I’m on ‘medical leave’ now that I’m undergoing chemo-poison.
Essentially ‘medical leave’ is insurancese that means I now give my 100% all to doing roughly the amount of work my boss, Dennis Perry, has done the past 10 years (4.5%) while still receiving 70% of my salary whilst another insurance company (the one ‘covering’ my care) spends 80% of its time trying to screw me over.
Though it first sounded like a grift to me, I’ve noticed that cancer lends ‘medical leave’ something like the opposite stigma of welfare and while it doesn’t grant me any stamps to spend at Safeway medical leave does provide me ample time to conform to the very worst conservative stereotypes of welfare recipients.
That’s right, I lay around on my ass and I watch TV.
It’s no small feat when you consider that I don’t have cable. There’s no mindless channel surfing here; it takes work to waste time on my sofa. Like the central port buried in my chest, my Apple TV feeds lazy ass me from just two lines of entertainment possibilities: Netflix and iTunes.
Just to convey how bad it’s gotten for me, yesterday I abdicated 100 minutes of my life to watch the Jason Statham cajun-flavored revenge ‘film’ Homefront. If the name Jason Statham is unfamiliar to you or if you haven’t heard of this B-movie, suffice it to say that the script- all six nonsensical sentences of it- was written by Sylvester Stallone.
Laying on the sofa with chemo-poison flowing from my man-pursed portable pump into my chest in order to save my life, I simultaneously wasted an hour and forty minutes of that life watching Homefront, a movie where Jason Statham does no transporting of any kind.
What’s worse, that was the second time I’d watched Homefront, making for a grand total of 200 minutes of my life. Since it’s Holy Week: that’s longer than Jesus languished on the cross. It’s no trivial sacrifice when you consider the odds are better than even that Mantle Cell has now abridged my life span by a decade or two.
Thanks to medical leave, my house is now like Guy Montag’s. The scrolling screen saver on my Apple TV has become like another work of art in our living room, the digital complement to the tasteful pen and ink above our mantle.
And maybe it’s because mortality now stalks me like a shadow
or maybe it’s because the chemo-cocktails have left my insides a metabolic roller-coaster
or maybe it’s because cancer has coincidentally coincided with some sort of manstrating man-change within me,
whatever the reason, there’s something about the photos in the Apple TV screensaver slideshow that lately render me a weepy, tear-soaked mess.
I mean, there’s the photograph of the solitary polar bear floating submerged in the brisk sea looking, to me at least, despondent (and maybe a bit vexed at all you climate change deniers out there), as though he can’t find a single sheet of arctic ice to rest upon and now he’s given up trying.
And there’s the action shot of the salmon who has furiously swum upstream to spawn, pursuing only the promise that he’ll meet his mate and his maker in that (short) order. Jumping, briefly, out of the water, out of fear or rage or foreplay-who’s to say what is the difference, this unlucky fish lands, dead-center (snap goes the camera), in the mouth of a luckier grizzly bear.
Such is the capriciousness of life, I think every time of late.
And then dab at my eyes.
Following the ill-fated fish, there’s an aerial of what sometimes looks to me like the smooth, sexy navel and torso of an exotic woman. It’s actually a photograph of a scorched, oasis-less desert that you’re as likely to die in as traverse.
In my better moods that strikes me as ironic.
What really gets me though is the Lifetouch-esque photo of a papa gorilla holding out in his hard, leathery hand a delicate, few-petalled, flower. His little boy gorilla sits in front of him smiling and staring, looking equal parts delighted and amazed.
I have no idea if either of them is actually male. I just project that onto the photo, that’s my point. Such is my issue of late.
Ever since stage-serious cancer got me, the father/son gorilla picture gets to me every time. I tear up the way I once did watching the finale of Finding Nemo with my youngest boy- you know, the part where Nemo screams ‘Daddy’ and then hugs his prodigal father with his two little imperfect fins.
The gorilla on the screensaver slideshow gets me in a weepy, fatted-calf kind of mood every time, and every time my wife, Ali, looks at me like: Who are you?
Granted, my observations about the aforementioned desert photo provoke some additional comments from Ali as well but, most of the time, whenever I look at the Apple TV screensaver slideshow- and reach for a tissue- Ali looks at me like:
What have you done with my husband?
She does so because for most of our marriage, as well as the long courtship preceding it, my emotional landscape was not unlike that dry, barren desert that just might be the nude, come-hither midriff of a Bond girl.
At most, my hard-scrabble emotional landscape had a tumbleweed or two blowing by.
But now, I’m different. I’m like a post-menopausal Blanche Dubois, crying in to my silk kimono to keep the tears from falling into the cheesecake Dorothy’s defrosted for me.
I blame it on the C-word that so often now my wife looks at me as though wondering:
Are you the same person I married?
The question comes to every marriage.
I’ve been a pastor for 14 years. I’ve taken hours and hours of counseling classes. I’ve worked with I don’t know how many couples. I’ve got shelves of books on marriage in my office, and one of the points I’ve always impressed upon those about to be married is what I’ve called Jason’s Rule.
Jason’s Rule goes like this:
You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.
‘Jason’s Rule’ is just a shamelessly cribbed version of Hauerwas’ rule.
Whether you have a terrific relationship or a terrible one, I always tell couples before their wedding and often in their wedding sermon, Jason’s Rule always holds true.
‘I don’t care if you’ve already lived with the person you’re marrying or if you’ve filled out a hundred e-Harmony compatibility questions, Jason’s Rule always prove true.’
I’ve preached several dozen times.
‘Marriage,’ I tell them, ‘names the process in which you discover who the stranger is that you’ve married (as well as who the stranger is that you call you).’
‘That’s why,’ I’ve written into every wedding sermon I’ve ever preached, ‘only marriage makes you ready for marriage.’
‘That’s why,’ I always warn them before they ever promise anything about sickness and health or riches and poverty or death doing them apart, ‘marriage isn’t just a beautiful leap of faith, it’s a rough and tumble process too. It’s why even the best marriages aren’t easy or painless.’
You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.
It’s a nugget of ostensible wisdom I still think worth doling out to couples, but cancer’s got me reconsidering just how foolproof is ‘Jason’s Rule.’
While I’m sure Ali never imagined the shy, sophisticated, Ivy League, French-film watching gentleman to whom she once said ‘I do’ would one day be teaching her boys to burp the starting lineup for the Nationals or that he would one day be ranking her boys’ farts by both sound and scent or that he would prove genetically incapable of putting the toilet seat down.
Contrary to my own pre-marital dictate, I knew all along exactly who I was marrying.
‘Jason’s Rule’ still holds true in the sense that Ali never foresaw that when I vowed ‘…and with all that I am…’ Mantle Cell Lymphoma would be included before our 14th anniversary.
But even though I didn’t know back then that my chromosomes would one day foment a mutiny within my marrow, I DID know- yes, I absolutely did- that Ali was the type of person who would shush me, gently, and smooth my sweat-matted hair when a panic attack roused me awake.
Before she ever promised to love and comfort me in sickness, I knew that she would change my soiled bed clothes and sheets in the middle of the night. I had no doubt she would climb into my hospital bed with me no matter the nasty bile tube running from my gut out my nose to underneath her head.
Being young and stupid, I had no notion such a day would come but I still knew she was the type of woman who would get down on her knees and scrub every inch of our house for every stray germ that might land neutropenic me back in the hospital. I knew even then that she would never reconsider the fairness of that ‘forsaking all others’ promise while she knocked softly on the bathroom door to ask if I was alright, as the chemo-induced hemorrhoids made the chemo-induced runs a torturous experience only Dick Cheney could minimize.
‘Jason’s Rule’ aside-
I knew when I said ‘I do’ that she would do all of this and more.
One of the things you learn in ministry the average cancer patient (or doctor even) might not know is that stage-serious cancer is the kind of shit that can wreak havoc on a marriage.
That’s why it’s so grave- as in, important, that I knew before either us pledged anything about ‘for better, for worse’ that she was the sort of person for whom this would never be just my cancer.
Ali’s an ‘our’ kind of woman.
And it is very much our disease. There isn’t a truer thing I can write.
In countless texts, emails, Facebook messages, Tweets, hugs at the grocery, and old fashioned snail mail, so many people ask how I’m doing, how I feel, what it’s like for me to have cancer turn my life upside down.
Not nearly as often do people ask about Ali, about how she’s doing, about how she feels, about what it’s like for her to have cancer turn her life upside down and shake a fair amount of what was her life out onto the floor.
And they should because I have a better vantage than anyone and this stage-serious cancer is as hard (if not harder) on her than it is on me.
Ali had to be the one to break the news to me when I first opened my eyes out of surgery:
‘It was a bigger surgery than they thought, honey. They removed a pretty large tumor…it’s…lymphoma…we’re waiting to find out what kind.’
Of course, I was too narced up to remember her telling me any of that but my mom was there and told me just before telling me that Ali did a good job with the hard telling.
Since that first day, it’s only gotten harder.
She’s the one who has to deal with an obstinate, pain-in-the-ass, and anemic husband who dismisses nose bleeds and knife cuts that refuse to clot as ‘not a big deal.’
She’s the one (not me- I was eating pudding in the hospital) who had to talk it through with our boys about how their Dad has cancer and could be sick for a very long time, fingers crossed the whole time that our youngest, Gabriel, wouldn’t connect remember to connect the C-word to his kindergarten teacher who died.
She’s the one who bears this unfair burden of anxiety about how much time she spends with me in the hospital or at the doctor’s office or at the stem cell center and whether or not it should be more time- which would mean less time at work or at home- because we don’t know how much time we have left.
Ironically, the insurance company seems to remember what so many others neglect to ask, for the bills come with her name on them too. My cancer
effects afflicts her too.
The truth is I’ve got it easy.
I spend most of my days going to doctors who weigh me and measure out my blood, who inject me and infuse me and inquire of me. It’s pretty passive even if it’s not carefree. And when I’m home (and not on or near the toilet) all I’ve got to do is lay on my ass with poison running through tubes in my chest and binge-watch Game of Thrones.
Ali has to pick up the slack, put on a brave face for the boys, ask the doctor the questions I’m afraid to broach, be my personal assistant, maid and nurse, worry about germs in our house on a daily basis and wonder how much I’m lying when I tell her ‘I feel fine.’
Lately, I look at myself in the mirror and I just kvetch at what I see: a 5’7 foreskin with glasses.
Ali looks at this hairless, sometimes emaciated, sometimes swollen with fluid version of me and she just worries.
The one with the cancer has got it easy.
I don’t have to be the one married to a spouse who (despite everything I’ve written above) routinely neglects to consider how all this shit makes her feel.
Speaking of shit, I don’t have to be married to someone who now leaves a small mammal’s worth of dead ass hair on the toilet seat. That would effing gross me out and drive me over the edge. But not Ali. Okay, it does gross her out but she takes it in graceful stride.
It’s our cancer.
And there’s no better picture I can draw for how this is so than to tell you that the 24hr poison pump hooked to my chest now rests between us in bed, like our baby, albeit an unwanted one that prevents me from putting my arm around her (when that’s all I want to do) and keeps us, as we’ve always done, from spooning our legs inside each other’s. The distance the poison pump baby creates between us is such that I can’t even feel her breath blow across my chest hair.
Or what’s left of it.
I never knew we’d be in this position, just over a dime into our marriage, but when I said ‘I do’ I just knew, if only intuitively, what Ali would do. And without meaning to sound creepy or more prescient than I am, it’s one of the reasons I married her.
I’m selective about whose wedding I perform. I say no to a lot of couples. I like my weekends too much to say yes to everybody and with so many Christians these days blathering about ‘the sanctity of marriage’ it seems hypocritical to marry any hetero couple who claims to be love.
Still, in 14 years I’ve married a lot of people and since before I was even married myself I’ve been dispensing ‘Jason’s Rule’ to would-be newlyweds. And now that
I have we have cancer, I suspect I’ve been wrong all this time.
I have we have cancer, I realize I knew exactly who Ali was, is all along.
‘Jason’s Rule,’ as it turns out, isn’t the warning it sounds like. ‘Jason’s Rule’ isn’t that you don’t know who the person is you’re marrying; it’s a warning that you’re not likely to marry someone as special as I’ve married. ‘Jason’s Rule’ isn’t a warning that you don’t know who you have in marriage; it’s a warning that you’ll probably never have what I have in marriage.
Today is Holy Thursday, the day when the Church remembers the last Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples. In John’s Gospel there is no Passover meal. John intends for Jesus on the Cross to be the Passover lamb. Instead of a meal, John gives us a scene where Jesus kneels down, dons the posture of a servant, and washes his friends’ feet. Peter and the others initially resist and their reluctance is almost always interpreted in terms of exultation and humiliation.
Peter and the others, it’s assumed, don’t want a King like Jesus deigning to wash their nasty feet. Discipleship then, the sermons- including my own- always go, means stooping down, rolling up our sleeves, swallowing our pride and serving like Christ.
I realize only now that, in the story, what Peter resists isn’t what Jesus does- acting beneath his station and washing their feet.
No, Peter resists what Jesus says- that this footwashing is a sharing in Jesus’ death.
It’s not that Peter doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet.
It’s that Peter doesn’t want to die.
Ever since Ali broke to me the news we both dreaded, I’ve thought a lot about another washing we do in the Church, baptism, and how in the Church we say with water and oil that the baptized are baptized into Christ’s death.
And Christians mean that literally if obliquely.
The manner in which we carry our own crosses, confront dreaded news and adversity and, say, deal with stage-serious disease it’s the way we live into our baptisms by sharing- hopefully later rather than sooner- in Christ’s death.
In addition to ‘Jason’s Rule’ I’ve always liked to point out to would-be newlyweds how the wedding liturgy in the worship book comes after in the sense of logically flowing from the baptism liturgy. Marriage too, with its impossibly huge promises of constancy come what may until death tears us asunder, is but a way we live into and live out our baptisms.
I can’t tell you how many would-be newlyweds have told me they want to get married because they’ve found the person with whom they want to share their life.
But really, if the worship book is any clue, we should be searching for a rarer kind of person- someone with whom we can die. No, even rarer still: someone who can help us to die in a manner worthy of our baptism.
Hopefully later rather than soon.