Many times over the years I have had clients who have been caregivers. For a child, a spouse, a parent, a friend, even a colleague. For people who have been ill with a chronic disease, been depressed, been in a conflictual marriage. The caregiving role becomes preoccupying, sometimes consuming all waking thoughts. But the caregiver remains committed and, it turns out, comes to identify themselves in this role in this relationship. They get to realize all of that sometimes only in hindsight because when the situation has resolved (through healing, death, separation, etc), they are a little bit lost. There is an emptiness where the activity and emotional involvement used to be. Sometimes it takes on the form of depression. Over the years I suggested the image of standing on the curb after the parade has gone by, and the papers and streamers are blowing around and no one is there. It is empty.
I have noticed something a bit similar in being a cancer survivor the year after all the heavy treatments. Very preoccupying, they were. Giving rise to a self identity of ‘patient.’ News of remission came on July 22 2016. But now in January 2017 the memories of ‘this time a year ago I was in the second round of chemo,’ etc. Those memories evoke a range of feelings, from relief to the anxiousness of what now…. They also evoke thoughts of ok what does God want from this? More than one person had told me during treatment that ‘you aren’t going anywhere, God isn’t done with you, you are still needed here.’ Other thoughts include the memory of how intensely spiritual the journey was, how beautiful and freeing that was, and yet how riveting it was when my life was really on the line and I had no idea what the outcome of the treatment might be. But now with the big treatment done and with the good news that resulted from it, there is an easing in the intensity. Will I be just a hard times prayer person? Will I let all that recede into the rear-view mirror now that we are free of the in-your-face nature of the illness and the treatment? Is this what will happen as opposed to keeping the intense relationship with God alive and front and centre in everything I do? Are the papers blowing around in the street?
Three things have occurred that help answer the emotions and the thoughts.
First, I have discovered that so much of this is natural, a shared experience, if you will. Check out this article if you or someone you care about is in this situation: http://www.dana-farber.org/For-Adult-Cancer-Survivors/Caring-For-Yourself-After-Cancer/Your-Emotions-After-Treatment.aspx . You sort of already knew this, but nice to have it articulated again.
Second, I recall that from the very beginning, I had a mindset of uniting my will with God’s. If God was permitting me (not causing me) to have this experience, then I accepted that. Moreover, I took my lead from St. Therese of Lisieux who died of tuberculosis over a period of a year and a half with a lot of pain. Clarence Enzler picked up on that attitude of hers and explicitly united his own cancer experience to the Passion Jesus experienced on the way to his execution. So all of that was a tremendous help to me and there were many graces given to me that enabled me to stay with that. I am so grateful for what God gave me both directly and indirectly through my ever-constant-companion-reminder-person Peggy. And now I notice something very interesting as I contemplate the papers blowing around in the street; I still have a few reminders of the experience. The parade and the excitement have gone by, total remission is the news. But what about that little neuropathy in the feet? What about the little tingling in the tips of the fingers? What about the inability to turn a key in a sticky lock? Or to do up a tight button because the finger strength isn’t there? I was impatient with all this for a while, but now these experiences bring smiles. Through these natural side effects of the chemo, the Lord is keeping me in the experience, he is helping me because he knows full well I cannot hold that level of awareness on my own. My my. I just marvel at this.
And finally, the whole thing about what is the Lord asking of me now? I have come this far, and a whole lot of people have not. What is that about? And those people at St. Paul’s saying to me that the Lord has other plans for me, things he still wants from me, so I am not going anywhere just yet. They were very clear and confident about that, take it for what you will. But as time goes on, I am getting no answers. Until one day recently, this passage comes in a daily reflection email I get: “Jesus entered the house of Peter, and saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand, the fever left her, and she rose and waited on him.” Matt 8: 14-15
More prayerful discernment is needed around this, but the first message is, I think, don’t be staring out the window straining your brain. Don’t over think it. The Lord is asking you at the very least to recommit to your relationship with Christ. That relationship is the same one every one of us has who is a bapitized follower of Christ. For a Deacon that relationship is characterized as permanent, public and committed. For sure, Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t disappear out to the garden while she thought through what had just happened. Nor was she overwhelmed at the thought that she had just been given a new role in life. No, she got up and did what she would have done in any case. But you can be sure she did it at a new level of awareness, with a heightened sense of intentionality.
The passage hit me that day, and I took notice. Being a cancer survivor gives you that experience. I am even willing to guess that being a cancer patient – or a heart patient, or a diabetes patient – and having awareness of the gifts God is giving you throughout your illness, will bring this awareness. Renewal.
God is good.