Friday, December 31, 2010

Let Me Not Be Ashamed

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me . . . . Protect my life and deliver me; let me not be put to shame, for I have trusted in you.
Psalm 25: 1, 19

            When I was a child, cancer was a word that was only whispered, not to be discussed in polite company. Although my favorite aunt had breast cancer when I was a teenager, we didn’t talk about the disease. Although we saw her squeezing a rubber ball she used to regain muscle strength after surgery, we didn’t discuss the surgery. We still don’t. I have no idea how extensive her surgery was.
            Now the word cancer is everywhere, just one more term among the list of topics banned from conversation during the 1950s. And yet, there is still—I hope only among people of my generation and older—a tendency to wrap ourselves in tattered remnants of the old idea: cancer is a shameful disease, something you brought on yourself. She wouldn’t have gotten lung cancer if she hadn’t smoked. If he didn’t drink, he wouldn’t have liver cancer. You should have had more children; I heard there’s a link between number of children and ovarian cancer. Or you’re suspected of having a secret rage that brought on this disease. Only Type A, angry people get cancer; despite the sunny demeanor you’ve shown the world, there must be some hidden part of you that smolders like Vesuvius, erupting as cancer. You must really be a person of little or no faith, because if you had faith, the disease would disappear. There are many documented cases of prayer curing cancer—what’s the matter with your faith? The whisperings go on behind your back—or maybe escape in rage and despair to your face.
            Recurrences offer an opportunity for us to turn the shame on ourselves with more useless questions without answers. Why didn’t I take better care of myself, eat better, exercise more?
            All of these accusations, voiced or not, make us almost long for our next chemo or radiation treatment. There were can be among people who understand that having cancer is bad enough without adding shame or blame to it. Shame is a useless emotion. Anger has its uses—it can be a great fuel—but shame just debilitates us further. And nobody wins the Blame Game.
            I want to believe in a benevolent God who shares my concerns, who has a plan. I may not be at the center of that plan, as I’d been taught to believe as a child. I may simply be part of something bigger going on, a minor character in the drama of someone else’s story. If cancer has a higher purpose (and I am not entirely sure that it does) then perhaps that purpose is for someone else: a caregiver, a family member, a parishioner, a doctor or nurse. Contrary to my deepest instincts, it’s not always about me.
            When these negative emotions arise or are hurled our way, the only thing we can do is lift up our soul to God. We need to trust that God is holding us through this experience and will spare us from our “enemies”: cancer cells and misguided friends alike.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Confusion of All the Saints

When I was tested for hearing loss, I was told I might have trouble hearing in noisy settings. My hearing loss wasn’t severe enough to require hearing aids; nothing on the market was sensitive enough to help me. I might have trouble hearing consonants clearly, the audiologist said. That difficulty explains why as we age, we complain everyone else is mumbling: we miss the consonants.
I’ve found that mild hearing loss brings unexpected pleasures. I’ve heard the prayers and liturgy of the Episcopal Church for more than twenty years now, and I know them fairly well. Recently during the Prayers of the People, however, I heard something new, because I heard incorrectly. The leader of the prayer says, “In the communion of all the saints, let us commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life, to Christ our God.” To which the congregation responds, “To you, O Lord our God.”
My mind moves in the same predictable tracks. Usually, when we get to this pledge, I think about Roman soldiers who had to swear their allegiance to Caesar, and how our liturgy and Scriptures were shaped by the times in which they were created. But I heard “In the confusion of all the saints . . . ” and my mind veered off onto a new track.
I suppose the saints are a confused mass for most of us who can’t tell Lucy from Monica or Anthony from Francis. More than that, however, I was thinking about how the saints were confused, too, just as I often am. The way was not clear to them every day; they made mistakes, even the best of them, and sometimes made decisions they later regretted. For this, I love them. A perfect saint is of no use to me, muddling along with all my imperfections. Later that very morning I snapped unkindly and unjustly at a fellow parishioner, only half aware of why I was angry. That’s me, right there in the confusion of all the saints.
Communing or confusing, we can commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life, to Christ. Everything belongs to God anyway; it’s good for us to admit it. Following the Prayers of the People is the confession of sin. It’s a relief to say, “Here's the mess I have to offer you. Please help me straighten it out and not do it again.”
One day we will join those saints who have gone before, who are now in the “nearer presence of God,” as the liturgy says. Our confusions will join with theirs. With God’s grace, the good things we have done will be part of the circle too, and will be remembered with love.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Holding It All In

I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. I think of God, and I moan; I meditate,  and my spirit faints.
Psalm 77:1-3 NRSV

After I had finished treatment, I attended a meditation practice and healing circle. At the end of our practice, we made two circles with our bodies, one facing out and one facing in. We lifted our arms to form a canopy that each of us walked under in turn while the others—mostly women, mostly not-young—sent healing to us.
            The first time I walked in a healing circle, I cried. Yesterday, I saw two women across from me in the circle, tears streaming down their faces. When the circle ended, I went to one of the women, who was still trying to gain control. Not sure whether to risk a hug, I touched her shoulder lightly and asked if she would be all right. “Yes,” she said. “You just hold it all in.” Suddenly I realized what I’d unconsciously willed myself not to see: her thick, lustrous hair was a wig.
            Her words brought everything back: the effort to repress it all, the willing myself not to share, to unburden. “It” varied. Sometimes “it” was fear for my very life or anger that this was happening to sweet, undeserving me. At other times “it” was sadness at the loss of health and the likely shortening of my lifespan. “It” was also a weariness, regardless of how long I slept, deeper than that caused by any all-nighter I’d ever known. And “it” was the way even water, never mind food, had begun to taste bad.
Let’s see—on whom do I want to shove this burden? I knew my friends and family were already worried, praying, and helping. No more burdens for them. My oncologist saw women every day in the same or worse shape, and, as a healthy young man, was blessedly ignorant of cancer’s day-to-day realities. I was also learning that the only people who “got” what I tried to say were those who’d already been there, some of whom were once again struggling with their own health issues, or were second- or third-time chemo patients I met. How could I complain to them?
When I was in college “Take two psalms and call me in the morning” was our prescription for difficulties. I am struck by how perfectly Psalm 77 describes my experience of cancer. Crying, moaning, sleeplessness, feeling cast off, the endless questions: what did I do to bring this on? has God’s love ceased? is God not powerful enough to help?—and then the turn in the psalm, when the writer begins to remember the past mighty deeds of God, to talk himself or herself down from the ledge. We do not need to “hold it all in.” God is big enough to handle our anger, fear, or sorrow. God works wonders, the psalmist reminds us; not, perhaps, the spontaneous and permanent remission we want, but wonders we could not have imagined before becoming a cancer-dancer.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bright Darkness

You, O LORD are my lamp; my God, you make my darkness bright.
Psalm 18:29

            One of the fallacies that sometimes attaches itself to Christianity (and other religions, for all I know) is that adherents are protected from all normal human ills. Sickness won’t touch you as long as you walk in faith, stay in the light, or any other phrase in vogue for guaranteeing prosperity of all sorts. Illness or reversal of fortune must mean you are secretly sinning or doubting, leading to the further complication of guilt and low self-esteem or to questioning what you did to bring this on.
            You did nothing. It is not your fault. You didn’t plan, ask for, or want cancer. You didn’t sin, and God didn’t cause it—neither to help you grow nor to chastise you. Some things just are. We live in a world that has been damaged, whether you believe in a literal fall from Eden or you blame corporate interests for creating Superfund sites.
             Passages such as the one above are a comfort to me. God makes our darkness bright, as a lamp brightens a room. When the psalms were written, the lamp would have been an oil lamp that burned some plant or animal fat, possibly smelly, almost certainly smoky. Not a great deal of light—unless you were in the middle of the deep darkness few of us in the west know anything about, with our electrically-powered 24-hours-a-day worlds of light.
            I am comforted because although the passage doesn’t say that I won’t ever be in darkness, it assures me that darkness is normal and to be expected. But God is with me there in the darkness. When I can’t see much—and don’t like what I do see: a bald, scarred, bloated woman with a bruise on her arm from the latest IV—it’s good to have someone there to be light.
            I was going to add, even if that someone is intangible, but that feels false. I think of all the human manifestations of brightness in my darkness, those people who have been Jesus to me, who prepared and delivered food for me, took me out for rides in the car when I was unable to drive, cleaned my apartment or read poetry to me. Each one was doing God’s work, being light in my darkness. That’s what we’re called to be and do for each other.
            It’s a bitterly cold afternoon. The sun was out earlier, but we’re now back to winter gray. A minute more of daylight has begun, even if I can’t see that extra minute for the thick snow clouds. Over the next several months, those minutes will lengthen the days, until I can enjoy sunshine until after nine p.m. The darkness is not the end.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Body Under Siege

Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.

Psalm 31:21 New Revised Standard Version

I remember the curfew when I was a teen in Akron and the city exploded in race riots. Because we lived in the suburbs, the curfew didn’t affect me much. And I remember, after the worst fighting had ended, going into downtown Santa Cruz, Bolivia (where I had traveled during college summer break for a five-week mission trip) and seeing the snipers on the rooftops. Again, I was outside the city proper, working at an orphanage, where we were largely unaffected by the violence.
            Now I live, not in a city under siege, but in what feels like a body under siege from cancer. We all do, of course—pathogens and carcinogens assault us all daily. Most of us can ignore that fact, most of the time. It’s only when the immune system fails that we realize the extent of the damage we’ve experienced, through our own choices and those of others.
            The siege doesn’t lift simply because we are people of faith. History is replete with examples of cities that endured long sieges with great heart and peoples who died with hope intact. What remains during a siege—or any other extreme situation—is God’s steadfast love.
            That love is generally communicated to me through other people. I’ve been reading about the incredible generosity of the Chinese people to one another following the devastating 2008 earthquake. I know this generous spirit firsthand. I am tired of having cancer, tired of procedures and surgeries major and minor. My “home team,” however, does not seem to weary of aiding me. People have once again mobilized to get me to appointments and hospitals, to make sure I am not alone after surgery, that I am fed with good things before the prohibition against food kicks in the night before. They ask what I need, listen to me whine (or let me know it’s time now to stop whining), plan events to distract me, and remind me that there’s more to the world than my own body and its multiple tumors. Although their manifesting of God’s love does not end the siege, it does make it more bearable.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Brought Very Low

The Lord watches over the innocent; I was brought very low, and (the Lord) helped me. Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well. For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
Psalm 116:5, 6, 7

In one sense, we are all innocents before treatment, which is an initiation ceremony like no other. I did very well in chemotherapy, as my nurse kept telling me, but often during those four months I found myself thinking, I had no idea.
            Cancer seems to me one of the most potent ways to be brought very low. Along with the reality that our lives are at risk, the indignities of treatment also bring us low. Most women I know regard losing their hair as a loss that cannot be made right with the simple assurance, Hair grows back, or the brusque “encouragement,” Be glad you’re alive. In addition, once we realize that we are going to live (for now, at any rate) we must deal with insurance forms and ever-mounting bills that result from our attempts to monitor the disease and to remain well.
            Eventually we regain the strength lost to the powerful drugs. “You won’t feel like yourself all at once,” my oncologist cautioned when he released me for three months after chemotherapy ended. Friends who knew about chemo said I’d need a month to six weeks before I would feel something like myself. Although I had days near the end of chemo when I took three naps, I was determined to regain strength and stamina. I began walking half a block, then a full block, then two. At first the walks were a chore, and I carried a treasured walking stick because I felt unsteady; soon it felt good to move freely again.
Hair does grow back, slowly, and perhaps not the way it used to be. Mine was curlier than usual. Friends thought it was darling; I hated it, even though I was glad not to be bald. Every time I looked in the mirror, I was reminded that I’d been in chemo, and that it continued to affect me. Because I was trying to avoid anything that might set off mutant cells, I quit coloring my hair, so it was gray mixed with mousey brown fur. The first time I needed a haircut, I looked at the wisps on the black cape and told my stylist, “It looks like rabbit fur,” and he had to agree. He told me it would take perhaps eighteen months for my hair to regain its usual texture, and he was right.
After treatment, we do turn again to a more restful soul, although we may find a new vigilance in that soul. We feel and express our gratitude to God, to our treatment team, to our family and friends who have sustained us. We stop crying, walk without stumbling, and have the beautiful sense that we have been rescued.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jesus Visits Steak and Shake

Being in treatment for cancer was like starring in my very own reality show 24/7: all cancer, all the time. I don't want this blog to be like that. So today, on Jesus' birthday, I thought I'd share a meditation about spotting him unexpectedly. 

Jesus sat one table over from me at Steak and Shake in western Indiana on a trip I took a few years ago. I wasn’t expecting him there, which was of course foolish of me. At first he didn’t look like Jesus—big, beefy, and blond, wearing a plain gray t-shirt and blue jeans. Watching him, however, I realized his true identity.
            After I ordered, a couple came in and sat down next to each other in a booth, but they weren’t lovebirds. He was angry, speaking coarsely and harshly to her, disturbing the restaurant's family atmosphere. He personified my father’s descriptive phrase, “He looked rough.” She was told not to say another word, and she did not, but sat blocked in and cowed.
            The manager on duty, a twenty-something young woman, delivered Jesus’ meal, and they began quietly to discuss the couple. She didn’t want to interfere in someone else’s business, she said. “They’re bothering others,” Jesus said. “If you want to confront him, I’ve got your back.”
            The man and woman went outside together, where the tirade continued, with the man poking the air, though he hadn’t touched the woman. But both Jesus and the manager were watching. We all hoped he wouldn’t hit her. The manager debated calling the police number for domestic violence; Jesus didn’t remember the number off the top of his head.
            Without physical violence, the man re-entered the restaurant and sat down. The woman stayed outside long enough to smoke a cigarette. I found myself praying for her, and for the man who treated her that way. When she came in, their food arrived at the table, and amity seemed restored. I went back to reading.
            When I finished my meal, I stopped by the table where Jesus sat to thank him. I noticed that his blue eyes were bloodshot, as if he’d been gazing at far distances through smoke.
            He waved away my thanks. “You don’t know about people,” he told me. “That could have been the first fight they ever had.”
            I didn’t think so, but it was typical of Jesus to give people the benefit of the doubt.
            “Everybody makes mistakes. You never know.”
            I realized I was in the presence of the Jesus of John 8, the one who just doodled in the dust while accusations against a woman flew around. That Jesus finally looked at the crowd of men and said, “He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”
In the twenty-first century Jesus said, “I’ve been coming to this restaurant for fifteen years. These girls work harder than anyone I know. She didn’t need that kind of hassle.”
I was tearing up, and thought it better to go before I started blubbering all over Jesus. I thanked him again and left, praying that he was—as he so often has been—right about someone.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Giving it Away

Not that I'd planned it for this date, but apparently I'm giving away my writing just in time for Christmas. I've been thinking about this blog for a long time as a way to share some ponderings about living with cancer and my faith as a Christian. The two are interrelated, of course. But I found after cancer diagnosis that I read the psalms differently. I knew something about enemies, for example, that I hadn't before—I'd spiritualized them: my temper, my pride, my ten thousand "little" faults. Now cancer cells were the enemy out to destroy my life.
I was diagnosed with Stage IIIB ovarian cancer the week before Christmas, 2006. I went through a newly approved chemotherapy following major surgery. In January of 2008, a shadow on a CTscan led to further surgery. Turned out I hit the double jackpot, with Stage I (noninvasive, lowgrade) bladder cancer as well. Both are currently in remission.
I have a friend who believes that nothing really happens to me until I've written about it. After my diagnosis, at the suggestion of a friend, I bought a four-inch stack of 4 x 6 cards (the ovarian tumor was 4 x 6 x 4) and began writing. The cards could hold thoughts I didn't want to share with friends; they incarnated my experience.

What does it mean that Jesus became incarnate, Emmanuel, God-with-us? Among other things, cancer has taught me that it means I'm not alone—not walking into the chemo room or waking up after surgery with body parts removed. Not walking through the valley of the shadow of death, which is what cancer is for me. Not death, not yet, but it's shadow is there, a shadow that deepens every time I lose a friend to this hideous disease.
If you're looking for a blog about cancer being the best thing that ever happened to the writer, that would be someone else's blog. My hope is to alternate short, honest posts (for me, that's 300-500 words) on each topic. If you've read A Week to Pray About It, my published book, the style is similar. (If you haven't read it, please buy a copy, read it, and post a positive, sincere review on Amazon!)
So, we begin, on a night of hope—one of the three cardinal virtues—dear reader. Be well and warm.