Monday, May 26, 2008

Crucible

I have been where I never want to be again. But I am so very grateful to have been here.

My soul’s work is all about courage, strength, and commitment. Cancer walked me further down that path. I am thankful to have gotten off as lightly as I did. And I am thankful for everything that this past month has taught me.

I am more focused. More tenacious. More compassionate. Much stronger, and much less afraid. Very aware of the gift of my body. Absolutely, completely and totally grateful for life.

I'm also in a deep internal space. I'm both working this, and waiting to see what will grow from it.

I mentioned dharma teachings, in an earlier post. I remember walking to BART, early in this process. I never had to go to anything cancer-related alone, so I was either going to church that Sunday, when I knew absolutely nothing except that I had it, or the following Thursday to an ophthalmology appointment, by which time my CT was clean. I was on the steps leading from the Cal campus down to Oxford. I have no sense of whether it was early morning, or early afternoon. I don’t remember how I was dressed; whether I carried a backpack, or whether it was warm or cool outside. I think I remember an overcast sky.

The point is that I was either more, or less, terrified; and which, I cannot tell you. I do remember the fear; I’ll never forget it. I doubt there was ever a time in that first week, when I was not completely consumed with anxiety. The unknowing was almost unbearable.

And I remember thinking, “If I’m open to this, I can learn from it.” I asked the experience to teach me.

Did it, ever. Nothing makes you love your life, like genuinely fearing for it. Nothing has ever taught me more about being human, than sharing this fear in a circle of love.

I told my faculty immediately, when I got the diagnosis, because I had to. I needed them to know that I was not going to be able to do the work I’m normally capable of. That night, I asked for prayer on the unofficial community list. I went completely public within the first week, when I had to tell the community why we were tweaking a Rite I liturgy to add a healing rite. The best choice I made, throughout this experience, was to be (and stay) open, within the seminary fishbowl.

My teachers all gave me the space to shut down academically. They encouraged me to take walks, breathe, skip class if I needed to. They knew before I could have told them: I had to (and have to) be with this. It wasn’t even that I needed to learn from it, though I did. I couldn’t have been anywhere else.

They gave me the time to learn what cancer taught me.

Several of my classmates, and my advisor at least twice, told me that I was an example, or that I was teaching them. They used words like faith and courage. [A friend I just IM'ed with added, "resilience and joy." I love that.] I knew that I was in a position of teaching; the conscious witness I was making was simply, what it’s like to live through this. I wanted to do it well, but as to how? Nobody ever knows how. You just do it.

Another teacher told me, more than once, that I was doing well. I knew exactly what she meant. Her work with me a year ago had helped to prepare me, though neither of us knew I'd have to practice these skills so intently, for reasons much bigger than school.

I took a class in the spring of 2007, with the toughest teacher I’ve ever had. (She's also tremendously creative and resourceful, but that's beside the point I'm making.) I came back from a spring-break trip to New Orleans with my head completely turned, and I didn’t have the will or the determination to focus back on school. I flaked on a major project. My instructor confronted me, as she should have. I reacted in a way that showed both of us, how far I had to go.

She let me have the space to sort it out. Later, I accepted that she’d been trying to help me find a toughness I was lacking, that I would need both in ministry and as a fully competent human. That she valued my work as highly as she did, led me to rethink how I approached it. That she was willing to work with me on the deeper issues, gave me the support to work through them. I knew she cared about me, as a student and as a person.

I kept chewing on the issues—I worked them harder than I had any other growing edge, before cancer came as teacher and test. I’d come to her every so often, this past fall and spring, with an epiphany, an apology, a thank you, a question. She’d affirm that I was getting it, and we’d move on. She also would tell me, when she saw me looking trepidation in the eye.

I had her again this spring. I'm not good at juggling; I got the flu in February, and got more behind in everything. I went to her with questions around organizing my work. She gave me an hour, doing vocational discernment around my MBTI and a reflection paper I’d written for her. Neither of us had expected the conversation to go there; at one point, we looked at each other and laughed. But she gave me resources and ideas to work with.

My diagnosis came on a Friday afternoon before the Monday our group projects were due. I e-mailed her, fresh from crying with my best friend on the phone. She told me just to do what I could. That Monday afternoon, when my week had filled up with medical appointments, she excused me from all remaining work. She told me that I had to take care of my health, and that she prayed for me daily and hourly.

Throughout this, she gave me support; she always let me know that she and the community were praying for me. When I saw her, she’d grab her calendar, wanting to know what to pray for and when. I would e-mail her, in fear about something. She’d tell me to stay aware of myself and of God, and to breathe.

She taught me what I needed to learn. The toughness she pushed me to adopt, a year ago (and with which I had still been negotiating), translated through this experience into a tenacity I would not have known that I had. That isn’t what kept me physically well—God only knows how the cancer didn’t spread—but it kept me mentally and emotionally open to growing through this. It kept me able to be strong, when I needed to be. The grace she gave me when I felt fragile, gave me permission to do that as well.

I had that learning experience. And I had time to do the work, and to grow from it. She never brought it up, past that conversation a year ago. Doing the work was completely my choice. I did it, and I can be proud of it. When the cancer came, it tested and confirmed these skills, and pushed them deeper. I drew on that earlier work, all the time.

I am not who I was, the day before I got the diagnosis. I never will be, again. I haven’t had time to miss that innocence, or that lightness. I am so much more intentional now. More aware of my own real self, and more able to connect with others. More sure in who I am.

I never want to go through that fear again. I don’t know if I ever could be quite that afraid again, because I have been here. But as awful as it was, cancer taught me some things that I’ll still be processing for a long time. And I had the support, from many people, to learn what I needed to know.

Cancer scared holy hell out of me. It took a lymph node and a piece of my left ear, and I know how much worse it could have been. Cancer also gave me gifts: awareness of the gift of my body; connection with God through the community around me; a stronger and more authentic self, and absolute love for life. This gratitude is itself a gift, and again I am grateful.

3 comments:

Doorman-Priest said...

I so enjoyed reading this. Your gentle tenacity shines through. If I was in a similar position I hope my responses would be the same.

Christy said...

I came here from the link that Fran posted from her site yesterday. I am very moved by your words. I can't even begin to imagine what it was like for you to go through that process and the range of emotions that went along with it, but hearing about it sure makes all the trivial things in life that we tend to worry about pale in comparison. Thank you for sharing this...it has brought a lot of light to the blogosphere, and I hope to you as well.
~Christy

Kirstin said...

Wow. Thank you, both.