But this exam was especially hard for me this year. Sitting next to other women, waiting to be called, and knowing how much all of us dreaded being told we had cancer, I couldn't stop thinking of my son and daughter who had received that verdict. My heart quailed, and then broke, imagining their anguish. Remembering my daughter's recent mastectomy accentuated my grief.
Yet, Paul and I had taken Mary Beth to her latest chemotherapy this past week and I was struck by the difference between the women sitting quietly in the Windsong waiting rooms, and Mary Beth and the other two cancer patients, both women, who shared her chemotherapy room. Most of the women at Windsong were waiting in silent isolation. Mary and her Chemo Club, as I nicknamed them, couldn't wait to talk to each other. As soon as we walked into that welcoming room, the bond of mutual suffering was there - and instant, unmistakable, support.
Mary Beth, now bald - her hair fell out this past week- sat with her Prayer Shawl from Christ the King Parish tucked around her legs and her head scarf, picked out by her son Ian, tied fashionably around her head, hooked up to an imposing array of plastic bags, and she and we talked on and off for four hours with a woman who was having her first chemo session. In addition to talking, we also listened to a "veteran" who really needed to talk. The level of comfortableness between all of us was amazing.
It seems that for we fragile human beings it takes extreme love and/or extreme suffering to bring us to a place of deep emotional, spiritual connection and solidarity with others. Love and suffering strip away our daily impersonal masks so we become capable of nakedly, transparently, sharing who we really are with a loving other. Every word, every gesture of affection, becomes filled to the brim with its deepest meaning. Every time we say "I love you" to Mary Beth and she says "I love you" to us, we all want those words to reverberate through each others' beings for forever.
Our daughter's Doctors have given her a good, positive prognosis. We expect her to fully recover. But chemo and radiation are no picnic for people suffering with cancer, their families, and their friends. My family finds strength in Jesus, both Suffering Servant and Son of God, who emptied himself and voluntarily took on mirroring the human journey of life to death to eternal life for us.
The Gospel accounts of Jesus' Passion describe how step by step he loses something - the clothes on his back as he is stripped and beaten; his dignity as the soldiers jeer and thrust a crown of thorns on his head; his friends the apostles who, except for John, run and hide; his physical strength as he falls under the weight of his cross; and then his final nakedness, pain, and loss of life.
Yet his suffering and death bound him to all of us human beings at the deepest level of intimacy. His eyes meet ours, and the connection is immediate and unmistakable - the connection of our mutual fragile flesh. Those eyes of his are magnetic, vulnerable, transparent because of his pain. They understand everything we suffer and they promise that our suffering will transform us if we let it, if we bear our crosses with loving endurance as he bore his. As the Chemo Club, whoever attends, can be transformed into oneness through shared pain and vulnerability, strength and tender kindness.
I've had people tell me that illness can sometimes be a gift. That by having their backs thrust up against a wall, they've learned about their resiliency, their strength; that every day is a gift; that love and relationships and creativity are the most important priorities in this life; that suffering broke them open to let go of ego and pettiness and be closer to others than they'd ever been before.
One of my technicians at Windsong was a breast cancer survivor, with a double mastectomy, who now makes it her mission to be totally communicative and supportive with the women she examines, because, she says, she's "been there." I've never been examined by anyone so empathetic. She wears her wounds with loving pride, as the Risen Christ carries the wounds in his hands, feet, and side as proof that suffering is not healed but rather transformed by love.
Our bodies bear our likeness to the Crucified Jesus. Our souls contain the Risen Christ, who tells us that every suffering we endure bears the seeds of our eventual resurrection. Resurrection in fact begins here, inside us, with Christ our Hope promising us that shared love and shared suffering point unerringly to eternal life. For now, as we wait for our final transformation, I pray that "the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4: 7).