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Mysterious ways: 'Dad dies. I get cancer. That isn't a mysterious way. It's a double-whammy'

If my father had any heavenly control he would surely have arranged for me to win the Lotto, writes Peter Gunning.

Peter Gunning Retired school principal and writer

ON THE DAY my father died I had an appointment for a scan of my testicles. Both his death and the scan were a source of significant inconvenience to me.

The latter, minor, requiring a mere phone call to reschedule, the former, heartbreakingly sad. Diagnosed with lung cancer on 1 June, my father died in Marymount Hospice in Cork sixteen days later.

The pain of his loss was commensurate with the love I bore for him. Grief is most definitely the price of love.

The lesser inconvenience

The lesser inconvenience was dealt with two weeks later when I arrived at the Mercy Hospital for my testicular ultrasound scan. Pretty much assured in advance by my GP that all was benign, I hadn’t given it too much thought.

It was supposed to be one of those routine just in case let’s be sure to be sure procedures.

However, in the two weeks since my dad had died I had noticed a grape-sized lump growing in my right groin. Dr Eddie, aka Ultra-Sound Guy, confirmed the benignity in my testes, giving them the all-clear fine set of balls you have there, sir (I’m paraphrasing his otherwise very professional comments).

Since he had smothered my entire pubic area with a sticky transparent jelly, it seemed opportune to ask would he ever mind using his ultrasound gun-like gadget to take a look at my new little grapey friend.

His, “hmm that’s a lymph node”, didn’t inspire me with resounding confidence. The lack of which was validated five weeks later when I was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.

Dad looking out for me

I have told the above story to several people, many of whom have told me that my father must have been looking out for me. I’m sure these comments were well-intended but if my father had any role in my getting cancer, I would imagine it had more to do with genetics rather than any newly acquired spiritual powers.

My father loved me. If he had any heavenly control he would surely have arranged for me to win the Lotto and not conspired with his new found angel friends to subject his first-born son to the joys of both chemo and radiotherapy.

Ah but, I have also been told, the Lord moves in mysterious ways. Oh does he now? Dad dies. I get cancer. That is not a mysterious way. That is a double-whammy. Two things moved. My dad left this world. My cancer entered my life. A sad coincidence. There was no divine intervention from some non-existent Lord.

God’s your only man

References to God, Our Lord and the Virgin Mary continue to abound since my diagnosis. You’ve got cancer, Peter? God’s your only man. Damascus is the first on the left. I have received countless mass cards, relics and holy pictures, as well as assurances from some of the more devout members of my circle of friends that I am being remembered in their prayers.

It would seem that the natural knee-jerk reaction to news of an incurable disease is to place your chips on the hope that something exists beyond the last breath.

Occasionally however, I would receive a reminder of my inner conflict. On a December morning last year the junior infants were gathered around the Christmas tree singing Away in a Manger. There was one exception. Mark had chosen to sit alone.

When I asked him what was wrong he replied through his tears: “Muinteoir Peter, I don’t believe in God.” My inner voice longed to show him empathy and whisper – you and me both, kid! Instead, I took him by the hand and told him that it didn’t matter and assured him that Santa comes to every girl and boy.

No timeframe

Since my subsequent retirement, however, it has been a great relief to find myself no longer conflicted. I will enjoy the festive season together with my family and friends without moral dilemma. I am also relieved that I can enjoy my first Christmas as a retiree in relative good health.

I am grateful that as yet I am not presenting with any major symptoms. My prognosis has not come with a timeframe and my treatment plan is on hold for the present.

This has allowed me the time to assess my life and its new direction. This assessment has not resulted in a spiritual crisis. I have become more mindful of the present and less fearful of the future. I don’t need the comfort blanket of the prospect of an afterlife.

Neither do I believe that there is a God controlling things like an omnipotent puppet-master. There is no God with whom to be angry or to blame. However, I will continue to accept gratefully the prayers and warm thoughts from those who come from either end on the belief spectrum. I also accept that life will continue to conjure up coincidences that can truly be labelled “mysterious”.

In the hospice a few days before he died I was sitting in the foyer outside my dad’s room having a coffee. It had been a long day and I was feeling, literally, very tired and emotional. A priest passing by noticed me and sat down.

A beautiful coincidence

His name was Fr John, the hospice chaplain. He was a man most skilled in comforting the soon to be bereaved. He asked me who I was and whom was I visiting. I told him that I was here with my dad and that he had only a few days to live.

-And what’s your dad’s name? he asked.

-Tommy, I told him. Tommy Gunning.

He stood up and stared at me in a state of incredulity. He held his gaze on my face as one would an old photograph that had triggered some memory long forgotten but now suddenly recollected.

-My Lord! He said, I don’t believe it! Do you know, Peter that you are the head cut off him! I went to primary school with your father in Sullivan’s Quay sixty-five years ago and I haven’t seen him since!

There followed the saddest but most wonderful school reunion I have ever witnessed culminating in Fr John administering the last rites to my father. Their fatherhood paths finally converging.

A beautiful coincidence.

Amen.

Peter Gunning lives in Midleton where he has recently retired as a primary school principal. He is a children’s author and freelance journalist. His books for young people include Alas in Blunderland, Stanley, Reaching The Heights and Kick the Can.  His poetry has been published in the Hennessy New Writing awards. Peter wrote extensively as a sports writer for The Sunday Tribune having won the 2008 Peter Ball Prize for aspiring sports writers. Now retired from his teaching he plans to work as a full-time writer.

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About the author:

Peter Gunning  / Retired school principal and writer

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