A friend of mine is dying of brain cancer, and she knows it. Last night she had what she called an “alert,” an experience of pain, discomfort, and restlessness that told her she is entering a new phase of her disease after a period of radiant joy that had made her face fairly glow for several weeks. Her skin had seemed tight and girlish across her cheekbones, and her eyes had been beacons.
Today she had a grayer cast to her features and a more deliberate pace to her words as told me about the experience of the previous night. Her eyes, still bright, were more reflective. I marveled again at her courage and her faith. In circumstances like hers, faith takes a final test, and it seems that my friend is about to graduate with honors.
My friend says that she believes God still has a plan for her, that He is keeping her here for a reason. I think that the reason is to inspire me and the many friends of my friend who have been faithfully visiting her and basking in her glow. Meanwhile, for at least six months she has been making arrangements: the funeral plot, the casket from a monastery halfway across the country, the hymns and readings, the names of her pallbearers, readers, and altar servers. She spoke today of how she looks forward to receiving the last sacrament in the Church in which she was baptized. She spoke as if she would be an observer at her own funeral, and who’s to say she won’t be?
Her family has gathered round. Many years ago, a dissolute husband left her with seven children, whom she had to raise alone in straitened circumstances. Her passionate participation in Church life dates from about this period. Like many families, especially many Catholic families in the post–Vatican II era, hers drifted apart tectonically, particularly on questions of faith. When I met her four years ago (she became my RCIA sponsor), my friend told me that she prayed for reconciliation in her family. About two years ago, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she smiled to find her family beginning to reunite. Who knew that God would use her illness to answer her prayers? If that was the way He did things, that was fine with her.
I was reminded today of my father’s last days, when I commuted to Connecticut twice a week to spend as many hours as possible by his side. Today, my friend lives across town, but I have the same experience I had with Dad—not knowing if this will prove to have been the last time I talked with her. If it is, I can testify to you that my friend was not afraid when I spoke with her today. I can’t imagine a more terrifying condition than brain cancer, something eating invisibly at one’s sense of self. But my friend is not terrified. Perplexed, watchful, sad to say good-bye, but alert and ready for whatever He holds in store, she is definitely not afraid. Faith like Joan’s is substantial.