Eleven years ago today, a ruddy-faced doctor in a white coat took off his glasses and informed me that there was a raging tumor living inside my eyeball. News so strange I had to ask for it to be repeated, the words cancer and melanoma all jumbling up inside my head with other strange words like success rate and surgery and I found myself sitting with my hands folded calmly asking for a tissue.
From there, I headed straight into a CT scan full of beeping red dots and IVs pumping toxins. My wrap-around shirt landed with a soft thud on the floor while I bore my gown of misery like a soldier, trudging forward to get a mammogram before my thirties had even dawned. My lungs and my liver and my brain and my breasts were all needled and raped, but it was all in the name of progress because melanoma’s a devil’s son.
A week later, my husband and I headed to the world-renowned expert in Philadelphia, eating cheese steak while hearing bullets zinging around in the distance. We huddled together waiting to for what seemed like hours to see the doctor, in a room filled with foreign languages and travel-weary patients. We earned ten precious minutes where I rapid-fired questions to the doctor that I had saved in a three-ring notebook. Year after year we trekked back through sleet and blizzards and pouring rain, cobbling over stones and bricks toward the end of Walnut Street, crossing our fingers for the joyous refrain that life’s tentacles were still strong, holding us together in times such as these.
But radiation is a sniper that shoots to kill, taking down tissue and muscles and solid respectable youth. I sat in the waiting room with the grey-haired diabetics waiting for lasers and four-inch needles and news that my retina was simply too weak to stand. It just needed a wheelchair like an old war hero with a slug in the shoulder, so they filled my eyeball up with oil like a slab of wood puddy in an empty, hollowed-out hole. When I was pregnant with my son, I got a cataract so thick my eye almost exploded with pressure and I endured three hours of surgery without anesthesia, which I would never ever recommend to anyone in a million years of Sundays. What we do for our children, and concurrently to save our own lives. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, I sang to the old people, and they nodded like honey child, I hear you.
I carry stress in my eye, drooping like Friday before lunch, weary of being held together with ribbons. I go back every year praying that a rogue cell won’t burst like a terrorist out of hiding, since it’s fatal and the success rates are hopeless and my oncologist tells me it’s useless for me to come see him anymore since a metastasis only buys me a year, maybe two. He reminded me of that again today as I asked for another appointment. What do they know, these doctors. No one wants to stare mortality down like a cobra wondering if it will strike or just slither off into the ether, and the difference between one year and two is hundreds of more days. It matters, you doctors who count years like pebbles.
Those years, they are diamonds to me.
I think about all the happy times since then – babies and birthdays and laughter like bubbles floating large and fat over the driveway. It’s been a lovely ride, hollowed-out and plugged, with one eye that’s crippled and propped up like the old man in Weekend at Bernie’s. But despite it all, beauty abounds. Every day I stumble into God’s masterpiece with a depth perception so poor I can’t even thread a needle, and yet somehow I survive, and see, and have vision beyond my own present darkness.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, I sing to our babies, rocking and shushing and rubbing their backs until their eyes droop. But you see, Father. God and son and spirit and healer, master of this worn-out veteran life. You plug up this eye and this hollowed-out heart and you never have failed me. All these years. All this sorrow. Nobody but you, Jesus.
If you want to hear this song sung the way I like it sung, you need to hear it by Mahalia Jackson: