It is Easter! Still Easter. I know many of you think that Easter was over at sundown on Sunday. But, no. The Feast, the Holy Season, lasts until Pentecost which follows hard on the heels of the Feast of the Ascension.
It’s a wonderful time of the year, and a wonderful day within it. I was passed by a young woman today while walking across a green sward who smilingly wished me, “Happy Easter!” I returned the greeting with my own smile and walked on, thinking about Easter and Pentecost. And, when I returned home I got involved in something I don’t usually do, writing some prayers for a Mass to take place at a retreat.
While looking for some paper on which to doodle about the prayers, I came across something I had written a long time ago; about 30 years ago. Odd it should be that number.
It was just about 30 years ago, give or take, that Sheila Marie Welby Gallaher was diagnosed with breast cancer. She survived for fourteen more years. But, we both knew that the odds were against all the actuarial tables. She would leave me earlier than what I thought was necessary and right; earlier than the actuarial tables have ordained. Aren’t men supposed to die first according to all of those things?
For the next several months, as we grew accustomed to this New Fact!, I spent a lot of time wondering why, what had I done. We Catholics call this an Examination of Conscience; taking stock, going over our assets and our, well, lack of them. And from that, we are supposed to do our best through prayer and , well again, do our best with the grace of God to put things in order. To, as my father used to tell me, “Straighten up and fly right!”
I sometimes wonder if that was the reason Sheila was “taken home” so soon. She had finished her training here, gotten her wings and flew away Home. And me? I get to stay after school.
Anyway, during that time I wrote the little thing below.
I came across it while engaged on another assignment for the folks preparing a retreat for a group we belong to called the Families of Nazareth; an “approved ecclesial foundation” was born in Poland just about the time that Sheila and I were learning to live, and eventually die, with cancer. It has grown into an international movement of people who, more or less, happen to think that God is crazily in love with them.
Like I said, I found this buried among some old papers I was searching through for ideas about these prayers we had been asked to write. All that remained in my memory of the thing was the first line, “What have you got that you haven’t been given? Nothing more. No title, and. certainly, no “poem”. I stopped for a moment to read it, and all of those other things connected with it came back.
Funny how that stuff works, isn’t it?
You see, it was just about this time of the year I think that Sheila experienced her second, let’s call it “metastatic episode”; where she suddenly felt pain in her spine and hips. The doctors told her that she could take no more radiation. Don’t ask me why, but, she was in no condition to repeat the experience anyway. If you know about the death of St. Lawrence, you may get an idea of the thinking behind her decision. Her options were limited, things like bone marrow transplant, and experimental chemotherapy were about all that remained; or rattles and dancing. We went so far as to schedule an appointment with the U. Mass. bone marrow center in Worcester. I remember the day well, and the drive home, shortly after arriving, seeing the people who were waiting with her and having a brief conversation with one of the doctors. Call them incredibly courageous or just as desperate, but Sheila was not interested in what was required and the chances of success, as so we left.
Her oncologist, next suggested a recently cleared new chemotherapy; one which gave her a twenty percent chance of completing the course of treatment successfully. She would be at home, and I would be near, having retired just a few months before. That is what we did. Well, she did. I watched, waited and wished; practicing as well as i could the “ministry of presence.”
She endured it for about three months and then told the doctor that enough was enough.
On the way home we had a nice meal at a local restaurant. I don’t think she ate that much at one time again. It was, actually, her last supper.
Finding what follows has brought back those memories; not that they are ever far away.
It’s nice, in a way knowing that this wasn’t lost. It’s a kind of talisman; reminding me of what was and what could be, and to pay attention to that fact.
What do you have that you haven’t been given?
How did you get here at all?
For all that you have can you give any reason?
How do you stand? How will you fall?
Now that you’re here, where are you going?
And how are you going to go?
When you get there at last what will you be doing?
How are you going to know?
What will you take for the journey you’re making
How will you choose what is right?
How can you be sure that you’re walking towards day?
That it actually isn’t the night?
What have you got that you haven’t been given?
How are you dealing with that?
Can you think of what happened before you were living?
Do you know if it’s true or it’s false?
How can you know that at all?
Can you think of a time when or where you are not?
Can you of yourself be here and be now?
Can you freeze any moment you’re in?
Are there forces before which you only can Bow?
Have you knowledge, or virtue, or sin?
Are you grateful for all that you think that you have?
Are you sad you yet haven’t much more?
Fi you fail of your goal with what will you salve
Whatever it is you call soul?
What have you now that you haven’t been given?
What will you get of your own?
Is your goal just in making you way in the world
As far as your own will may take you?
How will that end when at last you are curled
At life’s edge and realize all is forsaken?
What then will you do with all you’ve been given
Hungering for peace at the last,
When finally you have all for which you’ve striven
And know only all you have lost,
Something you thought you had , but you hadn’t,
Something that’s slipped through your hands,
And looking at life see nothing but sadness,
Knowing all you have gathered is sand.