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Susan Wood Reider
Healing Sermonette: Strange Gifts (Dates of Our Lives)
Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church
March 19, 2000
On June 1, 1999, I dropped my son Nathan off at summer day camp
and headed to UT hospital for my last radiation treatment. I
mentioned to the medical tech that it seemed ironic to be completing
treatment on the first day of summer camp, since I had begun
my odyssey with cancer on the last day of Nathans summer
camp nine and 1/2 months earlier, on August 14, 1998.
Many of us have a knack for remembering the special dates in
our lives. I am gifted (or cursed) with that knack. Birthdays,
anniversaries - all those numbers - stick in my brain. I may
not remember to send you a card, or give you a call (especially
if you are one of my in-laws) but if youve mentioned your
birthday to me, theres a good chance Ill think of
you and send a prayer your way when that happy day comes around.
Likewise those dates we consider less happy become etched in
memory: the night your mother died, the day when you were thirteen
and the jeep flipped off a snowy embankment off Alcoa Highway
with your entire family aboard, the day your tumor was discovered.
These dates also mark lifes passages.
Yet Ive come to believe that the dark days, the traumas,
can also be gifts. My mothers death on April 24, 1999
was truly for the best. I felt her release from
this world, her epic struggle with cancer and its toxic medicines,
as a relief and a joy. And my family survived that jeep wreck,
without seatbelts or a roll bar, on February 13, 1971; bruised,
shaken, but without even a broken bone: A miracle.
And what about that nasty tumor? Perhaps it was the strangest
gift of all.
When I was diagnosed with a malignant breast tumor, I was ripe
for mid-life crisis. I was forty years old. My beloved husband
Glenn and I had recently returned from a honeymoon-style trip
to Italy, symbolic of a sacred re-marriage following several
months of our unions most turbulent, exhilarating and
challenging times. My beloved son Nathan was about to start
first grade. My beloved Mom, diagnosed with metastatic breast
cancer in 1996, was investigating stem-cell replacement for
her advancing disease. And my beloved sister Ann, shockingly
diagnosed with breast cancer at age thirty six, just eight months
after our Mom, had finally completed radical but successful
treatment and reconstructive surgery. (This in a family with
no previous history of the disease.) Finally, I had just finished
sixteen new pieces of art for my first show at Bennett Galleries,
the high point to date of my beloved career.
The ominous tumor was discovered by on a Friday, so Glenn and
I waited over the weekend for biopsy results. To commemorate
the aforementioned re-marriage, we had planned to throw the
I Ching on our new wedding anniversary: Sunday,
August 16. With trepidation we decided to go ahead and consult
the ancient Chinese oracle, searching for meaning and perspective
at this now doubly auspicious time.
In the I Ching, or Book of Changes, one receives instructive
readings derived from a series of coin tosses. For those who
are not familiar with it, think of it as a profound and rather
complex fortune cookie. The I Ching states that God comes
forth in the sign of the Arousing the sign also known
as thunder. My future oracle came up as #51, the image of thunder
repeated, called simply Shock. Whether or not you
put stock in such mystical things, I believe the synchronicity
is noteworthy. We trembled as we read the fateful text (edited
here for brevity):
Shock brings success... This movement is so violent that
it arouses terror... The shock that comes from the manifestation
of God makes one afraid, but this fear of God is good, for joy
and merriment can follow upon it. When a woman has learned within
her heart what fear and trembling mean, she is safeguarded against
any terror produced by outside influences. Let the thunder roll:
she remains composed and reverent... She sets her life in order
and searches her heart, lest it harbor any secret opposition
to the will of God.
With these words, my healing began. When the news came on Monday
morning that the tumor was malignant, I was disappointed, but
prepared. With Glenns assistance, I began assembling my
team. Wise spiritual counselors, compassionate medical professionals,
and trusted friends, were chosen to help us meet this challenge.
I had never, have never, felt more clarity as I navigated through
the medical system, orchestrating a plan for recovery, guided
by intuition as well as intellect. Along with fear (it would
be deceitful to deny the fear) came an experience of solid resoluteness,
a tangible pillar of divine stength, something to trust. My
body had been forced to send the message that my small mind
had been unable to acknowledge. The message was Change.Following
my second surgery, Glenn read me a hosptial questionaire. It
asked something like How do you best learn things?
I replied By being hit over the head with a 2 X 4.
From the beginning, I saw this malignancy not as enemy, but
as messenger, the proverbial wake-up call to change. For me
this meant it was time to go inward, sift through and reassess
everything that had led to this moment, these circumstances.
My mission: to seek out and let go many negative habits of mind
and body, and to affirm only those things which would contribute
to a new spiritual focus for my life.
Had I been a bad person? Of course not. Had I taken my body
for granted, and put my spiritual life second to the daily grind?
Oh yes. Did I develop a cancerous tumor as punishment? Nah.
As a warning? Maybe. In a recent class on childrens spirituality,
we were asked to describe the best thing that had happened to
us in the last six months. Getting cancer was my
immediate answer. Why? Because with that diagnosis I received
an opportunity for growth, a blueprint for peace and happiness
that I hadnt even realized I was missing. The term lightness
of being, always fascinating, became something within
my reach. I had talked the talked of devotion, mindfulness,
being-here-now, for years. But now, through the process of transformation
set in motion by illness, I am learning to walk the walk
that has already dramatically improved the quality of life for
me and my precious family.
Do I recommend this particular mid-life correction to others?
No! And I do not wish to gloss over the physical and psychological
struggles that accompany any cancer diagnosis. Surgery, chemotherapy
and radiation - harsh methods in deep conflict with my wholistic
orientation - are punishing medicines. Others have endured much
more than I in the quest for wellness. But in my own quest for
meaning, I have come to consider the long, dark days of treatment
as a period of gestation. Without the enforced regimen of doing
nothing dictated by months of chemo and radiation, I wouldnt
have had the discipline to undertake the intense reflection
and spiritual practice necessary for me to become, dare I say
it, born again. These days, for the first time since childhood,
I can honestly say that I wake up each and every morning with
enthusiasm, and go to bed at night with a measure of serenity
And what of my art, my beloved career? Many friends have expressed
concern, even anxiety, regarding Susan and her work. You may
now relax. After an extended sabbatical, a rather unusual maternity
leave, she is back in the studio.
I havent yet picked a date to celebrate my new birthday,
but when I do, youre all invited to the party. Thank you.