The aphorism “Deckchairs on the Titanic” originates sometime in the early ‘70s, and it either has to do with a problem at New York’s Lincoln Center or a PR fiasco related to President Ford, or both. Invariably, the phrase has come to mean that re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic is a futile task, but one that might be attempted at any rate. (from Wikipedia).
If it seems like I’m preoccupied by death these days, it’s only because I am.
I’ve written about my friend Joyce before. Joyce is 71 years old. She was a simple, unassuming farmer’s wife and mother in Amity, Ohio, and then her husband died, so she went back to school and kept going until she had a Ph.D. in Education, and was the head of the Gifted Program for the Mount Vernon, Ohio school system. She loved my kids, and that’s how I grew to love Joyce. Her second husband, Don, is one of my best friends; a retired school principal, a gentleman farmer, and the man I’m most likely to call spiritual mentor. In his quiet, unassuming way, he talks about soil and wind and seed and pursues prayer and the spiritual disciplines in deeper ways than anyone I’ve ever known.
Joyce has bone cancer, and after several years of remission, it’s come back with a vengeance in the last few months. Chemotherapy wrecked the rest of what health she had, but didn’t seem to do much to halt the spread of the cancer. So Don and Joyce pursued more holistic methods of healing. And they didn’t work, either. Over the last month or so Joyce has been confined to a wheelchair because the pain of walking has been too great. She was scheduled for surgery on Monday, and the doctors had intended to insert metal rods into her legs in the places where her bones had rotted away. But before she could make it to the hospital on Monday, she had a heart arrhythmia on Sunday evening, was rushed to the emergency room, and is now on a ventilator. Assuming she pulls through this episode, she can look forward to another round of extremely aggressive chemotherapy and radiation therapy, just as soon as her body can tolerate the shock to her system.
There is a part of me that can detach from the situation and see it somewhat objectively. Joyce is 71 years old. Some people die when they are 71 years old, and Joyce may be one of them. But most of the time knowing that doesn’t seem to help much. It’s not so much the death as all the suffering that seems to accompany it. The cure doesn’t seem any better than the disease, and often seems worse. T.S. Eliot, a poet, not a physician, described it this way:
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
He didn’t think he was describing chemotherapy. But he was. Joyce may not die of cancer after all. She may end up dying of the absolute paternal care that will not leave her alone. The ship is sinking, so move the deckchairs around. Activity is good. Any activity is better than none. Or maybe not. I’m inclined to think not.
My father is not dying of the absolute paternal care. Lucky him. The doctors are going to leave him alone. There is nothing they can do, so he will stroll around for a while with his arteries 99% clogged, and then he will have a heart attack or a stroke. My sister tells me that he has decided to straighten out his life and turn to God. Good for him. There is a part of me that remains profoundly cynical, but that’s my problem. So good for him. I hope it happens. I know you can’t outsin the love of God, and that forgiveness is there for anyone and everyone, including my father. The cynical part of me thinks that this is an interesting test case all the same. But again, that’s my problem.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Good Friday. Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But how about when they do know what they do? I know the answer to that rhetorical question. Yep. Them too. The prideful part of me doesn’t like that answer. But since I’d prefer not to be excluded from the Kingdom of God myself, I’m glad that it works the way it does. Grateful, even. So pray that I can be grateful for my father, who may be experiencing a conversion. I hope so. I pray so. I think.