The season of Lent became more deeply significant to me in 2014.
Most folks who read my reflections know that, on Ash Wednesday of that year (March 5), I began treatment for recently-diagnosed Multiple Myeloma. The insidious cancer itself, the powerful drugs I’ve taken to counteract it, a harrowing stem-cell transplant, the intense pain I’ve felt, and the myriad physical and psychic changes I’ve undergone are teaching me a great deal about what really matters, about limits, about suffering, and about death. They’re Lenten lessons.
For many reasons, the lessons are difficult.
The disease is unpredictable, new treatments are emerging, and life-expectancy is hard to forecast. The not-knowing has chafed against my (unhealthy) need for control.
I’m capable of distracting myself from the rock-hard realities of persistent pain and pervasive fatigue; that kind of distraction means I regularly reenroll in remedial and tutorial sessions.
And, there are times when I resent the assignments, since they are all, despite superficial variations, exercises in memento mori (“remember death”; reflect on mortality).
The resentment sometimes threatens, but doesn’t cancel, my gratitude. I’m thankful for so many things.
When I was diagnosed, the median survival rate hovered around five years, and I’ve got good reasons to think that, four years in, I’m going to beat that median.
I have a lot of pain, but I remain physically active.
In the university classroom and in temporary ministry opportunities, I’ve found new expressions of my calling.
I don’t carry the weighty pressures that come with being the central leader of a largish institution. I have plenty of meetings to attend, but far, far fewer than before; and, most of the time, I sit in the back of the room. The agenda isn’t mine to manage.
I’m able to be home more often.
When my mind is clearer and my heart is more centered than they occasionally are, I’m also grateful for the repeated reminders of mortality. Those reminders give me glimpses of a radical freedom, a freedom that comes from the realization that, most of the things about which I fret, fuss, and feel frustration don’t matter much—or at all. Since they will evaporate with my last breath, why not release them sooner?
Death is the last limit; it’s life’s definitive last “No.” Though there are surely things to apologize for and make right before death, there’s no apologizing for death itself and there’s no explaining the “no” that it says to us. Why, then, do I continue to feel apologetic about the present limits I must accept? And, why do I think that saying a wise and considered “no” is something I have to explain?
Those questions appear on my “final exam”; answering them is a cumulative assignment. I don’t know when it’s due, but the assignment came in Lent. The sooner I get it done, the better the rest of life will be. And, when I turn it in, it will be Easter, always.