At Eighteen Months

Kenya,1999

Kenya,1999

April 30th was the eighteen-month anniversary of Mark’s death—a good day to evaluate where I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going. My first reflection is something you might think I’d know at my age, but something that I really didn’t know quite the way I know it now: the future is unknowable.

Until the onset of Mark’s cancer, most of my days had been more like the day before than unlike. Thankfully most of our days are that way; I don’t know if we could weather the shocks and discontinuities of lives that were tossed randomly from one day to another. What grace, that we can wake up most days with a calm confidence that we know how to cope with what it will bring.

What we lose, after a long string of days like that, or even when our days take us gradually from one shaping of our lives into the next, is the deeper truth that the future is not only unknown, but unknowable. That awareness, and the patience to live in it for an extended time, is one of the gifts this time of grief and reorientation has given me.

The great African Rift Valley comes to my mind, thousands of miles long, land that fell below the surface of the earth—it didn’t erode over time, it didn’t explode in fire and lava, it dropped. Like the floor of one of those old fashioned elevators that hasn’t lined up precisely with the level of the floor it’s delivering you to.

On June 9th, Mark and I had future plans: our parents had all lived well into their eighties—his were pushing ninety—and we fully expected to grow old together. In the meantime, we had accepted jobs in South Sudan. Orientation was to start in two weeks. We’d had cleared our calendars and looked over the reading lists. On June 10th I began to understand that the future is unknowable: Mark had a tumor, it was malignant and the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

Over the next two weeks, our rift valley floor dropped in increments. First, the discovery of cancer in lymph-nodes far from the tumor, making the planned surgery more of a challenge. Then the image of a shadow on his hip bone; there would be no surgery. The four months we had from that moment on were infused with uncertainty. Death or life? That question was answered and other questions took its place: when? how? how painful? how shocking? The specter of a hemorrhage, “bleeding out”, faced me every time I walked into our bathroom and saw the black towels hospice nurse had told me to buy. And there was the question, the first of many Mark couldn’t help me with, that I wailed as I walked by the canal that runs through Bend, Oregon, where we were living: “What will become of me?”

We got answers to all our questions about Mark’s cancer. In the eighteen months since then, I have been given partial answers to my question. I have faced things in myself and in the nature of life on earth that I would never have chosen to face, and they have grown me. I lost much of what I had been able to fall back on, and I learned that I fall much less than I thought I would. That I am resilient. That people are kind.

Those have been comforting truths.The most uncomfortable truth I notice eighteen months after Mark’s death is that I am now stronger and I experience more joy than I ever have in my life. How can this be? What does it mean? I seem to have learned things I could not bear to choose to learn, I had to be forced—how to manage intense feelings and come back to balance, how to listen to myself and honor my own wisdom, how to do things Mark was kind enough and only too glad to do for me. I don’t think I will ever understand why light can come out of a dark time, why joy can come through grief. Maybe the deepest truths of life are like the future: unknowable. I’ve become willing to accept the beauty of paradox, of mystery; to hold them as I lift my head to greet the unknowable future unfolding to me.

Some pieces of that future are now in place:

The living room of my new house--a 1925 bungalow that hasn't been touched since 1925.

The living room of my new house–a 1925 bungalow that hasn’t been touched since 1926.

* I’m buying a house. It’s a fixer-upper, as much in need of TLC as any Mark and I remodeled together. Friends and family tried to tell me the time for remodeling passed with Mark. But I always loved the vision casting, the creativity, the transformation, the emergence of lovely living space out of mess.
* I dance—West Coast swing, salsa, bachata—several nights a week. Social dancing uses my whole brain and resets my mood into joy every time, and has given me new single friends who love not only to dance, but to hike, to talk about the deep things of life, and to read.
* My meditation practice, lectio divina (a way of listening for the Holy Spirit to speak through scripture reading) and the encouragement of friends and the pastoral staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church keep me growing spiritually.
* I’m starting to work with a freelance editor on the memoir I had written about growing up and working in eastern Africa.
* I’m confident that Portland is my appropriate new home, as I meet weekly with writing friends, garden with my sister and a neighbor, and have joined four of my siblings in the team caring for my mom as she ages.

Maji Waterfall Scene 2The last days and nights of April were unseasonably clear. The moon rose, grew steadily, and glowed above me as I drove home late from dancing. Its coming to fullness was assured. The steadiness of the moon, an archetype of change and inconstancy, is a comforting paradox. This may be a moon-season for me, but it is silver. And I find myself steady in the inconstancy.

Confabulation

Confabulation is my new favorite word.  I ran into this word reading about recent brain research. It’s a technical term for how people with brain damage reason, when the two sides of their brains can’t communicate, but it has a broader meaning we all participate in.  We confabulate when we make up reasons for things we can’t explain.  We do it unconsciously.  We don’t admit we’re doing it.  As the wife of a new victim of cancer, I’m a prime candidate for confabulation.

DSC_0528Two weeks ago a doctor looked down Mark’s throat with a scope and saw a bleeding tumor where his esophagus meets his stomach.  The next set of tests showed that the cancer had spread to lymph nodes as far away as his adrenal and pituitary glands.

I read everything I could find on esophageal cancer. Even the very gentle, careful booklet the oncologist gave us says, “Esophageal cancer is hard to contain with present treatments.”  The National Cancer Institute website is more businesslike: “Esophageal cancer is a treatable disease, but it is rarely curable;” and the Society for Surgeons of the Alimentary Tract, blunt:  “Esophageal carcinoma is a relatively uncommon but highly lethal malignancy . . .” The latest tests have shown, to all the doctors’ shock, that Mark’s cancer has already metastasized.

The risk factors for esophageal cancer are obesity, long years of gastric reflux, heavy drinking, smoking.  None of these describe my Calvinist, clean-living husband.  There are two other risk factors. Being male and being over age sixty-five.  Mark is sixty-two.  His only real risk factor is being a man. There has to be some explanation for him to have advanced esophageal cancer, doesn’t there?  I want to shake somebody.  Not him!  Not now!  Then my mind goes to work, concocting explanations for the inexplicable.

The reason people confabulate is that we’re puzzle-solving creatures. What else is science but the drive to observe the physical world and figure out what sense it is making?  We want life to make sense as well—we expect it to make sense—and by confabulating, we force it into some kind of sense-making when it seems not to make sense.

Scientists have a unique opportunity to study this drive for consistency and puzzle solving with people who lose their right and left-brain connection.  They can no longer coordinate input from the two sides their brains, so they’re left with data that seems random.  They’re driven to make that random data fit some kind of pattern.

In one study, people were shown two pictures simultaneously, one to each eye.  chickenThey were asked to choose another picture that best supplemented the first, and each eye was given a set of choices.  For example, when one eye was shown a picture of a chicken, with that hand people chose a chicken claw.  With the other eye they saw a snow scene with a car stuck in a snowdrift, and the corresponding hand chose a snow shovel.

Then they were shown the picture of the chicken and the pictures of the claw and the snow shovel and asked to explain their choices.  snow shovelThey did not “know” that they had been shown two original pictures, because the two sides of their brains could not communicate.  falconheadThey came up with explanations like, “If you had chickens, you would need a shovel like this to clean out the barn with.”

When scientists study confabulation by asking people why they suddenly did what they had been told under hypnosis to do, the same thing happens.  People don’t say, “I felt the oddest compulsion just then.”  Instead they come up with, and convince themselves of some other explanation.  We are driven to make sense.  We are so driven, that we will go to nonsense to feel that we have made sense.

I believe there is a world of the spirit, one we can’t see, touch or study with scientific instruments. Secularists call faith nothing but confabulation for the inexplicable randomness of impersonal fate, of nature, of good and evil.  How can I be sure that what I have is faith, not confabulation? I can’t, really.  That problem must be why the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews embraced the paradox.  He defined faith as, “The assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

A random tragedy has hit my life.  Grief is on its way.  For my faith to persist in the face it, I need to resist the pull of confabulation.  If I insist that Mark’s cancer “make sense,” I may fall into bitterness.  I will be tempted to take it out of the category of mystery and call it an act of God.  My faith that God is present, that God is Love, that the world is intended as a good place for humans to live, will fail.  I will make up reasons for Mark’s cancer, and they will lead me to places that will not bring me peace.

Instead I am choosing to pray—not only for the disappearance of Mark’s tumor and all its seeds, flung to far parts of his body.  I also pray for this event to further our spiritual transformation.  For peace in the middle of this storm.  For sweetness between us to prevail in the presence of pain and grief and opiates—the sweetness that has always been between us, somewhere there, even when we were angry and disappointed with each other.  For faith to hold, even in the face of things I cannot understand.  For the ability to say with the Psalmist: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.  But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.”  For the courage to resist confabulation and ride the wave of faith into shore.