Chapter 10 of my memoir, Unsuitable Treasure: An Ex-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past, is about the four months prior to my father’s death of esophageal cancer at age forty-six. Except for two hospitalizations, dad spent those months at home. I was nineteen at the time and some 400 miles away, struggling through my second year of training to become a Jesuit priest. I was allowed to visit my father twice, and by the time I had been rushed onto a train home for my third visit, he had already died.
I have often wondered what it would have been like had I been home to help see my dad through his last illness. On my first visit he had been well enough to have me drive him to the hospital for one of his quick therapy treatments (“just to have some company,” he said) and when the subject of his cancer came up briefly, he downplayed its seriousness. But I knew it would have helped each of us if we had been able to talk through what he was thinking about a disease we both already understood was terminal.
Tom Lubbock was a British writer, art critic and illustrator whose short memoir, Until Further Notice, I Am Still Alive, I have just finished reading. Tom was a Cambridge graduate, my dad a heating salesman who barely made it out of the eighth grade. But like my dad, Tom was “youngish,” as he puts it, when struck with his fatal cancer—just over fifty. He died of glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant tumor about the size of a grape in the area of the brain that affects our uses of language: conversing, which Tom loved to do, spelling, reading, and of course writing, his life’s work. For me, reading Tom’s story about his roughly two year struggle with his cancer was like listening to him talk before he couldn’t do that anymore. That made up somewhat for missing the chance to hear my father talk about his own speedier movement toward death.
Potential readers may expect a memoir like this to be depressing, but the opposite is the case. Tom had no pain aside from his gradual loss of language. The reason he had always loved being in the world was that everyone and everything in it is bodily and so necessarily subject to time, the accidental, the uncontrollable. We can determine our futures, he believed, but only to an extent, not absolutely. It did not make sense to him then that he should view the first abrupt sign of his tumor as catastrophic. He never undertook any dramatic search for cures exceeding the recommendations of
his doctors, whose judgments he trusted. He did not feel afflicted by an otherworldly power and pray to be delivered from his illness. Of course he was often sad, but he was never despairing. In fact, he found himself blessedly relieved of future mindedness—the making of long-range plans. Since the entire world is in transit from birth to death, Tom experienced some calm in now being more thoroughly aware of this fact than most. He even called his condition “a new life,” a state of ever firmer attachment to this transitory world even as the strings of that attachment were breaking one by one.
I doubt that my father was anywhere near as accepting of his approaching death as Tom Lubbock was, and I doubt that I will be either whenever my time comes. But Tom’s memoir did bring me closer to understanding the mindset that makes such acceptance possible.