Allen Verhey is professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School. In these excerpts from the preface and introduction to his forthcoming book, The Christian Art of Dying: Learning from Jesus, he recalls his own battle with a rare, life-threatening illness and describes how he “became a better theologian by listening to my mortal self.”
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When I was first contemplating this book on the art of dying, I was reminded of my own mortality. “Amyloidosis,” the doctor said, “and if you leave it untreated, you will die in a couple of years.” There were options for treating it, of course, all involving various forms and dosages of chemotherapy. My wife and I, after consulting with specialists and our kids (especially Kate, our daughter who is a physician), decided on an aggressive therapy, a massive dose of chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant using stem cells retrieved from my own blood. It was the treatment that promised to do me the most good — if it did not kill me first.
The chemotherapy left me without an effective immune system for about three weeks. There was nausea, of course, and mouth sores. And then the feared fevers came. That sent me back to the hospital, while whatever little infection that had caused the fever raced to kill me before enough white blood cells could arrive to fight it off. We cheered when the lab reports finally displayed that some white blood cells were finally being produced. And I got well. There are still some imperfect numbers on the lab reports; there are regular visits to the doctors; and there are some other minor residual effects. But I am well — and grateful; reminded of my mortality — and grateful.
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For about six months my own mortality was vivid to me. I wanted to live, and I was grateful for the skillful doctors and sophisticated technology upon which my life depended. But if I was going to die, I wanted it to be my death, the final chapter in my story and not a footnote in a research report some day. I wanted it to be a faithful dying, a dying worthy of one who cherishes the gospel. This book started in conversation with myself, myself as theologian talking with myself as mortal. Sometimes, frankly, the mortal talked back. I think I became a better theologian by listening to my mortal self, and I hope my voice in this book is that of a mortal theologian, a man who knows that he will die and who believes that the last word belongs to God, a man who cherishes both the Christian tradition and life. I also hope that my voice can bring both comfort and courage to other mortal Christians and confidence to the Christian communities who are called to care for them.
This book, however, is not a memoir. When some friends who knew I had been sick asked what I was working on, I told them I was working on a book on dying. And when their reaction displayed some alarm, I thanked them for their concern and assured them that I was not writing a memoir. This book is not a memoir. It is not about me or about my experience of dying. I will, however, tell a story or two from my experience along the way, and one story, a story that celebrates mortal life, seems a fitting way to conclude this introduction.
My wife, Phyllis, is a big fan of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. When the kids were growing up, she would insist that everyone in the family watch it together on the weekend before Christmas. The kids knew all the lines and would sometimes quote a line or two. If there was a crash somewhere in the house, for example, it was not unusual that it would be followed by somebody quoting Uncle Billy, “I’m alright! I’m alright!” Now that the kids are grown, they sometimes give Phyllis gifts related to the Capra movie. We have, for example, ornaments for the Christmas tree, one that captures the joyful final scene with George holding Suzi, and another that is an angel bearing the words “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” We have a (boring) board game based on the movie. For her birthday a few years ago the kids gave Phyllis a wall plaque that simply bore the legend “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She instructed me to hang it above the back door, so that as we left each day we would be reminded that it is a wonderful life. I did as I was told, but evidently not very well. That was a couple of weeks before I would visit the doctor and be told that I had amyloidosis. A couple of days after that visit, when I left the house and closed that back door, I heard a crash. I wanted to say, “I’m alright! I’m alright!” but the words caught in my throat. When I opened the door, it was as I had feared. “It’s a Wonderful Life” had come crashing down. “This is not a good omen,” I said to myself. But I examined the broken corner of the fiberboard plaque, and because I knew Phyllis would be disappointed, I did my best to repair it. Then I hung it up more securely. Phyllis noticed the broken corner soon enough, of course. But she did not seem disappointed. Indeed, she seemed touched by the new gift the old gift had become. Now every time we leave the house, even when we go to the hospital or to the clinic, we are reminded that it’s still a wonderful life, a little broken now, surely mortal, but still a wonderful life.