They have this bell that hangs on the wall of the nurse’s station in the chemotherapy infusion pod. When patients finish their regimen of chemo, they’re invited to ring that bell. On July 7, I rang that bell with all the strength I had left. About an hour later, I did the same thing in the radiation oncology building where they even gave me a “Purple Heart” certificate. I’d made it through the process that yields 92-94% success rate! My sister and brother-in-law in Virginia sent me a huge bouquet of flowers. Friends left balloons on my mailbox. Texts dinged repeatedly: “YOU MADE IT!!” YES!! YOU’RE DONE!!!
It is indeed a cause to celebrate, but my doctors had warned me: my symptoms would actually get a little worse in the week or so after treatments ended. That has been the case. I still don’t have salivary functioning, no sense of taste, and the pain in my throat at this point is even more acute. Swallowing is just as much of a challenge as ever. It still hurts to speak and the hearing loss in my right ear has spread to my left. (I have acquired a profound sympathy for my late mother and a measure of guilt for my lack of patience with her frequent queries, “Ehh? What did you say?”)
In fact, it could take up to a year for me to arrive at a “new normal,” the docs say.
“New Normal.” I know what they mean. How acute will my sense of taste be? How much salivary functioning will return? Will my hearing be restored? Will I get back to my pre-cancer averages on my bike? Will I be able to preach again? When will I be able to return to my work at UAB? After my last blog post in which I spoke about “scaffolding,” several of my dear friends rushed to reassure me that I’ll be just fine, that when this is all over I’ll go right back to where I was. I know what they mean, and I love them for wanting to reassure me, but to tell you the truth, I don’t want to go back.
Don’t get me wrong! I want to taste, hear, swallow, speak, and ride my bike, all with abandon and gusto. I want the confidence that my underwear will stay up. I CAN’T WAIT to have a BLT (on whole wheat with just a touch of pesto). I want to savor a filet mignon with a glass of Sangiovese. Early on in this process, though, around April 28, I reflected on something the Irish poet John O’Donohue said in a blessing entitled, “For a Friend on the Arrival of Illness.” In it, O’Donohue issued a challenge I decided to take seriously . . .
. . . “Embrace this illness as a teacher who has come to open your life to new worlds.”
I had opportunities every night during this treatment process to listen to the teacher. In order to manage the pain, I woke up at 2:00 am to take my medication. Whenever I’d feel the pain of swallowing the pill and water, I made a conscious effort to relax. I’d remind myself that this experience was teaching me something, although the lesson wasn’t all that clear at the time. One evening, instead of returning to bed and risk waking Vicki, I went into the living room and laid back on the couch. I took in a deep breath and just let the thought arise, “I’m here and all shall be well.”
And from a realm beyond words a voice spoke within: “you’ve been skimming across the depths. Don’t do that anymore.” All the physical pain was still there, but in that moment, something dark left my soul.
Over the years since I’ve been at UAB, I’ve been busy! I’ve functioned as if the universe itself depends upon my success. Then cancer interrupted what I was doing. You know what? The universe went right on without me. Most of what I was doing was important, substantive, needed, even beautiful, but to a degree greater than I care to admit, it still stemmed from an insecure ego in need of accomplishment, acclaim, and affirmation in order to feel loved, needed, and important.
The fact is, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. That might sound really odd to a lot of people, and the pain and discomfort are real, but I’ve encountered a Presence in the midst of these days that has become precious to me.
You see, there is a Solidity beneath all the busyness, a Presence holding us and enfolding us. In my own preoccupations, I’ve simply lived over it, as James Finley has said, “skimming across the depths.” When this interruption peeled away the scaffolding, in other words, made it impossible for me to do all those things I was doing to gain recognition and credit, I could grasp better what is essential – that nothing I do can make me more loved. I’m already there. I really can let go of the craving for recognition and security because I’m already known and already held.
There really is nothing else but to live out of love.