Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

 Sept. 16, 2002

On death and dying . . . authors' accounts on their own terminal illnesses


If I could choose the way I would die, what will I choose and why?

I think I would choose to die like Morrie Schwartz, the very same "Morrie" of Tuesdays with Morrie, (by Mitch Ablom, Doubleday, 1997).

It was on a Tuesday in Lent when I read Tuesdays with Morrie at a Benedictine Monastery. I was curious as to why a book on death and dying would be for sale in a Catholic book store, even though I had heard the book quoted by a priest in a wedding sermon, and by a bishop, who said it had been his spiritual reading.

Why would Catholics look to an agnostic who was Jewish for wisdom on the subject of death? I would answer "Why not?"

I have now read the book three or four times. Morrie knew he was dying, looked death squarely in the face, and talked about everything human. There are chapters on what Morrie had to say about marriage, money, family, emotions, and teaching.

Things "come to you" when you know you are dying. Suddenly, the meaning of life becomes one's main interest, and Morrie Schwartz, former college professor at Brandeis, had more wisdom and intelligence than most.

He also kept his humor. When the author asked Morrie what he thought of what God had done to Job to test his faith, Morrie said, "I think he overdid it."

I want to die like Morrie, with plenty of warning, so that I can make up to people I have offended. I want to sound off on all kinds of things, with total honesty. I want to tell all kinds of people I love them. I want to ask all kinds of people to forgive me.

I want to die like Denis Wadley, who also knew he was dying and wrote about it, so that he could share with others his faith and his courage.

I had been a friend of Denis Wadley in the early '60s when we were both at the University of Minnesota. Denis was editor of the Minnesota Daily, active in the Democratic party, and a daily communicant at the Newman Center.

(Years later, when President Clinton visited Minnesota and Denis was already in a wheel chair, near death from cancer, Senator Wellstone brought the president to see Denis. The president said, "So this is the famous Denis Wadley!")

When Denis died May 4, 1994, he was, with his doctorate from Oxford, teaching high school English at De La Salle High School in Minneapolis. His first job after college had been teaching at Holy Trinity High School in Winsted in the early '70s.

Denis gave away his entire library before he died. I was lucky to receive one of his books, which surprised me one day in the mail. Good books. All of Denis' books were wonders to read.

I want to give away all my books before I die, but I will need some warning, so that's why I want to die like Denis.

In one of Denis' many columns in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Facing Death," he said, "Some of my readers might say, 'when the crunch comes, all this serenity will vaporize and he'll panic like everyone else.'

"I'll explain why I don't think that will happen, if you can bear with one stout religious paragraph.

"I believe beyond anything else that at one key point in history, time and eternity were united in a man/God named Jesus, whose redemptive sacrifice we can all enter into if only we have the presence of mind to consecrate inevitable suffering as part of that mystery of the cross, and by allowing that to remain a mystery, everything else is clarified.

"Dismiss it, and everything becomes mysterious, because nothing is fully answered. The church provides structure in the form of sacraments and defense of this revelation; and no one is more free and content than one committed to an outlook that holds that, contrary to all appearances, the spirit is the substance and the material is transitory . . .

"St. Augustine said the chief aim of life should be a good death. If one is prepared for death, nothing in life will be intimidating . . . The trick is getting people to think about these things when death isn't before them.

"I teach some wonderful young people, who just may become a little more thoughtful about death if I cooperate in mine well. That is an awesome task and I would never be remotely equal to it without just those supports I've mentioned."

I want to die like Gene Amole, a columnist with The Rocky Mountain News who was to Coloradans what Cedric Adams was to Minnesotans.

Day after day, they amused and inspired and informed their readers. Then one day, Oct. 27, 2001, Gene Amole wrote: "It's time to quit fooling around . . . I am dying . . . I am not retiring, just taking on a new assignment.

"I'm going to write a diary of my experience and share it with you. The idea came to me during one of my long hospital nights while I was cursing away at the pain . . .

"My diary is not going to be a maudlin self-serving bunch of glop. Some of it may even be amusing, like my discovery of the elevated toilet seat, for example.

"I wish it all could be funny, but it isn't. I'd have a best seller on my hands if I could write The Joy of Dying, but I can't."

In the book he did write (which I own and refuse to loan to anyone), there follows over 100 more columns, the last one called "Goodbye, Denver."

Gene, another wise agnostic, doesn't offer us much guidance on the afterlife, because he didn't believe in it, but he does show us what courage and love are all about. Gene Amole died May 12, 2002, and he wrote his courageous column right up until the end.

In one of his columns, he said, "I once shared my beliefs about the afterlife with a dear friend, Sister Mary Louise 'Lamb Chop' Beutner, a Roman Catholic nun and world class Shakespeare scholar . . .

When I told her I didn't believe in heaven, she said, 'Boy, do you ever have a nice surprise waiting for you!' If she's right, I hope she'll be there to greet me at the pearly gates."

Most of all, I want to die like Cardinal Bernardin. Like Morrie Schwartz, Denis Wadley, and Gene Amole, he wrote a book about his experiences from the time he knew he was terminally ill.

The memoir he wrote about his last days is called The Gift of Peace, a book he wrote in the last months of his life. The book was released two months after his death and became a national best seller and remained so for over four months. It reaches across racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries.

Here is one of his paragraphs: "Like the Marines, God is looking for a few good people . . . Like an arrow, God aims Himself at our hearts. It is through this love and our peacemaking that we will call each other from our self-made graves . . .

"Where there is isolation and interpersonal insulation, work to build community. Where people are dismissed and cut out on the basis of appearance, stereotype, or prejudice, gather together on the basis of understanding, humor and compassion . . . God of life, send Your Spirit to call me forth from the darkness of my grave.

"May the risen Lord help me to spread peace, build bridges as a reconciler, and honor the dignity of all persons."

This is what Cardinal Bernardin was famous for while he was alive. His writings, as he lay dying, kept on giving that kind of example.

Cardinal Bernardin died Nov. 14, 1996. When Jeanne and I were in Oaxaca, Mexico, hanging out with some Maryknoll nuns down there in August of that year, they gave us a packet of letters to mail, all addressed to Cardinal Bernardin, although none of them had ever met him.

They didn't trust the Mexican mail system. I am glad now that my usual procrastination didn't take over and I mailed them off right away, so he got to read these fan letters from women who had never met him, but knew him anyway.

And know him they did. I never saw a better example of what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ. We never die alone, but with women like those around, we are all surrounded by love.

The four authors I have cited, then, seem unique in that they were writing about their dying experience and were suffering a terminal illness.

But aren't we all? Really, we're all dying, aren't we? The latest statistic I could gather from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta per 100,000 population, is that the mortality rate is 100 percent.

Quote for the week

"The man I did not notice yesterday died today and left me alone."

­ John Shea

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