all of the selves we Have ever been
“Keep looking where the light pours in.”
Morgan Harper Nichols
Well, I passed the wellness exam--
and failed the mammogram.
Things really got rolling a few days later during the ultrasound. The radiologist stood at my bedside as I asked some questions. While she was careful NOT to say what it was, she was very firm about what it was NOT. I left with an intuitive understanding that it was something. This would be confirmed soon enough by a pathologist.
In the interim, I was referred to a surgeon, a brilliant and energetic young woman who loves science and trendy shoes. At our brief visit, she remained optimistic that it could still be nothing. Nonetheless, surgery was scheduled, even as I prepared for a biopsy the next morning.
I left the surgeon’s office with a busy mind and a tight schedule. I was due at work shortly, not really enough time to settle in at home, and maybe not a good idea even if I had had the time. It seemed to me that an asiago cheese bagel was in order. I took the advice attributed to the early Greek physician Hippocrates, and I headed to my local Panera to fill his prescription: Let thy food be thy medicine…
As it turned out on that day, my local Panera was not so much a dispensary as it was a most unusual monastery. In what would become a reversal of my misfortune, I found myself standing at a counter with the bread of life stacked on metal racks behind it. A holy man graciously took my order. Just as I was about to insert my debit card into the card reader, the monk said, “There will be no charge for you today.”
“Why is that?”
“It is Halloween.” And as he said this, he looked so deeply into my eyes that he seemed to take hold of me. So moved was I by his gaze that his eyes could have been the eyes of The One. And then he said, “God bless you," and the light poured in. While doctors had looked inside my body and proclaimed me ill, he looked inside my soul and proclaimed me blessed.
I moved to a table where I enjoyed my bagel and counted my blessings, among them excellent health and good medical insurance, wonderful friends who infuse me with laughter, the company of countless women who have gone before me and those who travel travel with me now, the remarkable emerging science and technology that makes the treatments our mothers received seem barbaric and my own treatment seem like science fiction, a specialty breast cancer treatment center practically at my doorstep, and a lifetime grounded by a faith tradition promising that there is something greater than me, and that when this life is over, I will be gathered to my people. How lucky am I to live with so many resources and so much hope?
Yes, the Paneran monk was a messenger: I am blessed.
More to come.
Of this I am sure.
I am feeling weepy today.
Serena Williams will take the court
at the Arthur Ashe stadium this evening. It is possible that this will be the last time she participates in the U.S. Open or any professional tennis match. Though she dislikes the word “retire,” Serena told Vogue magazine that she is “evolving away from tennis” to grow her family and her business interests.
Just shy of her 41st birthday, Serena is a 23-time grand-slam champion. Even though I don’t know much about tennis, I do know that is a remarkable record. And while I have no money on the game, I am rooting for Serena to come out on top at the Open. I want to see her go out in glory.
I was in high school in 1973 when Billy Jean King took on Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. It seems ridiculous today that that tennis match was such a big deal, but women’s sports and women, in general, took a back seat to men. It was not long after Billy Jean King won that match that I graduated from high school and went to work in an office. What we would call sexual discrimination today was the order of business back then. I remember young women law clerks being told that a woman would never sit in the board room or new female associates being told that if they were thinking of having children, they could kiss their careers with the firm goodbye.
Young women of that era worried constantly about their weight as they squeezed themselves into short skirts and high heels, served the coffee, picked up the boss’s dry cleaning, and typed the boss’s kid’s term papers. Women made little money because it was considered pin money: “Buy yourself a nice dress,” money. Leave the real earning power to men.
We did what we had to do, and thankfully, we tossed an evolving, improving world to the next generation. Serena caught the ball and hit it farther than any woman of my generation, white or black, could have imagined. She is beautiful and powerful in a way that the ancient Greeks and Romans would have memorialized in statues. Her spirit is indefatigable, and she is a force that transcends envy. One can only feel awe.
So, I am cheering for Serena today. Do it for yourself, Serena. Do it for all of us. And do it in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the namesake of another tennis great who dared to pick up a racket in 1949 and changed the rules of the game.
The wheels turn slowly. Some of us push, others drive, and then there are the exceptions, the few who fly. Many of us fought the good fight. We are coming to the finish of the race. You help us to keep the faith, Serena. Show ‘em how it’s done.
I turn the page on my calendar and discover that today is World Tuna Day.
A sometimes lapsed Catholic, I wonder if this might be a new Holy Day of Obligation. For the non-Catholics out there, a Holy Day of Obligation is a day on which Catholics are expected to attend Mass and refrain from work and other activities that might interfere with their worship of God.
I consider attending Mass, but that sounds like work to me, and I am too late anyway. I will add this latest lapse to my growing list of sins to be reported the next time I seek confession which is a Sacrament, another type of obligation, but not one that takes up an entire day, unless you are a child of Satan and have a lot to report.
With my curiosity aroused, I turn to the Tree of Knowledge to fish for some answers.
According to the information posted on www.un.org, in 2016 the United Nations passed a resolution making May 2nd World Tuna Day in order to spread the word about the dangerous situation faced by this important fish. Apparently, the future of tuna is threatened by overwhelming demand and unsustainable fishing practices. Overfishing has endangered the species and the delicate ecosystem of the ocean’s food chain. Overfishing also threatens to impact the livelihoods of people all over the world, and the United Nations is taking measures to safeguard the value of tuna stocks—the Wall Street version, not the stack of cans in a good Catholic’s pantry.
Sailing around the internet, I learn that there are seven commercial species of tuna fished from four different oceans. All my life, I thought Charlie the Tuna was the only one. As of 2018, the tuna industry was worth about forty billion dollars, and that does not include the tuna fishing gear industry.
I am more than a little surprised that with all that is at stake the United Nations waited until after Lent to bring this up. Let’s face it, observant Catholics are complicit in this developing tragedy. Before Charlie the Tuna, Jesus was a pretty well-known spokesperson. Jesus was really into fishing. Some of his apostles were actual fishermen before Jesus made them fishers of men. Jesus was also known for his famous loaves and fishes routine. I am pretty sure that was when the tuna fish sandwich became popular on the Catholic menu.
By the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, tuna noodle casserole was a mainstay of the American Catholic’s diet on Friday nights and all throughout the season of Lent. It was cheap to make, the ingredients were easy to find and non-perishable to boot. The meal was easy to prepare and provided leftovers. It was also popular at church potlucks and a nice gesture of comfort in times of tragedy.
I think we all have something to confess here.
But the Church is good at granting dispensations-- an act for which a lawful superior grants relaxation from an existing law in a particular case. You might need that if you find yourself craving tuna noodle casserole given the plight of the tuna. You might want to shoot for Eat What You Want Day which is coming up on May 11th. Eat What You Want Day is a day to eat whatever you want without fretting over fats or fishing. A day without guilt. I’m pretty sure that can’t be a Catholic Church holiday.
I was his emergency contact.
I just didn’t know it.
I learned of my assignment one sweltering summer morning when the local dialysis
center called to say that Julius had not shown for his treatment that day. Julius had missed
an appointment earlier in the week as well.
Still holding the phone, my mind went into overdrive. It was not like Julius to skip dialysis even once in a week much less twice. Painful as it was, dialysis was his life and his lifeline. This was not good news. I grabbed my purse and headed to the car. During the short drive to his home, I tried to prepare myself for what I might find.
The back door was unlocked. I called his name as I opened the door. No response. An offensive odor and a swarm of flies greeted me instead. The house was burning hot, like a glowing kettle that had simmered for days over an open fire. I stepped carefully over the plastic shopping bags dropped in a trail around the door, the contents scattered here and there. I walked past the bathroom where I could see the toilet was backed up and the flies were buzzing. I called his name again, “Julius?” No response.
As I proceeded toward the living room, I could see Julius in profile. He was seated on the couch. The television was on. Julius did not react to my approach.
As I stepped around the couch and came face-to-face with my friend, I could see that Julius had died, probably several days earlier. Though I had anticipated what I might find, the preparation did not prevent my heart from breaking. I called 9-1-1. The dispatcher told me, “Get out of the house.” I sat on the front porch steps with my head in my lap and waited. The police arrived, and we entered the house together. With Julius’s medical history and no signs of other trouble, the police called the coroner, and then we waited for the funeral home staff to arrive.
This was not a typical call for the young men from the funeral home. They came dressed respectfully in dark suits, crisp white shirts, and ties. Once they entered the burning hot house, sweat poured from their faces and necks. The condition of the body was unusual for them, and they were concerned about moving Julius’s fragile corpse. They asked me to leave the room and turn down the heat, if it was on.
I waited on the back porch and said a prayer. As Julius passed, I lay my hand on the black body bag—farewell from an emergency contact and friend.
The situation was both surreal and painfully real. There was much to be done, and while I was honored to be the emergency contact, I was not next of kin. I had no legal authority to make decisions. Julius had a nineteen year old son in flight school somewhere down south. I would need to reach Christopher and tell him that his father was dead, the most difficult of assignments. I loved Christopher. Had Julius anticipated this moment when he chose me for his emergency contact?
The situation was overwhelming given the shock, heat and work to be done, but I wanted to clean up the house to honor Julius and for the sake of his young son who would soon arrive filled with grief. Thankfully, a friend came to the rescue. He unclogged the toilet and helped me to roll up the carpet that had been underneath the place where Julius died. I contacted a restoration company and got a machine to eliminate the terrible odors that filled the house. Then I rolled up my sleeves and got to work trying to put the house in order, scrubbing away my sorrow. The smells from the home, the smell of death filled my nose and saturated my clothing. I could not get away from it, but the scent kept Julius on my mind and close to my heart.
As I worked, I reminisced. There was a final gift from Julius. We were with him on his last good day. We just didn’t know it. Had we known it would be the last good day, the knowledge might have destroyed the exquisite beauty of our final time together.
It began as a simple day, ordinary on the surface, and yet it was filled with an extraordinary sense of peace and contentment. My children and I packed up some lunches, picked up Julius, and took him to a medical appointment in Cleveland, about an hour from our homes. Julius needed to meet with his transplant team, and he was becoming too easily fatigued to make the trip alone.
Surrounded by this sweet man, and my sweet children, we talked and laughed. The children and I waited in the assigned area for Julius to finish with his medical appointments and tests and then we went to our van where we broke out a picnic lunch. Julius insisted we stop at a local country shop that sold delicious ice cream. His treat. Julius sat in a rocking chair on the covered porch while the children played on the edge of the pond and fed the ducks. Like hummingbirds, we poked among the blossoms, drinking the nectar of that beautiful day. Julius asked for a second ice cream cone, and we lingered there, happy and content.
I had known Julius for a long time. His life had never been easy, and yet he was always kind, considerate, concerned, and cheerful. His own problems were never at the forefront. He always wanted to know about me and the children.
This year, as we enter the season of harvest and thanksgiving hounded by a relentless virus, I am reminded of my friend Julius and all those who live with the specter of death. Julius made his peace with that terrible roommate. He did not let that specter rob him of joy. Julius did not let that threatening presence steal his spirit while he was still busy living. After Julius died, as I was helping to write his obituary, I was reminded of the words of G. K. Chesterton: “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.” That was so Julius.
None of us know what the day will bring or when it will be the last good day. While we live in a time of chronic threat, I want to be more like Julius—to make peace with that ugly, microscopic roommate and hold onto my spirit. Julius had a beautiful voice, and he loved to sing. There was always a song in his heart. Though he did not write the lyrics, I am sure he would agree with these words from the divinely inspired hymnbook: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad.”
“In the dark times, will there be singing? Yes.
There will be singing about the dark times.
-- Bertolt Brecht
I stepped away from my computer today to spend time with my family. The expanding measures to protect the safety of the public mean that my family may not be together again for some time.
Overwhelming and unfamiliar situations can cause feelings of unreality, and I am trying to digest the full scope of what is happening. I am shoring up, repeating my mantra, “faith over fear.”
And I do have faith in the Governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine. I have faith in the Director of the Ohio Public Health Department, Dr. Amy Acton. I offer my support for their thoughtful, deliberate action and for courage under fire. I believe the actions they are taking are both wise and kind. And for now, wisdom and kindness are the only antidotes to this disease that are widely available.
I have faith in my family, friends and neighbors. Coronavirus is highly contagious. But so are laughter, hope, happiness, confidence, courage, self-control, and kindness.
I am told that it is easy to catch this disease, this COVID-19. I have faith that while I do what is asked of me, I can, instead, catch some tunes, catch some shows, catch some waves, catch some rays, or catch some z’s.
I prefer those alternatives.
I am not taking this situation lightly. I hope you catch my drift.
And I have faith that I will catch you all tomorrow. Stay well.
War is hell.
And so can be the long aftermath.
Several years ago I was asked to comfort a dying World War II veteran. I sat at the bedside as the veteran told me of his youth that was marked by the Great Depression and then the war. All the young men in this veteran’s small town enlisted. It was the right thing to do. The veteran was deployed to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese. He and his comrades were warned not to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat given the enemy’s exceptional skill. “Shoot, and shoot to kill,” was the order.
While the young solder lay sprawled in the dense jungle foliage, the enemy came at him like waves on the ocean shore. "There were so many. They just kept coming. Wave after wave." The young soldier was terrified. And he shot. And he shot. And he killed. And he killed. And he survived the war.
Returning home, he and the others gathered nightly in the local saloon dousing their flaming memories with alcohol. After a time, this returning soldier realized the road to the bar was neither a path from the past nor one to the future. He began keeping company with a local preacher. The Great Depression and the war had taken a toll on his family. While he desperately wanted to go to college, the family needed his income, and so he worked. A wise mentor told him that the education he sought could be obtained for free at the local library, and so he took refuge in books and ideas. Through church, the library, and hard work, the veteran built a good, successful life and a happy family.
He could speak of those things with joy and with satisfaction, but now, as his life was drawing to a close, he wept, not for the impending loss of his own life, but for all of the lives he had taken when he was a terrified teenage boy in the jungles of the South Pacific. The question he had kept at bay for so many years now taunted him—“How will I answer to God for what I have done?”
As he lay on his bed with tears running down his neck, I could see that he was every bit as terrified as the teenager he had been when facing an ocean of enemy soldiers. Trite accolades about doing his duty and being a war hero would be not only inadequate, but for him, an outright lie.
Sharing a common faith tradition with this man, I searched my mind for all I could remember about God and the afterlife. My thoughts lacked the certainty that this veteran urgently needed.
“We cannot know,” I began hesitantly, “but, perhaps, this is a time for faith and not fear,” I said. “The same God that was with you in the jungle is with you now. The same God who directed your steps from the bar to the library is with you now. The same God who heard your pleas in the jungle hears you now, and I believe He feels your sorrow and accepts your apology—both the one spoken and the one that was your lived life. I have faith that He forgives that terrified teenage boy in the jungle.”
I reflected on what other survivors of World War II had told me, other veterans, Holocaust survivors, civilians. “Don’t talk about it and get on with your life”—that was believed to be the best medicine at the time. And so they did not speak, and they tried to move on.
Perhaps the old folks had a point in saying, “Get on with your life.” Maybe we all answer to God long before we reach the pearly gates by the way we have lived our lives.
I have a sign on the wall across from my bed now. It says, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” It is from
Matthew 17:7. I assume that the “Live and get on with it,” is implied.
I have learned from these veterans and from my own life that when we suffer, the only way through is to arise and live. Live in moments. Live in inches. Do the best we can, but keep at it, and if there is someone willing to walk with you and hold your hand, grab on.
A beautiful, very wise, young Air Force chaplain once asked a crowd of mourners, “Is it the answers we seek, or the Answerer?” I felt relieved and comforted by his words. It was no longer on me to have all of the answers.
It is the human condition to wonder and to ponder, to ask “Why?” and to worry. We do not have all of the answers. Trying to eat the fruit of that knowledge got Adam and Eve in a whole lot of trouble. We must live and find something to believe in so that we can arise, and not be afraid.