Seeing in the Dark
“Yay! You’re not going to die!,” Cam said, when I told him my latest CT scan was clear. Steve and I, on the other hand, just wanted a nap. It’s exhausting to carry the thought of potentially devastating news for days on end. “There wouldn’t be much we could do,” was the oncologist’s way of putting it if something were to show up again this early.
It all started several weeks ago with a handful of troubling symptoms and a growing awareness that I wasn’t progressing. Tanking physically, along with a mental and emotional dive, took me on a long detour from love, a side venture into the caves of all my dragons. Perhaps because it was unexpected, this journey through the dark was tougher than all the rest.
I felt betrayed. I was “supposed” to be getting better. I felt crazy at having to live the rest of my life wondering if every twinge in my belly was life threatening. The likelihood of recurrence felt more and more real every day. I felt guilty for getting cancer in the first place, and I felt unbelievable pressure to heal and fix it so I wouldn’t drag myself and everyone I love through a long slow painful death. We’re talking caseloads of kleenexes. The prognosis stats for stage IV ovarian cancer, which I finally allowed myself to digest, were suffocating. I was devoid of hope, lost in the belief that nothing can help me and the literally thousands of hours I’ve invested in my own healing over the past ten years have been for naught. If God was talking to me, I couldn't hear it. I felt a very different person than the one who wrote most of this blog.
Despite the endless list of things I tried to soothe my stormy body and state of mind, nothing worked. And then, one otherwise uneventful day, I fell effortlessly back into the light. The guilt was gone. The heaviness and fear subsided, and I was back home in my natural peaceful self. Grace can't be bottled up and dosed on our own schedule, but wow is it welcome when it shows up.
Almost a week later, we found out my scan was clear. Though she’d left the choice up to me (and oh how I hate drinking that icky contrast), my oncologist recommended I get one. “This is your time to learn what your body feels like when it has cancer and when it doesn’t, and the scan can help you with this.” She was right, and it did.
Why did I dive so low for so long? Why am I struggling so much to feel good this far down the road? Annie (my acupuncturist) reminded me that the body often gets sick only after the initial trauma has passed, but friends from support group claim asking why is a dead end. They talk more along the lines of surrender and patience and self compassion. My intense resistance to these finally subsided several weeks in, allowing some pretty great gifts to show up. The first was a revelation, in the middle of a long night, that forgiving myself would open up some space to breathe. I spent a few holy hours speaking my willingness to forgiving myself for every grievance I could possibly think of, including not being able to find my way out of the dark. Bathing in forgiveness made it crystal clear to me - there really is no other way out. As a favorite mentor puts it, “In deep pain, the fear is that love has forsaken you. This is your private hell. The temptation here is to reject love, but only by loving can you begin to face the fear, heal the pain, and walk out of hell.”
A second gift came as I took the gentle invitation, during two funerals, to make better friends with dying. Steve and I talked about it for several days, from every possible angle. One day I said, "Can you really do it? Can you stand there with me in a casket and talk to a bunch of people?" "Yep, I can Mer," was his amazing reply. It felt incredibly relieving to talk bluntly about it and realize that, yes, somehow we could do it. Heck, people have done it for thousands of years.
The third gift showed up as I found myself willing to face a few way-down-in-there things that still need some attention. Sometimes being in an awful lot of pain gives us the courage to look at what scares us the most. I feel strong enough to look now, have been guided to some amazing help, and feel hopeful that a whole new reservoir of healing is bubbling up under me.
Other pieces of grace have shown up along the way too, including an email from a friend who shared her journey with guilt after intuiting I was stuck in it. A lunch with my sisters, a humble blessing from a friend, rocking outside in my swing every day and hearing Steve say often, "You're not gonna die TODAY," allowed me the will to keep breathing until things lightened up.
This side trip through hell reminds me of one of my favorite Rumi poems:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
I may never know the full meaning or purpose of my time in the dark but, for now, I choose to see it in Rumi’s light. And while my body keeps efforting to calm the storm inside, I'll keep doing my best to love it, listen to it and trust we're both on safe ground.