My Ticket to Heaven

In trying to stave off death, we delay going to heaven

I was a friend of the family for 40 years and was visiting Minola, its matriarch. Minola was dying of cancer, and she lay on a hospital bed in her living room, too nauseated to eat. She’d refused the prescribed radiation and chemical cocktails because she knew her life was drawing to a close. Hospice nurses and her two daughters had done what they could.

Diane, one of her daughters, sat next to her bed when I arrived. Minola seemed to be  sleeping, so I asked her daughter how she was doing.

“Not well. Hospice comes every day, and we take turns tending her needs. Mom takes only liquids now and sleeps most of the time. They have her on morphine.”

“A tumor in a specific location or has the cancer metastasized?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s all over her body now. Doctors found it too late for radiation treatment.”

“How come they found it so late?” I asked, while taking a seat.

“She had an arthritic hip that made her limp with pain, and for that she went to a doctor. Her doctor told her she was too weak to endure hip surgery. After a few tests, he discovered why: inoperable cancer. They proposed radiation therapy but she refused.”

“I see. How do you feel about her decision?”

“I think she should have had that treatment if the doctor believed it might help her.”

Minola’s eyes opened, and in an almost inaudible voice she said, “No treatments. Tell him why,” she said, in a whispered effort. We could read her lips well enough to understand.

Diane reached over to an end table and lifted a small pamphlet. She held up the front cover: My Ticket to Heaven. “This explains why she refuses those treatments,” she said, handing me the booklet.

Inside the first page, I saw its Catholic Imprimatur, indicating no doctrinal error. It was authored by an unnamed priest, probably back in the 1950s. I scanned a few pages.

“So what does it say that helped her decide?” I said, handing it back to her.

She turned to a specific page, reading portions of it.

“When the doctor tells us we have a terminal illness, that our days are numbered, we turn and run the other way… screaming and crying… Yes. When the doctor says we have a fatal illness, we go to every length imaginable to avoid dying. We spend all kinds of money on specialists and hospitals and medicine, and tubes and wires and machines. We travel thousands of miles to shrines — hoping and praying for a miracle… trying to stave off death… trying to avoid going to heaven. It’s ridiculous! It doesn’t make any sense!”

Minola was faintly smiling as Diane read the reason she’d refused those radiation treatments. I asked Diane if she herself agreed with that booklet’s unusual message.

“No, not at all. I’d have the radiation treatments done if I were her. I mean, it’s not going to cost her anything but the trouble and aggravation. And maybe she’d be cured. But that’s not what she wants. I’m saddened she’s eager to leave us as soon as possible.”

I pondered its unworldly message, encouraging the terminally ill to avoid treatment, to welcome an early death so as not to threaten entry into heaven by lingering here on Earth. Catholic philosophy can certainly seem radical and irrational.

Minola had closed her eyes and seemed to have fallen asleep, so I wandered in thought. When I suffer a terminal condition, it should be a simple decision for me to just say no to hopeful but dubious cures. But it won’t be easy to let nature do its thing. By sticking around a little while longer, I could enjoy the usual carnal pleasures, especially… Sicilian cuisine, that divine cookery my mother served us kids. I’d never get bored of it.

I have heart trouble that may require an ablation or pacemaker surgery. Should I consider doing it? Unfortunately, both my parents died of heart failure and my three siblings have had serious arrhythmia, perhaps from a genetic trait. Drugs seem to have helped them.

Maybe I’d add a few years to my life with the right medications. But do I want to be hobbling around at this stage with the disabilities of old age: sans teeth, eyes, taste… sans everything? By not having a family, hirelings would have to bathe, feed, and clothe me. And by living longer, I’d be tempted again and again to commit mortal sin, maybe tricked into forfeiting my ticket to heaven and Christ’s promise of eternal life.

I stood to leave, but before going I softly kissed Minola’s forehead. I felt my usual chill from a foreboding sense of imminent death. Diane checked for a pulse. But Minola’s exhausted heart had stopped. She had passed away and left us tearfully standing there.

I drove home with a lot to think about, far more inclined to let nature take its course.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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