Of the many words of Just(e) Words, some have become leitmotivs intertwining the preoccupations of my mind with the events in my life. In fact, I find comfort in the notion that body and soul are so firmly bound together and that the bond can be discovered and expressed in words, the substance of my being.
Nowhere has this phenomenon become so apparent as with the recurrent theme of waiting. And what a strange confluence it represents. I remember well the words of Hermann Hesse’s eponymous Siddhartha, who responded when asked what he could do, “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.” I knew even as a college student and fledgling philosopher that while thinking and fasting came easy to me, I could not wait. But now waiting has become my leitmotiv. Owing not only to my monthlong series of posts during that season of waiting in the liturgical year 2018, but also to my passion for those pre-Christmas weeks of quiet and contemplation, Advent is the most used tag word on the entire blog. And now I find that another season of waiting has arrived, unexpected as a lightning strike on a clear and moonlit night. And as I contemplate the implications of this unforeseen intrusion, I realize that I have already expressed its twin implications in my writings.
In July of 2016, I published Meditations All Too Human, an analysis of Margaret Edson’s haunting one-act play “W;t.” Even though I wrote the piece as a sample paper for my English composition students, I published it here because of its stark relevance to the lives my husband, Pavel, and I had been living for the previous six years. Edson’s protagonist is a woman newly diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, and she gives voice to many of the realities that no one who has not lived in intimate relationship with cancer can possibly imagine. Chief among these is the tedium of waiting.
After surviving a first diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 29, Pavel was diagnosed with a variant of the same cancer in 2010, at the age of 50. The second cancer, follicular lymphoma, is known as indolent; it is slow growing and asymptomatic for an undefined period, and that period revealed the essence of all the waiting I knew I couldn’t do when I was in college. Early in Edson’s play, the cancer patient offers to tell the audience “what it is like most of the time” and then lies flat on her back, silent, arms crossed, eyes closed. She momentarily reflects that if she were writing the play, this scene would last for fifteen minutes in the effort to portray the way in which time “goes so slowly and yet . . . is so scarce.”
We learned the nature of that tedium during the two years of waiting before indolence showed the ugly side of its torpor, resulting in abdominal tumors and a four-month first round of chemotherapy. Long hours in the infusion room as toxic chemicals coursed through his veins, longer hours in emergency rooms when he became neutropenic and had to receive blood transfusions, days and months spent waiting for the next CT scan. Then the indolent lymphoma thought to be in remission transformed into its aggressive and virulent cousin, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. More chemotherapy, this time on four-day cycles as an inpatient. More blood tests and bone-marrow biopsies and full-body scans, all in preparation for the longest period of enforced ennui as we waited for a stem-call transplant and its slow and tedious year-long aftermath. Waiting for hair to fall out and for hair to grow back. Reading books whose plots I will never remember. Grading essays on an iPad to the background music of unrelenting hospital sounds at 2:00 in the morning. Singing the happy birthday song twice through as we washed our hands and then assiduously applied hand sanitizer. The slow cognitive recovery from chemo brain and the slow and ambling gait from peripheral neuropathy.
But after a few of anniversaries of Pavel’s transplant date, his new birthday of January 20, healing seemed possible, all the activities and dreams we had put on hold seemed reasonable to grab onto once again. And by this summer, an almost uneventful five years after the transplant, with Pavel still cancer-free and me in a sleek new body, fit and healthy, a future worthy of our conjoined pasts seemed not only possible, but likely.
And then came last Tuesday, July 16. Pavel had had a CT scan in preparation for minor hernia surgery, and the surgeon called me on the telephone just as I was arriving at the gym for a swim and some time on the elliptical machine. After receiving my assurance that I was the preferred recipient of medical news, the doctor intoned, “It seems your husband’s cancer has returned.”
So now we are waiting again. The oncologist sent him for a PET scan on Friday at 8:30 p.m., and those results showed a series of suspicious lymph nodes near the transverse colon, site of previous surgeries. We still know neither what kind of cancer it is nor the likely prognosis. Nor will we know for at least several days. Another doctor’s appointment is scheduled for Monday, but that’s just a consultation, and a biopsy will follow soon thereafter. This, we keep telling each other, is the hard part–yes, the waiting, the not knowing, the time of preparing ourselves for the worst possible outcome. For Pavel, this time of not knowing is even more excruciating because he never lives in the present moment; his life is always a dream for the future. And so he orders a part for his motorcycle and asks, “What’s the point?” He explores a new program for planning an exercise regimen on his iPhone and asks, “What’s the point?” He drinks smoothies with protein powder and kale and flaxseed and asks, “What’s the point?” So we wait for the next thing.
But as I ponder the unrelenting tedium just beneath the jittery exterior, I am reminded of that other kind of waiting I have written about every December since I became an Episcopalian and learned the joys of living life by the liturgical calendar–the Advent kind of waiting, which is waiting for the coming of Jesus into the world and into our lives. In 1999, I first made and wrote about the delightful discovery that sustains me today; I republished it here in 2016. And I shall close today by reframing that insight in a new guise as we wait for the next verdict in a decades-long series of appeals. I refer to the delightful triple meanings of the Spanish word esperar, which translates as “to wait” in English. But wait! Esperar also means “to hope” and even “to expect.”
This hopeful and expectant kind of waiting is the one we have chosen for this particular season of uncertainty. Yesterday we went to the gym because there is a point to caring for ourselves. Today we took the dog for a long walk in William B. Umstead State Park because there is beauty in the world, and it was 83° in the normally sweltering Southern summer. Tonight we made love because that’s the body’s way of saying yes.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? Instead of pondering its creeping and petty pace, tomorrow we shall hope and we shall expect instead of simply waiting. And in so doing, we shall demonstrate our dedication to the here and now and our belief in the many if finite possibilities of the future.