Monday, August 22, 2011

About an Anguished Ramble

I shouldn't be writing this. First, I learned some bad news. Second, I took comfort in a pint of Vodka.

That said, I'm rather inebriated and emotionally exhausted. Before you critique my arguments, take these points into consideration.

My father died when I was five years old. He died of cancer, which he developed due to exposure to the chemicals in Agent Orange. He wasn't a soldier; he was a forester. As I understand it, his job involved regrowing timber from clear-cut areas. One of the first things in order was to kill undergrowth in order to foster samplings. One of the barrels filled with the herbicide leaked into the bed of his pickup truck. He cleaned it himself without special equipment because he did not know how dangerous the materials were.

I remember my father being sick. I recall his hair falling out in clumps from the chemotherapy, but I didn't know the first thing about chemotherapy or cancer. I remember how often he was in the hospital, and I remember having to be good around him because he was so unwell. I remember all the people in our living room on the day that he died. They were all so quiet, but I didn't understand the gravity of the situation.

In retrospect, given the medicine of the early 1980s, my father had no real chance. My Uncle Dan donated bone marrow, but that wasn't enough. My Uncle Steve prayed everyday that God would shower my father with His grace, but it was all for naught.

Years after my father's death, I learned the story of it. Two people were present: my Uncle Steve and my mother.

My Uncle Steve had been in a car crash years earlier and suffered brain damage. He had his wits, but to this day he suffers vocal and motor limitations. Before his accident, he had been a man of the moment. Drugs, alcohol, and a good time were pretty much what he looked forward to. In a way, his accident saved him because it humbled him. He came to know God and to believe in Jesus' redemptive powers. To him, the accident had been a wake up call, and he was now awake.

Armed with his faith, my Uncle Steve decided that he would pray and that the Lord, in all His love and power, would hear his prayers. He prayed for my father, and he stood by my father's sickbed more than anyone besides my mother.

While my father laid on his deathbed--no one knew at the time exactly how soon the end would come--, my mother and my Uncle Steve were by his side. At some point, he asked my Uncle Steve to go and locate some ice cream. My uncle obliged. While my father laid there with just my mother, he expressed his fears and his grief to her.

He knew what was coming.

His breathing had been labored, but it became worse. I don't know what his last words were--I've either been too young or too--I don't know if I've been too afraid, too embarrassed, or what--to ask, but I like to think that he told my mother how much he loved her and that he had full faith in her ability to care for his children.

He died before my uncle could return with the ice cream.

For obvious reasons, this was a pivotal moment in my life. Nevertheless, I haven't thought enough about what it meant to my uncle. My Uncle Steve had prayed with all his might that God would show mercy on him. He'd had faith in the efficacy of prayer. But for what? My father suffered and died despite the prayers of many.

I don't know what kind of soul-searching my Uncle Steve did in the aftermath of my father's death, but I don't remember a day when he wasn't a devout Christian. He must have been devastated. He must have been out of his wits, for a moment. But in the end, he must also have understood that God's Will is often beyond our understanding.

And he accepted that.

Now my Uncle Steve has cancer. He hasn't drank a beer or smoked anything since his accident. He's always tried to eat healthy: lots of fiber, fewer sugars and fats. Still, he has cancer.

While my father knew that he would leave behind two children as his legacy, my Uncle Steve has never been married. He's been somewhat a recluse, due mostly to his handicap--people often assume that he's drunk because of his slurred speech and awkward motor skills. He has his brother, my Uncle Dan, and his sister, my Aunt Kellee, but I have this terrible sense that he feels that he's about to die alone.

Yes, I know that he's not going to die straightaway. He's already scheduled for chemotherapy. Nevertheless, he must know that the end in sight. His cancer is "treatable, but not curable," whatever that means. Isn't that pretty much the rule for all cancers? The thing is that it has spread from his gall bladder to his liver and lungs. I think that means stage 4 cancer, and the doctors are more concerned with "buying time" than with eliminating the cancer.

My Uncle Steve taught me to appreciate history. He had many books and was always up for a discussion. He taught me to appreciate classic rock. We took a month-long camping trip during the summer in which I turned 13, and the whole time we listened to cassette tapes of everything from Jim Croce through Lynyrd Skynyrd. Through my Uncle Steve, I learned the lesson that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade.

Regarding my current profession, three people have been the most influential: Jim Lockerbie, Thomas Conner, and my Uncle Steve. I admire my Uncle Steve, and I've much to say to him, but I don't know what to say. I remember the last time I saw my grandfather--Uncle Steve's dad. I was on the way to the airport with my wife and two children, and we stopped by the hospital so that I could say farewell to my grandpa. I think the both of us knew that we'd never see each other again. I wept like a child when the doctors took him to whatever test or treatment they were performing, and for the first time in my memory, I saw my grandfather cry.

My grandfather died of cancer a few months later. I had the plane ticket to come see him one last time, and he died a few hours before my plane took off.

I'd say "God damn cancer," but to me it seems more like "God uses cancer." Now I can take that in two ways. First, I can take it as God uses cancer to screw with people, to make their final weeks dreadful and to milk anguish from all loved ones. Another way is to say that God knows everything. He understands that we grieve, but he knows the big picture that we do not. I could try to fathom it and explain it in this post, but that would be fruitless. I could no more explain God's omniscience than I could explain the deepest mysteries of quantum physics. Heck, at least a physicist can try to explain quantum physics. Ask a priest about God's Will, and you end up with more questions and doubt than you started with.

I'd like to wrap this up now because it's a rambling mess. Many whom I've loved have died of cancer. My father, his father, my maternal grandmother, my wife's grandfather, and more. Praying hard won't cure cancer. My Uncle will live for a year, a few years, many years, or he may die soon. My prayers won't matter. As much as this fact irks me, I must confess that I cannot claim to know a better way. I am weak. I pray not because it will accomplish my will but because my will is insufficient.

Here then, is my prayer:

Lord, do what you must with my Uncle Steve. He is a good man, and he is beloved by many. If you must take him slowly and with great pain, keep us clear headed. Send us comfort in a random song on the radio. Cool our tempers with a soft breeze. Give him the strength that he needs, and give me and my family the strength that we need. In short, help him first, but then help me.

Thy Will be done.

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