In the early months of 2021, our family started to unclench. With a new president in office and COVID-19 vaccines becoming available, it was more than a spring cleaning. It was a time for confronting the long-avoided details of life—like the fact that we had long ago outgrown our house and that my wife should probably get that tiny lump in her breast looked at.
As it happened, we closed on the new house on a Monday and got the diagnosis that Friday. The moment of hearing the news from her on the phone carried with it the strongest visceral reaction I have ever registered in my physical person. More than feeling dizzy or nauseated, it was like a wave rushed in and crashed into my chest, like a force ripping through our reality from outside.
Jesuit Father Karl Rahner asserted that people can have direct experiences of God’s grace but cautioned against ascribing every last warm, benign feeling to it. Rather, God’s grace is all that is left when every other thing has been stripped from us—leaving us vulnerable and exposed. That would become our experience.
Suddenly, our family wasn’t on a timeline where we had the illusion of a choice or control over our lives. Instead, we were passengers on a new journey, one that careened like a speeding car, zipping past so many signposts, waiting for the parachutes to open and bring us back to a less harrowing speed.
I remember those signposts well: the first meeting with the surgeon and learning the term intraductal carcinoma; how stage wouldn’t be determined until after surgery, which would be a partial mastectomy; how we would need to wait for tests to come back before we knew the severity of her treatment and the risk of recurrence. And, of course, the really gnawing part of being out of control is being in the dark on the outcome.
What would broaching severe illness and possibly even loss look like with our young children? (Too heartbreaking to consider for more than a fleeting moment.) What would management of the household look like? (Not pretty.) What would the ensuing loneliness on my part entail? (Cringey details.) How would relationships with friends and family change? As it turns out, that last question went ahead and answered itself.
That span of months from her diagnosis to surgery, radiation, and recovery ushered in what I now call an “apocalypse of relationships”—apocalyptic in the way that many people have described COVID-19 as a “revelation” of both the weaknesses and strengths of our society and the people and structures that compose it.
So many people showed us who they really are. One friend rearranged her work schedule to sit with our kids one day a week while my wife navigated the long, cumulatively exhausting days of radiation. Folks who were glorified acquaintances confirmed their awesomeness by sending lovely notes from several states away or dropping lasagnas at the front door—one for tonight and one to sock away in the freezer.
That episode illustrates quite well where we found God in the whole ordeal. God works through other people, and we find God in other people. One of my wife’s perennial struggles is a resistance to asking for help—not a great impulse with small kids in the house. So, true to form, God’s presence in her cancer fight took the form of overwhelmed mental circuit breakers and finally a surrender of “Yes, OK. I will accept help from others.”
On the shadow side of this apocalypse were the relationships—close ones, surprisingly—that went silent for the duration of her treatment. People are complicated, traumatized messes at times, and what we can’t bring ourselves to deal with can be a deep mystery. But it was clear that this too was a lasting change in the sense that it could not be unseen or unfelt moving forward. If she wouldn’t harbor grudges, I was all too willing.
Happily, the speeding car eventually slowed down, and some semblance of control returned to our lives, though now we recognize it for the sham it always was. Her tests came back low-risk for recurrence, so she got to skip chemotherapy, and the daily pill she’s on for the next decade isn’t as weapons-grade as some others.
As her quarterly routine of going back for mammograms and MRIs becomes just that, the experience has left us altered—like ash that can’t return to being wood. Nor would we want to. The alterations are total. It’s not just “I’m thankful for what I learned” or the insufferable “everything happens for a reason.” It’s so much bigger. In this scenario, God manifests like some massive aquatic animal looming beneath the surface of life’s ocean, capable of rising up and crashing down, creating waves that could easily swallow us. Yet God is also incredibly graceful and beautiful in that same terrifying moment. One quickly recognizes the yawning deficits of trust and sheer awe in one’s prayer life when this God is on the move.
The alterations are also physical. Her ribs will be brittle for the rest of her life, courtesy of essentially being cooked by her radiation treatments. The black dot tattoos used to calibrate the machine are also a permanent addition, like the scars and markings of a pregnancy. I am grateful, if not for these things, then for the lasting tangible reminders of a chapter in our lives that transformed us as much as the forceful self-emptying of parenthood ever did. In both cases, reality intervened with the loud message that our lives are not our own.
God works through other people, and we find God in other people.
Our lives are shared. And that was the most dizzying confrontation with a larger reality throughout the whole thing—realizing how much of my sense of self passes over an invisible bridge that enmeshes with this other person who, on my worst days, I have come to take for granted. This is the person who is always physically present to hear my sighs, my complaints, my jokes that I dare not air with friends or colleagues. This person is my always.
To have that presence and physicality suddenly called into question, worse, to have it jeopardized because one of this body’s own members is engaging in an act of self-destructive, mutating rebellion—that did a number on me. It was a wake-up call that entanglement and clinging are sources of suffering, but that the antidote is a posture of emphatic gratitude.
Gratitude and a healthy sense of one’s lack of control can serve very effectively when the world seems to be careening toward a cliff. What happens next is probably going to hurt and might even leave a lasting mark. But we will discover so many amazing things about one another along the way.
This article also appears in the October 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 10, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/National Cancer Institute