Living in the cloud of unknowing
The morning after my daughter’s seventh birthday last fall, I woke to a startling email. I wasn’t even out of bed yet, but with a press of my thumb I opened a radiologist’s report on an ultrasound I’d recently undergone. I thought I had no reason to worry; it was a routine check. But in the dim light of dawn I read the alarming news: it was highly likely—with more than 85 percent probability—I had thyroid cancer.
My four-year-old slept on the floor nearby. Most nights he wanders into our bedroom, and if we leave a pillow and blanket out, he doesn’t even wake us; he just cozies up on the carpet and drifts back to sleep. I stared down at his perfect cheeks. I had recently been reading Simone Weil. (I’m always reading Simone Weil. She irks me and compels me, like the Church does, or my spouse.) Weil writes, “To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.” But I did not want distance from my child. Everything in me revolted against this new threat. Later that day I watched my children playing outside through the kitchen window as I peeled carrots. I felt afresh the truth of Mary Karr’s claim that “the human frame / is a crucifix, each skeletos borne a lifetime.”
We waited many weeks—first for a biopsy, then for results—alone. The government in Saskatchewan, where we live, had banned household gatherings to help contain the pandemic. Our friends couldn’t come to sit with us in the agonizing unknown. Our families live in the States. Our small church met exclusively online. My body ached for something like anointing.
In the month leading up to the unexpected news, I’d been reading cancer memoirs. My husband, Josh, was preparing a class on death and dying, and I often teach one on biography and memoir, so I’d been catching up on books like When Breath Becomes Air and My Wife Says You May Want to Marry Me. I was just about to start The Bright Hour when I opened the radiologist’s report and realized my reading streak should probably end. These books all narrate what Weil calls “gravity”: the inescapable pull of pain, of sorrow, of death that structures the cosmos. Who among us hasn’t been touched by cancer or chronic illness? What hour’s headlines fail to confront us with the forces of violence and despair?
But the memoirs also insist on grace, the love that grounds our being and so often crops up unannounced. In those weeks of waiting I felt this too. I worried more than anything about the kids: not only the unlikely chance of dying and leaving them behind, but also how we’d care for them if I were to undergo treatment, especially with the pandemic’s pressures. Out of the blue one day my friend Emily called to say she and her husband would look after our children, however and whenever we needed them to. They’d considered the risks, and had decided to help anyway. “Pure friendship,” Weil writes, “like the love of our neighbor, has in it something of a sacrament.”
Later, after waiting for an appointment in an overburdened system became too much, I called hospital booking to check on the waiting list. A woman named Carol moved paper mountains to get me in, though I hadn’t asked her to. Her attention was an unrequested gift. The day of my biopsy I read poems by Annie Dillard alone in the waiting room, dog-earing a page with my thudding heart’s prayer, “Give me time enough in this place / And I will surely make a beautiful thing.” Later, as I trembled on the table in a small room full of residents—not afraid of the procedure, but of its implications in my life—the ultrasound technician noticed my quaking body and reached down to hold my hand.
The biopsy came back benign, although inconclusive in the way of “fine needle aspirations of clinically suspicious growths.” I will need more ultrasounds, more biopsies. Surgery isn’t off the table. Who can guess the ways of errant cells?
In the evenings my children crowd onto my lap and we watch baking shows or read aloud novels about children on long journeys. Parents always seem to die in these books, or to have died, and sometimes I don’t know how to handle the way the stories confront us with the Real. We live toward death, each one of us, though we like to pretend otherwise.
Sometimes Josh and I talk to them about resurrection, for which Weil had no patience. We tell them about our good bodies, redeemed, remade, following the pattern of Jesus’s risen, still-wounded flesh. I muse about particle physics and divinely altered DNA. “Is this magic, mama?” the four-year-old once asked.
“It’s deep magic,” his big sister replied, looking up from a paperback Narnia.
“The deepest magic there is,” their father intoned from the kitchen sink, his hands sunk in its suds.
We scramble eggs. We gather around the kitchen table for half-birthday cakes sliding sideways on their icing. We say yes to long video calls with cousins, grandparents, friends, the children singing homegrown rock operas across a thousand miles. I don’t know if I have cancer burgeoning in my body—probably not, but maybe. But then, how many of us spend untold time in this cloud of unknowing? It’s not such an unusual story. I am alive, which is to say, most of my cells are as given to love as to suffering. I stretch out my arms and embrace my babies, trying to remain open to the world that is.
I breathe each breath in gravity. I breathe each breath in grace.
Cynthia R. Wallace is Associate Professor of English at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan. She is the author of Of Women Borne: A Literary Ethics of Suffering (Columbia UP, 2016).
With thanks to Commonweal Magazine and Cynthia R. Wallace, where this article originally appeared.