Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of columns by former Journal columnist David Rooks, who is now getting treatment for esophageal cancer.
Hope is a fine thing, maybe even the best of things …”
This line on hope, quoted from the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” has been with me for years. To me, its appeal is primal — hope means better is possible; I want to believe in hope, I have to believe in hope. Especially now.
Like everything in my life, I have mythologized my cancer, tending to scrub its effects on me into a clean and simple salvation story. While it is true: the daily background noise of worldly cares has receded and simple goodness and human kindness have magnified, so too, have my own engrained defects of character.
A short and unfair temper, normally held in check, has suddenly — and frighteningly, I’m told — manifested itself in recent weeks. Most cruelly, it has been released on those closest to me. And, because of my condition, it has been born with patiently. Much to my shame, I discover even the dying can become tyrants.
After anger, my tendency to self-pity has been on daily display. Though I wear the mask of patient long suffering, it is often just that: a mask. Somehow, too, every conversation I’m involved in turns to “my cancer.” I have blamed others for that, even when untrue. So, add vanity and lying to the list.
Apparently, despite appearances, saintly tendencies are foreign to me.
This is the truth of my estate, surfaced amidst these past several months’ depredations. Since I have quite publicly feigned to virtue, some confession and penance is called for, too. For in this arena of grave illness and hard realities, truth is the only coin of the realm. I apologize to my family, friends, and others who have found me false.
You deserve better. I am sorry.
After all, who am I to hope? Who am I to dare to hope — if my actions corrode the hope that is in others? So, too, there is empathy to hand, and a longer view to take.
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This November will be 12 years since a dear family friend suddenly passed. His name was Fr. Bill Pauly, and he became a close friend of my wife, Sandi, from when she worked as a pediatrician on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Once, during a particularly tough stretch, he counseled Sandi to “be a compassionate observer of her own grief.”
The good padre repeats these words to me: “Be compassionate with yourself. Forgive.” I embrace the advice and send my dear friend a gentle smile. Hope is a fine thing and proceeds from the best within us. His words allow me to hope.
And, in this land of shadows and shallow promises, what is it I hope for?
Simple things, really. A return to a modest but robust health. Not that of a 20-year-old but suited to my age; a vigor that allows morning walks, shoveling sidewalks and planting and tending gardens. Oh, and coupled with my recent weight loss, I’d like to get back on a horse; one of the joys of my childhood, I’ve been missing it of late.
Also, if permitted health and time, I would start that novel I’ve been “researching” these past few decades. Fear of failure has evaporated, and it is a project whose siren call beckons me to be the writer perhaps I could be. Anyway, it would be well worth finding out.
I would also continue refereeing and coaching youth sports. This time, with a much deeper and profound emphasis on the spiritual lessons to be gained from those endeavors for every child — and parent — who participates. Besides, they’re fun. If only most holy Jesus would grant the time.
For the remainder of my time and health, I would embark on an extended and extensive return to the homeland of my childhood among the Oglala Lakota Oyate. My father’s people, and mine. I would renew old friendships there to be renewed and rekindle family ties neglected over time. I would dive into gaining fluency and understanding of the language.
As important, I would travel to Georgia to see my mother’s people. Not knowing them has vaguely haunted me most of my life.
Finally, I will strive to love those whom the Most High has given me to love: the good Lord, Himself, my family, those on my path, those to come. If a man is to have a worthy sunset to his time here, it’s best adorned with an aura of gratitude. I have been, for the most part, unworthy of all the blessings I have received. I have received them nonetheless. The simplest thank you would be to respond with generosity.
Like Red, Andy Dufresne’s dearest friend in Shawshank Redemption, the idea of an extended future is like being on a bus to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico: it has the shimmer of a sea of possibilities. And, like Red: “I hope … I hope.”
Next: The uncertainties of surgery