The greatest gift? Living life to the fullest

By  K.G.E. KONKEL, Catholic Register Special
  • December 23, 2022

Christmas was wonderful that year. So was New Year’s. This, despite the coldest dose of reality that I’d been hit with. 

The surgeon called me to meet with him.

“It has spread to the liver,” he said. 

“It” was the cancer that I’d been advised at first was kidney stones. Instead, a two-hour surgery unearthed “it” as a rare gastrointestinal stromal tumour. Even so, my doctor reassured me I’d be out and about in a few days. My biggest post-op worry was getting the right Christmas presents for my wife and daughter.

Until, that is, doctors discovered I had a form of cancer so rare it afflicts only one in 1.5 million people. The five-year survival rate for that one “lucky” soul? Not promising. 

After the second surgery, which lasted seven hours, I had to re-develop strength to walk and climb steps. The physio team was surprised by how quickly I recovered even from that. 

What did they expect? I’m a police officer. It’s in my gene pool to help victims to recover from life-threatening situations. I have been someone people turn to in emergencies when all else failed. I’m not a doctor or a psychiatrist. I’m certainly not Superman. Most victims, though, have cared only that I was there with them and doing something to help. I was now being asked to climb the same mountain. 

But through my police career, and as the author of two best-selling novels, I have learned an intriguing lesson. When you confront your mortality, the hitherto hidden fact facing us comes into plain sight: Life is a day to day matter. 

And there is my Catholic faith, which has kept me going my entire life. It is ever present in my writing, but even as a police officer I always carried a pocket Bible. Sometimes during a rough night as a duty officer confronting the looming shadow of a metropolis gone insane under the pressing weight of senseless violence, I’d stop for a coffee, find a quiet spot and read a Bible verse to put the world into true perspective. I’ve found passages that always gave me solace within the Book of Job. 

Yet I’d never known the full the strength of faith until I found out my surgery hadn’t caught all of the tumour. It had metastasized to all four segments of the liver. I was assigned an oncologist and given initial chemo treatment. 

A few months into it, we met again. His words were brutally candid. 

“It will be short,” he said. “So be prepared. It will happen very quickly. Perhaps a matter of weeks.”  

The coded words were anything but. Since that dire notification about three years ago, I’ve had two major surgeries, two radio-active treatments, including Y90, which made me glow so much so that on one airport X-ray scanner I looked like a Green Hornet stand-in, and over 50 chemo treatments.  I’ve been as bald as Kojak twice, and my appetite changes as dramatically as the menu at a truck stop grill. I’ve also continued to live and write.

I would not be the television caricature of a smiling retiree strolling down a balmy beach as the waves trickled ashore underfoot. But I would, in fact, live. And continue to live until it was my time. For the bell was not tolling for me.

Now, when I think of mortality, I think of poor Job, whose journey to the Great Beyond was brimming with potholes and booby traps. My life is a Forrest Gump “box of chocolates.” 

It reminds me we must all accept the fact there are times which are difficult. Life itself is just that: At times difficult. 

True, something has changed.  The illness has, ever so subtly, not only redefined my body, but also my sense of self-worth and innate optimism. 

But confronting mortality? As my career as a police officer has shown me “ rage, winds, and crack your cheeks,” like Shakespeare’s Lear, does not negate the unerring trajectory of human existence. Self pity is also not a viable means to nullify the inevitable. It is actually destructive. 

Faith, however subtly it manifests itself, stands the test of time. Faith moves mountains and keeps individuals on course in their inevitable journey to infinity. I now appreciate the difference between platitudes and deeds, words and actions, and have reconciled myself to the meaning of mortality.  

My writing itself is a gift from God and has helped me to live each day to the fullest. 

(K.G.E. Konkel is a police officer with over 40 years of operational experience including time in the Royal Hong Kong Police. His most recent novel is Who Has Buried The Dead.) 

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