I saw the wine bottles first. I was sitting outside on the patio, hoping the fresh air would lighten that bottomless grief. My parents were making soup and passing out hospital surgical masks or worrying about next appointments. The bottles slowly lowered over the side of my backyard fence, and I thought, Oh, thank God, Ray is here.
Very few people want to scoot up to the edge with you while the cliff erodes under your feet. Our current liturgical season, Lent, demands that the church humbly walk with Christ down the long, preparatory road to the cross. It’s not a journey most of us make with particular ease; it’s easier to skip all the awful stuff and get straight to the satin hair bows and Easter lilies.
But my friend Dr. Ray Barfield, a pediatric oncologist, chooses to live on the edge, with me and with all the kids and families he cares for. He takes the front seat to a family’s hardest thing, and tries to make sense of everything biology can’t tell him. He’s a witness in the classical sense of bearing another’s pain, both in silence and in bone marrow transplants.
Like doctors, I love binaries. I’m either winning, living my best life and climbing shiny ladders — or I’m failing. Ray has always been able to clearly see that about me, much to my chagrin and sheepish relief. Because when I was really sick, I went into this weird performance mode. On the outside, I was singing and dancing in a reality show about a very plucky girl who has cancer. The CW was going to call any second to syndicate my life!! But privately, Ray was the person who helped me try to move past the binary of success and failure. Past the binary of living and dying.
Ray knew when he entered the field of pediatric oncology that he was going to have an unusually tough day job. Some kids die. Some kids live. But after one particularly tough case, Ray couldn’t do it anymore. He broke. He knew he had two choices: to freeze his heart, or die ten thousand deaths. Listen here to explore Ray’s story on Everything Happens.
Dr. Ray Barfield is a pediatric oncologist and professor at Duke Medical School and Duke Divinity School. He writes about the intersection of beauty and biology. Hear more of Ray’s voice on NPR’s Fresh Air.