Q: You have cancer?
A: (In 1973) I had a cancer and well, surgery.
Q: In your mouth?
A: In my palate. Roof of my mouth. At the University of Virginia for some plastic surgery. And then in '80 I got cancer in my neck -- a lump. They took out a lot of lymph nodes and did a radical. That was related to the first one (in) '73. Then in '81 I had some symptoms. They thought it was my liver, and they took a lot of tests, and they did surgery, and in surgery they found I had a rare kind of -- shall we say deadly -- (cancer). It's supposed to be related to asbestos. You kind of choke to death. (But) at some point they said (the cancer is) not doing what it's supposed to do. It's kind of just hanging in there. It wasn't spreading.
Q: How is (your) quality of life different?
A: When you have kind of an open-ended vista, everything gets thrown together. When you wonder there might be limited time, it puts more pressure on you to decide whether you want to do this or that. Friends are more important than some project. You live much more in the present. There's a fellow (I know) now who is a scientist. He'd always gotten into the right high school, the right college, the right medical school. (He's got) the right woman, the right family, kids. Always a winner. And now he's working for a Nobel Prize in discovering a cure for (a disease) and he comes down with a cancer and he's shattered. He can't go back to the lab. He can't keep up. His whole life has been the future -- all that stuff he was working on, keeping up. This poor guy, he wants to stop. He says his life is over. He says it's all finished because he doesn't think he can keep up and he'll never get his Nobel Prize because his cancer may or may not get him before that. You don't stop living, you know. You just keep on living. This kind of thing can get very rough and fearful. I think people are (less) afraid of death as the things that surround it. How it's gonna happen.
Q: Like what?
A: Well, the pain and suffering, you know, a lot of things that surround dying in their imagination -- especially with cancer.
Q: Well you're a priest, so --
A: I used to see a lot (of death). Yeah. I was part-time chaplain (at the old Children's Hospital). I could only take that about two days a week. That was in the days -- you know, the '60s -- when they call you up and say (a family is) out there, and their 6-year- old daughter's got leukemia. You tell 'em. Now it's different. The doctors sit down and explain everything. In those days, if there was a minister or a priest, they'd grab him and say, we're sorry, but, you know, we can't do it. The parents are sitting out there waiting. Now you talk to them first.
Q: And that was hard for you.
A: Oh yeah. Fortunately, a lot of that's changed. People are dealing with (death) better. I had some hospital experience. And we do have traditional faith and custom and heritage ways that we deal with people. Since I've had my own cancer, a couple of times where I've gotten into a situation with somebody that's very terminal, I felt the conflict between going back to my old self as priest and me as a person who's different. I want to add the new dimension that I'm looking at. For instance, a friend of mine's husband is dying and he said to me, "I don't want any more surgery. I don't want any more chemotherapy. I've had it. There's only one cure for me and that's the final kind of healing. Death is my way out. I'm tired of it all." What do you say then to his wife who says "Well, gee, you're looking pretty good. Maybe tomorrow we'll go to McDonald's if you get out of here." Or, "Next week, the kids are gonna come, we'll go see the game. You're looking better today, you're off the machines, you're off the equipment, you're sitting up and can even walk around a little bit, gonna take you home next week." I mean, all the hopes, all the aspirations are traditional -- the son who reveres the father, and yet I say to the son, "You know, you really ought to talk to your dad about (dying) -- it's OK."
Q: What about your own sister? How has she reacted to your cancer? Your own family?
A: My sister's a nurse. Some of my friends panic. My sister didn't panic, my mother didn't panic. My family didn't panic. Some of my friends got panicky.
Q: What does it mean, to panic, in what way?
A: I have one particular friend, she went and called all the people she knew. By the time she wassdone I was already in the casket in the grave and so some time people came to see me, they say "Oh! you don't look so bad!" By the time she got done with them, I was gone, you know. And it kind of gave it a melodrama. I think there was an Italian thing. I think one of the things of modern society that I feel affected by -- we're very uprooted people. We don't have the support system of a smaller town with its uncles and stablility. You've got a profession -- rat race and stuff. You do find you deal alone (with) all kinds of crises. There are not cousins and aunts and uncles (who) just show up. I think there's something about us that's isolated, alienated, rootless. This makes this kind of experience more violent to us and fearful. In my father's time and generation, he wouldn't have needed a (discussion) group. He felt he already belonged to a group. He didn't need to go call somebody, they just kind of moved in and filled in. The rage -- a lot of time some of our culture's religion wants to level it. Not deal with the emotions and the feelings and the ups and downs. I think I was always an activist. And I've become an activist in this field just out of the experience of necessity. Out of my own necessity I became a little bit of an activist.
Q: Are there little things in daily life that mean more? Brushing your teeth, smelling fresh air -- that kind of stuff?
A: Yeah. Problem is I still find myself procrastinating. I should go hunting, fishing. There's time I'd like to spend with certain people. I'm battling (with) my old disease. This cancer forces me to deal with the disease of busyness. Filling in the loneliness. Filling in, you know, modern life. I'm fighting, not the cancer disease -- I'm fighting my lifestyle, (the) rat race -- modern man and society. That's where the comforts come about, you know. Taking some time. I don't have to do everything. You get values. A good dinner. a good conversation. Good company. I said to the doctor I ain't taking any more of that chemotherapy because I want to eat some good pasta. Only one more time. I couldn't eat anything then. Nothing would stay down. Then (I) began to appreciate that.
Q: What about your spiritual life? You're a priest. How's this affecting your spiritual life?
A: I've never had any crises. I talked to somebody today, a monk, and I was saying to him I'd like to take some of the stuff we know about meditation, some of the stuff we know like modern psychology, and do some modern combinations of the two. I would like to see if I can use the techniques together. To look for models in terms of dying or living or what.
Q: Is what you do in the (therapy) group very close to meditation?
A: Yeah. It is a meditation. That meditation brings us into contact and dialogue with -- whether they call it master or teacher or wise person, you know, whatever code word is used, somebody may end up with Moses or St. Francis or Jesus or father or brother, sister, godfather -- that mediation brings them into this dialogue.
Q: What you may be finding out is that just as meditation is good for the spiritual life, meditation can be good for one's physical life.
A: I think that it is. I think that we are products of excessive stress in modern society; that excessive stress is somehow related to a lot of our diseases, physical diseases. That stress is also part of the other disease -- of the activist life. That's a bigger disease maybe. The disease of activism. Stress-prone people are dying of cancer at higher rates. The same with heart attacks. And meditation is an antistress (technique).
Q: Going into attitude therapy is a departure from traditional Catholicism, where (it was) said "We bear our cross. We offer up our suffering for our eternal salvation. God wills us to have this illness." You're moving away from that a little bit.
Q: Yeah. I always think of St. Francis who had some great instincts long before Freud -- fit this body and soul thing together -- the connections are just incredible.
Q: St. Francis died at 43.
A: One of the things I guess I haven't done -- what I need to do -- is take the experience I've had and go back to my traditions and heritage. Look at all that history and tradition and (those) writings from a different perspective. Why it was taught. What I did in practice as a person and how I did ministry. I see things different now, you know. I would integrate the experience I have now, (and) my tradition. I think that's the next thing I've got to do. That's what people are looking for, if I have anything to offer. How do you put together whatever we do out of our religion, our faith, and get it modern. Integrate it. Give more depth to it.
Q: It's not necessary to have a religious side to yourself to deal with cancer in a healthy way. Are you not saying that?
A: I know people who could be very religious, and have had difficulty coping. And I know people that may not be religious who have learned to cope. I think it's how we use it. Some people who do have a good religious heritage can't use it. They used to have a thing called last rites. They've changed that now. They call it the sacrament of the sick. A lot of priest friends of mine say we'll do this little ritual and pray for you. Sacrament of the sick is what they used to call the last rites. Same thing. Well I had that done about five times.
Q: What are your long-range plans?
A: I've helped to start a new institute, with the Sisters of Mercy. We have this McAuley Institute to start to do shelter and housing. In fact, we had a meeting today. We are going to have a conference on Catholic church groups on housing and particularly the elderly.
Q: Your long-range project now is housing and homelessness?
A: Well, it's one. The other one is to do some work in the area of meditations. But I'm still interested in the political -- social policies. I've been involved with the assistant secretary of state and some people. I'm not anxious. There's a lot of things to do.
Q: Do you find that your colleagues will come up short when they hear themselves talking about long-range projects and look over at you kind of bashfully?
A: I think it's easier to talk to somebody about a heart attack and their bypass than it is to talk to somebody about cancer. I get the sense that people are reluctant to talk to me about "You have a cancer." They're reluctant to say "How are you and how is it?" They just say "You look pretty good today." They don't want to talk about it.
Q: Would you like them to bring it up?
A: Well, I don't want to be morbid about it, but they don't know how to deal with it, they really don't. One of the great things about (my recent travels to) South Africa. Nobody knew I had a cancer and I didn't tell anybody.
Q: Have there been people in your life who find it so difficult to deal with your cancer that they've just withdrawn?
A: There are a few, yeah. I didn't hear from them. Then they make up all kinds of excuses when I've gotten back in touch. "Oh, I meant to come and see you, I meant to talk to you." And then some of them just saying "Well I'm going to tell you the truth. I didn't know what to do. I can't deal with it. But I was going to get around to it, but I didn't get up to it yet."
Q: How do you feel about doing what we're doing now?
A: The only context that I'm concerned about is whether something sounds schmaltzy. Or that there is something unique or extraordinary about this. I just think there's lots of ordinary people who are coping with tragedies, illnesses, sicknesses, deaths, operations.
Q: What's wrong with schmaltz?
A: Well, I mean too much. Or that there's some secret formula I might have. Which isn't true.
Q: Coming back to your daily life. Other than physical signals, when you look in the mirror in the morning what do you --
A: I think well I should go on this kind of a diet or that kind of a diet. (But) we're going to go to some Italian place or some Chinese place --
Q: Seize the moment?
A: Yeah. Take advantage of it. Enjoy it. I looked at the Met schedule the other day. I ought to go to New York to see this. Something to savor. A symphony. Nine years ago I'd never heard the word oncology. Maybe it was around but I don't remember. Now there's oncology wards. And there's oncology specialists. Every hospital's got a whole fleet of them. I'll tell you what I do. You said "What do you do every day." When I look at the obituaries I take a quick count -- six heart attacks, five cancers. Next day it's six to five the other way. Take your choice. It's a six-five option, five-to-six betting.
Q: And you think about your own obituary?
A: I went through that with one of the people in St. Frances group. You catch yourself once in awhile, wondering about a funeral. I was standing in the back (of a funeral) watching the whole thing and we talked about it (in the therapy group). After that I don't think I've talked about it. This may be the second time it's ever come up. Every once in awhile -- when you're sick -- those kinds of things just come into your head whether you think about it or not.
Q: Is there one kernel of advice that you can now give to other people? Some wisdom?
A: Just not to let it take over. There could be a lot of worse things.
Q: What would be worse?
A: The other diseases of life -- taking a lot of things for granted -- friendships.
Q: The disease of activism.
A: That could be worse than cancer.