Learning to say nothing has taken years.
Walking from the house, rain that came in sheets, driven by a cutting wind, captured the chill of the moment. Told there was nothing to be done, that even an attempt at treatment would be futile, he had accepted the words with gentle resignation, passing on with a calm and steady voice the words with which his sudden fate had been explained.
The road away was sad to drive. The surface bears the scars of the winter days three years past when the temperature reached minus fifteen and when snow ploughs keeping roads open cut deep scratches in the tarmac. The sharp frost of those days was not as cold as the enveloping dampness in the fading light of a grey December afternoon. Even the music of the classical station seemed an inappropriate intrusion into the moment and the radio was switched off.
Once there would have been a temptation to have said more. In the late 1980s, in the early years after ordination, it seemed that most of the work in the parish was impossible. Trying to provide pastoral care for cancer patients was particularly difficult when pastoral training had given no information whatsoever about the illness.
Bill a member of the church, was a consultant anaesthetist and dealt a lot with pain relief, prompting me to question him. “Is there nothing published that would help a new curate understand what was going on?”
Bill was suspicious of anything simplistic, “What do you mean something like ‘Cancer for Beginners?” he said, rather dismissively.
“No, just something that would help an outsider understand what a person is going through”.
Trying to understand, and to have words to articulate such thoughts, seemed particularly important at the time. There were families who refused to admit their loved one had cancer and refused to talk with the person about it. One woman died having shared with me that she knew she had cancer but that no-one would discuss it with her.
Bill shook his head. “I got a book last week, 700 A4 sized pages on one particular form of cancer. Having some vague, general knowledge would be no use to you”.
He was right; there have been many times when even the consultants have been uncertain, unprepared to commit themselves. If such specialist knowledge is not sufficient to draw definite conclusions, then what use would some beginner’s book have been?
But even if one had knowledge and insights to match those of a leading consultant, what would that achieve? If nothing can be done, then what is there to add? Sometimes, nothing is all there is to say.