You’re in the basement of the hospital about to undergo your “mapping session.” They’re going to scan your abdomen, pinpoint the cancer’s location, and mark you up so they’ll know where to aim when they irradiate you next week. You ask the technician whose job it’ll be to draw the tattoo if she’d like the correct spelling of the name of your most recent girlfriend. She tells you that she has read your file and . . . she knows you’re married.
In you go, into the center of the bulbous mapping machine — they put you face down, this time. You’re asked to hold your breath a lot as they scan. That’s so your organs aren’t in motion when the X-rays stream through your flesh. You imagine it might be similar to posing for a daguerreotype in the 1800’s when you couldn’t move for a minute or more and were told not to smile or you’d blur the image and ruin the picture.
The requisite breathing gymnastics make meditation impossible. Yet, somehow, amid the respiratory commands and the machine’s groans and clattering, something you first came across in college pops into your head. It’s A Hymn, to God, My God, in My Sickness, composed by sixteenth century priest and poet John Donne. It was a curiosity to you then; now it seems the perfect illustration of your situation: your body has become your doctors’ plan.
“My physicians by their love are grown Cosmographers,
And I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery, [my world-changing revelation] . . .
I joy, that in these straits I see my west [my future] . . .
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own [to myself]:
“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”
You start to think of what you’ll face when you’re thrown down next week and they point the big guns’ lethal rays at your body’s core. Phrases come to you in language John Donne might have used:
“So must a part of me
Be put to death that I might live;
Thus shall my ruin
Become my resurrection.”
They slide you out of the mapping machine and you sit up, your feet dangling from the long metal palette. It occurs to you that it functions just like the rolling slab in a mortuary you once visited as a pastor. As you transition from darkness into the radiant light, you remember to check out your new tattoo. It’s rather a disappointment: three tiny black dots etched among the freckles, hidden in places where no one will ever see them. Still, you can’t wait to show the specks to your life’s girlfriend, Elizabeth, who waits just outside and stands with you at the center of your mapped universe.