One morning last August I walked into the emergency department of a local hospital to check out some chest pain and shortness of breath. At suppertime I walked out the door with a prescription of antibiotics for what was “thought to be pneumonia.”
I felt very well taken care of that day, and coloured a mandala in gratitude for the care I received. A sense of peace came over me. “If there’s more to it than this,” I said to myself, “I’m in good hands.”
The antibiotics didn’t work. Three months later, after much further testing, I received a diagnosis of lung cancer which had spread to my brain. This kind of cancer can be managed for a time, I was told, but it’s not curable.
By then I certainly knew that “something was wrong,” but as a non-smoker, I wasn’t expecting lung cancer. I was shocked and distressed. It felt like Sam and I had just been plunged into an alternate universe. The terrain looked scary, and I didn’t know how to navigate it.
The competence and compassion of various specialists we saw at the Grand River Cancer Centre impressed and reassured me. Sam’s unfailing love and support upheld me (and still does). Beyond that, I name three significant happenings early on which calmed my shocked spirit and continue to nourish me now. They’ve become touchstones to which I frequently return….
1) Within days of the diagnosis, my retired women’s group offered me symbols of support at a scheduled meeting – a special candle, a heart-shaped stone and butterflies, including one fashioned from stones at a cottage where we’ve retreated. I added a Hope stone, then arranged all the objects in a wooden box and displayed them in my living room.
2) At church the first Sunday after my diagnosis, our pastor prayed for Sam and me, with the congregation standing with us in a prayer circle. I was stunned to find out afterwards that the youth came down from the balcony to be part of it. Ever since that day, the worship space at Rockway Mennonite Church with people in it has become a true sanctuary, enfolding me in God’s care.
3) A couple evenings later, a group of 20 friends and colleagues gathered with Sam and me in an anointing service led by our pastor in the home of hospitable friends.
In my opening statement I said: “I didn’t invite you here tonight so we could beg God for a miracle. I do want to place myself in God’s hands as we pray together for healing and peace in all its dimensions. I pray for God’s perfect love to cast out my fear of so many possible kinds of losses as I move more deeply into this cancer journey.”
I’d conducted quite a few anointing services as a pastor and saw how calming and reassuring they can be for people. Then it happened for me. A friend said afterwards that I looked “radiant.”
I can scarcely describe the cumulative effect of these happenings and many others. It’s hard to find words that do justice to my sense of God’s reassuring presence during those early weeks. Sometimes I think of that time as “living in the glow,” even while uncertainties and new routines and difficult decision making also consumed us.
Kate Bowler, in her recent cancer memoir Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, speaks of the feeling of floating – floating on the love and prayers of people who “mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.” (p. 121). Yes! I thought. That also describes my experience well.
I remembered how I used to preach about “floating on the sea of God’s love and grace.” So I was amazed when a former colleague sent me this prayer: “May you know that you are held in the ‘great sea of Mercy’ where you cannot not be in the presence of God; where you cannot fall out of God’s care.”
Yes it’s true that the intensity of those feelings of “living in the glow” or “floating in God’s love and care” have faded over time. But, as Bowler puts it, “an imprint remains.” I know something has happened between God’s spirit and my spirit, and I’m not the same.
…Five months later, the sanctuary at Rockway Mennonite Church continues to be a comforting space. I want to be there every Sunday. And I still display that box of butterflies, candle and stones in my living room, along with many well-chosen and well-written cards. I also have a fat folder of e-mail messages received during those early weeks and since. I could go on and on….
Question for Reflection: How have you experienced God’s reassuring presence during difficult times?
Next Week: Cancer Journey Part II: Waiting