Chris Sargent’s highway to heaven is full of twists and turns.
It’s a journey of life, death and new life, of tremendous joy and heartbreak at the same time – and his newfound Catholic faith has given him the strength he needs to navigate it.
Sargent has a rare, inoperable form of bile duct cancer, which has an estimated two-percent survival rate. Tumours are growing and spreading from his liver to the lungs and lymph nodes. They are slowly eating away at the body of the 40-year-old father, once an avid back-country hiker and marathon runner. He was diagnosed on Sept. 7, 2018 and given 11 months to live.
But before he dies, he wanted to get a few things right.
Sargent fulfilled a promise he made to his family, the priest who officiated at his wedding, and to himself to become a Catholic. At the Easter Vigil on April 20, Sargent received the sacraments of Baptism, Holy Eucharist and Confirmation at St. Anthony’s Parish in Edmonton.
Another goal was to live to see the birth of his second daughter. Yet another was to celebrate his 40th birthday with his children and his wife, Sofia Pastorino. However, some goals – like living to see his daughters grow up, graduate and get married or to grow old with Sofia – may remain unmet.
“I’m worried that it’s a sad story for my kids,” Sargent said. “We’re super close. I want to be there for them when they’re 5, never mind when they’re 40. That makes me really sad. I hope, and pray about this, that it can be a blessing for them, where they can have the resilience to work through it and it won’t be a negative thing for them.
“I want others to kind of appreciate what they have and appreciate the health that they have … I want it to be a happy story for others who can say, Whoa, it’s a bit of a wake-up call. You never know when things could turn on you.”
The Sargent family allowed Grandin Media into their home to tell their story of faith, hope, and love. In the first part of this series, Sargent and his family reflect on his diagnosis and the days before his Baptism. This story is the second in the series.
Part 2: New life in the Church and at home
The latest news is not good. Sargent is now in palliative care. He’s lost an estimated 15 pounds in the months since he sat for an interview in May. Additional tumours have been found. Chemotherapy was discontinued in the spring because it was ineffective, and so have the clinical trials of an experimental drug that offered some hope to extend his life. Given his type of cancer, Sargent will likely die of liver failure.
He has been in a lot of pain. He walks with a cane. He has received the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick from Rev. Joby Augustin, his pastor at St. Anthony’s Parish in Edmonton.
“I pray for a cure,” said his wife, Sofia Pastorino. “I can see the effects in everyday life with him. I can see that he cannot climb up the stairs without needing a breather. He’s not what the way he used to be.”
For his part, Sargent is philosophical about what’s happening.
“I know the sand is passing through the hourglass a little faster than before I was diagnosed. As I go through this period, I know what the life expectancy typically is. I’m getting pretty close to that. I’m planning on exceeding that, but I don’t know.”
In the meantime, Sargent finds solace in the simple joys of life. His family is planning a trip to Italy this fall. He spends time with Sofia. He dotes on two-year-old Juliana. He cradles his baby, Lucia Christie – her middle name a derivative of his own. And he takes joy in his faith.
Raised agnostic, Sargent said he was always spiritual, whether it was hiking in the Rocky Mountains or fishing on Lac La Biche in northeastern Alberta. It was when Sargent and his Argentinian wife Sofia spent time together that his spirituality found a home. They spent hours talking about what faith meant, even if it wasn’t well-defined for him at the time.
Now as a Catholic, his faith has given him a sense of peace and purpose. The apex so far was his baptism, when he was surrounded by his family, his pastor, and Deacon JD Carmichael, the friend and mentor who helped guide him through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.
Running on “adrenaline, excitement and passion,” Sargent was as nervous as he had been at his wedding, when he was unfamiliar with the Argentinian ceremony and had to repeat his vows in Spanish. One of his best friends served as his baptism sponsor, gifting him with a crucifix on a gold chain. A powerful symbol of his new faith, he hasn’t removed it since.
“I prayed before, during and after. One was for strength, to see myself through the baptism and to fully give myself to Jesus and to God, to completely accept and be open to the Catholic Church,” Sargent said.
He’s now able to participate in the Eucharist – the sharing in the body and blood of Christ – at a time when his own body is trying to fight off deadly disease.
“To me, that’s kind of the zenith of the Mass. Now to be able to do that each time, it’s very fulfilling. It recharges me and sustains me. I like to think it heals me and helps me with what I’m dealing with.”
For Sargent’s wife, the baptism was a source of both concern and pride.
“You can see from my face I had a huge smile,” Pastorino said, gesturing to a photo from the day. “But during the Mass … I was worried about how Chris was feeling ̶ if he would make it through or not, or if we could reschedule it. All those worries were in my mind.”
Why become part of the Church if you’re dying anyway? For Sargent, the answer lies in a larger life.
“If you really believe, I don’t think your relationship with Church or your life with Christ end when you die,” he explained. “It’s something that continues on regardless if you live to 800 or if you die at 40. It’s irrelevant in terms of your relationship with God. Maybe Chapter 2 or something like that. The baptism is the next chapter.”
In Baptism, Christians believe that sins are washed away and they find a new life in Christ. For Sargent, it has brought gratefulness and solace as he tries to come to terms with his present – and future.
“it’s something you can wrap your head around and accept, I think it’s really helpful for living with a terminal disease too. It helps you move forward in a way that you’re proud of yourself and you’re comfortable with yourself and you feel loved and supported in a way that you haven’t before.”
At that moment, the door to the Sargents’ apartment swings open and Juliana shouts “Daddy!” and grabs him in a tight hug. His daughter, nicknamed Monkey, is home from day care. Two days after Chris’ baptism, Juliana’s sister Lucia was born.
“It was kind of bittersweet. This is just the beginning. This isn’t the end. OK, I get to meet her, but I want a relationship with her. I want to be there. That’s the hardest part of this, without a doubt. It’s that fear of not being there for the kids. Now. Or first day of kindergarten. Their wedding. But even just not being here a year from now. It’s really, really hard to wrap my head around.
“It’s sad. That was a bit of blow to me that I wasn’t expecting or hadn’t really thought much about, because I was so focused on getting to the birth.”
Sargent’s new goal is to live long enough to attend Lucia’s own baptism, scheduled for Aug. 11. And there are less defined goals, like taking each day as it comes, trying to keep his own spirits up and having family life as familiar and routine as possible. That isn’t easy.
“I don’t have the urgency that Chris has,” his wife said. “My milestones are a bit more mundane. For me, day to day, I don’t have many options. I have to breastfeed the baby, wake up with Monkey, help Chris with whatever needs to be done that day, make breakfast.”
“Right now it’s super hard for him to find the will to wake up or stand up with such a sombre horizon. I don’t have many options. It helps me to not think about the worst-case scenarios. I’ve been told I’m really bad about talking about my feelings, but I think it’s a way of coping with everything.”
Sofia Pastorino is carrying a heavy burden, knowing she will be widowed much sooner than anyone had ever anticipated. Under this pressure, what keeps her going? Prayer and devotion, to the Virgin Mary in particular.
“I try to pray a lot because she went through worse. It’s good for me to channel that role model and try to be that way,” Pastorino said, tears welling up. “Even when we first got the diagnosis – sorry I cry always when I say this – I couldn’t get it. It was impossible, but it was for real. He’s so healthy. The first words that came to my mind was what the Virgin said when it was announced she was pregnant … She surrendered herself to His will. I try to do that. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
For Sofia, raised Catholic in Argentina, Chris’ cancer ordeal has profoundly affected her faith.
“At the beginning, when we first got the diagnosis, I was really angry, because I couldn’t understand it at all. And to be honest, right now I still can’t. I got super angry. I didn’t want to pray. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to think about it,” she said.
“My mom has a strong faith. She has been my lucky charm through everything. She kept calling me, saying ‘You should pray.’ I’m like ‘I’m not praying; I’m mad at God right now.’ She told me ‘You should not be mad at God.’ I get mad with my Dad, and that’s fine. I think God can handle it right now.
“I think it was also part of denial … But then things kind of settled. I could feel the presence again. And I think after all the noise went away, I could be more calm. That’s how I started praying again. I know that He is with us. And I know this might be His will.”
Pastorino continues to pray often, but now her requests have changed.
“I kind of got past that, and started praying for eight more years with Chris. I was praying for a miracle, longevity, and raising the kids together,” she explained. “But now, with this turn of events, I’m praying for a good afterlife for everybody, so we can meet again.”
For the Sargent family, the past few months have been an emotional rollercoaster. What has remained steadfast, and kept them on track, has been prayer and faith.
In the stillness of his apartment, or in the pew at St. Anthony’s Church, Sargent is armed with prayer – and enough spiritual strength – to be able to face the future.
“When I first started praying, when I was first diagnosed, I thought maybe it was too audacious to ask for healing. It was more around asking for strength and asking to support my family and acceptance for whatever comes,” Sargent said. But, after talking with Catholic friends, he ramped it up.
“Be a bit more audacious; if you want something, ask for it. So I’ve included that in my prayers constantly. You could define healing in different ways too. In terms of the most basic kind of thinking, will I be healed from cancer? Will I be cancer-free and live a long, happy, healthy life? I doubt it.”
At one point, Sargent was angry with God. He knows that it’s possible ̶ but highly unlikely ̶ he will have a full recovery. He will die; it’s just a question of when. And he’s made peace with that.
“Faith is more important, understanding that this is part of a larger plan. It’s not about me. It’s not about I’m getting punished for something I did in the past,” Sargent explained. “It’s a much broader play happening on the stage, and I’m just one character in that.
“Healing may come in different ways that don’t include me being around.”
Sargent pulls out his crucifix from under his shirt to show us during the interview. We ask: When you see Christ on the cross, what goes through your mind, as you face your own mortality?
“I think about that quite a bit,” Sargent said. “Ok, I’m suffering today. I’m tired. I’m having to vomit. You think, ‘This is so much better than being crucified and dragging a cross through town and up a hill in front of your own community.’
“He died a much worse death, a horrible death, for us out of a gift of love. And so for me, it helps me endure whatever I’m going through, because I know it could be a lot worse. That someone intentionally chose to go through that for us? It’s pretty mind-blowing. It gives me strength for sure.”
Pastorino said faith has given her husband “a channel for all his insecurities and a strength that he didn’t have before” and an outlet for her to talk to God about her own fears.
Despite the challenges, Sargent hopes to have a “good death,” which yet undefined for him. But as his health declines, as his body slows down, Sargent certainly knows what it isn’t.
“I think about Medical Assistance in Dying as an example. That’s not an option for me,” he said. “It’s not so much because the Catholic Church says it’s not an option for you, as a Catholic. It’s more about, I want my children to know that I fought as long as possible to me with them and to be there for them.”
“I want to play it out as long as possible,” Sargent said.
“In some ways I’ve already been going through a death process in terms of less energy, I’ve lost my career, I have less income … I just don’t have the energy to sustain the social life that I used to. I don’t play sports like I used to. That’s part of death.
“It’s a long process which I’m thankful for because it helps me accept what I’m going through. It helps others accept. It helps me prepare from a practical perspective,” he said.
“A good death is one with honour. You don’t feel like you’ve left any stone unturned, to be there for your family and support them. You feel like you’re close with Christ, ideally accepting when it comes.”
When times are tough, he calls or texts Carmichael and asks for advice or a Scripture reading, These days he spends as much time with Sofia and his daughters as he can. He surrounds himself with small group of close friends and family.
“He’s just chill,” Pastorino said. “He adapts to a lot of things, and I think that’s how he’s been handling this so well … Even now when I tell this story to people we’ve just met, it sounds awful. It sounds like a soap opera. But every single day has its blessings. Every single day there’s happiness to be found. The kids are a joy. Everything is beautiful in spite of all this.”
Ironically, Pastorino said their cancer ordeal has made their marriage stronger in spite of her frustration. They spend little time concerned over mundane aspects of life. Sargent’s cancer has laser-focused the family on what’s important – time with each other.
“I don’t think it’s made me question my faith, but it challenges my thinking about what God’s plan is for me, I guess,” Sargent said, now betraying a hint of emotion.
“I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at. I probably would not have been baptized this year if it wasn’t for cancer. It’s brought me closer to my family for sure. We’ve always been a close family, but it’s strengthened those bonds.”
“It’s been a blessing for me and others around me too.”