Suddenly, I feel encircled by kind introverts in white smocks. They deliver good news, but I find myself enveloped in a peculiar angst, only relieved upon re-reading the story of a storm and a sleeping Messiah. Strange: prospects of healing spawn listlessness.
Such are the irrational vicissitudes of the life dominated by mouth cancer, which I’ve been living since August of 2015. At one moment, I wax poetic over lessons learned and expanded horizons; at the next, I’m somber. I feel like a puppet on a string.
A white smock cloaked my chemotherapy oncologist on Friday, April 22. My wife and I held our breath as he pronounced the long-awaited verdict of a PET scan after three grueling, five-day in-hospital chemotherapy sessions: there’s been “substantial” tumor shrinkage and no metastasis. Yippee. Some might call this miraculous. Next came the radiation oncologist, before whom we sat the following Tuesday. He seemed giddy – a contrast to previous sessions in which he gently said he didn’t want to touch me with a thousand-foot pole because I was bombarded with radiation 28 years ago. More radiation would probably disintegrate my jaw. But the chemo’s work will allow him to fix a focused beam on the tumor, largely bypassing my jaw and tipping the odds in my favor. Treatment is scheduled to begin May 11th and last for several weeks, then he’ll take a break. A partner will surgically place radiation implants for even more focused therapy. It should all be finished late June or early July.
Another trip back to the quiet, white-smocked chemotherapy oncologist: I’ll receive lower chemo doses along with the radiation because the two treatments compliment each other.
I should be pumping pom-poms and waving flags. Instead, I feel world-weary. Perhaps it’s because I will have been fighting this cancer for nearly a year when it’s over – if it’s over. Perhaps I feel robbed. Reconstructive surgery in August robbed me of my full capacity to speak and eat; chemotherapy robbed me of my energy and hair; the whole cancer experience robbed me of precious time and shredded my go-it-alone self-concept. And I still face at least two more months of slavery to a g-tube, into which I pour nutrition directly into my stomach. A minor complication, involving the g-tube, dragged me deeper: the PET scan showed it’s been yanked off its path. More smock-laden introverts anesthetized me on April 28 and tried to shove it back. They failed. A second try on May 2 succeeded.
Smocks, smocks, and more smocks, each draped over introverts with MDs wielding thin laptops like clipboards. They’ve sliced me and injected me until I vomited. Soon, they’ll burn me with with the same stuff that blew up Chernobyl – and my role is to sign their release forms and lay on tables and … do nothing. So much for Mr. Ruggedly Independent Nature Man, the one who taught canoeing, climbed sheer cliffs in the Colorado Rockies, and bicycled across the nation and back again by himself. I’m now as dependent as a baby in a crib to soft-speaking scientists – who, by the way, have saved my life.
My self-pitying ungratefulness astounds even me.
Then I remember Mark 4:35-39. The disciples of Jesus are rowing “and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up.” Jesus lounges “in the stern, asleep on the cushion.” I see the scene through their eyes and sympathize: The sky is almost pitch-black; they’re soaked; they’re shivering with fear. They know the death-grip of storms on the Sea of Galilee. How can their Lord possibly sleep?
We wonder the same thing as we navigate through personal storms. Perhaps we’re facing financial ruin; maybe our health is precarious (that would be me); maybe our spouse sits in the same room a thousand miles away – and yet, God seemingly sleeps. We long to cry the same cry as the disciples: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” They’re repeating the cry of the psalmist: “Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1); or Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” Habakkuk 1:2 comes to mind: “How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence,’ but you do not save?”
The biblical writers are unabashedly frank, showing that God is big enough to take it when we shout, “Why are you sleeping in my storm?” In the case of the disciples, Jesus responds by stilling the wind with the same language he used to cast out demons: “And he got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Hush, be still.’ And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm.” But such an immediate response is not always the case, which is why the apostle James tells us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
Sometimes God grants us a miracle and stills the storm. Sometimes God asks us to walk the human walk, which involves suffering. God is there in both cases.
So I find the story in Mark – which is also recorded in Matthew – comforting. God understands my angst when I look at the upcoming months. God doesn’t mind it if I momentarily shout: “Do you not care that I am perishing?”
Somehow, that gives me the strength to look further into this passage and feel a gentle challenge. I see it in Christ. The seas are raging; the waves are slamming the boat and filling it with water; the sky is pitch black. And yet, Christ is calm. He’s secure. He’s so calm and secure that he can sleep through the storm. I long for that sense of peace and security, which would also be a great remedy for a society increasingly addicted to rage. Perhaps I’ll emerge from all this with the ability to sleep through the storm.
I hope so. I’ll smile sincere smiles at all the mid-mannered introverts in white smocks.