Bearing Witness

“Be as a bird, perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her; still, she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.”

Victor Hugo

“A forest bird never wants a cage.”

Henrik Ibsen, ‘The Master Builder,’ Act 3

Life is a serious business. Serious enough that it sometimes needs to be taken more lightly than we think we can manage. Being confronted with a serious illness can be the moment when that challenge is laid down, and we find ourselves standing before a strange new world for which we are utterly unprepared.

The serious business of my first cancer diagnosis in 2020 found me living inside a cage of fear and physical weakness, dreadful fatigue and hospitalizations from the chemotherapy that I withstood for four months. I endured as best I could and found solace in bits and spurts. Then, there was a prolonged but ultimately full recovery for another six months.

I found my wings. And I found a full and rich life once again, and a calm and a resilience that I’d not known before. I found sturdy branches and new light and the freedom to fly wherever the Spirit and my spirit would lead me.

Then, at my one-year checkup, on January 10th, I got the surprise news that the non-Hodgkin lymphoma was back and as sturdy as ever and difficult to treat. The branch was suddenly more fragile again and I did not know what song to try to sing now.

I just knew that I did not want – nor intend – to return to that cage in which I had imprisoned myself before. I wanted the wings of my spirit to take me on a different journey this time.

I found that I was already prepared to do just that. The hungry soul finds a way when the stakes are great enough. The way had been forming all along, hidden and subtle, but strong and confident.

I have received 4 infusions of monoclonal antibodies now and all have been without any side effects. I still await my chemotherapy pills as the bureaucracy makes its way along its rules and regulations. For all of its complications, I am receiving these pills for free, an outward and visible sign of what we call grace. I yet await the side effects that may come along with those. But I have been finding a source of power and endurance that have arrived as soon as I invited them to be with me.

I receive a steroid in my infusions, and that has been a gift of joy and delight! For three days after a visit, I find myself with unbounded energy and the ability to see the day and indeed, the future, with hope and peace. I could even call it ‘euphoria.’

This wondrous brief period has led me to explore my options with clear eyes and a clear mind and heart, and so it was that I found several substantial YouTube videos about palliative care and about what dying looks like. I know, I know, that could be morbid, why go there? But it was not morbid – it was empowering and hopeful and lifted the mystery and uncertainties of my life with a serious illness.

It did not take me to obsessing about death. It took me to a place of gratitude and hope and a focus on just how wonderful the rest of my life can be, however long it happens to be. Finding the way to loving all of life – including its end – is freeing me to find a wholeness that leaves nothing out simply because I am afraid of it. My life is so big now, even within its limits.

Life continues to become less fragile, less dependent on how long it lasts and more dependent on how I can live it as freely and joyfully as I can. It is my obligation to myself to remain attentive and open to where the Spirit is leading me in these mysterious and preposterous later years.

There is a new kind of urgency – not so much to get last things done, though I am aware of my obligations to do some of those kinds of things, too – but to attach my spirit deeply into even what is familiar; to live in deepest gratitude for what is and what has been so that I can be as aware as I can for all that life has yet to show me. This is, I believe, how live in the kind of joy that is only possible when there is nothing left to lose and everything yet to gain.

My dreams are telling me that they are working hard to help me discover and walk the paths that are here for me now. The branch grows stronger.

I am painting again and practicing my calligraphy after finding a place to make room for a table just for them. They bring me joy even in their considerable imperfections. The branch is becoming stable.

I have been watching magical videos of travel in Norway, my ancestral heritage, and I sit smiling and exclaiming at its beauty and strength and the power of its turquoise waterfalls and fjords and its mountains and wildness. And I am filled. And I sing.

The bare branch may sometimes seem fragile, but I am not. There is not a cage that can hold me. My faith is strong, love is endless, and God’s grace holds me as it always has, in both my weakness and my strength.

And I am very okay with all of that!