By Heidi Shott
Already I’m worried about General Convention in 2015 because a pattern seems to be developing between every third major Anglican/Episcopal event and a loved one dying of cancer.
Two years on the job as a diocesan communicator, my plan in early 2000 was to go to General Convention in Denver to learn, to report and to hang out with my communicator buddies. But then my father’s lung cancer returned with a vengeance in the spring and it became obvious I wasn’t going anywhere. I reported on the events in Denver from afar, and he died on July 23, a week or so after convention packed up.
While I’ve written a lot about those summer weeks over the past eight years (links below), it’s been hard – as both as a communicator whose salary is paid by people putting money in the plate week after week and as a person of faith – to put into words the conflicted-ness I feel about the “big” doings of the Church like General Convention and Lambeth and the “big” doings of sitting at the bedside of a dying loved one.
Which is bigger? Which is more important? Which is of greater consequence? Which is the greater story to tell?
As the Lambeth Conference was about to commence and I was giving Flip Video lessons to our bishop and bishop coadjutor – who are, by the way, doing a dazzling job at www.ourlettersfromlambeth.blogspot.com – I was also worrying about my next-door neighbor and good friend, Martha.
Two years ago, Martha was standing at the local Memorial Day parade next to her husband of 53 years and a friend who happened to be a nurse. It started with the nurse saying, “You look yellow.” A month later it continued with an extraordinarily complicated surgery for pancreatic cancer called the Anglican-sounding Whipple procedure. Though she was in the hospital for most of the summer it was, ultimately, a success. Then a good year. An excellent, normal year. But last fall during a routine check-up, the bad news arrived that the cancer had returned. Months of chemo ensued. Besides this nasty form of cancer, Martha was the healthiest, busiest, most vital 79 year-old we know, so to see her slow down was hard.
Though we live in a rural little village surrounding a millpond and a fresh water lake at the head of a tidal river, our house, a big 220 year old mishmash, and their house, a winterized, expanded cottage, are no more than 30 feet apart. The daughter of a former owner of our house built the cottage for her young family in the 1950s. It resembles a family compound and in the ten years we’ve lived here, that’s increasingly how we’ve crafted our lives in relation to Martha and Roger. Martha shares our twin sons’ New Year Eve birthday. With no children of their own and no close family nearby, they keep close track of our lives and we keep close track of theirs.
Her illness is awful. It’s wrong and painful and it’s coming to its conclusion.
Late in June, we were about to go camping and hiking in Acadia National Park. Before we left, I stopped by to check on Martha who had called off the chemo and was feeling poorly. “Go to the hospital,” I said. “I’m worried about you.”
“I’m worried about me too,” she said from the sofa where she cradled her painful belly.
When we returned four days later, Roger called to say she had been admitted.
“She doesn’t want phone calls or visitors,” he told me. After a few days of that nonsense, I stopped in early one morning and sat with him while he ate his Raisin Bran before going to the hospital.
“Roger, don’t leave until I give you a note for her,” I said, whipping out their back door. “I’ll be right back.” If there’s just one thing I can do, it’s write a damn good note.
At noontime, my husband Scott came home for lunch and picked up the ringing phone. He called out the window to me on the deck where I was reading. “Roger says Martha wants you to visit. Afternoons are good.”
When I got there I saw that the week had taken its toll. She was on a morphine pump and had lost weight. Over the next few hours and on several visits since – first at the hospital and now in a skilled nursing unit – I’ve pushed her morphine button, put the straw to her mouth, applied blistex to her chapped lips, held her hand, stroked her shoulder, kissed her and chatted with Roger about everything imaginable.
Unlike my father, the cancer has not reached her brain, so when she’s awake she’s fully herself.
“I wish something miraculous would happen,” she told me the other day when Roger left the room to get some tea, “but I know it’s just a matter of time.”
“We’ll be right next door.” I said. “I don’t want you to worry about anything. We’ll spoil him.”
She looked at me, so clear-eyed, so present, so close to something that’s hard to understand. I looked back and we smiled at each other with love.
And I thought, this is the most important thing happening in the world.
This morning – or last night, who knows when people are blogging from England – Jim Naughton, editor-in-chief of Episcopal Café, wrote
“My concern for the Lambeth Conference is that a critical mass of reporters—or perhaps just a handful of influential ones—will deem the conference a failure if it does not produce the sort of stories that they want to write, that they will say so repeatedly in the pages of their papers or on their blogs, and that this perception will become reality.
The only inoculation against this outcome that I can perceive—outside of an unexpected outbreak of forbearance from the British press—are vivid daily media briefings that feature bishops with good gripping stories to tell about how the conference’s theme of the day figures in their lives and ministries, and the lives and ministries of their people.”
As an Episcopal communicator, and as often as I could in the years I worked as a mainstream reporter, I’ve worked to tell “good gripping stories” because they are what people really want to hear. I believe well-told stories move people and engage people and change people. Why do you think Jesus spoke in parables? Why do our little children lie in bed at night and ask to hear tales of their parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods over and over again?
The story of our family’s love for Roger and Martha and our sadness in Martha’s illness is a real story. It’s one we’re living tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
The Lambeth Conference will be important to the Church and the world only to the extent our bishops sit with one another and listen closely, lovingly and compassionately to the stories each has to tell. Then they need to return to their homes to share the news with their people. It won’t be the same as hearing for ourselves, but it’s a start.
It occurs to me that after my father died in 2000, just after General Convention, I thought and wrote something similar to this. I really hope I get it right this time.