One week ago last night, I watched as one of my best friends died.
Longtime readers of this blog knew him as commenter Mark S.
Mark was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in early 2013.
But our conversation had begun years before that, not long after my manager had hired him. He was passing by my office when he heard me laughing while delightedly telling my officemate that the American Academy of Religion was devoting an entire session at their upcoming conference to discuss whether or not Pastafarianism — the cultus of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — qualified as an actual religion. He backtracked a couple of steps, stood at the doorway listening till I wound down, and then said, “Wait… what? You obviously take your religion pretty seriously – you have a flyer for a religion lecture on your bulletin board – but you’re laughing about the Flying Spaghetti Monster?”
In retrospect I can hear him thinking, “Don’t you know the FSM was made up by a bunch of atheists who are mocking you? You’re supposed to be offended, not amused. What kind of a Christian *are* you?”
So I burbled on a bit about how fabulous I thought it was that religious studies people could use the FSM as a test particle to probe the definition of “religion.” He said, “That’s interesting, I’d like to hear more about that – maybe we can have lunch sometime and talk about it.” And so our conversation began.
I don’t think he’d ever met an irreverent religious person before. A few months later, after a set of office moves had placed us next to each other in a bullpen, I told him one of my favorite Catholic jokes. When I got to the punchline, he laughed so hard he almost fell off his chair, then looked at me with an expression of real shock on his face and said, “I think they’re supposed to burn you at the stake after that!” (At which point *I* laughed so hard I almost fell off my chair.)
That summer was the beginning of our afternoon conversation walks. We had started to design a test management and reporting system — I wanted a tool that would help me monitor & investigate data-dependent failures in the hundreds of tests I was writing for a software package we were commissioning, and he wanted a tool that would simplify his daily chore of running & checking the status of an increasingly disparate set of the branch’s nightly tests. The building we were in was so cold that I suggested we go outside for our design discussions. So we’d go out and work for a while, either while we walked or after we’d found a good place to sit; and after we’d done about as much as we could do in one session, we’d take a break and talk philosophy before we went back inside. The next set of office moves placed us as officemates in a warm sunny office, so we didn’t need to go outside to warm up anymore. But almost every afternoon, we’d take a break to go for a walk (weather permitting) and talk philosophy.
“Philosophy” — well, that’s what he called it. It was our shorthand for conversation that ranged widely through ethics, evolution, theology, sociology, morality, science, science fiction (especially Star Trek) and beyond. We were always sending each other email with ideas or links to articles that would make good “conversation fodder.” He was especially interested human nature, in the history of warfare, and in what he considered the peculiar notion of “rules of war.” If the course I was taking that semester focused on moral theology or theological anthropology, I’d often send him my short homework papers so we could talk about them.
Mark was not the first atheist with whom I had discussed religion, of course, but his willingness and ability to enter into my theistic Christian Catholic worldview, in an attempt to understand, to empathize, and to ask probing and productive questions, was unmatched in my experience. We both appreciated the intellectual stimulation of being asked questions we hadn’t previously considered, or challenged on assumptions or inconsistencies we hadn’t noticed we possessed — the kinds of questions that can only be asked by a worldview outsider. The kind that keep you honest.
Sometimes we talked about why and how it was that our friendship, and our never-ending conversation, had blossomed and borne fruit (okay, that metaphor is all mine – he didn’t do metaphor), given that the more usual result of Christian-atheist discourse is incomprehension at best, acrimony at worst. We agreed that the key was our mutual respect and trust: it’s impossible to have an authentic conversation about things that matter deeply to you if you’re always wondering whether and when your conversation partner is going to turn on you.
Part of that trust was that neither of us ever tried to convert the other: that was built into the conversation right from the beginning. Oh, we each hoped that the other might come around, but we knew it was very unlikely. We’d explored the reasons for our belief and unbelief early on in the conversation, of course. He concluded that I was a rather compartmentalized thinker, and there were elements of my worldview that were simply incomprehensible to him, but he admired the seriousness with which I thought about and practiced my religion. I concluded that there was evidence available to me that was either unavailable to him or that he did not consider reliable, but I understood his reasoning, and I admired his unflinching dedication to the pursuit of truth. We occasionally talked about writing an article about it together; I wish we had. But then, there are so many things I wish we had done.
We had been good friends for several years on the day he said “Let’s go for a walk, I have something to tell you,” and told me that his annual physical had turned up something that looked like it was going to be very serious, either cancer or something equally grave; and that he didn’t know anything else yet, he needed to have more tests done. A few weeks later, we went for another walk, and he told me they’d determined it was definitely prostate cancer, but he needed more tests to determine how far it had spread; basically, he said, if it was still confined to the prostate then it was curable; otherwise, it was not. I walked with him, both literally and metaphorically, as he talked to doctor after doctor, having to recite what was going on over and over again each time. I walked with him during the unbearable days while he waited for the phone call with the test results that would tell him whether he was going to die. And I was in the office with him when he got that phone call: he hung up the phone, said “It got out,” and buried his face in his hands.
That was February, 2013. He was 49.
The thing about prostate cancer is that there are several hormone suppressant treatments, each operating in a slightly different way, that can slow or even temporarily reverse the growth of the cancer. But the thing about these treatments is, each one eventually stops working, and there’s no way to tell when that’s going to happen. There’s anecdata about patients that live for 10, 15 years on these treatments — every doctor we talked to had one; but the median survival time is 5 years, and you know there have to be some awfully short numbers to bring the median down to 5. Most men get prostate cancer significantly later in life, and it progresses slowly enough that many die from some other cause; men who are diagnosed young tend to have an extremely aggressive form of the cancer, as Mark did.
So most of the past two and a half years have been an ongoing series of cycles structured by the once-every-three-months blood test results that would tell whether the current treatment had stopped working, with the corresponding significant reduction in the amount of time he would have left. It felt like a continual series of crises. And it gave me a whole new understanding of “walking in the valley of the shadow of death.”
I am profoundly grateful that he was able to come to my graduation last year: because my academic work had been so integrally woven through my conversation with him.
Our friendship, which had been mostly confined to the office, went into high gear after his diagnosis: I started to hang out with Mark and his wife Carolyn on evenings and weekends, and we started carpooling one or two days a week — preferably on days with bad traffic, so we’d have more time for conversation. I was driving us home on one of those early carpool days when he said, “I’ve noticed you haven’t said you’re praying for me; though you told me you were praying for my dad when he was diagnosed with dementia. So I figured you were probably doing it anyway, but just not saying anything about it out of respect for my beliefs.”
“Pretty much,” I said. “It just really Did Not Seem Like the Time for your Christian friend to shove her beliefs in your face.”
“I appreciate that,” he said. “But I wanted to let you know, it’s okay for you to talk about it, if you want to, or if it would naturally come up in conversation.”
Given that opening, I talked a bit about an insight I’d just had a day or two before: I’d been so busy praying for him, that I’d forgotten to pray for *myself*, that I would have the grace and strength to best support him through this, and to get through it myself.
“Does it help?” he asked. “Yes, it does seem to,” I replied.
And I was so touched that he remembered that; and, over the next weeks and months when I would occasionally break down and cry, my atheist friend would say to me,”Hey… don’t forget to pray for yourself. Somebody told me once that was helpful.”
Mark maintained a normal work schedule as much as possible throughout; he told me early on that he wanted to live as normal a life as possible. The cancer was going to take away thirty years he’d expected to live; he didn’t want to give it anything else. Work was also a helpful distraction; he’d rather come to work and think about programming than sit around at home all day thinking about the cancer.
It was my honor and privilege to be the person at work that he could talk to, as he struggled to absorb and cope with the fact that he was dying; or reflected on what his legacy would be; or researched the next available treatment options, and how much time they might buy him; or struggled with the socially ubiquitous greeting “How are you?” to which no one actually wanted to hear the answer “I’m dying.” I knew, too, that part of my job was to help with the living a normal life and the distraction: I collected conversation fodder even more assiduously, so I always had something ready when he’d say, “That’s enough depressing stuff for now… can we talk about something else?”
All the treatments had side effects, most noticeably fatigue. Our afternoon walks necessarily became slower, then shorter, and eventually stopped altogether; this year, we mostly took our afternoon breaks sitting in the cafeteria or on the terrace, but still talking all the while.
In February, there were some indications that the last available suppressant treatment was starting to be less effective on certain tumor sites, and he had a course of radiation treatment for several weeks to shrink a tumor that was causing him pain. In mid-May, the results of a diagnostic scan he’d had to see if he qualified for a clinical trial made it shockingly clear that the cancer had progressed to his liver (“large tumor”) and lungs (“innumerable lesions”). He immediately scheduled a round of chemotherapy, to try to kill off some of it; the night before starting chemo, he broke a rib – the one that had been weakened by a very large tumor. (They said he should go ahead with the chemo anyway.) While recovering from the chemo, he scheduled two more radiation treatments, both in an attempt to keep the cancer from getting to his spine and causing paralysis.
After that, his decline was shockingly rapid. At the end of June, he was no longer well enough to come to the office every day, and decided to transition to nearly full-time telecommuting; after a couple weeks, he realized he no longer had the energy even to keep up with email, and went on disability. In mid-July, we hoped that his symptoms were side effects of the chemo and radiation that he’d recover from after a few weeks.
At the end of July, he started home hospice care. A week later, the hospice people told us that, based on what they were seeing, they wouldn’t be surprised if he died within a week or two. In the middle of that week, he rallied for a couple of days: he had enough energy that thursday to visit with several of us from work, and even advise on a technical problem. But the next day, he declined again, and it was clear he was in his final days.
A couple of days later, Mark and I said our goodbyes, sadly and solemnly (well, mostly solemnly: he did say to me, “I’m glad I could be the atheist friend who wasn’t a dick about it.”), and with gratitude for the gifts of our friendship. And I said to him, with a sad smile, because I had said it to him so many times over the years, “And if I’m right… I’ll see you in heaven.”
A few days after that, on the evening of Saturday, August 15th, the feast of the Assumption, I watched and prayed as he breathed his last.
I have always described our friendship as a never-ending conversation. Now, I must find other words.
May the angels lead him into Paradise,
May the choirs of martyrs welcome him
And lead him to the holy city,
The new and eternal Jerusalem.
May he come to be
where Lazarus is poor no longer.
May he find eternal rest.
May he find eternal rest.