Chapter Five, "Praise God for each day"

Photo Essay, Carroll County Times, December 23, 1998

By Ken Koons

"How good to be able to have a garden and to hoe in it--for yet another year," Dale Aukerman said in June 1998.

The cancer had spread to the middle and upper part of Dale's spine, eating away at the vertebrae.

In November 1998, radiation oncology technicians prepare Dale for treatment of cancerous growths on his spine. From left, Jan Havelos, Bert Hauver, and Dan Rachor determine the exact site at which to apply radiation.

Dale and his son Daniel hang a bird feeder. "There are so many things in life he enoys and appreciates," Daniel said. "...The joys of birds flying south in the fall, all the things of nature that give him life."

Article, Carroll County Times, December 23, 1998

By Scott Blanchard

Three days before Christmas 1997, Dale Aukerman started three weeks of radiation therapy that eliminated cancerous growths in his lower back.

In April, he was hospitalized with pneumonia, and a CAT scan showed cancer spots growing in his lungs and liver.

He started taking gemcitabine, which disrupts the growth of cancerous cells, once a week for three weeks with the fourth week off. He hoped the drug would extend his life beyond the two to six months he was given in November.

On May 24 he attended the funeral service for his neighbor, Dot Holcombe, who had died of cancer. Dale and his wife Ruth had spent hours in the previous months sitting with Dot and her husband Stan, talking.

Two days later, he stood outside his home, gazing across a field to the Holcombes' home behind some leafed-out trees. An insistent breeze blew back his gray hair; the high clouds did not hide the sun. Birds sang. A robin flew in and out of the new garage where it had built a nest.

``Most of my fellow cancer patients, many with whom I'm in close contact, have died,'' Dale said. ``But we praise God for each day, especially one like this one.''

From Dale Aukerman's journal: Tuesday, May 26 [1998]. Two or three of the tiny purple finches have hatched out in the nest in the hanging basket with the New Guinea impatiens on the front porch.

As I worked this evening in the tree lot, a mockingbird on the electric wire overhead went through its repertoire. During my years in Maryland I've thought of mockingbirds as a most notable and superlatively imaginative creation of God.

Our own strawberries are finally ripening. These Sparkle berries tend to run so small, but they are delicious. So I've lived into another strawberry season.

On June 2 the results of a CAT scan showed the lung tumor and cancer spots, called metastases, were not growing, and some spots on Dale's liver had even disappeared. Dale's oncologist had left Hopkins and passed the case on to Dr. David Ettinger, a nationally known cancer doctor at Hopkins. Ettinger recommended continuing the gemcitabine schedule for three months; if the tumor stayed the same size, he might end the chemotherapy and just use CAT scans to keep track of the tumor for a while.

June was busy. Dale and Ruth hosted Dale's sister Ann and her husband, in from Colorado to attend a business conference in Washington, D.C. A couple of days later, Dale and Ruth welcomed to dinner three Nicaraguan Christians from Managua who were staying with the Westminster Church of the Brethren.

And a few days after that, Ruth's cousin Heidi Campbell arrived from Germany for a brief stay. Heidi's colon cancer was in remission. The three of them toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

Saturday, June 13 [1998]. The purple finch nest in the hanging flower basket on the front porch is empty today. The four fledglings were still in it yesterday. Mockingbirds have built a nest in the near end of the grape arbor. The three eggs are light blue and speckled. The robin eggs in the nest farther along in the arbor have hatched. What a marvel bird eggs are and the tiny creatures that emerge from them.

Dale's son Daniel arrived June 14 from a vacation in New Mexico and celebrated Dale's 68th birthday two days early. On the 16th, Ruth and Dale hosted friends and neighbors who since the diagnosis had mowed the lawn, driven Dale to radiation or chemotherapy treatments, prayed for Dale and the family and helped in other ways.

As they left, many told Dale they hoped to spend another birthday with him. That night, he talked by phone with his daughter Miriam in New York. She told him of a co-worker who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, resigned and within several weeks was dead.

Two days later, a birthday letter from his youngest daughter Maren arrived. In part, it read:

``But even if your palms should come to lose their calloused feel, even if they turn as soft as your daughter's puffy city hands, you will show other ways of living meaningfully, of setting about for life to matter. As for me, I am thankful we are given time, yet, to plant trees and ideas within view of each other. You still have a working man's hands, and I've still got time to toughen mine up a little. Happy birthday. I love you. Love, Maren.''

Dale's 68th birthday was a direct reminder of how much extra time God had given him since the original two- to six-month prognosis 20 months earlier. A few days later, a friend arrived at his house with a stark reminder of how little time there might be: Dale's handmade pine-wood coffin in the bed of a pickup truck.

Dale had asked his friend to build it, then deliver it so it could be stored at the house - one less thing for his family to worry about when the time came.

``Oooh, it's beautiful,'' Ruth cooed over and over.

Dale stood, left hand on hip, right hand caressing the coffin. ``Yes, oh, yes,'' he said.

Dale and Ruth said having the coffin had no bearing on how long Dale had left to live. He knew he still had things to do, and when he got the mail on July 9, he could cross something else off his list.

The July issue of the Messenger included Dale's criticism of what he viewed as a troublesome attitude taking hold among some in the Church of the Brethren, to which he belonged: that if church members were civil and loving toward one another, it didn't really matter whether they believed the church should adhere strictly to following Jesus' example.

``He has an unsentimental Christianity,'' said Kermit Johnson, a friend from Delaware and former Chief of Chaplains in the Army. ``He believes there's a lot of flabby, soft, so-called Christianity in the U.S. that avoids the hard calls of Jesus and so on.''

By writing ``The Problem with Pluralism,'' Dale prodded the Brethren church he had served for more than 40 years, a church whose members sometimes wished he would stop talking to their conscience.

If the church accepts anyone with any belief, Dale wrote, then it ``is seen as standing for nothing (except perhaps loving acceptance of everyone), for if it is seen as standing for certain things, then what is in obvious contradictions to these is unacceptable.''

The story enlivened the pages of the Messenger for months afterward. Murray L. Wagner, a professor of historical studies at Bethany Theological Seminary in Indiana, wrote a one-page retort published in the September issue. He criticized Dale and others for ``lay[ing] positive claim to the knowledge of good and evil. But what they know about the difference between right and wrong is mostly presumption.''

One letter in the September issue praised Dale's piece for calling the Brethren church back toward Jesus. Another one, from Edward Huber of Philadelphia, Pa., spat: ``Apparently the clear and unarguable light of biblical truth shines on him and those who agree with his interpretation of the scripture. The rest of us will wait in breathless anticipation until he tells us in unambiguous language what God has to say about homosexuality, abortion, and the use of fetal tissue.''

Monday, July 20 [1998]. ... [Ruth's mother] in a telephone conversation said to Ruth and me: ``Ihr lebt von Wunder zu Wunder [You live from miracle to miracle].'' That expresses what I see and want to see much more. I think more of the broader miracle of what has been given me in the extension of life. But each good day is in itself a miracle of God's graciousness.

Wednesday, July 22 [1998]. Barbara Schuler, the National Cancer Institute nurse, called to ask about me. ...She told Ruth that I've lived longer than most who were in the study.

Since the diagnosis, Dale had reconciled with people in Carroll County, including a man who had once called him ``an f radical,'' because Dale was known in conservative Carroll as a pacifist, and with a member of the Brethren church with whom he'd argued.

He also set about repairing other relationships. As reaction to Dale's article in the Messenger rippled through the Brethren community, Dale and Ruth were on their way to the midwest - to Ohio to visit family and old friends, and then on to Sunfield, Michigan, where he'd been kicked out as pastor in 1972 for his anti-war stance.

On July 29, Sunfield congregation members Don and Olive Collier hosted a dinner for Dale and Ruth. Guests included people who had supported them in 1972 and people who hadn't; the next morning, Dale and Ruth visited Illa Cheal, an elderly woman who had been strongly against them in '72.

``We went to Michigan partly with this thought of reconciliation,'' Dale said. ``Certainly I made some mistakes in the whole process too, but we did feel we had been very badly dealt with. It was a big thing to work through to forgive.

``[Illa] didn't refer to that and we didn't refer to that. Just coming there and saying we love you and you're a dear person to us. Things happened in the past and we just let those go. She may not have felt they did wrong in what they did. [But] she could be with us and feel at peace.''

Tuesday, August 18 [1998]. ...I had the sad task today of digging out the twenty-five flowering dogwoods. In gospel parables and images plants that are at fault through not producing are done away with. The dogwoods were not discernibly at fault but were victims of a wretched fungus that is so widely destroying what may be the most beautiful native flowering tree in this part of the world.

Dale and Ruth returned from the Midwest and set about working on their garden. In late July they planted lettuce, spinach, kale and broccoli. In August they picked blackberries. Dale oversaw the completion of the garage.

He spent his days writing in the mornings, taking naps after lunch, writing some more, working in the garden or around the house.

On August 27 he drove to Ettinger's office in Green Spring knowing the results of his latest CAT scan: the lung tumor was shrinking. Dale knew Ettinger might want to keep the gemcitabine flowing, but he also hoped Ettinger might take him off chemotherapy.

``That would certainly be appealing,'' he said on his way in to Ettinger's office at 7:30 on a cloudy, humid morning.

Ettinger chose to keep Dale on the drugs for another 12 weeks, and set up an appointment to meet Dale for a progress check on Nov. 19.

``Sooner if a problem occurs,'' Ettinger said.

Go forward to Chapter Six, "Whenever I am weak, then I am strong"

Go back to Chapter Four, "Each day is precious"

Go to the Living with Dying page