We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. 2 Cor. 4
The last time I visited this space I was posting a video my sister and I made to make our sister Annabelle laugh. Let me explain…It was January, and we were road-tripping to New Jersey to take her to her 6th and last round of chemo. Annabelle had handled chemo, like she handles everything in life, like a Boss. We were giddy with the thought that our sister was almost through her ordeal. We deliberately made my already messy car even messier, chortling as we imagined Annabelle’s reaction when she watched the video. (I have to admit though, I really did happen to have a rubber horse mask and a can of green beans in the car, because, I mean…doesn’t everyone travel with those essentials)?
That week my sister crammed the fridge and freezer with food so Annabelle’s family wouldn’t have to worry about meals until the End Times. I got the easy gig. I drove Annabelle to her appointment to keep her company during her day-long chemo infusion. We talked, we laughed, we napped. I’m pretty sure it was the longest time I got to spend one-on-one with my sister ever. The circumstances were lousy, but I will always remember that day with Annabelle as a gift.
On Saturday, my sister and I drove back to Virginia in a celebratory mood. Annabelle was done with chemo! The next morning when my sister called to tell me that Annabelle was at that very moment lying in an ambulance being stabilized after having a stroke, I could hear the words she was saying, but could not process them. By the end of the day, I was back in New Jersey with my sisters and my parents. My brother flew in the next morning. My sister and I stayed in New Jersey, keeping vigil over Annabelle, who would be in the ICU for more than a month. Bleak, dark winter days bled into dark nights and weeks. Later, doctors, nurses, and social workers would tell us that they hadn’t expected our sister to survive. That thought never once occurred to my sister and me. In May, just in time for Mother’s Day, Annabelle finally made it back to her own house, where she continues to fight like the badass she has been since the day she was born.
Life hasn’t been the same since. I’ve been driving up to New Jersey as often as possible to take my parents up to see Annabelle on weekends. In March we lost a dear family friend to cancer. At the end of that same month we came to the bitter realization that it was time to put our sweet dog Tallis to sleep. Another friend was diagnosed with cancer shortly before I too was diagnosed with…you guessed it: cancer. By that time I was so numb, I wasn’t even surprised. I tried to avoid telling my poor, beleaguered parents for as long as I could, but finally had to break the news when I drove up to Arlington to take them to visit my sister with an ice pack tucked under my arm after the lymph node biopsy I’d had the day before. The jig was up. Having to tell them I have cancer was far worse than getting the diagnosis, and, (hopefully), worse than the double mastectomy I’m having next week.
During those terrible weeks when my sister and I sat in the hospital with Annabelle I was tortured by the question of suffering. Why? What was the point of this all? Why should people be born into this world to suffer? One earnest student chaplain trotted out a trite answer…something along the lines of, “If we didn’t have bad times in our life, would we truly be able to appreciate the good times?” I abruptly ended our conversation by telling him that I could truthfully say that I have never in my life needed to suffer in order to appreciate good times. My husband, a professional philosopher, gave me a couple alternative justifications from the academic canon that left me cold. When I turned to Annabelle’s pastor, who visited her faithfully every single day she was in the hospital and at rehab, he looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t have a good reason why people suffer. I’ve never understood why they should have to myself.” For some reason, that honest, painful answer was what I needed to hear.
Life has been so pointlessly cruel lately, but to my surprise, I find that I am not drowning in a quagmire of despair. I can’t begin to understand the point of suffering, but what I know with blinding clarity is that human kindness is a force stronger than illness, or even death itself. My family and I have been sustained through this year by the thousand acts of kindness shown to us by family, friends, and perfect strangers who have become friends.
My sisters and I could not have survived the harrowing weeks in the hospital without each other. There were so many others who helped us get through each day. Debbie, who worked in the hospital cafeteria and was caring for her own very sick mother, would bring my sister and me trays of food whenever she noticed we hadn’t been able to leave Annabelle to eat. One day, she came in on her day off just to check in on us. A friend whose own husband was in the hospital in his final days kept emailing me to see how I was doing. Once I got back home to Charlottesville, friends came with me to my own medical appointments when my husband was out of the country. We have been awash in a steady stream of texts, cards, flowers, casseroles: the currency of kindness. Lately life has been heartbreaking, but people, people have been amazing…proof that there is love and goodness and beauty in the world still,
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned. Song of Solomon 8:6