Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of columns by former Journal columnist David Rooks, who is now getting treatment for esophageal cancer.
Hiking to a mountain I must climb has been my metaphor for this cancer treatment from the beginning and leading up to Tuesday’s surgery. After the final endoscopy on Monday, where my esophagus was tattooed as a guide for the surgeon, I fell beneath the shadow of the mountain. Tuesday morning, 7 a.m., begins the ascent.
For this attempt to scale there will be no Sherpa guide. The journey is, for the most part, internal. That part of it with which I’ll contend will be my responses to physical challenges of a pain, discomfort and duration I can only guess at. In such shadows there is no view, no horizon to navigate toward.
Doubt and fear abounds. The first question is simple, and seems melodramatic: Will I wake up after the surgery? During my last briefing with Dr. Fromm this foreboding lay unspoken at the root of every query. Will I survive? He intuited that — and did not answer. I took it as honesty. The best, I surmised, is that most do make it.
This potential finality freezes me. On good days I write of faith and hope, but here, in truth, with the cup being handed to me, I shudder before I sip. Have I prepared myself? Is my soul ready to meet Eternal Justice? So many failings … so many selfish and corrupt actions I’ve taken … Why is there so little time?
Yet — squirm to the left, squirm to the right — there are only steps ahead to be taken.
With each foot forward away from base camp, the premonition grows that a mist will envelop all I hold dear behind me, that my deepest loves in this life, Sandi, my children — all I’ve met and found precious — may be lost forever. It cannot be shaken.
Perhaps incongruously, I recall Clint Eastwood’s trenchant line as Bill Munny in “Unforgiven:” “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he's got, and everything he's ever gonna have.”
But then, clinging to the odds like a lottery ticket, I remember that I’ll likely wake up. If so, will I get my first glimpse of handholds and foot placements up the mountain; perhaps, even, a ledge wide enough to turn and ascertain the view? If so, it won’t be very high — it can’t be, the climb steepens from there. Perhaps, there will be a moment's rest when I return to lucid thought, tentatively open my eyes, and look around the hospital room.
My family will be there. Sandi will be there. That would be a first leg well above base camp, a place to rejoice and give thanks. I pray fervently for it.
Several weeks back, I referenced, obliquely, a shadow I had intuited in the corner of rooms where I met with my providers and caregivers. More sensed than seen, it did not give the usual radiance of sentient shadows, of something ominous and to be feared. Rather, and counterintuitively, it gave a sense of calm. I wrote, then, that I would talk more about it later. It felt as if the time wasn’t right.
Since beginning this piece, it seems now is the time. A few paragraphs back, I said there would be no Sherpas for the ascent. I was wrong. There will be one. In every stage of treatment, I have had the love and accompaniment of my family, friends and the sensitive and understanding care of my Cancer Care providers. But for the ascent I am alone — or was. My shadow companion presents himself. He will be my guide: He is Jesus Christ.
I believe, come what may, this is my mini Via Dolorosa (way of the cross), this is how the soul groans when the joined timbers are placed on your shoulders. It is the deepest dark. For my abiding Lord, on His way of the cross He truly was alone; from the Garden where he sweat blood to the moment when, out of the deepest and loneliest pain ever felt in time and this universe, He cried out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He was alone.
When Most Holy Jesus said: “It is finished.” He was separate from the Father, a man of sorrows and sin, emptied of the Holy Spirit. Alone. Now, reigning in Heaven at the right hand of the Father, we know why. It was so I, everyone since then, and everyone to come, would not have to be alone. Ever.
I felt this when my Sherpa, no longer a shadow, appeared moments ago in my heart. He took off his fur-lined hood, turned to me, smiled and said: “Let’s begin.” It may be that the summit restores me to bodily health, and that I am given years to come to love and serve His will for me; it may be that the peak of this climb finds me on the other side, a prisoner of His mercy.
From here, I can see none of that, but say: “Lead kindly light, for I know this: I am not alone.