From the Psalter:
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 88:19 (BCP Version) – June 21, 2013.)
Today is the 22nd anniversary of my ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. It is also the 20th anniversary of the death of my older (and only) sibling, Rick.
Rick Funston died on Father’s Day 1993 of a cancer called Glioblastoma Multiforme Stage IV. Glioblastoma is an aggressive, extremely invasive, and invariably fatal form of primary site brain cancer; “primary site” means that it is not metastasized from some other location, as most brain cancers are (or so I’m told). Glioblastomas grew rapidly and are the sort of tumors that give cancer its name. Not many people know that cancer is called that because of invasive tumors’ resemblance to the many-legged crab. Cancer is the Latin word (derived from the Greek karkinos) for “crab.”
When Rick was diagnosed, I did some research and learned that the median survival time was about six months from date of diagnosis with nearly all patients passing away within two years. I just checked the current literature and see that the median has lengthened to 12 months and that 3-5% of patients survive as long as three years; they are called “long-term survivors.” Rick was not a long-term survivor.
His first symptoms appeared in October of 1992 and were initially misdiagnosed as a stroke. An accurate diagnosis was made in February of 1993; he died four months later.
Rick was nearly 10 years older than me. He went away to live with our grandparents and attend a private high school in my parents’ Kansas home town when I was 4 years old, so I really have almost no memory of him as a child. We next lived together, only very briefly, when he decided to leave the University of Texas in his sophomore year and attend UCLA; he moved into our parents’ and my home (our mother and stepfather; our father died when I was 5 years old) for a few months. We only really became close after I graduated from high school; he and his wife Janet and I toured Europe together the summer after my graduation.
I miss my brother a great deal. He had a wicked sense of humor. He was incredibly smart. His B.A. and M.A. were in American history; his Ph.D., in political science with a specialization in Constitutional law. He taught at San Diego State University and, at the time of his death, was the vice-president of the university. Somewhere along the line, he’d taken a few hours off from academe and gotten a J.D. as well. He spoke German, French, and Italian, and had more than a passing familiarity with Latin and Greek.
His cancer had attacked the part of the brain that controls speech. For pain relief and to extend his life as long as possible, surgery was done to remove as much of the tumor as could be gotten. This professor who spoke six languages, who lectured nearly every day, who had published several books and authored many articles lost his ability to form sentences and to converse easily. He couldn’t remember the names of colors; he couldn’t remember his children’s names. Sitting and talking with him you could see the frustration and anger, and the fear, in his eyes; he knew what he wanted to say, but he couldn’t get the words put together. It was maddening!
He set himself the goal of seeing his oldest child, my niece Saskia, graduate from college. He made that goal.
Every year on the anniversary of my ordination, I spend more time thinking about the brother I miss than about the ministry I have enjoyed. The last verse of the morning psalm, as a result, grabbed me by the throat! “My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion.”
Ordained ministry is lonely work. Clergy have very few friends or close companions, even among our colleagues in ministry. (A 1991 survey of clergy found that 70% of ordained ministers claimed to have no close friendships; a 2001 survey reported that 51% of clergy feel “lonely.”) During my first two and a half years of clergy life (one year as a deacon and eighteen months of priesthood before his diagnosis), my closest friend and adviser was my brother. He’d given some thought himself to becoming a pastor in the Lutheran tradition (something he was, and the entire Lutheran tradition should be, glad he didn’t pursue). I’ve not had a better, or even an equal, adviser since his death.
I won’t go so far as the psalmist and claim that “darkness is my only companion,” but there is a dark lining to the joy I feel remembering my ordination. I miss you, Rick, I really miss you!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.