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Friday, September 7, 2012

Excerpts from the Prayer Life of a Cancer Patient

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In the summer of 1982, I was hitchhiking coast to coast. I had traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific; I was now traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I had visited Yellowstone, the Badlands, Reno, San Francisco and Santa Fe. I was headed to Nashville, the Great Smokey Mountains, and then home to Jersey.

Hitchhiking is, of course, dangerous, and if I had it all to do over again, I would not do it. I did it because I was young and stupid, with no one in my life who cared enough to say to me, "Hey, that's dangerous. Don't do it."

How dangerous is hitchhiking? Well, let me tell you.

It was near sunset in Oklahoma. I had been picked up earlier in the day by members of large, happy family. They took me to their home, fed me, offered to let me spend the night. Being in their home was like being on the set of a television sitcom.

But I wanted to keep going. I felt, if I just push a little harder, I can make it to Dallas before nightfall. My brother, Mike Goska, lived in Dallas. I wanted to get to him.

So I left the nice, large family, in the expansive and comfortable suburban home. I went back out to the gravel shoulder of the road.

I could tell by the way that my shadow hit the pavement, its angle and length, that I was hitchhiking at a time of day when I normally would never hitchhike. Normally I'd be at a campsite at this hour, unrolling my sleeping bag, or in a friend's home, or, for a splurge, in a hotel. But here I was, on the road, my thumb out. I felt a surge of anxiety splinter through my body.

A car pulled up right away, though. Good.

I took one look at the car. Bad.

Old. Broken down. A fat, unkempt slob, in his twenties, at the wheel.

Every cell in my body screamed, "Don't get in that car!"

Not practiced enough at self-protection, I got in the car.

The car was at least twenty years old. From the 1960's. It smelled bad. It was unraveling.

The fat man wearing the black t-shirt and grubby jeans, the man with the face soft, mushy, and unnaturally white, like some Hostess dessert cake, began talking. He never stopped.

"So, you want a job?" he asked.

I was looking out the window, studying the sun's descent into a position parallel to my own. I was examining the heavy traffic, trying to tell myself that if the creep tried anything, I'd be okay, because there were so many people on the road.

"I can get you a job," he said, ignoring me ignoring him. "I know the crews that work on this road. You see those guys with the orange flags? They make sixteen, seventeen dollars an hour. All they have to do is stand there all day, waving those flags. And the pay is great."

"That's good," I said, trying to be nice, trying to stay alive.

"We can go to a hotel right now and call up the guy who runs the road crew."

"Nah, I need to get to Dallas."

"We've got plenty of time," the creep said.

"Nah. Thanks but nah."

And that quick the hunk-of-junk car was down an exit, off the highway, into the woods.

The creep pulled out a handgun. "Don't scream and everything will be fine."

I immediately grabbed his hand holding the gun. I threw my torso against his chest, and pushed backward hard, pinning him against his seat, making it impossible for him to drive or move. I centered my weight on my butt and raised my heavy-boot-shod feet and began to kick out the passenger side window, relatively easy to do, given the weight of my boots, the thrust in my legs, and the shoddiness of the car. I used my long, strong fingernails to scratch deeply at the hand holding the gun. I screamed, for all I was worth.

Finally, after my real-world maneuverings were complete, I prayed, "Jesus help me."

At that moment, something happened that had never happened to me before or since. I heard, and felt, the >pop< of a membrane breaking.

It wasn't the pop of a balloon breaking, the pop that destroys the balloon.

It was, rather, more like the break that occurs when a hand penetrates the surface of water. The water still has a surface; the body of water still exists. The surface and the body are just differently shaped, because they have been penetrated by the hand.

That >pop< was as real as anything else in this event, as real as the gun, the shoddy car, the slob's black t-shirt.

His muscles went limp. He pulled over. I jumped out of the car. He hit me with the car as he drove off; this knocked me to the ground. My jeans tore open and my knees got all bloody. But, as the creep drove off, back to the highway, I was alive. 

Me, in Nepal. Near where I had erysipelas.
Pilatus porter plane and yaks at a Nepali "airport."
A year after that, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal. I lived in a remote settlement. I describe that settlement in "Save Send Delete." Let's just say that I lived far, far, far away in a teeny little place without roads or electricity or running water or telephone or telegraph.

One day, after teaching class, I noticed that I was having trouble standing on my right leg.

I went back to my dirt-floored, stone house and took my temperature. It was normal. I built a fire. That took about five minutes. I took my temperature again. In those brief minutes, my temp shot up to 104. I went to bed. I took my temp again. 105.

I felt that my skin was on fire. It the worst pain of my life. I hope it's the worst pain anyone has ever felt.

I had grown up on Golden Age, black-and-white Hollywood movies about World War II. In these movies, Nazis would torture captured freedom fighters, trying to get secrets out of them. I remember, especially, the Jimmy Cagney film 13 Rue Madeleine. Although tortured, Cagney refuses to reveal D-Day invasion secrets to the Nazis. As a kid, I used to watch those films and wonder if I would ever be so strong and brave as Jimmy Cagney.

As the fever and the agony progressed in Nepal, I found myself shouting out, "Normandy Beach! Normandy Beach! The Allies are landing on Normandy Beach!"

But the pain did not let up. It just continued.

My leg swelled up to twice its normal size. A patch of skin on my leg turned bright red, and took on the texture of cellophane.

I realized I was dying. It's the strangest thing – on the one hand I was in the worst pain of my life. On the other hand, I felt at peace. I felt I would soon float out the window of my hut, out over the barley fields.

My Nepali neighbors came in to wish me a good death.

I made it through the night. The next morning, I placed my hands over the red skin and prayed, "Jesus, heal me."

The fever began to recede. The red patch began to fade. When I was well enough, I walked to an "airport" (a nearby town that had flat scratch of dirt for a Pilatus Porter to land) and flew to Kathmandu.

Dr. Theresa, the Peace Corps doctor, photographed my leg. She took urine, stool, and blood samples and sent them to the States. She sat across from me with a big book of tropical disease and played multiple choice, "Maybe you have TB! Maybe you have guinea worm! Maybe you have … "

The samples sent back to the states showed that I'd had erysipelas. It could have killed me; it killed St. John of the Cross, John Stuart Mill, and Pope Gregory XVI (thank you Wikipedia).

***

Immediately after the cancer diagnosis, when I tried to pray, it was ugly and hard.

I was an abused kid. As an adult, I am a stranger in a strange land: a working class, Bohunk, Catholic in the Ivory Tower. As I describe in "Save Send Delete," that's a really hard position to be in. In short, I've gotten a lot of negative feedback in my life.

All those internalized negative messages lashed out after the cancer diagnosis. When I tried to pray, when I sought God, quiet, clarity, comfort, hope, or even just dignity in this new dispensation – a dispensation where strangers would handle my body in the most invasive of ways – those internalized voices of hate shouted, "God doesn't love you and you deserve to die."

It's a really creepy, dark and challenging experience to be a Christian, to attempt to engage in that most basic Christian experience – to pray to a loving, father God – and immediately to hear every negative thing ever said to you lashing out at you through a megaphone, a megaphone created by your pain and your need.

Satan customizes his temptations. I would never be tempted by money. It's just not my drug of choice.

I am a words person, an internal person, a spiritual person. So, Satan chose my words and my prayer life as his method of attack.

I realized I had to work through that challenge.

I told the negative voices that I would not give them my power. I told them that no matter how much they obscured the light, I knew the light was present, and I was with the light, not with the darkness.

Also, I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and community can support us spiritually when we can't go on alone. I shared the negative voices here on the blog, and I received much feedback from those who support my spiritual health.

The negative voices shut up.

***

One day recently, I was praying to Jesus, asking for a miracle. I imagined myself in Jesus' presence, perhaps while he was delivering the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most magnificent speeches ever given, one of the most moving pieces of literature ever set to paper.

Or, I imagined being part of the crowd as he healed the Woman with a Hemorrhage, the woman who had spent all her money on doctors who did not help her, the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years.

I was ready to ask Jesus for a miracle for me. I was ready to visualize my cancer, to visualize Jesus removing my cancer. In this anticipated visualization, Jesus would be like a surgeon, snipping and cutting and carting away my diseased flesh.

Instead, something I did not anticipate happened.

I felt Jesus approach me. He wasn't offering a package I would call "healing." He was offering his love.

He filled my body with his love.

The outline of my body dissolved.

Jesus' love spilled out of my body to the rest of the world.

***

Shortly after I got the diagnosis, a concerned stranger sent me an email urging me to ask others to pray for me.

I did. I asked, specifically, for a miracle healing.

Others assured me that they were praying for me.

I have received information that causes me to feel tentatively confident that those prayers have had good effect.

As I know from loved ones who have had it, cancer is a roller coaster ride. One day you get some hope; the next day you get bad news.

I can't be one hundred percent positive that the dramatic change in my prognosis is the result of prayer. I've received indications I won't detail here, though, that that may be the case.

***

I know what you are thinking. I am thinking the same thing. What about unanswered prayer. What about moments when God does not rescue.

I do my best to offer my best answers to those questions in "Save Send Delete."

All I'm offering in this blog, today, are, as the title says, excerpts from my prayer life.

A man I love very dearly, and whom I love so dearly at least partly because he is an excellent husband to a woman I love, is an atheist. He retitled the book "Eat Pray Love" as "Eat Wish Fuck."

I found that funny.

At the same time, I wish I could communicate to him, and other atheists, that prayer is really not the process you parody. It really has proven to be one of the most powerful forces on earth.
Mattias Stom. Old Woman Praying. 
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7 comments:

  1. Danusha, that is powerful Thank you for opening your heart to us. I will carry what you wrote with me.

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  2. Thank you both very much for the positive feedback. It means a lot to me.

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  3. Dear Readers of this blog,

    On Sunday, September 16, 2012, at 11 am, in St. Dorothy Parish in Markowa, the Holy Mass will be celebrated for the intention of the recovery of prof. Danusha Goska, with a special prayer request to the Servants of God the Ulma family.

    Please join our prayers – wherever you are!

    http://bieganski-the-blog.blogspot.de/2012/08/thank-you-to-polish-friends.html

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  4. Danusha, you are amazing, inspirational and oh so talented! Vicki Vincent

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  5. Danusha, I am in awe of your gift with words, your honesty and your inspiration! Know many are praying for you! Vicki Vincent

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