The Last Walk 1
Life overtakes philosophy. For two years I have been reading and thinking about the virtue of hope. I’ve posted dozens of hope essays on my blog and read two papers at professional philosophy conferences. Eventually, I will write a book on this virtue. But moral philosophy is practical (a theme in all my books in on the virtues, beginning with Learning to Love). It turns out that I am exploring hope in a very personal way.
Background: In 2013 my wife Karen was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, involving three types of cancer cells: endometrial, serous and clear cell. The first is most common, the second and third more dangerous. She underwent surgery in September, followed by many weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment regimen lasted until April 2014. Chemotherapy stole her hair, but in Karen’s experience radiation therapy was much harder, leaving her with intestinal problems for months afterward. Still, by summer 2014 she was back at work as a psychological disability examiner. And she was 62. She decided to retire.
That fall Karen began a new career as a freelance photographer. She took art photos and portrait photos. She took photography courses, bought lots of good equipment, and redecorated our living room into a studio. She displayed photos in local coffee shops.
Throughout 2015 “gut” problems persisted. In the decade before her surgery, Karen had enjoyed walking for exercise, going for long (45 minute) vigorous walks in various neighborhoods. But “bowel insecurity” put an end to that. Late in 2015 she experimented with indoor walks at the local Fred Meyer.
After the cancer treatments of 13-14, Karen had regular follow-up visits with her oncologist. At the beginning of 2016, her blood work showed no signs of the cancer. Karen’s doctor said it was as if she had reached mile 21 of a 26-mile marathon. She might really be cancer free.
In February 2016 Karen began experiencing back pain; later, leg pain as well. Her Fred Meyer walks became too painful to continue. There also seemed to be something wrong with her sinuses; the aroma of most foods became nauseating, which meant that she began eating less. These symptoms all worsened gradually. Doctors prescribed pain medications and ordered CT scans.
Here we are now, summer 2016.
An urgent message from Karen’s GP: come and see me right away. The next day, we learned cancer had returned. Four days later we met with the oncologist and Karen was immediately started on chemotherapy. There will be no surgery to remove cancer, since it has spread to too many lymph nodes. The next day, a urologist scheduled Karen for a minor procedure to insert a stent at a place where swollen lymph nodes impeded her ureter.
The oncologist gave straightforward answers to our questions. There is a very small probability that chemotherapy alone can kill the cancer. Much more likely, chemotherapy will let us “manage” or “control” the cancer. “Control” in this context means knocking it back, killing many of the rogue cells. But we should expect, he said, that each round of chemo (using different drugs at different stages) would “train” the cancer to evade the drugs’ power. Short of a miracle, the cancer will take Karen’s life, most likely in 2-5 years.
So here we are, two middle-aged people, beginning our last “walk” together. We hope that aggressive pain management might permit literal walks again. We look back on my year long sabbatical in 2007-08 as a highlight of our marriage; we took many walks that year.
With Karen’s permission, I have decided not to keep our story secret. I do not intend to make a spectacle of it. I will occasionally post updates on our experience.
The Last Walk 2
A society grows great when old men plant trees
whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
He who plants a tree plants a hope.
Building an addition to one’s house isn’t quite like planting a tree. In deciding to build, Karen and I justified the expense to ourselves by saying we could recoup our costs someday when we sell it. In theory, adding to one’s house is just another investment.
But context changes things; it even changes the meaning of things. The real reason for building an addition, no matter what we told ourselves about resale prices, was to give James and Jennie more room. Our son and daughter-in-law have lived with us for more than a year. They’ve been careful to keep themselves to their small bedroom, and the addition would give them more space. We contracted with Matthew, our builder—and quickly modified the plan to add a concrete pad for a hot tub. A hot tub, we thought, might help with Karen’s persistent back pain.
Then we learned Karen’s cancer has returned. We enter a new phase in our life together, our last walk. For Karen especially this changes the meaning of the addition and the hot tub. It changes her garden. (Make no mistake, the flowers, shrubs, trees, and garden paths are all her doing. Sometimes I dig holes where she tells me.) In a few months or years someone else will have her house and garden.
In the long view, this has always been true. We all know we will die someday. We know our houses and gardens will pass to others. Our accomplishments will be forgotten. (Quick! What do you know about your great grandmother’s great grandmother? Your descendants won’t remember you either.)
We know we will die. Usually, we don’t think about it. Now that we’ve come to our last walk, Karen and I have to think about it. We’ve lived in our house 23 years. Who will be here 23 years hence? What will they be like? How will they change the garden? Will they like the hot tub?
Of course, the Greek proverb is not only about trees. It’s about caring for people we won’t live to see, people who won’t remember us. We “plant trees” by building houses, growing gardens, teaching children, and so on. There are myriad ways to contribute to a good world for those who come after. One might even “plant a tree” by voting!
The Last Walk 3
I suppose if one had much experience with cancer, as oncology professionals do, one would discern a pattern in the progress of the disease. Karen’s oncologist, Dr. G, tried to give us a sense of what we could expect. This was in July.
First, he said, there is a small chance chemotherapy would completely kill the cancer. Karen might be cured and live for years. Much more likely, however, chemo treatments would achieve “control” of the cancer. In Dr. G’s words, this meant each round of therapy would kill much of the cancer but not eliminate it. We could expect the disease to return every time. By a kind of natural selection it would return stronger, more able to resist drugs. Eventually, even using different anti-cancer drugs in the chemo cocktail, the disease will kill Karen. “Control” thus means that Karen might live a year or as long as five years. Perhaps 70% of cases achieve control.
What Dr. G left unsaid (I’m drawing conclusions on my own here) is that 5% and 70% leaves a quarter of the cases in which chemo has little or no effect. Without treatment, Dr. G said, the cancer would kill Karen in six months or less.
The “typical” history of the disease is a generalization from many cases. Dr. G summarized for us not only from his own experience but the medical literature. But Karen’s case is not the typical case; it is one particular case. She and I will go through the ups and downs of this cancer, and it’s not conforming to expectations.
I had to take Karen to hospital. Here’s the story as far as we know it.
Chemo knocks Karen’s blood chemistry for a loop. Kills cancer? We hope so. It definitely reduces her hemoglobin. Blood with reduced oxygen carrying capacity produces deep fatigue. So: cancer à chemo à lowered hemoglobin à fatigue. She had her first transfusion eighteen days ago.
Karen also takes medications for pain. Lots of them; I won’t go into details. Let’s just say they are powerful. Pain meds act on her nervous system (duh); combined with the extreme fatigue they interfere with her mental functioning. She starts a thought or a sentence and can’t finish. She falls asleep in mid-thought. So: cancer à pain meds (+ fatigue) à confusion. After 30 years as a clinical psychologist this frightens Karen. Most of those years were spent administering neuropsychological tests; she is familiar with the various stages and forms of dementia. On Sunday, amid tears she feared people using that word about her. It’s the drugs, I said. “My brain is structurally sound,” she answered, lucid for a few seconds.
Then Karen noticed that her left leg was swollen. That was the last bit of evidence. I took her to hospital. Emergency Room staff worried at first about a blood clot. Testing seemed to show that wasn’t the problem, but her kidney function was off. They ordered transport to a larger hospital.
On Monday, at St. Vincent’s she had her second transfusion. Over the next two days, her fatigue lessened, but only a little. The hemoglobin problem was solved (temporarily anyway), but pain meds and messed up blood chemistry were still there. It turns out that chemo sometimes causes certain kidney diseases. Who knew? On Tuesday we thought maybe her chemo cocktail would have to be changed. She’s due for chemotherapy next Tuesday.
Tests: ultrasound pointed to problems with the right kidney. They wanted to perform a CT scan “with contrast,” which means injecting a special dye into the patient; this test is top of the line. But the dye is nasty stuff and dangerous if the patient’s kidneys are working properly. On Wednesday, an ordinary CT scan, without contrast, revealed a kidney stone.
Many years ago, my father suffered terribly from kidney stones. But this stone is good news! The problem may be correctable without compromising Karen’s chemotherapy. Surgery is scheduled for Thursday. Meanwhile, hospital staff has more carefully calibrated her pain meds, and she sleeps more peacefully. I hope she can come home a day or two after surgery.
The Last Walk 4
Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope,
patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”
Paul’s words present a stiff challenge. Are Karen and I joyful, patient, faithful? Hm. On the last point, many friends have assured us they are praying for Karen and me on our last walk. Prayer is a facet of human solidarity, and we are grateful for our friends’ prayers. A week ago I asked friends to pray that Karen could come home.
Who would have guessed that a kidney stone could be good news? On Thursday, Dr. B operated on Karen’s right kidney, removing the stone and placing a stent in her ureter. (Dr. B calls himself the plumbing doctor; he’s an urologist, not to be confused with a nephrologist, the kidney expert. In Karen’s case, they both are part of a team, of which Dr G, the oncologist, is head. I’m learning lots of new vocabulary.)
Karen’s body chemistry and mental functioning began improving immediately after surgery. During a two-hour visit later Thursday, I witnessed her voice strengthening and her mind clearing. Friday afternoon, when I checked phone messages after class, Jennie, our daughter-in-law, said not to go to the hospital. My sister-in-law Janie had taken Karen home already.
In the five days since then we’ve been learning to balance pain meds. If she takes too little, Karen’s pain spikes, especially if she “does” anything—stand up, dress herself, walk a few steps, etc. Call this Scylla. On the other hand, if we overdo the meds (or give one too soon after the other) the drugs hammer her cognitive abilities. That’s Charybdis. Like Odysseus, we try to navigate between the monster and the whirlpool. Of course, Karen faces complications that Odysseus could never have imagined. For example, after kidney surgery patients sometimes experience sudden, uncontrollable bladder function. That stage has passed, thank God; but we had a series of adventures last Friday night!
Karen was scheduled for a chemo treatment Tuesday, but Dr. G postponed it. It’s more important to achieve balance on pain meds. There is clinical evidence that good pain control improves the efficacy of chemotherapy, he says. Karen is learning to judge her pain state more precisely; learning to take the “break-through” meds before pain increases. We’re getting better at pain management, so much so that Karen called Tim and Tia (son and daughter-in-law) to confirm her plan to visit them next week. It’s her decision to make, so I will drive to Kennewick on two successive Saturdays, delivering her on the first and retrieving her the next. I expect lots of pictures of Jakobi. Meanwhile, we have had visits from home health care and home health physical therapy.
That’s a lot of prayers answered in only a week. “…faithful in prayer” sounds like good advice.
The Last Walk 5
Cancer complicates life. Daily activities take longer. Every visit to the bath presents danger of falling. The caregiver wants to intervene, to protect against injury. But the patient needs to do as much for herself as she can, to maintain strength, balance, mental agility, etc. In addition to such little complications, there are some big ones. We have to adjust on the fly.
For example, on September 10 I drove Karen to visit Tim and Tia, our son and daughter-in-law, who live in Kennewick. Karen had been looking forward to this trip for weeks. The next day, Sunday, Karen felt sick, with flu symptoms. She didn’t want to expose Jakobi, our grandson, so she asked Tim to drive her home.
We suspect Karen’s symptoms came from having a flu shot. It’s wise, of course for her to have a flu shot; influenza can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems. The down side of inoculation is that people often get mild flu symptoms—but for cancer patients, mild symptoms aren’t so mild.
Karen called me when she and Tim set out. I drove east and met Tim and Karen in the tiny town of Rufus, and from there I brought her home. So the planned week with Tim and Tia amounted to one night. And for Karen the drive home was thoroughly unpleasant.
Another big adjustment: Janie, my sister-in-law, took Karen for her third chemo treatment yesterday. For a number of reasons Dr. G judged her too weak to receive it. Chemotherapy hits the body hard; the hope is that in doing so it hits the cancer harder. Given Karen’s lethargy, mental confusion, dehydration, and other factors, Dr. G said he would not administer the drugs. She was given I.V. hydration, which helped perk her up, and Dr. G recommended that we ask the home health service to move her to palliative care.
Palliative care, I’ve learned, is a more intense version of home health care. (As I type this, we’re waiting for the nurse’s visit.) According to Dr. G, patients under palliative care often improve. He’s counting on that, hoping that Karen will be stronger and more alert in two weeks so she can get chemo.
Now when I first heard “palliative care or maybe hospice care” (Janie’s phrase on the phone when she told me) my mind latched onto the word “hospice,” and I assumed the doctor’s advice meant Karen and Phil’s last walk would soon end. A later conversation with a home health care supervisor reassured me. It is not unreasonable to expect good results from palliative care. If Karen gets stronger, she may have more chemotherapy. If she gets chemotherapy, it may significantly extend her life.
So now we live in an uncertain space. Will Karen be ready for chemo in two weeks? Is the chemo actually working against the cancer? Tim and Tia plan to come to Newberg soon; will Karen be alert to enjoy their visit?
Cancer brings long term uncertainties too, some of which we can prepare for—reviewing and revising legal documents, buying a burial niche, arranging for cremation, etc. There’s a lot of detail work to get ready to die! Yet every conversation is peppered with “if” or “someday” or “eventually.” So much we don’t know; we don’t even know that Karen will die before me, and the documents must reflect that possibility.
When you think about it, cancer only reveals something that is true of every life. We all live in uncertain space. The vibrantly healthy college students in my classroom eagerly make plans for the weekend, the holidays, or their careers after graduation. God bless them—I hope their plans bear fruit as they expect. But the truth is that we do not know what tomorrow will bring. Three weeks, three months, or three years: cancer makes our uncertain space plain to Karen and me. What we can be sure of is how we face the uncertainty. I will love Karen to the end, no matter what. Because of the gospel of Christ, we hope for resurrection, no matter what.
The Last Walk 6
Dozens of people have told me they are praying for Karen, including my friend Anis in Bangladesh. Karen has international prayer support!
Nevertheless, her condition deteriorated after her chemotherapy was pushed back from September 20 to October 6. It became clear she was would not be able to endure the harsh cocktail of poisons modern medicine uses as its main weapon against cancer. And she herself said she didn’t want more chemo.
So we transferred Karen from palliative to hospice care. Thirty-seven years ago, when Karen was psychology graduate student, she volunteered in an early hospice program. 1979’s cutting edge medicine has been standardized. The hospice people know what they’re doing.
Hospice care focuses on comfort, not cure. The goal is to reduce the pain and anxiety at the end of life. The intake nurse explained the program and made changes in Karen’s pain management plan. Instead of pills she had to swallow, the intake nurse ordered liquid painkillers. (For the most part, the same meds as before, but much easier to take in liquid form.) Later in the day, a deliveryman set up a hospital bed. Tomorrow, Karen’s primary hospice nurse will make his first visit, review the care plan, and make sure we know how to administer liquid pain meds. Nursing assistants will come twice a week to help with bathing, shampoos, and what not.
No one can tell how long she will live. In July Doctor G said chemotherapy might give us a year or two. In a few cases, even with metastasized cancer, it provides a cure. Obviously, that did not happen this time. We still live with uncertainty, but the range of possibilities is shrinking. Our last walk will be much shorter than I hoped.
So why doesn’t God answer all those prayers? Didn’t Jesus promise that the Father would grant anything Jesus’ disciples asked for? Is it really God’s will for Karen to suffer as she does? As a philosopher I find such questions… interesting and worthy of discussion. If the questions are supposed to convey arguments, I don’t think the arguments will hold water. As a man whose heart is breaking, I find such question express only a part of what I feel.
I worship a man who let his enemies kill him. Given the solidarity of the human race, I must be included among those enemies. While he suffered our hate, that man cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” The man I worship faced despair greater than I will ever know, and he triumphed by dying and rising again. By death and resurrection, he has conquered me—and he conquers my fears.
Karen and I will part soon. Our last walk will end. For now.
The Last Walk 7
In spring 1976 Eugene McCarthy brought his presidential campaign to Oregon! In doing so, he changed my life.
To explain this, I have to provide background. Some historical context: Eugene McCarthy played an important role in American politics when, as a Democratic Senator, he challenged President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. McCarthy lost the primary, but Johnson’s narrow margin of victory helped convince him to not run for reelection.
“Wait a moment!” you might object. “McCarthy challenged Johnson in 1968, but you mentioned 1976.” And you would be right. McCarthy’s fifteen minutes of fame (according to Andy Warhol in the future we will all be famous for fifteen minutes) came in 1968. For a few months in that awful year McCarthy was a major political figure in this country.
[Brief side comment: many of us are deeply troubled by presidential politics this year, as we should be. But if you can, recall 1968: Vietnam war going full blast, MLK assassinated, Robert Kennedy assassinated, the Democratic convention and “the whole world is watching,” and Richard Nixon picking Spiro Agnew to be Vice President. As bad as 2016 seems, things could be worse.]
In 1976 Eugene McCarthy was not a major political figure. But like other politicians he had caught the presidential bug, and he could not let the dream go. So he soldiered on, taking his 76 campaign to the little places away from the bright lights. One of those places was Linfield College, where he would make a speech to college students. Students from many Oregon colleges were invited to attend.
History professor Ralph Beebe jumped on the opportunity. McCarthy wasn’t important in 1976, but only eight years before McCarthy had helped pull down a wartime president. Ralph urged George Fox College students to drive to Linfield to hear McCarthy’s speech. Naturally, I went. McCarthy’s speech was totally forgettable, proven by the fact I remember nothing he said.
After McCarthy’s speech, attending students were divided randomly into discussion groups and sent to various classrooms in Melrose Hall. And that’s when magic happened. There was a girl in my group (about 25 students) who contributed insightful comments to the discussion—and to my surprise she identified herself as a George Fox student.
George Fox College in the 1970s was much smaller than today. I thought I knew everybody. Yet here was this smart—and very pretty—young woman whom I hadn’t met! I came back to campus with a mission to find out about Karen Bates. It turned out that she had transferred to Fox from another college, and she lived off campus, which explained why I didn’t know her. I asked her for a date. We rode bicycles to Champoeg Park. (I had to borrow a bike for this purpose.) Afterward, she kissed me on the back porch of her parents’ house. Later that year, in summer, I said to her, “If things keep going this way I’m going to ask you to marry me.” She said that would be okay.
Let it not be said that presidential candidates never accomplish good things. In 1976 Eugene McCarthy did good.
Karen Bates-Smith died on October 9, 2016. I miss her terribly.
The Last Walk (Part Eight):
Eulogy at St. Peter Church
I can’t possibly say all I would like to say about Karen, so I will talk about her life as a Catholic.
Karen Suzanne Bates was born February 4, 1952 to Glenn and Betty Bates in The Dalles, Oregon. She grew up attending Conservative Baptist churches in The Dalles, McMinnville, and Newberg. Years later, she told me she and other Newberg High students would debate rather fine points of theology between classes. It seemed important to her at the time to be right, theologically, and she was happy to defend every point of Conservative Baptist doctrine. Karen was very smart; I don’t imagine she lost many debates. In 1970, she was NHS valedictorian.
In the early 1970s, Karen experienced an abusive, violent, and short marriage. The trauma of those years pushed her toward studying psychology and sparked spiritual searching. In 1977, Karen married me and changed her name to Karen Bates-Smith. In marrying me, she became a Quaker. It turned out that though she was content with me for a husband, she wasn’t fully content as a Friend.
Three months after marrying, we entered Fuller Theological Seminary. The psychology Ph.D. program at Fuller takes six years. Students earn a Master’s degree in theology in addition to their work in psychology; during their four years of course work. The last two years are spent in internships and—for most Fuller students—dissertation writing. Karen finished her course work and her dissertation in the four years. And she also had a baby, our son Tim.
Already, in our Pasadena years, Karen started visiting Catholic churches. She did this on her own. As a couple we were active in the Friends Church; for our last two years I was pastor of Pasadena Friends. But Karen was already feeling a stirring in her heart, something drawing her toward contemplative worship that she found sitting in mass.
We moved to Portland in 1982. I pastored Maplewood Friends Church, and Karen supported my work in every way she could. She served on a Yearly Meeting board, she hosted meetings in our house, she played piano for Sunday worship, and—perhaps most important, given the tiny salary the church could afford to pay me—she earned most of the family income.
In the late 80s I left the pastorate to pursue philosophy at the University of Oregon and an increased teaching load at George Fox. Karen shifted the focus of her psychology practice to neuropsychological testing. For many years she worked for Disability Determination Services and later, in private practice, as a consultant for DDS. We adopted our second son, James, in 1989.
Since I was no longer a Friends pastor, Karen felt greater freedom to pursue her spiritual stirrings toward Catholic worship. We moved to Newberg in 89. She drove to St. John Fisher in Portland for RCIA. At Easter, 1991, she was formally confirmed as a member of the Catholic Church. For a year or two, she attended St. Francis church in Sherwood before finally settling in St. Peter church here in Newberg.
Karen worried that by becoming a Catholic she would impede my career at George Fox. She knew about anti-Catholic thinking among some Protestants. When I was finishing my degree at UO we contemplated moving to various parts of the country. (I applied for lots of philosophy jobs in 1991, even flew to New York to interview for one of them.) She thought, perhaps, that in another location her faith would not be a hindrance.
Intellectually I embraced Catholics as fellow Christians. But emotionally I weathered a storm when Karen entered the church. It was Jesus, I believe, who told me not to argue against Karen’s conversion. Her leading was from Christ; I was not to get in the way.
In 1992 it became clear I needed to stay at Fox. We bought a house in Newberg and settled into a two-church routine. Karen attended mass at St. Peter’s on Saturday, and she and I took the boys to Newberg Friends on Sunday. Karen often played cello for Saturday mass. She wrote music for mass. Twice a year (Good Friday and Christmas) I attended mass with Karen. And later, when the boys were grown, whenever we went on vacation, we found it simple to attend mass—it seems there is always a Catholic church nearby.
Rather than causing a problem, the fact that Karen was a Catholic proved to be a boon to my work as a professor. When some student would express some anti-Catholic prejudice, I could gently raise a concrete example of a Protestant led by God to become a Catholic. I myself could not join the church, but I could love and honor a woman who did. Our marriage became a living illustration of theological inclusivity.
Interestingly, not many of my students have become Quakers. Maybe I should be a better evangelist. But some of my best students, such as Abigail Rine (now Favale) and Angela Wood (now Pearson) have become Catholics. Abby is a professor at GFU. Angela has not finished her doctorate, but she is the happy mother of five children, teaching her toddlers how to say “episteMOLogy.”
A couple days after Karen’s death, I received a phone call from another student, Chase Willcuts. After Fox, he had finished a Master’s in philosophy at Gonzaga, and now he is a student at a Catholic seminary, having joined the church. I told him to be a good priest.
Karen Bates-Smith obeyed the leading of the Spirit into the Catholic Church. From that obedience has come much good for our family, for St. Peter parish, and for my students at Fox. She died October 9, 2016.
The Last Walk Nine:
Eulogy at Newberg Friends Church
I can’t possibly say everything I would like to say about Karen, so I will talk about her life as an artist. We have purchased a burial niche at Newberg Friends Cemetery. The inscription on the niche will say of Karen: “Maker of Beauty.”
Karen Bates was born February 4, 1952 to Glenn and Betty Bates in The Dalles, Oregon. She grew up in The Dalles, McMinnville, and Newberg, graduating from Newberg High School in 1970.
Karen demonstrated varied talents at Newberg High School. She competed in gymnastics and scored points for her team on the balance beam. She sang in a high school choral group called “Shades of Blue” that performed in local concerts. She also sang in choirs for high school commencements and a local production of The Messiah. She practiced calligraphy and drawing with charcoal.
While still in high school, Karen moved deeper into music. She created an arrangement of “Sunrise, Sunset” for the high school choir and conducted the choir’s rendition of the popular song in 1969.
In 1977 Karen married Philip Smith, changing her name to Karen Bates-Smith. In 1981 she gave birth to a son, Tim. In 1989, we adopted a son, James.
After college, Karen attended Fuller Theological Seminary, completing a Ph.D. in Psychology in 1983. She made a career as an Oregon licensed psychologist for more than thirty years. But her musical muse would not leave her alone. In the early 80s she bought a cello and started lessons. Pretty soon, she bought a much more expensive cello, and her husband knew the music thing was serious.
In the 1980s, when I was pastor of Maplewood Friends Church, Karen aided worship greatly by playing piano, collaborating with Meredith Fieldhouse, who led singing.
We moved to Newberg in 1989. It wasn’t long before Karen joined the Chehelem Symphony, directed by Dennis Hagen. For years she played cello alongside Theo Powers. Besides two or three concerts a year with the Chehelem Symphony, Karen gave solo performances in concerts at the Portland Community Music Center. For a couple years, Theo joined her, giving the Smith and Powers sons a chance to squirm in their seats while their mothers performed.
Karen Bates-Smith, Karen Scott, and Pat Surguy formed a trio (cello, piano, violin) called Clavis Trio. They gave recitals at Friendsview Manor and Newberg Friends Church.
By the late 90s, performance wasn’t enough. Karen returned to school, pursuing an undergraduate music degree at Marylhurst University, with an emphasis in composition. At first, she focused on choral music, including “Sing to Yahweh,” which was performed in worship by the Newberg Friends Choir in June 1998. She also wrote pieces for piano and cello, such as “Sonata #1” which was performed by Theo Powers and Jane Smith in 1998. In her senior recital, in 2002, various musicians performed “Love’s Whimsey” (soprano and piano), “Rondo for Alto Flute” (a memorial to victims of 9-11), Rhyme Quintet in E-Flat” (by the Con Grazia Wind Quintet), “String Trio #1 in C Major” (violin, viola, and cello). Karen also wrote music for at events at Warner Pacific College, such as “Brass Ring” for a concert called the Brass Bash.
After finishing at Marylhurst in 2003—her second undergraduate degree—Karen gradually played cello less and concentrated more on composing. Eventually she left the Chehelem Symphony. But she continued to practice cello to keep up her skills. With her friend, Darlene Babin, she practiced a variety of cello and piano pieces, many of them her own compositions. She contributed new work for recitals at Marylhurst, including “Brown and Furry” and “The Telephone is Under the Stairs” (soprano and piano).
By this point you get the idea: Karen wrote for voices and for a great variety of instrumental combinations: string trios, woodwind quintets, brass groups, orchestras, and so on.
That is not the end of the story. In a sense, it’s only half. In 2014, after her first go-round with cancer, Karen retired as a psychologist. Then she went out and bought a camera. She bought another camera. And lenses. And lighting equipment. Her husband knew this photography thing was serious.
Karen opened a business, Take Wing Photography. With our daughter-in-law Jennie’s help, she transformed our living room into a portrait studio. She also took her camera to Coffee Cottage and to people’s houses. She came back with some penetratingly realistic photos of people. I defy anyone to find a better picture of Ed Higgins than the one Karen captured.
In my opinion, though, Karen’s art photography surpassed her portraits. In some cases she manipulated the camera to achieve pure abstraction. In other pictures, she used extreme close-up shots to bring the viewer intimately into nature. She made pictures that reveal beauties we too often pass by without noticing.
Sadly, Karen’s photography career lasted less than two years. Cancer came back. Debilitating pain forced her to stop. October 9, 2016, she died.
I don’t know if we will make photos after the resurrection. Scripture strongly hints we will make music. In Tolkien’s delightful story, “Leaf by Niggle,” the artwork we make here prepares us for greater art making in the next life. It will be pure delight to see what Karen’s work here might lead to there.
The Last Walk, Part 10:
Betty Bates, my mother-in-law, died last spring. At the time we did not guess that her daughter, my wife Karen, would die of cancer a few months later. I have had two occasions to think about hope in personal terms, not only as a philosopher.
Death stamps a final “incomplete” on our earthly projects. Karen left music compositions half-edited, letters to her grandson and granddaughter half-written, and photo projects still in the planning stage. The addition to our house, mostly Karen’s idea, is still not quite finished. (I need to remind the builder to send an electrician.) Mundane hopes focus on such earthly things. As Karen’s cancer advanced, she confided to a friend that she hoped to live until the birth of our second grandson, due in January. Death frustrated that hope.
Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely fundamental to Christian faith. If Jesus was not raised, he writes, the gospel is false and we are still in our sins. Further, he says, the resurrection of Jesus grounds the hope that we will be raised. On the basis of this doctrine, it is entirely proper for Christians to hope for a personal afterlife. Betty and Karen both died in hope that they would see people they had known and loved in heaven. They hoped also they would be known.
Christian hope is personal, but not individualistic. The headline message of Jesus’ preaching, according to the gospels: “Repent! The Kingdom of God is near.”
To repent means to change one’s whole life, a reorientation of one’s values and aims. One aspect of repentance (not the whole) is to change one’s thinking. To a degree, the call to repentance is a call to change one’s mind. Repentance means we need to learn to think in kingdom terms. And one aspect of that task is to consider how the kingdom affects our hope.
The “kingdom of God” obviously involves a king and people who are subjects of the king. It is a social concept. To live in a kingdom has implications for relationships between the king’s subjects. We must treat each other as the king commands.
[An aside. In political imagery, we sometimes contrast the subjects of a king or emperor with the citizens of a democracy or republic. I prefer the latter to the former; probably you do too. We think citizenship in a republic recognizes human dignity in a way no king or emperor could do. Consider, though, how different the kingdom of God is. According to Paul, it is “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14) In the kingdom of God, we are all “children” and “heirs” or “brothers/sisters” of the king. The “children” of the kingdom of God enjoy a dignity greater than citizens of earthly republics.]
Justice marks the kingdom of God, right relationships between people. Jesus will come back to rule, to put things right. In biblical words: oppression of the alien or the weak or the orphan will end. In modern terms: fraud, price gouging, loan sharking, mislabeling of products, deceptive contracts, shoddy workmanship, red-lining, racial profiling, cheating of all kinds—all this will end. Justice will reign.
The earth will be restored. Biblical visions of the afterlife include a “new heaven and a new earth.” “The lion will lie down with the lamb.” “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” Again, in our modern terms: pollution of air, land and water will end. People will live cooperatively with other creatures. We will use the earth without misusing it. We will be gardeners, not exploiters.
It’s all just a metaphor, right? Maybe, but maybe not.
As I meditate on the scope of the kingdom metaphor, a truth bears down on me: It’s not about me; it’s about Jesus. The kingdom of God belongs, in the primary sense, to God. The kingdom of God is something God is doing. I am drawn into it as one of billions of others. I am a part, however small, of the true story.
The true story, the real story, is not about me; it’s about Jesus. The story of the kingdom of God is a story with beginning, middle and end; a story with a plot. The main character is Jesus.
The end of the story is something we hope for. By faith we enter the kingdom now as a present gift of God. But Jesus has not yet returned. Opportunities abound for mockers to ridicule our hope. There is plenty of room and time to experience doubt.
So here is a feature of Christian hope that I had not sufficiently considered: we hope that Jesus will win. We hope the kingdom he proclaimed will in fact come.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The Last Walk 11:
It’s been eighty days since Karen died, a bit more than two months since her funeral and memorial service. I am feeling the pain of my loss more acutely than before, not because of Christmas but because of time away from work. I don’t have the convenient distractions of class preps and grading of student papers. Other distractions—holiday concerts, parties, church services, and family dinners—are over. Since Christmas I’ve had some days “off”; something Karen and I used to welcome when we were together, days for walks, for watching a movie, for creative projects. Now, when I walk I cannot escape the feeling of loss. We used to walk these streets together.
Jerry Sittser, a professor at Whitworth, suffered the simultaneous loss of his mother, wife, and daughter in an auto accident. Four year later he wrote A Grace Disguised, and a dozen years after that, A Grace Revealed, reflections on God’s work in his life after loss. (Thank you to Kris Kays, who lent the books to me.) Sittser says that God can use tragic loss as means of grace. God wills to redeem us, and he will use even the pain we suffer to work redemption.
Just to be clear: Sittser does not say, and I do not believe, that God changes evil into good. A drunk driver killing three members of Sittser’s family was evil. Karen’s suffering and death from cancer was a bad thing. The pain I am enduring is not good. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” wrote Paul, and that means that death is a real enemy, God’s enemy as well as ours.
God does not change evil into good, but he uses evil—even the crucifixion of Jesus—to accomplish good. God is changing me, remaking me, through pain. This doesn’t mean pain is a good thing or that God is a vindictive wizard toying with me. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” and he did this by the cross, by suffering with and for us. (I’ve written “Atonement as Peacemaking,” which you can find somewhere in the archives of my blog: storymeaning.blogspot.com.)
I told my sister-in-law, Evie, that there is a temptation to paper over pain and loss. There must be lots of ways to do it. Rush into a new relationship. Spend lots of money. Binge on alcohol, food, exercise, or videos. Bury yourself in work. And so on. The effect is to dull the pain, to not feel. To a degree, distraction works; grading student papers helped me get through the weeks after the memorial. But now the papers and parties are over, leaving me alone.
It’s okay to feel loss. At the least, it’s real. I’m not writing a novel or doing abstract philosophy. (Worthy activities, both of them! But as existentialists point out, sometimes remote from reality.) I cannot rewrite this plot; I cannot cancel my loss. I have to feel it, to let it change me.
How will the new me be different? Over thirty-nine years Karen shaped me in ways I cannot know. I would not want to shed those things. The new me will be changed through addition. Immediately, it seems, I have become more aware of death and the limitations of our existence. Suppose I live as long as my friend Arthur, who died recently at 93. That would mean two-thirds of my life is already over. Perhaps I will live as long as my father, in which case four-fifths of my life is over. “Teach us to number our days,” say the psalms. The hope of resurrection puts the count of days in new perspective!
As I walk, I feel a new depth of pain. Surely what I feel is not unique! People all around me suffer similar losses. In imagination, at least, the slow loss of a spouse to Alzheimer’s would be worse—and I have friends who are on that road. What about divorce? I’ve only watched from the outside, but it seems that loss (accompanied by resentments, fears, and guilt) could be worse than mine. What about refugees, who lose their countries? Jerry Sittser says such comparisons are pointless; there is no measure of psychic pain to compare tragedies. Instead, I should allow God to remake me, to use my pain to spur compassion.
My neighbor, who lost her husband years ago, says, “You don’t get over it; you get through it.” Sittser says tragic loss is not like a disease from which you recover; it’s like an amputation that leaves you changed. I want to be open to grace, to be changed for the better. The amputation will always be part of me, and I walk on.
The Last Walk 12:
The email said: “Thank you, Karen and Phil.”
For a moment I was knocked off my pins. The names, Karen and Phil, linked so simply, hit hard. After 39 years, that link has been broken.
The explanation is straightforward. As department chair I had written an email to Karen Murphy, asking if she would consent to teach a couple courses for us next year. Karen has served as instructor before, and she’s done good work. If she was willing to teach, I wanted her. I copied Paula Hampton on the email. Paula is the department administrative assistant; she magically transforms the results of my phone calls and emails into neat spreadsheets. Karen accepted my invitation to teach, so Paula happily filled in two more slots on the College of Christian Studies load sheet. She replied to both of us: “Thank you, Karen and Phil.”
The email surprise lasted only a second, until I saw that Paula meant Karen Murphy, not my Karen, the Karen. For a second, though, the deep opened up.
Some reminders shout their arrival in advance. Karen’s birthday came in early February. I imagined it would be a harder day than it turned out. I was busy all day grading papers, exercising, shopping and attending basketball games; maybe that explains it.
Other reminders are, well, surprises. There’s an empty notebook on the end table by the couch where I watch TV. How long has that been there? I pick it up, and there is Karen’s handwriting. It’s not just her words; her hand—the firm, clear strokes made by a woman who could have been an artist. The deep opens again.
She could have been an artist/composer, but for much of her life, she wasn’t. She pursued psychology instead. She worked hard to become a psychologist, and she made herself successful in her specialty, neuropsychological testing. Looking back now, I think she would have pursued music, except for a disastrous first marriage. Before we met, Karen endured three years of abuse, violence, and fear before she escaped her husband. She went into psychology partly to seek healing of those wounds. As the years went by and our marriage proved secure, she ventured ever more deeply into music performance and composition.
Another surprise: only now, after she is gone, do I gain insight.
I dread doing taxes this year. For many years Karen and I did our taxes together. We collected 1099s, W-2s, giving records, taxes paid, evidence of business expenses, and all the other details you need to fill in form 1040 and its schedules. (Actually, Karen did most of the collecting, but I helped some.) Then we would sit down together at my home computer and work TurboTax together. (I’m not endorsing TurboTax. It’s just the program we happened to us. Using the same product repeatedly makes it easy to update records from one tax year to the next.)
We had a system. There’s something deeply irritating about doing taxes, at least for us. If we tried to “plow through”—just keep at it ’til we’re done—we would exasperate ourselves. Instead of plowing through, we took turns. One would sit at the computer keyboard entering numbers, addresses, and justifications for claims; the partner would dig through the expandable file to collate receipts, reports, and other stuff. We’d work on the tax program for an hour, then take a break; maybe come back to the job the next day.
But now my partner is gone. I have to do it alone. I’ll follow the old system of work-break-work-break. I wonder what surprises there will be. If tax season doesn’t bring them, something else will.
The Last Walk 13:
The Photographer’s Resurrection
Karen was a clinical psychologist for more than three decades, and it was only after retirement she took up photography seriously. She made some very nice portraits, but her best pictures are art photos. Insects, trees, and flowers; taken in extreme close-up or in unusual light, they display nature’s beauty in surprising ways. And some of her work achieves pure abstraction, leaving the viewer guessing as to how the images were captured.
Many weeks, months really, have passed since Karen made any photos. She battles cancer, chemotherapy, and pain medications. Too weak to stand without aid, unable to hold a camera, she also struggles to pursue coherent thought; the studied, inventive attention needed for art photos is beyond her.
It is possible that she will rally physically. She could receive more chemotherapy. Chemotherapy might significantly retard or reverse cancer’s growth. At this stage we still can hope that Karen will make more pictures. But none of those things are likely.
As a psychologist, Karen regularly had occasion to diagnose dementia. That she often cannot complete a sentence or thought frightens and discourages her. Along with everything else, she fights depression.
I approve of Adrienne Martin’s term for hope; hope is a syndrome. Hope shows up in our beliefs, plans, feelings, and perceptions. Hope colors our imagination. I also approve of Martin’s notion of incorporation. When we have judged that a hoped for outcome is possible and then judged that it is practically important to us, we license ourselves to incorporate the hope into our lives. We think about the hoped for thing, we perceive the world in its light, and we let ourselves imagine it.
To that end, here is a bit of imagination. Please, please, please: I am not saying what will be; I am only imagining what might be. (The words above were written in September 2016. Those that follow were written later.)
A Fine Green Morning
Karen dreamed, but disjointedly. She was lying in a bed, the hospital bed delivered by hospice. How long had she been here? But then, in her dream, she was seated in the blue recliner. She liked that chair; she bought it for her home office three years ago, and they had moved it to the living room. For some days, maybe a week, she sat and slept in the recliner until, as the cancer consumed her strength, Phil called hospice for the bed. She knew she would die in that hospital bed. Why did they move her back to the recliner?
She recognized photographs on the wall above the sofa. She had directed Phil when he mounted them—this one there, that one a bit higher—and the result pleased her. The photography instructor at the college, John Bennett, had praised her work, and Phil especially liked her “art” pictures. Close up photos of a cat’s eye, a flower, and green growing things, filled with pristine detail—the pictures satisfied. If only she had started photography sooner, or if the cancer hadn’t come back…
Karen shook her head, at least in her dream. She would not waste strength on regrets. The photos were what they were. She had made them, and they satisfied. The making of them had taught her to look at God’s world. She had found amazing treasures just walking the streets of Newberg. Of course, that was before the pain in her back and legs put an end to such things…
How long had it been since she had strength to hold a camera? Three weeks? Actually, she said to herself, it’s a blessing I’ve gone downhill so fast. Just a month ago Phil drove me to visit Tim and Tia. But my gut rebelled and Tim had to take me back next day. I’m glad to die quickly without lingering.
She looked closely at the photo of Buddy, the neighborhood cat. Then she thought: How am I able to get so close? The pictures are on the other side of the room. And I’m not in the living room. I’m in the hospital bed, dreaming of the living room.
It’s legal for hospice to prescribe strong opiates. I wonder which one they’re giving me. I wouldn’t have expected to think so lucidly at the last. I feared dementia, but this isn’t so bad, not from the inside. Maybe as I fall deeper into the last sleep, everything happens in my mind. Phil or Jennie see me lying in a bed and wait for my last breath. But on the inside, it goes on forever. Is that eternity?
She turned her head. Dining table here, piano there, the door, the windows; everything was in its place. She certainly seemed to be standing, facing the north wall, alone in her house. Judging by the light from the windows, it must be early morning. She took a step forward. Buddy and the other pictures were within arms reach.
I’m here. I’m really here.
Shocked: Am I a ghost?
It took three steps to reach the piano. She pressed a key and was rewarded with sound. Not a ghost, then?
Three decades of psychological study and practice carried her mind like a rushing river. What an amazing phenomenon! I am lying in a bed, dying of cancer, and yet I experience a lucid, reflexive dream. The best dream of my life.
She spun around. “Mom!” (In the back of her mind: I would have expected Phil.)
“It’s not a dream, Dear. That is why it is I, not Phil. How do you feel?”
Karen took in a breath, and it felt wonderful. She realized at that moment that she felt no pain: no pain in her back, no stabbing pain in her leg, and no mental confusion.
“It’s not drugs.” Betty smiled and shrugged. “It took me a while to get used to feeling good. I didn’t have as much pain as you, but heart disease made me feel so worn out. And I was sick longer. It was a relief to let it go.”
“I’ve died, then?”
“Oh yes. They told me I could welcome you, and I thought this room would be a good transition. Is it alright?”
“It’s wonderful, Mom.” Karen hugged her, and in that hug, deep wonder began to sink into her mind. “It’s just like it was.”
Betty chuckled. “Not quite. The room has changed a little since they moved you into the bedroom. And a while ago, after you died, the hospice men came to remove your body. Do you know what Phil will do with it?”
“He arranged for cremation.”
“Oh. It doesn’t matter, of course. But I never liked the idea of cremation. I’m glad you buried me next to Glenn.”
“Yes, we did. In that little cemetery near The Dalles.”
Betty took Karen’s hand. “Are you ready to go?”
Karen felt surprise. “Where are we going? Do I have a choice?”
“You made the choice long ago. And you know where we’re going.” Karen’s mother’s eyes sparkled with joy.
Mother and daughter left the house, walking into a fine green morning. “Oh, look!”