I walk into the Roswell Park Cancer Institute with my senses sharp-focused and on high alert. I’m in another culture and whether I like it or not, it’s now my culture. I belong. I can speak the language, navigate the geography and obey the protocols. But I am determined to remain who I am before I was initiated into this new culture, so I smile a lot for no other reason than to maintain some normalcy. I am a smiler by nature, but smiles are not common in a cancer hospital, hardly surprising but I refuse to stop smiling, just yet. (For more reflection on my Roswell culture and smiling see Duchenne Smiles Only, Please of March 2014.)
Other than smiling, I am scanning the population, looking carefully at faces. The faces resemble mine – lined and showing some wear.
This fact brings me around to a beauty tip that will keep you baby boomers from spending your retirement at the cosmetic counter for one of the billion products promising to be age-defying. Smiling lifts those sagging nasolabial folds, so you look younger. Better yet, you don’t look grumpy even if grumpiness is the furthest thing from your disposition.
My point? The vast majority of the people at Roswell Cancer Institute look like they are 60 and older and that’s a good thing. Cancer is predominantly a condition of the aged. I am reassured by that. Occasionally in the breast cancer clinic I see a young mom with a helper who is attempting to corral a small child as she waits to be seen. It breaks my heart. It just shouldn’t be. I think of my daughters with their young children and my heart’s response is, “Can I take it for the family?” But we know it doesn’t work that way. Cancer is not a respecter of family life nor of anything remotely related to matters of fairness, kindness or common decency.
When I was first diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2014 my youngest daughter said, “Mom, as awful as this is going to be for you what I know for sure is that if this was happening to me or my sister you would be a basket case.” Yep, at that moment I had my first moment of thankfulness. Grateful it was me and not them.
Weird back story: when my first child was a toddler a good family friend died of lymphoma. I became obsessed with the fear of cancer. My neck was bruised from searching, prodding and poking for swollen lymph nodes. I went to the doctor pointing out some swollen bits. The doctor was annoyingly unimpressed. I went to another doctor. No satisfaction there either. I drove my poor husband crazy with the “what ifs.” (David lovingly refers to that period of our lives as the neurotic imaginary cancer scare of the 80’s). So, what was going on? The therapist in me analyzes that period of my life as a sort of coming of age process. Motherhood, with its great love for a vulnerable dependent human being, also came with great anxiety, realizing that life held little control. A little toddler needed her mother and I developed a neurotic need to reassure myself that we could never be separated. Time passed and more life happened (another child was born) there was less time to focus on the scary “what ifs” of this life. My neurosis took a rest. But I am not apologizing nor thinking its neurotic to hold to the view that there is something terribly wrong with a world that takes loving mothers or fathers from their vulnerable young children.
Kate Bowler is a young professor of Christian history at Duke Theological Seminary, author and speaker. She also happens to have stage 4 cancer and has written sharply, poignantly and honestly about how she is supposed to make sense of a young mother dying, leaving behind a husband and young son. She is a Christian trying to make sense of her new reality. Her articles and books are hard reading at times. The caustic wit and honesty are not typical of female Christian writers who attempt to make us feel better. Be prepared to squirm.
Bowler is living out my younger self’s worst fear. Now, I have stage 4 metastatic breast cancer but I am long past being that young mother of a small child who lived in dreaded fear of cancer. I’m saddened and anxious about an unknown future but grateful that I saw my little children grow up to be amazing women. But before I come across as too ready to cross the finish line of motherhood, clarity is needed. I am pursuing the best medical treatment, staying as positive as possible, and praying for miraculous healing. I love my adult children and long to see them grow into their 40’s with all the self-awareness and maturity that awaits them. I adore my grandsons and long to live long enough for them to have memories of their Nona. I fret about my 93 year old mother being without her only child. I love, love my best friend and husband of almost 40 years and grieve as I think of his loneliness and aging beyond his 65 years without me. But the utter panic of leaving small children behind has thankfully been replaced with a swipe of my brow that a bullet has been dodged.
What’s the point to this post? Hmm… not exactly sure except to answer the question my husband asked me as I was going down the other day into an abyss of miserable complaining (and it was not the first time) about a miserable world where so much miserable suffering happens to women and children and innocents through disease, cruelty, poverty, corruption, and greed.
“So, Dona, where would you be right now without a hope of an eternity where all injustice and suffering has its comeuppance and end? where all wrongs are made right?”
Hard to know where I would be. I have piled up decades attempting to live the life of a faithful follower of Christ so its hard to imagine living a reality without thought of Him and its implications. But I will say that that belief includes something so important to my spiritual and psychological well being that I quake to imagine myself without it. It’s the belief that I am loved by a “thick-skinned God” who can take my many complaints without flinching, frowning or regretting he knows and loves me. I take my cue from the psalms of lament and the book of Job and the Old testament prophets and from Christ, Himself. As Kate Bowler says, “This life is hard, and this life is beautiful.” I’m just so thankful that I can live my remaining life steeped in the meaning and mystery of a thick–skinned God who gets me even when I struggle to get Him.
Footnote: In the Hebrew Bible there are approximately 67 Psalms of Lament. In them the Psalmist complains to God directly about an injustice or tragedy and unabashedly asks God to do something. With only the rare exception, these poems start with grief and end with trust in God, even joy. My personal favorite, Psalm 22, is quoted in part by Jesus on the cross, and serves as a wonderful companion to the famous Psalm 23.