I was pulling ivy in my front yard. I hate ivy. It’s ugly and makes me think of rats and cigarette butts. It was late winter, early spring. My nose and hands were cold. I was wearing a jacket. I braced a foot on a slope and pulled a massive vine out with all my might, and toppled over. My nose was running. My body ached all over and I wanted to throw up. I had spent the morning in chemo. I had a wig on under a knit beanie. Cancer-wise, I was totally “passing.” More than a few strangers asked me where I had my hair done.
Did they really want to know? After my hair began falling out in clumps, which is a repeated scene in horror movies for a reason, I solemnly entered the hospital wig shop where a very nice lady working in the shadows somewhere between “beauty” and “death” shaved my head. She did it in a special curtained-off cubicle because I didn’t want to see it in the mirror. “How many brothers do you have?” she said, as she worked. “Four,” I answered. “I knew it by the scars!” she said. Our bodies bear all kinds of secrets, from our scalps to secretly mutating cancerous cells.
Wiping my nose, something in the back of my battered head realized that it was Good Friday, the most ironically or sadistically named “holiday” of the year. And I thought to myself “Chemo and pulling ivy/are preferable to/kissing the cold feet of Jesus.” Yes, I think in poetry. I remembered many chilly-bright Fridays spent in a sepulcher-cold church engaging in bizarre rites involving incense, men and boys in robes and the solemn recanting of a man/god hybrid’s lengthy torture and death.
Good Friday was spooky for sure. There was no host in the tabernacle that day. Instead of communion, the climax of the “festivities” was everyone lining up and, in turn, solemnly kissing the cold white feet of a statue of Jesus, which were wiped with a white cloth between each kisser. Have you ever taken part in a group activity while wondering if anyone else there thought it was as repulsive and strange as you, and looked around to see everyone’s head turned down in piety or denial?
And I thought about Catholicism’s fixation on suffering and death and how Jesus died for us and blah blah blah. And I thought about the idea that God the Father would invent and sacrifice a son to redeem the rest of his “flawed” creatures and what an insane cruelty-loop that was. And I thought that I really rather would have chemo and ivy than have to placate myself before a statue of man/god who was gruesomely executed for my sake: all of that had nothing to do with me. My suffering was, at least, honest, somehow. I wasn’t asking anyone else to feel bad about it. I wasn’t asking my dad or Dad why he had forsaken me. Things happen, I thought. It wasn’t fair. But I also thought of being a child again, intact. Before, where there were answers, regardless of whether I believed them or not.
Every year, three days after Good Friday, all would be well, with chocolate and a new dress and Jesus absent from the tomb: Easter was a holiday of white light and hope that even the worst things couldn’t be gloriously reversed.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that tangle of thoughts I had in the tangle of ivy became the knotty sun around which my brain revolved for the next two years while my body was tortured in various ways. I read deeply and wrote furiously about questions of faith and suffering. Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep no matter what kind of pills I took, and I felt each cell in my body being splintered into infinite shards by razor-sharp swords, I turned over each atom in the universe and considered it individually. Seconds broke down into ever-smaller increments, each a self-contained microscopic ocean of pain.
The great cosmic mystery of aloneness and communion opened all around me. I don’t recommend suffering at all but it can be illuminating. I realized that Catholicism, while problematic, didn’t look away from suffering and death. In a lot of ways, I had trained for cancer. I knew what to do and how to do it.
Faith is often recommended for those who are ill, but in my case, the thing that got me through was writing about it, which (stay with me here) is actually a form of prayer. That is, doubt encompasses faith and the other way around. Darkness and light, life and death, singular and plural: they are not opposites. Everything blends into and contains the “other.” Faith got me though my cancer even as I considered and dismantled the apparatus of faith that had been installed in my head.
I always hated the phrase “mystery of faith” because I thought it was used as a catch-all non-explanation for logical questions, but now I think I understand it in its pure form. Everything in this world is a mystery, including diseases that appear seemingly at random and have no cure. My habit of thinking, reading and writing about that mystery? That might also be called faith.
By the way, I was wrong about the chemo and the ivy and kissing the cold feet of Jesus. Really, really wrong.