NOTICE: THIS POST CONTAINS EXPLICIT SPIRITUALITY, GRAPHIC TENDERNESS, AND SOME RELIGIOUS LANGUAGE. (But I hope you will read it anyway.)
I have a terrible memory, which is a terrible handicap for a writer, and is also the reason that I have often concentrated on writing fiction rather than memoir. However, quite fortunately, there are some things no one ever forgets. Even if the actions, the settings, and the exact words that were spoken grow hazy, how you felt at the time never leaves you. I mention that so you will know what to trust most, in my writing and in what you may hear from others.
July 2, 2007 is a day that I will never forget, and July 4 – 5 is a night I will never forget.
I had been having trouble swallowing, on and off, for a couple of months; food would begin its short journey to my stomach, but would then get stuck just before it got there, and would sit very uncomfortably in my chest while all sorts of things in me spasmed and heaved until the food finally slid past the obstruction. My internist, Dr. Elaine Holt, had sent me to a gastroenterologist, Dr. Joshua Greenspan, who had done an endoscopy about June 21 to see what was going on. He hadn’t seen much of interest, but had taken some biopsy specimens. On Tuesday of the week between the endoscopy and July 2, Dr. Greenspan’s office called, said the lab reports were back, and asked if I could come in the next morning to discuss them. As it happened, I was out of town for the week, so we made an appointment for Monday, July 2, at 10:00 AM.
As it happened, my wife was job-hunting that summer. She had recently completed her public school teaching certification after years of teaching in private schools, and she was looking for a job. She had an offer from one of the towns in Hudson County, very close to the Lincoln Tunnel, and we were doubtful that the commute would be doable. So, we had made plans to drive it together that Monday morning and see. After way too much time in morning rush hour traffic, we turned back toward Dr. Greenspan’s office. At 9:00, we settled into a booth at The Suburban Diner for breakfast before my appointment. (I have never set foot in that diner again.)
As our eggs and potatoes were set in front of us, my cell phone rang. “Hi, Paul, it’s Elaine Holt. I just wanted to check and see how you’re doing.”
I was a bit confused, because my doctor has never before called me out of the blue to ask how I am. I said, “I’m fine … Is there a reason I might not be?”
Now she sounded confused. “I thought … weren’t you supposed to see Dr. Greenspan last Wednesday? He called on Tuesday and said you were coming in.”
Now I got it. I explained that I had been out of town, and was virtually on my way to see him then. And that is how I found out I had adenocarcinoma of the distal esophagus, one of the most deadly cancers, while eating eggs in a New Jersey highway diner. The truth is, I had suspected it since my one symptom first showed up, but when I got off the phone, I looked across the table at my stunned wife, and said, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
After seeing Dr. Greenspan, we went directly to Dr. Holt’s office to begin planning our campaign. (That was when I asked, “Seeing as how we’re going to be working rather closely for a while, is it OK if I just call you Elaine?”) I remember that meeting well, and my first meeting with Dr. Yieng, the next morning. I remember sitting in my living room, wondering how I should pray and what I should pray for. I have vague memories of telling my mother and my children that I had cancer, and of the Fourth of July picnic at my wife’s sisters house. That’s all I remember up to the night of July 4.
I got into bed, and rolled into my most comfortable sleeping position, curled on my right side. I was facing the floor-to-ceiling sliding window, which was open, facing the deep forest behind our house. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
I tried to pray again, but it just wasn’t coming, there was too much confusion in me. I knew that the most pious way to pray would be to mimick the prayer that Jesus gave at his most human moment, as a man facing imminent torture and death, a situation I felt uncomfortably close to : “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” But I just wasn’t feeling it. Ultimately, I just couldn’t get any farther than, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.” I just had to accept that I did have a will, a wish, a want that I wasn’t ready to abandon.
Here is something I believe, and I offer it not to offend and not to explain prayer, but to explain myself. I believe that when we read or recite a prepared prayer, that isn’t actual prayer, but a preparation for prayer, a way of readying ourselves to converse with the Divine. Actual prayer comes from our hearts, and may, or may not, use words. (A character in a novel I wrote said, “Every tear is a prayer.”) Accordingly, The Holy One, blessed be He, answers us most often in the same place our prayers originated, that is, our hearts, with a knowing that is more certain than any knowledge we can argue. (This would be a good time to read the poem on the left side of this page. I will soon be adding short quotes from Jewish and Christian writing that impart the same idea – Rumi was a Muslim mystic and poet.)
I lay in the dark, wrestling with myself while God watched. After I accepted that I wanted so badly to live that I couldn’t surrender to any other “will of God,” I knew, with the knowing we get when God is speaking to us, that God didn’t will that I should die, or that I should live; God had just been waiting for me to make up my mind and say it. So say it I did, again and again, a theme and variations.
I suddenly recognized that the reason I wasn’t asleep was that I was terrified – terrified not just that I was going to die, but that I was going to endure months and months of painful, debilitating, humiliating medical procedures, and then die. So I prayed my ass off, explaining all the reasons I thought I should live, all the people who depend on me, all the people who would be devastated should I die, all the good works I do.
But God didn’t say anything back. All I could feel by way of reply was, “Yes? … Oh really? … Was there something else you wanted to say? I think there was … ” So I kept going, almost all night. Finally, not knowing what possible further reason I could offer, I said, “I want to live because I love, and I have more loving to do in this world.”
That was when I felt God’s kiss. That’s what I call it when I am deep in prayer (or meditation, contemplation, or whatever you want to call it) and God wants me to know I have been heard and answered. God’s kiss is a feeling of indescribable peace and calm that sneaks over me leaving nothing else to utter but a surprised little “Oh!”
Oh! … I drifted off to sleep for the hour remaining until dawn.
I never had another moment of fear, all through my cancer experience. I never felt a moment of suffering, although there was ample pain, vomiting, and other dubious experiences. I felt the love of my wife and grown children, and of our extended family. I felt the love of friends, and I was loved by strangers. I felt God’s love. And I loved them all back. All we ever need concern ourselves with is love, love is the only reason we exist, the only reason or justification we ever need offer for anything. It makes everything entirely different.
And that’s why I am blogging; what I have learned, I bought with my tears and my health. It is too precious, too valuable to hoard. I believe – in a place where there are no arguments – that it can change the world to its very foundations.
There have been other lessons, both before this one and since. I will write more about it, but this post is already far too long. (Posts half the length of this one have been called too long.) I promise that I will try to keep it lighter for a while, but I will tell the stories as they come to me … (I’m at Starbucks and there are two couples in their late sixties talking at the next table …)
(Posts like this one will carry a similar warning, and will be categorized as “The Core.”)