Blog by Steve Laug
Days passed quickly following the horrendous experience of the biopsy and soon became weeks. Father Tom blissfully moved ahead, almost forgetting the experience and even beginning to be hopeful that the biopsy would come back negative. His days were filled with his work – weddings, funerals, homilies and the normal life of a priest. It was easy in the busyness to not think about the news of the biopsy that would come. He filled in the spaces between the work and sleep with his pipe and some good tobacco and enjoyed the ordinary rhythm of his life as it marched forward. He loved his work and the pattern that it provided for his days and weeks. He loved the time in the study and he loved the time with his people. It was a good life and he enjoyed it so it was easy to fill his waking moments with the work.
On Tuesday morning, he was in his study when suddenly his weekly rhythm was interrupted and things abruptly changed. He was working on his homily for the following Sunday and as always had a pipe in his mouth with a wreath of smoke encircling his head. He was reading and writing his reflections when the ringing of the phone jarred him into the present. He murmured his usual dislike of the intrusiveness of the phone and picked it up after a half-dozen rings. The woman on the other side of the phone confirmed with him that she was speaking with Father Tom and then identified herself as the clerk for the urologist’s office. She said that she had his test results. He expected that to be followed with some niceties and typical telephone banter but there was none. She went straight to the point. “You have cancer,” she said. He could have dropped the phone with the abruptness of her comment. The words struck him hard at the core of his being. He felt like he had been punched in the stomach. The fear and dread that had been held at bay for weeks broke free in those few moments. He was not prepared for this news. He was stunned and just sat there. She repeated her news and asked him what he wanted to do. She repeated herself in case he missed it. He mumbled out that he had no idea. She set an appointment for the next week for him to meet with the doctor to talk through his options and hung up the phone.
He sat there stunned, immovable and silent. He still held the phone at his ear oblivious to the beeping sound that told him the conversation was over. He did not seem to notice the noise, or maybe it just did not matter at this moment. He sat there for a long time in shocked silence. Finally he shook himself and laid down the phone. He stared into space with her words ringing in his head – “You have cancer”. He could not believe what had just happened and how it had been done. He was too stunned to even get mad. He shook himself back into the moment and sucked on the pipe in his mouth. It had long since gone out but it did not matter. The quietness in his soul was consumed in the swirl of chaos. The quiet of the study was gone. In its place was a huge cloud of uncertainty whirling around stirring up what had once been peaceful. He shook himself once more and relit his pipe. He slowly pulled the smoke into his mouth, savouring the taste of his favourite tobacco. He quietly let the ritual of lighting, puffing and sipping his pipe restore a bit of sanity to an insane moment. He knew that once he was calm he could think through what was going to happen next but that seemed far from his reach.
As expected the rhythm and cadence of the pipe brought with it the ability to distance himself from the moment for Father Tom. It allowed him to move to a place of quiet where he could objectively view what lay in front of him. It had always worked that way in his life and he counted on it to deliver that for him once more. He sat quietly puffing on his pipe and sipped his cold tea every so often in the process. He did not move other than to puff and sip his pipe and tea. Time felt like it stood still. Birds sang outside his window. The phone had long since stopped it annoying beeping and the receiver lay on its side on his desk. His notes and books were in disarray on the desk top and his chair was pushed back from the desk. He sat, oblivious to his surroundings and the passage of time. He disappeared into the quiet space the pipe created in his own soul.
As the quiet settled over him, he stood up, repacked his pipe, stuffed a tin of tobacco in his pocket and headed out the door. He needed to walk and clear his head. He knew that the appointment with the urologist would give him a clear picture of what lay ahead and what he could expect so he decided not to spend a lot of time guessing and processing the “what if’s”. He chose rather to think through the new course that his life would take with the diagnosis of prostate cancer and begin to move toward a place of acceptance. What it meant for him would somehow become clear soon enough but his acceptance of the new direction was another matter. He could not change his life back to the pre-cancer rhythms and patterns so he had to move ahead. He needed to accept the powerlessness of his new status and trust that the history of his life of faith would carry him to a place of surrender to God who was greater than himself and was truly his friend. He was not sure how to get there at the moment so a walk and time alone would help create space for him to move toward a sense of the acceptance, the assurance he needed and ultimately at least the beginnings of surrender.
He walked for a long time with no seeming direction to his walk. His internal compass had taken over and he ended up at Stanley Park. He walked along the sea wall as far as Brockton Point and sat on a bench. He reloaded his pipe and fired up the bowl as he sat looking at the sculpted, lone figure of the woman in a wetsuit sitting on a rock in the midst of the waves breaking against her pedestal. The sculptor had somehow been able to capture a calm serenity in her expression that was unchanged by the waves that broke around her. Even though she was bronze – her expression appeared unmoved by the circumstance of her setting. The artist had captured a heart of confidence and trust that had survived the years of incessant pounding waves in calm and storm since its placement in 1972. The statue was weathered but unmoved. It sat resolutely on its pedestal in the water.
As he sat contemplating the statue off the point a lot of correlations to his present predicament went through his mind. Sitting in a wreath of pipe smoke he began to connect the dots. Just as the sculptor knew the resting place of her work, he believed in a maker who knew his days as well. Just as the sculptor had carved her own resolution into the face of her statue, he knew that his life had been sculpted through the ordinary time of his life in preparation for the struggles that lay ahead of him. He began so slow down the cadence of his pipe and a sense of resolve began to displace the chaos as he continued to observe.
He had no idea how much time had passed but knew he had come to some peace with his next challenge while sitting in the shadow of the statue. He quietly breathed the words of the Serenity Prayer as he prepared to move on.
God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.
He stood, tamped his pipe, relit it and began the walk around the point. He knew that he had made some progress in his thinking because he was hungry. He checked his watch and saw that it was already late in the afternoon. He had eaten nothing all day. He knew there was a great restaurant at lodge in the centre of the park. He had enjoyed eating there in the past. The food was good and the setting relaxing. It would not take too long to walk there and he could enjoy a good meal and a good pint. He also knew that the bus stop for a quicker trip home was not far from the restaurant. He could relax with a good meal and bus home afterward. He made his way to the door, found a quiet seat on the patio looking over the park and ordered his dinner and a pint. It was good food and did not disappoint him. He finished the meal, paid the bill and loaded another pipe. He went out the door and walked to the bus stop. While he waited for the bus he enjoyed his pipe.
It did not take too long to get home and when he arrived he saw that Mrs. Conti had been there and left a note for him. She had put some food that she had prepared in the refrigerator. He figured he would eat it the next day. She was very kind to him and understanding of his idiosyncrasies. She also mentioned in her note that the urologist had called to change the appointment to the next morning. He needed to be at the office on Broadway near Vancouver General Hospital by 10am the next day. He poured himself a scotch, reloaded his pipe and went into the parlour to sit and enjoy the pipe and drink. He sat in his chair and sipped on both the drink and the pipe. It was good to be able to be free of the initial paralysis caused the news and face it head on. He resolved that he would not spend a lot of time worrying about the morning’s appointment. It was good enough to know that tomorrow he would get informed about what was next on the agenda. He finished his drink and his pipe and laid them aside. He made his way up the stairs to bed and actually fell quickly to sleep.
He woke in the morning and did his morning ritual – prayers, coffee and pipe before his shower. He finished those and dressed for the urology appointment. He filled another pipe went out the front door. He lit it before heading down the steps and quickly made his way to the street to walk to the appointment. It would not take too long to get there so he could grab a coffee on his way there. He was ready to learn about this new chapter of his life and move to accepting what it would mean for him. It would have been too much to say that the unknown did not scare him or make him nervous; however he was ready to enter this part of life knowing that the work he had done on the previous day had given him a sense of serenity. He stopped by and visited his favourite barrista and got his usual Americano Misto. He paused outside the door to relight his pipe and continued down Broadway to the Doctor’s office. He sat on the bus bench outside the door of the medical centre and finished both the coffee and the pipe. He had plenty of time before his appointment and to be honest, though he wanted to know he still did not want to rush.
When he finished he put the coffee cup in the trash and his pipe in his pocket and caught the elevator to the third floor to meet “his urologist”. When he came through the door the clerk he had spoken to asked him to sign in and take a seat. It was not long before the doctor came out to get him. He was a little man dressed in scrubs with a grin on his face. It was the kind of face that showed he walked through life bemused. Together they walked back to an examination room. He took a seat and the Doctor closed the door. He was far less abrupt than his clerk. Father Tom told him of the shocking phone call and the Doctor chuckled and said it was hard to get good help. He then walked Tom through the options ahead of him. Really there were two choices – one was radiation of the cancer cells in his prostate with relative success and the other was a radical prostectomy – cutting into his abdomen and removing the cancerous gland. Ultimately the choice was his to make but the Doctor said he personally leaned to the surgical solution as he had seen excellent results with little or no recurrence of the cancer. He told Father Tom that he would give him a month to think over the options and talk with people. Once he made up his mind on the option for him he could call and they would proceed. He prescribed a book called “Life with Prostate Cancer” and gave him a range of dates to book his follow-up appointment. He ended the visit with the encouraging words “I can fix this for you. This is what I am very good at. Talk with you soon.” With those words he left the room and the appointment was over.
Tom left the examination room and made the next appointment at the desk on his way out. He wanted to get this over with and was already leaning toward having the surgery. He figured that it would not hurt to read the book the doctor has spoken about and call some of his friends who had already gone through this. They would help give him an informed perspective on what was ahead for him. He took the elevator downstairs to the drug store and bought the book that had been recommended. Even the title reminded him of the horrid posters in the biopsy area at the hospital – Life with Prostate Cancer. He glanced through the titles of the chapters and figured it would give him a clear picture of what lay ahead for him. He put the book in his coat pocket and pulled out his pipe. Under the watchful eye of the pharmacist he nodded and went outdoors. He filled his pipe and lit it.
He stood outside on the sidewalk puffing while his pipe began to smolder. He thought about his options for the day. It was only a little after 11am and he had the afternoon ahead of him with no more appointments. He was not far from his favourite tobacconist so he thought would be a good option for him. He made up his mind and started his walk to the shop. As he walked there was a an internal struggle going on inside of him – part was dreading even dealing with the future ahead of him and another part doggedly wanted to move forward. It was the proverbial battle denial and facing the truth. He decided to put it aside for a bit, he needed a break before he tried to figure things out and read the book. From the chapter headings he knew that it would clearly spell out the path ahead, but he was not ready for that. He tamped and relit his pipe walked down the hill to the tobacco shop. Perhaps he would find one of the crew there he could speak with… no matter. Time would tell.