Recently my closest friend for many years telephoned me from Dallas to tell me that the melanoma that metastasized in his lung last year, and for which surgery was successful, had metastasized again — to his groin, his lymph glands, his stomach, his spine, everywhere. His doctors told him that with very good luck and very aggressive treatment, including possible enrollment in an experimental program, he might yet live eight months.
Matters of treatment he seemed to have covered, but it was clear to me that his real and immediate need was relief from the terrible inner torment, the disquiet of the soul, the relentless interior suffering such a prognosis must inevitably engender. I spent the rest of that day and all the next thinking about what I might say to him to impart some kind of inner peace. Then my wife and I drove up to Dallas, and I had my say.
I am glad to report that I was able to help, and he asked me to write down what I had said to him, so that he might keep it by his bedside to read when things got him down. The essay here is the result.
Letter to a dying friend
So, my dear friend.
Your melanoma has returned and the doctors have spoken. It is good that they have leveled with you — good that we live at a time when doctors no longer keep the patient in the dark about his condition, leaving the dying to discover the “prognosis negative” by terrible accident, like Bette Davis in Dark Victory. Now at last we can talk with frankness to our health-care providers about metastasized melanoma: cancer at its most ruthless, its most relentless, its most intractable.
Since your telephone call a while ago, my mind, like yours, has been fixated on little else. I am glad, at least, that you have the possibilities of treatment, of medical and holistic approaches, of enrollment in experimental programs, well in hand. But it would appear that your more immediate need is help with your quite natural inner turmoil. Interior peace will not only ameliorate these final months but will surely go far to assist the more medical approaches and strategies against this formidable opponent.
While we were talking, I was struck — amused won’t do, for there was certainly nothing amusing about this phone conversation — bemused, then, by what you said about your “Baptist upbringing” conjuring feelings of hellfire and damnation, of God’s punishing you now for your many sins. Believe me, the Baptists at their most intense had nothing on the Catholic Church I grew up in so long ago, in the skill of laying on guilt trips. I don’t know about the Baptists, but I am happy to say that the Catholic Church has progressed greatly from those long-ago days when stealing 49 dollars was a venial sin and 50 a mortal one — something I was taught with a straight face in the 11th grade at St. Thomas High School.
I was 17 years old when I graduated from high school and went off to Notre Dame in the fall of 1955. The University required us freshmen to live in on-campus dormitories, and I was duly assigned to a room on the second floor of Farley Hall. Every floor of every dormitory had a resident priest from Notre Dame’s Congregation of Holy Cross living in a room at the end of the hall who would act as a kind of floor monitor or proctor, maintaining law and order, making sure all the boys were in bed when the lights went out at 10 p.m., seeing that we were all up the next morning ready for Mass and a grim breakfast in the dining hall, and making available to us a sympathetic ear when studies or personal problems assailed us.
That first night in Farley I padded down the hall in robe and slippers and knocked on his door, troubled by guilt trips for which I badly needed help. For the life of me I cannot remember this wonderful man’s name, but what he told me that night changed my life and my outlook forever, as I hope now it will change yours.
I was obsessed at 17 with Mortal Sin, with my innumerable personal lapses: impure thoughts, missing Sunday Mass, harboring resentments, telling lies, masturbation, procrastinating, doubting God’s existence — the works.
“Listen,” he said to me. “Let me tell you about mortal sin.”
Mortal sin, he told me, meant Evil. Evil. And by Evil, he said, we mean the ways of men like Adolf Hitler, like Joseph Stalin, and the terrible men and women who worked with them. Evil meant delight in machine-gunning innocent villagers lined up in a field, joy in gassing naked Jews in the ovens of Buchenwald, in remorselessly starving slave laborers in the Siberian gulags, in complaining of writer’s cramp after scrawling “Shoot him” on stacks and stacks of individual secret-police reports.
In words I can never forget, he said, “You’ve never committed a mortal sin in your life. No 17-year-old boy is even capable of Evil, of mortal sin.” What I had described to him, he said, was nothing more serious than the natural and perfectly normal adolescent acts of immaturity, immaturities that I would, in the course of growing up, grow out of and overcome.
And so with you, my dear friend.
I have known you for many, many years. I know you well — as well as one man can possibly know another. And I know you to be utterly incapable of Evil. There are indeed evil people in this world, but you are not one of them. You are not on the same planet, not in the same universe with Hitler, with Stalin, with Pol Pot, Papa Doc, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer. If there is hellfire and damnation — and that by itself is a very big if — it does not await the likes of you. Like me, like everyone you and I personally know, you may have lied, resented, cheated, backslid, insulted, failed to live up to expectations, fallen down on the job, overslept, overdone. Weak and immature you may have been, but never, never evil. What you face now is not hell.
But what you do face, as you well know, and as you told me today, is death. And the question is this: What can we know about death? What can we know, except that death is the other side, the far bank of the river of life that all of us must wade across?
You will remember that many years ago I, too, was given a fatal diagnosis, along with the hope of maybe living out the next year or two. Fortunately for all concerned, medicine then marched on and foiled the plans of my doctors. But I can never forget what my brother John, a Holy Cross priest who teaches at Notre Dame, wrote to me when things looked terribly bleak.
He said, “Think of this as a memento mori. We all live our lives with the sword suspended above us, in darkness, never knowing when the sword may fall. All that has happened to you is that someone has switched on the light, and you have seen the sword.”
You, too, have now seen the sword. And now that the light is switched on, let’s have a look at that sword.
Thomas Aquinas, deservedly famed for brilliance and insight, has never been celebrated for his poetic gifts. But in at least one inspired moment he gave us one striking figure of speech that is useful right here. God, Aquinas said, is the most knowable thing in the universe, in the same way that the sun is the most visible thing in the universe; but when the eye focuses directly on the sun, it is instantly blinded. So, too, he said, when the intellect focuses directly upon God, it is utterly boggled.
I will add to Aquinas’ simile by pointing out that death is the most obvious thing in the universe. And in the way of the eye focusing on the sun, and the intellect focusing on God, when our hopes and fears focus on death, we are baffled. We spend our emotional lives automatically glancing off the prospect of our own death, just as our eyes instinctively shun looking directly at the noonday sun.
Katherine Anne Porter has said, talking about her novel Noon Wine, “We are born knowing death.” Knowing. Now, there’s a word for you. It’s the sapiens part of homo sapiens. It’s the surely part of God’s promise to Adam, that if he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge he would surely die. Of all the creatures on this planet, we are the only ones who know the inevitability of our own death. And that, in fact, is all we really know of the matter: inevitability.
Science, upon which we rely nowadays for knowledge, would appear to have little to tell us about death. But sometimes we can learn something useful about a thing by examining its opposite — in the case of death, by examining life. And science can tell us quite a bit about life.
Science tells us, for example, that our living bodies are composed of some interesting chemical compounds and elements, without which life as we know it could not exist. Water, for example: our living bodies are made largely of water. And iron and calcium, and many others listed on the labels of the things you buy at the supermarket as minimum daily requirements, and, perhaps most essential of all, carbon.
If you’ve kept up with your science reading, you know that none of those things existed at the instant of the Big Bang. They came into existence much later. The elements essential to life formed in the deep interiors of dying stars, created in the final milliseconds before a doomed star exploded in a grand supernova, spewing its guts, including the iron so necessary to your circulatory system, into the vast reaches of interstellar space, from whence somehow over the course of millions and billions of years that same iron found its way into the corpuscles of your bloodstream, calcium into your bones, water into your tissues, carbon into your very flesh. Somehow it seems hard to believe, would seem exceedingly strange, that so gigantic an evolution, taking as it did astronomical eons to accomplish, could be an utterly random, utterly pointless process.
We are also told that our living bodies are made up of many billions of microscopic cells, each with its hundred thousand moving parts, each going about its work every second, every minute, every hour, every day, year in and year out, knowing nothing of each other, knowing nothing of you. And yet out of this vast churning systematic conglomeration of atoms, molecules and electrical intercellular business has long since arisen a Self, a Mind, a Person, a You.
Even more amazingly, we learn that all these cells regularly die off and are replaced, so that over a period of about 10 years all the cells that once comprised you have died and have been entirely replaced by new ones. The living body that was you 10 years ago is already long dead, and your previous body 10 years before that, and 10 years before that, and before that. . . . And yet the you who lived and loved and dreamed all those years ago is still here, still subsisting, still hoping, still wondering.
The boy you were at 17 is still alive, although his body died and disappeared long ago. And if all this gives rise to the realization that there is far more to life, death’s opposite, than we ever before dreamed of, it gives rise also to the hope that there is far more to death, life’s opposite, than we can possibly imagine or foretell — and even leads to the suspicion that perhaps eight months from now, if your doctors are correct and you exhale your last, the 17-year-old boy you were all those decades ago, the 59-year-old man you are now, might just possibly live on.
Ah, here we seem to be getting into speculation — or, if you like, faith.
Faith and belief are all very well and good, but they don’t quite measure up to knowledge, do they? No, not by themselves. And I have to give short shrift to the faith of the Hindu in reincarnation, in “past lives,” in the so-called transmigration of souls. I can find little comfort, nor I think could you, in an amnesiac survival of the self, affording little or no memory of one’s former life. What good would be a survival if we could not remember ourselves, our life? What we want, after all, is to somehow know that our self, the Me we know and remember, somehow survives.
But faith, in itself not quite as secure as knowledge, can lead to wisdom. And as it turns out, wisdom can surpass even knowledge in showing the way to inner peace.
One way of getting from faith to wisdom, of affording real insight into the question of what happens to the You when you die, is by playing the “What if” game.
To go ahead with the worst possibility, the one you presently dread, What if when you die the You dies too? Let’s consider that in a couple of ways.
What if this much at least of our Judeo-Christian faith is correct, that there really is a personal and omniscient God? Omniscient means “knowing everything.” In fact, if you think long and hard about it, God would hardly be worthy of the title God if he didn’t “know everything.”
You can’t remember the 11th word you said yesterday, but an omniscient God could. You can’t remember, never even paid much attention to, 99 percent of your life, but an omniscient God would. An omniscient God would remember every breath you ever took, every dream you ever dreamed, every word, every sigh, every gesture, every haircut, every glance, every infecting virus, every trip to the mall. An omniscient God has been living your life right along with you, living it far more fully than have you, knowing every motivation, every reason, every justification. He has been You far more really than you have been, and when you die, that You continues to be, whole and entire. Therefore at the moment of your death your life would not be over: It would be complete.
Aquinas’ own ultimate proof of the immortality of the soul was that every person desires, longs for, immortality. He felt that God would not have endowed us with such a desire, would not have played such a trick on us, were it not so.
But then, still considering the worst, What if there is no God? What if our faith is entirely mistaken? What if when we die, we die all over, completely, vanish into nothingness? What if that?
To that we do know the answer. To such a question, wisdom leads us to a truth greater than mere knowing.
For, whatever happens at death — the best of all possibilities or the worst of all possibilities — it is the way of all the earth, the way of the universe, the way things are. As Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, whatever happens, happens rightly.
The way things are, being the way things are, is the way things should be. The way things should be is of necessity good. And we should not fear the good.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who sat at the bedside of many a dying person, observed that no matter how we fear death while we are living, those in the final act of actually dying have no fear of death — welcome death, in fact.
There is a wonderful parable by the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu that goes like this:
How can I tell if love of life is not a delusion? Lady Li was the daughter of a border guard of Ai. When the Duke of Chin first took her captive, she wept until her dress was soaked with tears. But once she was living in the Duke’s palace, sharing his bed, eating his delicious food, she wondered why she had ever cried. How can I tell whether the dead are not amazed that they ever clung to life?
When you are gone, my dear friend, I shall miss you terribly. I will grieve for you. The day will not pass that I will not wish for you. But I will envy your knowing at last the answer to the question of death, for your having experienced the last and greatest adventure of life. And I will rejoice that you have leapt the river that we, who must remain behind, have yet to wade across.
Patrick Dunne lives in writes in Houston, Texas. A former teacher of literature, he later practiced immigration law until his retirement in 1999. Robert Terral “Terry” Wooten, the recipient of Dunne’s “Letter to a Dying Friend,” passed away peacefully on the morning of February 22, 2011, one week after his 60th birthday.