Prayers and Swears

On Friday, I was honored to join a particularly devout bunch of swaying, singing, lovely Jewish ladies to witness a mikveh. My friend Kathy, a newer member of the Shitty Sorority, had completed a brutal round of chemotherapy and wanted to mark the moment with this beautiful, traditional “cleansing” ceremony. There were songs (lots of dye-dye-dyes, a Hebrewish-y shoo-be-doo-be-doo), there were bagels (natch), and there was Sharing. We surrounded Kathy and offered her our wishes for health and healing and happiness. And when the prayer circle landed at me, I looked at my small friend, took a deep breath to reaffirm all of the other messages of hope and inspiration, and then just sort of dissolved into a blubbering mess of mascara.

“ENOUGH!” I wanted to shout. And not about the dye dye dyes, although those were plentiful. Kathy has been through enough. Although her neo-adjuvant course of chemotherapy has obliterated her tumor, she still has a bilateral mastectomy on the calendar, and another round of chemo after that. It’s not even close to over for my tiny, pretty friend. And looking at her in her adorable birdie scarf and lovely little shoes, I was mad at Cancer. Fuck you, Cancer. Awash with guilt for angry thoughts in a sacred space, I lamented showing up at the synagogue without even one Ativan coursing through my Christian veins. My anger/fear/PTSD was kindly interpreted as moved-to-tears, and these swaying, dye-dye-dye-ing women held me tighter. I left the mikveh thinking Kathy is going to be fine. These women invoked The Holy Spirit right there in a tangibly Fuck Cancer kind of way. It was pretty awesome. Dye dye dye dye dye dye dye!

The first Sunday in June is National Cancer Survivors Day. I didn’t know this, but suspect Hallmark and the makers of pink things will have this printed on calendars and beeping as Google alerts soon enough. We have a day. And celebrations. Very good people organize the whole scarred, damaged, wigged, but still living lot of us to assemble under tents to laugh and cry with each other, to share our stories, and to marvel at the mere fact our still-here-ness. These Celebrations of Life took place on thousands of campus lawns on Sunday. And on the Harvard Medical School quad, I joined a panel of veterans under a hot tent and spoke (out loud!) about Cancer for the first time.

You’d think after Friday’s Look At the Crying Shiksa debacle, I’d have brought an Ativan to the forum. You’d also think speaking about cancer would be easy peasy for a girl who cannot stop writing about it (and hardly shuts up in general). But it’s not. I get all boo hooey, and then blotchy, and then I’m worried about the mascara, and then I’m chastising myself for worrying about the mascara when last year I didn’t have eyelashes. I was ridiculously nervous, and when the first panelist was a no show, I was up first.

I had planned to read an excerpt from Cancerland, thinking this audience would laugh at those jokes, but at the last minute I added a preface about me, my diagnosis, and a bit of what it’s like to be Mrs. Dr. Bernie Lee. Stupid, stupid Britt. There was no chance of getting through this speech without crying. But when I said Bernie’s name, there was a scattered whoo hooing from different pockets under the tent, which made me so proud to be attached to him, that then I forgot to be nervous. I also forgot to be brief and went way over my allotted time. But this is a crowd that doesn’t care, that wants to hear your story, wants to know your odds and how you’re beating them, wants to celebrate survival, and will tolerate a few extra minutes listening to a short haired girl gush about her husband. The Holy Spirit was there under that hot tent, too… in a tangibly Fuck Cancer kind of way. And it was pretty awesome. Dye dye dye dye dye dye dye!

For those of you who think these sorts of things help (or even that they can’t hurt), please remember Kathy in your communion with The Big Guy. Although poisons are doing a bang up job killing her tumor cells, Cancer wrecks havoc on the soul. But prayer and kindness and love—from a tight circle of Jewish ladies, from hundreds of sweating strangers, from faceless blog readers—these things heal the soul in a beautiful, Fuck Cancer kind of way. If we cannot escape it, at least we can shout potty-mouthed insults at it, and kill its power with prayer and love. And the effect can be pretty awesome. Dye dye dye dye dye dye dye!

Isn't it lovely?

A lovely rendering of a mikveh…


Many years ago, A-Gong drove Bernie and me to Staten Island to check on one of their rental properties under renovation. It was a sweltering night, their car’s air conditioning was on the fritz, I was uncomfortably pregnant, exhausted from a prior night on call in the ICU, and really annoyed that I was being shuttled in the opposite direction of home, where there would be ice cream, The Amazing Race, and an adjustable thermostat. Along the way, A-Gong listed all of the things that needed repairing after the (squatting) tenants had finally moved out of the building. When we arrived (eek, a rat?), he continued the story of a family that had fallen on hard times, who couldn’t always pay the rent, whose emotionally labile child had destroyed the place. Everything smelled like pee and something burning. Finally, the grand tour of the ripped-back-to-studs apartment was over and I stuffed myself back into the car and began a bitchy tirade:

“Why didn’t you sell it?”
“Why did you let it go on for so long?”
“How did you get mixed up with these people?”

I wasn’t a particularly glow-y pregnant gal. A-Gong looked at me with a bit of sadness,

“Britt, God puts ‘these people’ in our path so we can help them.”

Oh… that. Duly chastened, right there in the front seat, next to a cup holder full of wasabi peas, I vowed to be a better person, to be more like my in-laws. A-Ma and A-Gong were probably a little troubled that night, wondering if maybe their son had married a sweaty, wasabi-pea-shunning, selfish heathen of a white girl. And maybe he did. But God was right there in a hot sedan full of believers, and finally I… noticed.

How does someone who doesn’t believe, who mocked blind faith wearing a sandwich board championing scientific fact, who needed to insert “love” or “light” into any sermon in place of “Jesus” (deification is so weird!), who dated Jewish boys and fell in love with their mothers… how does that girl become an advocate of prayer, a regular at the communion rail, the co-chair of the Christmas Market? I’m still not entirely sure, but I think it began in the Maxima.

After that hot ride home, my ICU rotation continued and I spent four brutally pregnant weeks caring for the critically ill and dying. I loved it (the doctoring stuff, not the being pregnant bit). Dr. Barie was the scary, brilliant director of the unit and all of us struggled to please and impress him, or failing that, just tried not piss him off or kill his patients. The shifts were long, the work was unrelenting, the call room smelled like tuna fish, and God Was There. It was the oddest thing at the time, to feel so strongly that We Are Not Alone—well, maybe not given Dr. Barie’s obsession with the X-Files. But amid all of the beeping proof that science was keeping the patients alive, what went undocumented in the chart was that prayer, love, and connectedness helps, too. And I don’t think for a minute that it helps in a can-cure-cancer or get-grandpa-off-the-ventilator way. Rather, it strengthens, comforts, and summons beauty.

Recently asked how I morphed into this churchy Jesus girl, I kept returning to the night I found God outside that ransacked rental, and then later in the ICU, at the bedside of a 26-year-old woman whose new husband and family had decided to let go. “We know this is hard for you, too” her aunt told me after I explained that further treatments were futile, “and we’re so grateful.” As I excused myself from rounds to sob unprofessionally (and uncharacteristically) in the fishy call room, A-Gong’s words came back,

“God puts these people in our path so we can help them.”

Was I helping? Ugh, it didn’t feel like it: I couldn’t do anything. So I prayed. I prayed for her sweet, handsome young husband, for her close-knit Catholic family, for all of us in the ICU who (uncharacteristically) were heartbroken, too. In the absence of any possible medical coups, at least there was this. And as Dorsey taught me last year, praying for miracles is allowed. The miracle then wasn’t to cure, but somehow to strengthen, comfort, and summon beauty: to miraculously find these things though a young woman was dying.

This was nearly a decade ago, and though I’ll never forget this patient, she was in my thoughts a bit more the last year. (Taking poisons and reviewing survival statistics couldn’t be separated from morbid rumination about my own end-of-life.) I thought about how she and her family taught me what it means to pray for others, to pray for miracles, to pray for the people God puts in my path.

But, then, the nagging question: does prayer “work?”

No, not in the literal sense, or in any way that my inner skeptic could embrace without feeling ridiculous. I believe in God and His Plan, but not that any amount of focused meditation on miracles could influence either one. However, I do know this: last year I was the one God put in your path, to help, and to remember in your prayers in all of their beautiful and varied forms. This is how Nicole (my old science pal) put it,

“…I have been thinking of you all the time, and if thinking of you and literally begging God to help you means praying, well I’ve been doing that too.”

And here I am all fabulous-looking-and-feeling and writing up a storm about faith, and thankfulness, ancient neighbors, moon cakes, and yoga… still very much here and very much me. I’m not sure I’d be so fabulous-feeling in the absence of this connectedness, the shared notion of “prayer” that took the form of a thousand messages of love and countless acts of kindness. Atheist Brother Patrick swearing at God to stop fucking with me was as dear as Zealot Sister’s continued insistence that He never was. Both of these sentiments communicate the same thing: God exists and I am loved. These are the reasons I feel fabulous. And they are miracles, indeed.