Sunday, October 17, 2010

Love, Cancer, and Reclaiming Body and Soul


   For the past two weeks I've spent ten hour days at a major cancer center where I've been exposed to and touched by suffering, heartbreak, love and beauty on what often seems like a moment to moment basis. One moment I am sitting at a table of patients and artists beside a pale and exhausted looking teenager hooked up to an iv  who is working on an intricate and truly beautiful collage while completely ignoring the rest of us. On my other side is a fragile looking middle aged man with kind eyes who has dropped by the Arts in Medicine room before his chemo infusion.  When he begins to describe the puppy he is considering adopting and asks us what we think he should name her, the teenager looks up, takes us in for what seems like the first time, and suggests that he name the puppy, "Hope."

   The next day while sipping coffee in the radiation center waiting room I am joined by what is beginning to feel like a sisterhood of mostly bald headed women who huddle together for a few moments each morning to compare side effects, symptoms, laughter, and reassurances.  This capacity of shared trauma for so quickly fostering authenticity and intimacy is remarkable to me.

   That same afternoon while at the infusion center I notice a husband and wife sitting across from me and am struck by the fact that while the wife is the one receiving the chemo infusions, it's he who looks ill and absolutely terrified.  I smile at him reassuringly and He lifts a trembling hand to wave at me.  I very much doubt that this wan and stoop shouldered man has seen his thirtieth birthday yet.

   I see pain everywhere.  And I see love all around me.  And I see fear and courage and despair and hope.  This just may be the most terrible, beautiful, most real world I have ever landed in.  I've had several long and heart felt talks with complete strangers, and  ocassionally I ask them what they've discovered thus far that has surprised or encouraged them.  A common response to my question alludes to the acts of kindness cancer patients and their loves ones have experienced from strangers and how significant even the smallest gestures have felt to those who were feeling frightened and vulnerable.  "Maybe it is love that does the most healing," one breast cancer patient shared with me.

   In her book, "When the Heart Waits," Sue Monk Kidd observed that “…a split of the head from the heart is common in our culture. Along with this goes another painful splitting: the severing of our body from our soul. As we separate from our feelings, we tend to separate from our bodies as well.”  In this culture of cancer I have repeatedly heard stories that describe in one form or another a kind of reunion of body and soul.  They are never happy stories, instead they contain pain and suffering and fear, and yet, they are so often transformative.   Stories that begin with one person's abrupt and often savage introduction to a body that he or she had been living with for a life time and yet never known.  Dramas that present crisis and pathos and uncertainty, and encounters that cannot possibly be prepared for because they involve a confrontation with the wildness of one's very soul.  For days now I have sat saddened and spell bound by stories that throb with both pain and love and ultimately seem to lead to the 'awful grace' of a hard won and weary wisdom. 

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