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St. Michael Church at 85 N. High Street, Greenville, PA 16125 US - A vision of Heaven
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A vision of Heaven
By Nancy Schertzing Photography by Jim Luning
Dale McKay hasn’t completely formed his vision of heaven, though he’s thinking about it a lot now. He sees the popular images of angels peering over clouds, but that doesn’t seem to fit. He’s reading a book about how heaven’s government and technology compare to earthly versions, but he’s pretty sure there’s no real comparison. He’s trying to explore different possibilities, but loneliness pervades every vision. “Together we are doing things we should be doing anyway. Now for the first time, there is a new element in our decision-making – that of time. We have purchased a cemetery lot and settled our legal affairs. We went to Hawaii and are on a waiting list for that Alaska cruise we cancelled after my diagnosis. ---
“I think it will be lonely,” Dale explains. “Like when Ellen goes away for the weekend. I’m home all by myself, eating a bowl of cereal for supper and thinking, ‘Only 37 more hours until she comes back.’ I don’t know if I want to sign up for that.”
Dale has loved Ellen since they met at Duck Lake. She was nearly 16 and he was 18. By summer’s end, they promised they would marry each other six years after finishing college. She went back to school, had boyfriends and fun times. He attended a different university and kept in touch, usually ending his letters with the phrase, “To God through each other, and through each other to God.” It became their motto. In Ellen’s junior year, Dale surprised her by hiding behind a tree outside her workplace. Reunited from then on, they married one week after her graduation.
Forty-three years, five children, seven grandchildren and two successful careers later, Dale and Ellen live at Duck Lake. They bike together, laugh with each other and savor summer days when their family gathers at the lake. Life’s challenges – law school, five babies in seven years, two cancer surgeries, radiation, children’s divorces, sick grandbabies – they faced together. Ellen retired in 2005 and they booked an Alaskan cruise, looking forward to the good times.
In July of that year, Dale’s doctor told him he had another cancer in his abdomen. Dale didn’t flinch. “Mind you, I had the kidney out, the prostate out, 36 doses of radiation – all with no significant effect. I thought chemo would be the same. You sign up. You lose all your hair. (I had already acquired two baseball caps.) You go for a couple of months and it’s over,” he says, looking back. “Imagine the shock when the doctor said ‘Your condition can’t be cured, only suppressed. If you check the literature, you will find you have 12 to 18 months to live.’ In the same conversation she said, ‘We might be having this conversation 10 years from now. But for planning purposes, it would be unfair to tell you anything more than 12 to 18 months.’”
Shaken, Dale and Ellen cancelled their trip and began to grasp the enormity of the doctor’s words. “Someone saying ‘You have 18 months to live,’ has significantly changed the dynamic of our marriage,” Dale explains. “It has taken us to discussions we never had before and caused us to draw on the faith we developed over our years of marriage. That faith enables me to look with some measure of comfort, even humor, at what lies ahead.
“I have been blessed with my oncological urologist, who has been a truly caring physician and friend. During a regular visit, I told him I was discouraged that my cancer cannot be cured, only suppressed. He kind of leaned back, pondered a moment and suggested I think of the cancer as a hamster in my pocket. ‘If the hamster isn’t biting you,’ he said, ‘just take it with you and ignore it.’ This has been my mental compass for dealing with my cancer. He could not have done more for me than to offer this simple wisdom.”
Since that visit, Dale’s mythical hamster (he’s named him Roadster) has featured prominently in e-mail updates Dale writes to keep friends and family informed and entertained through his treatments. His renderings of Roadster and other cancer-related fictional characters leave readers clamoring for more. He ends each report with updates on another painful subject – the gin rummy games he and Ellen play during chemotherapy.
“For the treatments,” Dale writes, “I just sit in a chair for about five hours [while the chemotherapy drugs drip through my port]. All is well until Ellen pulls out the cards and the gin rummy begins. She shows me no mercy. She leaves me long enough to go to noon Mass at the cathedral. You’d think there would be some part of the Mass that would at least dampen her urge to wallop me and show me just a little consideration. I was ahead one week and went into the hall. I announced – for the nurses to hear – that I was ahead. They said, ‘Well, we’ve never heard that before!’” Since then the walloping has only gotten worse.
“It goes without saying that a new chapter in our lives has arrived,” Dale explains.
“That which was so important yesterday no longer is. Issues of family, reconciliation and peace-making occupy my thoughts much more now than before. I ask, ‘Is that the legacy I want to leave?’ Sometimes I struggle.
“I have always had a suspicion that someday I would die. I’d just never had anyone put some numbers on it. I am trying to accept this fact, trying to be open with this process so it will be easier for my children and grandchildren to face. I want them to be comfortable with the end of the show.” Dale coughs to clear the emotion from his voice. Red rims his eyes.
“I hope when my children and grandchildren think of me they will laugh. I’m really enjoying my funeral preparation. I’ve written the responsorial psalm and have composed the music for the refrain. (I hope whoever says the Mass will be flexible if I don’t get everything quite right!) It should be a celebration of change – termination of the old and going on to the new. Like a graduation.”
Dale McKay hasn’t formed his vision of heaven yet. For now he lives his remaining moments with Roadster, savors time with Ellen and their kids and reflects on a precious life well-lived. Perhaps one day Dale’s vision of heaven will include a tree – a comfortable spot where he can wait until his beloved Ellen graduates and they reunite once more.
“To God through each other and through each other to God.”
Care given with the greatest love
Mother Teresa House is a home for people with terminal illnesses.
People of any faith, culture or background are gladly welcomed, with priority given to those in greatest need.
For more information or to make a donation, contact Karen Bussey at 517.484.5494.
On Aug. 31, Dale McKay died. His beloved wife, Ellen, reflects on Dale’s final days and the comfort she and Dale found in their faith.
I was looking through my journal back to the previous March when Dale had finished radiation and we thought we were home free. We were looking forward to this time of blessing
Then the tumors returned. In July, when we got his terminal diagnosis, I wrote “I cannot imagine life without Dale. I can’t fathom what my life will be like, and I just pray that God will give me the strength to be for Dale what he needs.”
It’s been Dale-and-Ellen, Ellen-and-Dale from the time I was 16. I thought after he died I would be under a bed with a pillow over my head, needing someone to come pull me out!
But for over a year I prayed for strength, and we prepared. Now it’s amazing! I really do feel strong.
Back in May, when we received the first draft of Dale’s story from FAITH, we were having dinner. Dale brought the article out, and I was sitting there reading it. Of course, I started to cry. Our daughter Sue was visiting, and she didn’t want to read it. It took her a long time. But Dale told her, “I need for you to really be on board with all of this.”
We were able to use this article with our kids and close friends to open a whole avenue of discussion that was really good. When I shared it with others I wrote across the top “This is another dimension of Dale, and of our story.” It became a great tool we used in this amazing journey.
Dale was so open about his cancer. His article and his Chemo Reports helped him prepare and gave him ways to get others ‘on board’ – as he put it to Sue.
The power of this was really clear when Dale e-mailed his last Chemo Report at the beginning of August. He followed his usual nutsy stories about his cancer and everything that goes with it. But he knew his time was getting close. He wrote:
I’m really feeling great, eating well, getting good sleep and especially enjoy the built in excuse for an afternoon nap. We’ve pretty much finished the funeral planning and so I’m left with getting myself spiritually ready for the journey. Just like an intermission, we are together today, we will have a short intermission apart from one another and then I will be rejoined for the final part of our lives as children of God.”
“I’ve been given a thought to ponder as I prepare ... ‘When I first encounter Jesus, what will he say to me?’ Great thought, not only in contemplation of death, but how, today, we will treat our brothers and sisters here on Earth.
The e-mail responses to this one were amazing. People responded in ways you could just tell they were touched really deeply. Many wrote that Dale had taught them so much about dying.
Some of our friends decided to organize a celebration of Dale’s life. When our Sue heard they were celebrating her dad, she decided all his kids had to be there. Everyone came home, and Dale got a leave of absence from the hospital.”
So on Aug. 19 we had about 60 people gathered at our house. There were roasts and toasts, tears and laughter. Dale was just so fully engaged! He kept saying “How can I be dying when I’m feeling so good?” It was just an amazing time, though it was his last visit home.
We had planned that Dale would die in our house overlooking the lake, and had everything set for him. But around the time of the party, Dale’s doctor recommended Hospice House because his cancer demanded lots of care. We agonized over this, but in the end I’m so grateful we chose to go to Hospice House! The wonderful, loving people there took care of his needs so I could focus on being Dale’s wife, not his caregiver.
To see his soul emerge was just amazing! When time came to move from the hospital to Hospice House, Dale’s condition was so fragile he had to travel in an ambulance, rather than our van. This was different from our plan, so I went to his room to break the news. He looked up from his bed into my teary eyes and without missing a beat said, “Do you think they’ll turn on the overheads?”
His first two days at Hospice House, Dale delighted in exploring and leading tours through the beautiful place. On his third day, his feet and legs were becoming unreliable, so our son, Jim, found him a wheelchair. Dale took advantage of this opportunity to tour around the block with anyone who would accompany him.
Once, in a quieter moment, I asked what he was thinking. He said he had accomplished about 90 percent of what he had been sent here to do. “But what do I do with the 10 percent of the mission I haven’t accomplished?” he asked. I told him our faith gives us the wonderful gift of reconciliation for just such questions. He met later that day with a priest, and I know he felt better after that.”
By his fourth day, it became clear Dale had begun working on the other side – as the Hospice workers described it. He was still engaging us, but sometimes his words didn’t make sense.
The last two days, Dale was working on the other side. He spoke sparingly, sometimes talking to or about people we didn’t know. I asked him once what he was thinking. He said “I’m looking for Jesus. There are so many poor people! I have to do something about that.” I told him to think of his search as if he was walking down a road in one direction and Jesus was walking toward him. When they met, it would be a wonderful, joyful occasion.
On Aug. 31, Dale was mostly unconscious. The kids and I were around him, but he didn’t seem to see us, and he didn’t speak. Every so often, he lifted his arms up off the bed as if he were reaching out to someone we couldn’t see. That afternoon Dale died peacefully.
Dale often said his funeral was to be a celebration, and it was amazing. He had written the words and music for the refrain and responsorial psalm, and we had chosen the readings for his funeral. It was so beautiful! It felt like Dale was present because he had done so much of the preparation.
After the funeral, Dale’s body was in the hearse ready to be taken for cremation. Standing outside the church, I had a hard time, knowing this was really it. None of us was sure how to say goodbye.
As we stood there, Dale’s brother leaned over and said, “You know, I think that thing has overheads.” As we watched the hearse pull away with Dale inside, overheads shining out, we were all smiling through our tears.
When one is as blessed as I am, there are always reasons to smile. Have I loved and have I been loved? I never had to guess. I know. Dale was a happy man and we loved each other very much. His amazing journey these past months was so full and so blessed! It has deepened my recognition of the goodness within each of us.
Dale wrote in his final Chemo Report, “We will have a short intermission apart from one another then I will be rejoined for the final part of our lives as children of God.”
However long their “intermission,” Dale’s and Ellen’s love and openness strengthened them through the end of this journey together. As Dale put it, “Great thought, not only in contemplation of death, but how, today, we will treat our brothers and sisters here on Earth.”
Dale McKay hasn’t completely formed his vision of heaven, though he’s thinking about it a lot now. He sees the popular images of angels peering over clouds, but that doesn’t seem to fit. He’s reading a book about how heaven’s government and technology compare to earthly versions, but he’s pretty sure there’s no real comparison. He’s trying to explore different possibilities, but loneliness pervades every vision.
“Together we are doing things we should be doing anyway. Now for the first time, there is a new element in our decision-making – that of time. We have purchased a cemetery lot and settled our legal affairs. We went to Hawaii and are on a waiting list for that Alaska cruise we cancelled after my diagnosis.