by Nancy A. Hardesty
When my oncologist in Atlanta, William Jonas, told me that the PET scan showed that my pancreatic cancer had metastasized in May 2010, one of my first thoughts was, “God, I’m dying!” and my second thought was, “but aren’t we all? Some of us are just more aware of it.” And then I thought, “Holy One, I’m coming home.”
Forty years ago a psychic told me that I would live to be 85. I was counting on that. I didn’t expect to hear this news when I was going on 69! Hadn’t the surgeon in Greenville told me that he got the small tumor in the tail of my pancreas, the edges were clear, and the lymph nodes all tested negative? Well, yes, but here we are.
Some might have asked, “Why me, God?” but I did not. I pretty much subscribe to the unofficial A.A. mantra, to put it frankly: “Shit happens.” While I have had my share of disappointments, slings, and arrows, I often say I’ve lived a charmed life. Certainly I have not suffered in ways so many have. God has been good. Through my writing and teaching, I have touched many lives. So many people have shared with Letha and me how our book, All We’re Meant to Be, changed their lives. Within the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus I have left a legacy.
Experience with Death
And so it’s not a bad time to die. I have had a fair amount of experience with death. My mother always said that when I was a newborn, the first time she took me out of the house was to a funeral. I don’t remember that, but I have attended many more since. As a child, they were delightful occasions. At the wake, my cousins and I would play. After the funeral of relatives, I would sometimes get to bring a few flowers home. I always loved the flowers. Visiting the graves of relatives was a common Sunday afternoon outing. Cemeteries always seemed so peaceful.
A powerful memory from my childhood is the death of my paternal grandfather. Toward the end we often gathered with other aunts, uncles, and cousins for an evening meal at his home. One night the adults were very subdued. The doctor had been called and came. Then my grandfather’s wife and children gathered in a circle around his bed. The spouses sat in the living room with us children. Everyone was quiet. Eventually the undertaker was called. I learned later that my grandfather had made a pact with the doctor that when the suffering became intense and the end was surely near, the doctor would administer a generous dose of morphine. That seemed humane to me.
All of my numerous aunts and uncles are now gone. My parents are dead, along with my brother Kenny, two years younger than I. Death has been stalking my older cousins. So now it is my turn.
The Gift of a Little Extra Time
I always thought I would die of a heart attack. My father died of one at age 58; my brother Richard has already had two. My mother died of congestive heart failure.
For a decade after menopause I took hormone replacement. Doctors said it would ward off a heart attack—until they found out that it caused them! A heart attack seemed a quick and painless exit.
Cancer takes a more torturous route. While a heart attack seems easier, it does leave a lot of loose ends behind. Cancer gives one time to put one’s affairs in order, to make a lot of choices rather than leaving them to others. It also gives significant time to spend with those one loves and to say those things one needs to say. It also gives time for those who love you to say so. I have so appreciated the many messages I have received from my EEWC family and other friends and acquaintances as well. Their kind words, thoughts, and prayers cheer, encourage, and sustain me in these days.
Defusing Fear and Pain
One of the reasons I always preferred a heart attack is because I am definitely not a fan of pain. I have been in hospital rooms with those on the brink of death but never at the exact moment of death. What is it really like?
I found some very helpful answers in David Servan-Schreiber’s book, Anticancer (reviewed in the Summer 2010 issue of CFT and on our website, eewc.com). He has a short chapter titled “Defusing Fear” in which he discusses fears that facing death often raises—fears of suffering, being alone, being a burden to others, abandoning one’s children, leaving things unfinished. He also describes the natural physical process of death in that chapter. For me this answered many questions.
Dr. Jonas told me that lesions in the liver are usually not painful and assured me that he and hospice physicians will control whatever pain I might experience.
For more than a decade I have had a will and medical powers of attorney that state my wishes concerning end-of-life issues. Yes, I have made my wishes clear to my “death panel”!
I have been guided and informed in forming those wishes by conversations and experiences with friends. Donna, an ordained minister, is trained as a chaplain and has worked in hospitals and hospices. My friend Evelyn worked as an army medic and with returned wounded veterans as a psychologist for the Veterans Administration. Several other friends are nurses. Their descriptions of what happens when medical personnel are required to resuscitate a gravely ill person convinced me to make it crystal clear: “Do Not Resuscitate!”
Several years ago, Vicki, one of my best friends in Greenville, died of ovarian cancer. During her last days in the hospital, several emergency surgeries were performed to prolong her life. From that experience, I have also drawn lessons about what I do not want to happen to me.
Quality of Life Is What Matters
Certainly many people want to prolong their lives at all costs and I understand their reasons for doing that. But from our meeting after that first scary PET scan, Dr. Jonas has emphasized the importance of quality of life. He asked, “Are there things you really want to do?” My immediate reply was “Attend the 2010 EEWC Gathering in Indianapolis.” He said, “Okay, then, we will keep your first chemotherapy treatments at 75% so that you will be sure to have the energy to do that!”
He offered to delay a treatment if it conflicted with some special event. He also has monitored every side effect and adjusted dosage as needed.
I have very much appreciated the fact that he took a minimalist approach to side effects. He is not one to sign a prescription for some high-powered antibiotic at the first complaint. Rather he prefers home remedies: bicarbonate of soda, more fiber and liquids, over-the-counter medications. Save the antibiotics until a really difficult problem comes along.
And in our first discussion, I also asked, “How long do you think I have?” “Six to nine months” was his candid reply. I know, some people do not want to know. I’m a person who copes better when I have a clue. I don’t do well with uncertainty. And Dr. Jonas has a rare gift for being straightforwardly honest within the context of a caring relationship that provides a sense of safety.
Nancy Hardesty (left) and Letha Dawson Scanzoni (right) are shown here during a visit to an Indiana farm in 1973, taking some time for relaxation near the end of their long quest to find a publisher for All We’re Meant to Be.
My theology also provides comfort and support, although that has not always been the case. Growing up as a Christian fundamentalist, I was told that “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Believe in Jesus, “give your heart to Jesus,” and a ticket to heaven is yours. Okay, but we were also told that God was the ultimate judge with a whole lot of rules. Violate any one of them overtly or inadvertently and we were back on the road to hell. God seemed to be capricious and malicious. God might love the “world,” but I was not supposed to. And God might love the “world,” but God didn’t seem very loving to me.
When I met Letha, she began to teach me that God did love me, personally and unconditionally. After talks late into the evening in front of her fireplace, I would go to sleep, saying, “Thank you, God, for me.”
One evening when she was visiting me, we went to see the movie The Green Wall, a very moving Peruvian film about a couple with a young son who try to homestead in the forest. At one point I began to cry (why, I don’t know)—and I couldn’t quit. On the way home she asked me to pull to the side of the road because I was sobbing so hard that she felt I could not drive safely.
When we got to my home, I lay on the couch and she sat on the floor beside me. She opened her Bible and began to read from Isaiah 43: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. . . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” And Romans 8: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? . . . For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” And the refrain, repeated 26 times, in Psalm 136: “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” Eventually the surety of that love seeped deep into my soul. God loves all of creation, including me and you. We don’t have to earn it; we just need to learn to live in it.
Pondering the Afterlife
I have never been that interested in heaven, angels, or harps. I admire harpists, but with the neuropathy in my hands and feet left over from the oxaliplatin chemotherapy, I’m just not up for harp lessons. And angels seem beautiful but boring. Other Christian traditions teach that we will sit in constant adoration of God. I don’t think God is that narcissistic.
The afterlife is, of course, a total mystery. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” I have come to believe in a totally different vision of the Great Beyond than the one I was taught in Sunday school. My visions now owe more to what little I understand of quantum physics, evolution, and human nature. I believe that God is the Energy behind the Universe, the Energy that breathed out in the Big Bang, the Energy that sustains all creation, and the Energy that has guided the evolution of all that now exists. God is the Energy that gives us life and consciousness. In God “we live, and move, and have our being,” Paul told the Athenians (Acts 17:28).
Some would call this notion “panentheism.” Some prefer a more anthropomorphic view of God in order to maintain a “personal” relationship. I find it just as easy to communicate with this Energy, the original Consciousness.
This Energy, this God, is with us throughout our journey here on Planet Earth. When our bodies wear out, our energy returns to God. When we have completed this life’s mission, this assignment, we return to God and receive another assignment, on this planet or somewhere else. I do not see this as a punishment or a do-over but simply another adventure; another chance to live, learn, and grow; another creative opportunity, another call to serve God.
Certainly I am sad to leave those I love. I want to continue to be a part of EEWC, to enjoy Gathering 2012 in Indianapolis, to share life’s trials and triumphs with you, my sisters and brothers. And perhaps I will continue to do so from the other side. But I view the dying process as an adventure, a learning experience, and I look forward to my next assignment from the One whose love is steadfast forever, that Creative Energy which sustains us all.
© 2011 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus – Vol. 34, No. 4 Winter (January–March) 2011