If NASA’s recent photos of Pluto caused you to feel optimistic about the human capacity for advancement, then you need only wait for the elevator at my oncologist’s office complex to be reminded we are a species who only recently ate each other at Jamestown and, even more recently, elected Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate.
My doctor’s medical complex belongs to that school of architecture known as ‘Eastern Bloc’ and it seems to have been designed with as much haste and forethought. Aside from a few cock-teasing spaces outside, all the parking is underground. Thanks to the pre-Obamacare boom days of price-gouging healthcare the complex outgrew its design long ago such that now it resembles a Lower Eastside tenement building stuffed with beige medical equipment instead of rotting mattresses.
On the entrance wall, the number on the fire marshall’s sign announcing the building’s max capacity has been whited out and now reads ‘Whatever’ in blood red crayon.
In a facility so crowded and busy, parking spots are as rare as erections during chemotherapy. Hours before their appointments, cars of the elderly and the ailing stalk the underground lot like hookers looking for a coked-up John. Indeed it can take so long to find an empty parking spot that it’s not uncommon to spot senior citizens, leaning against their walkers and siphoning gas from a parked car into their stalled-out Buick LeSabres.
After the euphoria of a found parking space settles, patients at the medical complex must tackle their next gauntlet.
To imagine what it’s like waiting for the elevator in this building, first imagine the DMV.
Crossed with a TSA line where every passenger is 10 minutes late for their flight.
Now, put it in a closet.
Not only is the basement hallway outside the elevator small and filled with people frantic with their self-importance, the 2 exits, one at either end of the hallway, make it impossible to establish a coherent line of waiting people much less demarcate a front of the line. And because the elevator travels slower than a covered wagon over the Oregon Trail, each time the elevator goes up it’s no time at all before a sizable horde of watch-glancing patients are demonstrating anything but.
Every time, before the elevator has reached the first floor another over-capacity crowd has arrived. Waiting.
The constipated pace of the elevator, the constantly arriving crowds of the infirm and impatient, the dual entrance impossibility of establishing who’s been waiting longest- altogether these factors foster an atmosphere that can only be described by way of reference to Black Friday or Lord of the Flies.
In that 6×15 foot petrie dish outside the basement elevator:
The blind are butted in front of or ‘helpfully’ pointed back in the direction of the parking lot whence they came.
Expectant mothers are body checked by heavyset mustached men late for their sleep apnea appointments.
Recent immigrants from all 7 continents ‘forget’ every stitch and syllable of their English as they feign incomprehension and walk through the people in front of them like that subway rider in Ghost.
I’ve seen parents scribble their phone number on their toddler’s forehead before abandoning them for a final spot on the elevator.
Likewise, I’ve stared at my shoes awkwardly while a spouse hops onto the elevator and leaves their partner behind with an anticlimactic ‘This is what it’s come to’ shrug of the shoulders.
Without a doubt, the worst offenders are the old people.
And, by that, I mean their behavior has convinced me maybe Soylent Green isn’t such a rash idea after all. Waiting for the elevator, they act as though their gray (or blue) hair gives them an automatic EZ pass to the front of the line. As if monopolizing the electoral system and bankrupting social security weren’t sufficient AARP perks.
And those are the polite ones.
Most old folks don’t hesitate to throw a varicosed elbow if it’ll help them wedge their way past those around them. I’ve seen countless others wield their walkers, oxygen tanks and even spare pair of Depends as weapons, beating off rightful elevator riders like they were back alley muggers.
Just the other day, waiting for the elevator for my appointment the following afternoon, I had to referee when a 70 year old woman with a Philly accent stiff-armed a pregnant woman on crutches as soon as the elevator doors cracked open.
Just imagine the cast of Cocoon suddenly being handed scripts for The Hunger Games and you have some idea of what it’s like to wait for the elevator at my oncologist’s office complex.
Were the oxygen in my blood (and in my head) not cripplingly low I’d take the stairs to the 10th floor. But I can’t. So every time I’m faced with the Sisyphean task of riding the elevator to the doctor’s office.
Because there’s no discernible front of the line and no butcher to hand out numbered tickets to order us, what has emerged instead is an impromptu triage system where each hopeful elevator rider is ranked in urgency according to the perceived hierarchy of needs and ailments.
For example, someone going in for a followup to their joint replacement procedure ranks ahead of a middle-aged man going for a GI scope; however, both of them take a backseat to a mother-to-be in her third trimester with 8 floors up to go.
Of course, if that mother-to-be is only in her first trimester then, it goes without saying, she can hoof it up the stairs.
So can someone seeing an optometrist, as pretty much everyone in the elevator triage ranks ahead of them; that is, unless that someone is A) Blind or B) suffers dementia or C) is a wheelchair bound agoraphobe.
This impromptu triage system has introduced a note of civility to the basement hallway where before there was only the makings of an exploitative Pay Per View melee, and while no written rules or policies of our triage system are anywhere posted, an understanding as settled in among us regulars.
We’ve established, for example, that chest X-rays rate ahead of regular ones. Someone with TB gets on the elevator ahead of someone with high BP, but, because we’re all in a hurry, that someone with TB does not ride the elevator alone. Appointments with urologists and proctologists, on the other hand, are judged an even draw to be settled by rock, paper, scissors- provided the anally-impaired patient doesn’t also suffer from hand-crippling arthritis, in which case he or she should probably get to move ahead in line anyway.
The system works.
Hemorrhoids and genital warts might be uncomfortable nuisances out in the world but in our elevator triage system they’re like Charlie’s golden ticket, moving the sufferer ahead in line, past the shin splints, ear aches and common colds. In perhaps this system’s only hint of social Darwinism, the morbidly obese (because of the floor space they require) are consistently consigned to the back of the line where, with the UPS deliveryman and the medical supply salesmen, they sometimes have to wait 5 hours before being granted a spot on the elevator. I like to think this is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that not only do terminal cases get an automatic spot on the elevator, we let them push the buttons.
Needless to say, in this elevator triage system, having a rare, incurable cancer turns out to be a perk.
On most days I don’t need to wear my immune-deficient face mask or even say the C-word. Like I’m so much water around rock, my bald head, sunken eyes and bare brows are enough to move me to the front of the line.
Having Mantle Cell Lymphoma is like holding a hand with a suicide king in it. As soon as the doors ding open my malady trumps most others and, just like that, the ordinary everyday ill are left behind, watching me ascend, like the Risen Christ, to the floors above them.
The only hitch in my MCL-derived VIP status is when I run up against someone who’s been dealt shittier cards than me.
It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.
The other day I was holding my son Gabriel’s hand waiting the elevator to deliver me to another of my daily appointments. When the doors dinged, I stepped forward without even thinking or looking around so accustomed had I grown to to my ‘least enviable’ superlative.
Immediately I got stuck in the doorway, shoulder-to-shoulder with 2 other patients and with Gabriel left crunched between our competing thighs. We all wore the same quizzical expression, dumbfounded someone would judge themselves more miserable than us. Behind us were the usual variety of patients stuck on the bottom rung of our triage system, watching to see how this impasse would play out.
An elderly woman a with weather-haggard face and wiry hair huffed in between oxygen tank assisted gasps.
What an act. I wish I had COPD, I thought to myself. If only I could be so lucky. What I wouldn’t give to [be as old as you and] have COPD.
‘So,’ I said, ‘I have MCL. It’s incurable and I’m not yet 40.’
‘Well I have lung cancer,’ wheezed the man wedged into my right. He looked to be in his 50’s and wore a double-breasted suit along with his look of world-weary resignation.
The woman angling at my left said…breathlessly. Were it not for the tubes going into her nostrils you’d think she was auditioning to play a Tennessee Williams character.
‘Me neither,’ said the wheezy man as he squeezed a leg past Gabriel.
I wish I was only short of breath. How simple would life be if I was geezer with lung cancer, the asshole in my head said.
‘I’m dizzy all the time, I said. The chemo’s killed all the oxygen in my blood. I feel like I’m going to pass out at any moment.’
‘I’ve got that problem too,’ the man wheezed.
‘Me too,’ the old bitty didn’t say but nodded.
‘I’ve got young kids and cancer,’ I said like it as my final answer to Regis Philbin before mustering enough pity for a Save the Children commercial and glancing down at Gabriel.
I’ve got________________8 grandkids.’
‘Seve________n,’ the double-breasted man with the combover pleaded.
And just like that we’d stalemated into silence. Gabriel tugged forward on my hand while everyone else stared at us feeling unqualified to arbitrate.
‘I, uh…’ I cleared my throat and stared into the numbers above the elevator.
‘The day before yesterday…I, uh, found a lump in my nutsack.’
The old lady gasped like a bellows.
But even if she didn’t, I heard it in my voice, the kind of matter-of-factness that’s only possible with the truth. I found a lump where there shouldn’t be a third.
‘For God’s sake, let the man pass,’ a man behind us shouted.
Now, if I’ve spun the lines above with hyperbole, this is the straight, naked truth:
After the others filled in the space around me, after they let me push the buttons and after the doors closed and we rose like the inverse of Jesus on Easter, the thought overwhelmed me: I wish I was down there.
With some other ailment that meant I was still waiting in line.
Later, Gabriel and I were sitting in the waiting room when a heavyset woman with heather-colored bangs and a younger man, who was tall and thick, came out pushing a man I took to be her husband, his father.
The chemo glow I see in the mirror I recognized on him. He was hunched over like a soothsayer and his storm-colored eyes were ringed red. He’d been crying; his family still was, over something they’d been told back in the exam room I guessed.
His wife stopped directly in front of us to blow her nose and while she did her husband glanced at us but with a faraway look and then he nodded at me like we were driving past each other on the same small road and then, suddenly and quickly, he laughed.
Giggled almost. And then his son pushed him away towards the exit.
If it wasn’t because of the eerie laugh, then Gabriel caught more than I realized because he clutched my arm like he does in a storm when he’s trying to squeeze his way underneath my umbrella.
After the exit closed behind them, Gabriel asked me in his inside voice:
‘Dad, why do you have cancer?’
I responded, unspoken, with a question of my own:
Why is God doing this to me?
I’d been living with the C-word for 7 months and, call it professional pride, this was the first time I’d allowed myself to ask that question.
Sitting there next to Gabriel, who clung to my hairless arm, I finally asked it, finally permitted myself to step over into whatever official stage of grief signified by such a question- though it was still safely rendered (and kept at a remove) in the third person. The second person (Why are you, God, doing this to me?) still felt too hot to touch.
I’d never asked it myself before, but I have plenty of experience listening to that question. It comes with the job, hearing others ask that question, often followed by me reframing it.
The first time I heard that question asked anywhere but in a Lifetime movie, I’d been a seminary student for 2 semesters, and I’d been a solo pastor for 3 months when a member of my tiny little congregation outside Princeton, New Jersey went home one Sunday after the 10:00 worship service, climbed downstairs to his basement, spread out the plastic tarp that was still dirty from a long ago family camping trip, unlocked the deer rifle with which he’d once taught his son to hunt in the Pine Barrens, sat down in a wrought iron lawn chair, and killed himself.
His name was Glenn.
He came to church with his daughter-in-law. Sometimes her husband, his son, came with them. He was named Glenn too. They always sat in the very middle of the sanctuary near the center aisle.
At the end of every service I would stand outside on the steps of the church porch. He would make his way through the line and would shake my hand and say ‘Nice sermon…the organ sounds out of tune though’ and then he would walk off down the sidewalk and drive away in his red PT Cruiser.
Every Sunday it was like that until the Sunday he drove home and decided to take the key hidden in a kitchen coffee can and unlock his gun cabinet.
Later that afternoon, his daughter-in-law called me at my apartment. And when she told me what he had done, I couldn’t help myself. Without thinking how it might sound, I just asked her: ‘Why? Why would he do that?’
She was crying too hard to get the words out, but I heard one: cancer. An answer though wasn’t really what I was asking for.
What I wanted was something more like absolution. Because listening to her sob in to the phone, I felt stabbed by guilt: guilt that I never took the time to get beyond: Nice sermon…the organ sounds out of tune. I was just a ‘part-time’ pastor. I had books to read and papers to write and classes to attend and he never fit into my schedule.
She caught her breath long enough to ask me if I would come over to Glenn’s house.
I said yes. It wasn’t until I hung up the phone that I realized: I’d never even been to a funeral before.
After a drive in my car that I quite honestly hoped would never end, I met them at Glenn’s house. Neighbors standing in the street stared at me as I got out of the car and walked up to the house. When Glenn’s daughter-in-law answered the door, I hugged her there on the front porch- not because I knew that was the right thing to do, not because I was overwhelmed with empathy or even because I’m a natural hugger- I was just terrified to say anything.
She led me down the hall to Glenn’s kitchen where we all sat down while she started to rummage through the refrigerator to make sandwiches no one would eat. Even if we couldn’t articulate it, we all sensed that eating would’ve violated something sacred.
Sitting in Glenn’s kitchen I noticed the appointments and To-Do’s written on a Philadelphia Phillies calendar next to the black rotary phone on the wall. A shopping list was scotch-taped on his fridge door next to faded 3×5 photos and postcards. He needed eggs and creamer.
I sat there with my hands on the pink formica tabletop acutely aware that my 10 ‘Master of Divinity’ courses felt like something I had mail ordered from the back of a Marvel comic and had in no way prepared to do anything for them.
Since the To Do list on Glenn’s fridge door made it appear that he’d had other plans, his daughter-in-law reached for another explanation.
‘Why would God do this to us?’
We sat in the quiet that was my lack of a response for a long time. Thank God we did too. It was only later in my ministry, after I’d been with several other grieving families, that I understood how all the usual cliches we wield against death were off limits that afternoon.
The next time, that I remember anyway, someone asked me that question I was sitting shot gun in battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.
We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.
Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Which, of course, is but another way of asking: ‘Why is God doing this to me?’
The question came from a guy named David.
David was good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.
Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.
David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.
Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.
At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.
He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.
I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.
We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.
Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album. He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died. He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer. He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night. And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping.
It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.
David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.
Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.
He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.
Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.
He was quiet for a few minutes, and I knew it was coming. The question.
Not long after my drive with David, I was working double duty nearby as a hospital chaplain at UVA, where one of my responsibilities was to accompany shocked and freshly grieved strangers to meet the bodies of their loved ones. I didn’t need hindsight to know it was a task for which I was wholly inadequate.
One winter night, in the middle of an overnight shift, I was paged to go and meet a mother who’d arrived to see her daughter.
She was waiting at the security desk when I found her- on occasions like that they’re easy to spot. She didn’t look any older than my mom.
Her mascara had already streaked down her cheeks and dried in the lines of her face. Her hair was matted from where her pillow had been just hours before. I noticed she hadn’t put any socks on and she’d put her sweater on backwards.
When I walked up to her, she had her arms crossed- like she was cold or like she was holding herself. ‘I don’t know what she was doing out this time of night’ she kept whispering to herself.
A resident doctor, a med student no older than me, accompanied us. She’d been the one who’d attended her daughter when the rescue squad brought her in from the accident.
The three of us walked soberly to a tiny, antiseptic room. A nurse or an orderly pulled a little chain string to draw the paper curtain open, and when the mother saw her daughter she immediately lost her footing.
And then she lost her breath.
Then after a long, stretched-out moment, somewhere between an inhale and an exhale, she let out a bone-racking sob.
I had my arm around her to comfort her and keep her from falling, but I didn’t say anything. I’ve always been wary of anyone who knows what to say in comfortless moments.
The med student, though, was clearly unnerved by the rawness of the mother’s grief and by the absence of any words.
She kept looking at me, urging me with her eyes to say something. I ignored her, and the mother kept sobbing just as loudly as she’d begun.
But maybe I should’ve said something, because when I refused the doctor put her hand on the mother’s shoulder and looked over at the teenage girl lying on the metal bed with flecks of dried blood not all the way wiped from her hair and forehead and said: ‘That’s alright. She’s not here. She’s slipped away. That’s just a shell…’
I’d known instantly it was the wrong thing to say, that it rang tinny and false and was completely inadequate for the moment.
Nonetheless, it surprised me when she pushed the doctor away and slapped her hard across the face and cried: ‘It’s not alright. That’s my daughter. She’s not just anything. She’s Beth.’
Chastened, the doctor said I’m sorry and slunk away.
I stayed with her a long while after that, my arm around her, listening as she stroked her daughter’s hand and hair and softly recounted memories.
In all that time, she hadn’t really acknowledged my presence until she turned and looked at the badge on my chest that read ‘Chaplain’ and asked me: ‘Why…why would God do this to her?’
About a year before I learned I had cancer I met with a woman in my church who’d just found out she had it.
She’d lost her husband a few months earlier after a long illness. Their daughter was no older than my oldest. Only weeks after she buried her husband and consoled their daughter, she learned she had a serious form of cancer.
Eventually our conversation boiled down to that 1 question:
Why is God doing this to me?
Those are just the memories that stick in my mind and in my craw. I’ve listened to some semblance of that question more times than I can recall. And over the years I think I’ve acquitted myself well listening to people ask that question through tears or clenched teeth, mirroring their emotions, affirming their feelings and perspective, neither needing to protect God from their anger nor taking their anger so seriously that I turned God into a prick, all the while testifying through my compassion for them that God is NOT doing this to them.
I’ve even learned over the years that you don’t need to be a believer to ask that question. When there is no apparent or satisfying cause to the suffering that’s befallen you, believer or not, it’s just a matter of time before you aim your ire at the First Cause. Where else but there does the buck eventually, eternally stop?
I don’t know how to parse it down for Gabriel, but there is no reason, other than the obscure molecular one, that I have stage-serious cancer. So despite being practiced at exonerating God in the workplace, I can’t help but wonder lately why God’s doing this to me.
After all, His Word says that He’s the One in whom my mutinous cells live and move and have their being.
I mean, sure, I know God’s not really doing this to me (I think), and I’ve got the diploma and the tomes to prove it but ever since I allowed myself to ask that question, I can’t stop wondering.
I think that’s what I never appreciated before, all those times listening to others ask that question.
I never realized how once you ask that question of God, since God’s not quick to answer it or allay your concerns, it just lodges there in your soul and nags away at you.
With no reason I have MCL, every passing day I grasp for one, yearning even for a bad reason such that now I can’t look at my lab results or scan reports without scrolling down a mental list of my sins, searching for a reason, wondering if God is doing this to me because I did X to Y all those years ago.
Gabriel’s question prompted a question to which I’ve listened more times than I can remember and lately now I’m listening to myself ask it.
So what follows is for me.
Maybe you’re lucky and you don’t need to hear this. If so, you can stop reading now.
But I need to hear it, hear what I’ve told others when the shoe was safely on the other foot.
God’s not doing this to you.
God’s not against you.
When Jesus gives his disciples a prayer to pray, he first warns them:
‘Do not be like the pagans when you pray…’
The pagans believed that god- the gods- changed. The pagans believed god’s mood towards us could swing from one fickle extreme to its opposite, that god could be offended or outraged or flattered by us, that sometimes god could be for us but other times god could be against us.
And so the pagans of Jesus’ day, they would pray ridiculously long prayers, rattling off every divine name, invoking every possible attribute of god, heaping on as much praise and adoration as they could muster.
In order to please and placate god.
To manipulate god. To get god to be for them and not against them.
The pagans believed that if they were good and prayed properly then god would reward them, but if they were bad and failed to offer an acceptable worship then god would punish them.
The god the pagans prayed to was: an auditor always tallying our ledger to bestow blame or blessing based on what we deserve, an accuser always watching us and weighing our deeds to condemn us for punishment or recommend us for reward.
The pagans had a lot of names for who they prayed to: Mars, Jupiter…
But scripture has one name for the kind of person the pagans prayed to: שָׂטָן, ha-satan. What we call Satan. In the Old Testament, satan doesn’t have 2 horns, a tail and a pitchfork. In the Old Testament, satan isn’t the Prince of Darkness or the personification of evil. In the Old Testament, satan is our accuser- that’s all the word means. Satan is one who casts blame upon us, who finds fault in us, who indicts us for what we deserve.
Jesus doesn’t want us to turn God into a kind of satan. Jesus doesn’t want us to mistake God for an accuser, to confuse God for one who casts blame and doles out what’s deserved.
Jesus wants us to know:
The god you think is doing this to you isn’t God.
God’s not like that. My Father isn’t like that, Jesus warns. Our Father isn’t like that. Don’t be like the pagans.
God doesn’t change. And so God never changes his mind about us. About you, Jason.
Or about you, ____________ (fill in the blank if you’re still reading).
God’s love does not depend on what we do or what we’re like. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints. As far as God’s love is concerned, our sin makes absolutely no difference to God. Our sin can’t change God because God doesn’t change.
God sends rain upon the just and the unjust. God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve. God forgives even when we know exactly what we do.
God is an old lady who’ll turn her house upside-down for something that no one else would find valuable, a shepherd who never gives up the search for the single sheep, a Father- Jesus’ Father, Our Father- who never stops looking down the road and is always ready to say ‘we have no choice but to celebrate.’
No matter what it may look like in your life right now, Jason, God is for us. You.
Always. Nothing can change that. Because God doesn’t change.