The following piece appeared on the opinion page of the November 6, 2011 Des Moines Register
What dying has taught me about Living
I have fatal pancreatic cancer. I am dying. You are dying as well. The difference is that my date is more imminent. That changes how I reflect on my life.
One of my earliest memories is of a neighbor losing his hand in the corn picker. It was Halloween. The sight of him with a hook on his stub arm was frightening. But what I most remember is my father delaying the harvest of our corn to organize and join other farmers in picking this neighbor’s corn.
My family and community taught me that my life and talents were not just for myself but to serve and assist others. The abilities we develop are not just for our selves, but to be used in service of others. This value was important in college as I faced the question of the purpose of my life. I always had an interest in aviation and wanted to become an aerospace engineer. Soon however I realized my talents and gifts could more effectively be used to serve others in ministry. I headed to seminary and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1971.
In the seven months since diagnoses I have seen more clearly the purpose of my life, and the purpose of my “untimely” death. They are tied to lessons learned from childhood. Even in dying I am called to serve others in teaching how to live.
I have been a teacher and a preacher all of my adult life. My mission, simply stated, was and is to teach and assist others in discovering the good news of how to live life fully. The core of the Christian gospel is hope: through suffering, even through death, there is meaning.
Dying focused my life into a few months. With all due regard for Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, I did not enter into denial, anger or bargaining with God. I accepted this diagnosis and fatal prognosis as but one more way to help me and others see that dying can be a time of growing. It appears that I have more profoundly inspired people than I ever thought possible. Many have told me that my openness in embracing this tragedy has helped them to address the problems and tragedies of their lives.
My life appears to be cut short. But I have had 66 wonderful years. I have been blest in more ways than I deserve. I do not have a right to complain or to be angry. The outpouring of friends and former students has turned this evil we call death into a blessing. People I do not know have told me that I have given them courage to continue struggling with issues that restrict their lives. As I realize how much I have received in this life I am determined to use those gifts as best I can for as long as I can.
I see more clearly how death is intimately tied to how we live every day of our lives. When I discovered I would die shortly, it was important for me to continue preaching and pastoring, because now, more than ever before, I could be an instrument of hope and possibly even an inspiration. By accepting and embracing this ultimate challenge as best I can, I have witnessed and encouraged others to accept and embrace whatever difficulties are in their lives today. Sharing the dying experience has confirmed that TOGETHER we can live life more fully. Together we strengthen each other.
In sharing my experience I hope that I have encouraged you to continue growing in your commitment to loving service of others. As a priest I have observed many for whom death was an unwelcome enemy. Frequently it was because they lived only for themselves. And now they faced death by themselves, even though others were physically around them. Many others bravely faced death surrounded by the people whom they had loved and served. They had shared much in life and now they were sharing the dying experience with loved ones.
I am blest with a loving family, many friends, and the support of many whom I have served. In life we have shared much, and now share the experience of dying. It has been a positive journey for me and for others. The value of this shared experience is like the pearl of great price—once discovered, one gives all that one has in order to possess it.
It is in dying that we are born into eternal life. Saint Francis of Assisi
Everett Hemann was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in April. He recently retired as pastor of Saint Patrick parish in Cedar Falls.