I’m sitting in the cancer center, hooked up to an IV for my iron infusion for the next 6 hours, watching worlds go by. I am in a large room full of recliners, IV stands, rolling carts filled with anything your nurse could need – gauze pads in 6 different sizes, 5 varying lengths and sizes of tubing, intraosseous kits, boxes of alcohol swabs, iodine swab sticks, safety IV catheters, and, and, and – I am also surrounded by patients who are receiving treatments for cancer.
A mother and daughter are sitting nearby, and I realize it’s the daughter who’s here for chemo. Mom is rubbing her own neck, “Degenerative disk disease she tells the nurse… I’m fine, I don’t need anything.” I don’t think a parent is supposed to sit with her child watching them get chemo. Seems wrong in the scheme of things. But there it is. As the nurse preps her, asking questions about her general state of health, more information spills out… “I’m bipolar,” she says, “and the medication makes me sleepy sometimes, and then I have trouble waking up. Basically I am insomniac. It’s why I prefer afternoon appointments, but you guys made me come in the morning.” She’s clearly not happy about things. Can you blame her?
There is no privacy. Everyone shares intimate details about pain intensity, fatigue, bowel movements (or lack thereof), nausea, sleeping habits, latest scan results, and just about everything happening with your body. The questions and answers have the same tone as if you were rattling off items from your weekly grocery shopping list, or describing the noises your car makes to the mechanic. People speak at a volume that seems the complete antithesis of the private information they share with whomever will listen.
And apparently being sick doesn’t preclude mom from pulling the mom card. She is doling out advice and suggestions for how to get through the next 3 hours. A smile crosses my face… some things never change, thank god. It’s comforting to know your mother will always be a little bit bossy and offer unsolicited advice, after all, she really does know best.
Faith, it is what it is.
The details of life continue marching by. They chat about the chocolate brown handbag the daughter just bought, trying to decide if she wants to take it back or not. Apparently it looks cheap, more like vinyl then leather. Life goes on, doesn’t it – simultaneously experiencing poison that may save your life while you chat about the mundane, innocuous things – the color of your purse and whether it will match most of your clothes. The conversation pauses, they each sigh, and just like the unexpected relief a summer breeze brings on a hot day, the conversation changes direction again.
Now it’s time to discuss all the things wrong with this treatment center, as compared to another one she goes to. The chair isn’t comfortable, they don’t have the right kind of soda and snacks, no private room with a TV. I suppose if you are getting chemo treatments, you’ve earned the right to whine for a moment about the little creature comforts missing for you.
Faith, it is what it is.
Another gentleman is completely engrossed in his kindle, earbuds firmly in place. He looks like anyone else I’ve seen on airplanes, sitting on park benches, or sipping coffee at the diner passing time quietly, enjoying what he’s reading and listening to. Until he pauses and a new reality emerges – he asks the nurse for a blanket. The drugs are kicking in, and the body is responding by telling him it is cold.
She arrives with an institutional looking covering that belies the comfort it will bring because it is fresh out of the oven. As it drapes his body, I can see from his face it’s something like warm syrup slowly spreading over a stack of pancakes. Or better, I remember as a kid when my blankie came out of the dryer, and I rushed to bring it close to my face, knowing all was right with my world now that I was wrapped in a cotton womb.
I hear the sound of “cha-ching” emanating from someone’s smartphone. Slot machine and solitaire card games are good to pass the time. It doesn’t last long though, and she picks up her book. She turns maybe two pages in the course of several minutes, and this pastime also doesn’t last long either. The chemo brain is not in a position to focus on anything requiring much comprehension or strategy. She gently closes her eyes, embracing her “fresh out of the oven” blankie, and settles into her nap. She too longs for the safety of escape. Sadly, I think she’s a seasoned professional at this. There is no impatience, no frustration, no demands being put on anyone or anything, including life.
Faith, it is what it is.
The mother and daughter are now bickering about olives – jarred, canned, fresh, black, green – who knew there was so much to argue about regarding olives. The daughter becomes more emphatic about the health benefits, and begins her monologue about the healing properties of pickle juice. Healing may be overstating it, but apparently it’s a cure for hangovers – and it tastes pretty good too she exclaims. On this point I must disagree, but I just smile. I think to myself, “Do what makes you happy sweetie.” I wish having to cure a hangover was the worst thing on her “life challenges list” right now, but it’s not. Surviving breast cancer is leading the pack.
IV machines beep regularly all through the room whenever someone’s port is blocked, a vein collapses, the IV bag of solution is empty, or a kink has emerged in your tubing as a result of simply shifting position in your recliner. An IV alarm nearby derails their conversation once again. Mom now leaves to find the vending machine so that her daughter can have the exact right kind of soda and chips. If you’re gonna have to do this, you may as well do it “right,” whatever that is. She returns with Cherry Coca-Cola, sadly no Mountain Dew, and pretzels. The daughter frowns, and then decides it’s good enough. How many things in life am I willing to say, “This is good enough?” I’m guessing we could all learn to do it more often.
Faith, it is what it is.
Faith is an intimate friendship with God in all things, moments, breaths and relationships. It’s a process of awakening to what is good and true and beautiful, knowing that to hold anything as permanent or final is pure foolishness. Even Buddha said, “It is what it is.”
The purpose of faith is to remind us of the current that is always flowing, even when we can’t see it or feel it. We practice our faith by falling down and getting up. Faith is always unfolding, it is never static, nor is it ever “done.” It is these humbling events in life shared on a Tuesday afternoon in a chemo ward which return us to our knees over and over, bringing us closer and closer to God, to the faith of our being.
There is no failure in the falling down, in fact it is a chance for us to bow down with great humility. I look at all these people coming and going, as bowing down to whatever is before them in the moment. Challenges and difficult events give us a chance to practice life in as many of these positions as possible, to know God in every single one of them. For me this is the message of the parable of the leavened bread, attributed to Jesus in Gospel of Matthew (13:33). “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with[a] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
At first glance most people think, “What? How is heaven like yeast?” It is imperative to look at these stories through the lens of the 1st century Palestine world. At that time, leaven (what we know today as yeast) was the archetype of things unclean, impure and corrupt. Yeast, in the time of Jesus was not a little yellow and red Fleischmann’s envelope you bought at the local market. You made yeast, or leaven, by putting a piece of bread in a dark place for a month and let it get moldy, and stinky and gross.
In today’s world – we think of yeast in terms of fermentation, expansion and new life. Not so in Jesus’ world. It was a symbol of corruption and impurity, relegated to the “not good things in life” category. This parable is about something invading and contaminating the goodness of life. And sometimes those things are cancer, illness, death, divorce, loneliness, despair, addiction, or simply losing your way and purpose for a while. It is these moments that challenge our faith, challenge our God, challenge our foundations. Faith, it is what it is – for you. How is the kingdom, the particle of the divine that is alive in every human event, unfolding in this very moment? How are we tending to that particle which brings the fullness of life to meet us exactly where we are at?
As I looked out the window, I realized life kept marching by. Somewhere the ocean waves are still crashing on the sand. People are lined up in grocery stores waiting to pay, children are being picked up from soccer practice, millions of cars are stopped at traffic lights, ATM machines are whirring away, birds are building nests, and my cat is sleeping on my ottoman. It all looks quite ordinary, nothing around me stops, yet faith continues. It is the recognition of this strange breaking apart of life and coming together again in the quiet yet profound moments of warm blankets, leather handbags, smartphone solitaire and pickle juice.
Faith and pickle juice – it is what it is.