if you want your dog…
A friend called and asked if I would speak to a friend of hers–a cancer patient who was staring down a hard road of chemotherapy and radiation. I didn’t know him or his family, but my friend said she thought he could really use a chance to talk through some spiritual issues with which she knew he was struggling.
I said if he was willing, I sure was, and our first two conversations got all the basics out of the way: I learned about his condition, how rare it was and how difficult to treat. How he was only 38, a construction supervisor who had been let go after several months of inability to work, having to move his family into his mother-in-law’s home because finances were so tight. I learned about his wife and two small boys and how they were dealing with his illness–wife pushing through with busyness, boys young enough to be oblivious… And little by little I began to hear about him, about all that had to be going on inside. But with each little personal glimpse, he’d smile and take a sip from the water bottle he always had near and quickly say that he just had to push through, fight on no matter what.
Then I got a call from his wife saying that the chemo had worn a hole in his esophagus, which couldn’t be closed with surgery without too much risk, which now meant he couldn’t do radiation anymore, or perhaps the other way round… But like the moment on a chessboard when you can see two or three moves ahead that you’re just checkmated no matter where you move, there was no more that could be done. She said he was too weak to come to our offices now and would I come to their home, and on the way over, acutely aware of the significance of the moment, I began to plan the conversation as I often find myself doing, then forced myself to stop. To just show up and respond to what he actually had to say instead of any of my best imaginings was all I could do. What could I possibly say of value to someone in checkmate that didn’t come out of our moment together? What could I possibly bring in from the outside that could be relevant…other than myself?
He met me at the door and already looked older and thinner. Moving slowly, he took me out to the back patio where we sat under a slatted cover in bright sunlight, only the water bottle between us. The smile was gone, but he led the conversation with his fight on attitude until I asked him pointedly how he was really feeling. He simply said, “tough.” That the hardest part was the thought of leaving his family—his wife, the boys. Then he stopped and stared for a couple beats and out of the blue asked, “Do you believe in guardian angels?” And his voice broke, and his curtain parted, and I saw that everything he was, all emotion and hope and everything he was fighting for lay in that one question. Would his family be protected, guarded, guided without him here? Would he, could he possibly be assigned to that task? What would be his role, his purpose, his identity after checkmate? The sum of all fears in a single, seeming non-sequitur.
I said yes I do believe, though I don’t know how it works. No one can know how it works, but I believe in a God who protects and guides and guards whether through angels or us or anything in between. And then, out of the blue, I remembered a moment in first grade Catholic school when a girl in the row next to me asked the nun if she would have her dog in heaven, and I wondered if I should share my own non-sequitur with him, if what was coming to me out of our moment was of any real value or relevance. I told him the nun simply responded, “If you want your dog, you’ll have your dog.” See, that’s it. We don’t know how it works, but in God’s presence there is no felt need. In God’s presence the sum of all our fears has no meaning. If you want your dog, you’ll have your dog. If you want your family protected and guided, they will be–in ways we just can’t know right now.
His head went up and down as if in agreement or at least understanding, but he took a sip from his water bottle, and I watched the curtain close again. His mother-in-law sent me an email just last week to tell me he had died suddenly in his sleep the day before. I’d like to think that our talks helped. That in his last few weeks, he came to trust things he couldn’t possibly know. I can’t know if I helped, but I do know that now the tables are turned: that he now knows what I can only speculate, that he has whatever dog he wants, and that there are certainly some questions I’d like to ask him. But not yet.