Thursday, August 03, 2006


Twas the Night Before Chemo and All Through the House…

It seemed like a going away party. There was great food. The circle of friends sitting in the living room kept stretching to include the next guest that came through the front door. Nancy, newly ordained as a rabbi, had arrived the night before from Philadelphia. It was the first time I had seen Kelley and Tim in six months; their work as film editors had taken them to London to work with the BBC and then on to Thailand. Lisa, Amiel, and Ann had brought presents: trinkets and talismans to bring on the journey offering protection and hope, a hand me down wig, and recipes for finding joy in the strangest places.

The laughter in the living room could be heard in the kitchen. My old office partners used to point to my consultation room and joke “Can’t be any therapy going on in there. Way too much laughter is coming out of that room!” I always took it as a high compliment, believing the opposite to be true; that deep healing occurred in my office and the laughter was an expression of it. It was like this at my home the night before my first chemo.

Then Nancy brought everyone together for the blessing. We joked about why a White Anglo Saxon Buddhist (WASB) might require kosher chemo. I expressed my deep gratitude that Nancy had flown in from Philly to “ Baroucha Tad Annoy Us.” We laughed and then collected ourselves into the deeper purpose of our gathering; to prepare me for my first chemo. Nancy began to sing a powerful chant, one that Moses sang for Aaron’s wife when she was ill. Ana El Na R’ Fa Na La. Translated from the Aramaic “Source of Life, Please Grant her Healing” I had heard it only one other time, the night before my surgery when my dear friend Rabbi Barth sang it at the Shambala Center. The circle of friends sang the plaintiff chant over and over and then hummed the melody without words. The melody became the background in which friends offered blessings and poems. Joan played her didgeridoo, elegantly holding the long carved aboriginal flute between her feet. It sounded like the throat singing of Tibetan monks.

Nancy reminded me of how often times over the years I had given “blessing ways”, sacred rituals for women before childbirth or marriage. In these rituals, I would wash a beloved woman friend’s feet in lavender water and dry her feet in corn meal. It was a Native American tradition that I had borrowed, a cleansing ritual specifically performed in times of great transition. This time Nancy washed my feet and my hands as part of the “blessing way” for my chemo, a sacred preparation for the next step of the journey. The chanting stopped. In the silence all that could be heard was the water as it fell gracefully from the pitcher over my hands and into the bowl where my feet were resting. Tears quietly rolled down my face. The group held the silence. Nothing could be simpler or more holy.

Nancy sang me to sleep that night, chanting in Hebrew, invoking and inviting all the angels and archangels to watch over me. I can’t say that I believe in angels. I can’t say that I don’t. I did when I was a little girl. I talked to them then. I liked to dress up with gossamer wings and a halo, sometimes a princess tiara would do. I believed that if I was very, very good I could pass for an angel. The angel Gabriel was my friend. So were Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha and a horse named Flicka. Gabriel and the angels disappeared along with Santa, the Easter bunny, and my father, a fierce protector, who died when I was nine. My naivety was buried with him. Life suddenly required much more from me. Illusions of permanence seared. Just as now, the work of seeing the world as it really is, as Romain Rolland would say, and to love it, is true heroism.

Yet now, I am finding new angels and fierce protectors, avalokitesvara and mahakala, in the holiness of everyday life. My childhood naivety has been brought back to life and transformed into a new receptivity that arises out of deepened vulnerability. There is something healing about sitting at the edge of the unknown, honestly and squarely being with what is.. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in 1960:

”You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself. "I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along."

In the morning, Jim, Nancy and I drove to the Cancer Center. Nurse Lovely met us with a radiant smile. She prepared my intravenous infusion by flushing it with a saline solution directly into the port in my chest. Instantly there was the taste of skunk in my mouth. It was not what I was expecting. The lanocaine hadn’t yet totally numbed the area, so it was also painful. I focused on my breathing. We were ushered into an area where the infusion was to be performed. Each bag was filled with a different chemical; a steroid, a high powered ant-nausea drug, citril, adriamycin and then citoxin to be administered in a sequence with the “skunk flush” between each drug. Mandy, a fresh faced mid western nurse who had recently moved to Austin, introduced herself. She would administer the IV. I felt a moment of panic, the wish to run faster than I have ever run. I imagined a powerful finish line sprint down the hall, out the double doors through the parking lot and onto 38th Street. From there maybe I could get as far as Central Market before Nurse Lovely noticed and hide in the produce department along with the eggplant. Maybe I could run like I once did before the two knee surgeries. I would run like a gazelle being chased by the lion. The panic turned into tears. Jim squeezed my hand. Perhaps it’s the other way around. In his soulful calm, I found my courage again. I remembered to breathe, soothing my body’s instinctive push to fight or flight, reversing it. Perhaps I am the lion. Or perhaps the lion is the chemo chasing down and savaging any cancer cells that would risk living in my body, a body that had valiantly walled of the cancer from spreading into my lymph or vascular system. A strong and beautiful body…

Mandy saw my tears and spoke calmly and reassuringly. She was gracious; allowing me to find the place within myself to face what was next. Nancy blessed each bag, asking that each of these drugs might bring me to a fill and complete recovery with little suffering. She held my hand together with Jim’s hand. We are old friends, the three of us. We have walked much of our last twenty five years knowing each other deeply. Our friendship is fierce medicine.

The strength of attachment bonds is what allows any of us the bear the unbearable. The Ancient Celtic word for this is “Anamkara”…sacred friendship. My friend, John O Donohue, writes beautifully about this very thing. It is what rescues us from the loneliest of our own dark fissures; healing ancient agonies with a wink, a twinkle, a giggle or a kind knowing and restoring us to a sense of belonging.

“May I tell you something?” asked the patient next to us. She had been quietly watching us, seated alone, undergoing her chemo. She was tall as her Zulu ancestors with arms the width of my thighs, her eyes soft and coffee brown. It was the second time round for Pam; she had been through all this before. She had faced the horror once and was back to face it again. She seemed calm and at peace, unafraid. “I have never seen anyone pray here like that, not in this place. It is beautiful.” We thanked her and offered to bless her chemo. She said no, she had her church and family at home. She was getting ready to leave. She asked if she could touch me. I said yes. She came close and held my hand. “Remember this one thing: God is the physician. Prayer is the medicine” She looked into my eyes with a great love.

Whether Pam lives or dies as a result of the cancer that has returned to her body, there is something about her that is completely healed. She is living with great lovingkindness, tremendous faith and optimism and no fear. Pam is a living example of Eleanor Roosevelt’s words. She can take the next thing that comes along. With the help of angels and friends, I am beginning to believe that I can, too…

5 Comments:

Blogger Finca Project said...

Beautifully written....in your pan-theistic WASB way.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Patti Summerville said...

I was just thinking of you and thought I'd check in on your blog. What a blessing to read your words. What a gift to know your heart. Heal quickly, my friend.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Jae said...

I am missing you and can't wait to start laughing together soon. You are never far from my thoughts and always in my prayers.

11:02 PM  
Blogger Peggyk said...

Bless your courage and willingness to face the unknown, and even more perhaps, to face what you do know. Thank you for your example in being willing to reach through and beyond the horror and pain to receive the blessings also inherent in the situation.

I found this poem this morning:

And if every way is
Closed before you,
The Secret One
Will show a secret path
No other eyes
Have Seen.
Rumi

9:38 AM  
Blogger Jon LA said...

Dearest One. The courage and honesty of your words inspire all who read your writing. And by your wisdom and truth we all learn, are moved and honor your so very wonderful and beautiful soul.

9:59 AM  

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