Sunday, June 06, 2004

Day 6: About This, That, and the “Salvific Value” of Suffering

Christina Fu, an old friend from the Trusted Solaris group who now works as a security programmer at Netscape/AOL, wrote me some emails with some snippets I’m including below. What she wrote got me started to musing about suffering. I was additionally inspired on this topic by emails to and from my former-brother-in-law, Marv Miller. I started writing a long email in reaction with the thought of sending it along to this group. After about an hour and a half of writing in the wee hours during one of my first nights of insomnia after starting the chemo, I hit the wrong key and sent the write-up to the big bit bucket in the sky. That in itself was enough suffering for that morning.

Then the cumulative effect of the chemo and the radiation started getting to me and I couldn’t stand writing or doing very much of anything for a while. It’s Sunday and I’ve had two days off radiation, (and even though I’m still tethered to a 5FU chemo drip) I’m feeling a little more human. Can’t keep an old writer away from the keyboard for long.

So, I’m back, at least temporarily. Here I go again with a meditation on suffering merged in with my usual digressions.

Let me back up to Christina’s reaction to my getting a feeding tube on May 24.

Thu, 27 May 2004 Christina wrote:

> Roseanne, I have been wondering if you can eat without problem with the tube in place. Is it painful
> in day to day life? I just hope it's not too painful or uncomfortable for you.

I wrote her back that I can eat and that the tube itself didn’t hurt. “It's just hanging there from my stomach, which isn't the most esthetically pleasing thing to see . . . “

Fri, 28 May 2004 Christina wrote:

> I nearly fainted at the sight of these words...
>> It's just hanging there from my stomach, which isn't the most
> ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ ^^^^^^^^^^^^^

And then on Wed, 3 June, she wrote:

> Dear Roseanne,
> I just read your report on "2nd day." I cannot bear to imagine the suffering you are going through.

My reply was:

I'm not suffering too badly yet. I'm a little sick to my stomach. My throat is burning a bit. I have these stupid tubes hanging from me and a fanny pack I have to wear 24 hours a day to pump a chemo drug called 5FU until next Monday.

I have a total of 39 radiation sessions scheduled for the next two months M to F. Every 21 days I start a chemo schedule, with a day of chemo and IV fluids at the treatment center. And the end of that day they hook me up with the fanny pack (which I'm wearing now) that has another kind of chemo drug to be dispensed over 5 days.

Days 2, 3, and 4 of the 21 day cycle I will spend getting 3 1/2 hours of IV fluids like I did yesterday and today. Every weekday ends with a trip to the radiation center. On day 7 of the chemo cycle they unhook me from the fanny pack. So I don't have chemo again after next Monday for another two weeks.

It is a full time project titled: "Getting Roseanne healed of tonsil cancer." The scheduling is taking almost every hour of every day. Good way to keep up my project management skills. I've got a pretty good road crew.

Ever since I got my notice from Sun in November, I’ve been tutoring Christina’s daughter, Carolyn, in Social Science, at my dining room table. One Saturday, we substituted a crash review of her biology coursework to prepare for a quiz, and during the summer, I planned to teach her writing, using Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. The way I feel now, I don’t think I can continue, even with the email classes we had discussed trying to have instead of weekly one on ones at my place. Carolyn is 10, and I get a big kick out of her. So I want to share this little story Christina told me about Carolyn:

> I had a good laugh at your "Grand Canyon" experience. Does laughing still bother you? I need to know so I can be careful to try to be as dull as possible ;-)....If laughing still bothers you, skip to the next paragraph...if not...I have to share this with you...the other day, I found Carolyn lying in bed in the middle of a day so I asked her to get up and do something. She replied, "I'd like to rest in peace." I laughed and explained to her when "rest in peace" is used and what it means.

Marv is my ex-brother-in-law. I used to be married to his brother, Lee, known to most of his friends as George, who died sadly at his own hand about 9 years after our divorce. Marv is head of the religion department at Dakota Wesleyan University, in Mandan, South Dakota, the town which is also the location of the The World's Only Corn Palace.

Marv wrote me an email when he heard from my daughter, formerly known as Sunshine, of my cancer diagnosis and then another one when he heard the good news that the cancer had not spread:

>Hi Roseanne
>I heard the news from Sunshine that your cancer had not spread, and I'm glad for that bit of hopefulness.
. . .
> When you sent me the first email I immediately thought of the
> title of Rabbi Kushner's book, When Bad Things Happen to Good
> People (that's you!). He says he was left unsatisfied with all
> the standard answers people gave him for his teen son's progeria,
> and could only conclude that God does not prevent bad things, but
> will be there to go through them with people. I don't know if
> that's the whole truth, but it seems a good place to start.
> You're in my prayers. Hang in there. Marv

I wrote back to him.

Sent: Saturday, May 29, 2004

. . .

Have you ever heard the Catholic theology of suffering? The current Pope has preached on it a lot since he has lost his health, his handsomeness, and his strength. (Note: Here is the Pope's letter on the "Christian meaning of human suffering from the Vatican web site: It's got to gall a proud talented man like him to be drooling in public and not being able to hold up his head. Although, it's amazing how much stronger he seems to be lately. I "blame" it on all the people who are praying for him.

The teaching is that when we suffer, we make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. St. Paul tells us (Col 1:24): "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,"

The best living illustration I ever saw about this topic came about when I met a young woman, Josie Gomez, barely 30, at a long term care hospital in MA where I was having scoliosis surgery (surgery to try to fix the curves that had developed in my spine when I was 11) and a long convalescence when I was 15. Josie had arthritis so bad she couldn't walk or feed herself any more. She was in that hospital for good. She was puffy from steroids. Her fingers were twisted.

From a photo she had of her and her husband, I knew she had been beautiful. Before she came to the Lakeville hospital where I was, her doctors had given her the then-experimental steroids to help the arthritis, and then had stopped very large dosages without tapering off. As a result, her hips had locked.

The nurses had to put her in a hoist to get her into a wheelchair every morning. Forty of us women and girls lived in a long ward in what had formerly been a tuberculosis sanitarium. Those of us who were able to get out of bed would gather and play board and card games in the sun room together. The teenagers who had scoliosis surgery would lie flat on gurneys and wheel themselves around. Josie sat in her wheelchair and laughed at the antics of us teenagers. She was always pleasant.

Her husband had left her, and her two little children were being raised by her old Italian mother. I asked her in the frank way that kids have how she could stand what had happened to her. She said that a priest had counseled her to offer all of her sufferings up to God. She was a great inspiration to me, and I think that saintly woman's prayers helped me to return to faith as I got older.

Not that I was willing then to accept that I was going to have to accept anything or to settle for being anything less than perfect. But I’ll have to get into my life as a tissue of denial at some other time.

We can offer sufferings as penance for our own sins, and also for the benefit of others, the Church and the world. Another relevant use of suffering is purification. Purgatory is the process of burning away all that is not holy in our souls so we can stand God's holiness. Some of us get to start the process while we are still alive.

When everything else is taken away from us we get the opportunity to fasten our hearts on God. I'm doing a lot of clinging to the rock these days. I woke up this morning and started singing the old hymn "How Can I Keep From SInging," which includes that phrase: "while to that rock I'm clinging."

I woke up at 3 another morning after the diagnosis and went into Dante's Purgatorio to refresh myself on the purifications required of souls who share my favorite sins. Dante had the brilliance to show the souls as eager to endure their cleansing because they are eager for union with God. I am getting a strong sense that the pain of purgatory could be the pain of the sin stains being burned away in the presence of God's perfect holiness. In the economy of salvation, all earthly trials, including death and labor pains, are a consequence of sin. See the story of Adam and Eve.

To endure something like this we have to be convinced that God is permitting it (not inflicting it), and to trust always that we are in God's hands and He won't give us anything to endure that He won't be there to guide us through. Which, I see, Is close to what you are saying.

Love from your sister in Christ. Roseanne

Marv wrote me back:

Subject: RE: you've got mail

Hi Roseanne

Thanks for sharing the theology of suffering. I didn't know the Catholic approach to suffering, but I have always been impressed with the references in Paul & I Peter to the idea of sharing Christ's suffering. I think Protestants tend to like Paul for a lot of ideas, but this one we generally ignore. But the idea of sharing in Christ's suffering adds a lot to one's relationship with Christ! There are some ways in which we can be like Christ.

You are in my prayers. Hang in there. Marv

Some time before he wrote me back, I also forwarded the following poem to him.

Subject: W. H. Auden's poem on suffering
Date: Sat, 29 May 2004

I found this poem 3 years ago when I was writing something about the fall of Icarus. Cleaning out my mailbox today, I realize more strongly that this poem also has something important to say about suffering.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
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