As an Orthodox parish priest I've seen lots of deaths. The hardest was the death of a two-year-old. Older people, especially the elderly, were often resigned and even, sometimes in complex ways, looked forward to a moment when, some of them said, they would be reunited with people they loved. There were others who were more agnostic about their expectations, barely holding on to their faith, but not at all despairing. I had become friends with a few, over years of serving the parish. Others were more distant—people whose family called for a priest toward the end, after years of distance from the church.
The death of a friend you've known for years is different, more like a death in the family. The years you've known each other mean that somehow your own life is reflected in their dying, and in their life and death you sense your own mortality more keenly.
A friend died recently. I had known Tom Bernard since we were in high school. He had come close to death before, as a young man, and it gave him an appetite for the whole of life that was unusual and profound.
Not long out of college Tom was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. At the time the treatment involved total irradiation of the lymph nodes, from neck to groin, and for almost five years Tom was in remission. Then the Hodgkin's returned, and this time he was treated with exhausting and debilitating chemotherapy.
The return of the cancer was deeply depressing. Tom called me from the hospital and asked if I could visit—he needed someone to talk with. I did visit, and brought him a bottle of Jameson, which he welcomed and remembered many years later. He talked about having been psychologically ready to think of himself as healed and whole—five years was often said to be the sign of a cure—and about how depressing it could be to have your hopes dashed.
His experience of the return of cancer more than three decades ago was not, finally, a loss of hope, but a deepening of love for the fullness of life. Years later, at a reunion of a small group of friends, he told me that he determined during those hard days to embrace all of life, the suffering as well as the joy. “I don't care what life throws at me,” he said. “I'm going to drink it to the dregs.” After Tom's death I read something he wrote eleven years ago for Coping, a magazine for survivors.
On the day he realized that his cancer had returned, he says,
I saw life's astounding beauty, but I also realized that baby birds fall from the nest and that the late snow nips flowers in the bud.... As I lay there, I had a ferocious appetite for life. I wanted happiness, love, fulfillment, joy, contentment, pleasure, accomplishment, and satisfaction. But I also wanted sorrow and pain, loneliness and grief, frustration and anger and failure, bitterness and regret and even despair. On that day, life seemed like a package deal. It was given on its own terms, and that was fine with me. It was all or nothing, and I wanted it all.
Tom lived that way to the end. He married Wendy Moran, the woman who had helped him with great love through his difficult second treatment. They had two sons, now grown men. He taught at Penn State for years, was active in his Evangelical church—not only as a churchgoer and member of the choir, but traveling to Latin America to build homes for the poor—and was deeply concerned with the welfare of prisoners. (His field was criminology.)
When Tom was diagnosed with lung cancer this year, a cancer caused by the heavy radiation absorbed during his first treatment, he had surgery and began enduring yet another course of treatment. His birthday was approaching. He had spent every birthday for years at a North Carolina beach, and he wanted to do it once more. With the help of family and friends—one of the most helpful was his brother-in-law Gus, an oncologist—he was sprung from the hospital, and in a van full of oxygen tanks and other necessary equipment, he made it to the ocean. The morning after his return from the beach, he died.
What impressed me so much about Tom, what makes me grateful for our years of friendship, was not only the great love of the fullness of life, all of it, that Tom exhibited. He really seems to me to have shown in his life, and the way he went to his death, something of the mystery St. Paul writes about when he speaks of the death that is found in life, and the life in and, we hope, beyond death.
There are a lot of photos of Tom's last visit to the ocean. What comes through in all of them are his frailty, his gratitude for the love of family and friends, and, in picture after picture, his happiness in the moment, his radiant joy.