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Phyllis Tickle faces death just as she enjoyed life: ‘The dying is my next career’

Phyllis Tickle faces death just as she enjoyed life: ‘The dying is my next career’

Our prayers and good wishes go out to author Phyllis Tickle who announced in an RNS story that she has Stage IV lung cancer that had already spread to her spine. She is best-known for a range of essays and books on faith and life, including “The Divine Hours,” “The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why,” and “The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church.”. Tickle was raised Presbyterian but became what she calls “the world’s worst, most devout evangelical Episcopalian.”

David Gibson writes in RNS:

On Jan. 2, the very day her husband, Sam, succumbed to a long and debilitating illness, Tickle found herself flat on her back with a high fever, “as sick as I’ve ever been” and racked by “the cough from hell.”

The fever eventually subsided, but the cough wouldn’t let go. When she finally visited the doctor last month, the diagnosis was quick, and grim: Stage IV lung cancer that had already spread to her spine. The doctors told her she has four months to live, maybe six.

“And then they added: ‘But you’re very healthy so it may take longer.’ Which I just loved!” she says with her characteristic sharp laugh.

Indeed, that’s the kind of irony that delights Tickle, even in sober moments like this, and it embodies the sort of dry humor and frank approach that leaven even her most poignant, personal reflections. It’s also central to the distinctive style, delivered in a rich Southern register, that has won her innumerable fans and friends who will be hard-hit by the news of her illness.

Tickle approaches this stage in her life through the eyes of faith.

In spite of this impressive literary lineage, however, it is the cancer that is shaping the last chapter of Tickle’s life.

And yet, she displays a remarkable equanimity in the face of this final, and most merciless, deadline.

“At 81 you figure you’re going to die of something, and sooner rather than later,” she says, sitting at her kitchen table for her first interview about her diagnosis. “I could almost embrace this, that, OK, now I know what it’s probably going to be, and probably how much time there is. So you can clean up some of the mess you’ve made and tie up some of the loose ends.”

“I am no more afraid of dying than I am of, I don’t know, drinking this coffee,” she continues, pointing to her mug. (It’s actually filled with Postum since she’s had to give up caffeine. She remains, thankful, though, that she can still drink a nightly whiskey.  “Jack Daniels, of course!” she says, shocked at the suggestion that a Tennessee native would drink anything else.)

Posted by Andrew Gerns


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Paul Powers

I don’t know Deacon Lynch, so I don’t know the motivation for his question, but it’s one I’ve heard some smokers ask when they hear about someone being diagnosed by lung cancer. Perhaps they’re hoping to hear that the person never smoked so that they can rationalize that there’s no need for them to quit because they might get lung cancer anyway. Perhaps they need that one extra incentive to quit. Either way, it’s an inappropriate question under almost any circumstance. But as the Yorkshire saying goes, “there’s nowt so queer as folk,” so we should avoid assuming the person asking the question is judgmental, lest we be judgmental ourselves.

Karen Johanns

As someone facing the end of my own life (Stage IV ovarian cancer w/ complete chemo failure), Phyllis’ words felt like holy oil running deep into my soul. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m frightened and I will be looking closely at what Phyllis chooses to share about her journey so that I can find some strength and inspiration for myself.

PS: Questions about the lifestyle habits of those with serious illness cause stress, grief, and shame. I’m sure these comments weren’t meant that way, but if you’re tempted to ask those kinds of questions, please don’t.

JC Fisher

{{{Karen}}} Prayers ascending, for you and yours.

JC Fisher

I had a very good friend who succumbed to Stage IV Lung Cancer of the never-smoked variety, but I could not possibly care less whether Dr Tickle smokes/-ed. I just pray her passing will be meaningful and as pain-free as it can be. Loving Lord Christ, lead her home (and help us find a CURE for this horrible disease!).

Aelred Dean, BSG

It doesn’t matter if she was or is a smoker. As Christians, we deal with “what is” and not get involved in Monday morning/night quarterbacking. After all, we cannot change the past as we live in the present. My prayers are with Phyllis and her family that the days ahead are filled with grace, love, and care.

Hunt Priest

I never understand this question and always wonder why it matters. It always feels like judgment.

Nina Leek

I agree completely.. My husband was a smoker and died of lung cancer at 65, but during the two years of his illness we met many non-smokers suffering from this scourge. The new statistics suggest that there is now a majority of non-smokers, many of them young people, with this diagnosis. Those who work in this field need our prayers, as well as those suffering.

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