Heresy at Gethsemane
Of all the side effects of the chemo drugs I’m on—fatigue that seizes me dead asleep like narcolepsy with a dose of jet lag, parched-out mouth, cracked skin that scales off the webs between my fingers—there is one I love. Involuntary tears. As if there were wells behind my eyes.
As if my tear ducts had become roots to water my sight. As if the inner edges of my eyelids were the tips of leaves about to drop rain. They brim with blurred vision, until I blink.
When I close my eyes, each cries a tear I love to let roll as it will. One goes down to my throat. One drops off at my jaw line and falls, a balm, to my wrist, where the IV goes in. The way sap happens: Trees weep to heal their wounds.
I did not cry or pray for days after my stage IV cancer diagnosis. I was blank inside, stunned quiet. I did not cry or pray until I sang “the fool on the hill sees the sun going down, and the eyes in his head see the world spinning round,” along with the Beatles, on a mixtape my mom made for me long before we ever imagined I’d have cancer. And I remembered myself as a child, discovering The Magical Mystery Tour on vinyl, among the old stethoscopes, blood-pressure cuffs, and mini dictation tapes my dad would leave in the basement.
When I was young, my dad used to take me to the cath lab, where I would witness the magic and the mystery of his life’s work as a cardiologist. I would watch through the window, blood spurting up from the patient’s wrist where my dad would insert a wire he’d use to guide a catheter up an artery to a chamber of the heart. I wished I could see into the emergency room, where he would save patients from cardiac arrest. He would press on their chests, to shock stopped hearts back to beating life.
I did not cry or pray the first time I was a patient in a hospital bed. I laughed, on the phone with my dad, about me being on this side of an IV. I was getting a blood transfusion. Two units, draining from hanging bags into my veins, to replenish the red blood cells I lost, due to the tumor we didn’t yet know I have.
The first time I heard “The Fool on the Hill” since my diagnosis, I sang along, until I cried. “I’m so sorry, Dad.” Then, my crying turned to praying: “God, I want my life back.”
A few summers ago in Jerusalem, I walked the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Grief, to get to the Old City. I did not stop at the Stations of the Cross to contemplate Christ’s Passion. The Via Dolorosa was part of my commute—from the Lutheran Guest House where I was staying, on the Mount of Olives, to the downtown bus station, where I would catch a jam-packed minivan to Tel Aviv, where I was going to follow the stories of Sudanese refugees who’ve migrated from Egypt to Israel.
One evening, after a long day of reporting, I tried to take a short cut back to the guesthouse, through the Kidron Valley. After an hour of trying to walk east through the shrubs that seemed to go on endlessly, I saw leaves through a gate, a sign that said Garden of Gethsemane. Underneath, there was a placard that tells a story of the place: According to one Catholic tradition, the olive trees were the silent witnesses to Jesus’ agony in the garden.
I walked in, to see their trunks up close. They stand still, yet lean and sway, as if they were dancers, petrified alive over the rocky ground where the gospel of Mark says Jesus fell, “sore amazed” and “sorrowful unto death.” The place where he prayed, All things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.
I found myself at the foot of an olive tree, my body folding into a crouch. I heard a phrase arranging itself in my mind: Rest in me, eyes to knees.
I still don’t know what these words mean, but I practice them as prayer postures. When I’m exhausted or distressed, I crouch down and rest my eye sockets on my kneecaps. I pray that way a lot since my cancer diagnosis. At first, I was emotionally exhausted from other people’s grief: the please-call-me messages from friends, offers of medical advice from acquaintances, the crying voice of my dad over the phone, begging me to stay alive at least as long as he.
“I can’t stand this cup; get it away from me!” In exasperated King-James-English as a second language, my dad paraphrased Jesus’ prayer of agony in the garden, not long after I told him I have cancer. My dad’s Gethsemane was the recliner chair where he had to live mostly, since he started dying: diabetes turned renal disease that made him retire early. The cup of suffering my dad tried to pray away was not the dialysis machine that cleaned his blood because his kidneys were failing, not even his wounded pride of having to go on disability after a career of saving lives. The cup he couldn’t stand was not being able to take care of me.
The part of Jesus’ prayer my dad didn’t say—the part I’ve tried and failed to pray—is hard to swallow. Just after Jesus begs God to take the cup of suffering away, he says, Nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.
I used to identify with the disciples in this Bible story. By the time they got to the Garden of Gethsemane, they’d followed Jesus all over Galilee, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, standing up to the Pharisees. They were on the run from the Roman authorities, and they must have been exhausted, collapsed at the feet of the olive trees. But Jesus wouldn’t give his friends a break. Watch and pray with me, he said, demanding vigilance, when I imagine they could hardly keep their eyes open. For years I’ve wanted to talk back to Jesus on behalf of the disciples: Let them have a nap, I’ve wanted to say. And stop making me feel guilty about all the times I’m too tired to be vigilant in the face of others’ pain.
I’m still a sleeping disciple, prone to compassion fatigue, much of the time. But since my cancer diagnosis, I’m beginning to empathize with Jesus at Gethsemane: Just as he’d gotten his life’s work going, just as he was planting the seeds of a new society, just as he was gaining followers willing to give up everything for justice and love, he found out he was probably going to die, at the age of 33. I can imagine Jesus, dashing his knee on the rocky grounds of Gethsemane, the garden it could be—the Kingdom of God on earth—if only he didn’t have to die early.
Just as I’d begun following my vocation to work with refugees, just as I was finding ways to write about God, just as I’d begun living into beloved community, I found out I have incurable cancer, at the age of 33. My life’s work would only be a drop in the bucket of the radical transformation Jesus was trying to make of the world. And I won’t suffer like he did: Cancer is no crucifixion. But sometimes I stomp my feet on the ground of all I feel is being taken from me. The life partner I want to be, the grandmother I want to grow into, all the things on my to-do-before-I-die list: See the sunken churches in Ethiopia, learn capoeira, start a Catholic Worker house for refugees in Tel Aviv, write a novel about an old lady trying to figure out what to do with all her dead cats’ ashes.
I can’t drink life to the lees like I used to. I can’t leave my every-other-week chemo cocktail long enough to live abroad. I can’t walk myself ragged, from the Wailing Wall to the Garden of Gethsemane. So I rest under a tree closer to home: a copper beech whose pruning wounds look like eyes. Silent witnesses to my way of saying Take this cup from me: Help me to live to a hundred and three, as these great trees are prayers.
I don’t believe God wills me, or anyone, to suffer. But, in the stars I imagine puncturing the dark night of Gethsemane, there’s something of the strange ways of God—or life, or afterlife, happening as we grieve.
I was on chemo when my dad died. I was being infused with a drug that kills cells so the cancer won’t grow or spread, while he was being resuscitated—with IV drips and chest compressions to get his heart to pump again. He came back for a breath or two, until he drew his last.
When I was going through pictures for the funeral, I found a photo of my dad at my baptism. He’s watching the water, with more childlike wonder than I’ve ever seen in his eyes. He’s holding on to the baptismal font for balance, after months of not being able to stand up. The anti-rejection drugs he had to take after a kidney transplant weakened his legs so much he couldn’t support his own weight.
It was when we didn’t know whether he would survive the transplant that I decided to get baptized, at the age of 25, in the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox tradition he grew up in. After the immersion rite, the priest anointed me with holy oil. He made tiny signs of the cross on my ankles, my knees, my elbows, my wrists, my eyelids. I didn’t have to think to close my eyes.
Looking at the picture of my dad at my baptism, I cried at the sight of his hand on the font. The hand that used to bring hearts back to life. I took some of the tears with my finger and made the sign of the cross on each eyelid and on the inside of my wrist where the IV goes in.
I slept through Easter this year. The candlelit vigils, the sunrise services. I was in a deep chemo sleep. I dreamed my dad was resuscitating my dying cells. Each one a heart bursting into a star.
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.