Coping with cancer became part of our Catholic DNA.
I never believed in miracles. I know this contradicts just about every aspect of my Christian faith. And I know I could be pointed to hundreds if not thousands amazing, wondrous works of the divine. But miracles have always been a catch-22 for me. If miracles really happened, I wouldn’t need faith, would I? It is the only thing that May and I ever disagreed on.
Living with cancer
Before my sister May, I had never experienced cancer first hand. I didn’t know what to expect. But even if I did, there was nothing that could have prepared me for it. The best way I could describe my experience with Cancer is this: Cancer is eponymous and is a disease that spreads to everyone who is close to it. In other words, the cancer may have started in May, but it spread to my entire family and all who loved her. It may have been of a different form, but it was still cancer; malignant and creeping slowly, causing us all to suffer with her.
May’s cancer began on Christmas Eve of the previous year. And our cancer began a little more than a year later when it became clear that May wasn’t going to receive any miracle. It started with small signs; her loss of weight, her diminished energy and most sadly, her physical pain. As her health declined, we debated over what course of action should be taken. We fought over who to include in the process. And we argued on almost everything. How much should her children know? Which relatives should we tell? What do we say to those who ask about her? Naturally, everyone had an opinion because we thought the cancer belonged to all of us. But at the end of the day, all decisions were May’s. The cancer may have belonged to all of us, but it was she who owned it.
It all burns down
Dealing with pain and suffering is very much part of the Catholic DNA. The very icon of our salvation hangs on wooden cross, bludgeoned, in misery and on the brink of death. And we love it. We love it because we know His pain and suffering led to resurrection. And His resurrection led to deliverance and redemption. So we like to think that our own pain and suffering can lead to the same. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it leads to bitterness. Sometimes it takes us to anger. And sometimes it leaves us in a meaningless void where there are no answers, only more questions. As May’s condition worsened, this is where most of my family found ourselves. We were helpless as our sister, mother, wife, friend suffered. And we were exasperated by the fact that May still held onto the hope of a miracle, clinging to it so tightly that she forewent all conventional treatments and pain medication. (May feared that when her health returned she might be dependent.) But instead of letting the process transform us into something better, we transmitted everything that was bad about it onto one another; our fear, our anger, our frustration. We let the cancer become us.
My mother had always been the moral rudder for our family. And it was no surprise that she navigated this difficult time for all of us. My mother had always preached to us to find the meaning in everything. Life, she stressed, was not about joy — but about meaning. Each and every one of us would have to find meaning in what was happening. And unlike May, our cancer wasn’t dependent on treatments or miracles. We could conquer our cancer. All we had to do is not let it conquer us.
Unfortunately, I could not find any meaning in May’s cancer. Not only was I was angry at God that he was taking her, I was angry with Him because he had given the cancer to her and not to me. I was better suited for it. I didn’t have a home or community I cared about. And I didn’t have four children or a spouse that depended on me. And I couldn’t find any meaning in watching my sister spit into a cup for hours and hours and hours because she couldn’t swallow. Or doubled over in pain, coughing up blood, unable to sleep. Or watching her pray with such fervor to a God we both believed in — only to see, hear, feel nothing. May always wondered why I didn’t believe in miracles. I wanted to tell her that she was the very reason.
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