Yesterday was my baby sister’s first chemo treatment. Her diagnosis of cancer came in the usual way, I suppose – as a complete, life-shattering shock. There Karla was, minding her own, gathering up at the grocery store, grabbing coffee on the way to work, feeding the dog, folding laundry.
And now, this.
A few weeks earlier she texted, saying she would be having surgery to remove a large growth that had quickly filled her belly. “I’m sure everything will be fine – just wanted to let you know.”
But the surgery exposed a five-pound tumor fueled by ovarian cancer.
It was as if we, her three older sisters, stood at the steep ragged edge of a glacier and the part that held Karla and her life and everything she loved broke loose and crashed to the sea below. She stands on this iceberg of her life now, drifting out into uncharted waters, sometimes looking back at us wistfully, sometimes angry and frustrated. But the clearest part for us all, the part that is unbearable right now, is her separation from us and how it used to be. We shout back and forth across the widening gap, our words garbled and washed out in the fury of this breaking off, the sum of our tears the only truth.
This morning, a handful of egrets rise from a flooded field next door. They lift to the sky, long white grace and lightness filling the air, slender charcoal sticks of legs trailing in their slipstream.
I was astounded by the sheer beauty and grace of it, a Mary Oliver poem coming to life, the moment wide and generous, life-giving. And then, just as surprising, I felt awkward, disloyal. Is it okay to be breathless and spellbound before Beauty when such sorrow washes the world about? To feel yourself drawn to Beauty’s gracious invitation of witness when so many are suffering? To kneel and behold when others despair of even hope?
When your baby sister has cancer?
I watch the egrets head east, in the general direction of my sister’s far away house. I beg them to visit her too. I pray this for her – that Beauty will reach out and embrace her gently; a new friend in the infusion room, an unexpected kindness from a stranger, an apple of gold in words fitly spoken.
That something new and precious might push up through the frozen barren ground of this and now, something just for her. Something she can carry alongside as a respectful companion to Sorrow and Fear.
Perhaps there isn’t a conflict here, that it isn’t just Suffering or Beauty. Perhaps, to live the full measure and meaning of our days, we must honor the deep presence of both.