Integrative Hope: the prison of a diseased body

Integrative Hope

22 years ago my best friend died in my arms as he struggled to hang onto his ravaged and painful body. At 37, neither of us knew the fear of death’s presence, of having to let go of life. I climbed into the hospital bed with him to hear his voice, by now hardly audible, the Karposi’s sarcoma and thrush making his throat inhospitable to words. He looked at me and said, “I’ve been waiting for you. Ilene, I’m so afraid. I’m not ready.” I whispered into his ear, “don’t be afraid, Allan. If you can let go of this body, you’ll be free of all this pain. It’s too much pain to hold onto.”

He was frail and his 6’ 2” frame held about 90 lbs of what once was a robust man. I breathed in his last breath and held it as long as I could. Cradled in my arms he died of AIDS related illness at 3 a.m. that morning. Death has no respect for longevity, for time, or for fear.

Fast forward to last week. My partner hadn’t seen The Shawshank Redemption yet so we sat home again and watched a movie far too late into the night. At the end of this hopeful and infinitely quotable film, there’s a dedication to Allen Greene. He had died of AIDS around the same time as my lost brother, best friend, and partner in mischief making. His name was Allan Green, too.

“As fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free.” The clarity of spirit even as narrator’s voice gives us a play by play of an army crawl to freedom through five football fields length of sewer pipe filled with the collective excrement of an entire prison population. Yet, as our protagonist emerges with a rope tied to his ankle, the last shackles of prison life are washed away. The sky rains down to cleanse the soil from his body and his soul. “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Or, in other words, as my friend Waz of the Cancer Help Program at Commonweal ( said to me, “if you want to grow get, you have to step into the garden.”

An adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” played to lukewarm audience reception about 20 years ago. I suppose the lackluster response due in no small part to its existential themes as well as the overwhelming human need to find deliverance in an uncertain and unfair world. It’s a prison to live in a body that’s trying it’s damndest to kill you. A body with metastatic cancer provides no safe haven and certainly incarcerates all who reside inside of one such body.

Perhaps Stephen King in some way delivered a beautiful metaphor for living in a body that’s turned into a prison by disease. Yet hope springs alive in each one of us regardless of circumstances. No one deserves a killer body, just as an innocent man doesn’t deserve to go to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

But where a new day exists, so does hope. I know some reading view hope as another four letter word, but regard your life without it. If we lose our hopes and our dreams we lose the present moment. A gift of hope in the human condition raises our heads to feel the coolness of rain, the warmth of the sun, and when our eyes open each day, the knowledge that for now at least we are still alive. Death doesn’t frighten me. Death interests me. But not enough yet to want to leave all the green of our earth behind quite yet.

So I hope you can understand while I’ve seen my share of loss, each day I get busy living. To sit around waiting to die would mean the garden in which I grow withers and dies along with me. And what a beautiful garden it is.