The Two Faces of Hope
By Stefan Riches, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
“My brother-in-law accepted cancer as a death sentence, while my mother never stopped looking for a cure.”
January 16, 2008 – My sister called in August, crying and scared. I have bad news, she said between tears. I braced myself. The words Ken, cancer, esophagus, spread, inoperable came crashing down, her sobs rendering further speech impossible. A doctor had just delivered her 47-year old husband a death sentence.
A successful oil and gas land agent, Ken ran his demanding business with the energy and passion you would expect from someone who loved his work. He rode a Harley, coached his oldest son’s hockey team and fixed everything around the house. He did the laundry and cooking. He treasured playtime with his two-year-old son.
When I arrived in Regina two days after my sister’s call, like everyone else I looked for signs of hope, only to find none. The doctor’s report stated that his cancer was in stage four – there is no stage five – and the oncology tests proved it to be an extremely aggressive form.
It didn’t take a medical professional to see how sick Ken was. He’d lost 25 pounds. Every movement caused him pain that even morphine couldn’t soothe. He had thrown up blood. There was brief talk of flying to the Mayo Clinic for chemotherapy, but Ken knew it was too late to fight. I can’t imagine the courage it took to decide to live the rest of his days doing the things he loved: late-night talks around the fire at the cabin with family and friends; taking the boat out on the lake; watching his young son grow. Chemo might buy him a few more weeks, but it would erode the quality of the little time he had left.
People, feeling helpless, offered what they could. A friend brought over a bottle of concentrated blueberry and pomegranate juice, the label boasting its antioxidant power. The gesture came from a place of love, even though it seemed like handing someone on the Titanic a champagne flute and saying, “Here. Bail.”
Someone else suggested to me that Ken drink his own urine, assuring me it tastes better if you haven’t been consuming alcohol, meat or greasy foods. Later that day I watched Ken eat a dinner of steak and potatoes washed down with rye and Coke. I didn’t mention the urine.
In 1994, my mother, a poet and teacher passed away at 52. First breast cancer, then colon, then everywhere. Her death sentence had come a few years before her death the word “terminal” written on a report similar to the one Ken had received. Chemo, radiation, surgery – nothing had worked. A few months before she died, having given up on conventional therapies, she left Regina for Vancouver to immerse herself in its alternative healing environment. She would be back, she assured us. She would beat cancer. My mother died long before the pomegranate craze hit, and I don’t know if she ever drank her own urine. But she would have been receptive to such suggestions. Her hope had opened her to endless possibilities.
“Dear God,” she wrote in her journal as she watched game three of the Vancouver Canucks and the New York Rangers Stanley Cup finals on television, “Let me resist the temptation to say, ‘If the Canucks win, I shall be healed’.” Ken died a week after Saskatchewan captured the Grey Cup last November. I’m sure, as he lay on his deathbed, he didn’t pin any hope on the Roughriders saving him from his fate. In his mind, his death sentence was a death sentence.
Hope is “deceitful”, wrote French author François de La Rochefoucauld. I’m sure Ken would have agreed. But in the same sentence, La Rochefoucauld also observed that hope is of “good use to us, that while we are traveling through life it conducts us in an easier and more pleasant way to our journey’s end,” words to which my mother would have no doubt attested.
Did Ken’s lack of hope render him ineligible for a miracle cure, in the eyes of whoever doles them out? In light of my mother’s experience, surely not. “I’m not dying,” she told a friend only weeks before she died. “I’m just sick.” By that time, she was in a wheelchair, her legs swollen, her face emaciated. Yet still she talked of coming home, of returning to teaching, of finishing her latest book. Hope may have made her journey more bearable, but it didn’t spur any miracles.
I wanted to be angry with my mother for not being honest with us, or herself, about how sick she really was. I also wanted to be angry that Ken gave up hope when, perhaps, he could have fought for his life.
But I can’t be angry with either. My love for them doesn’t work that way, and who am I to know what would have happened if they had chosen different paths?
Mom’s and Ken’s experiences have left me wondering who was right. If one day I am faced with the same death sentence, should I bravely battle my disease with the blind hope that a cure is imminent? Or should I equally bravely plan my wake and suck the marrow out of my final days? My only hope is that I will have the courage, as Mom and Ken did, to take control of the time I have left in whatever way I need.
A Reprinted Commentary for Members
From THE BRIDGE Newsletter of OIRF
Published September 2008
© Copyright 2008, Stefan Riches, ON Canada
This essay originally appeared in the “Facts and Arguments” column of the Toronto Globe and Mail, and recently in the “Degrees” newsletter of the University of Regina.