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Life is an exercise in learning if it is anything at all. Certainly, Hubby Dear and I have had ample opportunity to experience it, especially during the past two years or more. Food arrived when we least expected and most needed it. Company came to visit and lift our spirits. Cards galore, including birthday greetings and well wishes both comic and otherwise, were lovingly read and placed within sight and smiling review.
Friends, neighbors, family alike showed their concern and prayers for speedy recovery in the face of continuing obstacles and surgical procedures. I was told, and I believed, I was blessed.
Thanksgiving prayers were frequent and fervent. When I felt as if my body had had sufficient pain to endure, I was reminded I was alive...against all odds. The pervading message was God had plans for me. Nurses in doctors’ offices asked if they could plant a kiss on my forehead. It was their way of affirming the divine message regarding an unknown but prophetic future.
One of the books I was given to read at a time when reading and retention of the message was not something I could easily do became my constant companion. Its title gives a clear picture of coming attractions: “Strong at the Broken Places: Voices of Illness, a Chorus of Hope.”
A compilation of life stories shared by five individuals who were in the throes of terminal illnesses, the text proved to be both simple and complex. It offered me an alternative to the plaguing sense I’d never be completely healed. I am usually not prone to reading this kind of literature. I like novels and theological tomes, an odd admixture to be sure. However, the book by Richard Cohen intrigued me, especially since Cohen himself was living through the vagaries of cancer and multiple sclerosis.
I paused to contemplate the wonder of his ability to do more than cope with both afflictions. He chose to spend time with and to learn from others who had multiple illnesses. As he learned, so did I.
Cohen was the angelic messenger who exercised a divine presence. He was God’s hands and feet for the people he interviewed and subsequently for those, like me, who had picked up his book with a degree of cynicism. His sincerity overrode any negativism I might have had at the beginning. I entered the life of Denise, who made a conscious decision to live as best she could while watching the infamous Lou Gehrig’s disease erode her body while leaving her mind intact.
Equally immobilized but differently experienced was Buzz’s acceptance of growing malignancy. At first, it appeared Buzz was in permanent denial of his condition, ignoring its presence by coating it with a certain religiosity. That was my prejudice, and perhaps Cohen’s as well. It turns out Buzz was spot on with his sense of God and faith. As Cohen phrased it, “Here was Buzz dropping every egg he could find into the bottomless basket of faith.”
More telling was Cohen growing realization of the dangers of a closed mind. Buzz was taking him at face value. Cohen needed to return the favor and rejoice in his own close encounter with a man who was God’s hands and feet bringing him to a new place in his own faith—a place inhabited by serious Christians.
When Cohen met Ben, he found an 18-year-old African- American youth who suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a diagnosis that came when he was just 3 years old. Now a college student, he was more intense than the typical collegian. As Cohen observed, Ben occasionally nodded to others but took his separate route, ever the solitary figure. This reality underscored Ben’s anger, an emotion he tried to sublimate, to his detriment.
He learned to express the feeling appropriately so that he’d not become a bitter person. Together with his family, Ben held tightly to hope, believing their normalcy as human beings depended totally on the refusal to set limits. His fierce optimism and selective denial taught Ben, as it will all of us if we allow them room to grow, that quality to life matters—not its length. Pursuit of the now gives life new meaning.
Sarah Levin’s life experience with Crohn’s disease began when she was a toddler. Without the vocabulary to describe what was happening to her, Sarah simply told questioners she had a sick tummy. Too soon she was labeled the sick girl, a description she grew to abhor. Her identity was closely affiliated with her illness and the devastating effects of steroid treatments. The proximity took its toll on her self-image. In a culture of narcissism, one’s appearance is far too important.
A continuing saga, Sarah’s story teaches us we must make peace with our bodies. That is a command for all, though it is more poignant for those who are sick. As Cohen notes, “There is no hierarchy of suffering, no sense that anyone’s journey is harder than another’s.” In the end, there is only one life, and hurt cannot stop us from living it well.
The last person interviewed by Cohen was named Larry. His unique journey brought him to the maze of bipolar disorder from an extreme manic state where all is possible and religion becomes God’s special message to an equally devastating depression. His life was concretized in the endless fields of graves that comprised the grounds of a mental institution. Larry sadly commented religious symbols were conspicuously absent, having been removed so the grass could be easily mowed. Even in death, these folks were forgotten.
When others were ostracized because of their physical conditions, Larry endured the pain of alienation because his mind would not work as it should. He summarized his experience by noting the difference between religion and spirituality. “Religion is for people who fear hell. Spirituality is for those who have been there.”
Those are disturbing words. As I read the five accounts, I pondered my own state of health, mental and physical. I wondered how brave I have been and could be given my circumstances. The big question remains as a life query. Am I strong at the broken places? Do I offer a chorus of hope within the voice of illness?
Time will tell.