It has been an eventful couple of weeks in the Ashworth household and I’d like to tell you some stories about what it has been like for me and keep you updated on how I’m doing.
I went to Southlake, at the urging of my family doctor after an ultra sound, then spent the rest of the week doing tests and trying to get things started as fast as we could. It was rough on the kids because I was away and could not give them an indication about the kind of tests we were doing or what we thought it was until we knew for sure. Sarah was knee deep in grade 11 exams and Madeleine was working hard at St. John’s Convent. Sarah was getting ready to go to camp as a counselor and Madeleine was getting ready for an adventure in Dawson City, the Yukon. Once you say the word, you can’t take it back and I wanted to mitigate fear so I had to hold it tight. The cancer is in the cecum and has metastasized.
I have been a chaplain at Southlake for over 17 years. When they brought me to the 6th floor I realized that I had visited people in every room on this floor and was recalling whom I had visited in each room. (a little like when Harry Potter is approaching Voldemort and his family and friends appear to cheer him. The saints were in attendance offering courage and thanks.) At the threshold I hesitated because I had always been a visitor and never the patient, not a happy turn around. I didn’t feel sick, I had a ton of energy and there was not much chance I was going to put the blue gown on until I absolutely had to.
My twin sister, Genny was with me every day. In many ways it was like we were on a holiday. We turn 50 this year and were planning a hot holiday to celebrate. In our minds it was as if we were already starting in on the celebrations. We recalled many childhood hilarities and simply enjoyed each other. Mid-way through a long afternoon of sleeping, worrying and waiting for results we were a little bored. Someone down the hall had been exclaiming loudly and repeatedly for hours about how they would like to go home. It was disconcerting at first, then it simply faded into the background like a sound track to the day. It could have been entitled “sheep protest sheering”. From an outsiders perspective one might say that only an asshole would laugh at someone else on the 6th floor but then, at the same moment, Genny and I looked at each other sideways and burst into belly laughter. So maybe I’m an asshole but it was so funny and a welcome release. (I know – the other patient was vocalizing what I was also feeling but unwilling to express. I’d rather laugh than cry any day, thank you very much.)
I knew from visiting, of course, that men and women were sharing rooms but it was different experiencing it as a patient. My first roommate was lovely and we struck up a friendship quickly. He had only been married two weeks so I tried to make myself scarce when his beloved visited. He went home the next day.
My Second Room Mate
When I came back from a test I met my next roommate. He was an elderly man who was in pain and fear. He was moaning without stop. When the nurses came to help him he did not thank them and when they suggested that he wash his hands he complained and only did so after some cajoling. This brewed up quite a bit of anger in me and after 10 minutes I asked myself “How long do you want to feel this way, Sheil.? Had enough yet?” So I went to his side and asked him if he would like some company. We talked about farming in the Sutton area. He generously answered all of my questions about cash crops and for 20 minutes he did not moan once. Then I asked him if there was anything I could do for him. He said “I’ve been wondering if my sleep and pain medication are on a regular schedule.” I said “Let me look into that for you.” I went to the nurses station and said “Mr. ___ would like to know if his sleep and pain medication are on a regular schedule. Either way, he would like some.” The nurses burst into laughter. (I love making people laugh. Its like a drug.) I went back to Mr.__ to wait with him. Once you ask for pain medication time slows right down. When the nurse came around the corner with a loaded needle I cheered and looked to him and said, “I think we should cheer every time we see our nurse, don’t you?” He smiled and agreed that would be a good idea. The nurse concurred.
Telling the Parish
The next morning was Sunday Morning and I was on my way to church to tell my congregations.
I was dressed and ready to go first thing and said to my roommate and the nurses,
“In our church I am a short order chef for the Lord, taking your orders. Is there anything you would like us to pray for? (My pen and paper at the ready) Can we super size that for you?”
Telling the churches face to face was the only way I could think of to honour our deep and trusting relationship. It was emotional and powerful.
It was a glorious June day and I sat on the steps of Christ Church and prayed with the congregation and bishop George from outside. At the last hymn I slid into the back pew and joined in (Lift High the Cross). From there I proceeded to the front and Elly, our organist and Bishop George dashed to the next service. After I shared the news I asked them to come with me around the altar to pray for me, lay hands on me and anoint me. In our parish we have anointing for healing every week. I have been anointing them for years and now it was their turn to anoint me. I rolled up my sleeves and put my arms on the altar and leaned forward so everyone who wanted to could reach. People prayed out loud and as they chose, took the oil stock and anointed my forehead. The lighting at both churches is beautiful and an important element of worship. All of us were a glow in divine light.
Then I was off to St. Mary Magdalene’s. I prayed on the front steps with the mid morning sun making the red carpet warm and glowy. (If you go to St. Mary Magdalene’s you know the warm smell too. Nice, eh? Smells like prayer and comfort.) Again, at the last hymn I slid into the last pew and shared a hymn book. Having done it once did not make it easier the second time – breaking the hearts of people you love is not so much fun. The energy around the altar was amazing. It felt so grounded and in harmony with heaven. I have had a number of experiences of divine and angelic beings crowding around the altar at both St. Mary Magdalene’s and Christ Church. (in my mind I would be like “excuse me, do you mind, I need to reach the chalice. Thanks.”) That day the chancel was packed full with God’s creatures offering our prayers of petition, praise and thanksgiving. Receiving anointing from my people was so healing. News of this kind can be disabling. Praying and anointing allowed them to do something powerful. We are disciples together. (This is where I give you a high five) (Yes I expect you to high five the person closest to you or your phone)
When I returned to the hospital I spent some time with Mr. __’s family, then had a nap. (I’m doing a lot of napping these days. It’s my new sport.) As I lay there resting I overheard the doctor tell Mr. __ and his family that they were not going to treat him and promise to keep him pain free.
The next day I was supposed to get my port but I also had to get some things together. So I made a little office in the corner and started writing and making calls. Some hours later I stood up, turned around and the curtains around Mr. __’s bed were drawn. He had died while I did office work. The family did not ask for my help. It was odd to be a patient first and priest second. I anointed his body, said the prayer of commendation and prayed for him. Then I went to find his nurse and ask if I had been on the phone when he died. Thankfully, I was simply writing. When the nurses came to put him in a body bag I asked if I could help. I anointed him again and prayed again, then cradled his head in my hands as they slid the bag under him. Then I kissed his forehead. I wondered out loud how much food each of us had eaten that he had grown unbeknownst to us and we thanked him for his work. God bless you Mr. __, may you rest in peace and rise in glory.