Hello my dears,
Today, I want to introduce you to someone very special to me—my mom! Since we’re in the Mother’s Day spirit around here, I thought it would only be right to invite my mom to answer one of the questions I get all the time.
Without further ado, meet Karen! She has a Ph.D. in music but she never sings over other people’s terrible voices in church. I know. She’s a saint. She’s my favorite mom which is so convenient because she is mine.
What was it like for your parents?
That’s the question Kate has been asked so many times–about what it’s like to be a parent of a child that is seriously ill. So naturally, she asked her Mom. That’s me.
Whew, so here we go.
There it is again, the awkward moment in the grocery store. An old friend appears and our eyes meet. We haven’t seen each other since Kate’s cancer diagnosis, so she hesitates. But rather than walk away, she approaches in a brave attempt to be supportive. And then here it comes again, that phrase: “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through!” It is meant to express empathy, and to acknowledge the enormity of what has happened, and yet strangely it also highlights the divide between us. One of us is in the world of ‘normal’ with everyday problems to solve, and the other is in a world stretched out beyond recognition.
The underlying problem with this terrible other world is that it is all wrong. Children are not supposed to sicken or die before their parents. In this wrong world, the horizon shuts down, and time is marked not by hours or days or weeks, but by scan to scan.
Upon hearing the news of the ugly diagnosis, I felt strangely uncoordinated in my thinking. When emotions did surface, I felt anger, disgust, and the absolute certainty that this was an outrage. In private, tears drowned everything but helplessness and despair. But if there was something I could do….now there was something to hang onto. Make bone broth. Buy organic soap, or cotton clothing. Take Zach out somewhere. And most of all, do your darndest to keep things as normal as possible. Hide your pain. You can at least shield her from that. My rule was, “Don’t cost her anything.” But this can be an isolating rule as well, a peculiar kind of loneliness. The grief of lost intimacy.
So her Dad and I learned to ask people for things. We heard of a Romanian orthodox service especially for the healing of cancer, and there we received prayer, an icon and a loaf of bread. My own prayers expanded beyond my Protestant traditions to include new ones like the Jesus Prayer, the Catholic Novena, and Mother Theresa’s favorite, the Memorare – nine times in petition and one in thanksgiving. The repetition was an excellent container for my pleas. But sometimes we had to learn to ask people not to do things, like talking about the illness when it was overwhelming. Life becomes a negotiation, as in ‘can I afford this conversation?’ Some days I had trouble getting moving, or leaving the house even when I had to be somewhere. Brain, where are you when I need you?
In the crisis moments, it’s “All hands on deck!” so everybody is conscripted –colleagues, friends, entire churches, and any random stranger along the way who would listen to the urgent message: “My daughter has stage four cancer.” I still remember the man at the local post office who promised in his sweet Tar Heel accent that he and his church would be praying. And I knew he meant it. In all this there comes a heightened sense of gratitude for the faithfulness and many kindnesses of others, and also a deeper tenderness toward anyone suffering.
Suffering is a lonely place, because no one else sees with your eyes. There is a void inside you, whose shape only you can define. But when there is a witness to that suffering, someone who sees you in it—will be with you in it—you are not alone anymore with that choking vulnerability, and it is bearable. That’s what compassion is, literally: com-passion, with-suffering.
“Love for our neighbor, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius…. In this moment of attention,” says Simone Weil, “faith is present as much as love.” (Love in the Void, p. 28) For it is a creative act that is an echo of the divine—Immanuel, God with us.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” –Romans 12:15