Our angel got his wings this morning at 7:45 a.m. The end was peaceful and so quick that it was unexpected. It appears that his surge of energy on Monday was a final "Hurrah" before another rapid decline. He spent Tuesday and Wednesday knocked-out on Atavan and pain medication in response to a lot of pain he was having in his left ankle (of all places?). He never really awoke and slipped away peacefully in his sleep. I stayed with him until his warmth left him and until he became stiff. Even in death the human body is amazing. I was so glad the kids and I were able to be with him and to say our final goodbyes. The kids have been incredibly resilient and I am so grateful to have such competent, caring, people around them right now who know exactly how to handle the situation and who aren't afraid to be part of all of this.
I'm sorry if you have not received a personal phone call regarding the news. I am preoccupied making arrangements. Jeff drafted a final blog before he died and he asked that I post it upon his death.
So, here are his parting thoughts and words.
(P.S. I, Kelly, will continue to post here to let everyone know about funeral arrangements, etc. and will also use this blog to communicate about the aftermath of Jeff's death--about how I and the kids are doing etc. So, I hope you'll keep reading).
MY FINAL BLOG
Hi! The fact that you are reading this means I have died. I asked Kelly to post this after my death. She did not read it beforehand so its content is as fresh to her and the kids as it is to you. I weighed carefully whether I wanted to post a final blog like this. On one hand, a “letter from the dead” seems a bit morbid. But ultimately I decided that I wanted to share some thoughts that provided comfort to me in the end. I hope that they give you some insight into how I viewed my battle with melanoma and my approaching death.
Where’s The Justice?
Before this happened, I had never questioned why things happened. To me, the answer seemed clear: they happened because there were causes. A tsunami wipes out a village because an earthquake shakes the ocean floor. A plane filled with business travelers crashes into an office tower because a mob of cowardly terrorists chose that flight for their suicide mission. The innocent bystanders don’t deserve to die, and certainly they (and their friends and relatives) deserve great compassion for the circumstances in which they find themselves. But God didn’t make those things happen. People or nature did.
Then this happened to me.
And of course I questioned why it happened, looked for justice in the situation. I felt like I had led a healthy life, had made wise and careful decisions about how I conducted myself, had done plenty of praying, and was an asset to my community. So why would I get stuck with a diagnosis like this? When there were so many people who had abused themselves in one way or other, who had made bad and dangerous decisions, who ignored God completely, and who were not assets to their communities—and yet these people were living to ripe old ages—why was I the one who had to face the prospect of an early death? If God was a God of justice, where was the justice in this?
And then, as I pondered the situation for the umpteenth time, it dawned on me that this was justice. The facts are that I have fair skin and I was sunburned many times as a kid. One time, when I was 19, the burn was so bad I ended up with painful blisters on my face, shoulders, arms, legs, and feet. And I remember the exact thought that struck me as I looked at myself in the mirror and realized the extent of that particular sunburn: “I probably just killed myself with skin cancer.” It was obviouds then; I know now as I knew then that I have this cancer because of my own actions. I may be blameless for those actions, at least to the extent that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t use sunscreen in those days; few people did. But the outcome could not be called unjust. It was simply the inevitable consequence of my actions.
I spent a lot of time begging God for healing during those first several months after my diagnosis. I prayed almost constantly that he would perform a miracle and rid my body of the melanoma. I also spent a lot of time wondering—for the first time in my life—whether there really was a God, whether there really was an afterlife, and whether there was any value to prayer. I hadn’t given much thought to these subjects in the past, but they suddenly seemed very important now that I faced the possibility of dying. The lessons I learned in religion class looked quite feeble when I viewed them next to the apparently iron-clad proofs that scientists and atheists made for a wholly material world.
They looked feebler still after the melanoma metastasized to my brain and I underwent brain surgery, lost the use of my leg, and spent a month laying in a bed in the hospital. This rather dramatic sequence of events might have seemed to be an emphatic answer to my questions. See, these might say, this is what will happen. Not because of God but because there is no God. The universe began with a disinterested bang, and it’s been operating in a disinterested cause-and-effect ever since. Prayers are irrelevant.
It would have been difficult for me to dispute this argument, except for a strange event that happened six days before my craniotomy. It was a Monday afternoon, and I had jogged three laps around the Hart Park track in Wauwatosa. Those were the first three laps I had run on a track since high school. I had given up running for more than 15 years because it wasn’t fun for me anymore. But that particular Monday, as I walked past the track, the thought struck me that it might be fun to run again. And it was. Seeing once again the lane markings, feeling the spongy recycled-tire surface under my feet, striding past the grandstands, it all made me remember why I had enjoyed running as a boy and motivated me to want to do it again. Moreover, it renewed my desire to beat this cancer. The fact that I couldn’t extend my left leg when I got home seemed irrelevant.
It wasn’t. That was actually the first symptom of a swelling brain tumor. The following Saturday morning, I underwent a craniotomy.
During the following weeks, it became increasingly more apparent that the surgery had left me with a permanent disability and I would never run again. Surprisingly, I was not particularly angry about this new development. I was grateful that the doctor had been able to remove the lesion. I was grateful that I was close to home and could have lots of visitors. And I was grateful because I had run those laps around the track. Some people might call it a coincidence. From my perspective, however, it was as if God had given me the opportunity to run—and I had chosen to take advantage of the opportunity through my free will—because He knew I would never have that opportunity again.
I began to think of some of the other “opportunities” that had presented themselves in the past year. I had pulled my bike out of the shed for the first time in seven years and taken several rides with each of the kids. Coincidence or opportunity? In the days immediately prior to my diagnosis, I had completed the last task in our home renovation. Coincidence or opportunity? We had taken our first big family vacation the summer before my diagnosis, and the Christmas that preceded my diagnosis—by a mere eight days!—was undoubtedly the best Christmas we had celebrated as a family. Even if I had gone into complete remission, we couldn’t have had another vacation or Christmas like those, so carefree and hopeful with no worries about the future. Coincidence or opportunity?
And then there was Finn. Kelly and I were not expecting to have any more children. Jack was five years old, and we were starting to get comfortable with the notion that God had given us all the children we were meant to have. Then Kelly found out she was pregnant. It took us by surprise, and we wondered to ourselves why God would give us this baby at this time. The timing seemed even worse after my diagnosis. But then Finn was born, and God’s answer was clear. If ever a family needed something to celebrate it was us at that time. Here was a special person that we could love and, equally importantly, who could love us at a time when we needed it most. Coincidence or opportunity?
I am an objective person by nature. I think logically and believe firmly in rational thought. I considered all of these situations carefully and, while admitting that some of them might be coincidences, cannot accept that so many seemingly random events would coincide in such a way by pure chance. Assuming there is a God—and I am convinced that there is for several reasons, not the least of which are Thomas Aquinas’ Five Proofs—and assuming that He interacts with His creation, then these kind of “opportunities” seem to me like the most probable way He would do so. These opportunities respect the gift of free will and provide comfort without interfering with the forces of nature. Miracles, by their very nature, are not common. And I really do not think we would want them to be any other way.
For some reason, my recognition of these “opportunities” seemed to quell any doubts I had about prayer, Heaven, and God. I think this feeling of acceptance—you might call it Faith—is probably also an answer to a prayer.
You Have To Die
But enough philosophizing. The real issue, at least in many people’s minds (including my own), was whether the treatments would work or not. In other words, was I going to live or die?
As you might expect, I have found that contemplating my own death has been both sad and worrisome. Questions arise that have no answers: Who will give away my daughters at their weddings? Who will take my sons to their first Notre Dame games? Who will comfort Kelly when she is feeling lonely or overwhelmed? Will Kelly be able to make it as a single working mom? Will the kids have problems coping without their father? Most of these questions, I decided, are not worth worrying about. Anything can happen in life, and I don’t know what the future holds for my family. What I do know is that Kelly is an amazingly strong woman and my children are incredibly resilient human beings. They will handle whatever comes along the same way they always have: with hope and with courage and with prayer.
One question, however, I could not dismiss so easily: what is the purpose of all this? It seemed like there should be a moral to the story, but I could not find one. I don’t see how it benefits my wife and kids in any way to be stripped of their husband and father at such a young age. I don’t think my disease and death have advanced the scientific understanding of melanoma. I considered so many reasons why my death would have a purpose, but ultimately none of them satisfied me. Of course, you often find answers where you least expect them.
Last summer, Kelly and I rented “Stranger Than Fiction.” I had looked forward to seeing this movie ever since my friend Marc Schulte had recommended it during his visit to see me in Houston. I had expected to enjoy the film, in no small part because of Marc’s recommendation. But I had not expected it to speak so directly to my situation. The movie, which stars Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman, and Emma Thompson, involves a man named Harold (Ferrell) who begins to hear a voice in his head. He soon discovers that this voice is actually the voice of an author (Thompson) who has a reputation for killing off her main characters. Afraid that his end is near, Harold asks a college literature professor (Hoffman) to persuade the author to let his character live. The professor succeeds in talking to the author and getting a copy of the work in progress. He then—in what to me was the most important scene in the film—meets with Harold to discuss the situation. Here’s how it goes:
Professor Hilbert stands near a window, looking out at the street below.
Harold enters the room.
You look tired.
No. No, just calm.
Harold, I’m sorry. You have to die.
It’s her masterpiece. It’s possibly the most important novel in her already stunning career, and it’s absolutely no good unless you die at the end. I’ve been over it again and again, and I know, I know how hard this is for you to hear.
You’re asking me to knowingly face my death?
I thought you’d, I thought you’d find something.
I’m sorry Harold.
Can’t we just try to see if she can change it?
Harold, in the grand scheme it wouldn’t matter.
Yes it would.
I could change. I could quit my job. I could go away with Anna. I could be someone else.
Harold, listen to me.
I can’t die right now. It’s just really bad timing.
No one wants to die, Harold, but unfortunately we do. Harold. Harold, listen to me. Harold, you will die, some day, some time. Heart failure at the bank. Choke on a mint. Some long, drawn-out disease you contracted on vacation. You will die. You will absolutely die. Even if you avoid this death, another will find you. And I guarantee that it won’t be nearly as poetic or meaningful as what she’s written. I’m sorry, but it’s, it’s the nature of all tragedies, Harold. The hero dies, but the story lives on forever.
This scene seemed to sum up so much of how I felt about my experience with melanoma and at the same time it provided great comfort. Like Harold, I was sad about what was happening; I didn’t want to die. But, as Professor Hilbert explains, each of us has a story. And each story has a particular way it is meant to end. We may not understand the why, but at some point to some one it all makes beautiful sense.
So this is my story. And I’ve been privileged to have so many of you as a part of it. I am so grateful, not just in what you have done for me since I received my diagnosis but—far more importantly to me—in what you have done and continue to do for Kelly and the kids. I have been blessed to be surrounded by friends, relatives, and neighbors who genuinely care about my family and have proven they will do whatever they can to see that my children thrive and Kelly has the support she needs.
It is my fervent belief that, in spite of my death, prayers have been answered. The answers may have come in a way—or at a time—we didn’t expect, but sure enough they came. And they will continue to come. So keep praying for me and for each other. I’ll be praying for all of you.