Mark was diagnosed with prostate cancer two years ago, the same disease his grandfather, father and brother experienced. Despite surgery to remove his prostate and a positive recovery, he still has what his doctor calls an aggressive form of the cancer. He was told that it may be months or years, but that he would die of this disease.
“I wish the hell I didn’t have it,” Mark said, “but life becomes more precious when we realize we’re not going to be here forever.” One of the many gifts he talks about is the increased closeness with his wife. “It’s compelled us to be more mindful as individuals and in our relationship,” he said.
“We have a focus on not just the disease, but on living,” Jacqueline said, “which worked for me for about a year,” she added laughing, but with obvious emotion, and the admission that she is struggling.
A recent bone scan suggests a spread of cancer to Mark’s pelvis. Due to symptoms and side effects from treatment, he has had to leave his career, but is making great efforts to stay active. “He sees the silver lining in everything,” Jacqueline said, smiling. “He’s calling disability a sabbatical.”
“I see it as a time to reconnect with myself,” Mark explained, “not to be attached fully to recovery.” His personal exploration has led him to some wonderful teachers. One such inspiration and resource is the subject of a National Film Board documentary titled Griefwalker. The film is an extraordinary portrait of Harvard-trained theologian Stephen Jenkinson, who teaches that, “Death empowers us to live and that we must know grief well in order to appreciate our own lives.”
Mark said he found the film profoundly moving and hopeful. “I really appreciate his observation that we don’t so much find meaning in death, we create it,” he said. A couple of weeks after watching the film online he heard that Powell River Public Library was bringing Jenkinson to Powell River for a film screening, talk and workshop in July. Mark plans to watch the film on the big screen and was the first to register for the workshop.
Jenkinson lives off the grid in the Ottawa Valley where he is a farmer, and is known internationally as a teacher, storyteller, ceremonialist and the author of a number of books, including his latest release “Die wise: A manifesto for sanity in the ending of days.” Before founding the Orphan Wisdom School in 2010, where he teaches the skills of living deeply, he directed the palliative care team at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and was consultant to hospice organizations across the continent.
Filmed over a 12-year period, Griefwalker is a lyrical yet raw portrait of Jenkinson’s work and philosophies. It shows him teaching doctors and nurses, counselling dying people and their families, and in meditative and often frank exchanges with the film’s director, Tim Wilson.
Griefwalker will show at 7 pm at Evergreen Theatre, July 11, followed by a talk by Jenkinson. The workshop, titled “The Tangled Garden of Wisdom and Grief,” a teaching on how dying can be learned, takes place the following day. Both events are free to the public.
“It’s very important to have good teachers like Stephen Jenkinson,” according to Jacqueline who said what she was taught about death hasn’t been helpful. “I feel a desperate need to find acceptance and peace with it.”
Mark is extremely excited about meeting Jenkinson and the opportunity to learn from him in person. “His words have driven home to me the importance of looking death in the face—being brave, but also allowing yourself to feel grief,” he said.
When asked what looking death in the face means to him, Mark said, “Acceptance that death is a part of life and that I’m going to die. Not being afraid to talk about it. Seeing the gifts.”
“Mark’s strength has been a gift,” Jacqueline said, “and his ability to see, in a strange way, how this situation has improved our lives.”
This article appeared in The Powell River Peak.