“Mark I have terminal cancer, please call me”.  That was the short message that I got over the phone from Agnes (not her real name).  She is an older woman, in retirement and she lives in an apartment complex for those who need assisted living.  She can be a very difficult person, demanding actually, in her need for support and for someone to listen to her endless complaints on how insensitive others are to her; how uncaring.  Over the years she has gone through quite a few relationships, letting each one go when she perceives that she is not getting the support that she needs. I have tried to get her to work through some of these difficulties but she seems to be incapable of doing that on an emotional level.  Though in fact she is a very intelligent woman who had a fruitful career; though even then she was not happy with it; for there were people she had to work with after all.

For a while she had stopped calling me, again stating that I was not being supportive of her. So I became just another person living out one of her cycles, even though I have known her for almost 20 years.  She left the get-lost message on my answering machine and to tell you the truth I was relieved when I heard it.  The reason she thought I was not supportive was due to the fact that I asked her to reconsider how she treated one of her ‘friends’.  Perhaps she might try to simply listen to her friend’s problems, which were many and serious.  She took offence and dropped me.  I kind of smiled at this, since she thought she was punishing me in doing this, when in fact it was freeing.

So yes, Agnes can be a handful, difficult, perhaps more self centered than most of us are, yet she struggles, tries in her own way and does not plan intentionally to hurt or use others.  Perhaps compassion is often given to those who have trouble giving it, being trapped in emotional prisons that they have yet to find a way out of.   I guess we all have deep roots that go back to our beginnings that still feed and direct us, for good or ill.  Her background with her parents was rough.  Her father, who died not long ago at a very advanced age, caused her no amount of pain and grief.  Yet she stuck with him to the end and for that I have the deepest respect.

About ten years ago she got back in contact with her daughter, whom she put up for adoption after her birth.  She was too young, still in school, and perhaps it was a good thing in the end.  Agnes knows that she is not mother material, but over the years regrets surfaced over what she had done and she started looking for her child.  She found her and I rejoiced with her over the reunion.  Yet over the years it has become estranged and they have not communicated for the last few years.  I learned this as I talked to her over the phone this week.  I asked her if she wanted to get back in contact with her daughter and let her know what is going on.  At first she reacted as she normally does and said no.  Her daughter was not supportive of her, she was selfish and self centered and so did not see the need.  So I pushed it a bit, gently, and said: “Agnes, do the motherly thing, mothers have unconditional love for their children, or the closest thing there is to it on this earth.  So do it for her, not for yourself.  Give her a chance to make the choice on what she wants to do”.  I continued:  “For after you’re gone, her anger and resentment will fall away and only regretful love and feelings of guilt will be left.  Spare her that”.  She listened and was still doubtful.  So I volunteered to call her if she could find her phone number or address.  She accepted that and I could tell that she was relieved, for in the end, like her father, she still loved her daughter.  Though I am not sure how the daughter will react, but at least she will have the chance to choose.

She cried a bit, but soon we talked some more.  There was really nothing I could say to make her feel better, but I stayed with her, even if it was not much.  So she again talked about what her doctor told her last night over the phone.  That her cancer was worse than they thought, it was terminal and she needed to get her affairs in order.  We also talked about treatment, which she is sure she will take, for she really wants to live.  She asked me “why God was doing this to her”, something I am sure many ask when they first get the news of their illness.  It is quite a wake up call, to be told you have mere months to live, that the cancer within the body is of the kind that moves quickly; a lot to absorb and take in.  She even brought up hospice care, for she knew that she would have to go to a facility for her end of life care.  For even if her daughter gets back in contact, she lives many miles away from Agnes and could not afford to move close by.

Agnes is a rich personality, intelligent and has a very loud laugh that I always love to hear.  It is easy to distract her with humor, so perhaps that is all that I can do for her, besides praying of course.  She has insurance, so that is taken care of.  Hopefully I will be able to accompany her on her journey.  I guess all I can do is call her and hopefully when she is in hospice, be able to see her and give whatever comfort I can.   There is really not much that can be done, yet I guess we all do the best we can.  Agnes, even though she got caught up in some destructive cycles with others, it was not intentional. She always tried; she just did not know how to get out of it.

We each have people who come into our lives, perhaps “placed” would be a better word, and perhaps our task is to simply carry them for a bit, love them, and do what little can be done.  I know that there are those who help me in that way, we all need a little help on the way, don’t we?   I always feel my inner poverty, my limited emotional resources when it comes to things like this, yet I feel the pull or perhaps the call.  Over the years I have slowly learned to put up some boundaries, so perhaps there has been some growth in that regard.  Yet when someone is lonely, in pain, and now dying, what can you do?   To not do anything would require me to turn off some inner switches that I really don’t want to do.  For how I treat just one in need, especially someone I have known and have come to love, will also permeate how I treat all the others who come my way.  I can’t help everyone, but those I can, I will to the best of my ability, as poor and limited as that may be.

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Mark Dohle

Mark Dohle

I am 62 years old and have lived in the Atlanta area since 1971.  I am Catholic and my faith is important to me, yet as I age the mystery continues to deepen, so I read broadly and try to keep things somewhat open ended. I work with the aged and the dying. I was in the Navy for four years and I guess I am life of center when it comes to politics, but not too far left. Actually, I am kind of a political moron.

I am the third of  11 children; ten still alive, one died in in 1958, three days after birth.