Chapter Four, "Each day is precious"

Photo Essay, Carroll County Times, December 22, 1998

By Ken Koons

Dale and Ruth Aukerman believe a regimen of vitamins and nutritional supplements has helped him stay alive longer than expected. Here, he counts out a four-day supply.

Since he was diagnosed with cancer in 1996, Dale Aukerman has shared with family and close friends his journal entries, and has several articles published--including one titled "Living with Dying."

"Ruth wants a pair of house slippers to be well-mended for my walking the hospital corridors," Dale said.

Dale Aukerman gazes over the fields of his Union Bridge home as he takes his temperature. If it reaches 100.5 or above, he has to alert his oncologist.

Article, Carroll County Times, December 22, 1998

By Scott Blanchard

``My deepest impression out of the week in 1964 and my final times with Brother Pritchett was that of his intense reckoning with death,'' Dale Aukerman wrote in the preface to his book, ``On the ground floor of heaven,'' published in 1980. ``...He was often overwhelmed with how much he still had to do and how short the remaining time for doing it might be.''

Reuel B. Pritchett, 81, was trying to get his earthly affairs in order. After Dale's terminal cancer diagnosis in November of 1996, he took on two missions: He wanted to do everything he could to make his wife Ruth's life without him bearable, and he wanted to figure out what God wanted of him during the time he had left.

He started paying the phone excise tax - a couple dollars a month that he hadn't paid since 1968 as a war protest - because he didn't want the Internal Revenue Service bothering Ruth.

He began planning his own funeral service, picking the preacher and deciding there would be no eulogy so the focus would be on Jesus Christ, instead of Dale Aukerman. He asked a friend to build him a wooden coffin so Ruth wouldn't have to make hurried arrangements. He and Ruth would store it above the new garage, built as a home for the new car they would buy to replace the 1980 Toyota Corolla with 200,000 miles on it.

Meanwhile, friend Frauke Westphal urged Ruth to get her U.S. citizenship. Dale was all for it. He believed that some anti-immigration sentiment could lead Congress to change Social Security laws so non-citizens wouldn't be eligible to receive payments, even if they'd paid into the system all along. Ruth had kept her German citizenship when she and Dale were married in July 1965 .

Dale Aukerman's journal entry: Thursday, Sept. 11 [1997]. ...We arrived home just as a rainstorm hit. Ruth ran in to close windows. I sat in the car and enjoyed the driving rain. The storm took out the electricity for maybe three hours. As it got dark, we lighted candles, then a lamp. It was like an old-time evening. Ruth and I took a walk out to the end of Stem Road in the moonlight and damp haze. What a beautiful time.

Dale took care of household projects and things such as making sure he found someone to replace him as the Brethren Peace Fellowship liaison to the Christian Peacemaker Teams. But improving his relationship with God was not something he could cross off a list; he knew there would be no arrival, only the trip.

From the beginning, he believed God had the power to heal him if He wanted to - but it would not happen simply by single-minded praying. Faith could play a role, but could not bring on full healing, Dale believed, because God might not intend to heal him.

Dale prayed to be healed, and from mid-January to mid-July he took the medicine he hoped would beat back the cancer.

Doctors at the National Cancer Institute fitted him with an intravenous line and a pump. Once every four or five weeks, depending on how quickly his system recovered, the pump delivered 24 hours of Taxol into him for four straight days. On the fifth day he'd get an hour long infusion of cisplatin. Taxol disrupts the division and growth of cancer cells, and cisplatin is commonly prescribed with other anti-cancer drugs to make them work better or lessen their side effects.

Dale was traveling where his sister Jane hadn't; he was following the path from which his mother had eventually turned back.

``Once he made the decision, he didn't vacillate,'' said Heiner Westphal, a friend who pointed Dale toward the NCI study. ``[He said], `I have a chance. I'm entrusting my life to these physicians.'''

Not entirely. Dale was fighting cancer at home, too. Ruth started making carrot juice with apple and lemon each morning. He began drinking an herbal tea twice a day, and green tea four or five times a day. He began taking 15 different vitamins and natural medicines, 13 of them three times a day, including vitamin C, alfalfa, shark cartilage, bee pollen, milk thistle for his liver and grape seed extract.

It was Dale's way of making sure the channels were open if God wanted to heal him. The Bible told a story of Jesus' healing power flowing into a woman who touched his clothes. ``I want to be in touch with Jesus so that power from him can flow into me for healing or for coping with whatever comes,'' Dale said.

Sunday, Sept. 14 [1997]. ...It was getting dark as we formed a circle with lawn chairs and began to sing. I commented about the day I got the early call to come into Dr. Caricofe's office and how I happened upon Ps. 116. I read it. Janet in the prayer time later was so strong in giving thanks for Ruth and me, and she mentioned that two doves came and perched over me on a branch as I read the scripture. That was a lovely touch.

By March of 1997, just before friends and family gathered to plant 315 trees as a living memorial to Dale, his vigorous physical fight against cancer seemed to have paid off: A CAT scan showed the lung tumor had shrunk by about half.

The chemo was working. It made him tired, but other than that, he had no major side effects.

He began to think God would hold off the cancer, would give him more time. And his sense of urgency about what to do with that time was becoming focused into action.

He rekindled old friendships. He and Kermit Johnson, a 70-year-old retired Chief of Chaplains with the Army, once debated pacifism at Furman University.

They had fallen out of touch. But they began exchanging letters, talking about subjects such as judgment and grace.

``Perhaps in this case, crisis was God's opportunity,'' Johnson said.

Dale decided he needed to share his vision. He began sending his journals - his written thoughts on his struggle with cancer, his life and the world around him - to his immediate family; to Ruth's mother in Germany and a close friend there whom he described as a ``second grandmother'' to his children; and to a few close friends. He crafted sermons. He examined issues of Christianity and what he saw as shortcomings in the Brethren church with the intent of making known his views in his remaining time. And he wrote about dying.

In ``Living with Dying,'' published in the spring of 1998 in the Church of the Brethren magazine The Messenger, he wrote of healing, of love, and of God's will. It was, he said, the message God wanted him to share.

He wrote that the question ``why me?'' is useless. He viewed the cancer as sent by a ``contrary power'' to God. He likened a man's struggle against cancer to the biblical struggle of good against evil. God is still fighting that battle, he wrote, and even though He ultimately will win, His side will take its losses.

``When we look to Jesus Christ, executed on a Roman cross and risen from a rock-hewn tomb, we put our trust in the One through whom all the powers of darkness have been defeated,'' he wrote. ``Their grip on humanity has been broken. It is just a matter of time until they will be totally vanquished and swept from the field.''

He wrote that Jesus could heal someone if He desired, but that not even fervent prayer could guarantee healing.

He wrote about fear, about peace and about rejoicing.

``Each day is precious. Don't waste time. Keep examining your priorities. Cherish your loved ones and hug them often,'' he wrote. ``...In times that aren't so hard give God your deepest attention, and when the hardest times come, God will be right there with you.''

He preached that message at least a half-dozen times after the diagnosis. One friend, Jamie Edgerton, gave it to a co-worker who'd lost one family member to cancer and was about to lose another. Dale sent it to people he knew with cancer or other health problems. He sent it to Brian Baldwin, on death row in Holman Prison in Alabama, and Baldwin later sent it to a friend in England, a 45-year-old mother of three who was ill and in a wheelchair.

``You have true feelings and experience and you trust in God, that means a lot to people that feel like there's no hope,'' Baldwin wrote in a letter to Dale.

Dale had turned his cancer into a continuation of his lifelong ministry. People had always come to him with their problems and he had shared his wisdom; now he was sharing his own struggle.

``I don't think he would have shared something like his journal with a wider circle of people [before the diagnosis] because I think he would've seen it as self-centered,'' Dale's daughter Miriam said. ``His illness has intensified what he's always had, which is a real ability to share with other people and inspire them by his example.

``I still think he listens incredibly well to others. In some ways it's almost easy to forget that he's the person who's dying. He is so much there for the people who are losing him.''

Tuesday, November 4 [1997]. A year ago today I went to Dr. Caricofe with my nagging cough, and he sent me for chest X-rays in Westminster that afternoon. So we have come a year from that entry into a different personal era. The tree line up the hill behind our house is at the height of fall color, as it probably was just a year ago. The now isolated white oak tree is such a splendid purple. I checked the biggest little white oak in our new planting, and it has the same purple.

In addition to regular internal reminders of Dale's illness, cancer seemed to be attacking more people in Dale's sphere of friends and relatives. On June 19, 1997, three days after Dale's 67th birthday, Frauke Westphal called. A doctor in her office had just died of cancer. His tumor had been smaller than Dale's; he did not undergo treatment.

Five days later, Dale's first cousin called. Her son had died of leukemia.

In July, he stopped taking the chemo at the Naval Hospital because after the tumor shrunk, it had stayed that way. The NCI doctors checked every month to see whether the cancer had spread.

Five months later, it had, this time into his lower spine.

Go forward to Chapter Five, "Praise God for each day"

Go back to Chapter Three, " many things undone"

Go to the Living with Dying page