Playing Through the Pain

Shelves don’t stay empty for long. The front of a nursing station is meant to be a wide-open vista where patients can perch (if need be) to ask a question, or family members can ask where they can find a bathroom. These horizontal planes, like everything else, soon become cluttered with things. Handknitted hats for chemo vicitms. Clocks. Boxes of Kleenex. Sign-in sheets. Vases of flowers with balloons attached. The Staples “easy” button. Vases of “lucky” bamboo, hand sanitizer, jars of candy, hole-punchers, odd generic “humanity” statuary. Things acquire things. The ID cords that nurses wear acquire all kinds of “flair” from the useful (special lipbalm holders) to the predictable (little “ribbon of hope” badges in various colors; angels, animals, and of course, their credential info.)

Sometimes I feel like God is stalking me, but it might be that I am just sensitive to signs of religion and the numinous. What greeted me last time I perched at the front of the nurses’ station (a different ward than I usually attend since I was just there for a Saturday blood draw) was a little glass jar with the Johns Hopkins logo, the kind one might purchase at the hospital gift shop and fill with Hershey’s Kisses for an unfortunate. But now there was something metal in there. Closer examination revealed it was half-full of Catholic medals. St. Peregrine on one side; “Pray for Us” on the other. I questioned the nurse on duty as to the provenance of the jar, which, of course, is an urban mystery.

Who is St. Peregrine? I wondered. He’s the patron saint of cancer patients. He was a member of the Servite Order who, as a special penance, decided to stand all the time. He reportedly did not sit down for thirty years. Possibly as a consequence of this, he was afflicted with cancer in his leg and foot, and doctors were going to amputate. The night before, he had a vision of Christ reaching down to touch his foot; the next morning he was cured. Wow! I can see why he’s representin’ on the station shelf instead of, say, St. Agatha, the patroness of breast cancer patients, who suffered her own form of breast torture: they were cut off (as part of her penalty for not giving up her virginity). (On a side note: all these defenseless virgins were always getting killed: hadn’t anyone ever heard of rape?) She was also rolled in glass. Agatha is often pictured with her breasts on a tray, looking like two fleshy sunny-side up eggs. My favorite candidate for patroness of breast cancer, though, is Venerable Zélie Martin, (mother of St. Therese) who brought new meaning to the phrase “play through the pain.” She knew she had breast tumors and that she should have surgery, but she couldn’t slow down since she had nine children (four of whom had died in infancy or childhood) and a thriving lacemaking business. She died at the age of 45, leaving behind five daughters, a business and a grieving husband, Venerable Louis Martin.

Even though it killed her, and even though she didn’t seek out the surgery she should have had, I like to think of Zélie when I am complaining about household stuff and medical woes. I send up some prayers to her for fellow patients (especially those with children). I’d like to think that maybe she’d be in the chemo chair next to mine if she were alive today, but not choosing treatment is a form of fighting itself. Dare I say it? I feel her presence in the chemo ward, where our dear nurses always remind me of the possibility of human kindness. And I think of all the mothers being taken down, all the people being attacked from within by this mysterious disease, and Peregrine seems untouchable, remote. Nonetheless, I took his medal and attached it to my ID tag loop, which has now just acquired its own bit of flair.

For further reading on Zélie Martin, I would recommend The Mother of the Little Flower by Celine Martin and Saint Therese of Lisieux by Kathryn Harrison.

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.