Monday, November 30, 2015

Living As A Friend Is Consciously Dying

"Why oh lord do we feel abandoned when we are in pain? Are you not present in the form of our family and friends who tend to us and offer us comfort? Is their love not enough? What more do we desire, need? We desire an end to our suffering and yet it persists and even the most tender care can not take away the presence of profound pain in our minds and bodies. Modern medicine can help but it too begins to fail. What then do we do? Is it at this point of failure that our true mettle is challenged, revealed? And what if we are found wanting, weak, even when we have been encouraged to "be strong"? What is this suffering , then? A Greek race of endurance? The strong win the race and demonstrate a superior character than those of us who stumble, fall, and cry and no longer desire to stand and run again....Or is there compassion for those who can not be strong, for those who do not "suffer" well or virtuously. Is God present even to those of us who can no longer bear it anymore, or at least think we can't." --Arturo Olivas

I have a very special friend from college who I fondly knew as Art. He bravely faced some challenges in college, and I was peripherally aware of them. He went on to become an extraordinary educator, a talented artist--a santero, a painter of santos, religious images in a Southwestern Spanish tradition, and at age 50, a secular Franciscan brother.

Art, who I now know as Arturo, was always thoughtful and sensitive. Just over four years ago, he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and a profound journey began for Arturo and his partner of 30 years, Chris. Arturo, like too many people who get lung cancer, was not a smoker. So, his diagnosis came as a total surprise, when he went to urgent care for chronic bronchitis. He was given 6 months to live.

Only a very small percentage of people with Arturo's diagnosis live as long as he has lived. While it is overwhelming, to say the least, to receive a stage four cancer diagnosis, and an act of courage and strength to live through all the treatments and surgeries and tests that follow, the way Arturo has lived with cancer, and beyond cancer, is a testament to the depth and strength of his spirit.

I have rarely met anyone as sensitive, humble, eloquent, caring and creative as Arturo. His art is highly regarded, and exhibited in museums and galleries in Albuquerque, where he lives. His care for young people as an educator emanates from his spirit. And just this month, a long campaign he spearheaded, to have a banner addressing lung cancer hung along the University of New Mexico Medical Center pedestrian bridge, encouraging early detection, has finally succeeded! For someone who lives with profound pain, and the fear and mystery of death as a closer companion than most of us, his energy and creativity are beyond inspirational.

Arturo is a gifted writer, and because he has been generous enough to share vignettes from his journey on Facebook, I have had the opportunity to be touched by his thoughts, feelings and words, almost as though he is giving me the chance to accompany him on his very personal journey.

One can say that it is true that because life as we live it each day is a temporary gift,as we live, each of us is also dying. For most of us, however, we have no idea how long the gift of life will be extended to us, and little inkling of when our final days will arrive. When someone is given a terminal diagnosis, like Arturo was four years ago, the reality that life is finite becomes much more present. By virtue of facing life and death each day, Arturo is not only consciously dying, but more importantly, consciously living. The compassion and authenticity with which he lives is incredibly touching to me and many others who know him.

The following are a small sample of his reflections:

"The greatest thing we can do for those who are in pain is to hold their hand...just hold their hand."

"Severe physical and emotional pain challenges all the things we cling to most in this life: our faith, our trust, our relationships. if the pain doesn't completely destroy all of these, then perhaps we have a chance to endure for a while longer and eventually, die in peace....."

"I have never intended to be strong in the wake of cancer..I am weak and vulnerable and subject to pain...some people do not want to hear that, especially from a man....I understand that, but it is not "me". perhaps I am more like my mother than I realize in the sense that when asked how she felt, she told it like it was - "I feel sick!"....It taught me to listen to the litany of complaints and not to try to make her say something that she did not feel. Of course I would have wanted to hear mom say, "Oh, today I feel great!" - that would have been a great comfort to me. But ultimately the question was about the patient and not about making the person asking the question feel good."

As I read Arturo's reflections over time, I found myself deeply called to go visit him before it was too late. I am very grateful that the week before Thanksgiving, I flew out to Albuquerque to visit even briefly with my special friend. Our time together was beautiful and poignant, so characteristic of Arturo.

"A key moment in the life of a "terminally" ill cancer patient, and for all living beings , is the moment we decide to stop living in anticipation of death and we begin to live now, in the present, in gratitude for the life we have....we know we have made this decision when we make plans to be engaged in the lives of others....and not just plan, but do!"

These are words that very accurately portray Arturo's full engagement with life. He is living more fully than almost anyone I have ever met. Though his cancer metastasized to his brain and spine, and the very day he and I were to get together he wrote to me concerned that he might have bronchitis again, and might be coughing, though he very much wanted to get together, his spirit seems to be so much stronger than the disease process he is living with.

I know that life is finite, and there will come a day when Arturo's spirit moves on to the other side. But I have to believe a part of him will always be here on the side of the living, a side he has embraced with passion, gusto and love. And when his spirit rises, a magical rainbow of love will provide a bridge of connection for all of us who have known him.