November 24, 2016
An email I received from a reader some time ago has begun to haunt me. The reader’s sister was dying of cancer. How, she asked me, would I respond to the word “grace” in the context of a cancer death?
My correspondent did not gloss over the miseries of her sister’s terminal state. She outlined a series of horrific tests that led doctors to withhold food. She described fevers, infections and the “weeping legs” caused by edema. But then she testified to her sister’s uncanny ability “to brighten any room” with her smiles.
Had I received this query while I was undergoing my first treatments, it would have triggered irritation bordering on apoplexy. Why should a cancer patient be expected to lift her own spirits or anyone else’s? Isn’t it hard enough dealing with such dire circumstances without having to become a booster for oneself and for caregivers? One scholar of American cancer culture, Samantha King, decries “a tyranny of cheerfulness” that gets too many patients down, making us feel guilty about expressing understandable anguish.
During the intervening years, however, I have interacted with friends as they confronted an irreversible condition and I, too, have witnessed a kind of grace that I found inspiring. While coping with cancer, these people contested it and sometimes the medical protocols upon which they had to rely. Yet when bodily functions shut down, few of them dug in and battled a condition pronounced terminal. Indeed, their sense of tranquillity seemed to be founded on acceptance of their impending mortality.
What might have contributed to their patent and patient grace? And given my own impatience with circumstances beyond my control, could I possibly tap such sources?
Catholic and Protestant authorities agree on the mysterious nature of grace, which they see as a free and undeserved or gratuitous favor, not a reward. A disposition that works to perfect the soul, grace cannot be known or acquired through words, beliefs or deeds. In the Jewish tradition, the Hebrew word “chen” for “grace” appears in the benediction “May the Lord be gracious to you,” though the word “baruch” for “blessed” is used more frequently to denote an unmerited gift.
For believers who seek this benefit from God, as for nonbelievers who seek it elsewhere, grace remains a highly elusive but highly desirable state, especially in troubled times.
People with cancer explore all the activities that people without cancer use to make themselves receptive to a sense of beneficence or loving kindness: religious liturgies, private prayer, meditation, breathing and body exercises, verse or mantra recitations, making or looking at pictures, listening to or making music, walking in nature, communing with friends, and (yes) alcohol or marijuana.
Those engaged daily in one or more of these practices testify to their efficacy. A zillion self-help books offer instructions (on some of them), but the trick must consist in finding one’s own eccentric way.
My correspondent had glimpsed grace in her sister’s smiles. She’d also found it in an obituary that a Massachusetts mother, Beth O’Rourke, had composed for herself while she was dying of cancer, and she included a link to it. The self-obituary’s eerie opening — “I died Thursday, April 16, 2015” — prefaces a description of Ms. O’Rourke’s life and then her conclusion that “in the end … grace and love win, not cancer.”
It reminded me of the first self-obituary I had read. After a recurrence of endometrial cancer, the Seattle-based author and editor Jane Catherine Lotter posted an essay in which she recalled the high points of her education and career because she wanted to be “joyful about having a full life,” rather than “sad about having to die.” She closed with thanks for her family and ended with “Beautiful day, happy to have been here.”
Might the introspection and retrospection of writing serve as one source of grace that transforms it from a gift received to a gift conferred?
After my friend Pep died of metastatic colon cancer, his self-obit in the local paper brought tears to my eyes. It was as if I heard his jokey, self-deprecating voice from beyond the grave. The act of composition must have composed him, providing an opportunity to reflect on his life, to express appreciation of his family and friends, and to make peace with the posthumous presence he would become.
In common parlance, the word “grace” means elegance, ease of comportment, a style that charms those who observe it. A scholar of many languages, Pep would have known that it derives from the Latin “gratus,” which mean pleasing or thankful, and that it gave rise to the Italian “grazie” and the Spanish “gracias.” By virtue of his gracious words, Pep bestowed a gift of grace on his family and friends.
I cannot imagine attaining a durable state of grace throughout the ordeals that will surely arrive in the future. Instead, I consider practicing a series of hesitant, brief grace notes.
The musical notation of these short notes is printed in smaller type to indicate an ornament and with a slur mark linking them to the note they precede: a fleeting sound before a longer lasting duration that immediately follows. To me, they look buoyant, like a tiny bounce or skip forward. There must be as many ways to play grace notes as there are people in the world. What might they be, I wonder?
In this season, I give thanks for the time that remains. To resist animosity and fear, I want to devote it to becoming proficient at all sorts of grace notes before the chords of closure resound into silence.