Here’s a trick question: How many Wise Men were there, according to the Bible? The correct answer is: nobody knows! The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say exactly how many Magi paid homage to Jesus. Instead, it chooses to be very specific as to the number of gifts they offered: three. A fine, full number, that: three gifts out of the mysterious East, three unexpected offerings full of meaning, promise and blessing.
Now for another trick . . . make that a ‘tricky,’ question. It’s tricky because I’m aware that not everyone who’s doing battle with an epithelial tumor as I am might feel comfortable answering this one: How many gifts has your cancer brought you? Speaking just for myself, with such a good prognosis for the future, (present struggles notwithstanding), my answer would also be three, three unforeseen gifts. They are a new-found creativity, an unanticipated way to help others, and an incongruous sense of satisfaction.
As to renewed creativity, I must say this stretch of months in sick bay has been one of the most productive periods of writing I’ve ever known. Who would have thought that physical incapacity might lead to literary productivity?! Cancer, the foremost of invasive species, sets your life abloom with irony. If nothing else, this demanding disease does provide a wealth of writing material. There’s been enough drama, struggle and triumph in my life over the past nine tragicomic months to satisfy the most sensational of authors!
Life turned on the proverbial dime for me last December when, instead of serving as chaplain on a fancy trip around the world, I was reassigned to the Colon Cancer Cruise instead! I doubt if I’d have been as productive writing that cruise narrative I had planned to work on. I wonder, too, whether that travel diary would have been as interesting as the life-or-death journey that I’ve found myself chronicling in these pages. On a passenger ship, every effort is made to minimize risk and danger throughout the voyage. By contrast, during this alternative journey my life was at risk more than once. If you’re a writer, there’s no greater gift than having a compelling literary scenario fall into your lap — or, more precisely, come right out of your gut!
What really moves me, though, are the circumstances of my writing these days — or, more often than not, these nights. After Elizabeth falls deeply asleep, I’m usually awakened either by the neuropathy that lingers long after chemotherapy, or by the itching around a surgical site, or by the low-grade but continuing pain of the drain I got for Christmas. Sometimes it’s all three symptoms that wake me in the dead of night.
Here’s how it goes: you emerge from the bedroom and greet the stillness of a house shrouded in darkness. You sit in the great room on your pillowed chair at the center of the empty table. You open your iPad, begin to write, and before you know it, you lose yourself in the holy silence, in the quiet without distractions, in the simple blessing of a writer’s working solitude. Sometimes you write until 4:00 in the morning. That’s when you get to watch the summer’s early light spread slowly over the river, across the graceful fields and into the still shadowy woods that frame your view. And best of all, because the world classifies you as sick and still recuperating, and that, you surely are, you’re allowed to regain your sleep by taking blessed naps anytime you want during the day. How’s that for a value-added illness: you’re expected to keep strange hours and encouraged to take sweet siestas whenever you like!
Then there is that second gift, the one that enables you to help others. Cancer, I’ve found, gives you a kind of ‘street cred’ that lets you speak of things you wouldn’t think of mentioning before. For example, I’ve long believed that, hidden deep in our sufferings we can find unexpected grace and even joy. There are many reminders of this in Scripture, such as St. Paul’s encouragement: “Let us boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
Before my cancer diagnosis, as a healthy, energetic pastor I could never risk telling someone to be on the lookout for gifts in the middle of their trials. Now, occasionally, things are different. People know I’ve gone through something similar to their own struggles. Sometimes, after listening with as much attention and empathy as I can, I do find the courage to share a little of what I believe and have personally discovered about suffering. I’m deeply touched when someone I care about finds some encouragement in the suggestion of a fellow sufferer and begins to view their struggles from a different perspective.
Cancer’s third gift is this strange sense of satisfaction it can give us. We who’ve suffered considerably from this menacing disease have accomplished something, We’ve endured and come through, and that’s not nothing. You’ll find it when people speak with a quiet pride of being a ‘cancer survivor.’ While I much prefer thinking of myself as a ‘thriver’ than a survivor, I do share the common feeling that we’ve gone through something we wouldn’t wish on anybody, and yet we’re still whole, still hopeful and more than ever grateful. Coming out on the other side of cancer doesn’t work this way for everyone, but it does for many. It has for me.
This disease has also forced me to embrace something I didn’t always acknowledge in the past: the surprising fact that I am well loved by so many. Cancer mysteriously frees people up to share how they feel about you. And it miraculously opens people up to hearing some true things from your own heart, as well. This dread disease has the magical power to untether the all-too-often hidden love that we can offer one another.
You’ll see this in action at infusion centers and cancer care units every time you visit. There’s a mutual regard, a reciprocal honoring, an easy and unabashed love for the other that sets the tone in these places. You find that you’re on holy ground here; these facilities are turned by love into sacred spaces, as I see it. They’re deeply invested in a way of treating people that the ‘normal’ world is often too busy, too distracted and too self-consumed even to consider.
This imposing illness forces all who deal with it to make up their minds about what’s really important and how we might best treat each other. Cancer often gives us our biggest, sometimes our last chance to choose just how we will live our days. When we decide to live them with confidence in how well we’re loved, and with renewed authenticity, we’ll find much that satisfies there.
Here’s one final trick question: Who would have thought that something as universally dreaded and potentially devastating as cancer could also serve as a wellspring of creativity, productivity and of deep satisfaction for those who are touched by it? Not I, that’s for sure. My guess is that it’s hard for any of us to imagine receiving such carcinoma-borne gifts — unless and until we’ve gone through it.