I have not chosen until now not to write directly of my cancer. But, after almost two years into it, I can attest to many gifts, and that the disease itself is a kind of gift.
First and foremost is the gift of being loved, of knowing that love coming from so many people, often accompanied by your prayers. For these expressions of affection, I cannot express enough my thanks. My cup has always been full to overflowing (Ps 23), and I wish I could share all this love with so many who do not know it or have it—the lonely, the depressed, the destitute, the hopeless. There is a sense in which it is unfair that any one person should know so much of it. But this has been the case my entire life, from my childhood. What I can do is pray for others, as I have been trying to do, out of the depths of my own experience. And, like you, dear reader, we can find many touchpoints of suffering from which to draw and with which to find compassionate solidarity with others in their suffering. My basic prayer is that each person for whom I pray receive the grace to be aware of God’s love meeting them in each and every moment of their lives.
One form of God’s love I’ve received has been through the extraordinary care I’ve been receiving at Stanford. The entire team there is not only medically and scientifically advanced, but extraordinarily kind and compassionate. Again, I do not have words enough to express my gratitude to them for helping me along the way, particularly at tricky decision points. The people who can succeed at doing this with such grace surely have a special vocation—from the check-in techs to the radiation specialists, the infusion nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, receptionists, and pharmacists—and my terrific oncologist, Joel Neal. I don’t know how these people do it. Add to all this a freedom from anxiety because of Medicare and good supplemental insurance, and I could not be more blest. (On that latter score, I think everyone should have the peace of mind which comes from the Medicare + supplemental that I and many others my age can enjoy. This level of fundamental healthcare should be a fundamental right for everyone residing in such a wealthy country).
Another of the gifts of this period has been an increasing (though radically imperfect) detachment from some of the things that can become too important in our lives, although I confess to a passion still for the work of theology and an ordinate fixation on politics. Yet there is a little more room now for an even deeper appreciation of beauty, of friendship, of the miracle of finding oneself a living being on this planet within an unimaginably vast universe (or is it universes?). And the birds that sing outside my window each morning. The flowers and growing things. The mystery of it all. Here one must turn to the poets and musicians and artists of every kind, to begin to look into and find expression of it. One of my favorite poems, one that captures the spirit of freedom and of being met by God in the beauty of the world, is Denise Levertov’s poem, “The Avowal,” which I share with you here:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
No effort indeed.
p.s. With such gifts as these, the word “journey” to describe the current experience is somehow inadequate. It is not a journey—it is a present experience, one given with each and every breath. Each life is a journey, I suppose, in that it has a beginning and end, with many meanderings in between. But this cancer is smaller than a journey in its own right; it is simply a part of life as life unfolds on its own.
I also resist the hackneyed metaphor of “battle” and never, ever use it of what I am experiencing (and I hope that others will not as well. Susan Sontag wrote powerfully about this). This particular experience within the larger “journey” of life is a gift, which I am hardly battling as a gift. While I would hope for a lot more time, the amount of time we have makes no difference, as I learned from the early deaths of my sister and brother; it is the gift that makes life miraculous. And to know the gift in so many ways is, beyond measure, something for which no expression of gratitude will ever quite be adequate.