What follows here is the text of a letter written to my youngest sister, Maureen Rose Morley, by the great writer Wendell Berry. Maureen had studied his writings in graduate school in Vancouver, where she met her husband, Steve Morley, and was strongly influenced by them. When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, she wrote to tell Mr. Berry how much she appreciated and was comforted by his work. He replied promptly from his home in Port Royal, Kentucky, with a lovely handwritten letter. It was dated June 21, 2005--the date of her 38th birthday. In it, he tells a story of a time when his friend, the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, took him to visit Thomas Merton.
When Maureen died in December 2006, she left the letter to me along with her own writings. To a young woman who cared little for things, it was one of her treasures. It is too wise and wonderful to keep to myself. Maureen was wise and wonderful too, and I know she’d be happy for me to share it with you. I have reproduced it below, leaving intact every word and bit of punctuation and paragraph break. His last line expresses my New Year's wish for you.
Dear Mrs. Morley,
I am very moved to have your letter, and of course I am deeply grateful that my books could have been valuable to you in your circumstances.
Since I received your letter I have been thinking of what I should say to you. The prognosis you have received from your doctor must make your situation seem rather dramatic, perhaps to you, but certainly to us “lucky” ones who have received no such official tidings. But of course we lucky ones are lucky only insofar as we successfully forget that we too may be living the last years—or days or hours—of our own lives. And this is a failure of imagination that all the great teachers have told us to correct. And so I have thought of a story to tell you.
Thomas Merton and I had a mutual friend, the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who took me with him twice to visit Merton. On the first of these visits we got into a conversation about the Shakers. Finally I said I didn’t understand the Shakers. If they really believed that the world could end at any minute, why didn’t they live in little huts? Why did they build great, enduring, beautiful buildings of birch or stone?
Merton agreed kindly enough that I was right: I certainly didn’t understand the Shakers. If you really know, he said, that the world could end at any minute, then you know there is no reason to be in a hurry. You take your time and do the very best work you are capable of doing.
Well, Merton was a great teacher, and he had been careful to understand the Shakers.
I wish I could say that I am a student worthy of such teaching. I am not, as I know from all the time I’ve spent fretting and hurrying. Even so, what Merton told me sank into my mind pretty deeply. I think of it fairly often, and every time I think of it, it helps.
Now, having written this little story, I can see I’m taking a considerable risk in hoping it might be of some use or comfort to you. Maybe it isn’t. At the very least I wish for you whatever in your best moods you wish for yourself.
Spring is finally here. It’s too warm and sunny to be indoors in the waning hours of this mid-April day, so I shut down the computer, tug on a pair of worn blue yard gloves and a Tilley hat. I bought the hat for my nomad year, but I wear it now as a homebody. Now that the neurosurgeon has taken me off the leash, I am finally free again to go where I want to go and do what I want to do. But it turns out that I don't want to wander; what I want is to root myself more deeply at home and live a bigger life here.
I head outside and position my rusted green wheelbarrow at the edge of my front garden and survey the neglect, then take up the rake and start scraping at the thick layer of dried oak leaves tucked around the azaleas. Easter has come and gone, and my garden is coming alive. The periwinkle is in full bloom, the bright green leaves with their small lavender faces rising above the rotting ground cover. I think I’ve never seen a more resilient little plant. I think if there is a living thing more optimistic than periwinkle, maybe it’s a woman with a rake in her hands, feeling cheered by the sharp metallic ache two inches above her right ear, taking it as a sign that the nerves are regenerating around the titanium plate in her head.
My neurosurgeon has recommended six weeks of radiation, five days a week, to prevent a recurrence of the tumor, an aggressive Grade 2 meningioma. I agreed to start the radiation in early June after my next visit with my clients in Canada. On realizing I’d be grounded for at least six weeks, I had one thought: Now would be a good time to get those chickens I've been promising my granddaughters.
I had bold plans for 2019. I am self-employed and can work from anywhere, so I decided to embark on a Year of Living Nomadically. I invited friends and family to suggest places I should visit and songs I should listen to while on the road. Not a soul suggested I spend a week in a Northern Virginia hospital owing to the discovery of a brain tumor. No one thought to recommend the Patty Griffin song, “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida.” The discovery of the large meningioma and emergency surgery four days later forced me to come up with another plan.
Before I knew I had a tumor pushing the right side of my brain across the midline of my face, I made plans to visit family and friends in Colorado, California, and North Carolina. I spent time with clients in Maritime Canada and started working on a merger integration for a client in Florida. I was going where I wanted to go, doing what I wanted to do, spending time with people I loved, and working on interesting projects, but I felt an encroaching sense of malaise, a free-floating discontent that I didn’t understand.
On a flight from Denver to D.C., I typed out instructions for my son, Sean, on where to find my financial information in the event of my death. I created a screen saver on my mobile phone that identified my daughter-in-law, Christina, as my contact in case of emergency. Once home, I hired an organizer to help me clear out the rooms in my house. Never much of a pack rat, I wanted to get rid of as much stuff as I could and neatly arrange the rest. Without realizing it, I was putting my affairs in order.
By mid-December, I had gone through three rounds of antibiotics for debilitating headaches that I assumed were caused by a persistent sinus infection. As the headaches intensified, my mood darkened, and I withdrew deeper into myself. Meanwhile, my son and siblings had been calling one another to discuss what to do about the problem that was me. My personality had gone flatline. I had less to say and took longer to say it. I listed to one side; I was unsteady on my feet. Over the Christmas holidays, I played a board game with my granddaughters, ages five and three. After they went upstairs to bed, my son and daughter-in-law observed me alone in the room, still pushing the playing pieces around the board.
“You were fading away,” said Sean. “We thought we were losing you.”
On New Year’s Eve, I flew to Florida for what was to be a two-week visit to my client’s site. I felt overwhelmed and fatigued, oppressed by constant headaches, unable to focus or think clearly. The morning after I arrived, when I emerged from my hotel for the half-mile walk to the client’s office, I couldn’t figure out how to get there. I pulled up a map on my phone but couldn’t follow the directions. Finally understanding that something was very wrong, I took a cab to the office and told my client I needed to get home. I flew out later that day.
The next morning, my sister Monica drove me to the hospital. I don’t remember arriving, or going through registration, or being taken for a CT scan. I do remember hearing a doctor say, “You have a large tumor on your brain.” I didn’t notice how my sister turned away so I couldn’t see the look on her face.
I do remember thinking, “Well that’s unexpected.”
I was admitted to the critical care unit on a Thursday. The surgeon scheduled a craniotomy for Monday. Meanwhile, I was pumped full of intravenous steroids to shrink the tumor. Within hours, I felt flooded with energy and optimism.
“You’re back!” said Sean.
A few years earlier, in graduate school, I studied positive organizational change, which has some powerful neuroscience behind it, and I used what I learned to face the diagnosis and surgery with optimism. My family and friends made it easy, rallying around me and arranging for someone to be with me at critical moments around the clock. Sean took charge of my care, stepping away from his practice as a trial lawyer to support me and confer with my medical team. My brother Al, sister-in-law/BFF Karen, and nieces Rachel and Kelly flew in from Colorado. Famous for her comfy beds, Karen replaced the horrid itchy hospital sheets and blankets with soft bedding.
The neurosurgeon warned my family that the operation could take several hours, and I might need rehabilitation or physical therapy as part of my recovery. In fact he finished in less than four hours, and I came through with no impairment and no pain—just the sensation of a mild toothache. Two days later, the bandage was removed from around my head, revealing a shiny set of staples that ran from above my right temple to behind my right ear, and I was released from the hospital.
I am one of the lucky ones.