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Death comes like a thief in the night

Two weeks ago my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was only then that I truly understand how quickly death can come.


On March 7, at about 9 p.m., my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The doctor didn’t know if it was malignant, but as it had caused a blockage of fluid, Mark would have to have an operation ASAP. She left us behind the papery blue curtain in the emergency ward.

Stunned, we personified Stiff Upper Lip, rather like pilots (I imagine) before they climbed into Spitfires to fight the Battle of Britain. We marvelled at Mark having an actual brain tumour and made phone calls in cheerful voices, I to a neighbour with a car and Mark to our priest.

When the doctor returned, we explained our plan: our neighbour would drive us home so we could pack overnight bags, then we would visit our priest, and then we would check into Edinburgh’s Western General. The doctor disliked this plan. She suggested that I go home to pack, but Mark had to go to Western General at once.

“I’m not leaving my husband,” I said.

“I want to have Last Rites,” said Mark.

The doctor didn’t argue. Within 20 minutes the McLeans were in St. Cuthbert’s Chapel in the FSSP house, kneeling on either side of the aisle as Father began what I grew up calling “the Sacrament of the Sick” but in 1962 was still unabashedly called Last Rites. Suddenly my mind couldn’t grasp the Latin. All I could think was, “He’s only 44.”

Death comes like a thief in the night, but only then did I truly understand that. Mark had had a sore neck and an ache behind his eye, so I had encouraged him to call the doctor. I had not — like so many fed-up wives — called the doctor myself. I just went along to his morning appointment at the eye specialist and then to his evening summons to Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary and now I was receiving the Blessed Sacrament while across the aisle Mark prepared for death.

“What a good thing I went to confession on Saturday,” he had said.

At Western General, we sat in a cold room waiting for the neurosurgeon. The nurses had known all about us and prepared Mark a bed. When I made it clear I wasn’t leaving, they reserved me the “Relative’s Room.”

“Would you like the television on?” asked the nurse now. “NO,” we said firmly.

We sat, talked about holiday plans, made jokes. A young, English surgeon arrived and explained that he had called Mark in at once because at any minute his brain might collapse in on itself and Mark would slip into an irreversible coma. Mark’s fluid-draining operation was scheduled for tomorrow. It would be dangerous. (“Please sign here.”)

The nurse and I put Mark to bed, and I went upstairs to find whatever sleep I could. At 3:50 a.m. I cracked and called my parents on my mobile; I think it cost a pound a minute. In front of Mark I would not cry, so instead my poor father had to listen to my weeping.

“Try to be brave, dear,” he said.

By 8 a.m., I was my falsely smiling self, fortified by instant coffee. Mark and I spent the morning together — he in his bed, I sitting with my feet tucked in his bed — chatting about past holidays, extolling the prayer book Mark had borrowed from Father, joking about his tumour and arguing over whether or not I should call his mother in Dundee. He didn’t want her to worry. I said it was her job to worry. Finally I called her cellphone, and she didn’t pick up. Indeed, she didn’t call me back until Mark had been wheeled away into the hateful elevator whose doors divided us.

I had a crazy notion I could walk to the nearest Catholic church, but fortunately the wind and rain drove me back indoors, and I found the hospital’s multi-faith chapel instead. I spent two hours praying before a wooden Protestant cross, and although I knew Mark was ready to go, and I was ready to let him go, I pointed out to the Lord that it would be a tragedy if Mark’s mother never spoke to her son again.

At 4 p.m. I called her back.

“The doctor says he’s awake and as bright as a button,” I said.

“Tell him I love him,” she asked.

At 5 p.m. they let me see him. His hair was shoved back and spiky; he looked like a bandaged cockatoo. He was thin and wan but alive and cheerful. He still is, by the way. He’s home in bed, recovering nicely. The tumour — a meningioma — is apparently benign.

“Hello, darling,” I said. “Your mother says she loves you.”

[This essay originally appeared in The Catholic Register and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.]

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About Dorothy Cummings McLean 26 Articles
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She is a regular writer for Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.


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