Two days before I scanned the office supplies aisle for a binder to keep track of mounting medical documents, I fell to the floor uttering a prayer of few words. Please help, I prayed. Please.
A routine check-up prompted a chest x-ray which yielded abnormal results. My husband called to say he was on his way to the hospital to have a CT scan. Hours later, a doctor delivered the news: the scans were consistent with a lymphoma diagnosis, or possibly an autoimmune condition we’d never heard of before. A trip to the lab and a few calls to the insurance provider, and suddenly we had an appointment to see a thoracic oncologist. Please don’t let this be lymphoma. Please.
I could say that it all happened so fast, yet it seemed like time stood still during the seven day wait between the initial tests and the meeting with the oncologist. Nothing really made sense that week. If I managed to sleep, I remained keenly aware of every second that passed. Food lost its taste, and I ate only to quiet the noise of hunger. And although the way ahead was unclear, what really mattered came sharply into focus. Years of petty arguments seemed even more petty now. Even the ground on which we stake our more principled differences crumbled under our feet exposing what lay at the vulnerable core, unconditional love. Forgive me, I begged. Please.
I have heard it said that in situations like these, people often find strength that they never knew they had. I searched myself for it, but strength eluded me. I waited for it to show up, but it never arrived. For a brief moment, I entertained the fantasy of fleeing reality all together but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. If only I could turn back time to the days of blissful ignorance before I knew disease loomed on the horizon. Please help me, I prayed again. Please.
Ellery Akers wrote a poem I once read called The Word That Is a Prayer. She writes about one word prayers of desperation; the one word that is always just a breath away, please.
One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you;
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window:
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray […]
Sitting in the waiting room while a biopsy was done, it occurred to me that my voice was a part of a chorus of desperate, one word prayers. Though I struggle to find purpose in anyone’s suffering—and outright reject shallow theology that suggests that it’s a part of some divine plan—I found it strangely comforting to know I wasn’t alone in it. There was the young man whose cancer had returned, pacing the floor. An elderly woman in a wheelchair staring blankly ahead through pale, watery eyes. Then there were the people in the infusion clinic upstairs, trying to distract themselves with the city life buzzing outside the window. Each one singing the word that is a prayer. Akers’ poem continues…
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.
If I wasn’t fully aware of the weather I walked in everyday before this one, I was now. So I struck up a conversation with the quiet old lady in the wheelchair. I made coffee for the young man pacing the floor, and while the machine whirred, I offered a prayer on behalf of the others who roamed this cancer hospital. Before I took my seat next to the grandfatherly man working a crossword puzzle, I realized that at the very least we can offer each other shelter in the storm. Hope interrupted the desperate chorus.
The night before the biopsy, I found myself immersed in the story of Jeremiah. The Hebrew prophet was only a young boy when he was called to deliver an important message to his people. He didn’t feel equipped to do it, though, and so he resisted. I wondered if he felt like I did, searching himself for some kind of strength to get through what he knew could not escape.
In chapter 17 there is a poem, a strophe of which reads, “Blessed are those who trust in God, those whose trust is in God. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending its roots out to the stream. It shall not fear when the heat comes, its leaves shall stay green. In the year of the drought it is not anxious and does not cease to bear fruit (7-8).”
The year of the drought had come to Jeremiah and his people; hard times fell upon the Israelites and suffering prevailed. Desperate prayers echoed in the desert. Please. Yet Jeremiah was like the tree planted by water, sending its roots out to the stream. He trusted God—not necessarily to take away the suffering—but to be present in it. If they stuck together, he insisted, the Israelites wouldn’t have to go it alone, and togetherness is where God dwells. It soothed his anxiety and he bore the fruit I now feasted on, learning from his example.
It turns out I was looking for strength in the wrong place. Perhaps strength is just a tiny seed within us, but it needs to be cultivated by that which is found on the outside: the love and care of others. Strength was knowing that I wasn’t alone. Strength was having the courage to reach out to ask for help.
And people heard my desperate pleas. Some offered to drop everything to be with us and look after our kids. Others offered kind words or supportive silence. Still others sent email and text messages. Then there were friends who prepared a meal and served us in front of a fire on a chilly spring evening, and another who offered us the gift of laughter. One, on her own journey of healing, reminded us to breathe, and yet another who’s been down this path before offered invaluable practical advice and emotional encouragement. These gestures were reminders of God’s presence in the suffering. They were the stream that nurtured the seed of strength within.
Two hours before a doctor would find me to say that the procedure went well, I wandered into the hospital cafeteria looking for water. It was lunch time and the place was teeming with people. I managed to find an empty spot on a crowded bench and then squeezed in even more to make room for a young woman looking for a seat. She had long rows of braids and the most beautiful skin, but her eyes were her most striking feature. Her badge said her name was Eunice and her red shirt told me she was a hospital volunteer. She asked me if I worked there and I confessed that I once did, as a chaplain, but I was there now because my husband was a patient.
We made superficial small talk for a few minutes, but it quickly moved into deeper conversation. She had a spirit that revealed wisdom beyond her years. Even though it was her first day on the job, and I was at least twenty years her elder, she heard my desperate word that is a prayer without me having to say it aloud, and she offered me the shelter of her kindness. Before I rose to leave, I wished her well and assured her that I saw her extraordinary gift for serving others. I thanked her for that and then turned to go.
I hadn’t gotten very far when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see Eunice who had left her uneaten lunch on the bench to run after me. She didn’t say anything, she just hugged me close and closer again when I began to let go. I walked away knowing that that I could do this. I wasn’t sure if I had found the strength, or strength had found me that day, but either way I was grateful. Thank you, I prayed.
Postscript: While the exact diagnosis is still being worked out, I am relieved to say that lymphoma has been ruled out. The suspected condition can be treated and may even go into remission.