Years ago - before I had children - I spent several hours one evening on a friend’s deck in the Adirondacks sitting perfectly still, watching night come. My purpose was to be the one person on earth that day to witness the exact moment when night definitively arrived at one place, when darkness overtook the light. So I chose a single leaf and just stared at it as twilight settled. To my surprise, however, darkness never actually did come. As the sun set and the light receded, instead of imposing itself on the space, amazingly the darkness actually grew from within the leaf itself, steadily replacing the fading light. The darkness, it seems, had always been there just waiting for the light to leave and give it its chance to grow.
Since not too many people that day had had the luxury - or perhaps the inclination or patience - to watch this phenomenon, I felt some responsibility to ponder any insight I should gain from it. Left sitting there in the dark, I asked: Is this the same for us? Do we likewise carry our death always within us rather than have it come to meet us in some sterile hospital at a future date?
Fast forward: I got married, had three children, bought houses, went to Little League games and swim meets, and generally lost myself in the everyday clamor. But then, in the middle of one very ordinary Tuesday, a doctor told me that she thought I had cancer.
What is it about cancer (the C word, as many call it)? We fill out a form in a doctor’s office, and there is that question: Have you ever had cancer? Say yes, and it separates you from everyone else who fills out that form. Announce you are a cancer survivor and you’ll get a big round of applause on Oprah. The first time I walked into the oncologist’s office, I was surprised that the carpeting and chairs were the same as they were in the other doctors’ offices in the building. Didn’t they realize cancer patients were on a different continent and normal chairs just did not belong there?
I remember going for my first sonogram, and my husband talked his way in to be with me. He sat at the foot of my stretcher holding on to my right ankle as the technician’s wand went round and round over my body stopping frequently to take pictures so others could study and analyze what damage was being done. And I remember my leg slowly turning to gray stone beneath my husband’s still flesh-colored hand as I felt myself withdraw from him and from everyone else on the other side of the chasm that was opening between me and the world. I wondered how I would get the kids to the orthodontist after I was no longer able. I wondered who would take care of the dog and the cats. I marveled that I would be the first of my siblings to die. I no longer felt part of the functioning world out there.
Several weeks passed between the initial diagnosis and the surgery. During the day my life was busy with my family, my job, the dishes. But nights were overwhelming. I was suddenly terrified of the dark. I think I would never have shut off the light, except that would mean I couldn’t handle things so well. At night, then, I would lie on my side with my eyes wide open, holding on to my pillow and the mattress with both hands just trying to keep my breathing even.
It was terrifying that this thing was within me. An alien force had invaded my very familiar body and waseven as I lay thereeating away at me, and there was nothing I could do about it. I prayed to God to take it away, to make me well.
And then one night I thought of the line from the Gospel that I’ve come back to throughout my life: It is I; be not afraid.
God told Joshua not to be afraid right before he was supposed to lead all the Israelites across the Jordan River. And he told Isaiah not to be afraid when he told him he would ransom whole countries for him and that Isaiah could walk through fire without getting burned. And Christ said it to the apostles as they were in a boat at night in a terrible storm and he walked on water toward them. I love how Peter jumped out, sure that he too could walk on water until he faltered, then fell in and had to be rescued.
But those words were spoken to prophets or apostles, to men of commanding authority, not to an anonymous and terrified woman lying in the dark holding on to her mattress. That night, however, I did hear God’s wordsnot from across the water or echoing from some distant heavenbut instead as a soft whisper from deep within me. And as I lay there listening to those words, I suddenly became aware in a most remarkable way that this gentle offer of support was coming from the middle of my cancer, from the very center of the malignancy.
It is I. Be not afraid. I am here too. I am not only in the daytime, and the color and the safety of the three-dimensional world that you are seeking. I am also at the center of all that you most fear. There is no otherness. It is I.
For nights after that, I lay there again examining the edges of this idea. There is no otherness. This disease had cut me off from my past and future, from those I loved most, from strangers I passed in the street. It had made me feel essentially different. And yet it was only cells; it was I who made them evil. I was certainly going to do everything I could to get them cut or radiated out of existence, but they and I were not in a land that God could not visit.
Slowly I was able to relax into the prayer that was now at the core of my cancer. And then I came to understand that although probably our most fervent prayers have always been for God to save us from death in one form or another, such has never been his greatest promise. What God promised us on Good Friday was that he would stay with us through our death. He knows what it is like; he has done it. And he remains, sharing our every breath. We do not have to run to him for shelter from our suffering. Instead, we can run to him for shelter at the very center of our suffering.
That was eight years ago. As I write this, I am again facing cancer surgery. But this time it is not as frightening as the last time. I am not happy, but I sleep well at night - the darkness doesn’t bother me at all. I think back to that night long ago on the Adirondack deck, and in some ways I guess the night is indeed within the leafeven at noon. But I think also of the first chapter of John’s Gospel: And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.