Monday, January 24, 2011

Sickness, pain, faith, and prayer

I posted the other day that I found another tumor. Immediately I went back to the top of people’s prayer lists. I totally appreciated that, and I started thinking about it too. Then a friend told me that she’s had chronic pain for decades. The first thought to fling itself Godward was, “Take that away from her. She doesn’t need it.” Hmmm.

I read all my posts from last June, and remembered. What I want prayer for—what I really want in all of this—is wholeness. I don’t believe God gave cancer to me. I don’t believe that any cosmic being thought I needed it. But I know how I’ve used it. I know it could kill me, and I don’t want to die. But neither would I ever give it back.

I don’t believe God gives or takes diseases. Sickness isn’t a punishment. It isn’t a test. It’s an evolutionary process (cell division, virus replication) gone wonky. Sometimes people tell me, “Miracles happen.” I just cringe. I know how healthy I appear. I know how alive and full of life I am. I feel so completely, thoroughly blessed just to be here—and that’s where my energy comes from. I already get to love this life. That’s miracle enough. God doesn’t pick and choose who gets cured. If you survive stage IV cancer, it’s because you and your doctors found a treatment that would help you. Not because you’re too special to lose.

I know when people pray for me, they go exactly where I went with my friend in chronic pain. “Take that away from her. Make her well.” I don’t fault anybody for that. It’s love. You want your friends to be happy and healthy, and fully who they are. But I believe that God is with us in our suffering. God doesn’t, or can’t, take it away—but God can and does love us fiercely through it. I would not be who I am right now, were that not so. And I wouldn’t want to be anybody else. (Do I want other people’s lives, sometimes? Prosperity, health, self-confidence? Oh yes. But that’s a different question.) I know how loved I am. I know it because I can show you where God has been in my community, in the last almost-three years. It’s just so obvious. I’ve had lights all around me, showing me things and giving me gifts that help me truly heal. I know how tightly I am held. And I would never want to lose that awareness.

I want my friend to be free from pain. I don’t think she needs it; I doubt there’s anything good in it, and I wish she weren’t suffering. But if God were going to lift it from her, there’s been plenty of time in the last three and a half decades to do so. That just isn’t how God works.

My friend has a friend, who is very much like what A is to me. (Begin with “refuge,” and go from there.) This friend is seriously sick; right now with a complication of everything else she has. When I imagine losing A, I’m filled with so much fear it takes my breath away. I hurt for both of them. And the only way it makes sense for me to pray is this: “Love them. Hold them both. Love them, and make damn sure they know it.”

Because that, I know, God has done and will do.

Pray for C, D, A, and me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

On a walkabout

I’m out on a road trip, friend-visiting spree, and half-formed quest. I left a week and a day ago. This is the first chance I’ve had to sit and be with it all, and catch up.

I’m at a seminary friend’s house in Whittier, CA right now. I got here last Tuesday. Before that, I was in Riverside over the MLK weekend. From here, I’m going to visit another seminary friend in Tucson, and check out border ministries while I’m there. I’ll stay for a week or so with a high school friend in Phoenix. I may stop in Joshua Tree in one direction or the other. I’ll camp up the coast on the way home.

My excuse for doing it now was my friends’ blessing in Riverside. Otherwise I would have avoided the city like the plague; it gave me flashback nausea just seeing those mountains, and freeway signs driving there. But the ceremony was beautiful, and I was really glad I could be there with and for them. I got to spend time with the people from St. George’s who had ministered to me when I was there for chemo. I worshipped with them on Sunday. I’d been to a mid-week Eucharist, when I’d had a later intake appointment, but had never made a Sunday morning. Paul brought me into the center, and they all laid hands on me. I love that kind of prayer-bath.

He prayed that I be an example of God’s love and beat this disease. That’s so not my theology. I can’t and won’t hold God or my body to that kind of pressure. But it is their love, and that came through.

A came down for that weekend, and we got some really good time to talk. I had driven for seven and a half hours on Friday, gotten out of the car at my friend Diane’s, put my hands on my back to stretch it—and felt a new soft-tissue nodule just to the right of my spine. I literally found the monkey on my back, as soon as I'd sought to escape it for a month. It's small, and may not even show up on the PET I have to schedule for as soon as I get home. I'm breathing as well as anyone breathes Southern California air. (With lung mets, that’s what we watch.) My neuropathy is bothering me, especially when I walk, and I keep trying to figure out whether it feels balanced. Left-leg weirdness could easily be hormonal; without the numbness, it reminds me of what happened when I first started getting periods. Chemo threw me into a decade-early menopause. (My oncologist doesn’t want me to take hormones, because I’m doing well so far and there’s a connection between pregnancy and melanoma.) All of this will be sorted out by the scan and follow-up when I get back. There's nothing I can do about it right this minute. But I'd be lying through my teeth if I said I never thought of it.

I had these concerns, that I didn’t want to tell the Riverside people but needed to share with A. We’re both being really, really hopeful, but trying to be realistic too. If I have to go back into treatment, as long as it’s not high summer when she can’t get time off, we’re doing something just for ourselves first. And I’m planning (health permitting) to be in Olympia in April for the Procession of the Species. We talked about her meeting me in Eureka on the way back south, visiting another friend of ours, and coming home along the coast. And we had time, wandering around downtown Riverside, to check in with how each other really was. It’s almost easy for me, being the one whose body has cancer, to grit my teeth and go through whatever is next. I worry about people who love me and have to watch, or care for me through it.

I don’t know yet that I have to do anything. I won’t know for another four weeks or so. But that tumor is there, and it’s new at least to my experience. Are my lungs holding steady? I don’t know. Have I sprung a leak, and what do we do if the answer is yes?

What I do, emphatically, is live in the moment right now. I’m still trying to scratch out a Morning Prayer routine. Cindy and I said it together the other day. She went in to work this morning. I went outside, sat on the steps on the back porch looking over the canyon that drops off from their back yard, and said it alone. In the space for intercessions, all I could say was thank you. For the warmth on my back, the air on my feet, thank you. For all who love me, thank you. For that bird flying over there, thank you. I sat for awhile when I was done, just bathing in morning.

Alene and Melissa’s blessing, besides being beautiful, gave me a lot to think about. I saw seminary friends I hadn’t seen in a year and a half. Three who had visited me in the hospital; both of them, and one whose home I’m in right now. Some were friends for a time. Some are friends for life. That was obvious, and it’s okay. I’m the one with the life threatening diagnosis. And I think I’m the happiest of most of us. Sure, I carry student debt that if I live, can break me financially. But I can’t do anything about it right now. And so I don’t have to. I don’t have to scramble to find adequate employment, or worry if I don’t get it. I have both the necessity and the grace of living in the moment. The undercurrent of this trip is, “See friends while I know that I’m well enough.” I can go for a month, on this half-formed quest, and I’m not even delaying my process because I’m finding things that clarify the call for me.

I have this time to be open to what happens next. I didn’t leave the house with a fully planned itinerary; I knew who I wanted to see and roughly when. A and I got talking in Riverside, and now I’m going to camp up the coast when it’s time to go home. I’ve gotten to check in with myself every step of this: what feeds me, where do I want and need to be? This morning, I e-mailed friends in Arizona from different parts of my life, and figured out when I’ll stay with whom. I know I’m going to check out border ministries when I visit a seminary friend in Tucson. I’ll get there sometime Tuesday. The next week I’ll be in Phoenix, with no greater agenda than hanging out with a high school friend. (We’re much closer now, as adults.) I need to go on the National Parks website, and see if I want to or could camp in Joshua Tree on the way back. It’s a long enough drive from Phoenix to the coast, that if I want to stop there and just walk around, I’ll be looking at my watch the whole time. But I have friends on the coast who said, you can call us from down the block when you’re ready to stay here. I’ll do that for a night, and see them. Then I’ll camp up the coast until I’ve found all I need to (really, three days on the ocean will give me more peace and clarity than I can yet imagine), and be home in time to pick things up again at church. I have a healing prayer commitment on the 13th, and the option of CCOM if I get some preparatory writing done. They were clear with me that this is all on my schedule; they’re not rushing me. I still feel pressed between my body and the timing of the process. But that’s not these people’s doing. They’ll grill me, because that’s their job. But I definitely feel supported by them.

I’ll have my first follow-up PET as soon as I can when I get home, and see my doctor on the 23rd. Either life will continue as it was before I left, or I’ll be back seeking some kind of treatment. I know that I’ll never be truly off the cancer bus again. I lost control of this so long ago, that losing control doesn’t scare me anymore.

I got to see someone who’s been a walking sign of grace to me, on Wednesday. I didn’t have any idea I’d get to, until that morning. She’s been in a similar place to where I am, which is why we know each other. She was speaking in a work context, in a meeting I was invited to attend. Over and over, she said this: Live in abundance. Don’t live with a mentality of scarcity. She was absolutely right.

I get to do this. I get to travel from love to love. I have now. And knowing I have now, being fully able to live right exactly where I am, is everything.

“We thank you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life.”

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Walking with possibility

I’m at the Ranch until Friday. I came up here to walk, work on a writing project that’s been intimidating me, and because I love their Epiphany bonfire. I missed it last year; I was probably hosting homeless people at my church in Sacramento. I’ll do that again Monday. But I’m taking a break from leadership responsibilities. I’ll pick them up again when I come back from my road trip, at the end of this month or early February. I've only barely been able to engage, since I've been back on the cancer bus. Either it was emotionally or physically too much, or both.

It’s wonderful hiking weather here. The ground is wet and muddy, but it’s sunny and the air is clear and beautiful. The creeks are running; I love the sound of little waterfalls. They restored my favorite trail, along the creekbed. I’ve been walking, and thinking.

Someone on an unrelated message board posted a link to the Association of Cancer Online Resources (ACOR) listservs. You have to join a board to look at its archives. They have a caregiver list too. I didn’t sign up, for the obvious reason.

I poked around the melanoma board this morning, and came across a posting from someone who said he’d been stage IV for 22 years. His immune system, with significant help, has been holding the disease more or less steadily for that long. He feels the struggle in his body—but he is alive and capable.

It was the first time it hit me: That could be me. I could possibly survive this. I’ve been living within the five-year mental window, as if it were gospel. There is the other five percent. Anyone could be them. Even me.

The Riverside program staff told me miracle stories whenever I asked a direct question. I distrusted them for it. I’ve had two or three people tell me they had it on authority from God that I’d be okay. That just creeps me out. Why would God tell you something about me, and not tell me directly? The God I trust does not give or take diseases. To tell me so is totally false assurance.

A friend hugged me last summer and told me I’d have time. That was totally fine. She was going on how my body felt in her arms, and her own intuition. I wanted her to be right, and I still do. If you’re speaking of your experience of me, you can say what you like. And you are welcome to pray for me. But don’t tell me I’ll be a miracle. If me, why not others? Why not everyone?

Back to the point: What I read this morning was, “I have survived this.” Not, “These patients you’ll never meet,” and not, “God will keep you safe.” This was someone who has been through more hell than I have, and who is alive. That’s what finally got through to me.

I may have time, more than I had dared to truly insert myself into. So, what do I want to do with it?

Well, what I did just now was e-mail the poster and thank him. I also just remembered that I’ve been wanting to thank the maintenance staff here for repairing my favorite trail. I got into conversations in the office after my walk yesterday, and forgot. I’ll probably stop and leave them a note on my way to dinner.

I’m still on Facebook too much, and I’m not doing the Daily Office yet. I have been praying Compline the past few nights. It’s a bedtime prayer, and I love it. I love the language, the rhythms, the silences. In the space for intercession, all I want to say is thank you. Thank you, One who listens and loves and holds us all. Thank you just for being here.

I can’t think in big, broad brush-strokes yet. One small, intentional action at a time.