Saturday, 18 October 2008
In The Midst Of Life We Are In Death
This has been a long and busy week, dominated by death: three deaths in particular.
On Wednesday I conducted the funeral of Diane Campbell-Hunt. Diane was about two weeks younger than me; a still, secure, beautiful woman who was a musician and singer and mother and academic and wife and friend. Look up the word Greenie in the dictionary and there is a photo of Diane. She was passionate about the planet and the life that grows on it in all its forms. She was also passionate about people: about her husband Colin and their melded family of six extraordinary children; about her many friendships; about people who are oppressed and disadvantaged. Ten days ago, she was tramping on Mt. Taranaki with her daughter Katherine. A vastly experienced and sensible mountaineer, she was swept away by a swollen river in one of those absolute accidents to which no blame could ever be set and for which no explanation could ever be given. The shock of her death was, to me, an almost physical blow; she was so alive, so vital. So on Wednesday, with our little church and its two adjacent halls crammed to bursting with similarly shocked people who had gathered from all over the country, we celebrated her and wept.
Later in the week I visited the family of Gwen, an elderly woman I have known for about a decade. Gwen suffered many life threatening illnesses: diabetes, heart conditions and, recently, kidney problems. On Monday night I took the eucharist to her in hospital where she had been rushed earlier in the day. She was very ill, but Gwen had been very ill many times before, and recovered. I left soon after we had prayed together, fully expecting that her quiet strength would pull her through yet again. Not this time. She died early the next morning, and her funeral will be held early next week. She will be surrounded by friends because, as it was with Diane, she was one of those people whom many others admire and trust.
Yesterday the same hospital sent me a letter with an appointment to see yet another medical professional and talk about my options for treatment. I have been reading about prostate cancer which is a complex disease, and the consensus seems to be that with the particular combination of factors my illness has presented to me, the issue is not so much cure as management of symptoms. I have a high Gleason score, the cancer had spread outside the prostate and after radical prostatectomy I have a measurable PSA level. In the giddy world of prostate fashions, this is not a good look. The good news is that, often, the symptoms can be managed, quite effectively and for many years. This is, though, a disease of the urinary and reproductive system and the symptoms are ones which will strike at my self esteem and dignity and sense of manhood. Given the certainty that it will accelerate the advent of these issues, do I want them blasting away with external beam radiation on the off chance that it might - but only might - increase my life span a bit? Should I rely on the diet and meditation which are already having a measurable effect on my waistline, at least? Are the trinkets of my self esteem and dignity and sense of manhood heavy enough to weigh against the real treasures which an extended life might give me?
I have had a recurring fantasy all this week. A blood red Ducati. Panniers in which a minimal amount of belongings are stashed and a stretch of winding open road. I know it is escapist nonsense. I know that I haven't been on a bike for so long that 1100cc of highly tuned Italian motorcycle engine would probably see me off within the month. But I know that given my choices I would rather go like Diane than like Gwen: passionate, full of life and doing something rich and real, rather than having my body fall to bits slowly over the years.
This week I minister at the deaths of two people and say what I know to be true. In the midst of life we are in death, and the choice of when and how is never ours. Knowing this fact, that death is close and unpredictable, and accepting it, is what both Gwen and Diane, in their own ways, managed to do. It was, I think, one of the things that made both of them the compelling people they were. I hope that I, in my turn, can manage it also.