Late in his life, the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven poured his soul into a work for string quartet, the third movement of Op. 132 in A Minor. He subtitled it “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an der Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart” (“Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode”). I was privileged to hear a riveting performance of the whole quartet recently, which helped the Isidore String Quartet win the first-place prize at the Banff International String Quartet Competition (aka “BISQC“). If you have 15 minutes available, give it a listen here.
When I heard this performance, I was recovering from an ailment that had troubled me since mid-June. Most of the summer had been lost, while I sat and stared at the walls, without the energy to do much of anything except pant for breath after walking from the living room to the kitchen. The doctors were puzzled, running all sorts of tests, all normal, but finally one came up with a symptomatic remedy, which I was still on when we went to Banff. I was doing much better by then, but it took until mid-September for me to feel almost myself again.
During these long months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have heard many people lament the virus and its effects, especially from those suffering with “Long COVID.” Fortunately, my wife and I have both escaped it to date. When I first got sick in June, I tested for the virus five times in ten days, and all were negative. While I did not have the “virus of the day”, I was experiencing ill-health in a way I had never done before.
For much of my earlier life, I saw myself as a healthy person. I have had only one in-patient operation, a tonsillectomy when I was five, which was the only time I have ever been hospitalized. I have never broken a bone that I know of for sure. (I might have broken a toe some years ago, but I was able to get around well enough that visiting the doctor seemed pointless.) In 26 years in parish ministry, I never once missed a Sunday due to illness. Prior to about three years ago, I had experienced only one blip in my health, during my second year of my theological studies, when I was diagnosed with a mild case of lupus. Regular medication, reasonable precautions, and some modification of my life-style kept the disease at bay, until 25 years after diagnosis, when I was declared disease-free. Hallelujah!
I retired a few years later in good health, with a lot of energy which I proceeded to pour into various activities. All was good until I started to have severe pain in one hip, which was determined to be osteoarthritis. This is almost certainly traceable to when I fell while skiing at the age of 16, and tore up my knee. Some years later, a physiotherapist noted that I walked crookedly, turning my left foot out. It appears that the old injury had never properly healed, so I had been twisting my hip and knee for decades. Result? A knee which occasionally hurts, and a hip which hurts most of the time. I have had to learn new physical habits, which have helped the condition become more or less manageable, although a hip replacement was a possibility in the early times after my diagnosis.
A hip replacement is very probably off the table now, because of the next diagnosis, which I received last February. It was found that I had prostate cancer which had already spread to various bones, including the femur just below the arthritic hip. I doubt very much that I would be seen as a candidate for a hip replacement, when the bones around the joint are not in good shape.
In the meantime, I am dealing with the cancer diagnosis. It was devastating at first. A horizon had appeared in my life in a way that I had never before experienced. The doctors gave various predictions of time-lines, but all of them had an end-point. They said that this condition is not curable, but it is controllable. Because of the bone involvement, I was not a candidate for surgery, so I am on Androgen Deprivation Therapy (aka “Hormone Therapy”). All appearances seven months later are that this is having the desired effect, but I will be on the medication for the rest of my life, or until it ceases having effect.
I had not previously been very public about this, because I was really unsure about how things were going to go. Things now seem more predictable and manageable. I’m not looking for sympathy or an outpouring of prayer intentions, but if that’s your inclination, so be it.
The effect on my life has been to spur me to get some things done that had been left lying for years. People often call this “putting your affairs in order.” The realization of the need was made very real to us right around the time of my initial diagnosis, when our son-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 54, leaving no will.
Aside from some rather intimate matters (Permit me not to overshare!), the main physical effect of the cancer and the treatment has been a general reduction in my energy. I have found it necessary to back away from some activities, especially some that take place in the evening. I was just getting used to this new normal when the other thing happened in June, and I was knocked flat on my backside for the next two months. You might understand if I describe my state of mind in most of this time as depression and anxiety. I would sit down to a meal, often not feeling much like eating, and try to give thanks, when I really could not see much to give thanks for.
The last few weeks have given me new hope, new energy, and a new resolve to live my life to the fullest as I am able in the months and years ahead, however many they may be. I was invited to preach at another parish on October 9, the weekend of the Canadian holiday of Thanksgiving, and prepared for it by pondering Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:6 to “…not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
The message? Even when things seem awful, there is still much for which to give thanks, which should underpin the whole of our approach to God. As the medieval mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
I listen to Beethoven’s wonderful music, and I am reminded that the call to give thanks becomes very profound when one has faced one’s destiny. I wasn’t anywhere close to dying last summer, but there were times when I wondered if I would ever recover. But now…
I am surfacing. I feel well. I am enjoying life more.
Thanks be to God!