I’m writing the first paragraph last, now that I have finished the rest of this post. I’m writing it last because I wasn’t sure how this would all shake out and I wanted to begin with honesty. Now that it’s written I can say honestly that I’m grateful to be a part of this and offer my paltry contribution. When first I received the invitation from Jake, I thought, “Shit. I don’t want to get into this again. I don’t want to forage around in the mess that cancer has made in my own small experience of living and dying.” But resistance, like pain and suffering, is a good teacher. Cancer evokes fear and anxiety, and confronts one with the reality of finitude — often much sooner than one wants to be confronted with that reality. So I paid attention to my resistance and realized that there is no “getting back into this again” because one is never out of it. Once you have been existentially punched in the gut with something like cancer, you never quite breathe the same way again. You breathe, but you breathe a bit more carefully and gratefully. So thanks, Jake, and way to go, me, for choosing to write toward the very end after so many brilliant voices have already spoken.
My parents were divorced when I was five years old. Although my father lived a mere 20 minutes or so away as the crow flies, my relationship with him was among the most emotionally distant and disconnected of my entire life. For all practical purposes, my Uncle Mike (Fulton) was the closest thing I had to a father growing up.
Mike Fulton was a curious combination of a man: a landscape artist who taught art at the high school I attended; a closet cowboy living in northeast Ohio known for his signature cowboy boots and pearl-snap western shirts; a devout Lutheran who was born and raised in the Missouri Synod church; and an avid, if not staunch Notre Dame fan.
I was a freshly minted teenager when Mike Fulton married my mother’s youngest sister, Vickie, and during the formative years in my life that followed my Uncle Mike functionally was the closest thing that I had to a father. In spite of a lifetime of conflicted feelings about my biological father, eventually I came to realize that the fathering my Uncle Mike provided was more than sufficient.
Mike Fulton took me to the sporting goods store in Medina to help me purchase my first jock strap and athletic cup before 7th grade football. Many Saturdays he would take my brother and me to Taco Bell so we could eat cheap bean-and-cheese burritos. And before my first real date, he told me, “A little kiss won’t hurt anyone, but keep your hands to yourself.” But perhaps more than anything, he taught me to respect women through his own indefatigable care for my Aunt Vickie and patience with her sisters.
Cancer came to visit my Uncle Mike many years ago and he lived through the initial bout. It returned to stay in 2007. From 2007 to August of 2009 we made trips too numerous to count to visit my Uncle Mike and Aunt Vickie. Holidays, school breaks, during the summer I would load my own two boys in the car and we would make the 9 1/2 hour drive from Dubuque to the log house in the country where they lived in southern Medina county (Ohio).
The rhythm of our visits was simple: we would sit together, talk and watch sports on TV, go outside and “putz around the yard,” as he liked to say, then repeat. He would take us on long drives through Amish country in his truck. And he loved to sit on the front porch of the house, easel and charcoal in hand, and watch us play whiffle ball in the vast front yard of the country home while he sketched.
The school we attended with my Uncle Mike for over two years had a specific curriculum: learning to befriend suffering, confronting mortality, and living with and through dying. Ernst Becker writes, “Education for man [sic] means facing up to his natural impotence and death.” As Luther urged us: “I say die, i.e., taste death as though it were present.” It is only if you “taste” death with the lips of your living body that you can know emotionally that you are a creature who will die.
Among other things, in the face of what Ernst Becker called our human “immortality projects” — all of our heroic attempts at denying and defying death — cancer compels one to come to terms with our finitude. In Jesus Christ God stares into the face of finitude, steps into it, embraces it, and then calls it out of its tomb into a life of freedom characterized not by heroism, but by trust, vulnerability and promise.
It’s one thing to think about or ponder mortality or finitude from a somewhat removed academic distance; it’s quite another thing to be confronted with the reality of death through the life of someone you love. But both of these pale in comparison to the existential punch in the gut that occurs when something like cancer comes to roost in your own body. No one knows what this is like except the person who is living with it.
And so we would simply go and spend time with my Uncle Mike. We would talk and sometimes not talk; joke around and sometimes cry; eat pie when Mike was able, play whiffle ball so he could watch and sketch, and putz around in the yard. In short, we would try to live it with him.
In the last chapter of the fourth volume of Frederick Buechner’s memoirs, The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, he tells of the final conversation he had with his brother Jamie, who was dying from “cancer of virtually everything.” Buechner told his brother that he had loved him as much as he had ever loved anybody in his life, to which Jamie responded that Freddie had been a wonderful brother. I had a similar conversation with my Uncle Mike about a month before he died. I introduced him to the writing of Wendell Berry, America’s farmer poet, and just about every visit we would discuss whichever of Berry’s books he had been reading. I read a short excerpt for him from Andy Catlett: Early Travels: A Novel, where Berry suggests that the great question to ponder at the end of one’s life — or anytime for that matter — is if you “have been grateful enough for love received and given.” And then we wept. And then we prayed (at his request):
“Dear God, bring us through the night and into the light. Bring us through pain into peace. Bring us through death into life. Be with us wherever we go, and with everyone we love. In Christ’s name we ask it. Amen.”
Mike said he was ready to die, and wanted me to assure him that I would take care of his funeral service and all of the arrangements at church per the many conversations we had had about those matters. I assured him that I would, and then told him that I loved him, that he had been like a father to me and I wanted him to know that. It is a gift to be loved truly; it is a blessing to truly love another.
What counsel might I suggest in lieu of the well-intentioned but trite theological platitudes so often offered in response to a crisis such as a cancer diagnosis? What I have to offer is not so much something that one says as it is something a person and (hopefully) a community seek to live and embody: I don’t know what to say and I don’t know what to do, but I’m going to stick with you until we figure it out. Although it is a long day’s dying for us all, the shadows wane, and God’s promise of new life in Jesus Christ casts light on the land of the living as well.
Nate is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is Professor of Youth, Culture & Mission at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He and is the author of Emerging Ministry: Being Church Today and a contributor to The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices.