How the Valley of the Shadow of Death Changes You – and Doesn’t
Two years before I started reading Walker Percy my wife got cancer. She had begun to have short episodes of dizziness and confusion not long after our fourth child was born. Her obstetrician prescribed Zoloft for postpartum anxiety. It seemed to help for a while, but the episodes returned. Her doctor prescribed another course of antidepressants. The episodes returned again. We scheduled an MRI. Let’s rule out a tumor, ha ha ha. The MRI revealed a tumor the size of a duck egg in the left frontal lobe of her brain. She had, it turned out, been having seizures.
She lived, to start with. This is not the story of a widower’s grief. A year and a day following the MRI – after surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, the whole standard complex of cancer procedures – we got a call from the clinic: All clear. She’s fine now. The sole remaining physical evidence of her suffering is a patch of thin hair at the point the radiation was most heavily concentrated. My children still have a mother, my in-laws still have a daughter, I still have a wife. Her name is Jessica. I call her Jess.
This near miss changed us in strange ways. W. H. Auden wrote, “We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit / Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose / would be some great suffering.” We spent two and a half years phasing in and out of crisis. In the constant, disorienting oscillation we lost the signal. We had no idea what was being asked of us. We suffered, to be sure; Jess more than I. But in the absence of death we had to figure out how to live again.
After the first MRI we stumbled out from the hospital in a daze. A hot south wind blew. The late afternoon sun fell toward the horizon. Tatterdemalion starlings scrapped and scrambled for cast-off detritus in the parking lot. The world was now a more disappointing place, indifferent, hostile even. We drove home, crushed. All we felt was pure, raw dread.
Six weeks later Jess had the tumor removed. It was malignant, they told us. Just how malignant we still didn’t know. It could be either an oligodendroglioma or an astrocytoma. The prognosis for an oligodendroglioma is good. The prognosis for an astrocytoma is not. They would have to send the resected tumor out of state for further testing. We would find out the results in a few weeks. Apparently if Jess had a mutation that resulted in the co-deletion of the gene 1q/19p, then the tumor was an oligodendroglioma, but if she did not have the co-deletion it was an astrocytoma.
It was the stuff of bad science fiction. Jess’s life would be determined by ludicrous, fake-sounding words and whether she had a genetic mutation. Time telescoped. Nothing in the intervening weeks had actually happened. We might as well have been back at the hospital for the first time, gaping at a computer monitor displaying a duck-egg-sized tumor jammed into the left frontal lobe of Jess’s brain.
I still believed, but I no longer cared that I believed.
Sadness enveloped us. In the following days we were completely at the mercy of its coming and going. It took hold of every experience and bent it in on itself, and then left us shuddering and weeping.
She did have the mutation. Oligodendroglioma. We let out a three-week-long breath. But by then I had become wary of good news, like a cowed dog suspicious of affection. I called it hope fatigue. You have to put your hope in something outside this cycle, otherwise hope fatigue sets in. The psalmists knew this.
It is difficult even now to revisit those moments without dredging up the dark emotions that accompanied them. But they were accompanied, for me at least, by a sort of absurd, punctuated ecstasy. The dread of death and the grief at illness were shot through with – how to say it – a hopeful summons I perceived in my wife’s cancer. The night Jess’s tumor was removed, alone for the first time all day, I sat in the dark of the ICU while she slept, the only light a soft effervescent glow from the regularly cresting lub-dub of her heart rate on the computer monitor. I wondered then whether the whole thing might not be some sort of weird blessing. Sitting amid the glow of the machines, I mulled over the day’s events. Perhaps the tumor was benign, and it was possible we were nearing the end of the trial. Suffering is a great teacher. If you are subject to its austere pedagogy, it is impossible not to be changed. Dare I admit, I wondered, that I’m worried if it all turns out well? That I won’t receive the wisdom that accrues to those who suffer? What if I’m not chosen for the trial? I couldn’t help but wonder whether the evil of my wife’s cancer – if it couldn’t be avoided – could somehow be used in morally productive ways, and in its utility mysteriously overcome and undone. I hoped that in the end, whatever happened, Jess and I would both be able to speak the words Estella says to Pip in Great Expectations: “I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”
In the months that followed Jess slept a lot and was rarely hungry. Our day-to-day life featured the usual morbid trappings one finds in cancer stories: cold sterile rooms, vinyl-upholstered chairs, sentinel IV poles; the weirdly upbeat, forced camaraderie of cancer-survivor culture; overflowing baskets of free headscarves, wigs, and other macabre effects of cancer patients chillingly no longer needed. But mostly it was a blur of doctor’s appointments, earnest nods and smiles from friends and acquaintances, and trips across town to deliver our kids where they needed to be so I could work and Jess could rest.
What normalcy we achieved was fragile – received, in fact, more than achieved. It was directly attributable to the enormous amount of support from friends, family, church, neighbors. Money unasked for flowed into our home to help with medical bills. Friends came over weekly to clean house. Church ladies wheeled in casseroles by the dozen. Neighbors showed up with lawn mowers. Without the help we received, life would have been incredibly difficult. In any case, the trauma of those first days mellowed into a routine of community and prayer and provision; an unexpected richness. Jess’s countenance changed. Her face, thin and tired from chemo, suddenly reflected a wisdom and dignity forged in her suffering, which gave her a deeper beauty than I had known.
Three hundred and sixty-six days after the first MRI the oncologist declared that Jess was done.
We had our life back. We threw a party. We started making long-term plans again.
Out from under cancer’s thumb, we set about reestablishing the humdrum of habits and patterns that had been overturned by Jess’s illness.
Then it was that my faith left me. Or more accurately, I still believed, but I no longer cared that I believed.
Karl Bryullov, The Road in the Sinai after the Storm
The literal meaning of the Greek word akēdia is lack of care. In its original, pre- Christian meaning it referred to a failure to bury the dead – a failure, that is, to treat the liminal force of death with the gravity it is due. Death is a primary site of the unknown, where the mysterious and the supernatural press in on ordinary life. It must be faced directly – even if in a formalized and ritualized way – not neglected or ignored, lest the chaotic forces of the underworld overwhelm the ordered world of the living. Late in the fourth century Evagrius of Pontus retreated to the desert monasteries of Egypt. There he gave theoretical and systematic articulation to the ascetic life, categorizing temptation and distilling the “eight thoughts,” the most singular, mercurial, and vexing of which is acedia. That Evagrius applied the word as he did seems apt. The vice of acedia, according to his definition, is an active unremembering, a loss of the sensation of faith, a habituated lack of care about the things that make for one’s salvation.
Life was outwardly normal, but Jess and I both knew at some level that we were caught in the wash of powerful events, held by them in suspension. I coped by upending the structure of my life – suddenly I needed a new job, a new church, a new home. I stopped praying. Jess told me she felt guilty for not having learned more spiritually from her suffering. I started reading Walker Percy. I picked up Love in the Ruins, and proceeded to read pretty much everything he ever wrote. When I finished his novels I read his essays. And when I finished his essays I read his novels again.
Eventually they started reading me. Percy brings his readers to the threshold of decision, inviting us to continue to enact the moral world the novel has presented. But he does not force us to cross the threshold with him. As long as I kept reading I could rock back and forth on that threshold, consulting by proxy my own alienation from myself.
Closing down need not be terminal but can become a moment filled with signification.
In September of 2018, a spot reappeared. Jess went in for a routine follow-up MRI, and it looked like bad news. The neurosurgeon recommended immediate surgery.
We were not prepared for this news. It had been two years since Jess’s operation, and we assumed she was in the clear. We had just been getting our bearings.
Jess was too terrified to be angry, terrified at the thought of enduring surgery again, and at the renewed possibility of the loss of her future life; terrified again at leaving her husband and her children without her.
Our crisis did not evaporate but stretched and thinned like a cirrus cloud at high altitude.
My fear quickly turned to grief. Grief converted to anger. Anger hardened into resentment. No more noble thoughts for me about the blessings of suffering. The questions I had so willingly wrestled with the first time around now seemed cloying and trite. What is God trying to teach me? Where is he in the midst of the darkness? How is it that he providentially allows but does not cause cancer in our beautiful beloveds?
Thanks, but no. I did that once. Now I lived in the burned-over district of cancer prayer.
We got a second opinion. By a stroke of good luck we were able to schedule a consultation with one of the most highly regarded neurosurgeons in the state. He recommended we wait and see. Get a follow-up MRI in a month, maybe six weeks. See how it’s progressing. Then we can reevaluate. If it’s regrowth of the tumor it can’t do any damage in that short time, and we’ll know what to do. If it’s her brain reacting to the radiation – it can do that, even two years later – it’ll look the same or smaller.
This was advice to which we were more amenable. Six weeks passed. Another MRI. The report was good; the spot hadn’t grown. Sweet relief. But we weren’t out of the woods. She’d have another one in six weeks’ time, and then we’d have a good-enough longitudinal sample of scans to tell us what was really happening.
Another six weeks, another MRI. This was the real test. It was a cold January morning. Jess and I were sitting in the car about to go see the neurosurgeon, who would tell us whether the spot had grown. The car was off and it was quiet. Our breath became translucent, condensed on windows. I had had enough of looking away. I had for too long taken counsel with my anger. I was ready to stare death in the face, and I would not be cowed. We prayed. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord. Something along those lines.
I felt lighter. I had no more reason to hope the news we were about to hear would be what we wanted to hear than I did before we prayed. But I felt like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim. A burden had slipped off my back.
We went in.
The news was good. Thanks be to God.
Such was the end of our ordeals. I’d like to say something changed in the car before the appointment; I believe it did. I’d like to say I would have accepted bad news without anger, and with trust. I believe it is important that I accepted what was waiting for us in that room before we went in.
We moved on with life, again free of the specter of cancer. For now at least. Who knows what the future will bring. We have been chastened. Though we are optimistic we move forward cautiously. A new, permanent heightened awareness of life’s fragility has been established, our ignorance of this taken away. My idle moments are more regularly invaded by dark thoughts that keep me awake at night, make me hate driving by the hospital. But Jess is healthy, and we no longer take for granted our unexceptional, quotidian, small-town lives. That knowledge is a blessing in its way.
Evagrius says those who persevere through the onslaughts of acedia often break through to contemplation. I have not broken through. Our crisis did not evaporate but stretched and thinned like a cirrus cloud at high altitude. I am still tempted to forgetfulness of death, and so by turns find myself in thrall to it, sunk into everydayness, as Walker Percy says. Our bodies betray us. Our hope in them, so easily taken for granted, will fail.
In my living room hangs an icon of Christ’s resurrection. Or rather, of the moment before his resurrection, after his descent to the dead. It’s a stunning image, dynamic, energetic, full of movement. The whole scene vibrates with the force of life. Against a deep blue background, a white-clad Christ pulls Adam and Eve literally out of their graves, the rest of humanity getting swept up with them in the wake of Christ’s shimmering mandorla. The whole of creation is caught in the angle of his velocity as the saints of old are plucked from Hades, the inner tip of the base of creation, like a great cosmic sock being turned inside out. Christ stands poised, ready to turn and ascend, his feet on two broken doors, keys and skulls scattered like gravel below him, the kingdom of death destroyed. He is a tensile coil, all potential energy.
The resurrection pulls us out beyond death’s ambit, relativizes it, renders it merely penultimate without yet annihilating it. I am temperamentally impatient of this divine ambivalence. And now here I am two years later, kicking around in death’s graveyard, haunting the space vacated when Christ and all his saints up and left.
He is the way. I am trying to follow him.
Jeff Reimer, Associate Editor, Comment Magazine
Comment is one of the core publications of Cardus, a think tank devoted to renewing North American social architecture, rooted in two thousand years of Christian social thought. Originally published on Plough.com as “On Not Burying the Dead,” February 18, 2021. Used with permission.