A BRUSH WITH DEATH
“Do not be afraid. Only believe.”
I had a brush with death recently: sudden and chilling.
For a few weeks I’d had a pain in my lower abdomen – not much to write home about – just a sort of dull ache which kept me awake at night. Men seem particularly reluctant to visit the doctor but my wife and children quite rightly badgered me into going.
He examined me, did a few standard tests – including the inevitable blood test for prostate cancer – but everything seemed fine. He told me to come back in a few weeks if the pain persisted. It did, so reluctantly (after more sensible “persuasion” by my family) I returned for a further consultation. After another inconclusive examination he declared himself at a loss and sent me off for an ultra sound scan. I began to feel more and more like a fraud and a squanderer of precious NHS resources.
I had the scan on mid-winter’s day (rather appropriately as it turned out) and was treated as usual with great skill and care by the NHS staff. I’d had a similar procedure the previous year in connection with an unrelated matter and they had been able to confirm immediately afterwards that all was well. On this second occasion, however, when I asked if everything was ok, they were a little more circumspect and said they would have to run the results past the radiologist before contacting my GP. I seem to recall this caused only the tiniest tremor in my consciousness – somewhere I was sure that all was well.
One of my daughters is a GP (I’ll call her Rachel) and having heard what the sonographer had said she insisted I pick up the results from the GP the next morning (I had assumed they would not be ready for weeks and had conveniently pushed the matter to the back of my mind).
So three days before Christmas I strolled into the surgery and was told that the doctor had just looked at my results and I was able to have a copy. I walked to the car park and glanced down hurriedly at the text (we were rushing off to the Trafford Centre and needed to miss the worst of the traffic). The thrust of the report was this: I had secondary cancer in my liver, arising from a primary source, probably in the bowel. As I type this I am trying to recall my initial reaction: mostly a sort of numbness I think, a rapid closing down of the emotions, a feeling that it was simply a question of rewinding the last ten seconds and replaying them, this time with a different outcome.
My dear wife then arrived – she had just picked up a prescription – and looked with interest at this unexpected news. She is extraordinarily calm in a crisis (and with our large family we’ve had a few) and has the wonderful ability to assess a situation instantaneously and see the right course of action. The Trafford Centre was off the agenda.
She rang Rachel with details of this unexploded bomb and said we would be coming round straightaway for advice. She lives about 30 minutes away. When we arrived another of my daughters, who is a nurse (call her Rose) was also there. Immediately my wife and I sensed that the atmosphere in the house was very unusual – they have six children between them and normally they would be running around and happily causing havoc and mayhem. They had been removed from the scene by their dads. There was a strange calm. Clearly my daughters meant business.
Rachel examined the report – she had done this hundreds of times. She tried, God bless her, to make the best of it –there was no mention, for example, of malignancy in other organs – but she looked straight at me and said “Dad, don’t Google this – it wouldn’t be helpful”. I have to say that the tears in both their eyes provided a more penetrating assessment of the prognosis than any search engine. Having Googled it since, I understand their advice.
But they were both upbeat and positive and set out the steps that would now follow, including a CT scan to obtain a precise diagnosis. My nervous system, fortunately, was still in lock-down. That evening my own GP rang to confirm the likely action and to agree that the probable primary malignancy was in the bowel. At this stage we decided to tell only close family and one or two others until after the CT scan.
All our children are extremely determined and will fight for a good cause to the bitter end. Rachel and Rose now got into gear and started to provide me with all the background medical information and supports I might need. I received an email that night telling me that they had begun a novena to Our Lady, and had contacted a Carmelite Convent dear to my heart (see my blog “The One Thing Necessary”) to ask for special prayers. “Don’t worry dad”, said Rachel – “we’re covering all the bases”.
I was more moved by all this than I can say.
A friend then texted to say that she had elicited the immediate help of a contemplative convent in Wales who were already praying for me.
I began my own prayers. To Our Lord and Our Lady of course and to the big guns – St Michael, St Therese ( much loved by our family (see my blog “Prophet of Nothingness” )), Padre Pio and my Guardian Angel (who I often overlook, alas). But also to three Ampleforth Benedictines I have known and who, I am confident (certain in fact), are in Heaven – Fathers Rupert, Ambrose and Theodore. I am a great believer in the Communion of Saints!
As always happens, if we ask we are given what we need in these circumstances and into my inbox, out of the blue on that day popped an email about an Italian priest Don Dolindo (1882 – 1970) a simple man known for his holiness (No less a person than Padre Pio called him a living saint). He taught that we should bring all our worries and fears to the Lord and then be at peace. Jesus had said to him:
“Leave the cares of your affairs to me and everything will be peaceful. A thousand prayers do not equal one act of abandonment. Don’t ever forget it. There is no better novena than this: O Jesus, I abandon myself to you. Jesus, you take over.”
Well, in my own stumbling, half-hearted way, that is what I tried to do.
I certainly can’t say I was always peaceful at that time! Numb mainly, but also at times death showed its dark aspect. The worst thing of course was thought of leaving my dear wife, children and grandchildren (all those beloved faces!) and the thought that they would be sad. I believe of course that we will all be reunited in Heaven, but it is surely part of being human that the prospect of death is at times horrible and frightening – it was for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and St Paul acknowledged that it wasn’t easy! When asked recently whether he feared death, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said “in a certain respect, yes…My father always had a fear of death and it has endured with me…despite all the confidence I have that the loving God cannot forsake me, the closer you come to his face the more intensely you feel how much you have done wrong…” (Benedict XVI – Last Testament – 2016). And here is Wendy Beckett: “Death is hateful; we were not made for it”. At those times I tried to say Don Dolindo’s novena. The prospect of death is wonderful for the fervour of your prayer life!
I thought of those without any hope of an afterlife – how truly bleak the prospect of death must be. Surely God has a special love and care for them- He has told us he will make sure not one of them is lost (Luke 15: 3-7).
I managed to get an early appointment for my full CT Scan and together with my wife and Rachel I travelled to the hospital on a beautiful sunny morning – we were all strangely buoyant – perhaps it was the life-size crib in the reception area of the hospital – a “good sign” as Rachel said. As ever the NHS staff were brilliant and the whole procedure, including extensive blood tests, was over in an hour. I had been told that the results would not be available for a day or two so I was determined to “hide” psychologically in the period of uncertainly and ignorance.
That same afternoon, however, my wife answered a call on my phone. It was from Rachel. I knew that this was a pivotal moment in my life. I could tell immediately that she was full of emotion and for a second I tried to gather my own feelings together. And then she said in a voice full of astonishment and incredulity: “Dad, it’s benign. There is no malignancy anywhere”. I think at this point my emotional blockade was breached and I was unable to say anything. I just handed the phone back. My GP daughter and her nurse sister are hard-headed medical practitioners but they were in no doubt that a miracle had occurred.
All the family are in a WhatsApp group and I was able to send the most relieved group text of my life.
What am I to make of all this? The first emotion of course was one of overwhelming gratitude – to those we had prayed to and to all those family and close friends who has supported me and my wife in all this, and of course to the astonishing NHS. I had been enveloped by a tsunami of love and concern and this knowledge, I am certain, is the nearest thing to Heaven this earthly existence has to offer. The great English mystic poet and artist William Blake said “Gratitude is Heaven itself” and the longer I live the more starkly true this seems. Heaven will be full of grateful people.
But something one of my other daughters said seemed to get to the heart of the matter: “In this life there are two camps: those who believe that there is no such thing as a miracle and those who believe that everything is a miracle”. Well, I am in the second camp – how could I not be? I know that something strange and wonderful happened over Christmas, but then when I look at all the blessings I have – especially my dear family, something equally strange and wonderful has been happening all my life. Every moment of my life. This is true for each one of us. Thanks be to God.
So many blessings have come from this rather frightening experience:
1. God and the Communion of Saints really are listening. I know that prayers are not always answered in the way we might want them to be, but events like this are hugely helpful to our faith. Sometimes we feel that God isn’t listening, he seems absent, but the tide of love I felt has helped me to realise that this is one of God’s ways to show me with great force that he is there and that he cares.
There is a wonderful quote from St John of the Cross: “Faith is the proximate means of union”. That is rather technical language for: “Prayer with true faith makes you one with God”. That is quite an astonishing thing to say. Pondering on that a hundred times a day for the rest of our lives would not exhaust the wonder of it.
2. My experience has given me a tiny insight into the pain and suffering experienced by those who live with lengthy sickness and terminal diagnosis. What great courage and resilience they have! I try to pray for them with more fervour. I pray that when I face death – it might be next week or in thirty years – I will be courageous.
3. It has confirmed my huge admiration for those who work in the NHS. I have been treated throughout with great care, skill and compassion. How precious is this national asset!
4. How inconceivably blessed I am to have such a wife, children, grandchildren and friends.
5. The prospect of death can help us to feel God’s presence as nothing else. My brush with death was also a brush with Life.
Incidentally, following the CT scan, I had a number of visits to the consultant and several internal cameras and examinations. Except for a couple of minor ailments very common in men of my age, all these were clear. The pain has now disappeared.