Some of you have heard me tell this story in person, and maybe I have even written it here, but when I met my oncologist for the first time, and he confirmed a diagnosis of a lymphoplasmacytic B-cell lymphoma (which we would later drill down even further to Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia) I looked him straight in his very deep and very dark eyes, and I said, “I am a full-time single mother. And I need for you to help me see my daughter to adulthood.”
Those deep dark eyes widened. He froze, just for a second, and then, almost imperceptibly, but with great clarity, he nodded his head to me and quietly said, “Ok.”
And then I consciously formed a goal of five years, saying to myself, and to God, “That’s what I need. Five years. For her.”
I know now that the chances of Waldenstrom’s taking my life before something else, anything else, does, are slim. It’s a slow-growing, chronic, manageable lymphoma, and so though I will never been free from it, at least on this side of the grave, I will, in all probability, not die from it.
But I had to say those words to him. I had, to, in those early days, admit the full realm of possibility that comes with cancer. I had to, in those first weeks, make a plan for my beautiful girl. I had to, when we weren’t entirely sure what we were dealing with, face the uncertainty of my own mortality. And for me, facing it meant saying aloud, into the quiet of a Kentucky spring morning, “I have to get her to adulthood.”
I have a colleague who will not see her children to adulthood, likely not even to middle school. Her cancer is a far more ferocious and unforgiving kind. I have yet another colleague diagnosed with leukemia just in the last two weeks. She is young and bright and full of life. And the college-age son of another dear friend is facing his own battle with lymphoma right now. My heart breaks for them all. Daily.
As the saying goes, “Cancer sucks.” No matter who you are, or what kind you have, or what your treatment plan is, it sucks. It does not care about your money or your poverty or your fame or your life story or your successes or your failures. It is, perhaps, the most common of denominators and the greatest of equalizers.
Cancer sucks. But I’ve also never been more aware of the beauty and sanctity of human life. Every life.
Cancer sucks. But I’ve also never been more determined to choose hope.
Cancer sucks. But I’ve also never felt more free to just be who I am. Fully and completely. Even when the people I love best might not understand it.
Cancer sucks. But I have never loved this world more. Even in its utter pain and horror.
Rush Limbaugh died today. I couldn’t stand Rush Limbaugh. I can’t stand much of anyone who uses their gifts at commanding public attention in ways that harm. Whether they be conservative or liberal or another brand entirely, I’ve no use for it. There is too much pain in the world for jokes at the expense of others. No matter who those others are.
But when I learned he had died, my first thought had nothing to do with my disdain for much of his work. My first thought was remembering he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer sometime back. That binds me to him in a strange and maybe merciful way. And I thought, as I have many times in the last year, “I would not wish cancer, in any form, on anyone, at all, ever.”
The most common of denominators. The greatest of equalizers.
Today is Ash Wednesday. And, for me, that means taking a moment or two to remember the truth, “that from dust I am made, and to dust I will return.” I am mortal. Human. Given life purely by love and grace and miracle. And one day, despite any attempt otherwise on my part, I will die. Just like Rush has.
And this is depressing, I suppose. Morbid, even. Especially when we’re all so anxious and grieving and scared anyway given the last year.
But what I know is that joy and pain come from the same place inside us. Dwell side-by-side in that place, even. And just as I have known the pain and fear of a cancer diagnosis, I have known the gratitude and joy of seeing life in a new way. Of being more determined than ever to practice kindness and seek understanding and explore what it means to both offer and experience abundant mercy.
Because the truth is that our very mortality is the real most common denominator. The actual greatest equalizer. My life is no more precious or greater than yours. Nor of my enemy. Nor of anyone’s. From dust we all came. And to dust we shall all return.
And it seems to me, that this is something worth claiming, something worth holding on to. Especially when so much is tearing us apart, including our own tendency to dehumanize the ones we disagree with, the ones who have hurt us, the ones we do not understand.
It seems to me that the truth that we will all one day die ought to be what fuels us to care for one another in the best ways that we can, as long as we have breath to do so.
What if we just let our hearts be broken open for ourselves and for one another? What if we just stared the grace and fragility of our lives full in the face? And, in doing so, what if we saw God in the broken places? Felt Love in the fleeting sacred mortality of it all?
What if, in facing our common eventual death, we learned life entirely anew?