My Life and My Death: A Priest Confronts His Cancer

My Life and My Death: A Priest Confronts His Cancer

by Jeffrey T. Simmons

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"My greatest teacher has been my cancer," says the author in his story of faith as he faces death. But the author never goes too far in the direction of becoming "touchy-feely" with his illness. In fact, he refers to his cancer as being of the devil, yet he never dwells too long in this application either. There is humor but never too much. There is some "preaching"… See more details below


"My greatest teacher has been my cancer," says the author in his story of faith as he faces death. But the author never goes too far in the direction of becoming "touchy-feely" with his illness. In fact, he refers to his cancer as being of the devil, yet he never dwells too long in this application either. There is humor but never too much. There is some "preaching" about people with grudges against God but never too much. Instead he tells us, step by step, how he learned of his cancer, how he learned that his cancer was worse than originally thought, how he came to bond with his doctor, how he came to accept the stages of disintegration of his body. The author's main work here is to find ways to bring us unbearable tidings about sickness and dying in ways that, with God, are bearable.

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My Life My Death


By Jeffrey T. Simmons

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2004 Beverly Simmons
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89869-762-9


The First Surgery

My medical adventure began in November 2000, when I perforated my intestine. I had thought I had a stomach flu, but instead of putting me on an antibiotic, the doctor sent me to a surgeon, who sent me to the emergency room. The surgeon ordered blood work, an X-ray and CAT scan, but when the X-ray showed a pool of air in the top of the abdominal cavity, he told his assistant, "There is no time for a CAT scan. We will just have to deal with whatever we find when we get in." His face was grim.

The surgeon went off to prepare to operate. I handed Beverly my Palm Pilot and asked her to get people praying for me. She went off to make calls, and I was left alone on a stretcher in the emergency room.

I know what I am going to say next will inspire a lot of skepticism, but the only way I can think to say what happened is just to say it.

Jesus walked in the door.

John Henry Newman, when describing an early religious experience, said it was "something of which I am still more certain than that I have hands and feet." That night, I knew that kind of certainty. Nothing will ever convince me that this wasn't real.

I didn't see or hear anything, no words were used, but what I felt was intense. Unfortunately, the feeling can only be described with words that have become so trivialized that they no longer have the power I need.

I felt loved. That says everything, and nothing. I now understand how a love can be so wonderful that one would sell everything one had if that is what it cost. To be loved by Jesus, accepted with no trace of criticism, offered a safe place where nothing is demanded, and all of my deepest needs are understood without my needing to say anything. To really start to believe that he is enjoying being with you is something I never experienced before.

I felt safe. I had no idea if I was going to survive the night or not, but somehow it didn't matter. "To live is Christ, to die is gain." In an instant, I went from believing it in my head to believing it in my bone marrow. For as long as it lasted, I couldn't imagine how anyone could ever be afraid of anything. If that is the faith that Jesus had in his Father, no wonder he never understood human fear.

Jesus was there, and while he was there, it was impossible to want anything else. I didn't want to ask, "Why?" If he had the answers, I didn't need to. I didn't ask for any particular outcome. He was going to do the best thing, so why worry?

I know It sounds like a form of insanity. But if it is not, it unmasks the way I usually think as a form of insanity. The two ways of seeing reality are mutually incompatible.

The feeling of his presence lasted about a week. It left a wonderful aftertaste. Now in times of discouragement or fear, I recall the memory. I know him. We spent a week hanging out together. I know what he is like. If I can't feel it at the moment, that doesn't change his nature in the slightest.

With it comes a great sadness and frustration. I have this great glowing thing in my heart, and I can't get it out of my heart and give it to someone else. When I see someone making herself miserable carrying a grudge against God, or feeling lonely and hopeless and abandoned, I want to scream, "It doesn't have to be like that. He wants to give you something much better. Can't you open yourself and receive it?" The looks of suspicion and hostility I get when I make that suggestion make me want to cry.

A Lesson


In the theological tradition I come from (liberal Midwestern mainline Protestantism of the 1960s vintage) nobody would ever recommend "coziness" as a positive theological symbol. It was axiomatic back then that the job of a pastor was to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The impact of that from an emotional point of view was to instill a deep suspicion of any kind of comfort. If you were afflicted, it was acceptable to ask for some comfort, but if you ever got really comfortable, you had better watch out, because in some unspecified manner, you needed to be afflicted. Some kind of middle ground where you were a bit comfortable and a bit afflicted was all you could hope for without feeling guilty.

I want to raise an objection.

My first conscious experience of coziness was sitting on the sofa with my father when he read to me from the Childcraft book of poems for early childhood. We would sit together, very close, with a blanket over our laps (unnecessary because the room was always adequately heated), and I would revel in the excessive warmth, the sense of safety, and the incredible silliness of the poetry. Reading poems about "The Little Old Man of the Sea," who saved his boat from sinking by making a hole in the bottom with his knife, "so that all of the water ran out," just added to the pleasure.

I have never lost my connoisseur's appreciation for coziness, especially when I am feeling under the weather. The worse I feel, the more I appreciate it. It seems like a special grace given at times of special need. To be not just warm, but really warm, preferably wrapped in a blanket (preferably electric), and snuggled in it up to your neck still gives a feeling of well-being and safety that I have come to treasure after months of chemotherapy.

And why not? If Jesus insisted that we enter the Kingdom of Heaven like little children, what speaks more clearly of a healthy relationship between a child and a father than that cozy snuggle before bedtime? I remember it as a time of absolute trust, of my littleness and his bigness being a source of security and pleasure—in short, a wonderful symbol of what a healthy relationship with God ought to be.

With so many people I talk to, the main spiritual problem might be diagnosed as a kind of "coziness deficiency." God may be feared, in the wrong sense. God may be respected, and even admired, from a safe distance. But the God who takes such a personal interest in us that he counts each hair on our head, who promises to meet our needs if we will just rearrange our priorities to put him first, a God who can absolutely, no kidding, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die be trusted—that God never appears on the radar screen.

I am starting to suspect that when he used the term "faith," Jesus had in mind a relationship with God in which what I am calling "coziness" plays a large part. Faith seems to imply a total lack of fear, a certainty that we are loved, a child's expectation of good things. In fact, I used to feel a little guilty praying flat on my back in my La-Z-Boy. I felt even a little extra guilty when I fell asleep. What could getting comfortable have to do with spirituality?

Now I am starting to think that trusting God enough to get cozy with him may bring the same joy to his heart that my father felt in those blessed evenings on the sofa. Fathers love to be trusted. I think Jesus settled it when he said, "If you, then, who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven...."

* * *

Given her background she was, and had a right to act like, a princess. Instead, she was a quivering wreck hiding under my sofa.

She was a show quality, pure-blooded Persian cat. Her problem is that when we found her at the animal rescue shelter, she had spent most of her life in a house with three small children and a large German Shepherd. Her life until then had consisted of hiding behind the television set.

Beverly had wanted a longhaired cat for years, and we were very excited. But when we got home and opened the cat carrier, all we saw was a gray streak headed for the sofa.

For the next several weeks, she resisted all attempts to lure her out. When I tried to grab her and force her out, she viciously attacked my hand, ignoring the fact that she had been declawed. It felt like being flogged with Q-Tips. It was actually sort of pathetic.

The only thing we could do was let her hide as long as she needed to. We put the litter pan and food dish next to the sofa and waited.

It took about a month, but one evening we saw her sitting on the rug on the other side of the room staring at us. She seemed to have a lonely look as though she was saying, "Gee, I wish I could get closer."

Something in her ancestry seemed to be telling her that she was made for companionship with people. She wanted it, and she was afraid of it. We knew she had nothing to be afraid of and that we wanted nothing but good for her, but we had no way to convince her. This was a battle she had to fight for herself.

Over the next several weeks, Julie moved closer and closer. Then one fateful day, she jumped into my lap. She just stood there, with a panicky look in her eye, for a few seconds before jumping back down. It wasn't much, but a major barrier had been overcome.

Gradually she took to jumping in my lap more often, and staying longer. Each time I tried to make it as pleasant an experience as I could. Then she started sitting in my lap rather than standing. When she finally started letting me scratch her behind the ears and actually fell asleep, I knew we had arrived.

* * *

God feels about us very much the way I feel about my cat. At the beginning of our relationship with God, almost everyone I know suffers from deep fears of him. I am not sure why this is, but many people have described these fears to me. The worst part is that what are felt as mild anxieties when God is perceived as off at a distance can become outright panic attacks or worse if we feel ourselves getting closer to him.

I remember talking to a woman who had been faithfully involved in the church for many years and had a good deal of theological training who complained that God seemed distant and her prayer life was dry. She was looking for an explanation and vaguely suggesting that God was not keeping up his end of the bargain.

I suggested that we pray together and ask Jesus to show her what the problem was. I laid my hands on her head, as I generally do, and asked Jesus to come close. Almost immediately I felt her stiffen. I asked what was happening and she said, "I actually felt Jesus coming close, and I ran away."

She seemed game for another try. She said, "This time, I will hold on to myself and not let myself run away." We prayed again for a few minutes, and I asked what was happening.

"Jesus came again, and I ran away again."

I asked if she had any idea why she was doing that. "I felt that if I let him get too close, he would see what I am really like and he would hate me."

Seemingly childish words from a very sophisticated woman. That is one way to tell that you are listening to words straight from the heart. She knew intellectually it was ridiculous. In her heart the "ridiculous" fear was an almost insurmountable barrier.

I have known many, many people like this. They can be new to the faith, or old hands, of all levels of intelligence. They can come from abusive home situations, but they can equally well be children of deeply healthy, caring parents. In my experience, people who don't struggle with these anxieties when they start to get serious about their spiritual lives are in the small minority.

We all seem prone to take our past hurts and blame them on God, convincing ourselves that if he hurt us in the past, he will do it again in the future. That is what my cat was doing. When she looked at me, she didn't really see me at all. She saw the three little kids and the German Shepherd and said to herself, "Here we go again."

And just as I felt for my cat, God does not want us to be afraid of him. He wants to love and comfort us, not hurt us.

But God is limited as to how he can reassure us. When I tried to force my attention on my cat by crawling under the sofa and trying to pet her, I only succeeded in making her more terrified. When Jesus came close to my friend, even though he was invited, he provoked the same reaction.

So Jesus comes and sits on the periphery of our life, not close enough to be frightening, but close enough so we somehow sense he is there, close enough to warm our hearts just a bit with his love. When we peek out from under the sofa, he gently pats his lap and says, "You can come here if you want to, and I wish you would."

To me, this is the essence of prayer. Prayer is inching ourselves out from the sofa and shoving ourselves, in spite of our fears, just a little closer to Jesus. It can be a long process, but the only thing that matters is that however slowly we do it, we are getting closer. And as we get closer and find that nothing catastrophic happens and sense his encouraging smile, it becomes even easier to come closer still.

Till one day, we get up the courage to jump in his lap.

I do not apologize if the intimacy of this metaphor seems a little shocking. Jesus was fond of such expressions of intimacy.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem ..., how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

—Luke 13:34

Look at the longing! Jesus isn't pleading with us to come to him just because he pities us, although he certainly does that. He longs for us! Just the way I feel about my cat, he wants us to overcome our fear and come so close that he can caress and comfort and protect. But he can't force us. It has to be our decision.

1 think the best decision I ever made in my priesthood was to commit myself to a regular prayer time. I remember being brash enough to tell my parish vestry, "I hope you understand that every day one hour of work is not going to get done, but I will be praying. You need me to pray more than you need me to do that extra hour of work."

They accepted it, praise God. Over the years they became positively proud of it, and of their willingness to support it. My success at keeping my prayer time wasn't perfect, but I estimate I managed about 85 percent.

Henri Nouwen calls this kind of prayer "dwelling in the healing presence of Jesus." Richard Foster says, "With simplicity of heart we allow ourselves to be gathered up into the arms of the Father and let him sing his love song over us."

Whatever we say about it, it works. I used to struggle with a terrible fear of God, but I have been stroked and scratched behind the ears too many times to take that fear seriously any more. I am intensely happy that I started praying some time ago. I needed to be confident of God's love, given what I was about to go through.


Getting the News

I don't think anyone ever went into surgery with more confidence than I had when I went to the Hudson Valley Hospital Center to have my large intestine removed. I had undergone a very similar operation eight months before and had come through it well. I had had a colonoscopy four months earlier that showed no trace of cancer, or even anything precancerous. The surgery was simply to prevent the possible occurrence of cancer in the future. I remember saying to Beverly something like, "I sure am glad I know what the outcome of this is going to be. If I went in wondering if I had cancer, it would be very hard to take."

How little we know about what is waiting for us just around the corner.

The operation was performed, and I spent two days in the intensive care unit, before being moved to a normal floor. The only surprise was that when I was moved, my wheelchair was taken into a small cubicle where my surgeon was waiting with a rather grim look on her face.

Dr. Meo is a very compassionate person, but when giving someone bad news, she has decided (rightly, I think) that the most compassionate approach is to be as direct as possible.

"Father Simmons, when we removed your colon, I found a two and a quarter centimeter tumor. We will have to wait for the pathology report to be sure, but I am almost certain that it is malignant. One of your lymph nodes was also involved and we removed it too. I was astonished. I just stood there looking at it and not believing what I was seeing."

I was too foggy from the morphine to remember what else she said, except that Beverly had known for two days, and Dr. Meo had asked her not to tell me until I was out of ICU. I had the presence of mind to ask two questions.

"Forgive my asking, but with all the drugs in my system I need to be sure. Is there any possibility that I am dreaming?"

"Father Simmons, I solemnly assure you, you are not dreaming."

"You must love your job."

"This part of it I hate!"

That night I had no thoughts, only feelings. I felt as though I was a plaything in the hands of something horribly evil. I was too dopey to pray, too muddled to think. If I imagine what damnation would feel like, I think it would feel like this.

The impossible had happened. My whole future life had been redefined in about four sentences, and I was absolutely helpless to do anything about it.

As my morphine intake went down, my mind was able to bring its own defenses to bear. I simply felt numb. Beverly and I were able to talk about the facts. She shared how difficult it had been knowing this but not being able to share it. There was a real sense of relief for both of us being able to share this burden together. But through all this, my real emotions were, blessedly, out of reach.

From one point of view, I was surprised how little new information I had. I had been told I might die. I always knew that, if not with the same immediacy. I had been told my doctor didn't know when. That told me nothing new either. All that had happened was that my mortality had changed from a vague idea in the back of my mind to the concrete reality it always was. I was simply seeing the reality that had always been there without my usual denial.

Excerpted from My Life My Death by Jeffrey T. Simmons. Copyright © 2004 Beverly Simmons. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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