‘You don’t complain very much,’ she repeated it because I hadn’t answered the first time.
She was smoothing the cuffs of pants where she’d been feeling for swelling, my ankles being the primary spot my organs, exhausted from the chemo-poison, send my body’s fluid to hide.
Pretending not to know, I asked what she meant. She instructed me to lay down on the exam table and reiterated with a bit more generalizing.
‘You don’t ever complain.’
I managed a sheepish look while she inspected my belly scar and then felt me up for swollen lymph nodes.
She stated it with such practiced neutrality the subtext was unmistakable. It wasn’t an observation; it was an indictment, a judgment: ‘You don’t share enough.’ The sometimes pastoral counselor in me didn’t struggle to interpret.
You don’t complain = You’re not handling this well.
She told me to sit up and then she checked my neck and head and armpits for lumps. After she finished I stared blankly out the window at the overpass construction 10 stories below and wondered, briefly, which vantage point, them looking up at me or me down upon them, proved a better reminder about our collective relative insignificance.
As I did the nurse practitioner ran down my list of side effects. ‘How’s your light-headedness today? Your appetite? What about the numbness in your hands? Mouth sores, hemorrhoids, nausea? How are you bowels functioning? Any fevers?’
‘Fine. Okay. Better than before…’ I rattled off my answers like an understudy who’s realized he’ll never get to star. Preoccupied. Passionless.
She checked my eyes, I noticed, in order to catch my gaze. To make eye contact and make one more stab.
‘No complaints at all?’ she asked, clearly prepared to disbelieve my answer.
But I didn’t give one, at least not out loud. ‘Little do you know,’ I thought.
Since I’d last seen her, it felt as though I’d ripped off days and diary pages doing nothing but complaining.
Just a week before I’d sat in the transplant center during my most recent round of treatment, bodysurfing a white cap of nausea and fielding a phone call from the insurance company handling my disability leave.
This was the third or fourth such call since I’d gone on medical leave and, as on those previous occasions, I tried biting my tongue as I answered the case officer’s questions about my treatment, what was behind me and what was still before me- questions, I noted each and every time, that seemed to require an unreasonable degree of justification on my part, as if Cytarabine were a Latinate alias for a Club Med to which I’d absconded on their dime.
I swallowed a shot of chemical-tasting vomit in order to get through his question only to learn that, having finished, he had a demographic survey I was required to complete, a labyrinth of oxymoronic questions that ended, I jest not, by asking if I, Cancer Case Micheli, was right-handed or left-handed. And whether my children were right-handed or left-handed.
‘They’re both ambidextrous’ I said, choking back my gag reflex.
That same day, after I hung with the case officer, my nurse carried in a brown, plastic bag of chemo. She held it in my lap like it was a splotchy wet newborn and asked me to confirm the name and date of birth on it as mine.
I moved my lips and nodded my head and then noticed, for the first time, how underneath the patient information and the volume measurements and the polysyllabic ingredients the brown bag carried this caution:
‘Warning: Chemotherapy Drug May Cause Leukemia’
‘Dumb nuts,’ I said in disbelief.
And with the nurse I laughed until I cried at what I called ‘irony;’ that is, until she left the room and then I just cried.
The truth of the matter was exactly the opposite of my nurse practitioner’ assumptions. I’d been doing nothing but complaining.
A day after discovering I might beat stage-serious cancer only to contract leukemia, I spent a 2 hour infusion on the phone with my insurance company, who, in a twist of logic only Heimlich Himmler could appreciate, had informed me that though my oncologists were considered ‘in-network’ and thus covered by my medical policy, my doctors’ equipment supplier was deemed ‘out-of-network’ and thus not. Covered.
Another way of putting it: My treatment is covered so long as I cover it.
‘Wait, wait, wait…’ I flinched back a wave of queasiness and said to the infuriatingly calm and euphemistically titled ‘Customer Service Representative.’
‘You’re telling me I’m responsible for the type of equipment my oncologist uses?’
‘Yes,’ she said with less emotion than Joshua in War Games.
‘So, it’s like a B.Y.O.S policy’ I grumbled into the phone.
‘I’m sorry…?’ she asked and for a second I wondered if it was actually an automated system I’d called.
‘B.Y.O.S. – Bring your own syringe. Or, maybe B.Y.O.C.P. – Bring your own chemo pump. Thank God I don’t have prostrate cancer. Come to think of it, maybe I should just mix up my own chemo in my bathtub like I do my gin and bring it with me to the doctor. For that matter why do I really even need an oncologist, right? You can homeschool calculus why not medicine? I could just treat myself. That would be a lot cheaper for both of us, right?’
‘Sir…’ her voice had managed to adopt some actual human-style feeling in it now.
‘I mean- that’s like saying I should be responsible for bringing my own rubber to a hooker.’
‘Sir, that’s not what I was suggesting and, umm, wouldn’t you want to provide your own prophylactic for safety’s sake anyway?’
‘What? I don’t know. I guess. Look, my point was I’m getting screwed either way’ I complained before she put me on hold where another equally uninvested voice told me pleasantly that my call- if not my health- was being monitored for ‘quality assurance.’
‘F@#$ you’ I replied sweetly to the nobody who wasn’t listening on the other end and who, a few minutes later, dropped my call.
I could say that I didn’t complain in the nurse practitioner’s office because it was the one place I hadn’t been complaining of late, but the truth is, my nurse practitioner being about my age and her not being man of my gender, my biggest complaint was just too awkward to share with her.
The previous weekend we took the boys up to NYC, crossing our fingers I’d feel good enough to give them at least a small dose of a normal summer.
On Saturday, after spending the morning sailing toy boats in Central Park, we returned to our hotel room overlooking the Birdland Jazz Club on 44th Street.
At first I chalked it up to all the walking we’d done the day before. My groin hurt. Ached.
‘I need to rest for a bit’ I told the boys even though I’d stood along the pond and felt myself through my linen pockets and knew.
Back in the bathroom I dropped my pants and my boxers and confirmed with my fingers what I’d felt in the park.
In what has to be the last place a guy would choose. It was nearly as big as the two that were supposed to be there.
I held it, not really believing, for I don’t know how long. And then I stared at the length of me in the mirror and saw that I was blushing- shame-faced- like you do when you’re caught gawking at someone else’s body, which is exactly how my body felt. Feels.
I knew it was coming so I turned on the shower hard and flicked on the overhead fan and- wait for it- I started to cry, the kind where it sounds like you’ve been swimming for pennies in the diving well and you’ve just popped up for air after managing to find 3.
I don’t know how many minutes later, my eyes cold from the drying tears, I said sternly under my breath:
‘God dammit, God.’
‘Damn you, God.’
That was only the beginning. Ministry has few job perks associated with it. Exemption from this extra indignity didn’t seem too much to ask.
‘This is the last straw- after everything else, this?! A lump in my dangle parts?! What are you doing or NOT doing?’ I asked like a cuckolded lover.
The shower stayed on until the water ran cold.
‘No complaints at all?’ she asked again, forcing my eyes into hers.
But because I’m a coward by nature I balked.
‘Who wants to listen to someone else complain about their problems?’
‘Aren’t you a priest? I mean, is that exactly what you do?’
‘Most of them know better’ I said, revealing not their feelings but my own.
‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?’
– Psalm 13
Here’s another thing I know because it comes with the job:
The ‘faith’ displayed by the bible bears little resemblance to the faith displayed by those who read it.
Throughout their exodus and forever after in the promised land the People of Israel do not relax in an Elysian Field with their Maker and Deliverer. Instead they perpetually wander in and out of belief, in a way that puts me to mind of the permeability of the stages of grief, and as they do so their affection for the Almighty abides a similarly fickle trajectory.
Ruth tells her remarkable story without bothering to make any mention of God. Job shakes his fist at the heavens and serves papers on God. David blames his son’s death on God’s tit-for-tat justice and is still too grieved to realize the rage that’s due him.
It’s in their very identity.
The name by which God calls his People into being, Israel, means, as the stranger by the Jabbok declares: ‘You have struggled with God and won,’ which is but a churchier way of saying ‘You had a bone to pick with God and you prevailed.’
And so often Israel does, have a bone to pick with him.
And so often they do, pick it.
Israel’s father, Isaac, was named for the time his mother, Sarah, responded to a from-the-lips promise of God with a full-on, bullshit belly laugh, which in my current humor I can see as an emotionally healthier response than either blind faith or bare despair.
Speaking of despair, the Book of Psalms seldom sounds like anything the hymns in the pew rack or the praises on Christian radio sing. An even more jarring divergence from Israel’s songs are the Hallmark cards (Sympathy Division) I’ve received since my diagnosis, extolling their ‘All things work together for good…’ comforting, comfortable pieties and, in my opinion, quoting just enough of God’s word to risk libel.
The largest chunk of the 150 psalms do not paint pastoral scenes or spin pick-me-up bromides but are instead of the bone picking variety. Laments, the liturgists call them.
The sentiment by which Jesus leaves this world (‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?!’) marks most of Israel’s experience in the world. For every safe, buoying affirmation (‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…’) in the Book of Psalms there are 2-3 cringe-worthy complaints.
Since we purpose-driven moderns have transmuted so much of the mystery of faith down to its utility (3 Biblical Steps to Success in the Work Place), it’s not surprising how more often than not our language of faith- our songs, our prayers, our cross-stitched and retweeted pieties- is meant to reassure us that, like State Farm, God is there.
Our lives are in control, we assure ourselves, because (we affirm and profess and invoke and pray and petition, sing, sign and benedict) God is in control.
We can let go because we can let God.
Not only did God bleed for me, God sweats the small stuff for me too. He’s my pilot or my co-pilot depending upon your denominational persuasion.
Israel’s language of faith, on the other hand, most often spills this far more disorienting confession:
Our lives are exactly how they feel.
Out of control.
Because- follow the dot, dot, dot of Israel’s faith-logic- God is not in control.
Or, at least God is not in control in the way on which we’d counted.
For Israel the result of such recognition runs the roller coaster from anger to despair to betrayal. Laments. Complaints. Prayers that sound more like divorce decrees than love letters. Of course, it’s not all bad news. A God at whom you’re royally PO’d is not yet a god in whom you disbelieve.
Christianity is riddled with paradoxes- the eternal made flesh, the virgin bearing a son, the dead not- so it seems appropriate that it was just a matter of time before I found myself living one such paradox.
Ever since I held myself, naked, in that hotel bathroom I’ve never been angrier in my life. I’ve never felt more depressed and scared, jilted or forsaken- nor have I ever felt such self-loathing too (what’s that about, I wonder?).
At the same time though and, I hazard the guess, consequent to it, my faith, such as it is, has never so closely matched the faith I find displayed in scripture as it does right now.
More and more, in my complaints I recognize myself in the bible’s psalms. My anger is more in tune with their music than the dull, accommodating, permission-seeking faith I held before my rage.
Now, if you tried to feed me some platitude about how this is one of the goods God is bringing out of ill (Genesis 50.20), that God is using cancer to deepen my faith, then, chances are, I’d punch you in the teeth.
Still, it’s a happening worth pondering. I am after all, as the nurse practitioner pointed out a ‘priest,’ and our skills beyond such pondering are precious few.
So here’s a go:
If so much of the bible’s faith takes the form of complaint then do we, who rarely address God plainly from the bowels of our pain, preferring instead the niceties of praise and petition, commit something like unbelief?
Confessionals notwithstanding- or maybe confessionals in particular- Church can be the one place where we’re the least forthcoming with our actual feelings, but reading the psalms I wonder: Is protecting God from the indiscretions of our hearts and tongues a graver indiscretion? Have we all colluded in implying that an ungriping attitude is a corollary to amazing grace?
Rarely are we so bald as to accuse God of what the bible routinely accuses God: infidelity.
And now that I’m pondering, I’m curious if our reticence is itself a kind of infidelity. Thinking our holy obligation is to give God the glory do we, in fact, rob God of glory, hugging tightly to ourself the first draft of our testimony and offering up instead sanitized, sterilized, red-penned spiritualized jargon that intersects only tangentially with our real lives, because- we think- God’s not up to the challenge of our pain or unholy emotions.
Whereas the Book of Psalms is rife with dirty words and blistered emotions and impolite petitions, we most often operate as though the opposite of the familiar prayer is the case:
God is the One from whom every secret may be hidden and, more so than anyone else, before whom no heart should be fully known.
The difference begs the question, doesn’t it? Which is the greater slander? Submitting to God everything of yourself, even your dirty words and ungracious anger, or submitting to God someone other than yourself?
Did Job discover, I wonder, that those of us who refuse to curse God and die, for piety’s sake, are, in some sense, maybe the most important sense, already dead.
Desiccated at least.
Not only does our buttoned-up language with God hide our true selves from God, it masks the real God too. We effectively put words into God’s mouth when we so selectively emphasize those few happy providential verses (‘All things work together for good for those who love God…’ ) to the near exclusion of the preponderance of psalms that testify that shit happens and that God is an absentee Almighty.
Hiding our pain and anger from God, we often promise more than the bible itself does, and I’m a preacher, remember, which makes me guiltier than most.
Before I arrive at the end I should offer something like a thesis statement, posit an assertion that’s come to me having read the psalms lately with eyes that have never really dried:
You only get a bible like ours when you do not feel the need to get God off the hook.
God’s People could’ve cobbled together a far different canon. If they had, probably, it would sell better.
You don’t get a bible like ours when you think you need to protect God from our nakedest emotions and most blistering of words. If you think God must be exonerated from our suffering or stood up for in the face of attack and indictments, you do not end up with a bible like ours.
Of course, priest that I am, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the irony that the psalms’ laments that God is MIA from our shit-happening lives are directed, nevertheless, to God.
It’s not so much that the psalms contend unequivocally that God is not in control of our lives but rather the psalms are reticent to say how God (if he is) is in control and, by placing them with in the canon, God’s People train us to be so uncertain.
It’s a reluctance, I believe, that requires something closer to faith than dogmatism. Faith; that is, wait and see trust.
Or, as Peter DeVries puts it, himself no stranger to lament having lost his daughter to leukemia: ‘The only alternative to the muzzle of a shotgun is the foot of the cross.’
I think what he means is that Jesus, before we kill him, gives us not a cross-stitched cliche or a mantra to memorize about God being in control or everything happening for a reason or everything working out for good or how God won’t give you more than you can handle. No, he gives us bread and wine.
His body and blood, broken and poured out. God forsaken by God.
Tangible reminders that whatever else we have to lament, come what may, our pain is forever joined to his.