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Susan Wood Reider

Personal Story

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 Nathan’s 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 you’ve mentioned your birthday to me, there’s a good chance I’ll 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 life’s passages.

Yet I’ve come to believe that the dark days, the traumas, can also be gifts. My mother’s 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 union’s 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 Glenn’s 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 children’s 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 hadn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 satisfaction.

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 haven’t yet picked a date to celebrate my new birthday, but when I do, you’re all invited to the party. Thank you.