Final Words

Final Words

By Robert P. Heaney, BS’47, MD’51

Editor’s note: On Aug. 6, 2016, Robert P. Heaney, BS’47, MD’51, a distinguished professor of medicine, world-renowned researcher in the field on bone biology and vitamin D and the first holder of the John A. Creighton University Professorship, died of brain cancer. Heaney, a longtime contributing author to Creighton University Magazine, wrote this article shortly before his death.

In May 2015, I was diagnosed with an incurable, malignant brain tumor and given an estimated six to 18 months to live. My reaction was understandably mixed — kaleidoscopic, really.

There was no denying the bad news; I was confident the diagnosis was correct. No, my first reaction was a mixture of relief and gratitude. Gratitude — elation, actually — because I had been given the rare opportunity to wrap things up. I had a chance to say goodbye to friends and family, particularly my spouse and children. I could tell them how much I loved them; what wonderful people I thought they were; and how blessed I was to have had the privilege of being their husband and father — and to ask their forgiveness for my many spousal and parenting errors. I had even been given a chance to sneak in one more blog post (see blogs.creighton.edu/heaney). 

I couldn’t help but think of how very few people had the chance I’d been given. I thought of the old prayer, “From a sudden and unprovided death, Oh Lord, preserve me.” I had been so preserved before the prayer could be even raised. Think of the many victims of gun violence and drunken drivers, and the thousands of refugees and military personnel whose lives are snuffed out in an instant.  

I thought also, with very mixed feelings, about the way medicine approaches the problem of incurable cancer — the commercialization of the cancer “industry” (medicine, really), with the incredibly high cost of drugs and procedures. These are often desperation measures — treatments that too often do little or no good, except prolong the dying process, but to which many nevertheless feel obliged to submit. Should I follow suit? Was now the time for me to make my stand? I couldn’t be sure. Well, the cost of those treatments is often partially covered by insurance, so why not use them? One reason to hesitate, it seemed to me, was that the insurance pool was limited in size. The resources I use cannot be used by someone else. Is my need greater than theirs? If I forgo treatment, would others get more or better? I could not easily handle that calculation because I don’t begin to have enough information. Probably no one does. But surely, as a society, we ought to be able to make provisions for this dilemma.  

More daunting, at least for us in the U.S., what about the uninsured, the poor and the marginalized? Do they get the same access to our “miracle” drugs? How will the astronomical, hyper-inflated cost of their drugs be covered? How many will be refused treatment altogether for lack of insurance? How many will be bankrupted and evicted from their homes? I couldn’t help but recall Pope Francis’ statement in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, that every purchase had a moral dimension. Surely purchased illness care — mine, in this case — was no exception.

So, confusion, yes, about technical, worldly things beyond my control — but mostly gratitude — gratitude, of course, first, to God, the source of everything that was mine, including the very life that was soon to be changing. But then, having mused on that thought, I quickly realized that that was not quite right either.

I knew that in not too many weeks or months, a priest would stand over my casket as the pall was spread over it and would say “At his baptism, Robert died with Christ and rose with him to new life.” At my baptism 88 years ago, the Spirit of Jesus had vivified me and I was called to be Christ for my world. It was at baptism that I had truly died, as St. Paul tells us (Romans 6). I wondered, how well had I lived my new baptismal life these last 88 years? How was I to live it now, in the next few weeks?   

Something I hadn’t anticipated, though clearly should have, was a decrease in self-determination. Through most of my life, in matters large and small, I had been in the driver’s seat — when to go shopping, what bank to use, whether to volunteer as a lector at Mass, what tie to wear and countless similar decisions. I drove myself to my appointments or work, when I wanted to go. Now I was dependent upon the kindness of others for my transport. How much of my identity was embedded in that autonomy? I remembered, of course, Jesus’ words to Peter at the end of John’s Gospel, “When you are older …  another will carry you off against your will.” (John 21: 18) I wasn’t facing what Peter faced; nevertheless, the decrease in autonomy was of the same sort. Rather than losing control, what was happening was handing it off, and doing so — I hoped — with grace and dignity.  

I loved proclaiming Romans 6 at the Easter Vigil and was told I did it well. What did I love about doing so? Paul’s message? The glorious proclamation that “Jesus, once raised from the dead, dies now no more!”? Or the sound of my voice saying those words? It was God speaking, not I. The message belonged to the assembly, not to me. It was time for me to slip into the background, handing off to others.