For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
Psalm 51:7, Book of Common Prayer
I lied my way through church this morning. I figure when people ask, “How are you?” it’s just a social thing. Unless people already know what’s going on, the expected answer is, “Fine, and you?” I rationalize that it might be different if I were—God forbid—on chemo and bald again, but very few people at church even know about the second cancer, much less that Friday will be my fifth surgery for it.
That I attended church all during chemo reflects no special virtue on my part. I’m wired for religion, always have been. There’s strength in church, just by being in a building where prayer has been offered for more than a century. There’s beauty in the words of the liturgy and the hymns. Which is why I went this morning, when my body told me to stay home and listen to the rain on the roof. I went for purely selfish reasons—I wanted to sing (though I didn’t feel like it), and I wanted the strength of the gathered community, however ignorant I’ve kept most of its members about my upcoming surgery.
I’m not sorry I went, just sorry that I felt fragile and distracted throughout the service. My surgeon has told me he doubts I’d need a temporary bag after this surgery, but it’s hard to believe him, given that I’ve had one after each of the previous ones. I was thinking about what I could wear to church next week that would hide the bag I may not have. One of the children has taken to wearing a bunch of plastic bracelets on his right arm, and I thought about bringing him my ovarian cancer one. And I thought about the plastic band a nurse will slip on my wrist in five days, and how much I hate that band, the sign of my membership in the company of the unwell. One dear woman touched me lightly on the back when she passed my pew going up for Eucharist, and her gesture nearly undid me.
The closing hymn included the words attributed to Francis of Assisi, “All you that pain and sorrow bear, praise God and cast on him your care.” I lost it on that line—not, thankfully, with the immense sobs of which I am capable, but some tears trickled down my face. I wasn’t in physical pain, but I was bearing sorrow, for myself and for friends undergoing various difficulties right now.
There are teenagers in my church who love me. It’s a humbling thing. I adore them, and the fact that they come and sit with me after the service to tell me about their lives, just beginning to open, and to hug me. The problem is that they’re not stupid. One asked, “Are you all right?” Another came up, looked at my face, and wanted to know, “Why are you sad?” I gave them both the same half-truth, “Good music does this to me.” Absolutely true, just not the whole truth. I was sorry I had to lie and that I’m not as good at it as I would like to be. As we waited in the line to shake the rector’s hand, one of the young mothers in the church asked how I was. I told her I was fine, apparently believing in the idea of protecting the women and the children.
I left as soon as I could after that. There didn’t seem to be any point in hanging around to enjoy fellowship at coffee hour and tell any more lies.