Over the past few months a dark word has errupted into the vernacular of my family :: c a n c e r. I have found myself saying less and less, not blogging, not calling friends, not writing letters, not writing at all, because every time I open my mouth or pick up a pen, or open a new blog post, all I want to say is, "MY MOM HAS BREAST CANCER." It is as though the growth that took over her right breast has somehow gotten inside me too, and it rises up to the surface every time my mind is still--a menace of toxic thoughts :: c a n c e r. But no, I do not want it to take over, just as my mom does not want to be defined by cancer. Cancer is something that is happening in her body, but it does not own her, it is not WHO she is, and it will not win. Cancer is not my fate, not my future, not even my present. My present is my home, my family, my work, my life, my faith, my friends, and, currently at the center of all this, my beautiful mother.
I love this picture of my family, from nearly 15 years ago. Our family sure has grown since then!
On Tuesday I spent the day in the hospital with my dad, my sister and her son, and a friend. We kept vigil while my mom had surgery to remove the cancer from her body. It was a day of waiting, of watching the clock, of hugs, of exhaustion, of that twilight zone that inhabits all hospitals...
We brought photos from home to decorate her hospital room, and journals full of encouraging thoughts and prayers received from friends over the last weeks.
Mom came through the surgery beautifully, with the aid of her young, funny, exuberant and extremely competent surgeon, who feels hopeful that she was able to get all the cancer out. Now we wait for Mom's body to heal, and for the lab results from the pathologist, which will indicate if further treatment is needed.
It is good to be on the other side of this, to be in the recovery phase. Life can now proceed to its "new normal," which hopefully will include freedom from cancer and full healing for my mom. It has been inspiring to watch her discover for the first time in her life what it means to take charge of caring for herself, to mother herself in a way she hasn't done before. Those platitudes about brushes with our mortality exterminating our ability to take life for granted are cliches for a reason. She has been forced to look at her self, her body, her life with new eyes, and that example is a powerful one for me. What do I take for granted? In what ways am I constructing barriers to living a life of freedom, health and wholeness? What are the inner voices that I want to listen to?
One of my favorite poets, John O'Donohue, writes eloquently about illness as a visitor, that just might have something to teach us if we would be willing students. It takes a certain courage to ask, "How can I grow from this? What can I learn from this?" It has been an honor to watch my mom ask those questions and be changed by what she is finding.
A Blessing For a Friend on the Arrival of Illness
by John O'Donohue
Now is the time of dark invitation
Beyond a frontier you did not expect.
Abruptly your old life seems distant.
You barely noticed how each day opened
A path through fields never questioned,
Yet expected deep down to hold treasure.
Now your time on Earth becomes full of threat;
Before your eyes your future shrinks.
You lived absorbed in the day to day,
So continuous with everything around you
That you could forget you were separate.
Now this dark companion has come between you
Distances have opened in your eyes.
You feel it against your will,
A stranger has married your heart.
Nothing before has made you feel so isolated and lost.
When the reverberations of shock subside in you,
May grace come to restore you to balance.
May it shape a new space in your heart
To embrace this illness as a teacher
Who has come to open your life to new worlds.
May you find in yourself a courageous hospitality
Towards what is difficult, painful, and unknown.
May you learn to use this illness as a lantern
To illuminate the new qualities that will emerge in you.
May the fragile harvesting of this slow light
Help to release whatever has become false in you.
May you trust this light to clear a path
Through all the fog of old unease and anxiety
Until you feel arising within you a tranquility
Profound enough to call the storm to stillness.
May you find the wisdom to listen to your illness,
Ask it why it came, why it chose your friendship,
Where it wants to take you, what it wants you to know,
What quality of space it wants to create in you,
What you need to learn to become more fully yourself,
That your presence may shine in the world.
May you keep faith with your body,
Learning to see it as a holy sanctuary,
Which can bring this night wound gradually
Toward the healing and freedom of dawn.