Monday, February 28, 2011

Left Alone in the Dark

My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion.
Psalm 88:19 Book of Common Prayer

To be honest, I have never felt this degree of isolation. I have experienced a horrible inversion of it, days when I wished my friends and neighbors would go away and leave me to the darkness. Not for very long, just for a little bit, and only on a day when I wanted to be left alone. Some days, I yearn for human contact, some distraction to get my thoughts traveling on a different path.
            I’ve had days when I could barely stand other people and wasn’t fond of my own company either. I do not know what prompts such days; I only know that by the time I am eating breakfast and reading psalms, I am praying my most desperate prayer: please don’t let me hurt anybody. Because I know that I am capable of wounding those I love, carelessly and with glee.
            Many years ago I heard a performance piece of a Vietnam veteran’s story. He’d adopted a puppy while overseas; each night he would twist the dog’s paw until the poor creature cried. He justified his actions by explaining that he wanted something else to hurt as much as he did. (Thankfully, his actions didn’t square with the person he thought and wished himself to be; he gave away the dog.)
            When I listened to that piece being performed, my face twisted in horror, but now I understand that serviceman’s feelings. I occasionally want to lash out at someone else, too, to make them feel as hurt and bewildered as cancer has left me. Where did that come from? What did I do to deserve that?
            Nothing. You did nothing, and neither did I. These miserable days are hard to explain, even to myself—emotional ambushes, like snipers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There is just this darkness that comes.
Several years before I was diagnosed, a friend of mine was undergoing treatment for cancer, losing weight and strength as well as hair. I just wanted her to eat. I’d take her pretty food that I thought would be easy to get down, easy to digest; if she ate any of it, I’d leave with a sense of pride. When I was in treatment, I finally understood why she didn’t care about eating. I apologized to her for being so “helpful.”
            Does this mean we shouldn’t take food to people on chemo, or invite them to outings, or call them to check in? No. Everyone responds differently to treatment and to kindness. Most days, I am more than glad to hear from friends and neighbors.
            On very bad days, which don’t come often, I can only pray that people will stay away or that I will have the grace to be kind. I try all my usual remedies: music, chocolate, the cats, a walk in the woods, a cup of tea, a nap, and writing. I pray not to hurt anyone. I wait for it to go away, listening for the sound of a rescue plane.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Getting Off the Bike Path

A few years ago, I was jogging for my health. This meditation grew out of one morning on a local bike path.

“Come aside and rest for a while,” Jesus invited the disciples in the Gospels. And well he might; they’d been sent out on a preaching tour and were exhilarated and exhausted by their solo efforts. (The text doesn’t say what Jesus did after he sent out the Seventy; perhaps enjoyed some rest and solitude of his own?)
            Those words were in my mind on the paved bike path this morning, where I’d gone to walk and jog because yesterday’s rain had made the ground too muddy. I can sum up in one word the problem with the bike path: bikes. They go entirely too fast, powered by earnest or cheerful people. And I knew that I looked like a poster child for all that I’ve held against joggers and runners—that grim “do or die” expression on my face. When a cheerful man on a bike passed and cheerily called “Good morning,” I let out “Hi” in a tone so grim it was clear I begrudged him the oxygen that the greeting required.
            A warning, then, that grim tone, and one I was eager to heed. I was beginning to have greater empathy for large dogs suffering from hip dysplasia, wondering about a knee brace. Time to get off the well-traveled bike path and explore a side path into the glen that I’d not noticed before.
            My pace slowed as I walked on mulched paths, drier than I’d expected. Finally I dropped my arms to my side and gave up aerobic movement for the time being. I loved moving into the forest with my familiar slower rhythms, enchanted to notice the clusters of white fungus rosettes blooming on a fallen dead tree trunk. The touch-me-nots were still tightly in bud, but so profuse as to narrow the path.
            Come aside and rest. We are all too busy, enslaved to our fast pace, whether on a bike path or at a computer. I can in seconds receive my work in e-files that used to require copying and mailing; naturally it follows thatdeadlines become more constricted, too. I am, as someone put it, living too fast.
            The path continued to be relatively dry and very interesting. I’d thought I’d known all of the ways to enter the glen, but here was either a new or a forgotten one to explore. I followed it until it started down into the gorge (which I knew would mean the exertion of climbing back up out of the gorge), and then walked back toward the car. On the way, I passed a welcome sign that reminded me “Go softly. We are guests here.” I took it as a challenge—rest, go softly. Don’t become trapped by the ever-faster quest for efficiency and productivity. You are more than what you do.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Hopeful Body

I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.
My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope.
Psalm 16: 8, 9 Book of Common Prayer

I wanted a woman doctor for my ovarian cancer, but there wasn’t one in my region. I wasn’t up for road trips, especially by the time I needed a gynecologic oncologist—after the blood work, the CATscan, the ultrasound. By then, every literal bump in the road sent off seismic waves of pain.
            I came to love my gyn-onc, despite his maleness; so, when I needed another specialist for what we learned was bladder cancer, I took his recommendation. The first time I met the bladder surgeon, I said, “My name is Judy. I don’t want a bag. Ever.” This has become my standard greeting to anyone dealing with my bladder.
The man was a good surgeon, though devoid of the comforting bedside manner I so much appreciated in my first specialist. After what was supposed to have been a “look-see” became a surgery to remove what he termed the largest bladder tumor he’d seen in five years, he sent me home. With a bag. For three days. This did not endear him to me. Nor did it change my mind about having a bag on a permanent basis.
Convinced we were dealing with a new and separate cancer, rather than a recurrence of ovarian cancer, the two men recommended a woman oncologist specializing in bladders. In her office, I finally sobbed as I had not been able to do with my male doctors, beloved or not. “I feel such a sense of violation,” I wept. “I am so tired of men poking and prodding and looking at my private parts.”
            She murmured sympathetically, pulled her chair closer, then offered me the standard of care for bladder cancer: chemo, followed by removal of the bladder for safety. And a bag for life.
            The next day I boarded a plane for West Palm Beach with a friend, who’d offered to accompany me. I needed five days of walking the beach to feel like myself again. I came home, fired the surgeon with no bedside manner, and determined to do everything in my power to prevent a recurrence or a bag.
            I failed.
            A year later, I left a different hospital, after a different surgeon removed the latest round of bladder tumors, which I’d had the unhappiness to see on a screen. I left with a bag. For two days. Despite explaining to this man that I didn’t want a bag. Ever. At least he has told me that he doesn’t see a bag in my future on any permanent basis. He calls mine a low-grade, nuisance cancer. That has been the case; I’ve since had another surgery for more of those non-dangerous tumors.
            A glad heart, a rejoicing spirit, a resting and hopeful body—I don’t find these easily achieved. At first, I struggled mightily and daily with my fears. Now the outpatient surgeries, cystoscopies, and CATscans have become almost routine. And now that spring is coming, it’s easier for me to rejoice. I hear hope in the resuming of morning birdsong, see it in the snowdrops that have bloomed. I’m grateful to be here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Now What?

Let me hear of your loving-kindness in the morning, for I put my trust in you; show me the road that I must walk, for I lift up my soul to you.
Psalm 143: 8

            Doctors map out the road we must walk for months or years on our way to renewed health. During my four months of chemo, I had little to do besides show up for my infusion or blood work. My gynecologic oncologist, a model of tact, began outlining his treatment recommendations by saying, “I need your permission to do this . . . ” Still, as he went on to make clear, my signature on a form, while legally required, didn’t give me much choice. I asked him—after being prepped for surgery to insert a port that would deliver chemo directly to my abdomen—to change the protocol so that I wouldn’t lose my hair.
He was quiet for a moment, then called my bluff, saying, “Cisplatin is the most effective drug for your cancer. If we’re not using it, there’s no point in putting you through this.” I wondered if I could do it—demand my clothes and walk out, for the sake of my beautiful hair, which I had just gotten into the length, color and cut I wanted. Of course, being raised to be a good girl, not wanting to have unnecessarily bothered the hospital staff or the surgeon, I allowed the surgery and the treatment.
We began chemo on Groundhog Day; I wanted to burrow underground myself. Forget about shadows—I did not want to see the bald woman I would become after two infusions. My last treatment was in May; in June, after a final CATscan, I was free of the regimen that had filled the previous weeks.
“What do I do now?” I asked my doctor.
He smiled. “The first time I heard that question, it puzzled me,” he said. “Go live your life. Go to The Winds [a great local restaurant in my village], have some wine with your friends. You might want to try less toxic cleaning products.”
I thought my doctor had been a bit simplistic. My new prescription—Go live your life—wasn’t as easy to fill as the one for anti-nausea medicine I could pick up at the pharmacy. I wasn’t sure what that life was now. I was on the other side of a great chasm that had split my life into two time periods: BC, before cancer, and AD, after diagnosis.
Show me the way I must walk. I began reading about how others had survived this disease. I switched not only my cleaning products, but also my beauty care products and my food, opting for more organics in every area of my life. I looked at the activities in which I was involved and dropped the ones that were no longer life-giving. I added one that was, went for counseling, joined a support group. Most of my life still looks outwardly the same. I didn’t move to Costa Rica or take up square dancing, didn’t give up going to church. More than ever, I need the guidance of a spiritual practice, need the fellowship of others to help me see the road I must walk.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Song

 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
Psalm 40:3 New Revised Standard Version

This is one of the six passages in which the psalmist refers to a new song, all of which are supposed to be praise. But I want to protest; I liked the old song just fine, thank you very much. I had worked really hard, more than half a century, really, to get the song of my life just the way I wanted it. It included faith and flowers and friends, good health, good food, and just enough work. Cancer makes me feel as I did when I auditioned to be in a choir I thought was going to perform Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, only to discover that we were doing the Frances Poulenc’s Gloria. I soon found that all modern French composers are not alike! And some days, having cancer feels like moving from Gloria to Requiem. I don’t like this new song.
            The new song sometimes requires singing some jangling, discordant notes in a minor key. I experience a dramatic pause for about a month before my regular blood marker tests, with a crazy movie-track theme “whatifit’sbackwhatifitsback?” running in my head, regardless of anything else that’s going on.
            The great thing about singing in a choir is that mine is not the only voice. When I’m feeling as though only a dirge will do, someone else is doing a riff on alleluia. A good choir requires many voices, well-trained and not, and a director to guide them. Nobody does cancer alone, either. Family and friends are there to provide support, so long as we are clear about what we need/want. The song will likely sound different than the one we used to sing; we may sing the blues instead of hymns some days. But in the great songbook of our lives, we sing a new song of praise: for skilled medical professionals, new treatments that keep us alive, and all the kindness we receive. It may not be the song we would have chosen, but it can still be a song of joy.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Revived to Rejoice

Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
Psalm 85:6 New Revised Standard Version

I belong to a local women’s support group for cancer survivors. We were the tenth such group, limited to fifteen women who would be cared for during an intense ten weeks together. One evening during our group sharing time, the facilitator asked in her sweet Southern voice, “What keeps you going?”
Nearly every woman prefaced her answer by saying, “That’s a tough question.” It reminded me of the scene in the film Princess Bride, when Miracle Max asks the “mostly-dead” Westley, “What do you have that’s worth living for?”
Chemo made me feel mostly dead. I seemed to sleep more hours than I was awake; when I was awake, I wasn’t always very interested in food—except for mashed potatoes and mac and cheese—and I wasn’t thinking very well. Once, near the end of chemo, on a beautiful spring day, I was ready to go ahead and finish dying. I needed to be revived again, just as the Israelites of this psalm needed to be.
That evening in group we went around the semicircle, and gave our off-the-cuff answers. Most women related their need to survive to family members: aging parents, beloved children and grandchildren. My parents are gone; I am single and childless. “I have a book to write,” I said. Each of us gave our version of Westley’s response, “True love.”
            For the psalmist, the reason to be revived was to rejoice in God. That’s a bit abstract for me. Possibly the writer meant some sort of ritual rejoicing; many of the Hebrew religious holidays centered on joyous feasts, such as the one at harvest.
            The need to choose joy every day, every moment is one of the cancer support group’s emphases. I now wear a bracelet that one of the members made, with a heart-shaped charm that says Joy on it. No matter our circumstances, even in chemo, we can choose to rejoice in God, in all of the gifts God sends daily, to revel in being alive, in true love.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Stone Heart

 Before I was diagnosed with cancer or was aware of any symptoms, I created a DIY spiritual retreat at a convent near where I used to live in Florida. Reading over this meditation, which grew out of that experience, I am touched--within six months, the cancer journey would begin, and a stone heart would not have been a helpful accessory.

The Atlantic Ocean had worn the brown stone into a rough heart shape. Seeing the hole in it and hoping to string it for a necklace, as I’ve done with other rocks and shells, I picked it up. Then I noticed that a tiny shell was jammed into the hole. I thought I might dislodge it with my finger, but doing so would require a different instrument.
            I placed the stone with the other finds on the desk in my room, thinking of Anne Morrow Lindberg’s classic meditation Gift From the Sea. On the final day of my retreat, I realized that the stone heart was like my heart: the hole in it filled over the years with things as pretty and useless as the tiny shell now embedded in that stone. My heart was both hole-y and jammed, which was why I’d booked this three-day retreat in the first place.
            An outdoor labyrinth had been constructed on the front lawn of the retreat center. I wanted to walk it before supper. I’d noticed that other pilgrims before me had left small tokens at the labyrinth’s center. I decided to take my stone heart and place it there.
            In Ezekiel 11:19–20, God promises “I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” At the end of a year with several painful losses, I’d grown a stony heart for self-preservation. It’s how I overcompensate for years of being chided about my sensitivity. “You wear your heart right here,” one friend had said, patting his shirt sleeve. The only way to protect a heart so exposed is to toughen it. Seal it like a scarab beetle in amber, so that people admire its beauty and forget it is dead.
            Allowing feelings, even—perhaps especially—the painful ones, sends the life blood coursing into the heart once more, bringing health to the entire body. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in trying to describe his conversion, Methodism’s founder John Wesley said, “My heart was strangely warmed.” Despite the risks, I’ve decided to ask for a warm heart of flesh rather than one of stone.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Gift of Presence

Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land, there is nothing that can shake me, she has said she won’t forsake me, I’m in her hand.
Psalm 23: 4, Bobby McFerrin’s translation

Psalm 23 and I are old friends—more than any other Scripture, it was my comfort during chemotherapy. The beauty of holy words, however, is that new meanings can always be found. Just recently the basis for comfort became clearer to me.
The fact of God’s presence is the foundation of the fearlessness claimed in verse four. Because God is with me at all times, even during treatment, I do not need to fear. God is a companion, the one with whom I break bread, even on days when I can’t keep down food. There is no place I can go that is outside the presence and persistent friendship of God.
            Even though I’m in remission, I need these reminders. Four years after beginning chemo, the panic still rises a weeks before my regular checkups. When people ask how I am, my stock response is, “I’m fine until they tell me otherwise.” I feel fine, but I have learned that my sense of well-being is not finely tuned enough to detect the presence of cancer. So I wait for the tests. And I get a little crazy as they draw near, playing “what if?”—a game I cannot win.
            Somehow, I never play a version of “what if?” that has happy outcomes. “What if I’m still clean?” never comes to mind. Instead I imagine variations on “What if it’s back?” I have a friend who prefers to play the game “Wouldn’t it be great if . . . ?” and to surround herself with positive thinking. She is clearly a better person than I am.
            I am trying to learn to breathe deeply, to remember the reality that I am in God’s hand, that I am not alone. I manage it sometimes. Before my last outpatient surgery, I remembered something that Charlotte had said in a sermon. I was able to walk into the cancer center thinking of her words, “God is already here before me. I am not alone.” I know from my own experience that God is also in the chemo room, the examining rooms, the hospital ward. I know—through the companionship of my friends, those with cancer and those who support us—that God does not leave us.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Taking Fear for a Walk

I wrote this piece two summers ago; during these chilly winter days, it's nice to recall being too warm in August and wanting ice cream. 

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
Acts 2: 2, 3

The apartment’s four walls were too confining tonight—the fear chased me all around, leaving me no escape. I had to get outside, even though I’d already been on one walk today. The fear needed more room.
            My fear-plate was full: my health (fine now, but what will happen at the next checkup?); my finances (will the next job ever start?); the well-being of friends (how will she manage another surgery, followed by another round of chemo?). My mind was like a 5-CD disc changer, rotating among the fears.
            I felt better as soon as I stepped out into the late evening; the air has already begun to change, to smell of autumn. I had time enough to walk to the Corner Cone before it closed, and a coupon. How bad could life be?
            I heard the drums before I saw them, and quickened my steps to match their beat. On the elementary school’s lawn, a young man wearing protective goggles, his hair tied back with a scarf, was playing with fire. I wondered if he had a desire to be a Hawaiian fire-eater. He had a pole about five feet long that he balanced on his shoulders, threw in the air, and twirled. Six drummers sat on the ground or on chairs, providing his backbeat. A small crowd of observers gathered, the children most visibly delighted by the show. I kept walking, but after I got my chocolate cone, I joined the growing crowd.
            I do that, I thought. Many people do, although we do so metaphorically, playing with the fire, the passion of our lives, lighting both ends, hoping to dazzle, not to drop the baton or to set our surroundings on fire.
It’s no wonder that on Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended in flames of fire.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wisdom of the Secret Heart

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Psalm 51:6 New Revised Standard Version

I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to be truthful, with myself at least, if not always completely so with others. I do not want to lie to myself about what I want or who I am. Although this isn’t an easy discipline, it won’t get me to wisdom. That’s something God alone gives, and it seems to come through difficult experiences.
            This week I’ve had to shed another illusion about living with cancer. I’m still new at this disease; in an academic setting, I’d say I hadn’t yet figured out the prof.
            A friend once told me of a theologian’s view that we needed a mature faith, which meant losing our first naivete. And then our second naivete. I don’t know how many layers of naivete this man had identified, or what they were. But I have now discovered my own two layers of naivete about cancer.
            Early in chemotherapy, I lost the first naivete—that I would endure this treatment and then be done with cancer, aside from check-ups, which would all be clear. One afternoon in the chemo room, the other women were comparing notes: how many recurrences they’d had, how much time they’d had before recurrence, what drugs they’d been on, how many times they’d lost their hair. I had to face the reality that in the future I might be in their shoes, even though I didn’t see how I could possibly go through a second chemo regimen. I lost a layer of naivete. By the end of treatment, I realized I could, if necessary, do this again. Not willingly, and not graciously, but to save my life I could.
            The second naivete I needed to lose was feeling that I could do something to prevent a recurrence—change my diet, take a lot of supplements, practice qigong and other alternative healing methods, eliminate the chemicals I used in cleaning, exercise regularly, stop coloring my hair and painting my nails, continue my involvement at church. Think positively: there was no reason for me to have a recurrence. This naivete took a beating when I was diagnosed with a second cancer, but I thought perhaps six months of change hadn’t been sufficient. After the second cancer was removed (without additional chemo), surely I had now earned a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
            And then the second cancer came back. More than once. My doctor calls it a “nuisance cancer,” prone to recur, sometimes within months. Upset doesn’t begin to describe how I felt looking at the screen that showed the lumen of my bladder and its five clumps of tumors, knowing they meant another outpatient surgery.
I have begun to shed the second level of naivete. God is in charge of teaching my heart a wisdom that it can learn only through this experience.
I think that tonight I will polish my nails.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Complaint Department

 But I call upon God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he will hear my voice.
Psalm 55:16, 17 New Revised Standard Version

Early in my life, I somehow got the idea that I wasn’t to bother God with my little concerns. I had been taught that God cared about the sparrows, that I was to cast all my care on God. I knew people who prayed not only for the sick but also for a parking space or a pair of nylons without a run in them. These prayers seemed to me beneath God’s dignity. There was also the matter of my father, who occasionally threatened, “If you want to cry, I’ll give you something to cry about.” The Bible said God was a father; if God were like my father, and I complained about my lot—a test, a bad cold, a zit—might not God give me something to really complain about? At least that’s how I reconstruct the thinking of my younger self.
            I became very adept at my little game with God. I managed to split my reality from my doctrinal beliefs, which said that God knew everything. So when I prayed, I didn’t bring up my pain, physical or emotional. I figured God gave me a brain, and I should use it to solve my own problems, leaving God free to deal with big stuff like world hunger.
            This passage indicates that God does not weary of our complaining and moaning. The psalmist writes of three times daily lamenting before God, and of being heard. Cancer brings loads of material for the complaint department: physical pain and discomfort; loss of hair, dignity, or income; decreasing time for necessary and pleasurable tasks. In addition, there are the fears about our very survival and our economic situation.
            I’m still more prone to pray for others than for my own needs. It feels selfish to go repeatedly to God moaning because I have another test coming up. (Now, facing medical tests, I wouldn’t mind a college blue book exam!) When I observe my friends in the cancer world, I see people who have had serious recurrences and surgeries. Always, it seems that someone else is worse off and needs prayer far more than I do.
            I can count on the prayers of other people; I have friends who regularly mention my heath and general well-being to God. Yet when I’m overwhelmed, it’s a relief to know I don’t have to hide behind a facade of cheerfulness when I pray. I can tell God the truth, not just because God already knows, but because God cares.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Remission Bridge

For you have rescued me from every trouble, and my eye has seen the ruin of my foes.
Psalm 54:7 Book of Common Prayer

At a recent check-up for one of my cancers, only two “miniscule” spots showed up; my oncologist decided to ignore them for now. I am thinking of myself as being rescued, my cancer cell foes in ruin. I still consider myself to be in remission. This morning, I suddenly visualized the word remission as a steel bridge, one of those fancy nineteenth–century bridges that worked curlicues into the design: the humps of the m and n, the curves of the s’s, the rounded o.
            To drive from the southern tip of the Florida peninsula to Key West, one drives on a two-lane highway that includes the Seven-Mile Bridge. It’s easy to panic on that bridge, especially driving a van with high school students traveling to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home, as I did several times. The water stretched on both sides; in the mid-1970s, there were stretches of it without guardrails. But it got us where we were going.
            To me and to my friends with cancer, remission is a blessed word. It’s not the final destination, though. It’s a way to be between here and there, whether there is another recurrence, complete healing, or death. It’s a span over the water of our lives with cancer. Because the cancer is there, just as the water under a bridge is there. Cancer is the fact we live with, even when we choose to ignore it.
            In Morning and Evening Prayer Rite I, the formula that the priest uses to pronounce forgiveness after we confess our sins includes the words “grant you absolution and remission of all your sins.” We don’t do much remitting any more. It’s a term from Latin; it means “to send back,” and that’s a great thing to do with money (the original context) or sin. The third meaning in my Merriam-Webster is the definition I love—relax. When we are in remission, we relax a bit, enjoy the scenery, which is blessedly free from chemo, surgery, radiation, blood work, scans, and scopes. We take deep breaths, feel again what “normal” might be like, even if what we have is a “new normal.” We allow the sturdy remission bridge to support us over the choppy, white-capped water, and we smile in the sunlight.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tangled Cords

 The breakers of death rolled over me, and the torrents of oblivion made me afraid. The cords of hell entangled me, and the snares of death were set for me.
Psalm 18: 4, 5, Book of Common Prayer

            I’ve been rolled over by literal breakers. Decades ago, en route to a job in West Palm Beach, I stopped at Daytona, giving in to the pleas of the friend helping me relocate. That afternoon, a life guard ignominously hauled me back to shore, preventing me from drifting all the way to Cuba on my raft. I know the power of the undertow, the pull of the waves.
            This morning when I read of the cords of death entangling me, I think of my chemo IV cords, in which I was always getting tangled. Electricity powers the pumps, so a large cord to the IV pole plugged into the wall. Numerous cords of the IV bags—for saline, cysplatin, or Taxol—attached to an IV pole. Going to the bathroom was a multi-step chore, a complicated two-step with the IV pole and the bags depending from it. Most often, my chemo nurse had to assist me the few steps across the room, and I still managed to get the cords wrapped around the IV pole while I tried not to pull out the IVs.
            I’ve met women who referred to their chemo as love juice or liquid love, women who view the treatment as a way to help them get well. I’ve never been able to reach that level of acceptance, even though I’m sure it’s healthier than referring to chemo as being hygienically poisoned, which was my description of it. I was always being tripped up by both the literal cords and by the metaphorical considerations of both the treatment and the disease.
            Death feels like a snare. I have known people who are ready for death, who are tired of fighting. I am not there yet. I am watching for the snares of death in my path, not willing to be caught. Zigzagging, I’m trying to avoid them by making changes in how I eat and accepting the support of friends. Ultimately, I will fail at this avoidance manuever, will die as we all must, but my life will be enriched along the way.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fainting, Failing Spirit

I wrote this piece two springs ago, when the bladder cancer had returned. The specialist I saw at the cancer center an hour north calls it a "nuisance cancer"—it's not dangerous, but it comes back.

My spirit faints within me; my heart within me is desolate.
O Lord, make haste to answer me; my spirit fails me.
Revive me, O Lord, for your Name’s sake.
Psalm 143: 4, 7, 11 bcp

Within three short verses the psalmist’s spirit descends in a death spiral that twists from fainting to failing. In between, the writer muses on all God’s deeds and considers the work of God’s hands. I’d think that would help.
            The truth is that some days nothing helps. Walking this cancer journey is like traipsing through a bog—the ground looks solid, and then I sink. Although I don’t like them, these mood dips don’t surprise me any more. They’re just part of the package. Few people can sustain cheerfulness indefinitely, and it’s hard to be cheery when in a trough of chemo or recurrence.
            The temptation is to wallow, and I am a champion wallower. Just now, it’s gray and raining outside. Despite the fact that every day new leaves appear on the trees around my home as a result of this rain, I fight going back to bed and staying there for a few weeks. Until after this surgery I don’t want, until after I recover from surgery.
            My spirit is fainting because I’ve had expectations that haven’t been met. The cancer wasn’t supposed to come back. I wasn’t ever going to need the services of the prestigious cancer center an hour north. It’s the place I’ve always considered the court of last resort, even though my gynecologic oncologist truly and sensibly tells me it’s where I’d go first if I lived in that city. My spirit faints because I am again facing the dilemmas of who to tell, when and how to tell them, and how much to say. Many people ask how they can help; I have no answer. A new immune system? Thousands of dollars to cover my growing medical expenses? How about courage, or even faith that there will be a happy ending? Can you be here at four in the morning when I wake up afraid? I know of a woman who is upset because her husband can’t protect her in the face of a nuclear attack. I used to laugh at that. I get it now.
            What I’m learning is that—regardless of cancer—I have to show up for my life. Going back to bed is a luxury denied me. I have work to do and a friend who is coming to cheer my fainting spirit. We are going to an art show and to a farmer’s market, and if that doesn’t help my spirit, I will be surprised. Just keep working through it, riding the emotion and not worrying too much about it. God has many other ways to revive my spirit; I will keep looking for them and waiting.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Power of the Grave

Remember, LORD, how short life is, how frail you have made all flesh. Who can live and not see death? who can save himself from the power of the grave?
Ps. 89: 47, 48

Well, I thought I would. I’d been trained to appropriate Scripture for my use, to regard it as God’s love letter to me. I’d never believed this passage applied to me; it was much like being forbidden to eat bacon or shellfish. Despite all evidence to the contrary—beloved pets that died, the unexpected deaths of students in automobile crashes, the abundant roadkill every spring, the seasons and their passing—I was not going to face death. Not any time soon.
My father died young, when I was 24, much too self-absorbed to think death might one day apply to me. My mother’s death when I was 47, however, sobered me a bit. I made sure I had a will and people who knew what I wanted done with my possessions. As contemporary author Haven Kimmel put it, I was next in line at Death’s ticket window. Still, until my cancer diagnosis eight years later, I didn’t really believe all this dying stuff was pertinent to me.
We had a guest choir at church yesterday, young women from a nearby university who sang lovely hymns for us. At Eucharist, one of their songs was about “going up yonder,” and I struggled not to cry. February is my worst month anyway—my father’s death, a bad breakup, the beginning of chemo, the first of the seizures that would claim a dear cat’s life. I can go on and on. It’s not that bad things don’t happen in other months; I’m just more aware of them in weather-bleak February. When, after church, a friend lightly asked, Tell me a story, I went blank. Because the one-year anniversary of a friend’s death is also this week, all I could think of was cancer, and I didn’t want to talk about cancer.
But Christians believe that cancer and death are not the end of the story. My rational mind may taunt me that heaven isn’t likely, but I still see my dear ones, going about their work. This morning it was abundantly clear that my mother was crocheting baby clothes and shawls, and I’m confident the friend who died last February is happily eating her way through the great smorgasbord of heaven.
I have a friend who is a seven-year survivor, but also realistic about death. She’s told her husband to look for her in moments of perfect joy after she’s gone, because that’s where she will be dwelling. For me, perfect joy will include a cat on my lap, a cup of tea, a pad of paper, and pens that won’t smear. I love Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted,” about being a visual artist after death. I tweak the closing line a bit, but I like the idea that when my frail flesh is gone, I shall write “the Thing as I see It, for the God of things as They Are!”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

An Embittered Mind

 I've determined to take Sunday as a day of rest from cancer, focusing on the faith part of this blog's title. Most of these meditations were written before my diagnosis, old friends come to visit.

I have a book recommendation, okay, about cancer. Walter Wangerin's Letters from the Land of Cancer, a brief book I started reading last night, gets it right, is honest without being saccharine.
           The Book of Common Prayer offers a two-year schedule of texts for daily reading. The psalms do not change from year to year, however, so I have the chance to come upon them often. They become like old friends I visit; some mornings I can feel myself sighing in relief as I check the listing—ah, back to Psalm 37 or to Psalm 62.
            One such old friend is Psalm 73, which continually challenges me with its assertion in verse 25, “And having [God], I desire nothing upon earth”—who can live up to that? But this morning, as sometimes happens, I saw a verse that has only been inserted since the last time I read it. Verse 21 says, “When my mind became embittered, I was sorely wounded in my heart.” Well, no wonder I hadn’t noticed it; it’s translated differently in the King James Version, which is the love language of my childhood. “Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins” is vivid, but grief and bitterness aren’t exactly synonyms in my mind.
            The more pressing issue is my recent bout of bitterness, so that the word jumped out of the text in the same the way that the highlighted yellow vocabulary words do from the pages of the textbooks I work with. The Bible gets it right once again, I thought—most of the pains of my heart begin in my mind.
            I can nurse a tiny hurt, magnifying it over and over, so it multiplies faster than mold. It grows all out of proportion to the original event and overshadows any good thing that may have happened. And I’ve just discovered that it has the same regenerative properties as starfish arms—I can lop it off, refuse this bitterness, and it will grow back with the least encouragement. This tendency goes beyond my natural sensitivity; I fear it’s rooted in pride, in the refusal to admit that my own wrong may have contributed to any given situation over which I’ve permitted my mind to become embittered.
So that’s where it begins. In my mind. Not the event, not the words, not the slight, but what my mind makes of it. Surely I have learned this lesson before! Now I have a chance to learn it again. I can spare my heart untold woundedness by refusing to embark on a construction project in my mind, by not bringing in all the equipment needed to erect a temple to my preciousness. This does not mean being a doormat. It means not dramatizing every situation so that I become some sort of Little Nell, beset by Snidely Whiplash at every turn. It means honestly evaluating the situation and then letting it go, refusing the further pain of an embittered mind. It means reading on in the psalm to the comfort offered two verses later: “Yet I am always with you, you hold me by my right hand.” In that place of security, the slings and arrows don’t matter.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Flourishing Like a Flower

In Psalm 103, one of my favorites, the writer reminds us of our mortality in a metaphor that other biblical writers also use: we “flourish like a flower of the field. The wind passes over it and it is gone” (verses 15, 16). Two different Hebrew words in the psalms are translated flourish. One means “to break forth like a bud, to spread,” and by extension “to fly.” The word used in this verse, however, has “to twinkle or glance” (the way light glances off water) listed as its first meaning, with “to bloom or show forth” as the extended meaning.
            I am touched as I crawl my way through a Hebrew-Chaldee Dictionary. The poet of Psalm 103 says we twinkle, like stars. It reminds me of the notation used for writers and other artists whose birth and death dates are not known. She “fl. 8th century,” the note in Webster’s Biographical Dictionary reads. She shed a light for a brief time, like a star in the night sky, and was gone.
            As I read the verse this morning, I recalled the fields of wildflowers in Colorado near Pike’s Peak, a region I visited a few times during my late twenties. I was astounded at the sheer number and variety of the wildflowers, blooming out in the middle of nowhere, seemingly for God’s delight alone.
            So although the intent of the psalm is to highlight the brevity of life, the symbol also functions as a call to flourish indeed. Many people through the centuries have asked what it means to live well. Each of us must answer that question differently. For me yesterday, I was nearly bursting (like a bud) from contentment, driving back roads on a  sunny winter day, admiring the cows who’d artistically arranged themselves in the fields. A great sense of well being came over me: blue sky, peace, and the hope of spring.
            I want to spend my few precious days flourishing. I want to cultivate enough wildflowers in my life so that when one dies after its brief life, another springs up. Of course there will be autumn’s chill and winter’s death for activities and relationships alike. But o! to revel in the spring blossoms, the rich summer patches of color! all the while aware of the short time we all have, but not bowed down by it. Twinkling our bits of stardust, our bursts of wildflower color, on all whom we meet.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Choosing Light

My friend and my neighbor you have put far from me, and darkness is my only companion.
Ps. 88:18 Book of Common Prayer

During chemotherapy, my friends and neighbors were all around me, sometimes too much so for my introverted taste. People called and came and ferried me around; they planned outings to cheer me and made sure I had food. I loved them for it—and I wanted them to go away, to get my life back to its normal solitude and silence.
            After chemo, I knew that I needed to get into counseling; fortunately, a friend recommended a woman who was herself an ovarian cancer survivor, not many months ahead of me in her own treatment. That ended, too, when I realized I was down to fruitless whining.
            I thought how happy were those people not given to introspection, who could get back to life without much soul-searching! For me, having cancer and trying to figure out what it meant was similar to handing a third grader struggling with long division an advanced calculus problem. I couldn't decipher it, needed a Rosetta stone.
            “I really have no idea what you went through,” a friend admitted recently. She’d visited me in the hospital, talked to my oncologist, given me a place to stay after a minor surgery when I couldn’t be left alone, and kept me in healing minestrone soup. And she was smart enough to know, from her experience as a widow, that the afflicted person often puts on her most cheery mien for others if possible, realizing that friends and family have their own grief to bear in this loss. Support groups for all manner of diseases and conditions exist for a reason.
            I wasn’t going to attend a support group. I wanted to be left alone after all the attention of surgery and chemotherapy. I realized, however, that my friend and my neighbor were far from me, psychically if not physically. Despite their willingness to listen, they couldn’t comprehend what I’d been through.
            Given the choice between darkness as my only companion and going to a support group, I opted for the latter. I’ve gotten better about walking into a room full of strangers, but it still felt awkward, especially at a country club, which was way out of my experience. But the women there knew, as my friends did not, about the darkness. We could joke together about our too-curly hair, about weight gain and bloating from chemo, about neuropathy and where to find comfortable shoes.
            So I joined a second group, which began with an intense weekend retreat and ten no less intense weekly meetings. We could be funny or weep together, roll our eyes, talk about our fears. We were church in the best sense; the Greek word means “called-out ones,” and we had been called out of our normal lives into this new normal.
            Support groups aren’t for everyone. But I’m grateful to have found women in two groups that sustain me when I feel alone in the dark.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Gaining Traction

As often as I said, my foot has slipped, your love, o Lord, upheld me.
Psalm 94:18

After a shadow on a CATscan a few years ago, I said I couldn’t get traction in the matter of my health. I thought that I was out of the snow bank, that I was ready to go, but I kept spinning out: worrisome blood work here, a shadow there, a new diagnosis. For almost three years, every few months something new broke down. This was particularly hard to take, after forty years of good health. I’d had no training or practice in this kind of living.
            One Friday evening during this period of my life, my Monica cat was badly listing, her left legs not functioning. On the hardwood floors, she slid and skidded. Fearing a stroke and an un-cat-like life, I was set to put her down; however, the vet was encouraging, and she regained better control of her legs. She never lost her desire for food or her desire to climb. I could see when she wanted to make a leap that I thought would end in disaster, and I would place her on the cabinet or bed. With careful thought, she began jumping once again, though not as high as the curtain rods she’d formerly strolled across. Especially during the first days of this new way of life, she became an object lesson of what not being able to get traction was like.
            Monica lasted a few months after that first episode, suffering other mini-strokes, as I came to think of them. Putting her down became the loving thing to do. She, too, had been God’s love to me, seeing me through fifteen years of my life, a period full of changes: my church, my career, my home, my mother’s dying, my own cancer. She loved me through it all, the way animals do, the way that some dear friends have done.
A verse from Psalm 94 that I’d read many times now was revealed in a new light. Sometimes my foot—metaphorically at least—slips and slides on the hardwood-floor realities of living with cancer. But I do not fall, because the love of God holds me upright. Every new problem offers opportunities to meet amazingly skilled and kind medical people. Each medical visit allows me to appreciate friends near and far who are praying for me and those who make sure that I am not alone when facing a procedure or potentially scary news. Loving someone with cancer isn’t easy—we aren’t always our best selves or very much fun to be around. These people are visible manifestations of God’s love, the hands and feet of the Lord, holding me up.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rising Waters

Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck.
Ps. 69:1

That verse came to mind some years ago as I readied for one of those dreaded “little procedures.” I was unfamiliar with this one, but I’d not had time to begin reading the explanatory literature when my name was called. I was given a blue paper gown and told to change into it. When I came back out, clutching the back of the gown, the nurse was putting waterproof pads on the examining table.
            “They irrigate as they examine, so I’m putting all these pads down,” she explained. “You’ve had one of these before, haven’t you?”
            “Nope—I had no idea.”
            I’ve learned that despite my independence, it’s a good idea to have someone with me when I’m seeing a specialist. The friend who accompanied me that Tuesday, bringing her earthy and hearty humor. Standing at my head, she declared, “Let’s sing water songs! Come on. ‘Row row row your boat.’” We moved on to “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” and “Got Any Rivers You Think Are Uncrossable?” Maggie objected, though, to my suggestion of “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.”
            “No storms!” she begged, but I sang it anyway. Although I wasn’t standing at the Jordan—a metaphor for death—I was casting a wistful eye, if not “to Canaan’s fair and happy land,” then at least to the land of no tumors.
            It was not to be. During the procedure, I could clearly observe the growths. The oncologist recommended surgery. As I was mopping up and changing back into my civilian clothes, I heard laughter coming from the examining room.
            They were laughing, but I was feeling decidedly Job-like as I pulled on my jeans and sweater. The passage that came to mind wasn’t Job’s “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him,” or even “I know that my redeemer liveth.” No, I was thinking of that lesser-known verse, “Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?” (Job 7:19)
            My friend and the nurse, a no-nonsense woman about my age, later explained the joke to me. The nurse’s stance when her washer, dryer, and hot water heater all failed in two days’ time was to eye her refrigerator and dishwasher and to challenge them, “Bring it on!”
Her first words to me, however, were, “Now don’t you go feeling sorry for yourself.” As we walked down the hall, she reminded me that God cares for the sparrows and for us.
I surmise that she sees many people who, quite reasonably to my mind, succumb to self-pity. That door was closed for me. I was left instead with the joys of friendship, laughter, and song.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Alligator

Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. O Lord, make haste to help me! Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life. Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire to hurt me.
Psalm 70:1, 2

            Anyone who lives near Lake Okeechobee in central Florida has to be prepared for unwanted guests. Alligators, once an endangered species, have made a comeback, and may be arriving at the back door. Repeatedly.
            Alligators have a sophisticated internal GPS that allows them to return to the same location. After Wildlife Department officials have captured and sedated this repeat intruder and secured its jaws, they tape a magnet on its head. In ways that scientists don’t understand, the magnet seems to scramble Earth’s magnetic signals so that the beast can’t drop in again.
            My cancers are like those alligators, equipped with a very smart GPS. “It is the nature of this disease to return,” one brave, honest nurse told me during my treatment for ovarian cancer; I’d noticed the number of women who were in for their second, third, or fourth rounds of treatment. The oncologist for my Stage I bladder cancer refers to mine as a “nuisance” cancer—although not especially dangerous, it tends to come back. So I have deep empathy for people plagued with literal alligators coming back from the swamp for a little fun.
            Chemo was the magnet my gynecologic oncologist used to confuse my cancer-alligator. For some people, radiation is the magnet of choice. Regardless of the chemical cocktail, the hope is to confuse the cancer cells so that they forget how to morph and multiply. Sometimes it works, but not always.
            The psalmist referred to literal enemies—flesh and blood people he could see and against whom he could fight. The difficulty of cancer is that the cells are often microscopic or hidden behind a body part. Yet God remains ready to make haste and aid us, whether our struggle is against an enemy that is visible or invisible.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Still Living

I shall not die but live and declare the works of the Lord.
Psalm 118:17

That’s our hope, of course—we aren’t going to die. I used to think I wouldn’t die, period. I was young, or at least healthy, or at least not in too bad a shape. I still had a lot I wanted to say about God and wasn’t planning to check out.
            “Nobody is dying today—the crisis is over,” a friend said recently about a situation in which someone might indeed have died, but was instead making a miraculous recovery.
            I thought of all the “little deaths” that poet Carl Sandburg told us to keep away from. I’m struggling now against the death of hope, fearing that every few months something else will go wrong, even if my cancers remain in remission.
I think I most resent the loss of a carefree attitude toward my health, which I can never again take for granted. I’ve experienced the death of confidence. Just because I feel fine doesn’t mean that my body is functioning optimally. Several recent diagnoses have been asymptomatic; they required a blood test or a CATscan to find.
I’ve also lost open space on my calendar. This month, I have three doctor appointments. That’s not counting the ones I should make and haven’t, such as my annual mammogram and my dental exam.
            Gone, too, is the sense that I have any discretionary money. It flows to the hospital, the radiologist, the lab.
            Some days all these little deaths circle me, moving like a flock of vultures spying a wounded animal, their black wings hovering, swooping, wheeling. I am tempted to pull up the covers and stay in bed, to sit on the sofa staring at nothing.
            I will die someday. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, I don’t have to do it now. My task meanwhile is to focus not on the inevitable dying, but on living and declaring the works of God. Even living with cancer, I have plenty of divine blessings: a kind and very bright doctor, warm blankets tucked around me when I spend an hour or two drinking barium before a CATscan, the prayer support from friends and their churches, the nurses who allow me to cry on them, the joy of singing, the taste of chocolate, the grace of deer out my back window. Life is so abundant, with mercies new and fresh every morning, as the writer of Lamentations wrote, in one of his more cheerful moods. Death can wait—it’s time now to magnify the works of God.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

And the Beat Goes On

I will rejoice and be glad because of your mercy; for you have seen my affliction; you know my distress.

Psalm 31:7 Book of Common Prayer

 Yesterday I got some upsetting news. Oh, nothing as dire as anyone sick or moving to another state, just one of those unplanned wrenches tossed in my gears. I don’t take this sort of thing well at all. Life as a single, (more or less) solitary freelance writer isn’t supposed to offer many other people the chance to participate in creative wrench-tossing. So I get out of practice in dealing with the slightest upsets, a fact that must make the Holy Spirit pull out her hair.
            Fortunately, I had already accepted an invitation to hear a percussion trio that evening. It wasn’t my usual venue, but the ticket was free, and I always learn something when I attend such events with a musician friend.
            The stage of the black box theatre where the event was held was positively littered with percussion instruments and with items—newspapers, for instance—not usually considered musical. Seeing the names of several contemporary composers whose music I do not understand raised my level of trepidation.
            I was surprised to pick out a steady beat, murmuring like the heart murmurs, in one of the numbers. Just tapping away, as percussive instruments do, underneath all the fancy stuff on top. Unbidden, the thought came to me: That’s God’s care in your life. You are going to be fine. Don’t worry about this thing.
            I don’t generally expect divine guidance from percussion instruments. To get this reminder of God’s care from drums reinforced my belief that God works through whatever means are available. You know my distress, the psalmist writes. Although I seldom get such a fast response to my desperate pleas of “You have to help me!” last night was a graced exception.
            The program included some music I found dissonant. Because it had no discernible melodic line, I had a hard time listening. I once had a friend who defined music he liked as music he could hum. But life isn’t only like a box of chocolates, Forrest Gump. It’s also like a concert, with various types of music, familiar and not, hummable and not. Yet underneath the melody or the cacophony in our lives, the beat of God’s loving care repeats.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Finding Hope

Remember your word to your servant, because you have given me hope.
Psalm 119:49

Some days it’s easy to feel hopeless. Those days came for me most often during the last part of my chemo regimen, when joked that I was a straight B student—bald and bloated. I may have retained my humor, but I was short on hope.
            God gives us hope, and I have found that God often uses human agency to do so. As I met other women who had survived ovarian cancer five years or longer (the statistics, which my doctor encourages his patients to ignore, give a 50-50 chance of being alive five years after treatment), I took hope. If they could do it, so could I. Even when I faced the reality that there were no guarantees, that the disease might recur and I might need another round of chemo later, there were women in the chemo room who were showing me how to face that need gracefully and with hope.
            I find hope in the children of my church. I generally see them at their dearest, not when they are throwing tantrums or ill or fretful. They are beautiful and they will live even if I do not. One of them has already faced chemo and made a full recovery.
            Walking in the woods offers a second means that God uses to give me hope. So much life goes on in such a small space! The bugs and plants and larger critters are all busily carrying out their life’s purpose, indifferent to my survival, intent on their own. The algae edging toward the middle of the river, the carp swimming lazily in it, the canes growing along the water’s edge are all doing just what they need to be doing. The trees were here before I came along; they will outlast me. My existence does not determine the fate of the larger world. I don’t find their indifference disheartening; much as I joke about being the center of the universe, I know that I am not.
            Music and other art forms strengthen my hope. Today is the first rehearsal this year for the orchestra chorus to which I belong. Singing challenging music, listening to it, visiting art museums, watching a play or a dance recital—all of these lift my heart and offer hope. Bach and Mozart, Monet and Michaelangelo lived! 
            We take the hope that has been given wherever we find it. God has sewn hope into the very fabric of the world. Our task as we face cancer is to spend a bit of each day focusing on the hope we have appropriated as our own—then sharing that hope with others who need it, too.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Fear of the Enemy

Hear my voice, O God, when I complain; protect my life from fear of the enemy.
Psalm 64:1 Book of Common Prayer

A few weeks before my regular checkups, I get a little edgier, a little less patient with people (and patience was never my strong suit anyway). I can feel my heart rate go up; I need to take my blood pressure meds.
            I don’t like using battle imagery for cancer, but the psalms are filled with references to literal battles, so I revisit the metaphor as I daily read these ancient hymns. There’s no way around the fact that cancer (if I choose to personify it) is the enemy seeking to destroy me. Not just ultimately, but all along the way to ultimately. When I am in remission, the best way to destroy me is by fear. And there are so many things to fear: my own recurrence, the loss of health among my cancer sisters, the financial repercussions. These debilitating fears all crowd around my soul.
Fear has no power for good. If cancer can make me afraid, then cancer wins, even if I never spend another day in treatment. The fear fences me in with stone, reminding me of the high walls I saw surrounding the homes of the wealthy in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The tops of the walls were fitted with broken bottles to deter any theft or invasion of privacy. Fear keeps my life small and fretful, all sharp, jagged edges.
So it doesn’t surprise me that the psalmist prays for deliverance not only from the enemy, but also from fear of the enemy. Cancer is a formidable foe, but it doesn’t have the last word. Elsewhere in Scripture, we are told that the last enemy that will be destroyed is death. Death’s power is limited. I do fear my own unbeing in the world I know, which will manage to go on without me. I’m more afraid of the prelude to dying: weakness, pain, loss of appetite.
If I spend my days in fear, though, I lose the joy of the present moment, which in any case is all that I have. I have only this day; I need to spend it more wisely than being afraid of not having another one, being miserly with my time and energy. Common wisdom for writers says spend everything you have on the page, each day, trusting that tomorrow the well will be replenished. It’s good advice for life, too. I want to live each day in fearless wonder at its beauty. Fear is not a creative emotion, so I need to push it to the edges. I visualize fear as a literal box of trash that I move from inside the house to the curb for trash pickup.
I have a friend who says fear is just another name for the devil. When she reads any text with the words devil or Satan, she replaces that name with fear. Jesus confronted fear with the words of Scripture, with the command “Get behind me.” We can teach ourselves to respond the same way.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Darkness Turning to Light

This was written during winter two years ago, when my church was getting a new roof. The roof is completed and lovely, but it's winter again, so this feels appropriate.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Psalm 139: 11, 12

One of the architectural joys of the building in which I worship is the small, aptly named Chapel of Heavenly Rest, where our columbarium (multiple compartments for cremains) is located. A sense of peace fills me when I look at the stained glass triptych of Jesus, flanked on either side by a man and woman kneeling in prayer. In the two top corners of the window are scenes from everyday life of two hundred years ago, illustrating Matthew 28:20, which is written across the top: Lo I am with you alway.
            Yesterday the window was almost completely dark. It was a gloomy day, but the covering protecting the panes while our new slate roof is being applied darkened it almost completely. What was most visible was the golden soldering between the tiny panes of colored glass, showing all the brokenness.
            “I hope this is temporary,” I growled as I entered the chapel for morning prayer.
            I sat in my usual seat and tried not to pout; I rely on my routines to a ridiculous extent, and my routine of coming in and gazing at the faces of Jesus and his companions had been disrupted. During the service, though, I noted the way that the darkness of the stained glass pointed up the contrast of the priest’s white cassock and her white, festival stole. Perhaps the darkness had its own beauty. We were celebrating the Transfiguration, when Jesus’ garments and face shone, terrifying the three disciples who were with him on the mountain. The event marked the beginning of the end; Jesus would go on to Jerusalem, suffer, and be killed—dark days indeed. And then, the resurrection.
Unbidden, the words of a hymn I used to sing came to mind: “When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace.” The darkness—of winter, of being covered for protection, of my fears of a cancer recurrence—had nearly covered Jesus.
            Anyone coping with chronic, serious illness can think of several kinds of darkness. Our fears for our own well being mingle with concerns for those we will leave behind, for work undone, for finances in disarray, for a sense of unfinished business and sorrow at needing to leave the party early.
When I looked up again, I noticed that the wind had pried loose one corner of the blue plastic. One sunny corner of the stained glass was illuminated; I could make out one golden word: alway.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Remembering Who We Are

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you.
Deuteronomy 15:15

Last week in her sermon, my priest mentioned that over and over in the Hebrew Bible, the people are reminded of their history. Why would anyone want to remember a time of being enslaved? Remembering their distress, as well as their triumphs, was designed to remind the people of Israel who they were and how God delivered them.
After treatment or surgery, cancer patients sometimes want to forget everything about their experience. Put it all back the way it was! we may cry, not knowing how impossible that really is. Yet probably you know, as I do, people who return to smoking after successful treatment, people who never find a support group because they don’t need one. And maybe they don’t—how can I know or prescribe what’s best for everyone?
             As a member of Survivors Teaching Students, I am privileged along with a few other women in this area to remember and share my story. Some of the survivors who’ve been invited to join us have not been able to do so. “It brings it all back,” one said, after listening to one of our sessions. Yes, it does. While we don’t dwell on the wretchedness of hair loss, nausea, or fatigue, these realities do come up. Our audience is comprised of future doctors—almost always young people in good health—and we don’t want to minimize the trauma or suffering of cancer treatment.
            We bring it all back to remind ourselves of who we are. We are survivors, an overused word. The support group I’m part of refers to us instead as thrivers, going beyond mere dreary survival. Whatever term we choose, we are people whose lives will never be the same, affected not only by the disease but also by all the people we meet in Cancerland—doctors, nurses, and other patients all have something to share.
            The support group for women cancer survivors that I joined is organized into smaller groups. Mine met for lunch at a chain restaurant recently. At the end of the meal, each of us shared where we were now in our cancer experience, rejoicing with all those still healthy, commiting to pray (or visualize or send energy or whatever it is we do) for the women who are facing increasing numbers. The woman next to me leaned over at one point and said quietly, “The women at the next table are getting an earful!” It was true—names of cancer drugs and tumor marker numbers rolled easily off our tongues, and we spoke loudly to be heard over the restaurant’s din.
We laugh and we hug, glad for a reason to be glad for the people we’ve met because of cancer, if not the disease itself. We remind ourselves of who we are and where we’ve been and are strengthened in that remembering.