Communion on Chemo
I’ve got all manner of people I know and don’t know praying for me. I’m on Pentecostal prayer lists all over Walker County, where my mom grew up in Alabama. My Egyptian cousins are sending holy oil from the monastery of a Coptic nun known for healing miracles. My evangelical brother has missionaries holding prayer vigils for me in Papua New Guinea. His Messianic friends are blowing shofar in Jerusalem, tucking slips of paper with my name on them into the crevices of the Wailing Wall.
For this deluge of prayers, I say thank you. Thank you, God. And thank you every friend, acquaintance, and stranger who’s praying for me. Thank you for being part of the life force that’s keeping me, somewhat exuberantly, alive. But I wonder why I don’t know how to pray for healing for myself.
Until my cancer diagnosis three months ago, the worst part of my medical history was a stress fracture of the metatarsal. My endoscopic pathology report says I have advanced esophageal carcinoma. But I can still eat Ethiopian food, walk all over Brooklyn, do headstands in my yoga practice. I’m a fresh-faced 33-year-old who still gets carded at bars. I don’t know how to be sick, and so far I haven’t had to learn.
I did learn, from before I can remember, to pray—no matter what the doctors say—for healing. I’ve lived most of my life as a witness to debilitating illness: from my mom’s spinal cord injury, to my dad’s heart failure, kidney transplant, vascular dementia. My aunts on both sides died of cancer. And their caregivers—my grandmother Pauline and my uncle Latif—defied bleak prognoses with fierce, persistent prayers.
As the front-line caregivers in my family started dying, I started praying more than ever. When my grandmother’s neurologist said she had a 100% chance of death after a stroke, I called on the Holy Spirit, to give me the words to pray for her life. When my uncle Latif was hemorrhaging in the brain after a head injury, I prayed as I had witnessed him praying, all the times my dad almost died: I started lighting candles and saying the Lord’s Prayer in front of icons. I fasted that Good Friday and said kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy, forty-one times, counting on my fingers. I’ve been raised on the impulse to pray—from the Alabama Pentecostal way of pouring your heart out to the Lord, to the Egyptian Coptic way of praying the psalms in every distress. So why haven’t I found a way to pray for healing for myself?
One Wednesday this Lent, I pooped in my pants on the way to a healing service at the Episcopal church down the street from the house where I grew up in Alabama. After cleaning myself up in the church bathroom, I still went and kneeled in the pew. The priest was already holding up the communion chalice. I was later than I’d thought. I’d missed the psalm, the gospel reading, the sermon. I missed what I’d come for: anointing with holy oil, in the shape of the cross, on my forehead.
I was kind of relieved I missed the healing liturgy. I’d been to this service so many times, with prayer requests for other people: my grandmother with dementia after a stroke; my mother, her only caregiver; the depressed geriatric patient I’d anointed at the psychiatric hospital where I work as a chaplain. This time, I was the one in need of healing. And I didn’t know what I would say when you’re invited to tell the priest any particular prayer intentions you have for the day.
After communion, I lingered in the pew, praying quietly as I often do, to avoid conversation after church. I remained kneeling—not out of piety, but because I didn’t want to sit in the residue of my poop. The priest, an easy-going middle-aged man who goes by John, lingered too, chatting with a retired banker about a mission trip to Honduras.
When I heard silence, I opened my eyes. John was still there, cleaning off the chalice with holy water. “What brings you to town?” he asked. (We’d chatted before: He knows I’m a part-time chaplain, about to graduate from seminary in Connecticut.)
“I have a cancer diagnosis.” I hadn’t intended to tell him. But something about kneeling there, with shit in my pants, brought me low enough to confess that I’m among the sick who need anointing this time.
I saw the shock in John’s pale eyes, a look I’ve come to recognize. The vicarious protest, as if to say, how could this be?! The cognitive dissonance, as if to say, but you look so healthy! Apparently, he didn’t see my hair falling out, fast as pine needles on the varnished wood that frames the kneeling cushion; the scabs forming in my nostrils from the nosebleeds; my low white-blood-cell count compromising my immunity. He did notice the small, circular Band-Aid near my right clavicle, covering the scythe-shaped incision where a surgeon implanted a port for my chemo infusions. “That’s what that is,” he said, as the shock subsided.
The port goes from my upper chest to the right atrium of my heart, so the chemo drugs can circulate throughout my body with minimal damage to the veins. I imagined the communion wine, a sign of the blood of Jesus, mixing with the chemo toxins in my bloodstream. I imagined the wafer, a sign of Christ’s broken body, moving through my digestive tract, passing through the site of the tumor, where my esophagus meets my stomach.
“You know, you’re the third person I’ve talked to who’s been diagnosed with esophageal cancer this year,” John said. He looked troubled and yet hopeful, as if to say, but they’re seventy-year-old chain smokers. I resisted the impulse to confess the thirty cigarettes I’ve had in my life, all the whiskey shots I did in college, that one time I did E in Belfast. I was almost over that reflex of self-blame.
“It’s curable,” he said.
Not according to my oncologist, I didn’t say. My cancer is metastatic: It has traveled through the lymphatic system to my liver; there are spots on my lungs. My oncologist said I’ll be in some form of treatment—probably chemo, for the rest of my life. The goal, he said, is to “keep you alive as long as we can.” I haven’t asked how long he thinks that will be.
Behind John, on the altar, there was a yarn garment, folded three times. Something I’ve come to recognize as a prayer shawl, probably handmade by a church lady who prayed over the yarn while she was knitting, probably for someone she’s never met who has cancer. “We blessed this today,” John said, He told me it’s for a Pakistani woman who’s doing chemo in Houston.
I have three prayer shawls: a sea green one from Unitarians in West Hartford, an earth-toned one with iridescent purple threads from Congregationalists in Iowa, a periwinkle blue one from Episcopalians in Houston. I put on the prayer shawls when I don’t have words to pray, to wrap myself in the anonymous prayers of strangers.
But I’m still one of those strangers praying for others. I say novenas to St. Jude, patron saint of difficult cases, for a refugee I know, who’s making his way from Israel to what’s left of his home in Southern Sudan. I pray the Mi Sheberakh, a Hebrew healing prayer, for a Jewish patient at the psych hospital, who hopes to get stable enough to go to a group home in the mountains: “…fulfill her dreams of healing,” I pray in translation, “strengthening her with the power of life.”
I don’t think I believe my prayers will do a thing to help Sudanese refugees get home, through conflict zones and rainy seasons. I don’t think I believe my prayers for psychiatric patients will diminish their post-traumatic stress, their paranoid psychosis, their fears of life inside and outside locked wards.
But I believe in the healing power of prayer. I can feel the anonymous prayers of strangers in the shawls around my shoulders. I can feel the morning prayers of my friend’s mother, also living with cancer, buoying me up to embrace each day and celebrate life. I can already feel the unction of last rites—the repose that lets you rest, and die, when you need to.
I don’t want to die early. But if I do, I want to surrender. I believe every loss has an afterlife. And I don’t mean bodily resurrection. When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes planted with a tree. A big weeping beech with enough shade for everyone I love to gather under, unfurl a blanket, share a meal.
While John was telling me about the Pakistani woman whose prayer shawl he blessed that day, I started to break into a cold sweat. I felt woozy—not from the odd cocktail of chemo and wine—probably from dehydration, my oncologist told me later, a “benign” side effect. But it didn’t feel so benign that day: I didn’t know if my quads could support my weight enough to stand up from the kneeling cushion. My vision was blurred. I was verging on vertigo. Is this me finally getting sick? I thought. Finally facing the music that I have cancer?
“Are you ok?” John asked.
“Yes.” I had the wherewithal to assure him. “I had a bad episode of diarrhea this morning. I’ll be ok if I just sit still a minute.” I didn’t confess the probable cause of the diarrhea—not chemo, but jogging the morning after a midnight pint of ice cream.
After a few minutes, I felt better. “I’m ok,” I said. “Sorry about that.”
“Ashley, you have nothing to be sorry for,” John said. “May I anoint you?”
He took a silver tin out of his pocket. “What are you praying for?” he asked.
“To live as abundantly as I have for the last six weeks.”
He dipped his thumb in the holy oil. He touched his fingers to my head and prayed—“for abundant life, but also for healing.” He drew the sign of the cross on my forehead, saying “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
One of my fellow chaplains told me that anointing the sick in the Russian Orthodox tradition is not so much a prayer for healing as a way of consecrating an illness to God. When my aunt Elene was dying, on life support in Alexandria, my uncle Latif would pray that she could breathe on her own. Every day we visited her in the ICU, he would dip a Q-tip in holy water he’d brought in a plastic bottle from a Coptic monastery. He would hold the saturated cotton over her dry, cracked lips, so the water would drip into her mouth. I would hold her wrist and sing. (I’ve learned from hospice workers that hearing is the last sense to go.) One day, a priest came to give Elene communion. The bread was already saturated with the wine. He brought it to her lips with a little spoon, as if it were baby food. But she couldn’t swallow. He drew the sign of the cross with his finger on her forehead.
I still don’t know why I’m not asking God to heal my body. For now, receiving holy oil on my forehead feels more right than praying for healing for myself. I consecrate my life and death to God.
I don’t believe God will heal my body completely of cancer, no matter how much anyone prays; no matter how much holy Kool-Aid I drink. But the communion wine goes down smooth, the holy oil soothes, and my life force is stronger than ever—in light (yes, light!) of my cancer. There will come a day I can’t swallow anymore. But until then, I’ll keep drinking life to the lees. I’ll keep writing, trying to put words to the mystery I see in wondrous and troubling things.
I imagine all those prayers for healing swooping over the ground under my feet, like the shadows of birds. Evidence of living things unseen, faith making me well enough to live abundantly, with cancer.
Pentecostal ladies of North Alabama, missionaries in Papua New Guinea, rabbis in Connecticut, keep those healing prayers coming. And I’ll keep coming to the communion cup, with L’Chaim in my veins. I’ll keep thanking God, long as I have breath to pray.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.