As I hung up the phone, the drone of the television in the living room reported moment-by-moment news, some true and some outlandish guesses, about two planes that had crashed into New York City’s Twin Towers. It was only 9:00 a.m. on the West Coast.
I looked out the window at Monterey Bay. The waves broke and gulls shrieked as they flew overhead. Everything looked normal.
I asked Dad to turn off the television and told him the news. “The doctor just called to say that you have widespread cancer in both lungs.”
“Oh,” Dad replied.
In the context of burning buildings and staggering losses, what were we to do with news of a personal tragedy? Dad turned the television back on. I walked out of the room.
Later, when the TV was turned off and the news had sunk in, Dad talked about his willingness to have chemotherapy. “I’m not afraid to lose my hair,” he said, running his fingers through the few hairs remaining on his balding head.
A few days later I returned home to take my first-born son to college. When he’d graduated from High School a few months before, Dad was delighted and looked healthy. Now he was dying.
Six hundred and thirty miles away from the University, a man who thrived in solitude pondered much in his heart. When I returned to see him the following week, Dad told me in a strong and steady voice, “I don’t want any treatment for this cancer. I’ve led a full life, and I am ready to die.”
I was grateful that he’d decided not to pursue treatment but was startled to hear him speak so directly of his death.
As soon as I could be alone, I reached out to a friend, seeking comfort for my grieving heart. She listened to the full range of my emotions, then said, “Just remember, death is safe.”
Side-by-side with my sadness, I knew that she was right. Settling into the reality of Dad’s illness without fighting it, I became able to accompany him moment by moment.
Fourteen years later, I am haunted by the diagnosis I hear from many sources: civilization as I have known it has tumors in its lungs too. It is dying.
The day the towers fell and my dad began his walk toward death, there was a window of time where my nation could have made a choice to grieve, to come together to look inside at the shadows that have long been present within the twin towers of money and military power. Unfortunately, we made a different choice—violence and retaliation.
Today, as we try to extricate ourselves from those wars we entered on a lie, Iraq is in crisis. Far too many on all sides have died. Far too much money was diverted away from programs that serve life toward war. Again. And again. And again.
Pollution. Climate change. Wealth inequities. Fear. Fracking. Greed. Violence. These are growing out of control. The facts are easily accessible to anyone interested in looking at our culture’s horrifying CAT scan.
If we choose to cling to life as we have known it, to demand cultural chemotherapy even though it won’t do any good, it will be hard to move forward. Desperate attempts to treat the societal tumors in an attempt to get back to normal won’t bring the healing we need to thrive for today or generations to come. That which is diseased needs to die so that something new can be born.
Looks can be deceiving. Dad looked healthy at the graduation in June, but his cancer was growing inside. Likewise, appearances of economic recovery can hide the fact that the cancer of ever-expanding growth continues to spread. Hanging on to the old life and refusing to grieve the losses makes it hard to see, or tend to, the tender new sprouts that are already emerging in unexpected places.
Dad, a precise man who liked to be in control, made a different choice when he could see his life fading away. Walking with him in the last three weeks of his life, he taught me many lessons about how to find life right in the middle of death.
Death is safe. Life is safe. Clinging will kill a person or a culture. It is our choice.
This is the first in a series about Living while Dying on our way to something new. I offer this in honor of my father, Edward Victor Mathys (1921-2001), during his birthday month.
Much of this blog was excerpted from my book Big Topics at Midnight: A Texas Girl Wakes Up to Race, Class, Gender and Herself, pages 140-145.
Photograph by Judy Bork.