Saturday, September 29, 2007

September 29, 2007 - Weaving the Safety Net

Last night a friend called me, to talk about her father, whose lung cancer has relapsed. She was anxious and upset, nearly beside herself with worry. For the first time she’d heard the dreaded words, “Stage IV.”

What could I do? What could I say? I’m fresh out of magic words that can make everything all right.

I did the only thing I could do. I listened. Every once in a while, I threw in some small piece of advice about navigating the cancer-care maze: the importance of sitting down with the whole family and talking frankly about the situation, the need to make sure the right-hand doctor knows what the left-hand doctor is doing, the value – nay, the necessity – of getting a second opinion (preferably from a specialist at an NCI-accredited Comprehensive Cancer Center).

By the end of the call, she seemed to feel much calmer. I didn’t do very much, really, other than listen. But that was enough. It was the needful thing.

Certain experiences in life are better done on our own: pulling on our clothes in the morning, ordering from a menu, deciding what book to bring along to read on a plane. Facing cancer isn’t one of them. No, when a cancer diagnosis looms, the first thing to do is assemble a posse.

Reynolds Price, poet and novelist, was a well-known figure in the literary world before he got cancer, and started writing about it. A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing tells the story of his treatment, mostly by surgery and radiation, for life-threatening spinal cancer. Never a man of overt religious faith, but always one of deep religious sensibility, he discovered a web of support he never knew was there: people who found their way to him at his darkest moments, people who prayed for him when he barely believed in prayer. Here’s something he wrote:

“One of the strongest and most ironic assurances came from a woman I hadn’t seen for years, who’d herself been placed in an isolation chamber for several days shortly before a whole capsule of radium was implanted in her body to bombard a pelvic cancer. She phoned me on a dismally low Sunday morning and, with no preface, calmly said, ‘I’ve called to tell you you’re not going to die of this cancer.’ Then she quoted the famous talisman lines from Psalm 91 that so many soldiers have taken to war,

‘He shall give his angels charge over thee;
to keep thee in all thy ways.’

Soon she was dead but her word on me is still in force.

At moments of exhaustion those unsought assurances could ring a little crazily. I well understood that the vast majority of human prayers get No for an answer, if any answer at all. I knew that my threatened life was surely not an exception to that dark rule.... But as things sped downward in my mind and body that summer and fall, and a blank wall was all the end I could see, those promises from friends of unquestioned sanity carried more weight with my battered mind than most other messages. Bad as I often felt, they seemed oddly credible. And I’m still not convinced I chose to trust them only because I needed to. Even now as I recall each one and the moment of its arrival, I can hear its battlefield-bulletin prose as welcome and trusty; and I take great care not to make empty promises to troubled friends unless, as I very rarely do, I have a firm sense of their ongoing luck.”
(Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing – Plume, 1982, pp. 64-65.)

It was a pretty gutsy thing for that woman to do, phoning her friend and pronouncing medical absolution over him, when she wasn’t even a doctor. I don’t think I would be so bold. Yet, somehow, her preposterous prophecy seemed to make all the difference for Reynolds. Along with other good friends, she slid under him when he was falling, and caught him.

A weaver, creating a blanket, sends the loom’s shuttle sliding back and forth, again and again, crafting a web of gossamer thread that has far more strength than any one cord alone. This is what we do for each other, when the touch of cancer’s icy, skeleton finger would chill us to the bone. We wrap one another in listening, and, more rarely, speaking. We stand at the end of a frightful chasm and halloo our prayers into the darkness, then together await the echo.

Thank God we are not alone.


Anonymous said...

There's another metaphor that became very real to me in my first hip operation - when the risk seemed rather great. It is that of an ocean buoy. Buoy is a word whose synonyms include cheer, gladden, lighten, and revive. And that is what I felt through the network of prayer which buoyed me.

And while I'm at it, I'll mention once again, that seeing your face and that of my daughter out of the mist of anaesthetic (back into which I drifted immediately!) was also the gift of caring and presence. The sense of assurance, of not being alone.

Buoys, gossamer blankets, prayer chains, friends, family . . . important partners with the skilled docs.


Carlos ("Carl") said...

Thanks, Robin. Visiting folks in the hospital, I often wish I could be DOING more. You remind me that merely being there is often enough.