New Hampshire writer Joseph Monninger on living with terminal cancer


For the Monitor

Published: 03-02-2023 5:58 PM

Three days into his retirement, Joseph Monninger received a phone call from his doctor.

It was the spring of 2021, and Monninger was standing outside his cabin in Pembroke, Maine, shoveling a walking path that overlooked the Pennamaquan Bay. The Warren-based author had been teaching writing at Plymouth State for 32 years, and in his mind, this was the beginning of his new life.

But the news on the phone altered all those plans.

Monninger hadn’t smoked in 30 years, so when he began experiencing shortness of breath weeks before, he only worried about bronchitis or low-grade pneumonia. That day, he learned what he had was actually terminal lung cancer, which had metastasized. He might not make it to Labor Day.

At the time, his partner, Susan, and some of his friends were on their way to Maine. There were plans to go salmon fishing. There were plans to retire here.

“I put the phone back in my pocket, and thought, what do you do? Do you finish shoveling the dirt in the path? Are you supposed to run into the sea pulling your hair out?” Monninger said via phone. “Ultimately, you can’t do anything. You have to just kind of accept it.”

Monninger says learning he had a terminal illness made clear which elements of his life were trivial and which were not. Some plans had to be altered – building a larger retirement home on the coast of Maine probably wouldn’t happen now – but overall, he says he felt satisfied with his time here and at peace with this destiny.

“I don’t believe in bucket lists. I think you should do things that are important to you as life goes on,” he said. “We all know we’re going to die, but nobody really accepts it. We almost have to repress that knowledge to live a healthy, forward-looking life. If you dwelled on it, you’d be paralyzed. To me, suddenly, I had that recognition: today’s the day I’m told most likely how I’m going to die.”

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Midway through summer, Monninger received another surprise from oncologists, a good surprise, this time. He was a genetic match for a treatment that would suppress the growth of his cancer, a treatment that was not a cure-all but would prolong his life and give him more time.

With the pill, the average life expectancy is three years, but he says some live as long as ten and some don’t live very long at all. He says it’s a strange feeling, to come to peace with the idea he was dying and then to be told that, actually, he had more time.

“But how much time? What can I do?” he said. “It’s a strange zone. You’re living, but you’re also waiting, in this weird way.”

Throughout it all, Monninger wrote, mostly in his Warren backyard cabin. Writing kept his mind occupied, but it was also what he knew. He’s written novels for adults and children, articles, essays, and books whose subjects range from New England barns to legendary boxing matches. Generally, the goal is one thousand words a day.

“I wrote down, ‘I’m dying,’ and spun off that. What was new about that? Everybody’s going to die. What was so interesting about it? How do we live while dying? I don’t have a big answer,” he said. “But I tried to illustrate how to keep going once we have that news.”

These words became the first of Monninger’s memoir, Goodbye to Clocks Ticking: How We Live While Dying, which will be released by Steerforth Press this March and chronicles Monninger’s journey in coming to peace with the fact that his days are limited. The title references Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and the cover image – three blue cranes mid-flight – references Monninger’s trip to see the annual migration of cranes at Nebraska’s Rowe Sanctuary last spring.

“It turned out to be this magnificent thing, a triumphant testament to life,” he said. “You can stand on a bridge and see maybe 20,000 or 30,000 birds in the sky, the sun on their wings.”

Monninger’s been thinking about traveling somewhere warm in the immediate future, but his illness limits his activities. Is it a good idea to go on a remote fishing trip in Maine by himself? Could he risk getting on an airplane, knowing COVID-19 could be a possibility?

Regardless, he’s still writing. A bit of poetry, a couple new novels. Is that crazy, he asks? Considering how little time he could have left?

It’s the kind of thing not worth worrying about anymore.

“There are some things I don’t sweat. I don’t have as long to go, and there’s a consolation in that,” he said.

Goodbye to Clocks Ticking: How We Live While Dying will be released on March 14. Monninger visits Gibson’s Bookstore for an author talk on March 8, at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit