What can be learned from the sick and the suffering?
That was the gospel question at the mass I attended tonight which included the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Father Gary opened it up to those in attendance to answer that question. I just listened, and reflected.
He said there is a place in this life for suffering. There is a place for it, there is space for it. It fits. Right in between throwing your hands up in the air on a roller-coaster, and sticking your toes at the edge of sand and water — right in between all of that joy is suffering. It has a place. It fits.
Kind of messes with your head a a little . . . right? Suffering belongs with us. There is even a sacrament for the sick. He said we are sacred. We are in tune.
The mass was held outside in the garden of the church. Father Gary said it was a beautiful day, and that in the garden we could witness the promise of spring. The signs of spring. You know that spoke to me. The earth is bursting at the seams with new life . . . with reminders that winter always fades.
He called up all of those who were seriously sick or facing surgery. I thought for a split second it would just be me standing up there. But then the others came. There was a young woman who has been battling diabetes, an elderly woman facing serious health issues, a middle-aged woman facing a complicated surgery, a college student who needs eight muscles and two ribs removed, another girl who has had unexplained mono for 14 months, a woman to my right who told us she has stage 4 breast cancer, and lastly a beautiful college student who admitted that she is fighting serious depression. There we were. The walking wounded. The sick. The suffering. Tucked beside the brick and mortar of the church in the flowering garden. Suffering in the middle of spring.
The sun was shining on our faces as Father Gary anointed our heads and hands with oil. I looked at each woman and my heart swelled for them. It wasn’t a feeling of sadness, so much as a feeling of hope. My heart hurt most for the girl struggling with depression. She was beautiful with bright eyes. I hurt for her because I know that people walk right past her and are unaware of her suffering. When you have cancer, when you lose your hair, or have to rest in hospital beds — people know you are sick. They make your dinner, and clean your fridge. Depression is harder to see, harder to heal. I was humbled by her strength and her honesty.
What have I learned from being sick? Could I sum it up in a sound bite? Could I make it a bumper sticker?
I was reading Glennon Doyle’s blog on Momastery the other day, and she said something that really stayed with me. She said: “Pain is just a traveling professor. When pain knocks on the door—wise ones breathe deep and say: ‘Come in. Sit down with me. And don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.’”
What have I learned? What can I share with you?
Getting breast cancer has always been one of my biggest fears. It took my husband’s mother from him when he was only six-years-old. It felt very real to me. I felt like I could go back in time and look out at life through her eyes. How would I ever survive being so seriously sick while being a mom? That possibility terrified me. I thought to myself, I would NEVER be able to handle that.
And then I found that lump, and got that call, and my suffering began.
So here is what I have learned:
That ocean of pain you feel when you first learn the news. That anxiety, and stomach twisting. That gasping for breath and tossing and turning at night. That anger and breath-stealing sadness. It doesn’t last. It fades. One foot in front of the other, and pretty soon you are out of the storm. It is still raining, but it’s not a storm. It’s not so turbulent, so fierce. The noise gets muted. Pretty soon, what starts to settle into your bones – isn’t fear, but calm. You can do it. People will call you brave, but that’s not what it is. You will say, “what choice do I have”? The river currents are moving, and you will learn to stop clinging to the rock and to let go. You will be slammed up against the shore, you will slip underwater, you will be scraped by branches, but you will move forward. You will float on your back and gaze up at the blue sky and white clouds, and you will feel sunshine on your face.
All that worry that I had before cancer, all the what-ifs that kept me up at night — they didn’t serve me. They didn’t prepare me. Fear didn’t keep me from suffering.
Love. Love is the buffer between utter despair, and quiet suffering.
If you are a worrier, pluck out those bits of fear, and spend your time planting seeds of love.
I haven’t mastered this art quite yet, I am still learning. And that professor of pain isn’t quite done with me yet either. I’m still listening. I’m still suffering. But today in the garden, I didn’t feel fear. I felt peace. I felt whole. I felt love for those women at my sides. I felt the breeze of what cannot be seen. I felt love.