“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.” ― The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Most days, I’m busy with regular, run-of-the-mill stuff. Most days my plans aren’t that much different from any average working mom with young kids. Most days I spend just trying to live my life as normal. In fact, I expend ridiculous amounts of planning trying to make my days “normal”. It’s an effort to trick myself into feeling normal, and many days it works, but every few months I get a very not-normal summons that I am unable to ignore. It’s a call from my specialist. It’s time for my check-up.
I hate check-ups. They remind me that I am not normal. They remind me that I am still being treated for cancer. They are a rite I wish I could leave behind.
Expectant waiting. I write the date on the calendar and suddenly the landscape of my future has changed. There the appointed time is, in the back of my mind, glaring out at me from amid a month of other normal events. It is a slow build up of anticipation for weeks. Like Advent, like Lent, only awkward, uncomfortable, and largely unshared. As if a major religious event is coming that I alone know.
Prayer and fasting. The intensity amps up the night before, with the prescribed preparations. A night of fasting from food and feasting on worries and what-ifs. A restless night,just another in a series of long, dark nights alone with my soul.
Offering. I must write a check or swipe a card before I am allowed in this sanctuary. I must pay for this ritual. I must buy into the whole process if I want healing and help.
Blood sacrifice. My arm is anointed and cleansed. I squeeze the little ball and offer up several vials for examination. It makes me tear up every time. Not because of pain in my arm, but rather a painful amount of vulnerability. I am being tested. My heart’s blood is being searched for the tiniest flaw. As the dark red vials are labeled with my name and whisked away, I know where they are bound. They will be laid on the alter of the CBC machine and the metabolic panel analyzer. I know these machines, how they function, how they are operated. I have performed these tests for many other patients in my career as a caregiver. I cannot delude myself with mystery. I feel my own weakness. I know every way that I could be found wanting.
Confession. I am taken to a tiny windowless room where I am expected to answer an exhausting series of personal questions designed to force me to recall, categorize, and rate all the changes in my body and my life that this cancer has brought. My heart’s intent is searched for any action that I could improve upon. Eat better. Exercise more. Make a commitment now. At this point, I would promise almost anything.
Searching the heart. Sometimes my heart itself is literally examined. I lay on a slab while cold hands and colder machines measure all its functions. Sometimes they inject radioactive dye to see the very blood cells as they course through my chest. I know they are looking for weakness, looking for the areas of damage the cancer treatment left in its wake. The thought that they can see the brokenheartedness I suffered is unnerving.
Laying on of hands. I am stripped naked for the ritual this has all been leading towards. Though my current practitioner is a lovely, personable woman with a kind voice and gentle touch, it still is a humbling experience. In the past the tactless and rough treatment of other examiners felt dehumanizing to me, but the right caregiver can make the same exam something sacred. Every inch of my body is given importance. It is seen and touched and the level of attention, of careful scrutiny, actually validates my humanity, my frail, fragile, all-too-breakable humanity.
Benediction. I am pronounced well. I am declared, as of this brief moment in time, cancer-free. I am released, but not without expectation. I am given a great commission… to be changed by this experience, to be lifted up to a higher plane of self-care than before, to be constantly improving myself. I am sent back out into the world to try to live my life as normal, and yet I am to remain ready to return to this place when I am called.
This is a sacrament. This sort of religion was not my choice; I was born into it. Yet, this is the ritual with which I must struggle. Like faith, it serves a purpose. If I allow it, this awkward process can become sanctified, and through it I can find a measure of relief. I can, after this benediction, let my long-held breath out in a big sigh which gifts me a chance to draw into my life a new breath of fresh, sweet air. Breath of heaven, hold me together.
Breathe easily, for awhile, breathe easily.