One week ago I underwent MOHS surgery for skin cancer on my upper lip. Some of my thoughts on suffering:
"We all have crosses to bear." This statement, to a Christian, is so often quoted that it can seem trite. When immersed in the sea of pain and suffering, even the saints were tempted to despair, but they did not give in to it. We hope to do the same, but often we are weak. Another "trite" saying could be "in weakness I am strong," or "God never gives you more than you can handle." But in these seeming cliches really are the marks of truth, and the seeds of our eternity. Like a child learning to swim, we take up the challenge of suffering, each time gaining greater daring.
To Christians and non-Christians alike, this simplistic understanding of "why bad things happen" can be annoying in the extreme. Really, who is anyone to compare my pain and suffering with a man who lived 2000 years ago, even if he did happen to be divine, or for that matter, comparing my suffering with anyone else. It's unique to me, and me alone. Something we all have to go through, and something to be endured as best we can. It's just something I have to get over.
But the truth is, that Diety-man was and is God. This is a fact, which does not depend upon our faith at all. It simply is true. It's also true that none of us get through life without suffering, some more than others for sure, but it's a universal experience. And every person's trials can and will be revealed for all eternity in the light of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. Forever, our suffering will be our heavenly glory.
So this past week, I've had a bit of suffering to endure. As a "good Catholic" I was ready, willing and eager to "offer up" my little trials with saintly fervor for the good of the world. But it's never that easy, is it? I am extremely grateful for the prayers, kind wishes and warm thoughts of so many, but in the end, our crosses are something we go through alone, even when surrounded by love. I wish I could say that I surrendered to Divine Will with perfect abandonment as was my intent, but, sadly, this in not the case.
My experience with surgery is limited. As I lay there on the table ready for the knife, I recalled the birth of my first baby, when I had planned on a (very) natural home birth, but ended up with 17 hours of induced labor followed by a midnight C-section. During that highly emotional and spiritual moment, the Ob-Gyn had made small talk with her surgical team - something about porno movies. I'll never forget how inappropriate and incongruous that conversation felt surrounding the sacred wonder of my first birth. This time, with my skin surgery, I knew I was in good hands as far as skills go. But when the doctor said, "ok, lets just take out a little chunkeroonie," my spirit sank at the memory of another surgeon's cavalier style. This time, I had my rosary in hand, and he chuckled at that. Then came the cut.
Although I felt no pain with the actual surgery, the cutting sensation made me nauseous. I guess I had expected more finesse in the operation; a delicate, precise uncovering of the lesion while taking the least amount possible. But it seemed to me rather like gouging a brown spot out of a potato. Then I was whisked to the waiting room with a bandage on my face and sat for an hour trying to appear calm for all the other bandaged patients, my rosary tightly hidden between my palms.
"Lucky for you, you're all clear," the nurse said, then measured the wound: "three centimeters," and took a picture of it. I had expected an incision a bit larger than the cancerous growth, but that was three times that size! I said a silent prayer of surrender: Thy will be done, but really I was worried. What could ever be done to make a three centimeter hole appear normal? I was soon to find out.
The doctor came back very pleased with the results, and numbed me up some more. I could sense the slicing from my nose all the way down under my upper lip. This was not the delicate operation I had imagined. "Not the way a woman would do it," I thought. With concentrated effort, professional speed and manly strength he split my skin apart, cauterized the blood vessels and stitched me back together. About 15 minutes later, he was done. I thanked him and drove home.
Once home, I looked beneath the bandage. Black stitches, swollen and bruised, red line... oh dear. I just tried to offer it to God. At this point I became tingly and dizzy. I flashed back to the unexpected rapid-fire birth of my third child, after which I had gotten up to go to the bathroom, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on the toilet breathing in smelling salts. I had no idea how long. I was lucky I didn't fall on the floor - that would have been worse... not to mention embarrassing! Uh oh, not good. Now alone in my own bathroom (husband on a business trip), my vision started to get splotchy as I felt the tell-tale fainting signs, and rushed to get to my bed. "Just get me there in time" I prayed, OK, now I can pass out. I don't think I did - just went to sleep.
My oldest son came home from high school a few hours later. I wish I could say he came straight to my room out of deep concern, but instead I heard the living room TV flip on and a soda can popped. The next day, he and I had a horrendous fight, over a college webinar that I thought he would like, which he flatly refused. Teenagers. Parents. Sheesh.
I started to cry, and decided to uncover my stitched up face for greater sympathy appeal from my sons, which I justified by telling myself it needed air. This backfired spectacularly - just frightened the younger sons. (OK, back paddle): "no, really, Mommy's gonna be fine..." Luckily my husband came home and smoothed things over and gave me a little attention.
Over the weekend my lip blistered red, then white, and I knew it was infected. I was able to get through Stephen's birthday: made pancakes & sausage for breakfast, his favorite chicken stew for lunch, cleaned house, escorted grandparents to church to hear Stephen and David read scripture, then lunch, presents and dessert. Whew. My lip was throbbing and I went to take a nap. The next day, I was on antibiotics.
But finally the healing is happening...I can feel the wound knitting together. This week I got my stitches off. A few sharp, stinging snips at the infected area, and I was free of the sutures. The swelling went down and the cut line is barely visible. I am amazed at the skill of the doctor! I went to the Adoration Chapel to pray before the Blessed Sacrament and give thanks. "Thank you, Jesus." I looked at the crucifix, contemplating the Passion, and whispered, "thank you, Jesus." Prayed the Luminous mysteries of the Rosary: "Thank you, Jesus... thank you Mary."
As I prayed in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, I remembered another dear sister in Christ, who comes to adoration the hour after mine. Her experience of prayer is not as quiet and serene as mine, but bustling and busy, with rustling paper, sniffling noses, and commanding whispers... because she brings her two precious little girls with her. But this week, I'll stay to cover her hour, because she is out of town with her sister, who just last week suffered the unexpected, sudden death of her own five-year old daughter. While I did not know them, I mourn with them and for them, and offer my meager prayers and suffering for their unfathomable loss. I realize that my little trials are nothing compared to the heartache of so many, and through Mary who also suffered the horrifying death of her Child, I marvel at the depth of suffering this young, saintly mother has to endure. I "offer it up" for them, because together we all form the Body of Christ. I am awestruck at this mother's latest post which speaks of the joy of God's will, and I am joyful too, because Christ's love never fails, and indeed He is always with us.
We really do "all have crosses to bear." My little "passions" are tiny tastes of His - just a morsel. I imagine the metal-barbed whips of the Roman soldiers cutting into His flesh. Perhaps one in a hundred missed his back or chest, and landed on his face, ripping out a piece of sensitive facial skin. I try to imagine what that one blow of the whip felt like... I try imagine thousands more... I can't. Jesus felt it all: the hatred, anger, indifference, abandonment, rejection, mocking and cruelty, compounded by unimaginable physical pain, and there was no anesthetic, no skilled doctor, no kind nurse.
It occurs to me that my Savior allows His child to share this with Him. But for me, He prepares the little spot with Novocaine. He sends a smart man through years of medical school and surgical training. He sends me a kind nurse who winces in sympathy with me when she delicately removes the stitches from my infected lip with tender loving care. The indifference and anger of my teen son evaporates with a heartfelt "sorry Mom," and a hug. And he sends me my husband and kids to comfort and smile at me.
I am still an infant in my Christian journey. I want with all my heart to give my little hardships to Him in union with His great Sacrifice, but I don't live up to my own hopes. But somehow, even my sacrifice, though exceedingly small, counts for something. United to His, they actually do melt into the Sacrifice that sets us all free. Through my prayers and yours, united in our sufferings (even imperfectly offered), others can be lifted.
But my Father, my Brother, my Friend, Jesus, who dove to the deepest depths in an ocean of suffering, takes his child in his arms and lets her splash around in the same sea. He gives her the courage to dip her face into the salt water, and holds her as she sputters and coughs and cries for air. Next time, she will have more courage, and He may allow her to go under for a second or two. He won't let her get to the point of drowning in despair. He tells her, "keep your eyes on me, be brave, you can do it, swim to Me... I won't give you more than you can handle... I'll give you My strength... I'll help you bear your cross."
And if it gets to be too much, and I fear I really will drown, He'll say to me, "Alright, little one... that's enough. It's time to go home now."