Introductory Note: Jeffry Hendrix, a Methodist pastor who converted to Catholicism [read his conversion story] is a longtime Dawn Patrol reader and commenter—that's me with him at right in May 2007.
Last year, Jeff was diagnosed with bladder cancer. The experience gave him a new perspective on his conversion, his vocation, and, indeed, his entire life. Out of that came his desire to write his first book, one that would help others suffering from terminal illness to reconcile themselves to God: the newly released A Little Guide for Your Last Days.
Jeff and his publisher, Bridegroom Press, have graciously permitted me to reprint Chapter One of Little Guide on The Dawn Patrol. It appears below, prefaced by a personal letter Jeff wrote to his Protestant friends and family to tell them about his book.
Jeffry Hendrix writes:
Since I was young, I have watched death come: for my grandparents; for a multitude of my church members; for my mother; for my brother; and then for me.
But I was not ready when I knew it was coming for me. I was scared to death the morning of the surgery to open me up to remove my left kidney, ureter, and scrape my bladder. I was not ready. I felt in an instant how much of my precious time on this Earth as a human being had been spent being distracted from the absolute and undeniable fact. I. Will. Die.
It was partly my fault – who wants to think about that? It was mostly the milieu in which I was born, lived, and moved through life: modern popular culture strives during our every waking moment to keep our consciousness from the fact of our mortality. We are distracted to death. Sure: it fills with near-pornographic glee the movies, television dramas, comedies, thrillers, gore fests with other peoples’ deaths, but never does it put death in first person singular.
So at 10:30 a.m. on the morning of April 24, 2008, I had my personal Garden of Gethsemane. I was alone (literally). I was mortally afraid. I was not ready or at peace with the fact that I was moving toward my death, and death was moving toward me.
The surgery was successful, but in December of the same year, cystoscopy showed I had lesions in my bladder, and chemotherapy was prescribed. It was at that moment that A Little Guide for Your Last Days began to be written. As much for me as for anyone else who might read it.
For any readers who are Christian, Little Guide is my express understanding of the grace of God in Jesus Christ to save us from both the penalty of sin and the fear and pain of death. Yes; it is Catholic in theology and understanding. That is where I find the most truth, the most hope, the most understanding of our human condition, and the most answers to our human plight.
I want A Little Guide for Your Last Days to be not only a memento mori – a reminder of your mortality – but a book of lessons for living your life more in keeping with the will of our self-donating, covenant-making, covenant-keeping God. And He is most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The doctor has shrugged his/her shoulders. All that can be done has been done. It will be x number of weeks/months of relatively high functioning normalcy, a rather steeply descending slope toward the cessation of organ function, a call to Hospice, then a great deal of morphine or the like (you hope).
What should you do now? Let’s start at the other end of the stick. What shouldn’t you do?
First of all, don’t mimic any movie character, any television show plot line, any action of any saint, or any advice given to you by a well-wishing friend, relative, or acquaintance.
What about The Bucket List? You know, the movie with Jack and Morgan – the two old geezers who go about spending their money on fun and dangerous things? Sorry; that drops you right back to square one – distraction from awareness of your gifted knowledge. Do not under any circumstances fall for this ruse. At best, you will come out of the experience with that sinking realization that nothing has changed. At worst, you will provide the keepers of pop culture with yet another example of how to distract yourself to death. Literally.
Secondly, don’t go round to acquaintances, friends, relatives, or perfect strangers looking for sympathy, understanding, concern, or anything else. Simply do not do it. They will not give it to you to the degree to which you are seeking. Even if they do, you will end up resenting their attempts. (Hey, they’re “safe”, or so they think. What’s it costing them? Nothing.) Again, you will end up feeling worse than you did before you went looking for what they really and truly do not have to give to you.
In fact, once the fact is out there, you are in what some cultural anthropologists like René Girard call “the sacred precinct.” You are a certifiable sacrificial victim, and you carry with you a sacred aura. Congratulations, right? It is an honor you would rather not enjoy, of course. As Mark Twain noted, when threatened by tarring and feathering and being ridden out of town on a rail, “If it weren’t for the honor and glory of the thing, I’d just as soon walk.”
And it isn’t such a strange, metaphysical thing. Mortality, being so hidden and kept from the general awareness, makes death the thing of near-pornographic fascination today, as long as it is someone else who is being so fascinating.
So here is the advice: Don’t waste your time in frenetic activities. It won’t get you any closer to what you want the most. Neither will the most tender sympathies of friends, family, or perfect strangers. Nor will the bald awareness and contemplation of your status as being in the cattle chute, as it were. None of these will answer the question burning in your mind and heart. And what might that question be? The Big Question?
I think you already have some idea or you wouldn’t have picked this book up from a bookstore like this. Matter of fact, you wouldn’t have even come into this bookstore if you weren’t already on the path to answering it for yourself.