On the train to New York City. An elderly couple across the aisle and one row behind me keeps getting phone calls from their kids, who seem worried that they’re not going to make it all the way home all right. They tease a lot, but they sound worried. Every time their phone rings, the couple always let it ring six or seven times (and with that annoying default ring tone) before they answer it. They use the speaker phone turned up so we’re treated to their conversations.
But at least I know where they hide their house key.
Then the phone rings again. The elderly man says in his quavering thin voice, “So how are things goin’?” A quavering, low-pitched woman’s voice says, “Just had a biopsy. They don’t have the results yet.”
She says she had horrible pain in her left side Saturday night. “I just thought it was the onion rings and the blue cheese dressing,” she says, and laughs but not happily. She finally went to the emergency room and found out the doctors think she has cancer.
In the Midst of Life
In the midst of life we are in death, as the old liturgy says. My sister went to the ER for pain in her left arm and the doctors told her she had a blot clot and also terminal cancer. A friend went to the ER for pain in her back and found out her cancer had returned and spread to the bones. One tumor pressed on the spinal cord and the local ER put her in an ambulance to go to the big regional hospital for emergency surgery.
You go to the emergency room expecting to be saved, to be fixed up and sent on your way. Instead the doctors pronounce a death sentence.
The old man asks the woman if she wants him to tell Tom. She pauses and then says, “Yeah. I just had the biopsy and they don’t have the results yet, but yeah, you might as well tell him. Go ahead. Thanks.”
The old man calls Tom. He gets voice mail. “Tom,” he says, and tells him the woman just called. “She just had a biopsy. They don’t have the results yet. That’s all we know. Bye.”
The old couple, the woman who called, her friend Tom, all strangers. Only the couple’s discourtesy in sharing their lives with half the train car connects us. And charity, charity connects us. The old liturgy tells us that in the midst of life we are in death, but it adds: “Of whom may we seek for succor, but of thee, O Lord?” We can pray.
David Mills is the editor of Hour of Our Death. This story appears in his reflection on the spiritual work of mercy of comforting the afflicted, in the article “In the midst of life, and so much death, yet we’re anything but helpless.”