Chapter Six, "Whenever I am weak, then I am strong"

Photo Essay, Carroll County Times, December 24, 1998

By Ken Koons

"This wall plaque is there all the time," Dale said. "I generally overlook it. But when I notice it, what it says speaks so directly to what we experience in the struggle with cancer."

"I was more touched emotionally than I like to be," Dale Aukerman said of his sermon at Pipe Creek Church of the brethren in September 1998.

Dale has prepared for the time when Ruth will have to do heavy chores, such as install storm windows, by herself.

In January 1998, Dale preached at the Westminster Church of the Brethren and received hugs and good wishes from the congregation.

Shortly after the diagnosis, Ruth said to Dale: "If I could only hold you." Dale said, "You can hold me, but you can't hold onto me." Ruth said: "I know."

Cancer has slowed him down, but Dale Aukerman hasn't stopped working on his Union Bridge home.

Article, Carroll County Times, December 24, 1998

By Scott Blanchard

It was already hot at 10:20 a.m. Sept. 13, when Dale Aukerman, wife Ruth and daughter Miriam arrived at the stone and brick Pipe Creek Church of the Brethren, a few hundred yards up the hill from the Aukermans' place on Stem Road.

The regular preacher was sick and the church had asked Dale to fill in.

More than two years earlier, a cancerous tumor had begun growing in Dale's left lung. It was killing him, but not nearly as quickly as it should have according to medical statistics, which in November of 1996 indicated he had between two and six months to live.

Dale had been preaching about living with dying, the message he said God wanted him to deliver during his struggle with lung cancer. Now, Dale believed he had more to say, and the 40 or so people who came to church that day were about to hear it.

Churchgoers filed in, underneath two rotating ceiling fans, past 10 screened windows with blinds opened to reveal the old oak trees out back and the cornfields going brown and husky. Bugs droned outside as people bid each other good morning.

The organist played at the front of the rectangular church, and her music vibrated through the last of the wooden pews. After a hymn, sharing of joys and concerns, a morning prayer and offerings, Dale rose to speak.

He'd preached at Pipe Creek almost two years earlier, his next-to-last engagement before the diagnosis, he recalled.

``But here we are, you and I, nearly two years later,'' he said. ``God has worked the gracious miracle of extending my life.''

He thanked them for their prayers; he had come to believe that prayer, even more than chemotherapy, more than physical work, more than natural remedies, had helped him stay alive to stand before them that day. He told the congregation about the August report that showed his tumor shrinking.

``I admit that my own faith in God's readiness to answer prayer is rather faltering. But does it make sense to say for anyone who is not healed that this is because of lack of faith?'' he asked the congregation.

``Part of the solution to this puzzle I would put like this. In His presence the agents of death - disease of any sort and the demonic powers - can't stand their ground. They retreated. Even death in its conquest over someone could not hold out against Him.

``As I work at this problem, the passage in second Corinthians has been an important one for me.''

In it, Paul asks Jesus to take away the thorn in his side. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. ...Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Dale talked about power and awesome earthly things: shuttle launches, winning football teams, cruise missile strikes, home run records. He spoke patiently, the words coming comfortably as though he had chosen them a million years ago and they'd had all that time to settle in. A chickadee rasped outside.

``Things that show us how weak we are can open us more to the transforming power beyond ourselves so we can say, `Wherever I am weak, there I am strong.' This passage speaks to me in deep ways. Through physical weakness I've come to be more in tune with our Christ.

``That is a wonder of God's grace at least as remarkable as a miracle of physical healing.''

Dale Aukerman's journal entry, Monday, Labor Day, September 7 [1998]. Ruth and I threw ourselves into work that needed to be done: extracting three and a half gallons of honey from our share of the supers that Wilbur Wright had taken off; freezing twenty pints of sweet corn; then hulling and freezing six quarts of lima beans from a five gallon bucketful that Wilbur Wright had brought for us. Tuesday, September 8. This afternoon a light shower moved through, followed by a double rainbow. It lasted for quite a long while, and I stood gazing at it. In spite of the splendor, we usually, I think, have only a short attention span for rainbows.

Dale found a comforting answer in Jesus' words to Paul. Dale's family and friends have prayed that he be healed of the cancer. But his illness forced them to look for other answers on the path to preparing themselves to lose him.

Some have looked to Dale himself.

``He's a tower of strength for me,'' said Julie Edgerton, a friend for about 20 years. ``Do I have that sort of faith that can prepare me? He said long ago, he's ready to be with God. I'm thinking, would I be feeling that? He's made me think a lot about my faith and how feeble it is by comparison. Every time I read his journals, I get a little medicine. It's a very rich time.''

Kermit Johnson, the former Army chief of chaplains, is traveling a new road through letters and phone calls with Dale.

``It doesn't matter whether he's dead or alive,'' Johnson said. ``He has forced us to continually examine and re-examine such issues as capital punishment and the whole business of war and the situation where life is taken for what society deems to be a worthy purpose.''

Cliff Kindy, a friend since the anti-war protests of the early 1970s, had urged Dale soon after the diagnosis to write about it ``for the rest of us.'' Kindy and Dale had worked in Israel and Palestine together in May of 1994. A year before that, Kindy had helped defuse a situation in which two Palestinian brothers were being threatened by Israeli soldiers with automatic weapons.

``Because of my non-violence, I had more options in that situation and more control than they did with their fingers on the trigger. [ Dale's] understanding that this community of prayer that's undergirded him has broadened the options. It's extended his life in a way that maybe he wouldn't have imagined when he first started into this new route.

``God's intervention is often bigger than what we can do. But we can be there to water and nurture. We can let God's miracle become a possibility. When I was in the refugee camp I didn't bring any skills. Because I was available and willing to be there, God used that to make a miracle. If we aren't available, God's options are limited. Dale's been available to listen. To nurture. To challenge. To discuss. To write. To pray.''

Dale has helped lead Alabama death-row inmate Brian Baldwin, convicted with another man in the late 1970s for the rape and murder of a North Carolina woman, toward God. Dale and Ruth began writing Baldwin through the couple's association with Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. When Baldwin learned Dale had terminal cancer, he and several others on death row signed a get-well card for Dale.

``In a way, it's sort of a common ground in that I may not have much longer to live,'' Dale said. ``I have sort of a medical death sentence, while they have a judicial death sentence.''

Baldwin now thinks of Dale and Ruth as his second set of parents. In one six-week stretch in the fall of 1998, Baldwin wrote them 10 times. In addition to discussing the latest news involving court appeals, he thanked Dale and Ruth for spiritual guidance, told them he loved them and worried over Dale.

Baldwin, who has been on death row for 21 years and only gets to go outside for at most an hour a day, connected with the young forest created in 1997 as a memorial by Dale's friends and family.

``How big are those trees that were planted?'' Baldwin wrote recently. ``I think about standing up on a hill one day and tell[ing] those trees Dale is the reason they are there.''

Saturday, September 12 [1998]. We called Mutter [Ruth's mother] in Germany. During my nap time Ruth, Daniel, and Miriam were discussing Mutter's inquiry about Christmas wishes. ... [Later] I commented, ``My being with you for Christmas, that will be my gift to each of you.'' Daniel said, ``If you don't come through on that, father, we will really be bummed.''

Over three decades, Dale and Ruth nurtured, guided and taught their children Daniel, Miriam and Maren. Daniel had followed his mother and father into the Brethren faith. As Dale urgently sought to strengthen his relationship with God, he understood that his daughters remained on different spiritual journeys.

``I think he would like for the girls to make a full confession of faith,'' Ruth said. ``He also knows that's not in his hands.''

Dale declined to talk about it, and Miriam said she'd rather it stay private. Maren said she knows where her father stands and he knows where she stands, but it's not a regular subject of discussion.

``I've become more aware of how we are alike in how we think about faith,'' Maren said. ``I think that's part of the fallout [of the cancer]. Looking for those connections and finding those connections has to do with the fact that there is this sense of urgency and this is very important for him and is important to me.

``My parents made one mistake. They also raised us to be rather independent in many ways. ... We are not simply carbon copies. If we were carbon copies of my father, it wouldn't be in character.''

Friday, November 6 [1998]. This afternoon Miriam and I spent some time in the tree lot. She had last year's diagram of the tree layout. I gave instructions for what trees can be planted where to replace ones that have died and the diseased flowering dogwoods that I had to take out. We have some volunteer trees around the house, and we will order twenty-five redbuds. If I am not alive in the spring, Miriam has the instructions recorded.

On Oct. 27 Dale tried to open a window in a downstairs room. He had started writing there so he could be closer to Ruth than he would have been in his isolated, cramped attic office.

As he lifted the window he felt a sharp pain in his back. It persisted for more than a week despite treatments by a chiropractor. He called Dr. David Ettinger, his oncologist at Johns Hopkins. Two weeks before his scheduled Nov. 19 appointment with Ettinger, the doctor sent word through his office that Dale should have a magnetic resonance imaging test on his spine to see if the cancer had spread there.

The MRI showed cancerous spots on his spine. The cancer had eaten through one vertebra until it was in danger of collapsing, which could cause paralysis. Dale needed more radiation therapy, and he and Ruth didn't need Ettinger to tell them that the gemcitabine he had been taking for almost eight months wasn't holding back the cancer anymore.

Dale said he realized then that God did not intend to heal him of the cancer.

Wednesday, November 11 [1998]. ...With this development the gift of the two good years seems all the more precious. We have been given so much time and such abundance of experiences and opportunities. Ruth said, hugging me, ``We will need to give each other lots more hugs again. They will need to last me my lifetime.''

On November 13, Ruth and Dale took a walk along Stem Road. On the way back, Ruth told him: ``I hope it will come for you that you will feel you want to go home. You will not want to leave us, but you will feel right about going home.''

She meant, going to God.

``By implication, she was saying for herself that she wants to let me go and wants me to feel that I'm being released,'' Dale said.

In 1964, when Dale was interviewing Brethren elder Reuel B. Pritchett for a book, Pritchett told Dale: ``I'm not afraid to die, but I sure hate to leave.''

Dale had at least one medical option left. Frauke Westphal, a physician, and her husband Heiner, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, had recommended their friend Dale try thalidomide. The drug had been used in Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a sleeping aid until the discovery that it caused birth defects.

The National Cancer Institute was testing whether thalidomide's ability to restrict blood flow to tumors would work on cancer patients. Dale's second cousin, a doctor in New Jersey, told Dale that two of his cancer patients were responding to thalidomide. But the Aukermans knew Ettinger had no use for it. So they met with him November 24 prepared to seek another oncologist if he wouldn't agree to thalidomide treatment.

They compromised: Ettinger would prescribe a new chemotherapy drug, and Dale's family doctor, Joseph Caricofe in Union Bridge, would prescribe thalidomide.

Dale and Ruth were elated. They had followed their hearts and challenged one of the nation's best known oncologists, and believed their decision could give Dale more time.

About two weeks later, the Aukermans found out their insurance would not pay for thalidomide because the government hadn't approved its use to treat lung cancer. Treatments would cost between $60-$100 a day, Dale said, and the only way they could afford it would be to cut into their life savings.

The urgency to take thalidomide lessened in early December after a CAT scan showed the tumor once again had stopped growing. The radiation, if it worked, could help the weakened vertebrae rebuild with healthy cells. And Dale was ready to gamble that chemotherapy under Ettinger's care could buy him more time, until the tumor started growing again.

After his meeting with Ettinger, Dale sat in his living room. It was early evening, and the unlit room grew dim as the sun set. Dale sank into in his upholstered recliner, his head supported by the back of the chair.

``The longer I live, the more possibilities are exhausted,'' Dale said. ``I think I do have some sense that the time remaining may not be that long. Today, I feel really good, because it isn't like I feel that I desperately have to try something or I just have to live. I don't have to live. If I pass on - for that matter, if I had died after a few months - that would've been OK, too. What's coming into place now is we have these possibilities for treatment. I'm hoping that may give me a stretch of time yet.''

In 1997 he had prayed to live long enough to see flowers on the young arrowwood trees in the woodlot. Perhaps he would live to see those white blooms again, in the spring. The chemotherapy, the natural remedies and the prayer would provide part of the answer.

``What's ahead,'' he said, ``I see very much as in God's hands. If God's will is that I don't have very much longer to live, that's going to be OK. I hope that I can accept that graciously.''

Go forward to Chapter Seven, "Grace of God, or the grace of life"

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

Go to the Living with Dying page