Monday, August 4, 2008


An Afro-American Cherokee dying of cancer taught me that cancer is a family affair and gave me the inspiration to write this book.

"I've been in this dark valley for three years. It has gotten darker and darker each day. The shadows are looming larger and larger on the sides of the steep valley walls. What started out as a journey of fear is turning to one of hope, because now I can see a faint light ahead of me. It seems to be getting larger and brighter each day. I'm guessing I will die soon and come out of this dark valley. I feel like I'll be starting a new adventure, a new beginning. I guess it will be a sort of a new spiritual beginning."

Robert was a fifty-three year old patient who had suffered in the dark shadows with his liver cancer for the past three years. His wife Debbie and his three children: Darrin (twelve), Edward (nine), and Abby (seven), walked that valley with him. He had been a hospice patient for the past five months. Recently, he had taken a turn for the worse and was nearing death. He shared his comments with me, the Hospice Chaplain, when I asked him, "What's happening?"

I learned as a hospice chaplain that asking the question, "What's happening?" opens a counseling conversation much quicker and more to the point than the tried and weary remarks, "How are you feeling?" "Good morning, you're looking fine", or "How's your cancer doing today?" No matter how miserable a patient may be feeling he will try most often to disguise his answers to trite questions by giving you the answers he thinks you want to hear.

I never expected the answer that Robert gave me that morning. Robert was half Cherokee Indian and half Afro-American, married for fourteen years to Debbie, a red-headed Irish woman, who liked to say she was Irish American, because Robert liked to tell people that he was an Afro-American Cherokee. She thought that their genetic make-up gave them the strength to survive. The next question I asked Robert was an open-ended counselor type remark. "You must feel lonely being in that dark valley."

His answer revealed the process he had gone through to get to the place where he could accept his death and look forward to a new beginning."I'm not feeling lonely at all", he said. "I have Debbie and the kids who are walking with me in the valley. If they weren't with me, I don't think I could make it."

I nodded my head in understanding, but I had more lessons I needed to learn. At that moment Debbie entered the room with Robert's medicine.

"Time for your meds, honey", she said, overhearing the last part of our conversation. Handing Robert a small pill she picks up the glass of water from the nightstand and gently placed it to his lips. "It wasn't always this easy." She said. "He was a bear when this thing first started. He wouldn't talk about it, didn't want me to talk about it. He didn't want to see anyone. He all but turned the children away because of his orneriness. They didn't understand why their daddy was so angry all the time and why he would push them away when they tried to get close to him. They began to feel lonely, just like I was feeling."

Robert smiled at her, squeezed her hand while turning to me and began to tell his story. "When I first was diagnosed with cancer, I was determined to beat it. I am an Afro- American, Cherokee Indian and stubborn as hell. As I grew up, I learned never to quit. My parents were good to me, but strict. We lived on a houseboat in a bayou outside of Baton Rouge. Not an easy life, but it was an honest one. I joined the Marines when I was eighteen, and that's where I learned to discipline myself. So, I wanted to beat this cancer by myself."

Debbie pulled up a chair and sat, holding her husband's hand. "That's what I mean. He wanted to cure himself and refused to talk to me about his feelings. He didn't want to go to the doctor, but finally he got so sick that he agreed to go. The doctor told us that he had serious cancer and that we needed to get help. He explained hospice to us and recommended that we call.

At first Robert refused to let me call your office, but finally when his children started to have problems in school, I got angry with him for his clamming up. I broke down and threw a fit. I yelled at him that he might as well die, that I was tired of pretending that nothing was going on. I was so angry I cried. Finally I said to him that even the dog was frightened by him, so I was going to call hospice whether he wanted me to or not."

She was holding his hand and gave it a little squeeze as she continued. "Those early days were difficult to deal with. We are now learning to cope by living one day at a time." My learning experience went on as I sat with Robert. All three of us were talking about hospice and how it was helping them to deal with "their" illness. They were very complimentary of the program.

Debbie said she didn't think she could have made it this far without our help. I was thinking to myself as the conversation went on. How true it is, that cancer is a family illness. That everyone in a family is involved when one of their members faces certain death.

The school bus pulled up outside the house.You could hear children's loud talk, the bus doors opening as children yelled to one another saying their goodbyes. The front door flew open and slammed three times, as each child entered. They threw their book bags on the floor and came directly into their father's room. Little Abby came bouncing in and went directly to the bed and sat next to her daddy, bending down to give him a kiss. The boys were a little self-conscious with my being in the room. They stood close to the bed, and they smiled at me as their mother said, "Say hello to the Chaplain."

"Hello", said Darrin and Edward in unison. Each of them wore a bashful smile.

Abby looking up from her daddy's side with a big grin, showing a missing front tooth,
said, "Hi!"

A strong sense of family filled the room. They were together facing the shadowy valley of death. I asked to be excused. My lesson was over for the day. I asked if they would like me to say a prayer before I left. Debbie, who was the spiritual leader of the family, quickly gathered the children around the bed, all of us holding hands as I prayed for their daddy and their family to have a restful, peaceful remainder of the day.

I left Robert and his family with the feeling that they had given me a learning experience by allowing me to walk a little ways with them through the emotions of living in the shadows of death. When I got into my car and began to pull out of the driveway, little Abby was standing at the door waving good-by. My Bible was in the passengers seat, opened to Ecclesiastes. I stopped before pulling back onto the street, picked up the Bible to close it and put it away. I glanced at a passage I had highlighted in the past.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 (ESV)
1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

The reality of death teaches us to live. I have had the privilege to assist the dying as they approached their eternal spiritual beginning. Their cycle of life on earth was coming to an end and the excitement of their new beginning into the next cycle approached. These kinds persons become mentors and teachers that allowed me to gain lessons from their journey "Though the Valley of the Shadow of Death."


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tony, for taking on this task of sharing your dad's faith and work with others. I know it will be a blessing. I have read the book before, but will follow again as you lead us to understand how much your dad loved his work and the people he served.

Blessings, Uncle Ray

Laura said...

Dear Tony:

I'm sitting here at work, just dropping entrecards and saw you'd dropped one on me. Imagine my delight and surprise to read this entry. I worked in hospice as a volunteer for several years and the experiences are forever seared on my soul. Even when they were wonderfully every-day and not at all momentous, they stick with you.

Thank you so much for continuing to spread the word of your father's work. I'm teared up reading this passage about Robert and his family and can't wait to read more.



Tony said...

Thanks Uncle.

Laura - thanks for coming by and thank you for your time serving those in hospice.