You head to the cancer center in guarded good spirits to receive the sixth of your eight scheduled chemo infusions. “Only three to go!” is your take on it, until you meet with the oncology nurse. She is alarmed at what seems to be an infection at a former drain site. That drain, which had been in your buttocks since Christmas Eve, was removed a week ago amidst great rejoicing — a Spring-time liberation.
The nurse practitioner says ‘no’ to today’s infusion; she directs you instead to the surgical ward of the affiliated hospital down the road and across the river — the infected wound must be addressed first, she insists. There is a certain grim symmetry to all of this: you had had a second drain removed forty-five days ago: that, too, had become infected, leading to your dangerous struggle with sepsis. You underwent surgery for that; now, here’s the reprise. At least you know what to expect — or think you know.
They give you a CT scan — sliced and diced at two millimeter intervals by a thousand X-rays — imaging that reveals all. This morning they review with you what they’ve found. They start with some good news. The wound at the former drain site has been oozing on its own for some time. They tell you that’s good — the site where you thought they’d be doing surgery is really a non-issue for them. They expect it to heal with ordinary wound care.
Then they drop the bomb: the scan has revealed that there is a 4 cm. by 4 cm. by 8 cm. abscess where, only eight days ago, everything was clear. So, they insist, they’ll have to reinsert a new drain to treat the same area they’ve been addressing since Christmas!
Instead of being six weeks away from the end of treatment, it feels like you’re headed back to the start of this winter’s slog through persistent pain and unremitting infection. There is nothing for it, you are profoundly disappointed, deeply discouraged. How do you reframe this one? Where do you find any reason for gratitude in this unsettling setback? How can patience and acceptance stand up to this?
Then you receive a message from your big sister with this advice: “Given your luck with drains,” dear brother, “don’t ever offer to unclog the kitchen sink at home!” You laugh out loud at the silly joke, and that helps open the door to a measure of acceptance of this very real and potentially dangerous situation. You think about it a bit and you are grateful that they’ll address the infection’s source before sepsis seeps back into your body. You reframe the situation by considering that, your feelings to the contrary, you are not back to square one, you have made progress, and you will continue to do so. Finally, you determine that you will fight this infection and do what you can — work and pray that the noxious leak will ultimately be shut down and the persisting abscess will be fully healed.
All this reconfiguring doesn’t mean that you’ve already gotten anywhere near beyond disappointment and discouragement. This is no shallow ‘flight to health’ you’re engineering: you’ll be ‘feeling through’ these troubling sentiments for some time ahead. But it’s important for you to access some emotional-spiritual alternatives early on in this process — especially with these two besetting feelings. It’s a matter of finding within the depths of pain the lurking blessing, the transcending grace. Your approach is to remain on the lookout for such well-hidden gifts, even in the midst of your trials.
Not without some irony you note that this all happened to you on the eve and the Day of the Ascension. This is when the church prays: “as we believe Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so may we also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell . . . .” (Collect for Ascension Day, the Book of Common Prayer). You await tomorrow’s surgery considering what it might mean to ascend in heart and mind — perhaps, somehow — beyond disappointment. You do your best to be mindful of where you’re called to dwell even now, that place where you’re just out of reach — if that might ever be possible — of discouragement.