I went to see my oncologist for my regularly scheduled September meeting this morning. “How am I doing?” I began. He brought up my images on the computer, turned, and looking right at me, asked me about the two lesions they noted on my liver. “What two lesions?” I inquired. “The lesions that have been there since your last CT scan in July,” he replied. “Nobody said anything to me about them when I was here last month!” I exclaimed. “Why wasn’t I told?” I demanded. The oncologist had no answer for me. “Typical,” I thought. “No one’s following me — following up on me.”
He orders an urgent MRI for me. By mid-afternoon, I’m sliding into the huge, impossibly noisy, coffin-like imaging machine that cheerily displays the GE corporate logo. “This brings me much closer to death,” I tell my entombed self. Depending on the test results, I may soon learn that this is all a false alarm, but I know that cancer moving from the colon to the liver occurs in half of all cases of my type of carcinoma. Lying there, I decide on a new title for these essays: This Changes Everything.Tomorrow I’ll hear the verdict, but tonight I lie awake in my borrowed bed thinking of all the things I still hope to do before I die. I want to be reconciled at long last with a close member of my family. I want to learn how to fly-fish. I want to publish this little memoir of the cancer that has taken over my life. I want to serve as chaplain on that round-the-world cruise this cancer forced me to abandon.
Until tonight, I’d spent my recent quiet moments mourning the loss of my bodily integrity. Because, although it’s not decided yet, I expect a second, (now, perhaps, it will be a third) operation to be scheduled once they’ve done something about my liver. The problem is that they can’t get the fistula in my bowels to heal up using the drain I’ve had in me since last Christmas. So the surgeons are suggesting that they remove my colon and rectum, sew me back up and give me a colostomy bag to use for the rest of my life. That’s the gruesome path back to health assuming the liver cancer, if it’s there, doesn’t spread — the only real hope, as I see it. Anything else would lead to more complications and require more surgeries than the doctor thinks my body can stand.
This does, indeed, change everything. I feel like a failure. My body has failed me, my spirit flags, all is in retreat. My ostomy nurse reminded me that I have someone beside me to rely on. “Who?” I asked, thinking she was referring to Elizabeth. She just raised her eyes to the ceiling, and I mumbled some form of assent: yes, of course, I have God. But how far away God seems right now; how weak and useless my faith appears to be! Incongruously, the nurse follows up on her pious encouragements to tell me how, when one man learned that he had to have an irreversible colostomy, he committed suicide. Later, I reassure Elizabeth that I would never do that — I know that I’m too much loved. Nonetheless, I understand the man’s despair: it feels like life as you’ve known it is coming to a close. You won’t be ‘normal’ now. You won’t be like everybody else, like anybody else, anymore.
The other day, one of my caregivers, an earnest new Christian, asked me if I agreed that God never sends us more than we can handle in life. I told her, “No, I don’t believe that extra-biblical assertion. It sounds a lot like putting ‘the Lord your God to the test,’ something Jesus explicitly warns against,” I added. (Mt. 4:7b) “Sometimes life does indeed give us a lot more than we can handle, or, at least, think we can handle,” I told her. “What I do believe,” I told her, “is what scripture promises us on almost every page of the Bible: whatever life hands us, however challenging or discouraging or overwhelming it might be, God will ever be with us in our weakness and inability. Do you remember Jesus’ last words in the Gospel of Matthew?” I asked. It’s one clear, simple promise: ‘I am with you always.’” (Mt. 28:20b) “That’s the commitment, that’s all we have, and that’s all we need when we’re dealing with more — much more than we can handle.”
And now, all I need is for me to believe my own words. “You of little faith, why do you doubt?” My Lord asks me in the midst of this, the fiercest storm of my life. (Mt. 14:31b)
© Edward R. Dufresne, 2018