What is this faith I now hold?

I have a confession to make. I struggle when asked to pray for miraculous cures or quick resolutions. It’s tangling me up inside because my faith has changed over the years, starting back when I left my evangelical roots, but more so now that I’ve lost so many loved ones to cancer.
Here’s a look inside the changing nature of my faith in God.

A few weeks ago, in June 2018, my husband played a show with friends, a married couple, who toured together with their own acts. He was excited for me to meet them because they shared so much about their faith journey. They were excited to tour through the Ville and stay overnight with us. They planned to attend our liturgy on Sunday morning. Of course, they rocked Backstep Brewery that night. Later, we sat on the back deck, drinking tea and snacking on all my usual weird healthy snacks under twinkly lights. Because of my running addiction, I retired early. When I came in from my pre-liturgy run, they were packing up. M looked peaked. During church, he clutched his stomach. He slipped to the bathroom a couple of times. When he returned, he sat through the service. I noticed his wife stroking his  back, as if channeling his pain.

christ the shepher

Within the week, M was hospitalized. Within two, he’d survived a botched biopsy on his stomach and learned he had stomach cancer. He and his wife are now focusing on M’s healing, miraculous or medical. It will be holistic, at this point, since oncologists say operations are out of the question and chemo is the only answer, though that is changing day to day as the cancer aggressively attacks his liver.

The whole string of events feels surreal and heart-breaking. He’s asked that we focus on hope and God in this. I’ve read enough about positivity and healing to buy into the clinical value of hope. (Or ignoring it, such as Lulu Wang’s family helps Grandma do in this real life account).

Yet I’m struggling with how to pray for M, because my sister’s cancer. Actually the cumulative affect of so many of my loved ones deaths by cancer has altered how I pray, and the nature of what I believe.

After Naomi died on Nov. 4th, just shy of her 33rd birthday, my faith changed. Kathy said Naomi’s death would change me. Explanatory note. Kathy is my dad’s cousin’s widow. Her husband Randy was like second dad to me in high school. He was a Reynolds through and through. He reminded me of my grandfather, my dad’s dad. He never lost his thick full head of hair. Only in the end did his booming voice, his belly laugh, his stocky build fade. I remember him to the end as a man of prayer and church. In my growing up years, he and my grandfather would choke before passing up a chance to joke. Randy died of pancreatic cancer within about nine months of his diagnosis. He died on Nov. 5, two years before Naomi died. When he died, Naomi was just beginning one of her better periods. She rode out to his funeral because she was inclined to do all things family, and a coterie of siblings took the car trip out to Indiana to be there for Kathy and our cousins. We stayed in a janky hotel together outside of Blufton and cried a lot. In the months since, Kathy became my grief doula.

While Randy went through surgery and chemo, I went to visit him and his eldest son, Caleb, a Nazarene minister with whom I bible-quizzed during high school. I sat with Caleb, Randy and Paul (Caleb’s brother-in-law) during what I think was Randy’s first chemo. He described the placement of the tumor and the surgical procedure to treat it. I already knew from Facebook that he’d survived months of mystery symptoms and gallbladder surgery, all of which eerily mirrored my father-in-law Dean’s misdiagnosed gallbladder problems and the pancreatic cancer that killed Dean. As Joel and I visited Kathy and Randy in Indy from time to time, we saw how their faith journey also mirrored my in-laws. I bit my tongue about the speedy decline my father-in-law experienced in spite of all the similar”good news” his physicians gave him.

In 2004, Dean had gallbladder surgery and kept getting sicker. When his doctor finally realized it might be cancer, he referred Dean to an IU specialist promptly. Dean heard his cancer was detected early. Good news! The “whipple surgery” was the most advanced treatment. Good news! Some of the stats thrown around suggested Dean had a fighting chance. After his surgery, he felt pretty good, so the holidays seemed hopeful in spite of the C word.

Dean died within a week of his 70th birthday, hours after Joel and I celebrated our tenth anniversary in August 2005. My father told my husband, “You’ll feel like an orphan. You’ll want to talk to your dad about something but you won’t be able to call him.” Those words, and the words of our priest, “This isn’t how we were created, to see someone we love die,” got my husband through the first weeks.

We went camping on Labor Day weekend to unplug. We sat by the fire and listened to coyotes howl. We stared at the stars. We began the long slough of grappling with the death. It changed my husband. His hands shake now when he is stressed. He wouldn’t talk about death, even as he prepared to bury parishioners or as nearby parishes joined up to create a green burial cemetery. For years, in fact through my MFA thesis on end-of-life issues like grief, death planning and green burial for Orthodox Christians, he shut down any discussion of my research.

“I don’t want to talk about death, hear about death, think about death,” he said.

I think I bear some responsibility in that. While we suffered through near-poverty, health problems and an semi-oppressive atmosphere during his years at divinity school, we’d conjecture about the why suffering of certain types had plagued us since his dad’s death. I proposed that all this suffering would make it so we could identify with, empathize with, and serve all manner of people once he was placed in a parish. I remember sitting on the couch late one night, when he was emotionally shot, and he lashed back at my proposal.

“If one more person says ‘maybe your dad died to help prepare you for the ministry’…”

That became a refrain until years later, when I apologized for ever intimating anything like that.

I learned to think about death as happenstance, impersonal, unavoidable, with chances at 100%. We will die and the longer we live, the more people whom we love will die before us. It’s how we who go on living make use of it afterwards, not because that’s God’s intention, but because we can turn good to bad and bad to good, according to our needs or wants. My husband wanted to do something useful with his spiritual self when he went to seminary. After that, he has had to use his experience with grief to ease others through their grief. He’s good at it, but it’s the one aspect of his ministry that I think he hates most (except financial paperwork and silly theological spats).

I tell you all this because my faith swerved when Naomi got sick. At first, I pleaded with God for healing or an even trade, her life for mine. Then she lost her belief in God, and I realized I’d been praying wrong, at least in part. I hadn’t factored in soul-health. So I started praying for body and soul, which is in our Orthodox prayers. I’d now paid attention to the souls part when I talked to the “Physician of our Souls and Bodies.”

Then, Naomi died. Because Kathy said this would change me, l just tried to sit with void and change. I tried to perceive, not resist, it.  I felt, still feel, like a part of me was cut out. I have a missing appendage, the part of her that made me a different and better person. Shortly after Naomi died, another very young woman I knew started losing her life to breast cancer. Then a litany of friends received grave diagnoses. One day, I realized I had stopped praying for miraculous cures. Right now, it feels as if uttering such hopes would steal away my last bit of hope or faith. Is this what losing your soul to a dementor feels like (ref. Harry Potter)?

Sts. Kosmas and Damian working miracles
God uses humans in divine work. Humans wrote every book of the Bible and doctor saints Kosmos and Damian used medicine and prayers to heal.

What is this faith I hold now? Do I believe God no longer does miracles (outside of modern medicine)? It’s possible. It’s possible I’m grief-blind or just confused or jaded. Afterall I  grew up in a pentacostally-kind of church where the church would lay hands on you, the minister anointed you with oil, and if that didn’t work, they took you healing services. If those didn’t work, you heard outlandish ‘splain-aways or blame. In the Orthodox Church, people pray Akathists to saints and Jesus for healing of cancer. They speak of oil and myrrh gushing miraculous icons that cure cancer or infertility or other diseases. It’s not that I poo-poo this as snake oil. I just don’t pray hastily for a miracle, or rather blindly. God forgive me for this, if it is doubt. I can’t help that I shy away. Because….

Because all of us are going to die.

Because in some countries, mortality is ordinary. For instance, the children’s mortality rate is obscene. Because in the USA, the infant and mother mortality rate is lower than many other developed nations, particularly among certain minority groups.

Because why does God heal some and not others.

Because I don’t what healing means if one person survives cancer after years of prayers and treatments, then dies of cancer, though having had many happy returns in the midst of the disease.

The thing is, God does miracles. Some are in the heart or head, some in the body. And, sometimes, we don’t recognize them. Maybe some we mislabel, like calling a misdiagnosis a miraculous healing.

I’ve not stopped praying, but my prayers are less for moving mountains and more along the lines of changing the human. I am praying now like it’s what we do with what we are given. Do we turn good to bad? I’m struggling with this. I’ve pretty depressed and negative since Naomi died, more than my usual skeptical, contrarian, glass-half-empty, melancholic levels. I need prayer for spiritual healing. My prayers these days more like the following verses:

“Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Ps. 90: 14

People frequently allude to Job 14:5 and Psalm 139:16, about how God numbers our days. Okay, But do we as the Psalmist prays for us to do? Do we number our days aright? What do I need to do to conform to God’s long view? Take the long view, Maria, I tell myself.

Or my other prayer:

“Give me beauty for ashes. The oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness that we might be trees of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.” Isaiah 61:3

Or

“A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?”  Prov. 18:14

Here’s the thing. There are loads of verses about God identifying and becoming one with the mourning, the sick, the broken-hearted. There are plenty about miraculous healings too. They call the elders of the Church for the laying on of hands (James 5:14-15 and Hebrews 11:1). They ask the righteous man to pray because his prayers are powerful (James 5:16). They affirm that God heals (Jeremiah 17:14, Psalms 30:2, Mark 16:17-18). There’s also the opaque verses of Phil. 4:19 and 1 John 5: 14-15.

Do you hate me yet for sending references that I’m not quoting? This tends to annoy me. My point are the numbers of verses all over the continuum of healing ideas. My point, if nothing else, is that I don’t know what to pray except from my brokenness. I haven’t lost my faith. I may be doing one of two things: a) losing my grip, as in relinquishing what I cannot control or b) living my way to the answers through the questions, as in getting real with reality without losing mystery. I’ve always identified as a mystic as much as contrarian and melancholic. So here I sit, in the quandary of a self I cannot know. If I can’t know myself fully, how on earth can I purport to have the answers regarding what cannot be seen or quantified?

I’m a crappy person. I’ll pray for you, but I’m not good for the words of miraculous healing. Right now, I’m just stuck in this hope:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. Rev. 21: 4

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The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me

is  not cancer.

Google that phrase.

That’s what the guest preacher said he did just before he preached the morning after my sister died of not one but two kinds of cancer.

“Do you know what the number one result is?” asked the guest preacher, a young, successful chiropractor.

Based on his answer that day,  November 5th, — Remember, remember the Fifth of November– I haven’t had the courage until today. Today I have a little liquid, Irish courage in my blood, so I googled it.

The answer was NOT cancer. It was Gladys Knight lyrics. Probably I got lyrics because

A. I am married to a musician and music is big in our house.

B. Google searches are not objective, uniform and universal. They are unique to your search history and algorithms. Maybe I should google incognito? Nope. Still music lyrics. Still not cancer.

C. the preacher was actually a chiropractor. He was not a trained theologian. Maybe his search returned medical responses because of HIS search history.

D. the “preacher” was an endearing speaker who was obviously obtuse about the diversity of the two hundred plus audience in front of him.

This latter situation was not entirely his fault. It only highlighted his lack of audience diversity and awareness. The responsibility spread out over several people.

Case in point: My parents and a sibling, members who have attended the church for a while, had called the head pastor to the house (situated directly across the street from this church) shortly after my sister died. He sat in the living room with them less than 24-hours before that sermon because cancer had just killed the second to youngest of seven adult children. Apparently, the head pastor forgot to text his guest preacher that several members of the church just lost a daughter-sister-mother who was just shy of her 33rd birthday when she died. He’d agreed to let her be memorialized in the small chapel on the church campus in a couple of days. He’d agreed to let another pastor take the lead and he would say a prayer or whatnot. He’d be sensitive because her four-year bout with two kinds of cancer (some people just win the cancer lottery a couple of times) had eaten her faith like the cancer ate her body. It also satellited out to those around her, a blight that added to the crisis of faith in her husband and some siblings.

Cancer was not the best thing that happened to her. Or to her husband. Or to her two kids. Or to her two parents. Or her six siblings. Or their partners and children. Or to her mother-in-law, siblings-in-law, her best friends.

When I read blogs and articles titled “What Not To Say to People With Cancer” or “Memes That Only People with (insert cancer or mental illness of your variety or children with special needs of your variety) I keep thinking these have to be written for folks with a chirpy “religiosity” or “faith” or “spirituality” or any kind of positivism.

If there is one piece of advice– and I do hate being prescriptive here– but advice here might be useful, I would ask people who feel there is hope in the darkness not to try to spread it like butter on burnt toast. Don’t offer up religious or positive cliches like delicious jam. It won’t cover up the burned flavor. It ruins whatever tasty, beautiful, sweet thing you think you are giving.

The best thing you can say to a person with cancer, or chronic disease, or debilitating disease, or a person in mourning, which includes the sick, the parent adjusting (daily and constantly) to the needs of their child, or the friends and family who just lost someone is this

…. (silence).

Just sit there. If they seem okay with a hug, go for a side-arm one first. If they want a bear hug, they use the other arm.

Don’t say sorry. Sorry doesn’t cut it.

Eff Cancer is flat.out.

Ask them how bad it hurts. Be prepared for a blast of emotion you don’t think you can handle. You have the strength to listen. You can handle that. Ask questions if you feel stuck. Open ended, non–prescriptive questions, like “Tell me more… ” or “And after that?” What else?”

It’s best not to say too much. You’ll screw up. Don’t compare it to the time your pet or your uncle or that kid in high school died. This is going to be hard, but what you bring is your physical self and time. Ears help.

If you must, test a few delicate questions. I’m testing a new question right now. “Tell me your (favorite) memories.” WARNING: Don’t ask that unless the speaker had a good relationship with the deceased or sick one.

Or, “What/how are you feeling?”– Ask that in private spaces only.

Tread carefully on questions about the future. Do not talk to widow(er)s about remarriage. Do not talk about causation and the sick/deceased person’s choices.

After a fifty-one year old father died in our community last year, a well-meaning woman told the widow she should get remarried. Then she made comments about the decedent’s weight and health and told the fatherless kids to prepare for the day when their mother found another husband.

I recall that family members cajoled my grandmother about remarriage for years after my grandfather died. She would hear none of that nonsense. She was still married. Beware of anything prescriptive. Some people won’t stay single in perpetuity. Some people will. Stay keen and caring towards your audience.

Cancer was not the answer when googling and using the predictive prompt “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Which is why my brother-in-law, who came to the service that morning just to hear his son sing in the children’s choir, slammed out of the building, breaking the door as he went. It’s why half the women in the family chased after him in their own angry stupor. It’s why the men in my family broke, some into groups to talk to the head pastor, some to follow my brother-in-law and make sure he knew all believers weren’t obtuse ********** who made careless statements for rhetorical purposes, and some stayed with the kids in their seats and wept, as real men do.

Too bad too. The next day, the head pastor insisted on giving comments at the memorial. Nevermind he didn’t know the deceased well. Nevermind that a capable pastor who knew her well enough had the matter in hand. Nevermind that he didn’t speak the widower at the memorial or to apologize. Nevermind that grief is the great tool of pain and pain solidifies memories into states of emotion into states of being that can last an eternity.

The best thing that ever happened to me was my faith in God. But that’s not true for all people. It can’t be if the faithful try to hard to be anything but penitent, humble and authentic. Death is real. Pain is real.

 

An Update: Sitting Vigil

A lot of cancer is waiting, I read once.

So is dying.CANDLES FOR THE BELOVED ONES..

While the day of death is better than the day of birth, says the philosopher in Ecclesiastes, I don’t buy it because I’m watching my sister die, and the pain while we watch and wait, while we keep vigil, wounds me.

I’ve never sat this close to death for this long. I lived with my grandfather in his final years of diabetes, but married and moved out in the last six months. I recall his shuffle, his walker, his sallow skin, his odor. From living with him, I know that active dying begins months before death. Dying is the act of the body taking leaps, trips, and shuffles to its end game. The smell of decaying flesh, the smell of moths first, then a kind of intimate uncleanliness that doesn’t match that of an indigent or addicted person. It’s a rotting smell that comes even with a daily shower or sponge down. As a body dehydrates, joints squeak. When I squeezed my sister’s hand last week before she went off in an ambulance to the Dove House, it rattled. Like my grandfather did, she quivers. She  wobbles and takes baby steps. She falls into chairs, her eyeballs lolly-gagging. Her neck falls to a side. Her spine curves. She’s lost weight so fast that her underarm skin sags. I sadden at her sallow cheeks, clavicles,  and shoulder blades.

We sit around in vigil, drinking up the last of our beloved’s personhood, refusing to look away despite the indignity of dying slowly. I find myself in anguished whispers about why our culture clings to doing everything it can, calling doing anything less “assisted suicide,” and how we interpret our ethics when we read our Scriptures. We want to disavow this indignity.

*****

To speak, Naomi must raise a thinning hand to her neck. She aims for her trach. Sometimes, she misses and falls asleep for a minute. Then she moves that wrist, even though her head slumps to the left, weighted down by the softball-sized tumors in her jaw. She covers the white cannula and says something clear to her. It’s almost clear to us, but not enough. Naomi has not detached, which is the part of dying where the mind and spirit disappear or dissipate or become invisible in her movements. I cling to the idea it’s there because when others I know have died, I sense presence, even for weeks after death. Even though the person’s spirit detached, even though my father-in-law breathed like a train, twelve chugs a minute, and his jaw lay slack and he could no longer lift his hand, even in that state where his dying body denied his living spirit from showing personhood, even then, when he died, we felt his spirit present and receding. Detachment seems a process that precedes and follows after the last breath.

Naomi is not detached. As I speak, she’s decided to leave the house. She’s bored in the semi-dark of her apartment. Every once in a while, she initiates a metaphysical reflection. Not that we understand or follow all of it. I can see her frustration when she waves her hand weakly and wrinkles her brow. It frustrates her that she can’t make herself clear, and that we don’t get it.

Two nights ago, for instance, she asked for her trach to be suctioned. I followed my mom to the bedroom to retrieve a mechanical pump, the saline cups, the tubes, the purified water, the hoses and wands. Mom explained the steps to me, since I will be on shift often in the endless coming weeks. This then this, she said. Turn it on, she said, and flipped the switch to suction the trach, which dripped phlegm. But Naomi waved a dying girl’s wave.

“No. I have to explain.”

“What?” We waited. Silence.

“It’s complicated.”

“That’s okay.” We waited. Silence.

“It’s hard to say.”

“It’s okay.” We touched her hand, her knee. We waited. Silence. She fell asleep like a narcoleptic. She woke.

“Do you see this?” She poked at the brown and blue plaid squares. We saw the baby blue felt squares between shades of brown. Brown lines, chocolate brown swathes.

“I have to explain this.” Micro nap. My mom remained bent at the waist with a suction pipe in her hands. We waited in the faint light. Silence.

“My life is like this.” She jabbed at the brown. “Do you see these?” She pointed to the blue. “These are light. I’m trying to get to the light.”

My father lumbered down the steps, and hearing her speak, he asked if she needed Lydia, the youngest of us, a nurse. “Shshshshs.” I whispered and mouthed, she’s saying something spiritual.

I sensed some shift. I worried I’d missed it or read too much into it. I’ve been anticipating the time because for ages, she and I have patiently disagreed with each other. Some months after her first diagnosis, N said lost her faith. She surrendered it in 2014, the year after her diagnosis. She said it brought her peace to stop wrestling with the question of a god who demands justice, who allows suffering, who perpetuates systems of guilt and shame. Her heart and mind are solid. She said without God and faith, she was at peace. She said she understands it gives us hope and meaning. She allows it’s part of our DNA, hers still, a little, so it’s fine to talk about God and pray around and for her. She said she understands it’s what gives us hope. I’ve said she’s being condescending. It’s not some foolish system, I’ve retorted. We’ve made uneasy peace about this.

We spoke about this last months ago, before her body began shutting down. I’ve been quiet. I’ve bided my time and prayed.

Her dying is aging her beyond 33 years. It’s aging us.

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” I mouth. I memorized that verse in my teens. My parents made me. I understand now.

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.”

I’m old enough that I bargain with God. Dear God, my life for hers. God is silent in response. He won’t barter with me. Haven’t I read Job? And Judith? Haven’t I lived long enough to make the joke, “Chances of death are 100%”?

Mom stayed bent over, listening to Naomi. We prompted her. “Yes. Tell us more.”  Abruptly she stood, grabbed her walker, shouldered her pain pack and led us, like the pied piper to her bedside. We tucked her in. Dad knelt at her feet and covered her feet in his large hands. He asked if he could pray with her, and we clasped hands in a circle of life. When he finished his prayer, I broke down. I didn’t mean to plead, but God forgive me, I am weak. God forgive me for trying to push a dying sister, a grown woman, still cogent into resipiscence, a returning to what I think should be her spiritual senses.

“You know what you said about the darkness and light? I know this is dark. But if you find the light, I think you will have found your way… to heaven. I know what you’ve said about not believing, but if you make it to the light, it’s heaven. I need to know then that you are there to pray for us. If you make it first to heaven, I need you to pray for us before the Throne of God.”

I felt accomplished in fidelity to my God and Faith, and yet complicit for manipulating. I didn’t know the right thing to say.

******

I am separated from my husband and children, living out of suitcase to keep this vigil. Last week, we thought she’d decline within days. Now I think she will live through my 42nd birthday next week, through my husband’s birthday next week, maybe through obligations back in Indiana. I will keep interminable weeks of exile from home to be near her.  I’m waiting. I’m divided in this waiting. I’m struggling with desire to be with my husband and kids. I hate how the odor cloys to my hands after I’ve helped her to the bedroom.  Yet I cannot will one single hour to hurry by. I cannot will it away, even while she hits her pain pump, and the room needs an air freshener, and we talk about this boorish indignity of cancer’s killing powers.

Who You Gonna Call?

“Call me when you can.” My dad texted at noon. Coincidentally on my Aunt Sandy’s birthday, February 14th. Saint Valentine’s Day. Love and bloody death. I can’t handle suspense. I brood if I don’t know the details. I shook while I dialed back. Whatever made my father text in the middle of his workday, and mine, must be bursting him, like a vein throbbing just before a stroke. Fear and curiosity needed relief.

“Bad news.” He got out two words before I started pacing. I wearied the vinyl tile curling up in my kitchen. Black scuff marks from dragging my running shoes across the center of the room had to be scrubbed up later. We compared notes a year later and he said he got worried because I had fallen silent. I wonder what he pictured me doing. For my part, I was walking off my anxiety, trying to find my calm, trying to wait as he pushed out the words. I had been waiting on the crisis, but not about one of my siblings. I expected bad news about my uncle, the one with melanoma and squamous cell cancers on his bald crown. I expected to handle his grief as I handled my mother’s when she called about her youngest sister. I was sure my dad was going to say the cancer had killed his oldest brother.

I did not expect what he said.

“Naomi has cancer.”

_______

Two days before Dad called I saw my brother-in-law Andy had posted a picture with the caption, “Lydia Reynolds, we pushed the button. Where are you.” Funny, funny, I thought. Funny because my youngest sister Lydia was a CNA, studying to be an RN.  Funny, too, in the peculiar way. Naomi doesn’t go to the doctor. For years we avoided doctors. We learned to stick it out growing up in a household with a tight budget. My mother waited until we had high fevers for days, until all her home remedies failed. She knew all the tricks, an important skill for stay-at-home mother with seven kids growing up on my father’s single warehouse worker income. Poverty never crippled my parents. They proved thrifty and we internalize the habit. It helped Naomi cope as a newlywed. She and her husband had been drowning in his college debt and the economic crisis that nearly strangled Michigan in the last recession. Having not heard any follow up, I assumed a friend was sick. I shrugged it off.

Naomi wasn’t sick until the doctor told her so.

She wasn’t sick on that Sunday morning. The day of the week seems important to me, though she tells the story as if it was normal for her family physician to call with lab results on a day when the office was closed. She wasn’t sick, she insisted. But she’d dropped over forty pounds. She wasn’t sick, but she bled all over the toilet. She wasn’t sick, but her gut hurt all the time. She wasn’t sick, but she slept over half the waking day. She wasn’t sick, but she made the appointment to appease a co-worker who egged her to see a doctor. She wasn’t sick because she could drag herself out of bed on a Sunday to pick up overtime at TAC, the autoparts factory where she stood all day, inspecting plastic somethings. When the doctor didn’t reach her on her cell phone, his office rang up Andy. She should go the ER, promptly. Andy called her supervisor who pulled her off the line. Instead of walking right out the front door, she asked if she could please finish her shift first.

“I’ll call the doctor back,” Andy said, or that’s what she thought she remembered about the day

“He called you on a Sunday,” I said. Her memory was fuzzy, she replied. Too many other emotional peaks interfered for her to reposition herself back on a factory floor. Either that or the more simply her dangerously low iron obstructed her thinking. The doctor said no way to Andy. The doctor ordered Andy to drive her to the ER, before something bad, like a heart attack happened.

Her hemoglobin- iron levels in her blood- were at 5.8, which is 1.2 of something below the lowest they should get.

_______

Rebecca Skloot writes that Henrietta Lacks, whose uterus produced the famous HeLa cancer cell line, told family and doctors she could feel something growing inside her long before her gynecologist found the tumor. Naomi thinks, maybe, she knew something was growing down there. But she wasn’t ready to be sick yet.

When we were kids, there wasn’t much money for doctors’ visits, so we knew that there were two kinds of sick in our family :home-remedy sick and emergency sick. If we had a high fever for a day or two, one which mom couldn’t drop with tylenol and cool baths, or we needed stitches, we saw a doctor. Only one of us, my brother, ever earned the distinction of being hospitalized. Naomi thought she was the first kind of sick, not the hospitalization kind.

_______

By Sunday night, Naomi felt light and and full of life. Her transfusion felt like a high. She hadn’t realized how long she’d been operating on exhaustion and sheer will. She was ready to go home but the attendings wouldn’t release her.  On Monday, they gave her an endoscopy.

“The post-op nurses tripped over themselves to reassure me it was clear,” she said. They all came over to tell her. “Nothing there.” How reassuring to find out she wasn’t really sick. They sent her to her room with laxatives and medicinal gatorade to prep for a colonoscopy first thing on Tuesday. When she came out of the anesthesia after the procedure, the nurses around her kept their distance. They busied themselves and stayed taciturn when she fished for the results.

“I knew it was cancer then,” she said. She pleaded with them, “Yesterday, everyone was tripping over themselves to tell me the test was clear. Now no one will talk to me.”

“The doctor will come speak with you soon,” they said.

She waited in her room in the long silence that demands one stay calm for what the bad news will be. Her mother-in-law came. She made small talk with her husband. When Dr. Gupta, the fatherly gastroenterologist who scoped her came in, he sat down on her bed.  He  pulled out the films of her colon. Everyone, her husband, her mother-in-law,  and her attending nurse  huddled together.

“I’m so glad we did this. We found something.” The camera wriggled down from the pink, healthy top of her colon down to a purple bulbous mass stretching over and around her rectum, so large it was nearly the size of a newborn’s head. It was hideous, obvious in its sickness. This, said Naomi, is when she started crying, when she knew what the doctor was telling her. She asked if there was any chance this was a non-cancerous tumor. He grabbed her hand.

“Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” He repeated it. “There is so much you don’t know and this is not the end of your life. There is so much they can do and your body is strong.”  The nurse was crying too. Dr. Gupta stayed for ten minutes. When Naomi settled down, he left.

“What were you thinking while he sat there, holding your hand?” I asked once.

“I was thinking, I have to call Dad.” She had her cell phone on her lap. I would have thought that too, my head said to what I heard. At first, I think I heard her saying, “I am not sick until I tell dad.” Reflecting after a few more conversations, I wonder if she wasn’t saying, “How am I going to tell my dad?”

When Dr. Gupta grabbed her hand, she said she stopped crying, but she also stopped looking anyone in the eyes. Not even after Dr. Gupta left, when the nurse put her arm around Naomi, and Andy said something– she can’t remember what– could she look any of them in the eye. She stared at her cell phone.

She never did tell my dad.

The moral to the story, I suppose, is that bad news can be a flood. To keep from drowning people, it needs channels.

Naomi called my mom. My mom could handle the news better, she thought. I remembered how calm my mother was when she came to my dorm to tell me Grandma had died of the lung cancer. I remembered how calm my mother sounded on the other end of a bad cell call when she said, “Aunt Sandy is in a coma. She has maybe six hours to live.” Her beloved little sister died and she called me back. I was stuck in the Poconos and when running up and down the hills weeping as I did, waiting for the death call. My mother gave one loud wail and then couldn’t cry again. She alone could tell my dad.

After that, my dad took over. He called all of us.

Naomi has a secondary cancer now. The doctors say she has weeks to months to live unless this new immunotherapy works. Dad told me that he can see the tumor grow from week to week. It sticks out of the left side of her chin like a tennis ball, like a blow to the face, like her facial bones were broken and reconstructed a week ago. Now it’s apparent she could die imminently. For four years, I’ve been witnessing Naomi’s cancer, mining her for stories to write up her kids and us.

In the past two weeks, we’ve begun to talk behind Naomi’s back about how we’re going to channel the news that seems to be coming. Unlike that first event, we don’t want hints on social media. Unlike one of my sibling’s in-laws, who spread the news of a grandmother’s death through a weepy Facebook update, we are planning for privacy. We’re going to need a gentle appropriate phone chain. We’re going to need to think about who says what to whom and how. We’re talking to each other about how say the words to each other so everyone gets to wail, to wait, to listen. If she dies soon, we will need to say these words to real people, not computers. We’ll need listening ears, physical closeness, exhales and sighs and sucking in and the evidence of empathy that doesn’t come with words. We’re all going to need someone to call.