How to be Sick
Peter Jennings sent colleagues a touching note last week. He began, “Yesterday I decided to go to the office; I live only a few blocks away. I got as far as the bedroom door. Chemo strikes. “Do I detect a knowing but sympathetic smile on many of your faces? You knew this was coming.”
Here is the best thing about that letter: Jennings has begun to master the art of being sick, which is not an easy thing to do these days. We live in an anaesthetized society. People have developed an almost hysterical aversion to pain, leading the Kevorkians among us to persuade frightened fools to prefer a numb death to a life buffeted by aches and pains.
Peter has discovered that diseases can humble us, hobble us, wear us down — but that only we can surrender our dignity and open the door to despair. The secret of learning to be sick is this: Illness doesn’t make you less of what you were. You are still you. In many cases, a bout with sickness stretches your soul, opens your eyes, and introduces you to a world of unimagined grandeur, possibility and joy.
I began to understand the phenomenon a few days before my cancer operation in February. My wife and I were sitting in a doctor’s office lobby, waiting to undergo some lab procedure, when we encountered a woman in the midst of a battle with brain cancer. She was pawing through a massive bag packed with all sorts of stuff — books, papers, crackers, bottled water. She fished out a slip prescription for a blood test and slapped it on the chair next to her.
She explained that she had a really hectic day ahead. She had to persuade technicians to give her a blood test within the next 20 minutes, so she could rush to the other side of the hospital for a round of radiation, and then return immediately for a chemotherapy infusion. She was working on a tight clock because she wanted to catch up with her husband in time for the two of them to retrieve their kids from school.
We swapped the usual pleasantries, asking precisely what cancers each of us had, and therapies our doctors recommended. She talked with the calm authority of one who had been through the wars, and offered the usual advice — be bold in your demands; don’t let nurses or attendants ignore you; make caregivers give care; find a bunch of good novels to read during the drip-drip-drip of chemo; keep your spirits high, and laugh whenever possible.
As we began to swap stories, a nurse called for her. She dashed off for the blood test, and then literally ran to the radiation unit, leaving her husband in charge of the large bag. “See you when I get back!” she shouted over her shoulder as she dashed down the hall.
When you learn you have a threatening disease, you must make a choice. You can curl into the fetal position and declare, “I’m doomed!” or you can roll up your sleeves and ask, “What do I need to do to beat this thing?”
This woman chose to fight, not quit. Even though she is facing a stubborn cancer that has taken away her hair, wrung pounds from her already-small frame, subjected her to the tortures of killer medicines and searing radiation, she has developed a new zest for everything she does, and adopted defiance toward the rogue cells that have erupted within her body. She hasn’t surrendered to self-pity. She knows she must muster her strength and spirit; her friends and family must bolster her with support and love; and the doctors need to get their part right. You can just tell; she will get well.
Peter Jennings also knows how to be sick. It is hard to read his note without getting a sense that he is preparing friends and colleagues for a farewell, but it is equally hard to read it and not feel the impulse to pray fervently for his recovery. Peter always has been an elegant man. While most Americans think of him as a dapper news reader, the bout with cancer has humanized him.
“I won’t soon forget an encounter as I was leaving the hospital,” he wrote. “A middle-aged couple was going into the building and as they passed me, I heard my name and turned. The woman stepped right into my face and said, ‘Me too. Lung cancer.’ Instinctively, immediately, we gave each other a hug … a real hug … and went on our respective ways knowing that we had been strengthened by the connection.” He wrote not as an anchorman, but as a man — frail, human, somewhat scared, keenly aware of life's blessings and the power of other people’s love.
A preacher friend of mine once told me that there are three types of grave sickness. There is the sickness of sin, which arises when people abuse their bodies and invite physical collapse. There is the sickness unto death, in which one suffers through the slow, inexorable diminution of strength and vitality, until resignation replaces hope, and the anticipation of meeting God drowns out all other expectations and concerns. And finally, there is sickness to the glory of God — using one’s battle with infirmity to show off divine virtues.
Lance Armstrong, who has made it clear that he is not a man of faith, fits into this third category. He had no business surviving a toxic and simultaneous combination of testicular, lung and brain cancer — but he summoned his will, decided to approach the challenge as something to overcome (not something to fear), and made the impossible possible. ABC’s Joel Siegal beat colon and lung cancer. Hamilton Jordan has whipped cancer four times. Industrialist Jon Huntsman has licked cancer twice.
On the other side of the coin, my best friend in Washington, Ken Smith, died of cancer in July 2001. He suffered through an agonizing, frustrating ordeal without complaint. When bad news crushed high hopes, he maintained his good cheer.
Equally impressive, his faith never wavered. He kept an old version of the Book of Common Prayer by his bedside, and shuffled to church as long as possible — sometimes lying down on the pews out of sheer exhaustion. Throughout, he displayed such good grace that the Episcopal bishop attending him could not finish delivering Ken’s eulogy. The bishop could not understand why a loving God would let such a saintly guy die young.
Ken never entertained such doubts. He knew a sick person’s lot is not to reason why. The disease is what it is. Instead, Ken acted as he always did. He was a courtly guy and a doting host. He actually would apologize when he would flinch or wince with pain, mainly because he didn’t want visitors to feel compelled to immerse themselves in pity. He just wanted them to visit and feel at home.
He also was a stubborn, old-fashioned conservative. He contrived to give away every penny of his money in such a way as to give his life’s savings to charities and people he adored, leaving Uncle Sam with nothing. He was boasting of that accomplishment and cracking jokes until the moment he finally slipped into a coma.
Ken left his friends with an example to cherish and love. He knew how to be sick, and how to fill up even dying moments with shimmering bursts of life. By his final week, he was caring for those at his bedside, displaying special measures of composure, love, saintliness and wisdom. As he told me soon before his death, “I’m fighting this as hard as I can, but if I don’t make it, I’ll see you on the other side.”
The art of being sick is not the same as the art of getting well. Some cancer patients recover; some don’t. But the ordeal of facing your mortality and feeling your frailty sharpens your perspective about life. You appreciate little things more ferociously. You grasp the mystical power of love. You feel the gravitational pull of faith. And you realize you have received a unique gift – a field of vision others don’t have about the power of hope and the limits of fear; a firm set of convictions about what really matters and what does not. You also feel obliged to share these insights – the most important of which is this: There are things far worse than illness — for instance, soullessness.
So here is how Jennings closed his note: “(I)f you would, add a friend of mine to your prayers. The jazz legend Percy Heath, whose bass anchored the Modern Jazz Quartet for four decades, died of bone cancer on Sunday. He was 81 and we will sure miss him.” Struggling just to reach the door, Peter Jennings has completed a more important trek - the journey from hiding in despair to living with passion and a mission.
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