Son’s struggle with dying brings his father’s faith to new life

“Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son” by Richard Lischer (Alfred A. Knopf, 251 pages, $25)

“The sacred presence had always been there, of course, as it is in each of us, like stars on a cloud-filled night, but we had never seen it so clearly as when he began to die.”

Like the Catholic Church’s Stations of the Cross, Richard Lischer’s story is a tableaux of emotional depth, sober reflection and an uncanny attention to detail that leads the reader through the 95 days of his son Adam’s living and dying with brain cancer.

A Lutheran minister and longtime faculty member of Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., Lischer discovers spiritual connections along the way that provide him with strength and hope, even as he tacks away at times from faith. His greater strength, he finds, would come from his son, whose story he shares.

Adam Lischer was a young lawyer who had a malignant tumor on his back successfully removed. Even the sentinel lymph nodes were said to be cancer free. But 16 months later, April 2005, Adam called his father to tell him that the cancer had returned with a vengeance – metastasizing melanoma.

With his wife, Jenny, pregnant with their first child and his own future clouded, Adam Lischer embarked on a “new path” that would lead him through the valley and, along the way, teach those around him about faith and about dying.

As each new treatment rekindled hope, only to be pushed back by the aggressive disease, Lischer tried to hold on until his daughter was born, yet planned for his absence from her life. His rituals of prayer with his wife, conversation with his unborn child, and gift-buying for each birthday of his daughter’s growing-up years were a last grasp for a relationship that would be preserved only through the stories and images her family would share with her.

In his last three months, Adam, a Catholic convert, seemed to grow stronger in his new-found faith, going to Mass each day with Jenny and praying the psalms with her at night. Though less engaged with those ancient poetic texts than his son, Lischer could still identify with their depth and meaning.

“The psalms are filled with the complexities of rage, and so was Adam. It is never pure anger at work in any of us, and it wasn’t in him, but anger in disguises and permutations of fear, suffering, sadness and bafflement.”

Richard Lischer’s faith, however, was waning. “His spirit was approaching perfection, while everything but love for him was drying up in me. Oddly, that didn’t stop me from encouraging his faith or being glad for it, even though I was running on habits of speech rather than conviction. I was following the writer George Bernanos’ advice: ‘If you can’t pray – at least say your prayers.’ ”

In June, the four lesions in Adam’s brain had become, as the oncologist described it, “innumerable.” Soon after came seizures, headaches, and pleas for mercy. At age 33, Adam Lischer died.

Death of another is never “good,” Lischer reflects, but it can change our experience of life. “We live with these contradictions in companionship with God, who makes up for his many failures by sharing in our suffering. [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘I don’t want to go through this affair without faith.’ When Tracy [Lischer’s wife] and I read that, we thought of Adam, who felt the same way about his ordeal.”

Lischer’s book is neither morbid nor sugar-coated with religious sentimentality. There are humorous and grace-filled moments, along with accounts of the inner struggles of a father who desperately wants to hold on to a son despite death’s relentless pull on his life. But Lischer also offers intriguing insights that can give depth to our own confrontation with life’s great mystery of mortality and, Deo volente, the grace to face it.