For five years I walked in the Philly “Race for the Cure” in memory of my sister-in-law’s mother, Jane. She was someone I really liked and spent time with when she was dying. When I walked I saw t-shirts announcing people who were there in memory of someone who had died. There were also special shirts for survivors. By profession, I’m a nonprofit fundraiser and I respect the astounding financial success of the Komen folks, but for me as an individual, the event became too big and commercial for something that I experienced as personal. And, by the way, I am totally sick of all the pink shit. Give it a rest already.
In the nineties, I was a hospice volunteer at a cancer center for about three years, also in honor of Jane and my cousin, Robin who died from AIDS. I learned from that volunteer work that cancer is just not the worst way to go. I also learned that the most difficult deaths were usually due more to troubled relationships, or lack of any, than from physical pain. And the greatest pain at the end of life is usually from regret or guilt.
As I have written before, I reject what I consider the juvenile theology of a god fussing about every detail of my life. In fact, I had a lengthy discussion with a woman just a couple weeks ago who asked me to pray for the Eagles football team. I wish I was kidding. I wish she hadn’t been serious. I did tell her I thought god didn’t give a crap about football. Then she launched into a lecture on how sports contributes to our society and how praying for football helps bring people to god or some other such nonsense.
Last week I was in a meeting at a church exploring grant opportunities related to food security, i.e. feeding the hungry. I was talking to a woman who told me she chose this mission project in her church to honor her 42-year-old daughter who died from breast cancer. She told me how it hurts her to see those survivor-women celebrating. She was not being petty, I assure you. She just said, “I don’t know why God took my daughter.” We agreed that there are many mysteries in life that we just can understand. Just yesterday a close friend was diagnosed with MS and she is the sole support and caregiver of her mother with Alzheimer’s and her special needs son. No indeed, life is just not fair.
I do believe in cause and effect, and in karma. Though not the cause of every bad thing, karma can be social, with a lot of us paying for the sins of many before us. I think some cancers in our modern world are the result of our modern world. It could be the long-term result of additives in food, off-gassing from new carpet, years of vehicle exhaust in the atmosphere, and better examples my science-y friends can name without blinking. I accept the invisible, long-term consequence resulting in one in three Americans having a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. Since I have two siblings, odds are, it will be one of us. And if it means, not unlike Passover, it’s me and my siblings are passed-over, then I accept. And although bargaining with the Universe is probably pointless, when times are tough the desperate start negotiating. I’ll take one for the team. I don’t have kids and I’m healthier than my sibs, so I can handle the fight. That’s just pragmatic.
For right now, I don’t know if I am sick. The spot of the biopsy is sore, so every time I move wrong and I feel the soreness, it reminds me and I wonder if I have cancer. So many times in our lives we find ourselves in that place of not-knowing. This is a sacred space. I am not experiencing fear. Not because I am courageous because I am not. Not because I believe in a personal god. I do not. I am not afraid because I am lucky enough to have access to health care. That said, I am very afraid of it bankrupting me with my $6,000 a year deductible.
What I find so deeply disturbing, and what does bring tears to my eyes, is this raw and profound reminder of my vulnerability. Most of us function with an assumption of control. I think it is how we keep going, being productive, maybe even happy. Deep down, I know this is an illusion. Better than anyone, the Buddhists try and teach this to us. But I am very Western and want to believe I am the boss of me. Well, clearly I am not.
The other reaction haunting me is how few activities seem important right now. I can tell you I surely don’t give a damn about the dishes. Then there’s work. Normally I find it satisfying – at least some of the time. Right now I feel like I’m raising money to buy life rafts for the Titanic and it has already set sail. (Don’t over analyze the metaphor because I don’t know if the Titanic is me, or the job, or it’s all a mood swing.)
It is uncomfortable, but I am working to honor this sacred time and space by recognizing my fragile humanity. This place of not knowing is sad and lonely. Don’t misunderstand me, I am lucky to have numerous, wonderful friends who have already been supportive; but ultimately, this experience is a solitary one. I have been forced to stop and accept my lack of control, even over my own body. It is the lack of power over something so important and personal as my own body that has me unhinged. Have I been betrayed by the very vessel that makes this human experience possible?And where is God in all this? That answer is only relevant when you answer that for yourself. I do believe there is a Universal force of love. And I believe those whom I have loved and who have died might just be on the other side looking out for me. I hope so. But cancer is not god’s fault nor up to god to cure.
The irony nearly escaped me that this is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” I hope to celebrate by not having it. But while I’m in the place of not knowing, I will accept my fragile humanity with as much grace as I can muster, with my little dog at my side, and some really good human beings who have my back, not the least of which is my spouse. If you read this and find yourself, for any reason, in that place of solitude and not knowing then I can only tell you I get it and wish you peace. So on this Yom Kippur, Shalom to folks of all faiths or none. #