’t know.” In the last resort, it is not something that can be verified empirically.
So, in the face of this, I find the way of unknowing so beloved of the mystics to be more reassuring. St John of the Cross had this to say: “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he travels on he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” Angelus Silesius put it like this: “When challenged to explain the Absolute I shall fall still. I shall be silent as a mute.”
The anonymous medieval mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing had a workaday, cheerful approach that arouses my admiration: “Strike hard at that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of love. And don’t give up, whatever happens.”
AS I DRAW nearer to the end of the journey, one thing becomes clear. Faith is not a pathway leading to certainty, but the road to knowing nothing, and leaving all in the hands of the unseen, unimaginable Lord of the Universe.
That is not a confession of defeat — far from it. It is an underlining of Mother Julian’s well-known words: “But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” I can rest content with that.
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.