A School of Hope: Lessons For COVID – 19
When, scholar and teacher, husband, and close friend of mine, Bill Spohn, was stricken with brain cancer, he and his wife, Marty, looked death in the face and shared their journey with family and friends. Here are some of their reflections, related by Marty.:
We kept two schedules. One marked the linear march of calendar time, tracking the various tests, scans, and treatments that crowded our days. The other schedule kept liturgical time, tracing the cycle of birth, life, death, and resurrection through the seasons of Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter.
In his first post-surgery e-mail update, Bill was grateful in being confirmed that “We have found that God’s love and healing are not add-ons: your support has been not only the sign of God’s grace, but the principal way it has come to us.” The fatigue of treatment often made attending Mass hard.
At the same time, the Eucharist became as necessary as food. And the prayers of family and friends – we felt those prayers like so many hands on our bodies. We laid hands on others, becoming part of an expanding circle of prayer. Prayer became for us the respiratory system of the body of Christ. We took them in like air; we breathed them out in blessing.
We prayed the Psalms, which under the circumstances seemed less hyperbole and more the unvarnished truth of Bill’s condition.
Bill reflected on the state of his soul: “We experience much gratitude, which is the echo of grace. Illness can bog one down in self-absorption. Your support helps open the windows for grace, which comes through many channels including talented surgeons, radiologists with good aim, and insightful therapists. I don’t believe God sends tumors to anyone, but we have found that on our brief walk through the valley of darkness, God has certainly been with us.”
We discovered there is a difference between resignation and surrender. Resignation feels like, ‘This is just the way it is; tough it out.’ Surrender is not giving up; it is, ‘Into Your hands I commend my spirit, O Lord.’
Bill hinted at another distinction that his death brought home to me: the difference between hoping for something and hoping in Someone. We all hope for things, and that hope is like a Christmas list. When Bill was dying I didn’t know what to hope for. Nonetheless, a deep abiding hope held me.
Bill shared, “Marty and I are learning much in this school of hope. The grace we need has been there and continues to be there. We know that it is not our hope that will continue to sustain us but the life given by the Lord, as evidenced by what St. Paul says, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
There was a wonderful freedom in the last months of Bill’s life. Beyond great grief and in its midst there was a zone of wild abandon. Our days were filled with friends and family, dinners and walks.
The last of his illness was not a steady downhill decline; it was more like dropping off a cliff. There was a quiet week at home before Bill’s condition deteriorated, a decline the doctors could not arrest. I opted for palliative care. Bill’s sister and her husband and I were practicing hymns for the memorial service. We looked up from “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” to see Bill looking at us. Then he died.
I want Bill to have the last word. He sent his last update two months before he died right after the doctors confirmed the tumor had once again grown back. On our way to the doctor we read the scripture lesson for the day.
The text was John 21:15-19, the passage where Jesus questions Peter again and again: “Do you love me?” After Peter’s repeated professions of love, Jesus says to him: “When you were younger you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. Follow me.”
A prayer that had always been an important part of our lives is called Suscipe; it was written by St. Ignatius of Loyola. We read it also that day. The first part is a pretty accurate description of brain cancer, the second part offered us the consolation we craved:
“Take, Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will - all that I am and call my own. You have given it all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you wiil. Give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me.” Bill wrote his friends that because of that prayer, “We were ready when the surgeon told us the tumoor had grown back. And we were ready when he said the chemo had not been working. We are living inside that prayer. All things considered, it is not a bad place to be. May he rest in peace.