Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of columns by former Journal columnist David Rooks, who is now getting treatment for esophageal cancer.
A few days ago, I leaned and lurched between a Subaru and a pickup truck. Hands on both, I steadied myself as I purged every last drop of bile from my stomach. I know — it’s tough to read. Pity, then, the few who walked by. For minutes, I was naked to every movement around me.
Days later, encore in Scheel’s parking lot.
In a prior life, the arch response that would have tipped my tongue walking past another miserable wretch similarly wracked would have lacked charity. Suffering, observed or endured, sifts our humanity. A great saint once remarked: “Show me how you suffer, and I’ll tell you who you are.” I’d only add: Show me how you respond to those who suffer… .
If it weren’t for hospital appointments, I’d have quit cars weeks ago.
Sharing notes with a breast cancer patient last week, it seemed apparent our age lacks a grammar for compassion. She’d made a list: “Things not to say to a cancer patient.” I’d experienced some items many times. Topping the category was how initial encounters with very good and caring people too often included them launching into (within seconds) their family histories of cancer, sometimes highlighting those they’d lost.
Here’s a sample of what to say: “How’re you holding up? (wait for complete response) “How’s your family doing? (wait for complete response). You’re in our thoughts and prayers (be sincere). Tweak to taste. Stick to this and you needn’t worry about anything else on the list.
Some heightened response to difficulties endured by those we care about is, of course, instinctive. Multiplying words, however, betrays insincerity. The heart is economical — dare to put your heart out front. Your eyes will say the rest.
Some will say, “What does it matter, as long as you mean well?” What you mean is pointless. That you care is everything.
Every morning at check-in at The Cancer Care Center, I am asked my birthday twice. This to limit the possibility for mistaken identity. I know all four of the ladies at the front desk by name. They know me, too. Still, we play our roles. The combination of technology paired with the ever-lurking fear of lawsuits restricts us to mental cubicles. This to prevent the infinitesimal possibility that some day one or all of them may have to swear in court: “Yes, your honor, as per hospital policy I asked him for his birthday twice within the span of 10 seconds.”
“Thank you, you may step down.”
The irony, of course, of being made to recite my birthday like a prison serial number at least twice a day is that my thoughts inevitably slip to the possibility of another date that would appear on my tombstone. “Wonder what that’s going to say?”
My nurses would blame it on “chemo mind.”
“Chemo mind, chemo brain, chemo fingers” … the concoction gets the blame for every symptom and malady. These are legion. To say that a cancer patient is not quite himself understates it. It’s as though we’re out of phase, double exposed — drifting toward the sound of the falls. It is a decided unease in mind and heart and body. To counteract this, we’re handed well-meaning but sleepy bromides about hope.
Of the most oft repeated sentiments I’ve heard, the one I can most easily do without is: “The Lord never gives us more than we can handle.” Poppycock. It may be all he does.
He gives us life. How well do 99 percent of us handle that? How many saints are there? How many villains lie in cemeteries? He gives all of us time. What’s been the cost/benefit ratio of my use of my time? Dying and death are no different. The journey is not optional. That doesn’t make the path manageable, only inevitable.
For my own part, this whole cancer treatment thing is the least bad option.
Heat from the breath of my mortality forces me to my knees. In the darkest moments, I cry out that I can’t handle it. I’ve never spoken truer words.
A few nights back, behind closed curtains at 1 a.m., a phrase surfaced in my grief: “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Over the course of half-a-century, I’d heard or read it hundreds of times. I never saw it, I glossed past it. That night, beneath the black, its truth settled into my heart. Momentarily, I was asleep.
This whole project: having the power of life — and to love and be loved — is more than any of us can handle. Then, we’re told we have to die from all of it, and fall into we’re not sure what... . It’s so far beyond what I can handle it’s incomprehensible to me.
When I release all pretense, into the darkness steps the light of one who, two thousand years ago, suffered pain and grief beyond the limits of anyone born of woman. And He did it for me. His grace is sufficient for me.
Next: The second phase of treatment