Requiem For a Cardinal
OCTOBER 28, 1996
In an essay. Clarence Page has some thoughts about the final days of a cardinal.
CLARENCE PAGE: He could have kept a lid on it. He could have kept it to himself, but Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, wanted the world to know an old cancer had come back.
CARDINAL JOSEPH BERNARDIN: I have been told that it is terminal, and that my life expectancy is one year or less. The news was shocking. You don't have to be Catholic to like Joe Bernardin, with his Ecumenical smile and his good words to say about everybody. How sad, I thought. For years, Cardinal Bernardin had been teaching people how to live. Now he was going to teach us all something about how to die. But then the cardinal said something I found even more surprising. He said the knowledge of his impending death was a gift and a friend.
CARDINAL JOSEPH BERNARDIN: Well, I know that humanly speaking I will have to deal with difficult moments, and there will be tears. I can say in all sincerity that I am at peace. I consider this as God's special gift to me at this particular moment in my life.
CLARENCE PAGE: A gift? How special is death? Most of us try to avoid it; even thinking about it shakes us up. That's why Dr. Kevorkian, the suicide doc, troubles so many of us. If anybody has given death a bad name, it is him. To me, the greater gift is him not knowing when you're about to die. Knowing is frightening, humbling. Most of us live life like a long, continuous movie. We know that last reel is coming. We'd just rather not know when. Not knowing enables us to live life the way young people do, feeling immortal, as if we're masters of our fate, not slaves to it.
To acknowledge your mortality is to become instantly old. Yet, that terrible knowledge that the end is near need not be quite so terrible, says Bernardin. It is not, after all, the end. It only serves notice like the two-minute warning or the last call before the bar closes. If you do it right, the final call can be a new beginning. It was like that for Timothy Leary, a spiritual leader of a different sort. He told the world he was about to die. He invited friends and quite a few total strangers to drop by the house, share his final days.
He put a home page up on the Internet and invited the rest of us to join in, an electronic benediction before he took the ultimate trip. Rock Hudson shared his final days with the world too when he told us he had the AIDS virus; he turned his life into a legacy. Never again could people with AIDS be easily marginalized thanks to him, AIDS finally had a familiar and courageous face.
So knowing your about to die can be oddly liberating if you take it the right way. If we see death as an enemy, it causes anxiety and fear, said Cardinal Bernardin. But if we see death as a friend, we get something a little different. We get a better attitude toward life. Knowledge that your precious life is about to end makes you reevaluate what is precious. Procrastination ends. You can do what needs to be done, tie up loose ends. Maybe that's the gift for which the Cardinal was so grateful, that one last golden chance to put things right. I'm Clarence Page.