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World-views clash as cancer assails good man


Hearing a terminal cancer diagnosis for my beloved father-in-law -- a hale, hearty, pink-cheeked and warmly exuberant 69-year-old -- was hard enough. But it was hearing him joke that he “must’ve done something to piss God off” that drove a rusty metal spike through that first raw pain.

“Sure wonder what it was,” he’d shrug, grinning. And I’d feel a clench in my stomach, an impulsive fury that this gentle man could even think this was his fault.

Mal Cooperman’s liver cancer had a damn sight more to do with a melanoma that went undiagnosed for two-and-a half years than anything he’d ever done in his openhearted, fun-loving, generous-to-a-fault life. Yet, even though he was smiling, I could see the question burning through his suddenly tired, pain-dulled eyes.

Had he incurred the Almighty’s wrath? Was this some sort of karma, swooping down to pull him from his wife of 45 years and their only child?

No, I screamed inside, wanting to sweep aside the curtain of IV tubes and shake his shoulders. No. You are a good and loved man. This is not your fault.

Mal continued to tease that way, until finally I gathered my courage. I showed up that day determined to yell at him until he gave up the joke and realized he was wonderful. Before I could start, he murmured something about God’s plan, and told me how he’s able to accept this because he believes the book of our lives has already been inscribed, its conclusion foreordained.

Different world-view entirely.

That’s when I realized how fluidly we all shift, working out of whatever belief best encapsulates the feelings of the moment. I do the same, arguing free will when a friend’s gone passive and fatalistic, then flipping to the other side to chastise somebody bent on controlling every variable. It’s not up to us, I murmur, as confidently as I’ve just told my other friend, “It’s up to you.”

I didn’t fully agree with Mal’s Book of Life framework, but it didn’t anger me the way his punishment scenario had. It seemed easier to live with, and especially, to die with. Mentally burning my carefully prepared speech, I nodded and smiled at him. And on the way home, I realized how utterly irrelevant my opinion was. A diagnosis of terminal cancer jolts you out of a heavy sleep and dangles its nightmarish specter over your head until finally, worn by pain and hopelessness, you want it. But you pass through all sorts of thoughts before you reach that point.

It makes perfect sense that an abrupt death sentence would sometimes feel like punishment. That is, after all, how we are taught to be good: We are rewarded by smiles, compliments, presents and reciprocal kindnesses. And then when we are bad, we are punished, limited, hurt, cut short. As we grow, slowly an expectation of altruism insinuates itself, but even that has the reward of goodness and eternal life. Badness, meanwhile, thwarts relationship; it is a denial of the life force, a death of possibility.

So how else in this quid pro quo culture are we to interpret an early death?

Those of us at a remove can instantly see the silliness -- we think of all the holy good people we’ve watched die too soon. How dare they take it personally and throw our evaluation of their goodness into question?

It’s an explanation. Just like, “God wanted you with him,” or, “It was your time.” Without such assumptions, we face a death that has no point or purpose. At least, none our finite minds can comprehend.

Ah, the vicious circle. In the end, it’s our very mortality that keeps us from facing death with confidence. We need the mystery to be controllable, explainable, somehow familiar.

And that’s as true for me as it is for Mal.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999