By Kathy Berken
A woman sitting across the waiting room at my oncology clinic was talking on her phone, next to a man I guessed was her husband. She said that he would not get chemo today because his white blood count (WBC) was too low. She sounded frustrated and disappointed. He looked dejected.
I leaned over and whispered to my daughter Erica, “Sound familiar?”
I’m in the middle of my chemo regimen for breast cancer, with 10 of 16 rounds to go. I didn’t get chemo the past two weeks because my WBC has been steadily decreasing.
In one week, I’ve made six medical visits. I alternately felt frustrated, disappointed, scared and depressed. Sure, it’s nice to get a break from feeling sick all the time, but watching my WBC steadily decrease made it increasingly difficult to believe that anything could reverse the pattern. I don’t want to end up in the hospital and I don’t want to die from this. I want my other life back. I also still need surgery to replace these uncomfortable breast expanders with the permanent ones. And, instead of earning money now, I’m paying medical bills. It all made me wonder how much patience and hope Job really had.
I sat on the bed in the chemo room and the nurse inserted the needle into my port and drew my blood to send to the lab. I had had two injections earlier in the week to try to raise my blood counts. But I didn’t feel hopeful. I mumbled, “I guess it is what it is,” and she said, “I don’t like that phrase. You don’t just lie down and quit. You don’t just do nothing. These injections work.” So, let me guess. Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera” doesn’t apply here, right?
We soon discovered that the lab needed a second opinion on the blood test, so I had to go home and wait. I didn’t want to wait. I’m here. I’m ready. I felt more frustrated, disappointed, and scared. After an eternal four hours, I learned my counts were up and I could get my round of chemo the next day. Oddly, I was happy, even though I’d be sick for the next several days. I am on a roller coaster. The disappointment, frustration, and fear temporarily stopped at the top of the hill.
So, I wondered, did I suddenly become patient and hopeful because things got better? Do I really have patience and hope in the midst of my cancer struggles, or only in hindsight?
From an academic perspective, hope is a theological virtue, which informs moral virtues. Patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, which creates perfection in us. According to the Catechism, “Virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good.”
I truly do believe that hope is foundational and eternal, regardless of my immediate feelings. Deep inside me at almost an unconscious level, whatever the outcome of this cancer experience, whatever emotions come with it, my hope lies in God’s love for me. Patience, on the other hand, is the result of learning from years of frustrations and disappointments. Patience is not inertia, it’s not giving up, it’s not shrugging and mumbling, “whatever” to those difficult experiences. Patience is soul muscle created from ongoing spiritual workouts, and I’m still in training.
I admit my feelings about this cancer honestly and face them openly. Because my medical team is helping to keep my blood counts up, I’ve temporarily stepped back from the frustration, but I’m still scared and sometimes depressed about not knowing the final outcome. I don’t know where I am on the patience/hope scale.
I experience my emotions more like a river than a pile of rocks. I step into the water, see the debris, feel some of it hit me and watch some pass by. Patience helps me avoid being sunk by it all. Hope is deeper and assures me that the river keeps running, the water is always new, and God is my Source. Even if I’m scared and frustrated.
When Jesus stood up on that boat in the storm, he was probably feeling frustration with the apostles’ reactions and fear of the winds tipping over the boat. Still, he did something. He didn’t just say “que sera, sera.” He stretched out his arms, the winds stopped, and his fear subsided. I like that picture. A lot.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)