I have returned to Big Timber after two days with cancer families. We met at the Methodist Camp on the Boulder, a place that understands hospitality as well as the St. Columbo Center that is a spiritual home to the Memphis contingent.
There were 35 people present. Teenagers with cancer; nine year olds who have
sledded with it for nine years; parents with cancers; the mothers, fathers, husbands and wives, all of whose lives have been touched by cancer. Perhaps one could say connection” was the central thread, but actually the coherence of healing, and life’s fierce call to the future provided the glue.
Sunday and Monday mornings we made space for the gift of casual conversation;
gathering stories; feeling the pain in some faces, and sensing exuberance in others.
Some stories come quickly with such sharp intensity one can only give thanks that there are five days to unpack them, that the river is there to walk along.
Some of the people have attended this camp, called the Cancer Family Network of
Montana, for many years.
I met with a group of adults on Monday afternoon. One could say my task was to talk a bit about LCL. But that actually wasn’t the task at all. The task was to help us engage in the discernment of life. If “Pretend” walked in the door he or she would not survive ten seconds. If “Despair” walked in and tried to dominate the gathering, it would not have had a chance.
When one talks about circumstance the conversation is usually brittle. When one allows time to make its gentle presence known life begins to come into view and lingers for a while.
I did not start off by talking about LCL. Instead I shared a few stories and the stories, of course, opened the way for others to share some insights. These people did not want a program. They wanted life. There is a difference.
Instead of talking about the five, I just threw out the words. “The story of our
lives could be written with a script called connection,” I said. And . . . sure
enough . . .
One oncologist said he always comes to the camp to connect with stories that most of his colleagues miss. But for him they are a priority.
A woman’s 15 year-old daughter has survived thyroid cancer . . . so far. . . but two years ago her husband collapsed on Christmas morning and was found to have a cancer of the brain. He then died. She tells a story about collecting paw paws in a basket. Each story of survival, each story showing how one navigates is a gift and she puts them all in the basket of her life. Those are my connections she says, connections that come from people who are not afraid to ask me about my life.
Another woman lost her husband; has lost much of her sight; and been through chemo. She speaks of a friend, who is sitting there beside her, who took the time to walk up 28 stairs to have a note that said, “Are you okay?”
This woman has cancer . . . she knows. Two stories of connection bring grateful tears around the share story of coherence.
We move a bit more around the circle. Three years ago an 11 year-old was diagnosed
with leukemia. She is still alive, everyone on pins and needles to see what will happen. “I think she’s doing okay,” says her mom. “But it’s not that easy, says her dad. They give her a bead for every procedure. A red bead for transfusion. Another bead for a blood draw. Another for days in the hospital. All these beads,” he says. “She has over 1,600 beads.”
This giving of beads . . . this gift . . . this connection with the experience of
Her dad had a black and blue ankle. He fell off his horse the day before. “Good
horse but since the diagnosis I haven’t been able to spend time with him so he’s out
of sorts.” Connection yet again . . . take it away and one falls, even horses forget.
For each speaker, each sharer, connection keeps giving itself. Pretty soon I notice
them using the word like a friend.
Coherence also presents itself but coherence is a 25-cent word that does not present
itself as easily. Hope emerges. And so does blessing when one woman who was in
almost too much pain to be present said, “I’ve been blessed . . .”
Time after time, for these parents, we found that cancer itself wasn’t the worst part of their experience. The most difficult part was (and now I wish you all didn’t work in a hospital, because I don’t want you to take this the wrong way) realizing that there was absolutely no way they could pay their bills. What do you do when you get a bill for $200,000? Or two million dollars? How do you reconcile the doctor’s statement that he doesn’t care about money (if I’m cynical I’d say most docs can say that because they’ve got some) but the business office that keeps sending statements? When disease divorces a person from any possibility of taking “responsibility” it is devastating and makes gatherings like this one all the more important.
So . . . over the days I was there . . . LCL took root. Walking up a mountain path
with the camp leader and the woman whose husband died . . . she says, “I don’t go to
church. I’m too angry with God for that.” “Well, if church is the place that tells
you how God works, I’d stay away too.” But what if church is more about connection
than it is one theology or another? The cancer doctor said he doesn’t really believe what the church says about God. But he goes, and has gone for over 30 years because he knows that someday he’ll need some friends.” “Oh, she says. That’s
right.” In talk after talk we discern the layers of coherence, the intricacies of
connection, and the way these are markers.
One closing vignette.
I am at dinner Tuesday night and Mary, the nine year-old whose mom
teaches school a nearby reservation. Mary, whose name means God Provides, diagnosed with cancer at 15 months. The tumor caused her to lose vision in her left eye. This little Mary, who travels to Children’s Hospital in Seattle thanks to Angle Flights . . .
Mary looks across the table at me and sees the patch and metal screen over my left
eye and says . . . “Don’t be afraid about your eye. I don’t see out of my left eye and I’m
“Mary,” I say, “I thank you. We have a name for what you just said. We
call it a blessing. And I will carry your blessing for many, many years.”
As usual, if you want to clarify life go to places where it seems to be in
short supply . . . surround yourself with those affected by cancer, or traumatic brain injuries or, or, or, or . . . and then watch what happens as our five causes find ways to speak with unforgettable eloquence.