October 11, 2005Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, Have mercy upon Jeanie, Strengthen her will all your saving help. Restore her when and how it pleases you, that, as a living member of your faithful, She may give thanks and praise you, now, and for all eternity.
We are summoning prayers yet again, though of a new and different sort. It is the turning time and we are making a momentous turn. Today we did not begin chemo therapy as offered us. We have in effect ceased treatments for Jeanie and are beginning the careful walk of homegoing.
In September Jeanie was in the hospital for a low-grade fever that was affecting her functions. The fever was traced and treated and her port (most likely source) was pulled. But in the course of searches they also did an MRI and found large scale tumor growth not only filling the cavity left by the March surgery, but even lighting up spots on the left side as well. We knew of a certainty that we were done with cutting (it wasn't even being pressed upon us), but the four of us -- with a little help from our friends, the discernment and support group, had to sort through the odds and costs of this chemo option.
Getting on the same page always entails exercising a family charism of forbearance. The four of us each deal with all these things, including the conversation and discernment, differently. Lydia wants to know everything, asks incisive questions, needs to be party to decisions, and likes to have matters clearly settled. She herself quickly made decisions, dropping a class and reorganizing her work-study job to enable homestays four days a week as needed or desired.
Lucy ducked the conversation with the neurologist passing us the hard news and generally absents herself from such tables. But once the story is known she hurries to the hospital to crawl into bed with her mom and cuddles a nap. A body person, she's not vocal at the decision sessions, and probably processes more in dance and theater.
I'm inclined to stay open to the possibilities, listen longer than others in the family, weighing and balancing alternatives. I was the one most urgent to pull the discernment circle into shared decisionmaking.
Jeanie is alert and mindful and participates in the conversation, but can't cope with an either/or. These days she'll generally choose both. So having her on board means painting a scenario and reading how she sits with it. And perhaps doing so repeatedly. With her at hand I was telling someone our recent decisions, whereupon she turns to Lydia and says, "Do I know about this?" Short term memory loss has it's advantages when it comes to any obsessive brooding. This morning she was an image of presence and grace at our opening conversation with the hospice nurse. Wanted to be there and didn't flinch in the least even when it came to the tougher questions. Like how we might handle the body at the time of death. The woman, accustomed as she said to an ordinary level of denial, was taken back and "blessed" by Jeanie's visage and our exchange.
This weekend was the Word and World mini-school on William Stringfellow, marking the 20th anniversary of his death. Since I was point-person for the event, there was an earlier debate about the wisdom of going forward with Jeanie's crisis hovering. We persevered. I hadn't imagined how providentially the two things would become one, but in fact, our turning time coincided precisely with the weekend, gave incarnational substance to so many of Stringfellow's themes (think: biography as theology, the ethics of vocation, and resurrection as freedom from bondage to the power of death), and our health was in turn addressed and nourished by his wisdom and the love of friends gathered.
A stunning event of the weekend was the presentation prepared by Kate Foran which lifted up Stringfellow's theology of the circus. He beheld it as an emblem of the eschaton, the regathering of all creation in the consummation of the kindom, all sorts and creatures convened in the circle where death is defied (not deified) all the while living in tents, in the eschatological alienation of exiles, sojourners and nomads. His theological essay was quoted, along with the poetry of Robert Lax and the wisdom of priestly fool, Ken Feit (whom Stringfellow counseled and sent of to clown school) under the gorgeous circus serigraphs of John August Swanson, along with commentary on those from Joan Prefontaine. It was lush and lovely. AND THEN, by what prodigious providence should the Circque du Soleil be in town. So after all was said and done, and a long Sunday nap, Jeanie and Lydia and I went. And how more could it be that the "plot thread" of the show concern the death of a clown, or the dream of his death? He ascends from his sick bed, beset by a procession of rambunctious comforters, up to the heights to learn his wings (more like swimming than flying should you wonder). And thereafter he wanders, the ordinary human, through the extraordinary acrobatic feats of all that follows, or sometime floats high above riding his bicycle through the skies. Angels likewise drift through the performances, perhaps assisting the tightwire artist, or even serving as "catchers," lest she strike her foot...Bill surely smiled from the great cloud.
The prayer above is taken from a little service of exorcism which belonged to Bill. He employed it to exorcize Richard Nixon, an act which he considered pastoral (though truth be told when Watergate came to light and the unraveling began, he privately took a bit of credit). He used it as well to exorcize the house on Block Island after Anthony's death in 1980. It still bears the bleed of water marks from the rain storm that ensued. And Rose Berger, whose vocation as priestly poet among us is long since confirmed, read it over Kate, and Farah, and Lydia, and Jeanie, and I in the closing service of anointing, where tears ran even more freely than oil. Ched and Elaine had brought from the LA Catholic Worker, a quilt which first covered Kieran Prather -- spirited writer notorious out gay man in the Worker movement who died beneath its cover, of AIDS. Beneath it Ladon Sheats also crossed over into memory and glory. It has wrapped Phillip Berrigan and countless others in the hospice and healing ministrations of Hennessy House. We are grateful beyond words. Love abounds. And we couldn't be more peaceful in our decisions or the everlasting arms.
We are thinking through (Lydia ahead of all curves) how to organize our lives for this next phase. The medicos are as always fain to utter timelines, but it's likely that by late November we will begin to see substantial change in Jeanie. Eventually, we anticipate that she will fade and slip quietly into a comma, But meanwhile, we are seizing these days for family time and for friends to share their love and prayers. Hence this.
But all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.