Into Extra Time

A recent report estimated that the incidence of cancer in Ireland is expected to double by 2040. It’s a frightening prospect. Already it would seem, from anecdotal evidence, that cancer is increasing year on year and this report seems to confirm it. If this is the way it is now, what will things be like in 2040?
Behind the numbing statistics are thousands and thousands of individuals and families struggling to come to terms with a grim reality. Nobody wants to join the cancer club and yet a random blood test, an intrusive internal examination, an awkward chat with a consultant, a rough drawing on a pad and suddenly you’re there, a fully paid up citizen of Cancerland.
A new vocabulary emerges: ‘oncology’, ‘nodules’, ‘chemotherapy’, ‘tumours’, ‘prognosis’, ‘procedures’, ‘scans’ and, ominously, ‘malignant’. Unfamiliar places and people become companions on life’s journey: appointments, waiting-rooms, blood-tests, secretaries, nurses, consultants. You find yourself in a place you never wanted or, if the truth be told, you never expected to be.
Michael Paul Gallagher, a Jesuit priest, a lecturer in English in University College Dublin for many years, and a theologian based in the Gregorian university in Rome, had three cancers in 13 years, the third diagnosed after a bout of heavy bleeding on a flight from Rome in January 2015, which led to emergency surgery in Dublin the following day.
A busy man, a full diary for months on end of appointments, was suddenly emptied. He had to deal with the reality that his time was limited, that courses of chemotherapy beckoned, that he faced the prospect of dying within a year or two. Soon after when death moved from being ‘highly probable’ to being ‘a question of months’ he decided to keep a ‘cancer diary’ as well as put together some general comments and reflections on life, the distilled wisdom of years of study and reflection. It started as a diary for himself, as he explored his experience of illness, and he gradually came to the view that a narrative in which a believer struggles through the stages of cancer could offer others on the same journey some light out of darkness.
A man of deep faith, he found that once he learned his life was in danger, he experienced an unexpected sense of peace. Through all the months of vulnerability and fragility, a lonely experience not easily communicable to others, faith was a powerful anchor and a source of great strength.
Not that it was all plain sailing. His faith, he discovered, was often fragile and unreal, a shifting kaleidoscope of darkness and light, in turn fading and intensifying, often ‘seeing through a glass darkly’. His trust in God and the freedom it gave him convinced him that God would be with him ‘in this new and perhaps final phase of his life’.
When you find out that death may come soon, Michael Paul writes, it simplifies the focus of the heart. He found in himself ’an accumulation of thankfulness’ over what life had given him. He discovered ‘an unexpected sense of peace’.
While the cancer diary is the most compelling part of the book, charting his thoughts as death gradually beckoned him to the last great threshold of his life, this book is a sifting of his reflections on life, on faith, on unbelief and, though it is couched in obliquely understated headings like ‘Fragments’, ‘Springboards’, ‘Openings’, it repays a careful study. Here is a man – sensitive, intelligent, articulate, reflective ­– saying with conviction and clarity on his death-bed the things that really matter. What a privilege to be able to read them. His chapter on belief is a gem – simple, clear and sensible – and on its own is worth its weight in gold.
Into Extra Time is about the lead into a death but is, full of faith, hope and love. From October 2015 until his death in November of that year, he charted from day to day the difficult Gethsemane he had to endure. What’s published is part of a longer diary where he reflects, with huge courage and insight, into the gradual deterioration of his health until on October 28 he wrote: ‘I don’t know if I will have the strength to continue these jottings fruitfully much further or with lucidity’. Two days later he gave a memory stick to a friend and said, ‘It is over. The book is done. I am ready to go’. He died a week later.
This is a wonderful and truly remarkable book, destined to become a classic of its kind, a privilege to read for anyone who has or hasn’t yet visited Cancerland. I found it extremely moving and wondered how he could possibly, in the midst of such unease and discomfort, be able to focus his thoughts and put words together so lucidly as he hovered on the edge of death. And yet his gripping account never deteriorates into self-obsession or mawkishness.
Michael Paul worried that publishing such a personal narrative would seem to inflate his own experience or appear too self-centred and pious and he found writing a book that would be read only when he was dead a strange moment in his life. But he need not have worried. It is, I believe, the most important book he has written.
At one point he mentions that years earlier when he was in his full health he found a great freedom in not having to pretend he was someone else. That honesty runs like a seam of gold through this extraordinary book, not least when the book concludes with a poem in memory of a former girl-friend whom he met, before his Jesuit days, while a student in France:
The heart carries more than memories / When I think of you, of us / I wonder what happened to you / What you did with that tenderness / Did you forget me, hurt by my silence / Let down by my different path? Or can you visit / As I do, wonder echoes / Of hands held and eyes knit / Symbols of a love bigger than / We were able for at twenty one / But changing me at least forever.
• Michael Paul Gallagher, Into Extra Time, Messenger Publications, 144 pages. Price €12.99.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks Brendan for a moving and realistic review of Michael Paul’s book. as the ‘friend and the memory stick’ I was brought back into those days again when your review came to hand.

  2. Pat Rogers says:

    A beautiful book by a very fine man whose life touched so many. Thank you Brendan for that moving summary of its central message. May his spirit rest at God’s right hand.

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