Ten Great Things About Having Cancer:
1. People bring you tasty food (not only lasagna, thank goodness)
2. People give you kind gifts life like coffee shop gift cards and gas cards, and more stuffed animals than any human should own
3. People offer to clean your house, mow your lawn, take care of your dog
4. You may qualify for Medicaid and get all this crazy expensive help for free (Allistaire’s treatment cost $1, 549,000.000 and we paid $3)
5. You have a whole group of professionals who have committed a ridiculous amount of time and energy to studying and practicing their craft to come to your aid and tell you exactly what you have to do
6. They actually give you a “roadmap,” which lays out each step of the road ahead
7. You are given an approximate time frame of how long this horror should last
8. Your boss understands when you need to leave early or take time off
9. Most of the other responsibilities of your life take a major back seat and you are able to and supported in focusing on this one thing
10. There is most often, no blame or shame for why this is happening
Most of the suffering in life does not come with these perks. Battling cancer is full of unique horrors and woes and most forms of suffering do not actually peak in the real possibility of death, but cancer is suffering we can speak of openly. It is a suffering people will do fundraisers to help bring to an end. It is a suffering that people – individuals, families and communities, can rally around. You can wear a shirt that declares you are, “kicking cancer in the junk,” – you can walk around a store with that. People think you are brave and will randomly give you hugs in the grocery store. You can walk with your little, or big, bald head held high.
I once, not so very long ago, said to a friend that having a dying child seemed somehow noble – like some sort of exalted suffering. That was a mere month before Allistaire got sick. I was hurting and aching inside because I knew a suffering in my life that I could not speak of openly. It ripped and it tore and stung and I had no choice but to keep going. I had to keep it together. I still had to go grocery shopping and prepare meals, keep the house clean and be kind and patient with the kids. I had to endure headache after headache from nights of hard crying. I had to try to apply the eye makeup and hope it hid the pain. There was no one to tell me how to walk forward – no roadmap and no end in sight. I had to force my pain to stay stuffed behind the door and keep up a strong face. Yet I wondered how to answer the question of, “How are you?” Do I pretend which is a form of lying or do I reveal that which is private? No one prayed for me in front of the church like they did for the family whose daughter was in kidney failure. There was no one to bring me a meal when hours of the afternoon passed into evening and all I could do was sit or long for sleep; so full of sorrow I was. There was no explanation for my short temper with the kids.
These days I have a child with hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. She runs and spins and sings and throws tantrums. No tubes sway from her chest. She sucks her almost 3-year old thumb and rubs her doggie’s ragged, crusty fur against her nose for comfort. Most don’t know how far Doggie has seen her through. Her shirt hides the pink scar on her chest. It’s been nine months since we left the hospital. Most people want to be done with cancer. Of course no one says that, but I feel it, I feel that everyone would feel much more comfortable if I would stop talking about it. Ever the rushed question bound with declaration, “She’s fine, right?” That’s behind you. Move on. But it’s not over. Every single day, many, many times a day, I ask myself a hundred questions to try and determine if she is fine. My once public suffering has moved behind closed doors. I have to go grocery shopping and prepare meals and be patient with the girls. There is a lump on Allistaire’s back. It has grown over the last few months. We’ve been watching it. On Tuesday morning, February 19th, Allistaire will go into surgery to have it removed and the pathologist will examine it. It may be a benign fatty tumor called a Lipoma or it may be a Leukemic Infiltrate, Leukemia Cutis. One poses no threat. The other is her cancer come back, showing up in her skin before her blood or bone marrow, as it occasionally does. I may be in Seattle with Allistaire this weekend or I may be going on a nice weekend trip with my husband as we planned a month ago.
The knife, angled, lies against the rope. Back and forth it moves, patiently, slowly, the fibers give way. One by one they release –their tension ended. And there it is, nearly the end and the knife cuts on. In that strangely uneventful moment, the last fiber is severed and the weight of the rope hangs limp where once it stretched taut, constraining, binding. I release breath I didn’t know I was holding and I feel where the pressure of the rope laid heavy on my chest for so long, so familiar was it’s restriction that freedom felt foreign, odd, strange. Light. I felt lighter as though some small bit of the surface of my flesh no longer laid pressed against the solidity of the earth. There was rise; lift. Slowly, my tongue detected it – this less-weightiness, this gap between my flesh and the land, this small space of separation. Transcendence. God’s hand remains firm on the knife’s handle; still wielding it’s sharp cutting. Patiently, slowly, He cuts on.
I could not bear to look. I could not bring myself to look over. Out of the corner of my eye I saw it and I could not deny it. It’s presence loomed, threatening to take over my whole view of the land before me. Plentiful, lush, bursting, sweet, bright land. But there, just an inch from the outside of my right foot, I see it. It stretches out behind me and as far in front of me as I can see – all the way to the horizon. Cavernous, black, deep, threatening, that violent rend in the earth, opening up beside me. At any moment I could be swept in. I only see it out of the corner of my eye but it’s presence looms, seeking to swallow me whole. It is my black fear, deep, cavernous, threatening. It is the place of the return of cancer. It is the place of a love gone. In a flash, this firm earth may give way and crumble underfoot, casting me down into that blackness so thick. The clammy sweat, cold and hot at the same time, I want to get away from that crevasse and flee into the wild sweet beauty, forgetting utterly it’s massive reality; yet so weighty I cannot escape it’s pull.
Every instinct of my flesh commands that I flee, that I pull away. My skin tingles on high alert that danger there abounds. But as my eyes waver and look down, I hear His voice, sweet, clear, sounds stretched, notes pulled out transparent. I AM down there, in the blackness, I AM there. Fear not. If even the worst you can imagine comes to pass, I AM there in the thick, dark, so seemingly solid and permanent. Should you fall, should you be swept down, you will find me there. You will not be alone. Dare I look? Can I will my neck to turn and my eyes to face that black? What if I did? What if in the place of my greatest fear I turned toward it. What if I looked it full in the face and knew the sweet, mysterious peace of His presence. What if there in the blackness that threatens to squeeze and constrict and suffocate, what if there was light of such colors as our mind could never conceive?
“I AM there beloved,” He speaks slow to me, cutting, knife moving back and forth across the fibers that have constrained so long they seem part of my very self. I turn and I look there at my weighty, black fears. I see them in detail; all of their features clear. Another fiber releases and that space between the ground and myself grows. I see you, my terrors; I see your ravaging, your searing, your knives seeking to gouge the flesh of my stomach. I see your ugliness and your stench. But there, I see something more, something like light rising on the curvature of the earth. I see my Lord, He stands beside you. You terrors are not all that there is. You are not imagined. You are not a child’s nightmare, but an adult’s reality. But, you are not all there is; you are not alone. Look, I can see Him. I need not fear. I turn toward the terrors that I might see the Lord my God, there in that very place.
My anguished fury lies silent now in my throat. My fists, once clenched white in gripping fervor, lie spent by my side. Where once was rage there is growing something new. I used to shake in anger at my finiteness. I wanted to tear my weakness to shreds and I would bellow absolute fury at God for making me this way. How weary I was of being needy, of being at fault, of being weak. How the cutting has stung, both great and small. I scream out at God for the car that drives too slow when I am late, for my child that will not do what I want, for sickness and sin in my own flesh and sickness that could bring about the death of my child. I watch as the expanse of the mountains disappear into clouds of white shrouds of falling snow, only their blue, black feet extending into the valley. I rest, waiting for the train, whose end I cannot see as it bends back around the corner of sight. I cannot choose for the snow to fall or not to fall. I cannot determine the speed or timing of the train. I rest and watch. I am expectant. I look round, looking for my Lord who does control such things. The rope lies limp against my arm and I rest knowing I can control so little and what once made me furious I am beginning to see as gift, as grace, as love.
These weaknesses, these displays of finiteness, in concentrated form they are my terrors, what are they truly? Are they not over and over, as Ann Voskamp describes, “the seeing-through-to-God places”? What if rather than seeking to flee or to pile on the insulation, what if I stood firm, stood at rest, but facing them, looking them in the eye – and most mysteriously, seeing an infinite God in these finite places, a perfect and beautiful God in these marred and ugly places? What if I were to embrace the way God made me – embrace my finiteness, hug it round because He is giving me eyes to see that through this weak flesh, through this passage, I will come to see Him. What if I turned into the vast ocean that more acutely declares my smallness, my weakness, my inefficiencies of my self and the world I inhabit? What if rather than fleeing that which so loudly proclaims my lack, I turned into that which, in clarifying my weakness, I see with new eyes that great and utter glorious beauty and power of a God who sees me like Hagar and hears my voice crying and proclaims His great love for me. What if I stopped running away and ran toward my Father? What if I harkened to that resonate, strong voice that says I AM here Jai. Right here. Right now, no matter where I lead your life, I will never leave you or forsake you! What if I actually took God at His word when He makes such grandiose declarations? Fear would dissolve. The bonds would slip off and I would rise up. A thousand verses of my Father’s Word surround me – a chorus of voices: Do not tremble or be dismayed for the Lord God is with you wherever you go! If God is for you, who can stand against you? Nothing can separate us from the love of God. For now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. For the joy set before Him – He – Christ – endured the cross. And surely, I am with you, to the very end of the age.
Can my hands let go of that which I could never hold anyway? I cannot get my child to walk up the stairs at the speed I want and yet my Father calls out each of the stars by name. I am learning, because of this brutal teaching, instruction that cuts and severs and stings, I am being released from the bonds of this earthly life. I am slowly being lifted up. In Christ, I have begun to transcend because He was first transfigured and transcended. He is my God and He is calling me. Do not fear for I have news of great joy! This child that was born is my salvation, is the way into being a child, the raising of the dead to life, the way into being welcomed into the promises.
Here is a reality I am seeing much more clearly – we all have our sufferings – sorrows public and sorrows private. It is not just the starving in a third world country or that bald-headed child with the tubes. It is that husband and wife, fighting for their marriage. It is that girl fighting to make choices with her food and see her body with care. It is that single-mom who is at an utter loss to know how to parent her raging out of control child. It is that man who is battling to maintain his integrity at work. It is the illness that is unlovely and whose name is unfamiliar. It is that man who wants to believe but doesn’t know how. It is the family who sees no way out of their financial black hole. It may be the choice I made decades ago, echoing it’s consequential refrain over all these years of my life. It is that woman who can only stare at the other woman with her children bouncing around her, and she, womb empty. There is no noble suffering. It is all pain. It is all death, in its many varied forms and faces.
The battle of cancer is a battle to keep death from swallowing the life of the flesh, but more so, ever much more so, it is a battle of what does it all mean? Why are we even fighting to keep this flesh alive? Because we know it is sacred. Not one of us doubts that fighting for life is the fight you fight with all your strength, with all your resources brought to bear. You wipe your child’s naked flesh with the Chlorhexidine wipes to destroy the bacteria that threatens to take her sweet vulnerable body down. You allow the poison, red, blue and yellow, to drip through the tubing into his veins because you must. You must fight. And that battle that is there to fight above and around and through it all is the greatest of battles. It is the ultimate war. We are weary. We are lost and confused. We are angry and hurt. We are to blame. The way seems unclear. We don’t know how long we must fight. But fight we must. We fight to save the flesh because the flesh is the dwelling place for the spirit. It is the fight of the spirit we fight – all of us – with our many varied lives and faces.
So this I day I beg of you. Let us be gracious to one another. We are all walking with our weighty sorrows and struggles. We all have our tender places, our wounds too raw, aches so deep. And let us stand alongside one another. Ask the question of, “How are you,” and actually be willing to wait, to stand long, to hear the response that requires courage to bring it out into the light. Let us pray for one another when we don’t even know what to pray for, when we don’t know the name of the battle they now face. Pray for eyes that not only see these earthly realities but for eyes that would be lifted up to take in the view of the fuller, expansive reality. Enter the fray. Step foot into that raging torrent. Ask God to give you courage to walk where He leads you, whether into a land of lush beauty or into a thick, black. Refuse to allow your eyes to only see the temporary and the tactile but let these be the means to see the eternal and the life of the spirit.
Fifteen months ago I stood at a road divided, wondering which direction the Lord would take us. I feared the dark road – I could not image what horrors lay down that path. That is the road we have traveled. Sickness and death have pursued and at least for a time, have been evaded. We stand now at yet another divide. When the surgeon’s knife cuts through her beautiful skin and the nature of the lump, this tumor, is determined, we will know the road we travel. As before, I plead and ask that God be merciful and allow us to turn aside from that darkness. I am ever so much more familiar now with the dark path and its gritty details, it’s possible dead-ends. But today I choose to face that darkness head on. I choose and cry out for eyes that see Him in the darkness, He who turns darkness to light. He who overcame sin and death. He who has triumphed. He who has already won, because He did die, He did allow His body to be cut down and His Spirit broken. He who was raised up. He who was transfigured. He who now sits because He has won the ultimate battle. I see you, you beautiful one! I see you in the caramel yellow of the willow tree’s new growth reaching up into that perfectly blue sky. I see you in the blue shadows of the snow drifts curling like waves along the road. I see you in the white clouds of snow shrouding the mountains. I see you in the gleeful gleam in Allistaire’s blue eyes. I see you in my sister’s kindness to me. I see you in the faces of my brothers and sisters who wage on. I see you. I am looking for you.
Jeremiah 29:13 & 14 “then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I WILL BE FOUND BY YOU, declares the Lord”