I had planned a church Lenten program on death before I was diagnosed with breast cancer on New Year’s Eve. After the diagnosis I scaled back on many church functions, including the Lenten program, trusting I could better present such an offering with distance and experience a year from now. My new friend Sean, also an Episcopal priest, asked what I was giving up for Lent.
“I really don’t know,” I messaged him. “Surgery followed by radiation seems Lenty enough.”
“Good point,” he replied. “Maybe take something on. Like extra rest.”
I decided my personal Lenten practice would be contemplating my own death. I’ve always claimed to be more aware of death than other people because my mother died when I was six, but learning I had cancer made me realize that while I constantly worry about everyone around me dying, I don’t grasp my own inevitable death. My big fear has been being left alone after everyone else dies: my parents, now gone. My husband Gary. My siblings. I have had trouble understanding the enormity of a cancer diagnosis and have experienced some denial. Contemplating my death makes spiritual sense.
Last week, one month after my surgery, Sean died of a massive heart attack while out running. My immediate impulse when I heard this from another clergy friend was to text him “Hey Sean, James thinks you’re dead.” We had messaged the night before, and I had just sent him a snarky message at lunch. Which he hadn’t answered. As I picked up my phone to text him, I noticed another clergy friend, Jeunée, was calling, and when I heard her wavering voice realized it was true. Sean was suddenly gone. Three more clergy called after Jeunée to make sure I heard the news before it went out to the whole diocese. They knew we had a special connection, which seemed ridiculous given the brevity of our friendship.
Get a grip, I told myself. You can’t be this wrecked. You have other things to dwell on: cancelations due to coronavirus. Your own cancer treatments. You only knew this guy for three months. That’s not even a full season. When we met I suspected Sean would be my buddy for a season, since he came to the diocese as a priest-in-charge with a six-month contract. We really hit if off: we grew up four miles apart on 15th Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona, yet were both serving churches in southern Virginia, land of sweet tea. We had been English majors at the same Arizona university and even overlapped there for two years, though we never met. We both loved writing and started reading each other’s work. We both loved preaching from the Old Testament and immediately began comparing notes on upcoming readings for sermons. Sean was a Navy reservist and I am a military wife. We were married to our respective spouses just two months apart. We both swore like sailors (but at least, being Navy, he had the excuse of being one).
The connections kept coming, making him seem like a lost-long relative. Within a week he was calling me his BASIC: “Bad Ass Sister in Christ.” When he met my husband for a beer, Sean was excited to meet “a new brother-in-law.” I knew that we would keep in touch even if Sean didn’t stay in the diocese. I have many friends who don’t live in Richmond: some two hours away, a few in the Midwest, more in other Southern states, family in Arizona. But I loved having an Arizona friend here: someone I could meet for lunch or coffee or drive with to diocesan events.
I offered to drive him to Williamsburg, an hour away, to see Presiding Bishop Curry, who was having lunch with southern Virginia clergy the day before our new bishop’s ordination. Sean thanked me and mentioned a church that was seeking a rector close by: Grace Yorktown. Did I know it? Yes I did. Gary had served as Executive Officer down the street from Grace seventeen years ago. I offered to show him the church, and Sean was enthusiastic.
We ended up spending most of the day together, with the best part being Yorktown: looking at Grace Episcopal’s historic marl walls and venturing inside the nave as well as the much newer, vibrant parish hall. Walking by the York River we laughed about how much water excites desert rats like us. He texted pictures of the beach to his wife Katie. He wasn’t sure Katie would like the pub I pointed out downhill from the church, so I told him about a nicer place in walking distance where he could ply her with wine. As much as I enjoyed showing him Yorktown, I hoped he would stay in Powhatan so we would continue to be neighbors.
On the drive back he laughed when I missed the on-ramp and accidentally drove us into Fort Eustis, and he insisted on taking advantage of my mistake to fill my tank with affordable gas. We didn’t talk much about my cancer diagnosis or impending surgery in the car. I struggle to talk about it at all: hence my Lenten discipline. In fact, when I was diagnosed, I asked the people closest to me not to call me about it. Sean was an extrovert but also a writer, and engaged me in my preferred introverted language, messaging with me at length before and after the diagnosis.
“May I offer an unsolicited perspective?” he asked at one point, and after I said yes, said he was not going to downplay cancer, attitudes about cancer, or tell me how to talk about it or describe it. “It’s your journey,” he wrote. “It just makes me wonder if there’s another way to view it besides ‘sick,’ which sounds like it puts you in a subordinate position. You have nothing to fear. Not even death.”
The day after my diagnosis, Sean wrote, “Remember who you are and where you came from. You came from the desert. We’re a tough breed of people. We know how to endure heat, cold, and find life in the most arid landscapes. You come from a place that demanded resistance from the beginning of your life. One doesn’t survive desert without being (or becoming) resilient.”
A week after our trip to Williamsburg and Yorktown, Sean told me, following his February Navy weekend drill, that he had asked the diocesan deployment officer not to submit his name to the beautiful Yorktown church. I was surprised. “Why not?” I asked.
“I missed them,” he wrote about his current church, St. Luke’s in Powhatan. “I want to stay. They’re doing their best to live out Christianity in a semi-rural context, which is highly relational. I like their commitment to outreach. There’s growth potential—both in numbers and depth.”
That’s when I knew Sean would not be my friend for only one season. By then, in fact, even though I had known him only weeks, we’d been through three church seasons—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany—and Lent was fast approaching.
I checked in with him periodically about how much he missed his family, and kept intending, when I felt better, to have him over for dinner. They had not yet joined him in Virginia because Katie was a teacher finishing out the semester, and Brian was completing his junior year in high school. Rebeckah was away at college. On Ash Wednesday, I asked him what it was like to impose ashes on those closest to him. He said he used to mark them with a heart.
We messaged for a while the evening before he died. He was out hiking in the late light, since Daylight Saving Time had just happened. When he texted that he was almost to his car, I told him to be safe. I meant to be safe driving. I had told him that radiation on my left side would increase my risk for heart disease, but never imagined his heart was at risk. His last message to me was “TTYL.”
The day after Sean died, Katie told me that her goals right now are simple: to get up every morning, and to say thank you. “It’s all a gift,” she said. I wanted to offer her something. I knew Sean would have had something helpful or funny to say. I just listened and cried.
Then she told me about his funeral plan, how he had listed me as reading from the Old Testament. I was overwhelmed: not only did this healthy priest have a funeral plan, he had updated it at some point during the last three months. I am two years older than Sean and have cancer and am contemplating my death for Lent and did not have a funeral plan, even though, back when I thought I would offer a Lenten program on death this year, I intended to offer a session on planning your own funeral. Now, thanks to Sean, I have started one. As I ruminate over readings and hymns, I wish I could ask his opinion.
Elizabeth Felicetti is our book reviews editor.