When Resurrection Becomes Personal
In addition to fifteen years of handwritten journals I also inherited a 3-ring binder that my mother had created and submitted for consideration of promotion to full professor at Manchester College. Where the journals housed her very private thoughts and experience, this binder contained her entire professional life – resume, autobiography, professional scholarship, service contributions, special projects and letters of support. It’s impressive to say the least and fascinating even to her own child. It includes essays detailing her journey in education and how she developed her unique craft of hands-on teaching and active learning. As I leafed through the first pages, between her resume and letter for application, I found a letter from the Chair of the Education Department referring to her not only as a model teacher, but the best teacher he had ever worked with. With everything she had endured, she was truly a special and remarkable woman.
While many of these essays are worth sharing, my favorite one, found in the back of the binder is more personal and especially poignant this Easter weekend. She titled it “When Resurrection Becomes Personal” after an Easter Sunday sermon on April 12, 1998. It is seven typed pages so I will not share the entire essay but try to highlight her heart and her voice in a still powerful shortened version:
Easter has always been difficult for me. I approach the day with anticipation that a surge of new life will shower over me each Easter morning. That never happens; Easter Sundays pass, leaving me empty. I am left with the thought, “I missed it again… How can I get to resurrection?”
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer on January 22, 1998, the entire texture of my life changed. Loss occurred in rapid succession: Health. Impending loss of a breast. Employment for the spring semester. My office space. My fierce independence. What’s happening to me? Who am I now? If I can’t teach or take care of myself, of what value am I? What, if anything, do I have to offer? The typical questions arose: Why me? Seemed a useless question… Unfair – yes, but I understand medical science – cancer happens. Guilty of prior behavior? No, God does not punish through disease… Where is God? I know he’s present in spite of the felt absence. God has something in mind for me? Yeah, right. It just is. I have cancer. How do we fix it? I recalled the quote: “Life is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.” I was thrust into life alterations of major proportions.
A week after surgery, David assisted with the removal of my first set of bandages. I gasped and cried as I ran my fingers over the bruised, flat breast area. Half of my breast was gone. My fingers counted ribs once covered by breast. I knew, yet I didn’t know the impact of losing a vital part of my body. The reality of breast cancer began to soak into my consciousness.
My first visit to the oncologist further steeped me in reality. Two hours of questioning, informing, examining and observing numerous other cancer patients painfully confronted mt with the disease that now inhabited my body. Surrounded by cancer patients sporting seersucker johnny coats, I felt immensely alone. Flannery O’Conner once said that illness is a place where there’s no company, where no one can follow. I felt the depth of the well of loneliness, and cried. I learned facts I didn’t want to know… Coupling that information with my low functioning immune system soon brought me face to face with viewing my cancer, not as a detour, but as a chronic disease that will always exist as a shadow in the remainder of my life. Is there hope? Tears cam and washed me several times daily. I am not afraid of death. I have too much to accomplish on earth, too many things I want to do yet. Death in the near future is just not acceptable at this time.
On my next visit I learned my first treatment had been scheduled and would last daily for six and one-half weeks. I opened my datebook… Ash Wednesday and 40 days… oh, my! Good Friday! Is this luck or coincidence? Neither. This is not an ordinary moment. Sometimes it’s more scary to think that there is a God rather than there might not be. Trembling, I recalled Pastor Susan’s words of encouragement to me at my anointing – “I wish this to be a holy time for you.” I immediately felt wrapped in God’s arms, anointed with a special blessing for this difficult part of the journey. I had the urge to “make something” of this blessing. Fiercely, I searched my mind for images.
(The eagle from Isaiah 40:31 became her image and for 40 days when the radiation machine clicked on it swooped down, picked cancer cells from her remaining breast, returned to the cliff and buried them. A church memo had also invited her to see the empty Easter tomb, to imagine life in all it’s power. The tomb image called forth her own emptiness and resistance as she, along with Martha, argued with Jesus as He quietly commanded her to “Take away the stone.” Suddenly she realized how her resistance had kept her tomb covered, barren of growth. She had refused it’s power, the power to remove the stone, gaze inside and see beyond. She discovered that moments of suffering desperately begged for introspection into our own tombs revealing storehouses of resilience, vitality and endurance. From this moment her treatments continued with a new meaning.)
As I laid on the steel table for my next treatment, I closed my eyes, ready for the eagle, and I heard a voice speaking to me. But no one was in the room with me. The voice said, “Karen, let me take more from you.” The eagle landed on my chest and this time she removed cancer cells labeled with old wounds of dis-ease: hurt, rejection, abandonment, anger, and isolation. And then the voice again – “Let me have more, Karen. Let me have the cancer cells of stubbornness and unwillingness – your resistance. Let go.” The diseased cells lifted with no restraint. My grave clothes fell loose from my body. I slid off the table that day with understanding… I was on my way to resurrection. The stone was rolled away… A door had be opened in my wilderness wandering. It offered emptiness of a different nature.
Seldom, if ever, are we given a gift without the means to accomplish it. Dreams of long ago surfaced and I suddenly found myself making a list of things I have always wanted to do. All those things I packed in a box labeled “Someday” were demanding attention. I felt a surge of renewal. My someday was now and I felt the urge to get going! Imagine: all the events of Holy Week occurring in an oncology center, a place where my immense struggle for life and meaning played out during Lent. I left my last treatment on Good Friday. Cancer will shadow me the remainder of my life, more closely than comfortable for the next few years. But the stone has been removed. I have been liberated from past dis-ease, and know that in the time I have left I can live meaningfully, drinking deeply from the well of life.
Resurrection is beyond my comprehension. Like a skilled pick-pocket, God came in His mysterious way. I didn’t plan it or see it coming, but I could feel the evidence of the event… I had gotten to Easter.