"Life is a temporary victory over the causes which induce death."
--Sylvester Graham, A Lecture on Epidemic Disease
I wasn't ready for what awaited me at the hospital today. I guess I didn't think I would be in this place so soon, less than two weeks into patient visits, which is absurd given that I chose oncology as my floor. Two of my patients have died, one today and one two days ago. It really blindsided me, partly because they were both young -- in their 50s -- and partly because I didn't think that either one of them was so sick that they would be gone so soon.
The cancer patients are my flock and I have loved being there with them since I crossed that threshold into my new life. One of the things I like about ONC/HEM is that, when you're visiting with patients there, there's no bullshit. The reality of their lives has been sorted out, and they have neither the time nor the patience for a bunch of petty nonsense. They cut to the chase. They talk about their fears, their regrets and the things they love, the things they held dear in their days. It was very simple things that connected me to the two patients who just died: one really loved her dog; the other was devoted to his work and the people he saw there each day. Both were tired of being in pain and angry that cancer was running their lives. They wanted to go home.
I know I have a lot more of this ahead of me and that I'm going to have to learn how to manage the grief and loss that is bound to come with this gig on a very regular basis. When the nurse told me of the death of the patient who so loved his work and colleagues, I clapped my hand to my forehead and burst into tears. Not exactly the serene grace I had hoped to carry as a hospital chaplain.
People, listen, here is the deal: I have been in the trenches for just two weeks now and it is clear to me that it is very important that you understand this: you must live a life in which you are present and accounted for in all of your hours NOW. You cannot plan to start living next year or as soon as you have it all figured out or when you have more money or fewer pounds or the partner who will complete your existence. Time is of the essence and I would put it in all-caps if that wasn't so obnoxious. It is imperative that you value, honor and nurture the loving relationships with which you have been blessed. If you have a dream, an idea, something that is tugging at your heart, you simply must not delay in finding your way to that thing. And if you haven't gotten that far and you're still confused about the reason you are here on this lovely planet right now, then humble yourself for a while and pray like hell for some signs. I guarantee you you'll get what you need.
There is no better time than Advent -- a time of ancient longing -- to listen carefully for the truth of your existence. It's the perfect time to "restart, to rise again and to recover a sense of the goal of one’s own life," as Pope Francis reminded us in his message on Sunday. If you are not in a bed in the oncology ward of a hospital right now then you have no excuse, none, for not waking up tomorrow and living your life with purpose and courage and gratitude and love.