On February 4, 2012, Joseph Estabrook, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, died of pancreatic cancer. Bishop Estabrook was a close friend of The Word Among Us Partners. He served on its board of directors and was instrumental in helping to launch Partners’ outreach to service men and women. In honor of our good friend, we wanted to share this reflection, which he wrote just a month before his death.
A little over a year ago, while in the middle of a very active schedule, I fell ill and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My prognosis was less than a year. I began treatment, receiving chemotherapy every two to three weeks. As you may know, pancreatic cancer cannot be cured and is usually a very stealthy and aggressive adversary. In my case, however, except for the unavoidable extreme fatigue, there were very few side effects. This allowed me to continue some pastoral work when I found the openings.
The cancer was contained quite well for most of the year. But about a month ago, all chemotherapy became ineffective. My doctors have been wonderful in providing pain management and many other forms of support.
Many people have asked how I’m doing. Here are a few insights I’ve had that might be worth sharing.
I’m Not Alone. Immediately after I was diagnosed, I stopped at a Catholic bookstore and found myself staring into the face of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, as pictured on the cover of his 1997 book, The Gift of Peace: Personal Reflections. As I paged through the first few chapters, I was amazed to read how all of his experiences at the onset of his diagnosis of the same disease were exactly parallel with my own. I have since read his book many times, and he has been my constant companion from that moment until now.
This leads to my first insight: none of us, especially those of us who are disciples of the Lord, enter into this final part of our journey alone. One may feel isolated at times but, if anything, the intensity of the Christian community becomes almost overwhelming.
It starts with the powerful presence of the Lord himself, when, in the flash of seconds, your future is laid before you. You can actually feel the Lord take your hand and hear him say the words “Do not be afraid.” It’s as if the Lord brought me to Cardinal Bernardin—a companion to walk with and to hear when I needed words of support and inspiration from someone who went through what I was going through.
Then the Christian community, in ways you never imagined, gradually begins to appear all around you—as it were, out of nowhere. Some who were distant are more present, and those who were close become even more alive and connected. That support is quite amazing.
Come and See. Second insight: This new kind of powerful presence of the Lord helps you understand that you yourself become a presence to others. Opportunities to share the essence of who you are and what you believe become prominent.
After my biopsy, one of the young doctors at the medical center lingered behind. He kept staring at me while I, not knowing what else to do, smiled back and tried to eat my pudding and keep it down. I eventually asked him, “What‘s up?” And he asked how I could take the news they had just delivered and remain so positive.
I paused to ask myself whether I was possibly just in a state of denial. But no, dismissing that, I looked at him and replied with what I knew in my heart was the true answer: “Faith and fear can‘t live in the same space. It‘s eventually got to be one or the other. The Lord has put me here, and it‘s up to me to go where he wants in the way he wants.”
He said, “How do you do that?̶#8221; And I told him the story of the disciples meeting Jesus in John 1:39 and repeated the answer of Jesus: “Come and see.” That’s really where all of life’s questions are resolved. All questions are answered by starting with Jesus.
Not that you immediately find yourself in this space of dynamic trust and faith. Rather, you are taken up in the transforming journey from what Paul called the realm of “flesh” to the realm of Spirit (Galatians 5:2-26). Jesus showed the way, confronting fear and temptation in a life of total faith, conviction, and hope in the kingdom of God. In Gethsemane and on the cross, we see that great moment of victory where faith was triumphant: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Our journey follows the same path. We must embrace the sufferings of the moment and the fears as they come to us. But at the end of the day, we must do what God wants us to do, receiving the victory and consolation that Christ alone can give.
With all these months I’ve spent in the hospital, I‘ve met people with some unbelievable challenges. The question most of them have is the same as the young doctor’s: “How do you do that?” My answer is the same—“come and see”—and it’s especially persuasive coming from another cancer patient. How you live your faith within the inescapable realities you face can have a powerful effect on others and help them on their journey.
They Inspire Me. A final insight. A nineteen-year-old Marine ran up to me one day, grabbed me square by the shoulders, looked me in the eye, and full of fright, said, “Father, I’m not a very good Catholic, and I don’t want to get out of my responsibilities. But I’m leaving for Iraq tomorrow. I’m scared, and I know I’ve let God down in so many ways—but please Father, will you pray for me, please?”
“Every day,” I said to him, “I will.”
Serving the people in our military, like this young Marine, is among the greatest of God’s many gifts to me.
How pathetic it would be for me— for any of us—to bemoan my own challenges after witnessing what they have been called to do and how courageously most of them have done it! Besides my faith, these men and women are my inspiration and ongoing strength. Let them be yours as well.
This article appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Salute, a magazine published by the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (www.milarch. org). Adapted and reprinted with permission.