Thursday, March 31, 2011

Given Life Again

Yesterday's post felt incomplete, but I wanted to put something on this site. Today's reading had given me an opportunity to finish what I began!

Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you?
Psalm 85:6

            During the meeting with my gynecologic oncologist that focused on the chemotherapy regimen he was recommending, he told me, “This isn’t your whole life. It’s just going to feel that way.” I also remember the session with him in which I said that the chemo regimen was beginning to feel routine. This pleased him; apparently, it was a point he wanted all his patients to arrive at, some integration of treatment with one’s life.
He was also happy, however, about three-and-a-half years after I’d finished treatment when I said, “I feel as if I’m getting my life back.” “That’s where we’ve all wanted to be, you especially,” he told me.
For me, getting my life back meant I wasn’t afraid to look ahead further than the next doctor’s appointment. I could begin to make plans, with just a whisper—rather than a roar— in my head of “What if the cancer comes back?” I felt well; I took on some long-range commitments. When asked to teach at church (we plan the year in advance), I no longer responded, “But what if I’m in treatment?” I took on a part-time job.
The psalmist says the point of getting life again is to rejoice in God. I didn’t exactly act the part of an ingrate before my cancer, and I don’t walk around all day shouting hosannas now. For me, rejoicing is made up of noticing the little stuff—I just looked up from the computer in time to see a cardinal swoop by, a bright spot on a gray day. I consciously thank God at each meal, not in the perfunctory way I had before, but for each component on my plate, and the growers and producers. (This is really easy to do once the farmers’ market opens—I’ve been buying fresh produce from some of the growers for years.)
After cancer, some people are eager to get back to their old life, old ways of doing things. I’m not here to fault anyone’s coping mechanisms, but I wonder if that’s the most effective way to spend our renewed lifespans. I jettisoned some activities that had become burdensome, and facilitated the revival of my writing group, which had died of apathy. Hosting the group in my home has been a source of great joy (it also helps me clean once in a while!).
Each of us must find our own way after treatment. But for all of us, rejoicing in God, in whatever form that takes, must be a regular part of our maintenance.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Easing Up

I heard an unfamiliar voice saying, “I eased his shoulder from the burden; his hands were set free from bearing the load.”
Psalm 81:6

The psalmist is recounting Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, where the people carried literal heavy loads. Most of us, in our 24/7, listmaking, hyperproductive culture bear heavy loads in both our jobs and families. We work really really hard most of the time. Even vacations have ceased to be time off; we may leave physically, but we take our electronic devices and remain tethered.
            I’m tired this week—mostly psychically, waiting for spring and getting yet another snowfall as we trudge through Lent. Understand me: I don’t ever want to deal with cancer again. That said, there were perks. Cancer and other serious illnesses allow us to slip from under the load, feel the regular burden eased off our shoulders, though cancer carries its own set of burdens.
            During treatment, I found that people didn’t expect much of me. The one exception was in my professional life, but that was a blessing, familiar standards amid a new life. My editor, no fool, even sent back material for me to rework on occasion, just as she always had. Other than that, all I had to do was breathe and people were pleased. I got more compliments during treatment than I had in my entire life. I think the kind words were code for “You’re still alive!” My indifferent housekeeping, my multiple naps each day, were not causes for cries of non-productivity.
            Getting better as the chemo left my system meant taking up some of the burdens again. I’m back to working two, sometimes three jobs, trying to make ends meet. But I let go of tasks that had become onerous. Life is too short. In recovery, we need to be gentle with ourselves still. Eat good food, make time to rest, concentrate on what is truly important to us. Allow God to ease the burdens from our shoulders, to free our hands from the heavy loads.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Taking Courage

Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!
Psalm 27:14 New Revised Standard Version

            Anyone who’s dealing with illness knows about waiting. We wait in doctors’ offices, we wait for test results, we wait for a surgery or procedure to be scheduled. Ultimately, we wait for healing.
            In the midst of our physical weakness, we’re admonished to be strong—and I’m not talking about Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong program, helpful though it’s been for many. Chemotherapy may make us weak physically, but our spirits are to remain strong.
            I am drawn to this verse, though, because of the third phrase: let your heart take courage. Allow it. Cancer and other serious illnesses can rob us of our courage. I’m going to die, I’m going to die ran through my mind after diagnosis. I knew I’d die some day, of course, but had planned on many more years of good health. I felt like one of the Very Small Animals in Winnie the Pooh, a not-very-courageous creature.
            Let your heart take courage. Allow it to be brave. My Webster’s dictionary says courage is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” Wow! Doesn’t that just about sum up what we need to manage cancer? I learn that courage comes from a Latin root, meaning heart; I am directed to that entry for more study of word origins.
            I’ve lost courage frequently, had no heart for what I was being asked to endure. My gynecologic oncologist was optimistic; sometimes I asked him to tell me again how this was going to go. He would review the reasons we had for hope, and then move on, leaving me alone in the examining room, trying not to be afraid.
One evening during chemotherapy, the friend who called daily asked what I needed. “Courage,” I said, with a quaver in my voice. In an inspired moment, he asked what the Wizard of Oz had given the cowardly lion. A medal, I remembered finally. And I had a medal! It has sat on the table or my desk ever since, something I can hold to remind me to take courage. Maybe you also have a talisman—many people hold a rosary or a special stone. Some look to a beloved icon. We need all the help we can get in surviving cancer; items and practices that others might consider silly can be lifegiving for us.
Let your heart take courage.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

For the Last Time

Walking in the woods recently, I made the same request I usually do: I want to walk here another twenty years at least, please. Never mind that I’ve stretched out the end date a few years with the passing of time. I don’t want to think about one particular walk being the last one, though I know my body will eventually give out—I’ll break a hip, or a knee will pop, and that will be the end of climbing down into Clifton Gorge.
            For the first time, I wondered if I’d want to know that a certain walk would be the last one. Would I want to have time to say goodbye to the tree I call the trinity sycamore, to that broad section of the path, to the turtles sunning on a fallen tree trunk, and to the moss? Or would ignorance truly be bliss? When I’ve known that certain eras of my life were coming to an end, I’ve made myself miserable over the last this and the final that. Perhaps it’s just as well that I have no control over this.
            It’s likely not my call, of course. But speculating on it, even allowing the question to arise, I wondered about Jesus’ last days on earth. The Gospels make it clear he knew what was coming: he said that a woman who anointed him with oil was doing it in preparation for his death; he told Judas to go do what he did [betray Jesus] quickly. John’s Gospel records an intimate discourse to the disciples gathered for the last Passover meal together. The end must have seemed very fast: the arrest in the garden, the trials, the walk to Golgotha. Did the human Jesus wish he’d planned a little time with Mary and John before announcing from the cross that they were now mother and son?
            “So teach us to number our days,” says Psalm 90, “that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Living with the awareness that our lives are fragile should produce a desire for wisdom in living well the few days we have.
            I know this now in a new way, living with metastatic cancer, a diagnosis so unexpected as to render me incapable of taking it in. Four years ago I was in chemotherapy, bloated and bald. I’m very conscious of the contrast when I go walking in town, as I did this evening, joying in the purple and white crocuses, the pale sun, recalling that by this time last year, I was taking two or three naps a day and working a bit when I was awake. I am finally striving after a heart of wisdom in all my doings, the way I should have been all along.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

With All My Heart

Taking a break from cancer today, getting ready to go to chorus rehearsal. I did pass the audition; this is my fourth year of singing with the chorus. I am not overprepared!

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.
Ecclesiastes 9:10
And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord, and not unto men, knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of inheritance, for ye serve the Lord Christ.
Colossians 3:23

I memorized those verses as a teenager, in the King James Version with its lovely, archaic thys and yes, and I’ve had them reinforced to me often throughout my life. My Greek professor used to encourage us “Do it, and don’t play at it,” no doubt in reference to learning our Greek verb tenses, which for the most part eluded me. My seminary New Testament professor believed that anything worth doing is hard, a sentiment he expressed after I’d whined about a passage we were working through in class.
            Despite these truths, I tend to be a dabbler and a putterer about everything except my writing. If it stops being fun, I stop doing it, preferring my amateur status, which explains why I quit studying clarinet (after two weeks, in fourth grade) and didn’t pursue piano lessons more than a few years. Today, a month after I began voice lessons, I was brought up short. My coach, who is supposed to be making me just good enough to get into a chorus this spring, wants to make me a singer. She told me to vocalize—you know, the boring up and down the scales on ah or oo or la—for half an hour a day! Thirty minutes! It will make me limber and stretch me, she assured me.
            I’ve been happy to make a joyful noise, as the psalms encourage us to do. I have no illusions about becoming a soloist. I’ve been practicing my audition song to a tape featuring Janet Baker, a genuine singer, and I know my limits.
             I didn’t stop to tell my vocal coach that I was perfectly happy to be a sow’s ear and had no hankerings after that silk purse, musically speaking. I have a teacher’s heart, and I know what it is to see potential. I once berated a young man who was failing my class but had done well on the standardized tests; he assured me he really was dumb, and the test results were a mistake. I now can empathize.
            It strikes me that this woman is being Jesus to me, the uncomfortable, inconvenient Jesus who calls us to be more than we are, who does not leave us in our complacency and self-satisfaction. Jesus is always cheering us on to do something we don’t think we can do. Jesus, who according to the Gospel writers didn’t seem to have much time for dabblers, but wanted people following him wholeheartedly.
            So despite the “sacrifice” of time that vocalizing will require, I may just have to do it. Who knows—perhaps I’ll be the most over-prepared chorus member they’ve ever known!

Friday, March 25, 2011


Save me from the mire; do not let me sink; let me be rescued from those who hate me and out of the deep waters.
Psalm 69:16 Book of Common Prayer

As soon as I finished chemotherapy, my calendar cleared. No longer would I write hospital on three of every four Fridays, with doctor appointments and blood draws in between. During the first six months of 2007, I could truthfully say to most invitations, “I’m booked.” Sometimes I’d offer a true friend the option of going along on a blood draw and then having lunch out, to take away the (literal) sting.
It’s easy to get mired in the minutia of cancer, the ten thousand details that occupy our minds. Those of us who work during treatment have a second set of details to deal with. As our treatments continue and our strength wanes, we can feel ourselves sinking into our own version of the daily grind. It’s no surprise that a synonym for mire is bog, or that we complain we are bogged down with the many appointments and tests that are part of treatment.
Despite our fatigue and our need to get at least basic chores cared for, it’s important to do things that lift our spirits. One of my fondest memories after my major surgery is of a friend who one sunny January afternoon took me to a deli to choose my lunch (her treat) and then drove us to a local park for a picnic-in-the-car. She drove an hour each way to perform that kindness, and we still both talk of it. To be out in nature, to sing, to play with babies, to visit an art gallery or museum or attend a concert—all of these are ways to assist God in the task of rescuing us from the mire.
With everything else we have to track during treatment—some of us without family nearby to help—it’s easy to think of this as one more item on the eternal to-do list. However, because feeding the spirit doesn’t feel as crucial as feeding the body, because we are already so tired, we are tempted to skip it. We move it to the list for tomorrow or next week, where it may be bumped again.
Spirit and Body are related, though. Not paying attention to the needs of our spirit can be harmful to the body. Being at peace, being mindful of what feeds our inner contentment, and then pursuing those activities, can assist us in ways we do not know.
When I was dithering about my future during seminary, tired of hearing me passively whine, a friend gave me a word picture that has stuck with me. She attended contra dances, which were similar to folk dances. Partners changed during the movements of the dance, as they do in square dancing. She said it was a grand thing to be caught by the firm grasp of the hand of her next partner. It had weight, she explained. “Give the Creator some weight,” she advised. As we pray not to sink in the mire, we need to give God something to work with, in whatever way best feeds our spirit.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Heart Trouble

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.
Psalm 25: 16, 17 New Revised Standard Version

            As if cancer and its treatment aren’t bad enough, many of us also have to contend with what the psalmist terms troubles of the heart. Sometimes this takes a physical form—one day, one of the women in the infusion room complained of chest pains. Even though I hoped never to need their services, I was impressed to see how quickly the emergency team arrived and how competent they were.
            Most of the time, though, the heart trouble isn’t literal. We fret over so many things—the dread of leaving our families and friends, of not completing our contribution to the world, of painful dying. And there’s that other existential sadness, the knowledge that after a time of mourning, the people in our world will go on without us. Life doesn’t stop when someone we love dies. We know this from experience, but find it hard to accept when considering our own dying.
            We may scare ourselves with dark imaginings that can cause our hearts to beat faster. Although it’s natural to be afraid when we face surgery or treatment, we need not exaggerate the fear. I can be a drama queen myself, but it wears on others.
            The psalmist asked God to relieve the distress, and that’s a fine prayer. But we can also take steps to do so. For one thing, we can stop thinking fearfully. Replace fear with cheer. I don’t mean to sound pollyannaish, but there’s something to all this positive thinking.
At the beginning of our collaboration, my gynecologic oncologist told me that attitude was the best predictor of success in cancer treatment. I have seen this fact played out in women who have lived—and lived well and fully—in the midst of treatment and recurrence. Choosing joy, as one friend puts it, is key. Taking time to notice and delight in each day’s gifts is also crucial. God’s mercies are new every day, the book of Lamentations tells us.
Now, nearly four years after the end of my chemo regimen, I know that there are no guarantees. I’ve seen women get very sick and leave this life unexpectedly and quickly. My hope is to find some joy each day, so that I am fully present to whatever blessings arrive, rejoicing in whatever God sends to relieve my heart troubles.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Weighty Matters

For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread. Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my skin.
Psalm 102: 3-5

            These verses provide an accurate representation of what many people think of when they think of cancer patient—gaunt, wasted, sunken eyes. Even medical school students are prone to think that unexplained weight loss is a symptom of ovarian cancer. Just the opposite is true: it’s the inexplicable gain that many of us experience, even when following a program of sensible weight loss, that’s a tip-off.
            A friend and I rejoiced in our weight loss post-surgery—each of us lost about twenty pounds once the tumor and various body parts were removed. “You’ve lost weight even in your hands!” a friend exclaimed after I returned home. That loss was short-lived. My gynecologic oncologist warned me that most women gain ten to fifteen pounds on chemo.
I had intraperitoneal treatments—liters and liters of saline and chemotherapy drugs sloshing around in my abdomen. All of us knew to wear comfy pants with elastic waistbands to treatment. My chemo nurse told me that another patient had done before and after weigh-ins, gaining more than ten pounds after chemo.
It’s true that some people get mouth sores because of their chemo and find it painful to eat. I did not. And much of the time what I wanted was comfort food—mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, milkshakes—that required little effort in the chewing department. (Fortunately, my celiac disease had not yet manifested, so I could enjoy all the pasta I wanted.)
The weight I’d lost after surgery came back. I have friends who have been unable to lose weight after treatment. I’ve not really tried. It’s easy for me to slide into self-pity. Poor me, with two cancers and celiac disease! I think I’ll have some more saltfatsugar while I still can. Knowing that this behavior is counter-productive (it’s hard on my knees and it’s one of the risk factors in a lot of other diseases) doesn’t seem to stop me.
This is something I need to think about.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


You have showed me great troubles and adversities, but you will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth. You strengthen me more and more; you enfold and comfort me. Therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing to you with the harp, O Holy One of Israel.
Psalm 71: 20– 22, Book of Common Prayer

            I have no idea how men do cancer, but for many women, a sense of comfort is key. Initially, my fear of having CATscans was allayed when kind technicians brought me heated blankets as I sat and sipped barium. The blankets, even though I was fully clothed, were about kindness as much as warmth. The woman who tucked the blankets around me was doing what every loving mother does—tucking me in.
            Women are often given stuffed animals after surgery. One friend brought me a cat, knowing that I was missing my own live comfort-givers. It’s a small thing, and some women resent it, viewing stuffed animals as infantilizing to women (Barbara Ehrenreich most vocally and incisively in her terrific essay “Welcome to Cancerland”). That’s a personal choice, and a good friend will know whether to provide a stuffed toy or not.
            Women also get pampering gifts; I got eye pillows and big comfy pajamas, warm socks, and a number of prayer shawls. These last were especially comforting—I knew that prayers had gone into the knitting or crocheting of the yarn.
            Whatever the gift, it signifies, “I’m sorry this happened to you. I wish I could make it go away.” The gifts are tangible expressions of God’s care and comfort.
I love these verses, because they speak of strengthening as well as being both enfolded (as if in warm blankets) and comforted (with stuffed animals or prayer shawls). God uses humans to offer us this strength, enfolding and comforting. As we recover from treatment, many of us are able to reach out to others in more tangible ways. The circle of giving continues—a cause for praise, indeed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

No Fear

Whenever I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust and will not be afraid, for what can flesh do to me?
Psalm 56: 3, 4, Book of Common Prayer

If I think about it, there’s really quite a lot that flesh can do to me. It can make me miserable as it reacts to chemotherapy, with sleeplessness, baldness, and itchiness, along with deep weariness that can’t be erased with a good night’s sleep. But I think the psalmist is speaking of what other people can do to me—the psalm’s context is literal enemies, who are “hounding me all the day long.”
            Most of us spend a lot of time pleasing other people or wondering what other people think of us or our actions. This behavior is pounded into us early in life by well-meaning parents who tell us not to pick our noses or play with our fly in public. We carry it to school with us, wanting approval from teachers and peers. Many of us bear scars well into adulthood because we were always the last person picked for games on the playground. (I was a dead loss at Red Rover; I was always afraid someone would hurt my hand as he or she tried to get through, and dropped hands.)
            Cancer can be a freeing of all that concern for the opinions and approval of others. Once you’ve lost all your hair, including your eyebrows, it’s easier not to care what people think. They will see you in the grocery store and turn away from your drawn-on eyebrows or give you such a compassionate look that you want to cry. You have no control over these stranger’s reactions, and slowly it dawns on you that you never did. An even greater comfort is realizing that, as a friend tried to tell me years ago, most people aren’t thinking about me at all—they’re thinking about themselves, as I am.
            Not being afraid—that’s a harder thing. The key is in the first line: trust in God, which is of course easier said than done. One of the values of being an adult, however, is having a history of seeing God at work and learning that God is trustworthy. This doesn’t mean no enemies, whether humans or wonky cells. It means that God is with us in every life event and intends good for us. We can trust and not be afraid.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Consider, Remember

This is an appropriate, self-denying meditation for Lent. The irony is that I wrote it the year my ovarian cancer presented. I did join Weight Watchers, and I did lose weight—for awhile. Then I began to gain, which is one of the symptoms of ovarian cancer. All of my worries about the high blood pressure numbers that were the "medical diagnosis" I allude to were soon engulfed in other worries. But the principle is the same.

Psalm 106 recites Israel’s cyclical history of disobedience and repentance while they were slaves in Egypt and shortly after they arrived in the Promised Land. As I read it this morning, verse 7 snagged my attention. “In Egypt they did not consider your marvelous works, nor remember the abundance of your love…” I began to wonder if that lack of consideration and remembrance is a factor in all of our various forms of bondage.
            I’ve been thinking about bondage because I need to change my eating ways. Yesterday I read a favorite verse, Psalm 118:5, “I called to the LORD in my distress, the LORD answered by setting me free.” Usually when I read that verse, I give thanks for the various ways in which God has indeed set me at liberty. Yesterday I began wondering if perhaps this unwelcome medical diagnosis was a way to point out my bondage to my eating habits.
            We who are euphemistically called pleasingly plump joke about being food addicts or chocoholics, meaning no disrespect to those who struggle with addictions far more deadly than what rolls out of a Hershey factory. But it’s not really funny, just as the jokes about overweight people aren’t funny. Being plump is neither pleasing nor healthy.
            Perhaps some form of bondage is the inevitable result of not considering God’s works or remembering God’s love. Like many people, I’m a stress eater who turns to food for comfort. (I also turn to food to celebrate or to cure boredom or for nearly any other reason.) If I can fill up by praising or being grateful to God, the source of all good gifts, might that help me not to overeat, or to choose the wrong things to eat? What if instead of reaching for chocolate I read a psalm or prayer of thanksgiving?
            This year I’m going back to Weight Watchers for Lent. The first time I joined, I was pumped; I went with a friend and we kept each other honest. Fifteen years later, it will be different. The weight is harder to get off, and the friend has moved on. But perhaps I have some tools available that I didn’t have then, perhaps my maturity will help, at least in my mind, which is where the battle to lose weight really occurs.
            I’m going to spend Lent looking more intently and intentionally for God’s marvelous works and abundant love.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Good Ground

Jesus once told a story about a sower who had good seed and flung it out, as was the custom in those days. We call this the parable of the seed and the sower, but it could more properly be called the parable of soils. The seed was the same in each case; the place it landed made all the difference. On stony ground, the seed couldn’t take root. On thin ground, the birds came and snatched it. On shallow soil, the seed rooted but had no place to go and soon withered. Thank heavens for good soil, where the seeds brought forth abundantly.
            I was thinking about this parable, remembering a drive to a conference one spring some years ago. As I drove through West Virginia, I noticed beautiful flowering trees all along one stretch of the road. They didn’t look like anything I knew. When I stopped to stretch at a welcome center, I asked the clerk about them.
            “The story is that a delivery truck overturned there,” she told me. “The seeds spilled out everywhere, which is why that section of the highway has such great trees.”
            Beauty out of danger. Seed taking root in what seems like tragedy. It’s a great metaphor for life, for life with cancer. I don’t like having two cancers, even with them in remission. I’m not thankful for cancer, though I am grateful for the beauty that has unexpectedly blossomed in the turned-over delivery truck of my life.
Jesus’ story is one of many he told about the kingdom of heaven, using familiar scenes of the day. This is how the reign of God is: you sow on all kinds of ground, not worrying about success, about the quality of ground. God is profligate, wasteful with the seed. Beauty, a powerful lure, as novelist Haven Kimmel writes, is scattered everywhere. It takes root in the least likely spots, as I think when I see a moss-covered rock in the glen, or flowers coming out of the limestone cliffs. Scatter the seed and keep walking. Don’t be too quick to label the ground stony or the soil thin. God has brought forth and will bring forth strong and beautiful plants where none could be expected.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Taking it All for Granted

I'm taking the easy way out today, posting something non-cancer related that I wrote a few years ago. It could easily be applied to the blessings of renewed health.

Reading about the Israelites in the wilderness can make me feel very superior. What a bunch of whiners! Psalms 78, 105, and 106 rehearse the story briefly (for those of us not up for reading the complete tale in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). These psalms not only emphasize God’s faithfulness but also highlight the repeated failures of the people newly delivered from bondage in Egypt.
            “They forgot what he had done, and the miracles that he had shown them…. But they soon forgot his works; . . . [they] put God to the test in the desert; They forgot God, their Savior. . .They grumbled in their tents, …” (Psalm 78:11; 106:13, 14, 21, 25, emphasis mine [NRSV])
            They forgot it all: the plagues upon Egypt, the Passover, the Red Sea parting, manna, water from the rock. They got caught up in whatever was troubling them at the moment and forgot all the things God had done. They took that mighty power and protection for granted. I would never do that! I think smugly.
            I give myself too much credit. One sad thing about the human condition is our ability to take miracles for granted. The first morning that I spied three deer feeding out back, I could barely make myself leave the window or the apartment. I tried to take photographs of them through the window. I stood quietly for long moments, just taking in the wonder of their appearing in this, the eighth spring of my living here. For some reason, the leaves on all the young trees have been deemed tasty this year.
            They come frequently now, and I’ve put away my camera and gone about my work. I still talk to them through the glass, assure them of my intent not to harm, try to move slowly. But the day no longer comes to a complete halt until they move on. Oh, yes, the deer are here. Time for breakfast.
            I would have made a good Israelite, gasping in wonder at the first appearance of manna from heaven, then rapidly progressing (degressing?) to taking it for granted to grumbling about it back in my tent. Wonder and gratitude take time and discipline. When we baptize a person, we pray for them to have the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. That gift needs to be opened daily.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Saved From Every Trouble

This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble.
Psalm 34:6

            Over the years that I’ve been dealing with cancer—mine and that of my friends—I’ve had to change my thinking about what it means to be saved from every trouble. It’s tempting to grab onto a verse like this and translate it to mean saved from surgery or chemo or radiation or recurrence. But I don’t believe anyone gets guarantees and I don’t believe God plays favorites.
            I heard a well-known bishop say once that when his wife had cancer, people from around the diocese prayed for her. Some of them attributed her (temporary) healing to their prayers. But this man, whom I admire for his ability to look honestly at life, wondered What about some custodian somewhere with a sick wife, who couldn’t mobilize the prayers of an entire diocese? Would his wife not recover for lack of prayer? His conclusion: I’m not interested in a God that capricious.
            I think we do a disservice to God, to our faith, and to the nature of prayer when we grab onto it as a measure of our faithfulness. Prayer is not like a cosmic vending machine, as I’ve heard since my adolescence. Prayer works on us and is for our benefit. We pray, not because we get a guarantee, but because on any long journey, we speak with our companions. God is our companion on this life-trek, and we talk to God, sometimes because we’re afraid or ashamed to talk to anyone else about our pain and fears. It’s natural to want to spare our family and close friends from some of the anguish we may feel, but those emotions must be expressed. And so our poor soul cries and God hears.
            The second shift in my thinking about this verse is that sometimes, loath as we are to admit it, death is the only way to be saved from every trouble. We’ve all been part of a death that felt like mercy, because the person we cared about was suffering so much. Death is the place where troubles don’t come. Ultimately, we will all be saved from trouble in this way. Meanwhile, we cry out to God with the assurance that we will be heard, regardless of the answer we receive.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Choosing Joy

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11

            The women who are ahead of me in this cancer experience have tried to teach me that joy is a choice. Regardless of our circumstances, we can choose to be joyful. Happiness may be dependent on positive events—I’m always happy after a clear checkup. Joy, however, is cultivated as carefully as a garden. And like a garden, it takes work.
            Several annoying things occurred yesterday (none of them life-threatening), and I was full of unhappiness, forgetting to choose joy. This morning, I am trying to write my way back and pay attention to the current of joy. Outside, it is still not quite light, but I can hear a bird chirping anyway. Maybe that’s my symbol—a bird who knows that the light is coming and sings appreciatively before the fact.
            In the Episcopal tradition, we sometimes speak of the dead as being “in the nearer presence of God.” For me, those words are a reminder that we are already, here on Earth, in the presence of God. How could it be otherwise, when God is everywhere and in everything? (I know: the idea of nearer in relation to the presence of God is not logical.)
The psalm says that in God’s presence (which we’re already in) there is fullness of joy. Fullness of joy can be part of my experience, whether I’m headed for surgery, for chemo or radiation, or for another little “procedure.”
Joy is a choice, sometimes a deliberate effort. I can mope around, as I did yesterday because I cannot control the world, or I can listen for the sound of birdsong and other evidences of God’s sustaining love.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

No Immunity

Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way, yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness.
Psalm 44:18, 19

The psalmist is expressing belief in what’s come to be called the “health, wealth, and prosperity gospel”—the idea that if I’m a faithful person, nothing bad will happen to me, and blessings will abound. It’s a bit comforting to know that the idea, however ludicrous, has been around for a long time, along with the idea that we can control God by our behavior. The people who propound this false good news apparently haven’t studied the scriptures very deeply. Most of God’s chosen, Jew and Gentile, passed through great trials.
I’ve had my own struggles with this notion of lifetime immunity. I had almost accepted the fact of my ovarian cancer when my bladder cancer was discovered. I didn’t have the classic profile: I wasn’t male, I’d never smoked. “Bad luck,” my urologist shrugged. But I’d altered my ways since the discovery of the ovarian cancer, radically modifying my diet and changing products I used for cleaning and personal care. Surely doing so would buy me continued good health! I felt like a failure, like a person who had to repeat a grade in school because she hadn’t really grasped the basic concepts. I may have hoped for a do-over, but it wasn’t related to having a second cancer!
Being the mature person I am, I sulked for a long time. Sulking didn’t have any effect on the reality of my two cancers, though, so I gave it up. I’ve accepted, on some level at least, the fact that being faithful doesn’t exempt anyone from trials or difficulties in life, whether I think I deserve them or not. I heard a sermon last week about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, which show that nobody can claim special power, protection, or privilege. Not even Jesus.
If Jesus is our model, we ought to expect hardship rather than a life of ease and comfort. After all, he invited us to “take up our cross daily” and follow him, not to settle in with a good book and cup of tea, which would be my preference. Letting go of the hope of getting through life unscathed by trials may be a first step toward growing up spiritually. We do not have control, but we do have a companion for our journey, whether our way leads to a chemo room or surgical ward.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Midlife Fears

[God] has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. “Oh my God,” I say, “Do not take me away at the mid-point of my life, you whose years endure throughout all generations.”
Psalm 102: 23, 24.

            In the United States, people are living longer. It’s no longer uncommon for people to reach their nineties, or even live to a hundred. Most cancers appear after one turns fifty, after decades of abuse in one form or another. My symptoms of ovarian cancer first presented the morning before I turned 55; my gynecologic oncologist said the tumor, based on its size, had likely been growing for about five years.
            As baby boomers age, “midlife” has become a floating number. We proclaim, “Sixty is the new forty,” and other nonsense. Whatever miracles we can work on our faces or bodies by applying expensive creams and keeping fit, the individual cells and organs know the truth of midlife.
            Despite our best anti-aging efforts, however, there are no guarantees. Like the psalmist, we may plead not to face the end when we thought we had another half of a lifetime. I felt cheated when I was diagnosed just after my first book had been published and my professional life was humming along smoothly. I had so much more to say!
            The funny thing is that cancer gave me a whole lot more to say, and technology, which I’ve always resisted, has given me a forum at last to share what I’ve written. In one of our Wednesday healing service prayers, we thank God for the “hidden blessings.” A new subject matter is one of my hidden blessings from dealing with cancer. In fact, there are multiple hidden blessings: kind and competent medical professionals, a sense of my own mortality that brings a new perspective on “the small stuff,” and new avenues for ministry.
            Make no mistake: I hate having cancer. I do not regard it as my friend or as my great teacher. Having cancer at what I’d like to think of as mid-point isn’t the blessing, but the catalyst for attaining the blessings.
We are not God; our years do not endure throughout all generations. Sooner or later, our years will end. We cannot know what our midcourse age is. We can only be thankful for and wisely invest each new day.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Taking a Day Off

Sundays used to be boring. There were blue laws—so called because of the paper they were printed on, not because of the way they made you feel. Stores were closed, except for drug stores, which actually sold only first aid and pain relievers, and thus received special dispensations. Fast food hadn’t been invented yet, nor were stores open for 24 hours and drive through restaurants open until 3 a.m. Sports teams didn’t play on Sundays. In my youth group, boys who refused to take jobs that required them to work on Sundays were lauded. (Girls didn’t get jobs beyond babysitting.)
            I was bored for many early years of Sundays, when there was nothing to do and I was taken to my paternal grandmother’s farm for chicken dinners. The afternoon stretched on and on, no one to play with except the boy cousins and my brother, nothing to do but read and color quietly. Later, there was pizza for supper, picked up hot in the box from a nearby pizza place, which somehow escaped the blue laws. But Sunday was just hours in which to do nothing.
            When rebuked for picking an ear of corn on the day of rest, Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The laws of enforced stillness were for our benefit. Here was one day in seven different from the others. Nothing was demanded, nothing expected.
            I’m turning ever more into an impossible old crank. A big part of me wants the blue laws back, even though I am having an interminable self-enforced Sunday afternoon. Years ago a pastor challenged us in the congregation to make one day in the week different, even if it couldn’t be Sundays. I’ve tried to do so, with more or less success, for decades. Does it make me better than anyone else? Hardly, since I sometimes fidget through the day and sometimes make up elaborate excuses for justifying un-Sabbath-like behavior. Still, I think we’ve lost our collective minds with our emphasis on continual productivity, our refusal to let the land of our mind and hearts lie fallow for one day a week.
            I have it easy: no houseful of bored children to keep amused, no one to please but myself. I’ve not had to accept a job that demanded Sunday labor, not had to stand against some wholesome activity that is now scheduled on Sundays. I can keep the television off if I choose to, stay out of the mall, do no housework, wait for Monday while I read and putter. In seminary, a friend who was juggling assignments and internships with being a single mom who owned a house used to joke about wanting two weeks to be bored. Maybe one day a week wouldn’t be so terrible. Say yes to boredom; it’s not as romantic as Mary’s yes to Gabriel, to God, but choosing Sabbath rest could be the yes that helps Christ to be born in us.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nightly Faithfulness

It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night.
Psalm 92: 1, 2

            The nights were hardest for me. During the day, I felt able to call someone if I needed to, or go somewhere to outrun the fear. Although I had friends who told me I could call at any hour—and I believed them—there wasn’t really anything to be done. I couldn’t imagine calling to say I was scared. Yes, sometimes talking helps, but my late night panics weren’t reasonable. Yes, I had far too much pride to call someone at 2 a.m. to confess my fears.
            It’s Lent, four years after chemotherapy, a good occasion for thinking about God. I’m facilitating two sessions on who Jesus is in John’s Gospel, so God has been on my mind a bit more than usual. I AM, Jesus says, using seven different word pictures. They’re lovely, and some of them pertain to my life as a cancer patient (resurrection and life? I’m there!). Today, however, I’ve been thinking a bit about Jesus as the one who is there. My friends are terrific; they show up. But Jesus is already there. He’s been there all along, in the chemo lab when the drugs were delivered, checked and double-checked for the correct dosages, in the surgical unit when the anesthesiologist tried to make me laugh.
            Jesus was there at night, when I was manic from the drugs that day and couldn’t come down. Jesus was there at night, when I couldn’t fall asleep or stay asleep for fear. Jesus was there on the nights I had to get up, make tea and toast, and sit with my journal. I wasn’t left alone or abandoned all those months of wondering if the physically debilitating chemo was working, would keep the cancer from returning.
            I’m at the “cautiously optimistic” stage, as my gynecologic oncologist calls it. Eighty percent of the way to cured, I think of it, though I know that cancer can recur many years later. Even now, there are a few bad nights. When I am lying alone in the dark, Jesus is there. On any given night, real or metaphorical, that I encounter, Jesus is faithful and present.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Some Days

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
Psalm 42:5

I’ve been accused, more than once, of wearing my heart on my sleeve. So it’s no surprise that my perceptive priest picked up on my anxiety.
“I’m not doing very well emotionally,” I say when she asked how I was.
“I could tell.”
Later, after the short pep talk she offered and after lunch (food always helps!), I talked with another friend who has a different life-threatening illness.
“Every day is different,” she said, in regards to how she handles the fear. “Some days I don’t even want to get out of bed.”
“But we have to,” I preached, mostly to myself. “Otherwise, fear wins. Cancer wins. We have to let grace or faith or whatever it is win instead.”
On good days, that’s exactly what I believe and practice. The great 20th century British writer G. K. Chesterton defined hope as the ability to be cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate. This is what allowed men fighting in the trenches during the World Wars to take a break for Christmas and sing carols together. This is what graces the people I’ve met with cancer who are positive and, yes, even cheerful.
And then there are the other days, when nothing feels right and not getting out of bed does seem the only reasonable option. Fortunately for me, there’s usually something I need to do, and I do get out of bed. The downcast mood passes—it always does—and I am again ready to praise God. As Brother Stendl-Rast has written, there’s always something for which to be grateful. This morning, for example, the delicate snow outlines every branch and twig. This afternoon I will be part of Survivors Teaching Students and will get to see people I care about in the cancer community. Ideas for a presentation I have next week are bubbling at the rim of my brain. No time to be downcast, with so much for which to praise God.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


 O LORD my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. You brought me up, O LORD, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.
Psalm 30:2, 3

In Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, an old man who’s been unjustly imprisoned is rescued. His daughter and a banker (in the days when London bankers handled much more than simply money) went to the jail and asked, “Would you care to be returned to life?” I think of that man sometimes, who wasn’t sure. Facing cancer, I knew I wanted to be restored to health. I had no idea I would be restored to life as well.
My restoration began during treatment, when a friend who’d survived cancer told me that I needed to see or talk to someone daily, even though she admitted this wasn’t my pattern and it would be a stretch for me. “I think your life may depend on it,” she said, and thereafter I regarded spending time with others as medically necessary, like the Aranesp shots I endured to boost my white blood cell count.
I’d been freelancing for nearly seven years when I started treatment, creating my own rhythms for work and rest. Introverted by nature, I had no problem going a day or two without speaking to anyone but the cats. I fell out of that habit during chemotherapy, when I took my medicine and found it tasted good.
I’m not a join-er. I’m uncomfortable in groups, and I hate committee work. Nevertheless, at the urging of another cancer survivor, I joined a cancer support group for women. I wish I could report that at our first gathering—a weekend retreat—I suddenly became outgoing and gracious. This would be a lie. When one woman asked my name, I said, “Why? You’ll just forget it again.” She didn’t; despite my prickliness, we’ve become friends.
I also joined a smaller group of women with ovarian cancer. From that came an invitation to be part of a new group, Survivors Teaching Students. STS is my attempt to give back, telling my story to medical school students once a quarter. More than the other groups, this one fits me and is the one to which I am most loyal.
Being alone is still the simplest for me. But if I stay alone in my snug little apartment, I may as well be dead for all the good I do others. Unlike the old man in Dickens’ book, I want to be restored to health and to life.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On the Attack

Fight those who fight me, O LORD; attack those who are attacking me. Take up shield and armor and rise up to help me.
Psalm 35:1, 2 Book of Common Prayer

            I don’t like the imagery of battling cancer. I came of age during the Vietnam War, and I’ve seen enough of battle, albeit from the small screen in our living room. I don’t like competitive games with winners and losers either, perhaps because I’m not good at them and don’t like to lose. I would especially hate to lose this war game. It would be worse than losing to my brother at Stratego. Fortunately, my oncologist doesn’t like war metaphors either. He’s more likely to encourage me with reminders that I’m the one riding the bike, driving the car; he and the nurses are there to change the oil or pump up the tires.
            Try as I might, however, some days it does feel like war. Cancer cells have gone crazy and attacked me. I have a kind of autoimmune disease, just as surely as friends who have died of AIDS had. No one is certain what tripped the wires—my eating habits, my weight, my leaning toward sedentary lifestyle, my childlessness, some genetic inheritance? All I know is that my body was trying to destroy itself. I did everything I could to stay alive, even as the chemo killed off healthy and unhealthy cells alike.
            On days when I feel utterly helpless against a microscopic foe, a text such as this one from the psalms is a great comfort. God is waging this battle with me, leading the attack. The most sophisticated weapons of battle in the days of the psalmist were part of God’s arsenal: shield and armor. I think of those as defensive equipment; anyone going through chemo knows that defense is needed. Chemo drugs will burn any skin they contact; pray for a skilled nurse. We need defense to strengthen our healthy cells;  we eat probiotics to help rebuilt gut flora and nourishing food rather than the empty calories that may have been standard fare.
            After treatment, a cease fire, as the body regains the strength and hair lost to chemotherapy. For me, a second battle the following year with a second cancer, though mercifully I’d already had treatment with the drug of choice for that cancer, too. Annual or semi-annual reconnaisance, making sure no insurgency can grow.
            Ultimately, I will lose the battle to stay alive in this body forever. But today, heading into Lent, I remember the words of the burial service from John’s Gospel: I am resurrection, and I am life.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Delivered from Distress

The Survivors Teaching Students program described below was designed by Betty Reiser, an ovarian cancer survivor and advocate. She's being inducted into the Hunter College Hall of Fame (her alma mater) for her work.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
Psalm 107: 6, 13, 19, 28
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy and the wonders he does for his children.
Psalm 107: 8, 15, 21, 31

This pair of repeated refrains is one of several poetic devices used in Psalm 107. Four different desperate occasions are presented using the same formula: the problem, the cry of distress, God’s answer, and the gratitude given. It’s a beautiful psalm, one of the first I knew. A portion of it was included in my seventh grade language arts textbook, with an illustration of a boat tossed high on the waves, portraying the final frightening scenario of this section of the psalm.
            I don’t know how many urgent occasions cancer will offer you or someone dear to you. For me, the onset and diagnosis was one and chemo another; finding a second cancer was a third and the ongoing fear of recurrences a fourth. I also have a low-grade desperation over my finances (a freelancer’s always-present concern exacerbated by the costs of cancer treatment), and mild anxiety that besets me a month to six weeks before my next checkup. The concern for my sisters and brothers with cancer constitutes another set of desperate, recurring occasions.
            From each of these, God delivers again and again. This morning, I woke up happy, 
for no real reason. (I don’t wake up miserable on most days, but happy is a rarity—I’m usually 
still too sleepy to register happiness.) I’ve tried to assign cause—perhaps I’m happy because 
I am part of the Survivors Teaching Students team at Miami Valley Hospital, where third-year 
students from Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine will listen to some of us 
tell our stories and answer questions for an hour. 
            The program is designed to give future doctors, in whatever specialty they choose to enter, 
more awareness of the subtle symptoms of our cancer. The sessions offer the students insight into 
ovarian cancer, one that’s often paired with the word “deadly,” and a chance to see women who 
are—at the moment—beating it. For me, it’s a chance to be with some of my favorite women in 
the world, whom I would not have known but for the link of our cancers. 
            Participating also offers some meaning to my cancer. Emily Dickinson wrote that if she 
could “help one fainting robin Unto his nest again,” she would not “have lived in vain.” 
Women participating in the program feel that if we can spare one woman what we’ve gone 
through, our experiences will not have been in vain. It is a mercy of God that we live; 
Survivors Teaching Students is one way to give thanks for that mercy and the daily wonders 
we receive, whether in treatment or in remission.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Another meditation on a verse and theme I've already used; that's the beauty of reading the psalms over and over--new connections are made!

 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

One of my friends complains that I complain far too much; another, perhaps more like me in temperament, considers a well-turned complaint to be a piece of performance art. I have told the quilters at church they have two options: I will complain if I don’t have work, or I will complain if I do have work. There is, as I have often said, no pleasing me. Even so, I consider all this as simple kvetching; I am generally a happy person.
            In the midst of all my complaining, however, I’ve realized an odd thing: I don’t complain about cancer. It simply is, the way dandelions are. Some people fret about dandelions and try to exterminate them from a perfect lawn; others see great beauty in the “lionsheads.” I know people who are grateful for their cancer and for its effects in their lives. I can’t get there myself, though there are sub-categories for which I am grateful, such as skilled and kind medical professionals and advances in medicine that mean I don’t have to die right now. But if I could pull out the cancer by its roots and do something to make sure it never returned, I would.
            I’ve noticed that I downplay cancer and its effects. This is not heroism, but a dislike of being fussed over—except of course on occasion and only in the way I want it to be done. (My friend Liz’s poached eggs come to mind.) I don’t complain about cancer, because doing so is a waste of energy. The cancer is utterly unaffected by my words—unless of course my gynecologic oncologist is right, and survival can be predicted based on attitude. I do not intend to give cancer a greater toehold based on my gloominess.
            Still, some days I am gloomy about nearly everything to do with my cancers, and some days I am simply angry. The beauty of God is that God is able to handle these emotions as easily as those related to joy or praise. God is interested in my total self, complaints and all, even if I come three times a day, as the psalmist wrote, and moan about my lot in life. God cares about honest communication and openness. God is big enough to handle the negative emotions that cancer and other difficult facts of life can produce. So when I am ready to complain about cancer, it is God to whom I can go.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lasting Kindness

 We’d played together as children, but hadn’t really known each other as adults. I left home at eighteen for college, and he left two years later. He and my brother had stayed in touch, though, so he and his wife attended my brother’s wedding reception. We shook hands warmly and he asked, smiling, “What’s it been—forty years?”
            We settled in for a lovely chat as the DJ cranked up the music behind us.
            “You came over every morning when my mother was in the hospital to make sure I was dressed and got to school. You don’t remember that, do you?” he asked.
            I shook my head. “How old were you?”
“I was in second grade. You walked me to my classroom.”
            “That means I was in fourth grade,” I said, embarrassed by my own kindness, my maturity, then realizing, “That would have been my mother, telling me to go over to your house and make sure you were up and ready.”
            And so it would have been. My mother was endlessly kind to other people, endlessly annoying me with her care of neighbors and relatives. It would have been just like her to promise the ailing woman and her husband, who had to leave for work before school began, that I would stop in to get their son off to school each morning. Because my mother had to get to her own factory job before school began, so I would have been delegated.
I remember major events of that fourth grade year: John Glenn’s first space flight, My Weekly Reader stories, Mrs. Smith reading us Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books after recess, watching the open car carrying presidential candidate John Kennedy go past, and my struggles with long division. A no-doubt frightened eight-year-old boy hasn’t remained in my memory. But I was glad to have this story, knowing that my mother was behind it. I realized again how much she taught me about hospitality, a very Christian virtue.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Here I Am

            “Here I am, Lord,
            Is it I, Lord?
            I have heard you calling in the night.
            I will go, Lord, if you lead me,
I will hold your people in my heart.”

Music has the ability to transfer us in time, just as smells do. The words above are the chorus of a hymn we often sang during many chapels when I was in seminary; when I hear them, I return in my mind to those heady, confusing days. They were appropriate for a group of people who had heard God’s call to pastor churches—and to the rest of us, the non-Master of Divinity majors, wondering if we’d heard some kind of call, too, and where it might lead.
The lyrics conflate two Bible stories of call. The first is of the child Samuel in the temple, the priest Eli’s servant, the boy who would become the last of Israel’s great judge-rulers. He hears God literally calling his name, waking him in the night (I Samuel 3). The second story concerns the vision that Isaiah the prophet saw in the temple centuries later—God, high and lifted up, asking, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here am I, send me.” (Isaiah 6)
I can recall being terribly upset with God for not calling me, as my friends in seminary were called, to some obvious great work. After two decades of “career Christian service,” as we called it, I began toying with the idea that I was simply an ordinary Christian. I wasn’t going to be called upon to become a professional Christian and do a mighty work. The child who had been fed tales of modern missionary miracles and martyrdoms was simply going to grow up, get a job and be part of the middle class. Not for me a call to martyrdom in the jungles of Ecuador or the pastorates of Wyoming. I was apparently being called to cubicle life in corporate America, and I resented it deeply.
And then I got cancer. Twice. When I hear the song now, I think of God’s people as those I’ve met and come to love through cancer. I’ve told my priest that they are my people, the ones I hold in my heart, the ones for whom I pray during our Wednesday healing service. They are not the people I would have chosen; I’m sure that some pastors are assigned by their bishops to congregations and places they wouldn’t have chosen. Sometimes, at a gathering of cancer patients, the only common ground I can find is our disease. Still, they are my people, as surely as if I’d known them from grade school and loved them ever since. I am privileged to hold them in my heart, to do what I can to help, to weep at their deaths as I anticipate my own at some point. For now, here I am.

Friday, March 4, 2011


O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice: In the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
Psalm 5:3 New Revised Standard Version

            I was supposed to be at the hospital for my chemo infusion two of every three Fridays during the four months of treatment. All the morning patients were due at 9 a.m. I quickly caught on that we patients outnumbered staff; one nurse was assigned to four of us. She couldn’t possibly insert the needles and start the lines simultaneously. I nominated myself to be her late patient, and was very cavalier about it if my drivers wondered why I was still eating breakfast at 8:30 when we had a half-hour drive.
            “It’s not like a play or a concert,” I said. “They can’t start my chemo without me.”
            I am not a morning person. Year after year, however, I was at work by 8 or 9. Working as a freelancer had allowed me to set my own schedule, to sleep in most days. Getting up early for a chemo treatment merely added insult to injury. But I had to get up, had to take the very pricey new anti-nausea drug at a certain time.
            One Friday I lingered over breakfast, teared up as my driver sat patiently. “I don’t want to go,” I said.
            “What’s the worst part?” he asked.
            How could I say? Where would I rank the sheer tedium of a fuzzy day in a recliner, the “big stick” when the needle pierced my flesh, the bloated feeling and need to go to the bathroom—no simple task, with all the lines I was connected to—multiple times?
            During most of the history of Christianity, Friday was a holy day, set apart for fasting and prayer in remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion on that day. It seemed altogether fitting that I spent Good Friday in the chemo room, hoping for my own resurrection.
            After chemo ended, one dear friend and I exchanged e-mails for a while on the wonder of a Friday without chemo. Gradually, of course, I stopped thinking, It’s Friday and I’m not in chemo. I do remember that other people are, and that Friday is my chemo nurse’s day in the infusion room; I pray for them often, though not always.
There’s a reason Peter wanted to build tabernacles on the mountain where he saw Jesus transfigured—we humans can’t hold on to our experiences, whether they are mountaintop or valley, for very long. So we make tabernacles, erect churches, light candles, compose music, write them down as best we can. Rituals are to help us remember. This rainy Friday morning, I am thinking again about where I was four years ago, and how God has answered my prayers and pleading.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Life’s Ransom

I wrote this during the fall of '09, when several friends were facing what appeared to be the end of this mortal life. I post it here in love and honor for them.

Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave.
Psalm 49:7–9, New Revised Standard Version

A woman I’ve known for a year is dying of ovarian cancer, which is one of the cancers I have. She has fought this disease with grace and determination, meeting one of her goals for survival—she has seen her youngest child graduate from high school. She’d hoped to live for his college graduation, but that will not happen. She is being treated at a famous cancer center here in the nation’s heartland, and the doctors are doing their best for her. But ultimately, they do not know how much longer she will be the bright presence we have known and loved.
She has shared her gifts generously with the group of women cancer survivors we are both part of. On my right wrist I wear three bracelets she has made, their crystals catching the sunlight. She is going to die, probably soon, and—after the surgeries and the clinical trials—there is nothing to be done about it but weep.
            In remission myself, it’s easy for me to forget about the toll this disease takes, my own death waiting for me. You pay with your life, because, the psalmist says, that life is so valuable that we can’t amass enough wealth to stave off the end of it. What’s comforting to me about this is recognizing that our lives ARE valuable in God’s sight. The beauty of them is their very transcience, as the poets tell us. Each autumn the trees burst into a final glory of color before the leaves die and drop.
            Perhaps that is all we can hope for, a last brilliant color before we fade. In the old rites of the Episcopal church, we prayed to make a good death, asked that death would not come upon us suddenly or unprepared. It may be that this final season of my friend’s life is a mercy, a chance for her to see death coming at her and to meet it prepared. I suppose that’s one good thing about cancer rather than a fatal car crash or a heart attack: whether we die of it soon or late, we know it’s coming. Cancer in this sense is a “severe mercy,” to use a term from C. S. Lewis. We think about dying and have time to say and do the words and deeds most important to us.
            My bracelets remind me to pray daily for my friend who made them and for each person I know struggling with this disease. When my friend leaves this life, at least she will have left behind great beauty.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Liquid Heart

My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.
Psalm 119: 28
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.
Psalm 62:8

We use heart to stand for all our feelings, for our emotional state. “My heart melts,” a friend of mine says about babies, a class of people he’s absurdly fond of. “I melted” my friends and I used to say about the effect of a look or word from our beloved. But melting also occurs in sorrow, as the psalmist knew. Sometimes the heart feels heavy with sorrow; at other times, it feels liquid.
The good thing about liquids is that they pour more easily than do solids. Just as we melt butter in a pan over flames, our hearts are melted in the fires of adversity. Sometimes that fire isn’t a metaphor—“liquid fire” is what my chemotherapy nurse called the shot of Aranesp I received to keep up my white blood cell count. I could feel it burning as it traveled up my arm, the big molecules straining to pass through the veins.
The Bible is full of warnings against having a hard heart. I don’t know any more effective means than an incurable disease to soften and liquify the heart. During my treatment, I watched the women going through chemo a second or third time; they seemed incredibly cheerful to me. I didn’t see one woman who was resentful or angry about being back in treatment. They had each achieved a liquid heart.
I could feel my heart becoming a sopping liquid mess, and was too tired from treatment and fear to pull myself back into a solid state. When all the needles were removed, I’d ooze from my recliner to the car of my designated driver. Riding home, I’d look out the window at the bright day or the falling snow. And I poured out my liquid heart to God about it: I don’t like this. Please don’t ask me to do this again. I don’t think I can go through it again. I’m sure it’s the same prayer every person with cancer prays.
Sometimes there seems to be no response, or the response feels like a shrug and an insincere “Sorry.” Somehow we find the courage (a word rooted in the French word for heart) that we need to face our days and our sorrows. God is our refuge. We do not need to steel ourselves, harden our hearts again. Rather, we keep before us both the possibility of a recurrence and the hope of resurrection. And we pour out our liquid hearts to God.