Excerpts from the prayer life of a cancer patient

Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

In the summer of 1982, I was hitchhiking from coast to coast. I had traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific; I was now traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I had visited Yellowstone, the Badlands, Reno, Nev., San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M. I was headed to Nashville, Tenn., the Great Smoky Mountains and then home to New Jersey.

Hitchhiking is, of course, dangerous, and if I had it all to do over again, I would not. I hitchhiked because I was young and poor. I wanted to see my country. There was no one in my life who cared enough to say to me: “Hey, that’s dangerous. Don’t do it.”

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It was near sunset in Oklahoma, and I hoped to make it to Dallas before nightfall. My brother, Mike, was attending seminary there. I wanted to get to him.

I had not seen my brother in seven years. The last time I had seen him, he was an atheist. He had returned to New Jersey in 1975 for our brother Phil’s funeral. A few years after that, I had to leave my childhood home after a particularly bad beating. I had been homeless for a while. Mike got married in those months immediately after the beating, while I was still reeling, trying to put a legitimate roof over my head and finish up college and heal from what had been done to me. Truth to tell, I am still trying to heal. Mike did not invite me to his wedding. As far as I know, Mike never asked about me. I didn’t take offense; I didn’t think I was worthy of an invitation to my brother’s wedding. It did not occur to me that maybe there was some brother out there who would care if his runt sister had been badly beaten by a family member and then fallen off the face of the earth. When you are the abused kid, and everyone in power in your life ignores the abuse, you do, too.

When you are the abused kid, and everyone in power in your life ignores the abuse, you do, too.

Still, I wanted to see him. He was my big brother, who used to urge me to eat that vile government-issue surplus rice and margarine we survived on when we were kids and my mother was working one of her two jobs and my dad was God knows where. Mike now had a wife and a baby boy, Donnie. I wanted to see my new nephew.

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So, I went back out to the gravel shoulder of the road. I could tell by the way that my shadow hit the asphalt that I was hitchhiking at a time of day when I normally wouldn’t. I would usually be at a campsite at this hour or in a friend’s home or, for a splurge, in a hotel. But here I was, on the road, my thumb out. I felt a surge of anxiety splinter through my body.

A car pulled up right away. Good. I eyeballed the car. Bad. It was at least 20 years old, with dents, missing parts and raw, rusted metal where paint should have been. A fat man in a stained and torn T-shirt was at the wheel. He had receding hair, though he was only in his 20s. To move toward the car and enter it I had to fight against my own internal warning system. Why did I ignore my gut? That is how I had spent my entire life. That is how many kids who get beat up at home spend their entire lives—suppressing normal self-protection in the face of imminent threat.

 

The interior smelled of that unique rot that putresces in hot, oxygen-deprived automotive petri dishes. The upholstery was unraveling. The fat man wearing the filthy black T-shirt and grubby jeans, the man with a face soft, mushy and unnaturally white, like the filling of some Little Debbie dessert cake, began talking. He never stopped.

“So, you want a job?”

I was studying the sun’s descent into a position parallel to my own. I was examining the heavy traffic, trying to tell myself that if the creep tried anything, I would be O.K. because there were so many people on the road.

“I can get you a job,” he said, ignoring me ignoring him. “I know the crews that work on this road. You see those guys with the orange flags? They make $16, $17 an hour. All they have to do is stand there all day, waving those flags. And the pay is great.”

“That’s good,” I said, trying to be nice, trying to stay alive.

“We can go to a hotel right now and call up the guy who runs the road crew.”

“Nah, I need to get to Dallas.”

“We’ve got plenty of time,” the creep said.

“Nah. Thanks, but nah.”

And that quick the hunk-of-junk car was down an exit, off the highway, into the woods. The creep pulled out a handgun. “Don’t scream and everything will be fine.”

I immediately grabbed his hand holding the gun. I threw my torso against his chest, and pushed backward hard, pinning him against his seat. I centered my weight on my backside and raised my feet. I was wearing Fabiano Rias, hiking boots with full-grain leather uppers and Vibram rubber-lug soles. I began to kick out the passenger-side window, relatively easy to do, given the weight of my boots, the thrust in my legs and the shoddiness of the car. I used my long, strong fingernails to scratch deeply at the hand holding the gun. I screamed for all I was worth.

After my real-world maneuverings were complete, I prayed, “Jesus help me.” At that moment, something happened that had never happened to me before or since.

After my real-world maneuverings were complete, I prayed, “Jesus help me.” At that moment, something happened that had never happened to me before or since. It certainly didn’t happen that night that I had to leave my childhood home. I heard and felt the pop of a membrane breaking. This pop was not caused by anything in the physical environment. It wasn’t the pop of a balloon breaking, the pop that destroys the balloon. It was, rather, more like the break that occurs when a hand penetrates the surface of water. The water still has a surface; the body of water still exists. The surface and the body are just differently shaped, because they have been penetrated by the hand. That pop was as real as anything else in this event, as real as the gun, the shoddy car, the slob’s black T-shirt.

His muscles went limp. I jumped out of the car. He hit me with the car as he drove off, knocking me to the ground. My jeans tore open, and my knees bled. But as the creep drove off, back to the highway, I was alive. Later that night, Maureen, my sister-in-law, would reprimand me for showing up at her home with blood-caked knees and hard-to-wash jeans. It is hard to get blood out of clothing, especially a tight weave like denim. You have to use cold water, not hot.

•••

A year after that, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. That is why I had purchased those expensive boots and why I was breaking them in on that hitchhiking trip. In Nepal, I lived in a remote settlement at an elevation of 7,000 feet, just south of Everest but not on any trekking route. There were no roads except footpaths. There was no electricity, no running water, no telephone or telegraph. There was no glass in windows, no outhouses, nothing printed except some flimsy, moth-eaten schoolbooks. I never heard or saw a plane overhead. One day, after teaching class, I noticed that I was having trouble standing on my right leg.

I returned to my dirt-floored, stone house and took my temperature. It was normal. I built a fire, which took about five minutes. I took my temperature again. In those brief minutes, my temp shot up to 104. I went to bed. I took my temperature again: 105.

My calf swelled to twice its normal size. A patch of skin on my leg turned bright red and took on the texture of crinkled cellophane. I realized I was dying. It is the strangest thing—on the one hand, I was in the worst pain of my life. On the other hand, I felt more peace than I have ever felt. I felt I would soon float out the window of my hut, out over the barley fields. My Nepali neighbors came in to wish me a good death. They presented me with platters of artfully dyed rice festooned with flowers, the same gifts one offers the gods.

I placed my hands over the red skin and prayed, “Jesus, heal me.” Over the next couple of days, the fever began to recede.

I placed my hands over the red skin and prayed, “Jesus, heal me.” Over the next couple of days, the fever began to recede. The red patch began to fade. When I was well enough, I walked all day to a village with an airport—a flat scratch of dirt large enough for a weekly visit from a single-engine Pilatus Porter. I flew to Kathmandu.

Dr. Theresa, the Peace Corps doctor, photographed my leg. She took urine, stool and blood samples and sent them to the United States. She sat across from me with a big book of tropical diseases and played multiple choice: “Maybe you have TB! Maybe you have guinea worm! Maybe you have....”

The samples sent back to the States showed that I had erysipelas, a bacterial skin infection. It could have killed me. It killed St. John of the Cross, John Stuart Mill and the New York Yankees manager Miller Huggins.

•••

Immediately after my 2012 cancer diagnosis, when I tried to pray, it was ugly and hard. I was an abused kid. As an adult, I am a stranger in a strange land: a working-class bohunk Catholic in the Ivory Tower. Negative input from everyone from my boss at the time to internet trolls to snotty girls in fifth grade, comments I thought I had brushed right past and overcome, were suddenly amplified by a megaphone created by my pain and my need. “You are a worthless failure. You deserve to die.” I just kept praying.

One day, I imagined myself in Jesus’ presence, perhaps while he was delivering the Sermon on the Mount or healing the woman with a hemorrhage, the woman who had spent all her money on doctors who did not help her, the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years.

I was ready to ask Jesus for a miracle. I was ready to visualize Jesus removing my cancer.

I was ready to ask Jesus for a miracle. I was ready to visualize Jesus removing my cancer. In this anticipated visualization, Jesus would be like a surgeon, snipping and carting away my diseased flesh.

I felt Jesus approach me. He was not offering a package I would call “healing.” He filled my body with his love. The outline of my body dissolved. Jesus’ love spilled out of my body to the rest of the world. That is what prayer suddenly became. Not my asking Jesus for a specific package and receiving it or not receiving it—not a linear transaction. I became a locus of love, a love that flooded creation. Prayer became my choice to allow that flood’s release.

I have no idea if there is any relationship between prayer and what happened next. Lab tests had shown I had a form of cancer that offered me slim chance for survival. After surgery, I was told that the initial tests had been mistaken, and I would almost certainly survive.

•••

On Thursday, May 2, 2013, I received a phone call from my niece. It was the first time she had ever phoned me. My sister, Antoinette, had been driving erratically. She was stopped by police. She was hospitalized. There was an MRI, surgery, a diagnosis and a Google search. I did not even need to click the link to see the words “the terminator” and “14 months.”

My friend is an atheist. I wish I could communicate to him what prayer is. What is it? I stick to the facts. Prayer is what I feel compelled to do when people I love suffer.

I prayed as intensely for my sister as I had prayed for myself. I prayed with greater consistency: a rosary a day. I begged God to take me instead of her. And, every time I prayed I heard a quiet, kind and yet utterly implacable “No.”

On April 10, 2015, National Siblings Day, I was rubbing my sister’s feet. My sister-in-law, my niece’s new mother-in-law and neighbors kept telling me to tell her to let go. I snorted. As if Antoinette would do anything I told her to do. I do not think she could not hear me, but it always seemed that she and I could always communicate telepathically. I said to her, through my thoughts, “Antoinette, there are plenty of people for you to boss around in heaven.” Within moments of my thinking that, she stopped breathing.

 

My brother Mike had died of cancer decades before, at age 34. I got word that he had received a terminal cancer diagnosis while I was in Nepal. The Peace Corps flew me to Dallas for our final goodbye. I was infested with Nepali fleas, and Maureen had to call in an exterminator after I slept in her apartment one last time.

Hundreds of devout Christians prayed for Mike. He had been immensely popular as a high school athlete and atheist, and he was equally popular as a seminarian. My Buddhist and Hindu neighbors in Nepal prayed for Mike. I do not know what happened to our prayers. I could not pray for a long time after he died.

This all hurts. This is all real. No one fact alters any other fact. My unanswered childhood prayers that the abuse would stop does not eliminate the “pop” in the junky car, the retreat of the red, cellophane skin.

My friend Mark Schaffer is an atheist. I wish I could communicate to him what prayer is. What is it? I stick to the facts. Prayer is what I feel compelled to do when people I love suffer. Prayer is what I do when I am in danger of immediate death. Most of my prayers have not been answered in the way that I wanted them to be. I have stopped praying for years at a time. I started praying again not because I think God wants me to but because prayer turns me into one kind of person and no prayer turns me into a different kind of person. I work better as the former, the kind of person who prays.

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