A couple of weeks ago I traveled to my childhood home in Detroit to take part in the Relay for Life and honor of my parents, Russ and Betty. I was asked to speak that evening at the beginning of the Luminaria Ceremony. Paper bags decorated to honor the ones who have died due to cancer or the ones who currently face the disease line the track providing the only light. Over the next hour hundreds of people would walk the track helping to raise money. Here are the words I spoke to the ones gathered there.
I walk some mornings deep into the woods near my home with my beagle, Buster. I like the time to stretch my legs since, as an Episcopal priest, I sit behind a desk like the Buddha most days. As I walk and Buster sniffs under everything he can hoping to catch a whiff of a rabbit, my mind drifts. The sun just coming up over the trees transforms the bushes and the path with the most magnificent display of light. Recently I’ve been thinking of my parents and especially my dad, wishing he could be walking with me to experience all this, and we could catch up on our lives.
Seventeen months ago in early January as my wife Melissa and I drove back from an anniversary trip to Quebec City, I got a text from my sister Gina to call home. It was about dad she said, and it wasn’t good. He had gone to the hospital a few days after Christmas with chest pain that had radiated to his back. They did an x-ray followed by a quick scan. They found a few nodules on his lungs, possibly cancer. I listened, stunned. I relayed all this to Melissa, and she held my hand. As we drove through Maine, we talked about my mom who had died five years early to cancer, shed some tears and tried not to give into the darkness.
More scans quickly followed, and a biopsy was scheduled. My siblings and I—there are eight of us altogether, five of us living nowhere near our childhood home—made plans to support dad. We descended into town for a birthday celebration—his 77th—and shared memories and made new ones. We got the complete report the following week, Stage 4 lung cancer. My siblings living nearby shuttled him back and forth to appointments and got medications and went with him as he began chemo.
Wanting to help as best we could, my wife and I packed up our kids and drove out from Boston in March to see him. It had been a rough go with the chemo, and he had developed a number of blood clots, earning him an extended trip to the ICU. We arrived just as he was moved to the step-down unit. My kids—seven and five at the time—made cards and pictures on our long drive, and they srambled up onto the hospital bed with their Papa to give him smooches and hugs and tell him about important things. Throughout all the complications, he kept his sense of humor and boisterous laugh. The week slipped by too quickly, and we headed back.
Dad rebounded after our trip and moved on to rehab. I saw photos of him determined to master a walker so he could get home. After a couple of weeks, he spent one day there as a trial run. Soon after however he contracted a nasty infection postponing his full return. A few days later I got the phone call telling me that his body was giving out. It was Good Friday and as the lone clergyperson at my parish I couldn’t leave until after Easter. I called dad that night to tell him that I loved him and that I was sorry I couldn’t be with him in person until after Easter. He told me not to worry, that he was proud of me and that he knew we’d see each other again, either in this life or the next. We shared a prayer and said our goodbyes.
On Easter Day, April 8, 2012, my father died. He waited until late that evening, long after my services had ended. We had driven as far as Buffalo, NY when we got the news.
Scripture tells us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” I remember that when the sun comes up and I’m walking Buster and thinking about my parents.
I don’t know many of your stories or who you are remembering or who you know right now who is battling cancer or if you are battling cancer yourself. I’ve buried five people over the last year and half who fought gallantly against cancer. I had another close friend die over Thanksgiving leaving her two young kids and a beloved husband. I have a parishioner currently dealing with metastatic cancer, and others whom we pray for on a regular basis.
In spite of all this darkness, I do not lose hope. Because I know the ones who—with the help of prayers, medical professionals and the people who love them—have fought against cancer and are now in remission. People like my father-in-law who had prostate cancer, and another parishioner who just this week asked me to take her off our prayer list because she has fully recovered from breast cancer.
Tonight we light luminaries and walk and hope for a cure while those candles flicker in the darkness. We walk for more birthdays and anniversaries and fishing trips and Thanksgivings and backyard bar-b-queues and Tiger games. We will stay up way past our bedtimes to hold on to that light and dispel the monsters that flood our dreams with despair. We will keep on walking throughout the night because we hope that the funds we raise this weekend will lead to a cure for cancer. We’ll continue until the dawn breaks and magnificent light floods this field, and we are greeted with the gift of another day.
So let us walk, remembering those who have gone before. Let us walk holding in our hearts and minds those we know who are currently battling cancer. And let us walk trusting that we are bringing hope to thousands of others, believing that above all else the light shines on through the darkest of nights, and the darkness never ever overcomes it.