From Everything Happens for a Reason
(And Other Lies I’ve Loved)
Infinity Tree by Claudia Tremblay
I once stumbled into a prosperity megachurch expecting to find a regular service and instead found a funeral. I picked up the bulletin and saw a famous face staring back at me from the cover, smiling as he always did. I had considered him to be a kind and straightforward sort of preacher, happy to guarantee healing and prosperity because he believed in God’s abundant provision with his whole heart. But he died in middle age surrounded by people—well-meaning people—clawing for the meaning of his death. Even the bulletin had to include a separate section to address the question on everyone’s minds: Why? Did he lack faith? Did he fail to live out his own teachings? In a theological universe in which everything you do comes back to you like a boomerang—for good or for ill—those who die young become hypocrites or failures. Those loved and lost are just that, those who have lost the test of faith.
I have heard countless stories of denial in the face of death. A pastor stops a funeral to try to resurrect a young boy being put into the ground. A woman in the hospital hears her diagnosis and refuses treatment because she believes God will heal her, growing frail as her family watches in desperation. A famous healer dies after using his own ulcerated leg as a litmus test for his faith. The United States Postal Service asks a prosperity preacher to cease claiming the power to resurrect the dead. Desperate families have stopped up the flow of mail to his headquarters with coffins.
But mostly I see people who refuse to allow their loved ones to grow weary. In the waiting room, a daughter asks her elderly mother to put on her lipstick and smile before seeing the doctor. A man I know wants to call it quits on his painful gauntlet of medical treatments, but he can’t bear the disappointment of his family. My nurse keeps saying, “But at least you’re here now!” when reviewing the boxes I have checked on the form she has given me: Fatigue. Insomnia. Pain. Depression. There are no words that don’t sound like surrender.
There must be rhythms to grief, but I do not know them.
People begin to take their turns grieving me because it can’t be done all at once. Family and friends who could not be at the hospital for my operation come to stay at the house, and we start all over at the beginning. I sit outside, wrapped in the same blankets and taking in the sunshine, all my favorite people orbiting around me. My pastor takes out her Psalms and reads a little, gripping my hand. My mom cooks a lot, stocking the freezer with everything that is suggested to be anticancer. My older sister, Amy, sends treats and constant encouragement, while Maria, my younger sister, gives me her words when she can’t be there, sending me poems and bits of trivia from New York, where she is working as an editor for a Catholic magazine. She has two big hopes for me: one, that I will be cured; the other, that, before it is over, I will punch the nearest inconsiderate person in the face.
What to Do
I am sitting across from the man who won a huge prize for his discovery of my particular form of cancer, the cell disorder that caused these tumors to bloom. For all his many efforts, his thousands of hours in the lab, I have brought him cupcakes. With sprinkles.
We have both, as it turns out, spent a lot of time walking up to the edges of things, and we are talking about what it means to face facts.
“I’m not sure I want to know what happens if I stop chemotherapy, but at the same time I want to get it over with,” I confess. “What would you do?”
“I’d go to work,” he says, and I realize the weight of what he is saying. His office is plain and sensible, which confirms something I already know about him five minutes into our conversation. He has suffered and is there to work.
In what were the worst moments of his life, he put one foot in front of the other. He tasked himself with a series of responsibilities that ultimately gave me back this year. And maybe many more. But what I loved more than anything was that he did it without knowing it would matter. He marched forward because it was the best he could do.