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Bad tidings of great joy: the unexpected gift

22 December 2023

The consultant’s message to Simon Wilkinson was not good news. Or so he thought. . .

David Hares

Canon Simon Wilkinson: “My family say this is a good representation of how they think of me”

Canon Simon Wilkinson: “My family say this is a good representation of how they think of me”

IT WAS noon on Christmas Eve. “You can go in now,” the secretary said; so we — my wife, Becky, and I — knocked on the door, and went into the oncology consultant’s office. “Do you know why you’re here?” she asked, and I said I thought it was something to do with the blood tests that I had had a few days earlier. She said, “Yes, well, you’re right in a sense. I have bad news. The blood tests revealed that you have prostate cancer, and I’m afraid to tell you that it is terminal. There is nothing we can do for you because your PSA is so very high.”

We just sat there, expressionless; completely taken aback by what we had just been told. She continued: “Your PSA really should be no higher than five, and yours is 795; so you can see that it is beyond remedy. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?” and I think I managed to stutter: “Is there no more that can be done?” She said: “Well, there is one form of injection that might possibly have some delaying effect, but I’m not sure whether we have any left in the pharmacy, and it costs £12,000 per injection. I’ll write you a prescription, and you can go down to the hospital pharmacy and see if they have any in stock.”

We sped to the pharmacy, to be told there was one dose left. We grabbed it, and returned to the consultant, who said: “Good. Let’s do it right away.” Once that was finished, I said, “Do you have any idea of the length of time I have left?” She replied: “We don’t usually like to make predictions, but I think realistically you’ve got about two to three months, with a maximum of one year.”

When we left her office, we went straight to the chapel, where we sat down, looked at each other, burst into tears, and held each other. For a while, we couldn’t say anything, until, eventually, I said I thought we shouldn’t tell the rest of the family until after Christmas Day, once I had completed all the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.

All this, with its prognosis that I had at most one year to live, happened ten years ago.

IT HAD begun in the previous October (2013), when the father-in-law of one of my daughters very kindly invited my wife and me to stay with him for a week at his residence in Jamaica. This was something that we were delighted to accept. We had a lovely few days until two days before our departure, when I went swimming in the afternoon, and felt great pain in my back. Not knowing what had caused it, my wife suggested that I should keep as still as possible, and we should get in touch with the doctor as soon as we got home.

On our return, I saw a doctor, who said that she would refer me to the physiotherapists for exercises and massage. The pain continued — and, indeed, increased; so the doctor prescribed painkillers. None of this made much difference, but I didn’t feel that I ought to go back to the doctor, so just carried on until the week before Christmas when, on waking up one morning, I found that I simply could not move.

The pain in my back was excruciating, and so my wife rang the doctor, who told me to come to the surgery right away. When I was called in, she took one look at me and said that she thought that something was very wrong. She took bloods, and told me to await a call from the hospital with the results.

The call told me to go to the consultant the following day — Christmas Eve: not the best time to be away from the parish. We did as we were told, however, and reported to the consultant, who gave us the bad news.

As we drove home to a vicarage full of some of our children and grandchildren, we tried hard to work out how to hide the news, but found we just couldn’t: we had to tell our two daughters, who knew that something was up.

They were, of course, devastated, and it was a time of tears and hugs before we were ready to go back out to the grandchildren, whom we did not tell. Then I rang one of my sons (who was spending Christmas at home with his wife and child), and he immediately got in the car and drove to us. Our final phone call was to our second son, who was living in Dubai; again, it was a very difficult conversation, but we were able to persuade him not to jump on the first plane and come home, but to await further news.

It was very hard to conduct the traditional family crib service, with about 400 people, mostly very young and very excited. We wished them all a happy Christmas, not really knowing what our Christmas Day was going to be like. Afterwards, one of the curates came to the vicarage to hear the results of my blood tests; when I told her the news, she offered to take the midnight mass and the eight o’clock communion on Christmas Day, which was enormously helpful. Had she not done so, I really don’t know whether I would have been able to take those services without breaking down.

AFTER Christmas, Becky and I had to work out how we were going to cope with the diagnosis, and what, going forward, it would mean for our family. I found it astonishing that, having preached resurrection for 40 years as a parish priest, I was very emotional about what looked like being the end of my life on this earth, and, I hoped, my return “home”. The hospital gave me some strong painkillers, and — as a CT scan showed secondaries in my spine and ribs — monthly injections.

I felt that I needed to talk to those who would be best placed to help Becky and me through all this. My spiritual director — a monk at an Anglican monastery, to whom I had been going for spiritual advice and confession for some 26 years — was very helpful. My bishop was also a source of enormous support. The cathedral precentor at the time had been given a similar sort of diagnosis for a different disease, and so we began to meet and discuss our experiences and our thoughts about the future.

Rachel MaguireThe author, taken by his daughter

As a result of these conversations, he and I wrote an article for the journal Theology, in which we were able to be honest about how we felt — both in the present, and for the future. (I am glad to report that, ten years on, he, too, is still alive.)

Becky and I decided that we would be open about the diagnosis. Family and friends, parishioners, relatives, all those whom we knew — when they asked, as people do, “How are you?”, we told them the news. Initially, it was extraordinarily difficult to be able to talk about it with people without becoming emotional; in fact, I found that I could not ring my 90-year-old mother to tell her the news; so I asked one of my sisters to do it for me. My mother took it very well; being a devout woman, she would, I knew, immediately take it to God in her prayers.

Becky also asked whether my name could be included in the cathedral’s weekly list of those in need of prayer. This meant that an even wider circle of people were aware of the situation, and their prayers were clearly very helpful to us. When one of my brothers posted on Facebook that prayers were needed, 50 Muslims, Jews, and Christians responded positively. As time went by, seeing that I was not yet dying, people would ask how I was getting on, and my response was always that I was being kept alive by the prayers of the saints.

I HAVE been enormously strengthened by being able to talk about what is going on — with Becky, obviously, but also with all the other members of my family (through to my grandchildren), so that there is no hidden agenda. Even six-year-old Becca calls herself Nursey-Nursey; when she hears the alarm that indicates my pills are due, she will rush to fetch them from Becky, and give them to me, one by one.

They are all aware that I am dying, and that — at some stage, sooner or later — I will actually die; but I think, when the time comes, they will recognise that we have used this extra time well. Talking with the grandchildren is a very important part of my illness: my hope is that, by seeing my gradual deterioration, they will have a better understanding when they are told about someone else who has got that dreaded word, “cancer”.

THERE are a number of things in my relationship with my wife, Becky, which have changed since I was diagnosed. My background was of boarding at a prep school and public school; then joining the police force; then being ordained; and, for 25 years, being a Territorial Army padre. At the time, all those jobs were very much “stiff upper lip”, and, although Becky and I have had a wonderful relationship for 51 years, for 41 of those years I found myself unable to say to her “I love you.”

That may sound extraordinary — and, indeed, it is — but it was part of the way of life that all those jobs (wrongly) seemed to me to require. But, as soon as we received the diagnosis and went into the hospital chapel to try to take on board what we had just been told, my tongue was loosed to use those words “I love you,” and, subsequently, I have said them to her over and over again, both when we are alone, and also when we are in company.

Very closely allied to saying “I love you” was the fact that I had never cried — at least, not, I suppose, since I was aged about ten or 11, at prep school. It was definitely not the done thing to cry at public school; and those who did cry, for whatever reason, were — I am ashamed to say — mercilessly bullied for it. In the police force, I saw many devastating things happening to other people: there were horrible car crashes with multiple injuries, shocking cases of domestic abuse, and dreadful attempted murders — but I had to maintain control.

While I was in the Territorial Army, I served for a while on the front line. During the Balkan war, in the year 2000. I was stationed in Pristina, Kosovo; while there, one of our soldiers was shot dead. The fact that he was just 18 or 19 — and that the other members of his patrol were roughly the same age — just emphasised the awfulness of what took place. None the less, it was not for the padre to weep in front of the soldiers, but, rather, to sit alongside them, and allow them to dictate the agenda — just sitting in silence, or trying to give them comfort when they broke down.

IT WAS much the same during my 40 years of ordained ministry. Every priest is regularly faced with the most ghastly situations, and is required to be there and try to help in one way or another. The death of a child or a baby, people cut down in mid-life by cancer, the breakdown of families, and so many other things — all had to be met with compassion, and it was not until afterwards that I would be able to let off steam with Becky. She has the wonderful gift of being able to bring comfort to all those in need — and, frequently, the one in need was myself.

With all that in the background, it is remarkable that, just minutes after being told that I had terminal cancer, I was able to cry with Becky in the chapel. Ever since, when things in my health have been challenging, I have continued to be able to cry with Becky.

Over the past ten years, these two things have been an enormous help to me, and I am so grateful to God that he has been able to help me turn the huge negative of the diagnosis into an enormous positive of a new stage in our marriage.

ONE of the doctors at our local hospital wrote in his report: “Reverend Wilkinson continues to astound me with his ability to stay alive.” Thinking that I had a limited time left, I decided to follow Jean Pierre de Caussade’s advice in Abandonment to Divine Providence, in which he talks about “the sacrament of the present moment”. Wasting time would be the worst option I could take; so I decided that I would need to have a daily timetable of prayer, meditation, and reading. Over the ten years since my diagnosis, my daily timetable has changed quite a bit, because — as I speak to other people, and read widely — I feel I have got to know God at a deeper level.

Karl Barth said: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” I have some daily building blocks, all joined together by the mortar of the Jesus Prayer. Let me explain. I spend the first hour of the morning silently reciting the Jesus Prayer. Then I say matins, and have half an hour of private prayer. Then my wife and I discuss the readings of the day, and what they may — or may not — have said to us.

Afterwards, if we have no plans, I read a book that may help me in my spiritual life and growth. At midday, I say the midday office — sometimes with a small group on Zoom; otherwise, on my own. After lunch, I have my daily meditation for an hour. I read evensong in the afternoon, and the rest of the day is unstructured.

This kind of disciplined approach might fill many people with alarm — and there are occasions when it is not possible for me to excuse myself from family or friends because I want to attend to my prayer life.

SOMETIMES, I have said that I am grateful to God for the cancer. That may sound extraordinary, but I know that, without the cancer, I would have spent my retirement very differently. For me to have gone deeper in a life of prayer and silence is more important than having done a multitude of other things. In a television interview in 2017, the playwright Dennis Potter said (cf. de Caussade), “The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that now-ness becomes so vivid that, in a perverse sort of way, I am almost serene.” He was already riddled with cancer, and died just two months later.

During lockdown, technology made possible keeping in touch with people remotely, or attending online services. In addition, on those days when I am feeling very unwell and unable to do anything other than lie in bed, I can still listen to the Offices, or to beautiful religious music (which affects me emotionally); or I can just repeat the Jesus prayer, and feel myself being comforted by the Lord, and by the prayers of the Church.

The introduction of live-streamed services has enabled me to continue to feel part of the body of Christ. I am also enormously indebted to some of my friends who are priests, and who will bring me communion if I go for a number of Sundays without receiving the sacrament.

JESUS said: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born anew.” It is a hard thing to say, but I do believe that my diagnosis of cancer was the time that I was born again.

I had arranged so many things for my upcoming retirement, and the diagnosis put an end to all of them; I remember the African saying, “God laughs at your plans.” But, in place of those things, I feel that I have been able to reach an entirely new depth in my relationship with God, and to grow spiritually in a way that I don’t think I otherwise would have done.

My daily meditation/contemplation leaves me waiting in silence in God’s presence. Thomas Merton quotes St Macarius, one of the Desert Fathers, who says: “Meditation is that prayer of the heart, which consists in invoking the name of Christ, with profound attention, in the very ground of one’s being; that is to say in the heart.”

In times past, I always needed to do some kind of work in my mind to know that I was in the presence of God. What I now realise is that “work” or “expectation” is the very opposite of what meditation is all about. In the third of his Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot says that “[Old] men ought to be explorers”, and continues, “We must be still and still moving into another intensity.” “Still, and still moving” may sound like a contradiction, but I have found that the stillness and silence of meditation has indeed led me to, as Eliot says, “another intensity, a deeper communion”.

BEFORE beginning meditation, it is good to pray that we can overcome any external noise, and — even more importantly — that we can meet all those thoughts that seek to come between ourselves and God, by praying that we can notice when our attention has wandered.

Also, before starting our time of meditation, we should make confession of our sins. If I don’t do this, it is almost as if there is a wall between God and myself, and I am unable to be at one with him because of the sin that exists between us. I am very much reminded of the story of Mary and Martha: for most of my life, I have been the Martha figure, rushing around and trying to do far too much. Jesus said that it was Mary, who simply sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he had to say, who had the better part.

Helped by Becky, I have to recognise that my body can no longer do the things I used to enjoy doing. Under the maxim “Use it or lose it”, I have been encouraged by my GP to take as much exercise as I can. In the course of my illness, my mobility has decreased significantly; initially, it upset me to realise that I was getting weaker and weaker, but I have come to recognise that I am no longer in control — ultimately, I think it is a question of simple acceptance.

Many people, faced with such a diagnosis, are understandably both very upset and very angry — angry with God, and angry that such a thing could happen to them. “Why me?” is their cry, and I completely understand how feelings of anger can come to the fore at such a time. It is something that I have come across all too frequently during my years of parish ministry. Someone must be to blame, and so the anger is directed against God, or the NHS, or whomever. For myself, I can only say, honestly and surprisingly, that I had no feelings of anger towards God or anyone else.

While it quite natural to think along such lines, stepping back slightly from the immediate situation allows us to recognise that we live in a world where such things are a breath away from each of us, all the time. When Winnie-the-Pooh is sailing across a pond one day on an empty honey-pot, he says to his friend: “I ought to say that it isn’t just an ordinary sort of boat. Sometimes it’s a Boat, and sometimes it’s more of an Accident. It all depends.” “Depends on what?” he is asked. “On whether I’m on top of it or underneath it.”

I feel that getting angry, or becoming depressed, or withdrawing into ourselves, is only going to make the situation worse. What we have to do, I think, is try our utmost to change this terrible situation into something positive.

Talking is one way in which we can begin to understand why we are so angry, and I have found that friends, colleagues, the Macmillan Cancer Trust, and many others have been extraordinarily helpful. Stepping back from what is happening to me has helped me to understand that we live in a world in which we do not have protection from illness, whether or not we are religious.

IN HIS book Domestic Monastery, Ronald Rolheiser succinctly says: “Anything we do to prepare for death should not be morbid or be something that distances or separates us from life and each other. We don’t prepare for death by withdrawing from life; the opposite is true. What prepares us for death, anoints us for it in Christ’s phrase, is a deeper, more intimate, fuller entry into life. We get ready for death by beginning to live our lives as we should have been living them all along.”

For me, that is the radical answer to the question of preparing for death. What each one of us needs to do is to open our minds to be more receptive to people of other faiths, different political persuasions, indeed, of all that divides us, one from another. Again, as Rolheiser says, “The best way we can prepare to die is to begin to stretch our hearts to love ever wider and wider, to begin to love in a way that takes us beyond the natural narrowness and discrimination that exists within our hearts, because of temperament, wound, timidity, ignorance, selfishness, race, gender, religion, circumstance, and our place in history.”

For me, that involves a great deal of work. Having been brought up in a middle-class family, with typically middle-class attitudes to ways of behaviour, and people of other faiths, colour, or ethnic origin, I need now to be earnestly seeking to embrace all those who formerly I have in any way unintentionally disdained. With the time left to me, I am working hard — through books, conversations, and prayer — to rectify, at least to some extent, where I now understand that I have been wrong.

Ultimately, I rest upon the absolute forgiveness of God for all those sins of which I am guilty. With his help, I look forward with confidence to the future.

Canon Simon Wilkinson is a retired priest living in Salisbury.

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