Scholar and teacher Bill Spohn earned deep affection and the respect of the Santa Clara community in his years directing the Bannan Center for Jesuit Education and teaching in the religious studies department. When he was stricken with cancer, he and his wife, Marty Stortz, looked death in the face—and they learned profound lessons about love and grace amidst grief.
AT THE FIRST SIGN OF ILLNESS, Bill was working on a book, Daily Morality. He had sketched out eight chapters: “How We Work,” “How We Love,” “How We Play,” “How We Worship,” etc. There was no chapter on “How We Die.” Bill never wrote that chapter. He lived it, offering regular reports to friends and family. These updates chronicle a medical trauma few people will ever experience. But they also describe a spiritual journey that we will all make sooner or later. Every journey needs a chronicle. This is ours.
An incident during Holy Week 2004 forced our travel. Bill was consulting for the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis when seizures scrambled his speech, pinned him to the floor, and landed him in the hospital. Bill’s description was, “I couldn’t get the words in my head articulated, plus some double vision. Although I certainly know what it is like to speak without thinking, it is weird to think without speaking. It felt like a verbal traffic jam.” An MRI scan showed the faintest shadow in his left temporal lobe, an area we would come to know as “the eloquent brain.” We flew back on Good Friday and spent the Triduum preparing for what lay ahead.
We kept two schedules. One marked the linear march of calendar time, tracking the various tests, scans, and treatments that crowded our days. The other schedule kept liturgical time, tracing the cycle of birth, life, death, and resurrection through the seasons of Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter. Living in liturgical time was our own form of “magical thinking,” and I suspect we hoped to circle back to a time before brain cancer. We couldn’t, of course, and we didn’t. But we found ourselves spiraling deeper into a mystery that held us.
Between Easter and Pentecost, Bill stumbled through a battery of tests, all under the influence of high dosages of anti-convulsants. The drugs prevented seizures but also, he lamented, “eliminate the possibility of all conscious thought.” He was so unsteady on his feet that he worried about being ticketed for WWI, “walking while intoxicated.” Eight weeks later, the shadow had grown to a discernible mass. Within the week, Bill was in surgery. He came home on the Vigil of Pentecost.
The immediate aftermath of brain surgery leaves people euphoric. The brain has few nerve endings to register pain; post-surgery swelling has not set in; whatever was causing trouble is gone. Pathology reports dispelled our euphoria. Bill was officially diagnosed with the Tyrannosaurus Rex of brain cancers, glioblastoma multiforme. We set our faces toward a grimly advancing horizon and a standard treatment regimen: radiation, chemotherapy, possibly more surgery.
In his first post-surgery e-mail update to his family and friends, Bill was grateful in being confirmed that “We have found that God’s love and healing are not add-ons: your support has been not only the sign of God’s grace, but the principal way it has come to us.” Then, with that bold turn in tone that characterized all of his updates, he defused the seriousness: “Things should be less dramatic from now on: We will alternate between music, meditation—and catching up on ‘The Sopranos.’”
The fatigue of treatment often made attending Mass hard. At the same time, the Eucharist became as necessary as food. Friends made certain we did not go hungry. Bill’s Jesuit brothers, Paul Locatelli, Sonny Manuel, and Mark Ravizza, brought the meal to us that first Pentecost and throughout his illness. People mobilized prayers: a group of Methodist “Prayer Warriors” in Delaware, prisoners at San Quentin, Carmelite nuns at Dachau, Jesuit and Lutheran institutions around the country. The rector of a Jesuit seminary in East Africa wrote that he’d heard of this circle of prayer and was joining. A friend steeped in the rich religious traditions of Indonesia ritually and routinely interceded at all of his house altars, Balinese Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian. Bill was stunned: “With this kind of ecumenism, how can we lose?”
Our Mysterious Journey
We felt those prayers like so many hands on our bodies. We laid hands on others, becoming part of an expanding circle of prayer: “As people pray for us, we pray for them and add them to the list of people we mention by name every morning. We are not alone and are reminded of others who are going through their own passages, even as they are companions on our mysterious journey.” We couldn’t figure out the physiology, but prayer became for us the respiratory system of the body of Christ. We took them in like air; we breathed them out in blessing.
That summer, Ordinary Time was the daily round of radiation and chemotherapy, walks and movies. While an 18-year survivor of brain cancer told us he made it through radiation by thinking about “Radiant beams from Thy holy face,” Bill hated the treatment. Nonetheless, he underplayed the grind of therapy and adopted a faithful realism: “The real challenge is the daily visit to the waiting room, which doesn’t exactly look like a health club. Everything has changed. Marty and I feel that life has become condensed. Many of the experiences that would ordinarily have been stretched out over some decades have been compressed into the past few weeks. This gives us the chance to live with our hearts and eyes wide open. The words of Scripture, especially the psalms, seem less hyperbole and more the unvarnished truth of our condition. This probably won’t last, but we will be changed whether it does or not.”
Radiation ended around the Feast of the Transfiguration. We joked that Bill’s face was glowing, too, and made plans to spend a week at Monterey Bay. The ocean calmed us: We could look beyond the frantic surface action of the waves to a horizon that never changed. It was a metaphor for the spiritual journey. Bill’s 32 years as a Jesuit served us both well. It offered ways of naming the consolation we experienced. Indeed, his hardest trial was not brain cancer. That August he wrote to a friend and fellow classmate in the Society of Jesus, “Leaving the Society was far more fearful than this. I didn’t know who I would be, whether my family and friends would still stand by me, whether I could do the work I had trained to do, and whether God would still take my calls. Perhaps having found that all those fears were pointless, this experience is not fearful. I know I will not be abandoned.”
We hoped radiation worked on the inside of Bill’s head as effectively as it worked on the outside. He lost a swath of hair around his head, a look he described as “two-thirds of a Mohawk.” When his nieces suggested a buzz cut, Bill took their advice: “Although the result is not exactly Vin Diesel with bifocals, it does support a variety of new hats.” He turned to the state of his soul: “We experience much gratitude, which is the echo of grace. Illness can bog one down in self-absorption. Your support helps open the windows for grace, which comes through many channels, the major one being friends, but also wonderful spouses, talented surgeons, radiologists with good aim, and insightful therapists. I don’t believe that God sends tumors to anyone, but we have found that on our brief walk through the valley of darkness, God has certainly been with us.”
If you see my Old Life. . .
Fall of 2004 was filled with orange light and long walks in the neighborhood. We took time to notice. The doctors prescribed a four-month shift from one anti-seizure medication to another. While the end result promised more focus and concentration, the transition left Bill on maximum doses of both drugs for several months. He hoped to be writing, but found himself stranded “somewhere between a retreat and a fairly major hangover.” Worse, for the first time in his life, Bill had limited social energy. When he described how anxious social situations made him, I exclaimed, “This is how introverts feel all the time!”
We told people we could see them for two hours maximum; they happily accommodated. The calendar records weekly dinners at the nearby home of his older brother, Richard, wife Katherine, and the nieces who doted on their “Tio Loco.” It does not show the hours of sleep and prayer. I begged a neighbor, “If you see my Old Life wandering down the street, please send it back!” But the New Life had its graces. At the end of each day we recounted them and fell asleep grateful. This was our Ordinary Time.
Bill lamented the “reptilian” turn his life had taken, but he learned things his vast library could not teach. Ever the teacher, he distinguished between resignation and surrender: “Resignation feels like, ‘This is just the way it is. Tough it out.’ Surrender is not giving up, but, to borrow a biblical expression, it says ‘Into Your hands I commend my spirit, O Lord.’” A first language of faith gave voice to his experience: “We use the language available to us from our tradition. However, it does not seem an artificial imposition but the articulation of the core of what is going on. The last six months have been nothing like I feared the encounter with death would be. We are not called to summon up a great act of hope, but rather to turn our attention to the One who is faithful. As a professional student, I guess I imagined that this would be the ultimate final exam, and I’d better get it right. We have found that there is more gift than accomplishment in all this. If gratitude is the echo of grace, then hope is the echo of God’s paying attention to us. Marry the right person. It makes all the difference.”
I read that October update after it had been sent to Bill’s widening circle of friends. The typos worried me; the final sentences warmed me; and the logic seemed odd. Then I understood: How else can God pay attention to us except through the love of spouses and family and friends? Bill hinted here at another distinction that his death brought home to me: the difference between hoping for something and hoping in something—or Someone.
Reaching back to what was real
We all hope for things, and that hope is a little like a Christmas list, endlessly open to revision. Predicated on possible outcomes, it attaches to the future. When Bill was dying, I said to a friend: “At this point, I don’t know what to hope for.” Should we hope for him to beat this infection, but live in a world without language? Should we hope for death to intervene with merciful speed? Outside of a miracle, I couldn’t imagine an outcome that would restore any shred of the Old Life. Was I hopeless?
I could not imagine what to hope for, but a deep and abiding hope held me. Neither of us had fallen off God’s radar screen; we were both surrounded by the love of family and friends. So I was hopeful—devastated, but hopeful.
Bill was right about something else. We didn’t have hope as the product of fierce focus or deep faith. Rather, hope had us. All we had to do was fall into it, like a trapeze artist falling into a net. She’s missed the catch, but she dared everything, because she knew the net was there.
This kind of hope did not look forward to possible outcomes; it reached back to what was real. And what was real? The sturdiness of family and friends, the solidity of work, the daily graces that swarmed us.
Medical matters intensified Advent’s anticipation. Bill was emerging from the lingering “shadow” of radiation, and we would soon know his new “normal” level of functioning. He had almost completed the transition in drugs. A scan would show us how effective his current chemotherapy regimen had been. Christmas celebrations were excessively boisterous because we worried it would be our last. We clung to the daily Scripture readings, particularly the texts for Advent and Epiphany.
Fearing bad news, Bill sent out a note before we got the report on his latest scan. In January 2005, he began with his usual ecumenical greeting to friends, family, pilgrims, and fellow travelers: “We hope that your Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s were all blessed, God not being partisan in these matters.” He went on to lament “the unintended asceticism” illness brought: “The two things I have coveted and collected were books and good red wines. At this point, they are mostly gathering dust!” Then the change in tone: “It is surprising that even limitations contain a calling and invitation. Life has gotten more contemplative because there is more time and less driving energy. A number of things that seemed important before don’t anymore. Does the world really need any more footnote-choked articles and dense presentations at conventions? The few things that are important have been enormously more important: love in all its forms, the one we married, family, friends old and new, a fine university to work at, the community of faith in its universal reach. T.S. Eliot articulates the prayer of ‘Ash Wednesday’ and all of life’s Lents: ‘Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still.’”
Two days later, the neurosurgeon phoned. He usually told us, “I really like what I see!” This time, he didn’t. The scan showed a “shadow” at the top of the tumor cavity, which could be dead tissue created by radiation, but most likely was new growth.
Until this point, Bill addressed the terror of brain surgery with a standard formula: “I had something in my head that could have killed me, and they took it out.” Now the executioner had returned. He never used that formula again. Instead, he spoke of something else: “Marty and I are learning much in this school of hope. The grace we need has been there and continues to be there. Thanks for being its allies: No prayers are wasted. It’s just that some get channeled into unrequested directions. We know that it is not our hope that will continue to sustain us but the life given by the Lord, as evidenced by what Paul says: ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’”
Bill realized people were chalking up his attitude to “deep reservoirs of denial,” but in a March update he was adamant: “Our thoughts are somewhat different. Who knows, ‘God’s ways’ may be surprisingly better than the scripture of K¸bler-Ross and all the other gurus of grief. Yes, there are undeniable losses, but they don’t compare with the advent of God’s approach. In the original context of Isaiah, ‘God’s ways’ refers to a goodness that takes our breath away. Most of this is not mystical or abstract. It comes in very concrete ways, primarily through other people.”
God’s ways continued to surprise. Bill had more energy than ever. He was teaching again, lecturing on moral theology to a wonderful group of highly skilled and motivated adult learners. When he explained his situation to the students, one of them turned out to be a medical doctor. We were house-sitting in Los Altos through June, so Bill was close to his beloved university and our friends there. A grant released me from a full-time teaching load, and I was able to write, work, and fine-tune my driving skills on the South Bay freeways.
With the consensus of our growing team of doctors, Bill enrolled in a monthlong Phase II clinical trial at the University of California, San Francisco. We were lucky to be near one of the best research hospitals in the world for brain tumors. The treatment required only occasional overnights and a regimen of pills, easily integrated into the formidable army of medications Bill was already taking. He experienced none of the side-effects. We settled into a rhythm of teaching and driving and dinner with friends.
Sometime in mid-Lent, though, we noticed Bill’s eyesight changing. He complained about students on campus ambushing him, until we realized his peripheral vision was shot. Attending one of his last classes that quarter, I watched as he wrote over a word he had already put on the board. I began reading the morning newspapers to him, reaching for a theatrical training I had never had.
As the trial ended, Bill had a final scan and an appointment to discuss the results. We waited in a room that had a panoramic view of all the sites of Bill’s youth: the twin towers at St. Ignatius Church where his family went to Mass; the campus of the University of San Francisco where his father had taught into his 80s; Golden Gate Park where the kids played; the waves at the Cliff House; and the invariant horizon of sea and sky.
The doctor in charge of the pharmaceutical trial was running late. “The delay created some time to get back to the CD version of Tony Hendra’s Father Joe, the biography of a remarkable monk who had been the author’s friend and mentor for four decades. When the author arrived at the monastery, it was clear that this would be their last visit, since the 92-year-old monk had advanced cancer. The author asked whether death scared him, and Father Joe said not really: There was much awe and mystery in facing the holiness of God. I found the account moving, to say the least. In the middle of this account, the doctor called my name. I looked up at this stranger and it was obvious what his message would be.” The tumor had continued to grow.
“Clearly you failed the trial drug,” the doctor concluded.
I was furious: “No, you and your trial drug failed Bill.”
Rapid motion through space
There was no time for anger. We had to move fast. Within 48 hours, we had secured all of Bill’s records and were reviewing the latest scan with Bill’s first surgeon. Bill liked this man for his candor. I liked him for the answer he gave to our question before Bill’s first surgery: “Who survives this kind of cancer?” We expected a medical answer. Without missing a beat the surgeon replied: “People who have hope and people who live life aggressively.”
This time, we had a different question: “What would you do if this were your brother?”
He had a ready answer: “I’d drop my practice and take him skiing.”
This doctor refused to do the surgery himself: “My team is not up to this. This is the brain’s high-rent district, and it’s close to the ventricle. Here’s who should do this—” And as we walked out of the office, we heard him on the phone with the neurosurgery department at UCSF. By the end of the day, we had an appointment for the following Monday.
Bill updated his friends that weekend: “We were graciously prepared for this setback. Maybe that is how the many prayers were already being answered. They opened lots of doors and allowed Marty contact with legions of schedulers, physicians, medical record keepers, etc. There is a new call in this development, and we are trying to find how to proceed. No matter what, God seems to find us before we get there. Maybe the old Jesuit motto of ‘finding God in all things’ would better read ‘being found by God in all things.’ Our horizon is most likely shortened, but at least this morning it feels more like the season of Advent rather than Lent. We are grateful that the approach of grace is coming in and through you.”
Surgery was scheduled for March 16, a little over two weeks away. There were classes to teach, papers to read, grades to turn in. At our wedding in 1996, a friend toasted us with a favorite quote. James Joyce wrote it for a character in Dubliners, but we had adopted it as a family slogan: “Rapid motion through space elates one.” We loved to move fast and get things done. Now I capitalized on that addiction as we careened toward surgery. As things dropped into place, though, I saw that our pace was ahead of our feelings. Bill was not sure he deserved surgery: “What’s the point?” As we unpacked his reticence with our trusted counselors, we discovered the real question underneath: “Do you love me?” If he couldn’t teach or speak, command the podium or the dinner table, would he still be loved?
“Do you love me?” It’s the question Jesus posed to Peter, as he returned after the resurrection to cook his disciples breakfast (John 21). It was the question Bill posed now. Again, the question invited the passionate response: “Yes! You know that we love you.” The affirmations registered. In the end, Bill faced surgery knowing that he was loved for himself, not simply for his abundant scholarly and administrative gifts, or his stunning written or oral wit.
But he knew something else as well: He knew he was dying. We began to grieve together. The anointing we had done every morning after prayer took on new meaning: We were preparing his body for burial. Then, for the first time since this medical odyssey began, we felt on solid ground. We had no maps for the country of medicine, but we had a compass for the valley of the shadow of death. I stopped taking notes at the meetings with our doctors. For the first time, I knew where we were. We had great care, they were good docs. But if we were looking for them to play God, that position had already been taken.
Life is not a private investment account
Bill had his second surgery. We spent Holy Week of 2005 recovering in Los Altos and worshipping in our usual ecumenical style. With the Catholics we moved through the paschal mysteries; with the Lutherans we sang Jesus out of the grave. When we weren’t in church, I read aloud Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a luminous novel of an old pastor’s dying. In a Holy Week update, Bill boasted of “a string of sea-horse-shaped sutures and an impressive incision above my left ear from which I will try to protect the faint of heart.” He continued: “Life is not a private investment account where we get back what we paid in; rather, others give life to us freely, and we pass that gift on to still others.” He concluded with a story: “Our neuro-oncologist is a brilliant young doctor who went to a Jesuit grammar school at Gesu Parish in inner-city Detroit. He told us that people change your life, but sometimes institutions do too. This grammar school set him on the path of his calling. The people who taught him gave away their formation freely, and now he’s giving his knowledge and dedication freely to his patients. He can’t pay back the original debt, but he pays it forward to people whom the Gesu community will never meet. Somehow this is a cameo of the gracious web of life we are all in.”
There was a wonderful freedom in those last months. Beyond great grief and in its midst there is a zone of wild abandon. We called it the “what-the-hell zone.” Our days were filled with friends and family, dinners and walks. Bill’s brother Vincent and his wife, Cecily, invited us to come with them to Puerto Vallarta. We scheduled chemotherapy appointments around the dates, and our docs signed off. It was a wonderful trip. We booked a trip to Kauai, again coordinating it with our various doctors and with Vincent and Cecily. The final seizures came at the end of that vacation, but not until we’d celebrated a rousing Fourth of July and watched fireworks from the beach.
The last illness was not a steady downhill decline; it was more like dropping off a cliff. With the help of Bill’s ICU nurse in Kauai, we made it back to our medical team in Berkeley. There was a quiet week at home, before Bill’s condition deteriorated, a decline the doctors could not arrest. After consulting with his Jesuit and Spohn families, I opted for palliative care. On August 3, Bill’s sister Catherine, her husband, Toby, and I were practicing hymns for the memorial service. We looked up from “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” to see Bill looking at us. Then he died.
I want Bill to have the last word, and I want that hymn to be the soundtrack. Bill sent his last update in May 2005, after the doctors confirmed the tumor had once again grown back. “We had the scan Thursday a week ago, then met with the surgeon the following day at 9 a.m. He would give us the first read on the scan. We had to drive into the city during rush hour, so we read the lessons for the day before tackling the traffic. The text was John 21:15-19, the passage where Jesus questions Peter again and again: ‘Do you love me?’ After Peter’s repeated professions of love, Jesus says to him: ‘When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. Follow me.’
“It was hard driving across the Bay Bridge with that text in our hearts. But we got to the city early and went up to St. Ignatius Church on the USF campus. Always we were drawn to the side chapel and to St. Ignatius’s Suscipe on the wall. The first part of that prayer is a pretty accurate description of brain cancer, and that terrified us both, but the second part offered the consolation we craved:
‘Take, Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I am and call my own.
You have given it all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours, do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me.’”
Bill wrote his friends that because of that prayer, “We were ready when the surgeon told us the tumor had grown back. And we were ready when he said the chemo had not been working. We are living inside that prayer. All things considered, it is not a bad place to be.
“You are a part of this journey more than you know. The love we experience through you not only helps us along the way, but is already the beginning of the abundant life to come.”
Martha Ellen Stortz is professor of historical theology and ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She is the author of A World According to God.