Third Week in Easter
The waiting room at my oncologists’ office is long and narrow, reminding me of a bus or a sound booth. I prefer the latter, I suspect, because of the small round raspberry-colored CD player that lies on the floor in the room. Minus the color, it’s the same model my youngest son uses to listen to his Awesome Mix Volume I while he plays with his Legos.
The CD player- my oncologist’s not my son’s- is tucked underneath a wicker end table whose glass top itself is buried underneath stacks of ‘Life with Cancer’ brochures and newsletters.
When I’m not imbibing chemo-poison at the stem cell center cross town, I visit this office most every morning for lab work and dressing changes and check-ups. Sometimes my appointments are so early in the am I arrive before the receptionists.
The CD player is always turned on.
Always already calibrated to the same DC soft rock station, promising ‘the best mix of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s’, a canard that roughly translates to ‘we play the same 2 dozen songs you heard on the radio when your babysitter drove you to Odyssey of the Mind practice in the 5th grade.’
You know the radio rotation I mean: Rod Stewart’s ‘Broken Arrow’ and criminal cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Have I Told You Lately,’ lots of Lionel Ritchie (post-Commodores), UB40’s ‘Red, Red, Wine,’ the obligatory Whitney Houston cut, filled out by anything from Genesis (post-Peter Gabriel) or Phil Collins (pre-Disney).
When you’ve got stage-serious cancer, I guess even ‘Easy like Sunday Morning’ beats Wagner or, say, Tom Waits.
And maybe there’s a certain genius to a ‘best of’ playlist so limited it could all fit onto one of those mix-tape cassettes I was woefully optimistic in giving to a girl in the 6th grade. Because we all- no matter our age, color or creed- know these songs. More so even than age, color or creed these song unite us- trust me, after hearing them every day at the oncologists’ office I know.
Just last week, as Phil Collins sung-spoke his way through his plodding single ‘In the Air Tonight,’ every patient in the oncologists’ waiting room appeared preoccupied with their Washington Posts and their iPads or distracted by the dire straits ahead; that is, until Phil Collins finally got to his ostentatious, ’80’s, synthesized drum solo and six of us seated there, waiting on word of our cancer, spontaneously joined in Phil Collins’ completely gratuitous drum solo, beating on our tablets and paperbacks and binder clipped insurance claims or just making that pursed mouth noise reserved for ’80’s drum effects and fight scenes in Indiana Jones.
Even the medical supply salesman, I spied, was tapping on his large wheeled brief case and not so silently mouthing the words ‘Oh long…’
A few days before that I noticed how I wasn’t the only one in the waiting room singing softly along to Extreme’s cigarette lighter worthy single ‘More Than Words,’ the slow dance song that ended my 8th grade year and began, I liked to think at the time, my manhood. In case you think Extreme was whiter than shopping at West Elm after watching a Pauly Shore movie, I was joined in their power ballad by an older black man who looked not unlike the harried cop Dad in the ’90’s sitcom Family Matters.
Several times a week in the waiting room, Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ comes on the radio (godhelpus) and whenever it does Paul, the real estate novelist (who never had time for a wife), is not the only one talking to Davey (who’s still in the Navy). Everyone’s joining in with their hushed ‘La, la, la, la’s.’
Some songs everyone knows.
Last Thursday, I and a gruff tatted up older man who wore his leather-worked wallet on a chain affixed to his leather-tooled belt (you know, the kind of guy you see at Kings Dominion or dog fights) both caught ourselves singing along to Cyndi Lauper’s candy confection‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’
When we got to the start of the chorus, he looked over at me, awkwardly, and shrugged:
‘Shit, after what this chemo’s done to my testosterone, I’ve got as much right to sing this song as anyone else.’
After 3 months of sitting in this waiting room, the soft-singing and hushed humming and toe-tapping have become so ubiquitous you notice it when no one here is responding at all to the music- or, possibly, responding too much.
Like one day last week when the Boss’ title song from the movie Philadelphia come on the radio, the Tom Hanks film about a losing battle with AIDS.
No one sang.
Though, I’m willing to bet we all knew the words as well as I do.
Tom Hanks might’ve had a different disease, but who’s to say his odds were any worse than ours?
Speaking of odds-
Yesterday I sat thumbing through my Elmore Leonard novel, waiting for the nurse to call my name, when a favorite of mine came on the raspberry radio, another Phil Collins’ song: ‘Against All Odds.’
It’s quite possibly the greatest pop song of all time.
As soon as Phil Collins crooned his initial query ‘How can I just let you walk away?’ I could tell he had the rapt, nostalgic attention of every patient and family member in the waiting room.
And no sooner had Phil Collins gotten to his money line, the line where in the music video it cuts from Phil to Jeff Bridges rolling in the sand with _________, ‘You’re the only one who really knew me at all’ than all of us there that morning for sticks and pricks, blood work and bad news were joining in the refrain: ‘So take a look at me now…’
And we were all still singing, like the English-speaking world’s most subdued flash mob, when we got to the end: ‘…and you coming back to me is against all odds and that’s a __________________________’
See, you know it too.
All of us were singing or humming or whistling:
The 50-something business woman with the cane and the discourteously loud iPhone key strokes.
The 20-something hipster hanging on to his 3 day beard, wearing a crooked Dodgers cap and an overlarge cardigan that hung down to the knees of his skinny jeans.
The 60-something insurance looking type with a dandruffed blazer and a mauve toupee every bit as outdated as the Palm Treo in his hand.
The lesbian couple with the matching Osprey backpacks on their laps.
And me, the Seth Godin lookalike erstwhile clergyman.
All of us, clouds of varying darkness threatening over our heads, were singing about the chance you got to take even if when it’s against all odds.
Thanks to the radio’s best mix of yesterday, today and tomorrow that hasn’t changed since yesteryear there are some songs that everyone just unconsciously knows, songs you can finish on your own after the shower is turned off or the car is parked or the nurse calls you back to take your vital signs.
According to Mark’s Gospel at least, one of the last things Jesus does on the cross is sing:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It’s the first line from the 22nd song. The next line of the psalm sings:
“Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
The Church typically reads Jesus’ cry of forsakenness on Passion Sunday, when many are in worship, and on Good Friday, when no one is, and most often we use Christ singing this snatch of song to proof-text our interpretations of another bit of bible music. Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs.
When mixed into Isaiah’s playlist, Jesus’ cover of Psalm 22 on the cross becomes an instance of God’s turning God’s back on the suffering Christ.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” begins to sound as obvious as a Top 40 single:
God has abandoned Jesus, the vicarious sinner.
Jesus on the cross is alone in the most existential possibility of the word; he’s experiencing something worse than betrayal and torture and crucifixion, the sheer and total separation from God that is rightly due all of us woebegone sinners.
But “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is only the first line of Israel’s 22nd song.
More importantly, Psalm 22 is a song everyone in Israel would’ve known.
As Jews, Jesus’ listeners would’ve had all 150 psalms committed to memory. They would’ve sung many of them a minimum of 3 times a day as part of their daily office. They would’ve had no choice but to know the song that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” like I stubbornly know all the words to Sir Mix A Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back.’
They could’ve sung Psalm 22 right along with Jesus, and maybe those near the cross that Friday did just that in the same hushed tones with which I heard a mom and her bald, 30-something daughter sing along to Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ last Friday.
Some songs everyone knows.
Jesus’ listeners would’ve known the song that begins with feeling forsaken ends- builds towards, is more like it- on a different note entirely.
Faith-filled and confident in God’s vindication.
So which is it?
Is Psalm 22 a Good Friday text, as we’ve most often made it?
Or is it actually an Easter passage, foreshadowing resurrection from the dark side of the cross?
What kind of song is Jesus singing? Does he sound bruised and battered and resigned like Springsteen does in ‘The Streets of Philadelphia?’ or does he sound nonplussed and defiant, against all the odds, like Phil Collins?
Does Jesus, with his last bit of humanity, feel forgotten, forsaken? Or is that first line he sings meant to trigger a song in the collective memory and convey his faith, of feeling graced?
The other day, a couple of days into my latest round of chemo-poison, handing me my most recent blood work, the nurse practitioner sent my already nauseous stomach for a roll:
“…so it could just be a quirk of how your body’s responding to the chemo, or it could mean the cancer’s worsened in your bone marrow…”
And looked up from the printout.
“Of course…there’s no way to know for certain until you have a PET scan later…”
Like a dirty band-aid, cancer just pulls away the veneer from what you knew already in the basement closet of your mind:
Life is incredibly beautiful and terrifically shitty.
Sometimes simultaneously though, more frequently, the two attributes are proximate and subsequent to one another.
Life, cancer reifies, is not unlike St. Luke’s Emmaus episode, a story we read during Eastertide but one, I believe, we could just as properly read on Good Friday.
After all, isn’t the ‘miracle’ of having our eyes opened to Jesus’ presence among us but a reminder that he’s also just as often absent from us?
Is not Christ’s appearance in the breaking of the bread also subsequently (if not simultaneously) his disappearance?
Which means every sacrament, the intrusion of the holy into our world, is precious precisely because it’s also at the same time a kind of exit. It’s both a faith-filled, saturated moment and a forsaking- in the leave-taking sense of the world.
Life is grace and it’s achingly awful all at once or right after the other in no particular order. It’s feeling humbled and straight flush lucky for the covered dishes and cards dropped at your door, but it’s also feeling incredibly alone, scratching your head and wondering, self-pityingly, how people can go on with their lives when something like this is happening to you. It’s feeling good, with halftime in your treatment within sight, and then feeling brained by a bit of- if not bad then- uncertain news.
If every Sunday, as the Church likes to say, is ‘a little Easter,’ celebrating the certainties of the resurrection, then that leaves at least one of six remaining days to be ‘a little Good Friday’ for us.
To feel wronged. Forgotten. To feel the umbilical chord of God’s presence ripped from your belly and wonder when (if?) it’s coming back.
What we might not normally prefer to admit in the pews cancer makes unavoidable: life is like that, if not for you personally then certainly for the preponderance of people.
So that song Jesus sings from the cross- it’s got to be both.
If the cross is ground zero for Jesus taking on our full humanity, the expanse of our mortal experience, then his singing the 22nd song has got to be both, feeling faith-filled and forsaken. It can’t be one or the other, as our preaching typically demands of it, because our lives- the lives enfleshed in his life- are equal parts #blessed and #forsaken.
If life really is the sum of the song Jesus sings on the cross, then faith is not what so many skeptics suppose, particularly when the C-word injects a discordant note.
Faith is NOT a crutch amidst life.
Because if life is a reliable and merciless pendulum between feeling faith-filled and feeling forsaken then to have faith is to feel the absence of it- no, the fleetingness of it- that much more acutely.
To see Christ at work in the world is also not to see him at work in the world.
To NOT see him even more clearly than those who lack the eyes of faith.
Maybe that’s why the ending of the 22nd song goes unsung or unquoted at Mark’s cross, perhaps the faith-filled notes at the end are only genuine, trustworthy, because of the feelings of forsakenness that preceded them.
Maybe the author of the 22nd Psalm wasn’t only a good songwriter like Phil Collins. Maybe he or she was truly, fully, no bullshitting human too.
Just like Jesus.
There’s a song, one of my favorites, by Lyle Lovett called ‘Fat Girl.’ It’s not a pop song; it’s definitely not the kind of song you hear on the radio. It’s too brief and unromantic and bracing:
The fat girl
She always stayed inside and played piano
And she told her mother
The children made her cry
And her mother told her
They don’t mean it
They don’t mean it
They don’t mean it
They don’t mean it
Now the fat girl
She ain’t fat no more
And lord how she plays piano
And she sings loud
And she sings low
And she sings of love
And blind passion
But she don’t mean it
She don’t mean it
She don’t mean it
She don’t mean it
The fat girl, because of what she’s been through, no longer means what she says.
I guess that’s my biggest fear (aside from, you know, a painful and premature death) in all this: to get to the point where I no longer mean what I
The only way to avoid it, I think, is to avoid the pop pieties we prefer and instead stick to the kind of music Jesus himself sings.