It’s your first radiation treatment. You crawl hands and knees onto the pallet and lay face down. The technicians tell you to remain lying there, completely motionless, for forty minutes. As they leave for the safety of the control and observation room, someone asks you what kind of music you like. You tell them baroque or early classical, and, magical surprise, over the giant machine’s speakers comes Mozart’s gift, his Mass in C Minor. (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=5QfJC7bXeZw) As the photon beams find their marks, the Kyrie Eleison, that exquisite yearning for heavenly mercy, envelops you. On the music carries you until, just as the day’s final rays are delivered, you’re caught up in the exalting Et Incarnatus Est, Mozart’s mystical hymn to what it means to be flesh and spirit in one.
And then it’s over, for the first day, at least. “Well,” you tell yourself, “being irradiated wasn’t nearly as bad as you expected.” You thought they were going to slow roast you; instead, it feels like it’s been a light searing. You see the chief radiologist before you leave and he tells you he thinks you’re going to sail through these treatments. You want to believe him, and you do — until the third day. That’s when your symptoms set in, and as each day passes, they get worse.
In the middle of the night you get up — sleep is impossible. You gaze out the window at the city lights shimmering on the river. You wonder how you will cope. You think of what’s happening deep inside you, and you remember a sister in the faith who once struggled with symptoms not unlike your own. You search online for images of her, and three appear: a frescoe you’ve always loved from the catacombs, a marvelous mosaic from the walls of St. Apollinare of Ravenna that you first came across in graduate school, and an image new to you — a poignant medieval illumination from the fifteenth century Bavarian Ottheinrich Bible.
They all depict that woman in the Gospels who could not control the blood flowing from her body. (Matthew 9:20–22, Mark 5:25–34, Luke 8:43–48) For twelve years she persisted, and all that time never stopped believing that she could be healed. You’re amazed that this story had not been shamed out of the Bible, as it so easily could have been, given the panoply of fears surrounding the woman’s illness.
You’re grateful that she has been remembered and that she could stand beside you as your suffering sister on this dark night. You gaze at her depiction on the catacomb wall, the earliest image we have of her. There is power encircling the two figures in this primitive painting: the power in Jesus’ compassionate regard, and the power in the hope-filled expression and the gracefully extended hand of this courageous woman. She is at once bold, reverent and even startled that her hemorrhaging body might at long last be healed.
You turn to the second image, the mosaic on the sixth-century wall of St. Appolinaris in Ravenna. There your suffering sister crawls toward her healing, There you are with her, climbing on all fours into the linear accelerator, lying prone for your cure. On hands and knees she crawls to reach for the sacred garment’s hem. You, too are on hands and knees, offering your body to the destroying rays.
Finally you gaze on the medieval illumination — all fabulous fabric and surpassing ecstasy. The hemorrhaging woman touches not simply the hem but the Savior’s robe itself, and she is transported. Is that the trajectory you are on, from bloody depths to golden wholeness and healing? You ask your sister in distress to show you the way, to show you just where courage and patience, persistence and conviction might lead. You pray for something of her spirit. For you feel scorched and raw inside, betrayed and drained by your own bleeding. You wonder how she could persevere despite the wrenching exudations of her body. She faced up to the scorn and fears of all around her. Now you must face the scalpel and the probe.
Soon enough the day of surgery arrives. You lie prone and prepped in a corner of ‘pre-op.’ You’re determined, even trusting, yet certain of nothing except that you’re not quite whole. Then, you spot far down the corridor a lumbering figure approaching. As he gets closer, it’s obvious that he’s come looking for you. At the same moment you recognize each other, and his smile is luminous. He speaks your name and offers his hand.
You see at once that this man has beautiful hands, a surgeon’s hands — they are your surgeon’s hands. You reach out, in just the same way, perhaps, that your blood sister once reached for her healer’s hem. Suddenly you’re certain that you will know that same peace that she once knew, a peace deep and real, a peace for no matter what might happen now.