I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the waste places. I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
Psalm 102:6, 7 NRSV
The note in my New Revised Standard Version says this psalm is “A prayer of one afflicted, when faint and pleading before the LORD.” I don’t know what the psalmist was experiencing when writing these words, but the images sure sound like cancer to me. In addition to wilderness and waste places, the psalm also refers to groaning loudly, eating ashes for bread and dropping tears in my drink, withering like grass, and feeling as if God has picked me up and tossed me aside. For the first eleven verses, metaphors of misery pile up on the page.
Cancer is a wilderness, a waste place. We live there, even if we’re well enough to keep working and caring for our families during treatment. Our bodies are wasted, if not by the disease, then by the treatment. We are tired, and our minds are weary beyond anything we’ve ever known; yet too many nights we lie awake, thinking, praying, hoping, pleading. In the night, we are especially lonely birds, perhaps missing the camaraderie of our chemo buddies and the comforting competence of our chemo nurse or our doctor.
Even the people who are dearest to us cannot help if they have not had cancer themselves; they do not know what it feels like to slosh around with a belly full of healing chemicals suspended in fluid, or to struggle to eat because everything—even water—tastes metallic. Some of us do try to spare and shield those we love, but the truth is, there aren’t words to communicate what this experience is like.
In verse 12 of the psalm, there is a turning point, beginning with those lovely words “But you, O LORD.” When I shift the focus from myself and my wilderness, I observe a contrast. God endures forever. My days may be shortened, as verse 23 reminds, and earth and heaven both will perish, but God endures and is unchanging. And somehow, because we are in God, we too will go on, in ways we cannot yet understand.
The pain and the loneliness are real—I do not mean to mitigate the horror that is cancer. It’s just that pain and loneliness are not the only or the final words, not in this psalm and not in our lives. We need to keep reading the psalm, keep reading our lives, to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness.