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‘We will cross that bridge when we get to it’

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Editor’s note: After leaving the Archdiocese of Miami, Brother Richard De Maria spent six years as a missionary in Africa. In 2016, he was diagnosed with ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease. He has chronicled his journey of faith in accepting this disease in a monthly blog, “Journey to Death,” from which this blog is excerpted.

“We will cross that bridge when we get to it.” This was something my father always used to say to me when I worried about the future. Sometimes when I try to envision my life further down this path, I worry that I won’t be able to tolerate the loss. For example, last night, I was just barely able to get my hand to my face to address an itch. What will it be like when I can't do anything for myself?

Then I remember my father's advice: I'll cross that bridge when I get to it. I have come to learn over the years that problems seem worse when we look forward to them than when we are actually going through them.

A story comes to mind: Whenever someone was injured, I would back out of the crowd and allow somebody with more experience to come forward. Then, while I was out on a river trip with some of the novices, one of them gashed his foot badly. There was no other adult on the outing. I stepped into the situation with amazing confidence, as if I knew exactly what I was doing. As it turned out, I did the right thing and everything was okay. So there's an example of where things were easier when I actually crossed the bridge than when I tried to imagine it.

That's how I feel about this illness: When I have to go through it, the grace and strength will be there to endure it.

Any number of people write me to tell me that they have me in their prayers. I suspect that they are praying that I get better. I think what is happening is that their prayers are enabling me to keep this positive spirit in the face of daily diminishment. So keep up the prayers and don't be discouraged if I don't report improvements in health. Rather, when you read of my positive outlook, take credit for that.

One decision that is ahead of me relates to feeding. I am already committed to the principle that we are not required to take advantage of extraordinary remedies. But is using a feeding tube an extraordinary remedy? I'll think about that when I get there. Right now, I am eating very well with the help of an aide and have even put on weight, something that is not common with this disease.

I recently watched a movie (“It’s Not Yet Dark”) about a young man in Ireland who was diagnosed with ALS. When he decided to go on a ventilator, he made the comment that everyone would choose that rather than die. I thought to myself that I would not make that choice, but his comment has forced me to reflect on this further. I ask myself: Is this a form of cowardice on my part, to give in so easily to this disease? Do I lack the nerve to fight to live longer?

I know that when I first developed this disease and spoke about accepting it, my African friends would respond: “Don’t say that!!” I realized that they saw this as a form of weakness and a lack of manly virtue on my part: a failure to value life sufficiently. So now I ask myself whether they are correct: am I giving up too easily? I think not.

The man in the film referenced above was young: He was the father of four young children and he had not yet fulfilled his goal of making a great movie (a realistic goal given his early success as a film director.) In other words, he had not yet lived his life, he had much more to accomplish.

That is not my situation: I am not young, but have lived 75 years. As far as I can tell, I have accomplished everything I needed to accomplish. There is nothing left on my “bucket list.” My only desire in life was to work with the poor as a teacher. Fortunately, I have been able to do this, despite my failure to avoid long periods in administration. I worked with the migrant poor of southwest Florida and with poor students in Africa. What more can I want? As I look back, I have had the joy of deep interactions with many students, most of whom remain in my life today.

If I had more years, what would I want to do? I would use them to do more tutoring.

If I had more time, I might be able to make one last contribution in the field of theology. I do think I am coming close to some understanding of faith that I would be able to share with the world.

In any case, I am satisfied with my life. I also am eager to experience the mystical moment that I believe will occur at my death. My sister, Gail, says that I am not giving up, but rather choosing how I want to make the transition to the life that follows this life. For this reason, it is my intention to refuse any extraordinary means to keep me alive.

The basis for my faith is my observance that in this world there is a dynamic that always applies: out of death comes life. Or to put it another way: without death there is no life.

So I will not take any extraordinary means to keep alive, but will strive to welcome with open arms the Lord who comes to take me to himself.

Comments from readers

james - 05/17/2018 06:32 PM
God bless you brother...
Blandino Gary - 05/15/2018 12:44 PM
Brother Richard, I was blessed by God to be present for my parents when they died. While grief was strong at those moments, I was at peace knowing that their faith allowed them to face the end of their life with strength and dignity. I was moved by your comments on the tough decisions you have and will face, knowing that God will always be at your side. My father faced similar decisions in his fight with cancer, and I thank you for being willing to share. God Bless You. Gary Blandino
Joe A Iannone - 05/15/2018 08:58 AM
Dear Richard, When I proposed a PhD in Practical Theology program to the Trustees of St. Thomas University, your support on the Board was pivotal. Over 40 students have graduated and 30 more presently in the program --a number from Africa. So, this is one of your contributions to theology! With gratitude, Joe A Iannone
Raul Guzman - 05/14/2018 11:10 PM
I am 75, and I always tough that my church will be a bumper to the painful experience of end of life, sadly, I found that my church the one I adore is not what I though it was, it operates more like a business, only more expensive. I had two experiences that starlet me and my family. However, I have not lost my faith in GOD, on the contrary I am stronger.
Jeanette Tullis - 05/14/2018 04:47 PM
I, too, am in my 70's approaching the "sunset" years of my life. I find myself pondering what life will be like as I age. I am resolved to live each day without gloom creeping in. I will enjoy my friends and family.
Sister Lidia Valli - 05/14/2018 01:18 PM
Dear Brother Richard, would you welcome us, the Marian Center students, adults, faculty, staff, and sisters in the community who is praying for you? Praying for your positive attitude and what is in your heart? It will be a great gift for us. Deo gratias.
Hope Sadowski - 05/14/2018 12:37 PM
I had the privilege to work for Br. DeMaria for over 10 years. It is not surprising that he would until his last breath share and teach us something about life and death. I receive Brother's monthly blogs and they are an inspiration. God bless you Brother Richard may the good Lord and his Blessed Mother hold you tightly until the end of this life and the new beginning of eternal life.

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