8 am, Jo Mama’s Coffee Shop, Orleans, MA
When I’m on Cape Cod, I go most Sundays to the Unitarian church. I hesitated before typing that word, because “church” is so loaded with connotations, and “fellowship” sounds too much like a euphemism. But when I think about it, take it apart – fellow + ship – it’s true that at the UU (the members’ shorthand) on Sunday, it feels like I’m standing at the rails among fellow travelers on a ship making an oceanic crossing. Some days, it feels like the ship’s sinking, other days lost, other days buoyed along by ground swells. The ship holds all our broken, badly used, abused parts.
The co-ministers, two 60-something women, partners in life and work, lead the service. According to the “profession of faith” recited each week (and this Easter led by my 8 year-old nephew Quinn), the church’s doctrine is “love.” It’s prayer is “service.” That’s it. Some UU services I’ve attended have felt too political, too secular for me. But this one in Brewster resembles enough a real church to soothe the lapsed Catholic asleep behind my heart, because of the hymnals, the standing and sitting and singing, the vestments, the candles, the organ, the choir, and when it’s not under repair (we met in an elementary school cafeteria on Easter Sunday), the historic, wood-clad, white-painted. tall-spired structure at the bend in Rte. 6A with its soaring church windows, uncomfortable wooden pews, and choir loft. Many of the friends I made on the Cape last year during cancer treatment attend the UU church. On Easter Sunday, L. was there with her family. And so was Bennett, the boy with leukemia. Last time I saw him, he was treading water in the turbulence following his latest chemo treatment, curled up on a big chair opposite my nephew and his best friend Quinn watching a movie, wrapped in a blanket, clutching a Harry Potter wand in his hand, Marmalade, the therapy cat, curled at his side.
Sensing Bennett’s “no skin,” desperately uncomfortable-in-his-body state of being, I was brought back to my own experience with what I considered to be the most devilish drug of the chemo regimen. Not the Red Devil, the actual chemo concoction of Adriamycin and Cytoxan that attacked all the fast-growing cells in my body, but the steroid administered to combat nausea. Have you ever seen one of those horrible movies depicting devil possessions? Me neither. But I’ve been the unfortunate, unwitting audience to previews of those movies. And the glazed eyes of those – why are they always women or girls? – possessed individuals, the baffled, trapped looks on their faces as their bodies and mouths act independently of their souls, remind me of how I felt in the grip of steroids. But I’m sure now I blocked the full memory of the experience, because after seeing Bennett for the first time in that state, I asked my sister if I’d been that “bad,” and she half-laughed in an “oh yeah” kind of way that brought home how hard it had been not just for me, but for those trying to soothe me. There’s no balm for chemo-steroid malaise but sleep. I’d called L. one afternoon in that state last summer, sobbing into the phone. It reminded me of trying to soothe a colicky baby once as a teenager. I was babysitting, and I walked and walked the house, upstairs and down, with the shrieking bundle, until finally I called my mother in desperation and she came over. You literally have to ride the steroid horse until it’s spent, holding onto the mane, eyes closed, head down, back hunched. And then it’s over. And that feeling, like an ice block overnight melted away from around your body – it’s truly a resurrection.
That’s what I saw on Sunday in the Eddy School cafeteria. The sermon – delivered by Mary, a regal, broad-shouldered woman with a beautiful strong face like a rock the sea’s repeatedly broken its back upon, her feet planted firmly apart in black boots under her vestments like someone bracing for the next big wave – was based, of course, around resurrection, literal and metaphorical. “More life,” she repeated again and again. That’s what we want. I know it’s my prayer. Not more life at any cost, not that. But desire for the next breath of damp spring morning air, the desire of leaves busting out of their casings, everywhere. Desire of an orca spinning in a cold Pacific, birthing a calf in Prince William Sound the winter after the oil spill. Desire of cherry blossoms in Japan. Desire of young lovers in the back seat of a car in Chernobyl. The desire in each of Dorothy’s breaths: my 93 year-old mother-in-law, hanging on for ten days as her body shut down, organ by organ: more life. Steroids do something to that desire, warp it, twist it, distort it, but they can’t kill it. It takes a lot to kill it.
After her brief sermon, Mary led us in “This Little Light of Mine.” She said, “Please stand in body or in spirit.” I stayed sitting next to my mother in her wheelchair, her hand in my mine. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” We belted it out for all we were worth. Since cancer, just as I’ve shed my inhibitions about dancing, I no longer squelch my singing voice. What’s the point? Who cares? When you’ve walked around eyelash- and eyebrow-less in a headscarf, the skin peeling off your face, for six months, what you look like to others loses its cache. “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” I looked to my right. There was my sister, at the other end of the row with the kids. I looked to my left. There was my mother, her eyes fixed on Mary, who was swaying like an oak, rooted but moving and singing with abandonment. I looked further down the row. And that’s where I saw it. Resurrection. Bennett, bald-headed, stood there between his two moms, singing his eight year-old heart out. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” A sob threatened to close my throat, to interrupt my own song. There was no doubt that light inside him would outshine steroids, chemo, lumbar punctures, cancer cells, pain. All the time, people call cancer patients brave. But they’re not any braver than anyone else. We’re all brave. Eventually, we’re all tested. Most of the time, we whisper it in the dark, after the worst days: “More life.” And when some of us don’t, well, who can judge it?
After Mary’s sermon and the song, JD, the co-minister stepped up to carry the resurrection theme further. She ended with an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” I’ll quote parts of it here:
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
The poem ends this way:
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.