Cancer's Twilight Zone
By Norris Burkes
-- If you've ever watched Star Trek, you would know that the crew often finds
themselves in a place "where no man has gone before." When that happens, their
instruments usually don't work.
As much as they try to recalibrate everything they keep losing power to the
shields. The same energy that is messing with the instruments is also causing
the crew to disappear and parallel universes to crash, smash and clash. Everything
is out of whack.
I think people experience similar confusion as they hear a doctor tell them
that their case is inoperable. Their world contorts and they're hit with spiritual
Sometimes, I'm invited into that contorted world by a simple phone call.
On this particular day, the call came from a nurse.
"Chaplain, we have a patient who's requesting that you come and pray with
her. Her doctor has just told her that she has more tumors and there is nothing
more to be done."
After a quick briefing at the nursing station, I entered the room to introduce
"I understand you've gotten some unimaginable news today," I admitted.
Even the word "unimaginable" seemed like an understatement. She was a 33-year-old
woman who had been expecting great news from recent medical tests.
But instead of hearing that her cancer was in remission and that her three-year
tour of duty in cancer's twilight zone had reached its conclusion, she heard
her doctor say, "You have a new tumor and it's inoperable.
"I'm trying to be strong," she told me, "but I just can't stop crying."
Shaking my head, I wondered aloud whether I'd be able to stop if I had just
heard my doctor tell me I had inoperable cancer. "Is there a reason you have
"Yes, I have to be strong for my mother. I'm all she has. She's been so strong
since I got sick. She's my rock. It would destroy her to see my cry so much."
This is something I often hear from patients who have a certain expectation
of what "strong" is supposed to look like. These folks usually find tears
to be shaming, embarrassing, or weak. I suppose tears can sometimes indicate
such things, but I've also seen great strength and courage in tears.
"Holding back tears takes up a great deal of shielding energy," I said still
thinking in Star Trek terms. "Maybe that's energy you might better use talking
about your relationship, your life, and even your upcoming death."
"If both of you are being "strong" so as not to make the other cry, you're
stuck in an endless dry circle. Sounds like you've sentenced your mother to
a kind of solitary - solitary crying.
"You know she's going to cry when you're gone. Have you ever thought maybe
she'd like to cry with you? Maybe she's waiting for your permission to cry?"
"Mom's not cried since this whole thing began," she admitted.
"Or maybe you've not seen her cry," I speculated. "My guess is losing her
only child has got to be devastating and maybe she'd like the opportunity
to express that."
I told her that the desire to express grief is something that her mother
and God had in common. "Surely God must have cried when his only son was killed,"
She looked at me quizzically.
"Doesn't the Bible teach that at the crucifixion, the earth went dark for
three hours? I think your mom's world must be looking pretty dark."
At that remark, her tears began to fall like water leaking from a paper sack.
My wife often tells me that I'm usually not satisfied at the end of a day's
work if I haven't made someone cry.
To which I always correct her by saying, "helped someone to cry' - 'helped'-
not 'made them cry!'"
Unfortunately, this woman was never cured, but I'd like to think that she
and her mother experienced some healing from the holy water of tears that
drop from our eyes and renew the dry places inside us.
Shedding tears in the presence of a loved one shows trust in them and their
love for you. To share tears with another person is an act of supreme compassion.
In holding back the tears, we hold back our truth -- and we hold back ourselves.
And when faced with our mortality, "ourselves" is ultimately all we have
to share with each other.
For more information about Norris Burkes please log onto his website at
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