Thursday, June 10, 2010

Illness as teacher

To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That's crudely put, but ...

If we're not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?

~ Gregory Orr ~

I've been e-mailing with one of my faculty. I've seen her twice in the past year; most recently when I went back for graduation, three weeks ago. She hugged me and said I looked great. When everyone asked how I was that day, I said, "Healthy." We didn't know I had cancer growing inside me.

She sent me a link to this Yahoo group the other day, with the posting I quoted above. Since then, I've been thinking about the illness itself as my teacher.

Of course cancer is all I'm thinking about. But it's oddly less scary the second time. I've lived with an alien before. I know what this means. I can be matter-of-fact about very serious things. A. and I have these kinds of conversations: "If you knew you had five years, what would you want to do?" (Play violin, amongst other things.) "Do you want to work with the homeless because you want to do it, or do you want to grow that beyond when you can do it yourself?" (Good question; I need to have that conversation with Kathleen.) "Oh, and we have to get the advance directive done."

This is life now. We talk about the things that really count. It's oddly comfortable; compelling, really. Not a threatening or fearful thing.

The oncologist could tell me on Monday, "Your scan is clean; we'll just watch you. Come back every four months." I will know that it could reappear anytime, and break loose any one of those times. I have now had melanoma twice.

They gave me interferon to prevent recurrence. Ha. I almost want them to find something, so we have something tangible to fight. Even though I know that the tools just aren't there yet, and I really do want to live longer on this earth than metastatic melanoma would give me.

I'm not afraid of sickness; I'm staring straight at it. I've lived long enough with cancer at my shadow, that dying is merely transformation. I'll feel sad for the people who will miss me, when it's that time. I know that I will be alive, in ways that are unimaginable. The presence of God with me now, shows me that.

Even the loss of control is becoming normal. I sobbed on the phone with Kaiser last week, in pure fear and frustration, and have felt better ever since. My doctors know what they know, and know what they don't. If the way this disease acts in me can help medical science find better tools to fight and prevent it, then sign me up for a trial, please.

The only time I've gotten really creeped out was when an acquaintance told me a story that I know is sacred to her, but which scared holy hell out of me. A relative of hers had melanoma. Someone he knew prayed over him. The X-rays which had been full of spots, then came back clean.

She offered to pray for me. I think I gave her a noncommittal "okay." It took me days to come to terms with why that whole idea makes me uncomfortable. Partly it's that I don't believe in a god who does selective healing or curing. If you can take suffering away, then do it or don't--but only for a few makes no sense. Mostly, though, I don't want the journey taken away from me.

This will sound weird. You may think I'm getting far too friendly with this illness. I'm not fey; I'm in no way courting death. However. I've been waking in the very early morning, whether I take half a Xanax at bedtime or not. It's quiet, before light. The house is asleep. I'll start thinking about everything, and I find myself curled up next to sacred fire.

It's a presence that keeps me warm. It's not really about purifying; I don't feel like things are being burned out of me. Maybe it isn't time now; maybe I'll go through more of that later. I know I did before. I don't ask this presence questions, and it doesn't answer them. We don't converse in words. But it is my teacher and my companion, and I am absolutely assured that I will not be alone.

It isn't God delivering me from illness. It is God with me in the illness, being alive.

I was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, in the seminary community. The dark corners have had candles burning in them, all this time. Cancer taught me to walk through the things I'm afraid of, to let love into the scary places, to be open to experiences that dance on the edge of life. These teachings stay with me. I cherish them. I alternate between feeling frustrated I have to do this again, hopeful that it won't be hideous, and in this wildly open, adventurous place. This is sacred fire that warms me, that lights my path. I know I can go where I need to, spiritually, physically.

And I want to. Don't pray to make it easy. Pray for the presence to be truly whole.


it's margaret said...

You saw Owl.
You were scared then.

You aren't scared any more.
I stand in awe of the two of you.

Two Auntees said...

Like you, I do not believe in a god who does selective healing or curing. Nor do I believe in a god that causes us to suffer. I do believe in God who is with us no matter what. My prayer is that you continue to feel that presence.

Ann said...

Thanks Kirsten - I agree.

Caminante said...

Now Margaret's comment makes me cry.

But you are right on... thanks for this note.

And if our prayers are the manifestation of God's presence, can that help rather than think in terms of the cosmic selective healer?

I always think of the parishioner who likened being anointed pre-op (many surgeries) to having a comforting blanket placed on him and the oil was the last thing of which he would think before the anesthesia knocked him out. I like the image of a safe blanket of prayer.

Kirstin said...

Caminante, yes. Exactly. I love that image.

Margaret, it's mutual.

Love to all.

Anonymous said...

Faithful, tranquil, brave, well in spirit, soul intact, and strength of mind --- those are the words that come to mind after reading your latest post. Continued prayers for healing and the Lord's hand upon you.