By John Thomas Tuft
The elevator doors slid open. I drew in a deep breath and stepped out into the hallway of the Experimental Cancer Treatment Unit of a major hospital tied to a major research university system. This story is not about me so suffice it to say it is not my most favorite place on earth to visit. The corridors are long, and the acrid smell of disinfectant and harsh chemicals passing through bodies and excreted again–wash, rinse, repeat—are not the comforting embrace needed in this place.
At the time, various groups of perishables referred to me as Reverend or Preacher Boy, take your pick, and I was tasked with interpreting the unimaginable to trembling souls thirsting for concrete expressions of faith in what is not seen, heard, tasted or touched. And I weep as I write these words because I know what is coming yet have no explanation for it other than contronym chanan. A word that means one thing and its opposite all in the same configuration of letters. And the word for today is the ancient Hebrew word for grace; the verb to be gracious. The holy mystery that is always, always staring us right in the face. Because it is always, always up to us…to make it real. If there is any trace of grace in stained glass, robes and fragrant rituals then, for my money, there is certainly grace abounding in the piss, shit, and vomit stinking of chemotherapy. The grace that is life. The grace that is death.
Trisha has a particularly virulent brain cancer. At age 33, she is married and the mother of two. She is bright, articulate, vivacious, and a downright joy to be around. Yet many is the night, before this, that she called me around 10pm in tears. It is always the same thing: the state of her marriage to Jack. He disappears most evenings, claiming he needs to wander and think. She is left alone and wondering. “Why does he do this?” she cries. “Am I not enough? How do I explain to the kids?” Jack pastors a vibrant congregation of perishables on the other side of the county. I am a friend to them both. Which is why I am here, pushing open the door to her room.
Trisha’s head is partially shaved. A port for medication into her brain is sewn in place into one side of her skull. Another patch is shaved on the back of her head from the surgery to place a shunt from her skull into her abdomen. I sit on the side of the bed. “John, I want to talk to you,” she says, using my favorite title. “I want to go home…” before she can finish, a seizure strikes, twisting her mouth cruelly and making one arm flap uselessly. We wait for it to pass. “I’m telling the doctors to stop all treatment.” We speak to each other with our eyes, for we both realize what she is saying. Not asking. Telling all those who care for her that she needs to extend this grace to herself. Not out of some resignation to fate or folly. Not out of fear or embarrassment of being a burden. Rather as a benediction on a life well lived.
My heart breaks as I nod that I understand. I’m losing my friend. A treasured light in my life. And she needs a goodbye. We all need goodbyes. Now, she needs mine. So, I smile. She squeezes my hand in appreciation. “I found a new wife for Jack,” she adds, with her own crooked smile. “Tell me goodbye by agreeing to officiate at their wedding.” And she laughs as only she could at the absurdity of grace. “She knows how to love him and to be a mother to my kids.” I am speechless. “Does she know this?” I finally manage. She nods and a single tear escapes, tracing its way down her cheek. And we sit there together as the shadows of the day lengthen around us. The contronym of chanan. She is leaving life. She is leaving life growing here where she has been.
About a month later I drive out to their home. The house is full of family and friends. Evidence of the grace of her life. “She’s waiting for you,” someone tells me. I go into her room. Her neck is arched, jaw dropping open. The end is near. I sit on the bed beside her. Reach out and stroke her hair. No words. There are no words. My heart is screaming to her not to leave, but I can only whisper, “Thank you.” She manages to raise her head, open her eyes, and smile to me. Then she is gone…and I catch the scent of roses outside her window drifting in a lazy dance with the breeze.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.