Chapter 21: On Faith

I’m driving up to Boulder with David.  “Don’t Take The Money” blasts out of our open car windows while the warm August air swirls around inside.  The hair I decided to grow out flaps into my face and mouth, for so long I kept it short.

What if the cancer comes back and I lose it all—again?

As far as we know, the cancer has come back.  That’s why we’re headed up to Boulder for a biopsy of the largest and most worrisome lymph node that flared up in a recent, routine PET scan.

Report reads: “suspicious of malignancy.”

Where’s my eagle now?  I need you, Mama.

Two weeks before this drive along the foothills, on the day John McCain delivered his “thumbs down” on the Senate floor (I cried), a nice radiology tech escorted me back to the dark room after injecting me with the same dye that Rae survived.

If one blasts Alt-rock while wearing make-up & and a good blow out does that mean cancer won’t want her?  The hope is that the younger and more vibrant I appear, the less likely those greedy, rogue cells are to want my life.

Fuck this shit.

I’m twenty-nine!  I have four young children!  I finally woke up, sobered up, showed up, and now my Mama Eagle goes AWOL?  No.  I reject that.  I’m not hitting those rocks.  You hear that, God?  Cancer isn’t a part of this story anymore!

I know I campaigned on the platform of You not being a dick, but I feel duped.

My small doctor sticks a very long needle into my pelvis and sends me home to the wonderful monsters, the needy garden, the glory and horror of a life in limbo.  Every night I cry.  I text friends hourly asking for prayers and help and funny GIFs.

A guarantee would be great.  I need to know that my lungs and pelvis are clear before I can belly laugh again.  Cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans drip off their trellises; I can’t even harvest anymore.  My life on my terms or no life at all!

My faith is fizzling.  I’m stuck.  The swoop is gonna come too late.

***

I signed a contract.

I, Claire, will only eat organic food, take anti-inflamatory supplements, and live a holistic, healthy lifestyle in exchange for never getting cancer again.

I’ve made similar ones, before.

I, Claire, agree to do dishes, keep the house pretty, and stay limber so that my husband never leaves.

I, Claire, agree to feed my children on the most healthy (read: expensive & time-consuming) meals so that they don’t develop cancer, too.  And so they don’t get fat; life as the fat kid nearly ruined their mother.

David and the kids didn’t have to sign it them.  No, these belong to me.

The thing is, even the cleanest eaters get sick.  And I know amazing women who have wandering husbands.  Does food play a part?  Yes, which is where our Next Loving Step  comes in handy.  Don’t you wish sometimes that you were God?

Instead of making peace with the free fall and flight we keep pens handy just in case an agreement surfaces that calms our crazy.

We believe more exercise, better schools, more sex, bigger budgets, and stronger borders will help us.  Don’t those just reinforce our control?  We sign the dotted lines, vote along party lines, wait in check-out lines for the clothing and hand soap that will make us a little less OCD.

Where’s the faith in that?  I think faith is simply choosing to believe that God’s not a dick, and embracing the thought that no matter what, our Mama will swoop.  Faith might also mean believing that even if shit hits the fan, we’ve got a Mama in a hazmat suit who specializes in biohazardous materials.

Don’t worry, She says while scraping poo off our walls.  I’m here now.  She hands me disinfectant spray.  Yeah, but where were You before it all got so shitty?

The contracts we keep stored in our purses and basement boxes keep us enslaved, and afraid.  What if I violate the terms and agreements and buy non-organic?  Or don’t do the dishes?  Or vote _______?  (You fill in that blank.)

But believing God is everything God says S/He is?  That’s brave and it gives me chills. That means we have to believe God is Good & Hard—at the same time.

My contract with my own cancer keeps me enslaved to expensive foods, supplements, and anti-inflammatories galore.  Do they work?  Yes, probably.  I’m just not sure that the anxiety of skipping Chlorella for a week or two should make me pick at my heel.  Stress is proven to feed cancer cells.  Non-organic eggplants are not—yet.

So I’ll take my chances with the eggplant and celery and break my contract with the holistic health system one veggie at a time.  Don’t tell me eggplant is a fruit, I know that.

I trust in God’s Goodhardgoodness and my own NLS.  I believe that neither I nor anyone else can fuck it up.  For all the free falls I’ve taken, not one has ended in anything other than glorious flight.  Always.

***

There’s still a week left before our drive back up to Boulder for the pathology report.  David and I fall asleep whispering Scripture to each other with tears crusted to our faces.  Every fear we thought we defeated the last time around is surfacing.

It feels like watching an alligator lunge out of the shallow pond that looked so still and calm before the zebra bent down to drink.

12 days until the pathology report.

10 more days.

8 days.

6 days left.  The phone rings around 3:40pm, the week before school starts.  I really wanted to start the school year knowing…

Hello?

“Hi, Claire?”

“Yes!  Hi!”  TELL ME RIGHT NOW WHY YOU ARE CALLING.

“Pathology just came back clear.  We didn’t see any cancer in that node.”  THANK YOU.

“Wow.  That’s awesome.  Thanks for calling and letting me know.”

Inhale.

Exhale.

Thanks, Mama.

We cancelled the appointment, scheduled another FU scan for six months out to keep an eye on that pelvic motherfucker, and hung up.

Do you want to know something?  Even if the cancer was back David and I believe it would’ve been Good, and Hard, and Good.  They’re the same thing.

Cancer doesn’t obey contracts.

Neither do kids.

Or marriages.

Or the stock market.

What choice do we have then besides hugging chemo and debt so tightly that they pass right through us?

We must believe that when God reaches out to save, S/He doesn’t see the legal documents we’ve kept in storage.

God just sees the humus that needs some help.

Our lives prove this, and if you look deeply and honestly enough into your own story I bet you’ll be able to say the same thing.  Someday, if not today.  Do not lose hope.

You are loved beyond all reason and measure by a God who, despite popular opinion, is not a dick.

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Chapter 16: Pity

Three days after Ellen’s death I found myself, or at least the wispy remnants, floating around Italy on a class trip that had been scheduled for over a year.  In the weeks before my departure date we all hoped God would hurry up, already…

What if she dies while I’m gone?  Do I stay home?  Do I ask God to take her ASAP because I want gelatto?  

On May 24th, 2004 I suit up in my school uniform.  Ellen’s stench worsens, she hasn’t eaten in days, and the gray darkens with each hour she lies unconscious.  I peek in to whisper good-bye before loading Fiona and Sean in the van.  My sister is naked except for the diaper and the green knit lovey that wrapped her newborn body fourteen years earlier.

It’s threads now, just strings held together with time and love and a few stitches.

I don’t want to write these words.

Gail, my office lady Mama, pages the three of us who are not dying to the front office shortly before dismissal. 2:30ish?  We wait for Mama to come take us to our sister’s deathbed.

“It’s happening.”  My mom says.  She is equal parts frantic and calm, like the ocean or a fire.

We rush into the back room where both dads, a nurse, and some other blurry faces wait for the kiddos and me.  I think the blurry people leave?  Some return later to whisk us away while Ellen’s body is removed in a black bag.

The hospice nurse shuffles out, too.  Any robot parts have been removed for the occasion and we cry.  Her breathing shallows and she turns a murkier shade of gray.  Is she cold?  She’s just got Lovey covering her.  She can’t be cold, she isn’t here, remember?  She is in the stars.

By 3:40pm people start feeling overwhelmed by the roaring and the smell and the death; we take turns walking in circles around the house.  Around 4pm I am in the room with Mama, I think Fi was in there too.  We are brave puddles, keeping watch, making sure she isn’t alone when Jesus comes to take her.

I remember piles of used tissues on the carpet, but I kept mine in the pocket of my white collared shirt.

A loud exhale.

“You guys, get in here!”  We yell.

Another deep rattle.  We know what comes next, and we are together—stitched to one another with time and love.

One more exhale, longer and cemented to eternity this time.  In the corner of the room I see a light hover above us.  Does anyone else see this?  What is happening?  It tells me to check her eyes.

My tears cascade onto her puffy facial features as I lean over to see if my sister is dead, finally, after ten years.  Because I have a thing with dead bodies I hesitate, but lifting up her eyelid confirms it.

“She’s dead you guys!  Her eyes are dead!” I scream.

Hospice warned us about what happens next.

We washed her body after removing the threads and the diaper.  But people would arrive soon to wheel her body away, and the image of a body bag can really fuck a family up.

“The children should leave.  Everyone should avoid it, but especially the kids.”

Mrs. Dimas, my sixth grade teacher and close family friend swooped in and flew me to Mt. Boney, a rocky mass with meadowed trails that sits at the edge of the Pacific.  It’s a five minute drive from the house.  Where are the little kids?  Who took them?  I don’t know where the babies are…  We walk to the bench at the trailhead.  God designed heaven after watching May explode in these mountains and meadows.

Can you smell the tall grass?  Wet and plump and slimy, like land algae.  What about the velvety sage and damp sea salt?  I can.

The sunset slips through the slivers of my puffy eyelids.  What do we talk about?  Do we even speak?  I wonder when it’s safe to go home?  What will the house feel like without her body there?  Where is she?  Is it safe?  What does her new Home feel like?

I miss her and it’s only been two hours.

When we get home I sneak a pill bottle of hers and toss out the leftover meds.  I hide the damp tissues from inside my pocket into the little orange plastic urn.

It is finished.

***

A week later I stand in front of La Pieta in the Sistine Chapel.  Have you seen this piece of marbled love?  Mary sits, robed to the max, holding a freshly-crucified Christ.

The thick crowd can’t keep my heart magnet from walking closer to the details of this grief, this death.

I know her.  I know how that feels.

My mom, my poor parents.  They feel like her, too.

What just happened?

And then I crumple to the floor, weeping bitter Mary tears in front of hundreds of people, but it was only She who saw.  Someone had to wipe my hair out of the snot and remind me that security was watching, so Mrs. Horan swoops over to help hold the pieces.

I know what happened here.  Christ took pity on us.  La Pieta.  The Pity.  He isn’t the one to be pitied, He pitied a fearful, forgetful humanity.  Forgive them, for they do not know.  Ellen pitied us, too.  All our anger and doubts and resistance—forgive them Father, they don’t know.

To Jesus and to Ellen, death was mercy.  Their sacrifices, stitched together with time & love and cemented to Eternity, electroshocked their communities.  We still feel the zapping.  Nobody can answer why death and suffering exist, but lots of people can collectively prove that death is never wasted—blood and suffering are never wasted— because of people like Ellen & Jesus.

It’s happening.  Mary and my tears can prove it.

If I had known that viewing Michaelangelo’s masterpiece would induce hyperventilation I might’ve stayed away.  You live you learn.  I rise up because our tour guide has a schedule to keep and my cohort of Christian school attendees start sifting out of the crowd.

No, I am not ready, how can I leave her?  How can I leave him?  They’re the only ones who know.

Later, in Florence on a balcony overlooking a quiet street my friend plays IZ’s song “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” for me, that remix of the Judy Garland classic and Miles Davis’s “What a Wonderful World.”  She had no clue that both those songs hold dear places in the heart Ellen and I shared.

Before iPhones, when Nokias with QWERTY keyboards sufficed, a complicated series of logins and pages prevented me from reaching my dad.  After an hour of frantic button-pushing the fiberoptic cables align and the email skips across a continent or two.

“Here is the song we need to play at her funeral.”

“Yes,” he replied.

Because her talent show performance of Judy Garland’s classic was recorded on his videocamera at Bruin Woods.  And the speakers of his evergreen Jeep Grand Cherokee played “What a Wonderful World” in the parking lot of the Vons, along with Shania Twain and Bette Milder.

Talk about convenient, I got to fly home with my English teacher!

She proof read the eulogy I was to read in a couple days—no corrections, no red marks, just a few tears.  I couldn’t read the words out loud on the stage in front of the hundreds who showed up to receive their electroshock therapy.  Daddy’s ex wife, my ex-stepmom, the one who painted tigger and shared her big family with me read the words on my behalf.

What did people do after they washed Jesus’ body and put him away for good?  I wonder what they felt after He exhaled “It is finished.”  Because for years Ellen’s death was just that, a defeat, a death, a charcoaled patch of earth, a ripped tabernacle curtain and a dark smokey sky.

Did they take a walk to the mountains or the sea?  Did their swollen eyes ever deflate?  Did they save the tear-soaked linen scraps?  Did they rage and swear on their skin and in their heads?

The story wasn’t finished though, not for them.  Because Love had the last laugh.  And nothing is wasted, that’s the beauty of compost.

Ellen’s story was never wasted, because I never stopped telling it.

Jesus’ story was never wasted, because we’ll never stop telling it.

Eternity is stitched and cemented to our hearts through the power of Goodhardgood Stories.  Don’t stop telling them, don’t stop listening for the Light that’s always hovering in the corners of your heart.  We are not alone & we never will be. Thanks God.

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Chapter 14: Ash

As Ellen neared the end of her life I made an oath. “When you wear one I wear one,” referring to the diapers she would soon require.  The day came, and it was as horrible as you could imagine.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,”  she slowly moan-mumbled.

My mom and I held her and cried with her; then we strapped the scratchy, absorbent nightmare onto her graying, atrophied, weary fourteen-year-old body.

I sat squarely in the Fuck You God camp, but Ellen still believed.  Probably more so, because eternity was coming closer and she smelled like death topped with glory shavings.  Her only fear was living away from Mama.

Abruptly, the sobbing stopped.

“Now it’s your turn Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire.”  In an interesting turn of events her voice synthesized into a weepier version of Julia Child’s.  She would get stuck like a skipping CD, moaning “oohhh” in front of certain words.  “Claire” was one of them.

So I stepped into the same nightmare she did, and did my best supermodel impersonations up and down the hall for her, as any 5’10” sixteen-year-old would do. Then a little diaper dance.

Her slow Julia Child laughter barrels down the brightly lit hallway, still.  I can see her bumpy head tilted back in that gray hospital bed.  A human heart never felt bigger than in that moment.  Our tears were transformed.

There’s this picture I took after one of the Malibu fires burned up the hills surrounding my neighborhood—charcoaled soil punctured by sharp green needles of grass.  For a moment the charred ground that brain cancer and impending death left behind suddenly burst alive with love and laughter.

Each cackle and joyful boogery snort punctured the darkness, allowing the solemn scene to morph into a comedy of verdant life and love.

It was here, at this moment, that I decided my Fuck You God stance wasn’t going to serve me so well in the coming month.  I knew I would die in some way, too.  If she trusted Jesus with her bumpy life, maybe I could cling to the same Divine Love that Ellen knew so completely?

Could something be both Good and Hard at the same time?  Can God exist as Good and Hard at the same time?  Do Good and Hard even really exist?  Does anything matter anymore?  Because I’m about to watch my sister die in the back bedroom of my house and I want to pummel the pause button.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Oh Claire oh Claire oh Claire oh Claire.  I can hear it still.

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