Mom and Dad watched Allistaire yesterday so I could have a break and get out of the house. In the afternoon I ended up at one of my favorite antique malls. As I meandered down one of the corridors, I saw Sally coming toward me. My mind slowed and chugged, laboring to comprehend seeing her in this ordinary place, just like it had when I saw Olivier, the massage therapist from the hospital, in Ikea earlier in the day. So here we were, she and I, doing something we both love; she looking for small original paintings in gold frames to add to her collection and I, well, I hadn’t formed a goal, just enjoying observing and hunting for something whose name I never did discover. I was struck by how lovely it was to see a familiar face, a knowing face, out here, in normal life. But as the day wore on, another reality began to sift down through all the little open spaces in my heart, and settle heavy. Right there alongside the description of the paintings she was looking for, was the news that she had seen the father of one of the patients with whose mom we are both friends. “I dared not ask him what was happening,” she said, “with that look on his face and the emergency room badge. She is not supposed to be here.” When at last the day was coming to an end and I took a moment on the computer, intending to see how many hits the “Stronger,” video had gotten up to, I looked at my email. There in reply to my email from days ago were the words explaining the strained face, “her cancer has returned, she will not survive it.” She is hoping her child can make it until June for a much looked forward to event.
This morning as I sat on the bed in the procedure room, Allistaire in my lap, I listened to Dr. Pollard as she explained that Allistaire did not need a biopsy, only an aspirate, because she is doing so well. I could barely hold back the welling tears as I asked my questions. As I waited in the adjacent room, I felt confusion and guilt that I should not be so very happy to be sitting in that room for the last time. You see I feel very weighty, so worn. I am not sure how to live out there in the world again. My eyes and my heart have taken in such realities I can barely hold. They are so weighty and cumbersome. There is part of me that just wants to shove them far back into the dark corner and close the door. But they are too heavy for even that. I visited them today and peered into a darkened room, seeing her there laying in the bed, I wondered what it is like to know with certainty and tactily that these are your last days. I see the picture of her taped to the whiteboard in her room. She is beautiful and young, hair draped over her shoulder. My only offering to her is a cheesecake I plan to bake Friday night. She and her mom, sweet to Allistaire and glad she is doing so well. My heart is wrenching, pulling in opposing directions. I have now known the end of sweet young, bursting lives and parents left bereft and forlorn. Allistaire is doing well, but I will never again know the light-hearted freedom of possible harms, “out there.” Harm has come in close; it has lived in our midst. Like the reverse of a woman waiting each month to see if this time she is pregnant, I imagine as the days grow close to the next monthly blood test, life will slow and be lived out of deliberateness and habit as we wait yet again and again to see what the blood has to tell us. I have been witness to loss and brokenness and sorrow, so sharply deep and invasive. Like all witnesses, I am now bound to what I have seen. I cannot escape it nor leave it behind; it has become part of me. But these scars are not the scars of an entire community at war, that are not held collectively. These scars are not readily identifiable. As I took my bald-headed child to Target and Costco the other day, I had an intense compulsion to want the opportunity to speak what has happened out loud. I wanted to declare that no, she is not like your grandchild who took forever to grow hair, she is my beloved who is just now emerging from the throes of cancer. It is hard to know how to carry pain in a world that offers little room for such groanings. There is part of me that yearns for the accumulation of days which will dull the biting sting, just as it has for the end of a little 10-week growing life, now 3 1/2 years ago.
There is no longer “normal life.” Or perhaps there is but it has been changed so that normal has new contours and shades and landmarks. I asked my friend about this notion of “fighting cancer,” that this “Stronger,” video has brought into the spotlight. It has never, in this whole time occurred to me to, “fight.” I pulled up to a four-way stop yesterday and it was unclear whose turn it was to go and so I yielded. I yielded and I turned the thought over on my tongue and I thought how sweet and foreign it is to yield. I dwell in a land where to exert one’s power is a fundamental value. To take a stand for one’s rights is the constant battle cry. I yielded and it was sweetness in my mouth and foreign beauty in my mind. This is the way of the Lord; to yield and to submit. There is nothing more repugnant or vile than this to the American mind in the 21st Century. I had to stop myself and question, am I weak? Why have I not sought to fight? In the beginning of all this I started reading a blog of a mom whose daughter also had AML here at children’s. Eventually I read no more because I couldn’t identify with her constant request for “sending good thoughts,” and the repetitious cry that they were going to “kick this cancer’s #*@%.” How many times have I looked straight into the eyes of another mom, and painfully, but willfully said, “I don’t know if they’re going to make it.” I don’t know if your child is going to win “the fight,” or if mine will. This resolution has not been promised to us. There is nothing to guarantee safe passage. I don’t know how many times I have heard it said with resolute hope, that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” This is in actuality the opposite of what the Bible proclaims. In truth it says over and over that we cannot handle what life has for us; we are in grave need of a God who can carry the weighty load for us.
I paid $12 for two sea urchins at the antique store yesterday. They were $6 each. I suppose they would fit more into the category of, “curiosities,” rather than antiques. They sat in a great glass cabinet with scores of other treasures from the sea. My fight is not against cancer, it is a battle to submit my heart over and over to the One True God and accept what comes from His hands. The doctors and pathologists examine Allistaire and bits of her flesh and determine what medicine she needs. They strategize the best method of getting the agents of war into her at just the right moments and with the most effective means. And Allistaire is so young; she only knows to scowl and resist yet one more squeezing of her leg to determine her blood pressure. The war of what it all means is left largely with me; a bulkiness that I attempt to carry and am unable to get away from. Even before I could feel the urchins in my hand, through the glass cabinet door my eyes took in the lovely green color of moss and the intricate, flashy design of purples and orange, like some vintage ’80s sweater. Once in my hand, the tips of my fingers detected the spires in precise array. I held the smaller of the two up to the window. Tiny streams of light passed through perfectly placed holes; symmetry like flower petals. As I walked through University Village yesterday, I stopped abruptly at the sight of the most delicate, feathery leaves of a Japanese Maple; their bright paper-thin green layering shade upon shade of green as they overlapped one another and the sun shone down over them. Here are the tools of my fight. Here are the weapons of my war. These innocent wonders silently, blaring their declaration that there is a God. That life is not random. That there is beauty and intention and outlandish, absurd luxury. In some random hallway, we walked today to fill the time until Allistaire’s bone marrow test. There on the wall was one of my most favorite things in the world. A poster, entitled, “Biochemical pathways.” I’ve only seen it two other times. I don’t claim to understand a thing about it, but it is simply it’s daunting complexity and detail that thrills me to the core. I am reminded of the poster on the wall of my classroom, the one year I taught junior high and high school science. It is a poster showing the electromagnetic spectrum with the wide stretched-out radio waves on the far left. In the middle are the waves we can see with our eyes, showing up in violets and yellow, green, red and blue. The waves constrict and tighten, becoming ultraviolet and eventually gamma rays. My mind is off, soaring over one delight and wonder after another – the octet rule in chemistry where every atom is ever on the hunt to rid itself or obtain electrons that it might be at rest with eight, the fact that there would be no life on the planet if it we not for the fact that the water molecule is bent rather than linear, making it polar. I recall the sight of the flashing bright, yellow just below the waves in Hawaii and know that I have seen those fish up close. I consider the looming, bulk of Mt. Rainier and it’s silhouette so known and loved from my childhood. How many stories can I tell you of the adorable things Allistaire has said or the thousands of times I have taken delight in the expression on her face or the intonation of her voice. Sometimes I just stop and look at her legs, at their sumptuous curves and the mystery that they continue to grow as bone cell adds to bone cell and skin cell and muscle accommodate the new dimensions. I wonder, how is it really, that such a thing began inside me? How did two mere cells create this being made not only of wondrous flesh but delight and joy and humor and angst and fire?
In December we were thrust into a world, I had previously only barely known in the faintest of outline. Now that world up on the hill, behind those walls of cement and steel and glass, is known to me in intimate color and detail. I know its sounds. I hear them even when they are not present. I know the smells and the faces and they come to me in my dreams and as I drive and as I shower and as I walk and as I drink my coffee and get the mail. With the most minimal of effort, you can pull back the cloth and see the ragged fresh scars. I will always bear them. They are unlovely and eventually they will fade and contort with age, but they are sacred and cherished because they are tangible reminders of what has been. I recall that as I child I thought adults were way too serious and uptight, that life was nothing but delight upon delight and adventure after adventure to be had. I am continuously surprised to find myself so sober-minded. And I know that I must fight lest I be lulled into despair. I am coming to believe that the secret to the fight, at least in part, is to see that these weighty, harsh realities do not take up all the space in the world, in this life. They sit side by side with the lovely, the beautiful, the delightful, the mysterious, the complex, the exultant. In my pain and searing ache I demand an account for these horrors. I cry out and rage and ask why?! But I must also seek an account for these wonders, the ravishing beauty and delight. But this is not math. You cannot take one away and receive one and have it come out equal. The loss is real and the wonderful does not undo the wretched. But it is in peering into the pattern of the sea urchin shell and allowing myself to hear its declaration that God is and He is the creator of beauty and life and power and complexity that gives me hope and enables me to submit to the one who is able to destroy the cancer. How can I submit to the very one who has the power to destroy the cancer but may not? Again, and again and again I am also called to give account for all the things which speak to God’s goodness and His love and His provision and His delight in caring for us. I hold the wretched in one palm and the wondrous in the other. I am unable to reconcile the two, but that does not mean that they are irreconcilable. It may just point to my finiteness. Will I only allow the sight of pain and brokenness and so much ugliness in the world to consume my view. Will I only shake my fist at God and wring my hands over these and disregard the very thing that is so treasured by me; the very thing that in the fear of its loss shows me how great it’s glory and value? I hold the sea urchin in my hand and I force myself to ask the question, how and why? I look out into my yard at the plants that push their way up through the soil year after year and I require myself to ask, how and why? I let the beauty of the sun pink on the western snowy monolith of Mt. Rainier wash over me and I cry out how and why? I get down low and look into the eyes of my child where I see mischievousness and glee and blue and I demand to know how Oh Lord did you create her and why Oh God did you give me such a gift? I look out wide over my life, this way and that, and take stock of the abundance and I ask, who am I to be given such bounty? What have I ever done to deserve such treasure? I do not stop calling out to God with an ache too deep to bring tears of one more life nearing its end. I do not stop pacing before Him and pleading and demanding that this pain and brokenness must end. And I stand silent in the dark, dark night, my head craned back until my neck hurts, straining to take in the depth of the Milky Way and I am overwhelmed with a God who can and who would make such a thing. And my mouth gapes as I consider a God who would come down from such heights to look me in the eye and hold me by my hand and declare in so many infinite ways that He loves me. My whole being strains to take in the weight of such a truth. I yield because I have seen too much beauty to walk away.