I am thinking of two friends from church with advanced cancer, both men about my age, 60-ish.
One has a high-grade brain tumor, persistent after standard therapy and more than one experimental new treatment. He’s a fighter, looking for something new to try. He’s an ex-Marine, famously fit at baseline, willing and able to tolerate some toxicity. He also tells me that he is trusting Christ more than ever, and his devotional life is stronger than ever. Although he’s pretty stoic, his tears up easily, in part because of the effects of his disease on his emotional processing, in part because having the illness seems to have brought him low. In his younger days, he published some papers on bioethics—on end-of-life issues.
The other one has colon cancer, metastatic to his liver. After the disease grew despite multiple tries at chemotherapy that, frankly, just made him sicker, he stopped active treatment of his tumor and started home hospice with the best current palliative care available. On that, his condition has improved, and he’s done well for the better part of a year. But he is in pain, some days worse than others. He’s candid but reserved about his experience, also stoic. He tells me to “keep working on miracles.” (I work in clinical development of experimental drugs for cancer.) I tell him there is only One miracle worker. And, to his and my shock and outrage, some people have actually gone to him and asked him whether he would consider assisted suicide.
By the way, both of their wives are stalwarts, even heroic, IMHO.
Of course, none of knows how many more Christmases we will see, how many more times we will turn the calendar. But the question is more acute for these two men.
I expect that both of them, when they leave this earth, will enter into the eternal joy of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am sure that each of them holds fast to that assurance. Still, I can see in their faces and hear in their voices real trepidation at the prospect of passing “through the veil.” I think of a third friend from church, who has endured multiple myeloma for 14 years and counting, saying that he does not fear death but he is not looking forward to the point of dying. I think of Woody Allen’s quip, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I think of Christian, in The Pilgrim’s Progress,, fearful that he will not endure the passage through the river to the Celestial City, and his fellow traveler telling him that “Jesus Christ will make you whole.”
It’s one thing for an amateur bioethicist like me to press confidently my arguments about what should or should not be our actions, our perspective, in the end stages of life. And, of course, whether one believes in the prospect of a happy afterlife must drive one’s view of the end of this one. I am watching these two men as carefully as I can for lessons on how I should behave, at the time, if my latter days afford some advance warning about the end. They are models of dignity. I am reminded that, in my time, my ethical convictions may be tested.
And so, yet without irresolution, I am humbled in this season, when Christians like me celebrate the advent of Life Abundant and Eternal, Who, in His sacrifice and resurrection, defeated death and secured everlasting hope for His people.