At the end of 2009, I noticed a blur at the edge of my right eye, as if I had caught a ghost walking out the room. I put off going to the doctor for two weeks. When I did, he told me my right optic nerve was inflamed—cause unknown—but, if left untreated, it would cause me to lose my sight. In that moment, I dropped out of the world I lived in, where I thought I knew about disease and vulnerability, and entered another country. It was not like another place; it was another country. I called it Oz.
I walked from my ophthalmologist’s office to the emergency room doctor to have intravenous steroids pushed into my vein. On the street were doctors in white coats walking briskly, a woman eating a sandwich, two kids on skateboards. Very suddenly I felt a glass wall separating us, as if it had fallen from the sky. There they were, going about their lives, seemingly oblivious to how close illness is and the health of their own bodies. And there I was, no longer oblivious.
Illness has a scalding power; it sweeps aside the life that was and what coping mechanisms have worked before. That first night, I discovered I didn’t know how to pray. I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to prayer. And that night, I had in my toolbox the 911 prayer: “Help me.”
One morning, I had a bronchoscopy at the Mayo Clinic (they were zeroing in on the cause). Afterward, the nurse told me I had to sit in a wheelchair for the return to our hotel. My husband wheeled me out of the pulmonary section, into an elevator, and out onto the main floor. I saw a little girl ahead of us, in a wheelchair, pulling herself expertly along. For most of my life I had not known what to say or do around people in wheelchairs; I nodded or said hello and looked away. They lived in another country—a place I’d never be. But this time, as we pulled alongside her, I looked over and said, “Hi.” And she looked at me with a full open smile and said, “Hi,” and there we were, momentary companions, on this particular road, in our own country. No wall. Our mutual vulnerability was the cord between us.
Then I understood the most important aspect of Oz. I had thought that first day that the wall that fell between me and the people on the street was of my own making; that is, I was sick with something greater than flu and that had thrust me out of the land of the well. This is true. But there is a further, harder truth: I had thought the wall was my own work, but now I understood—it was also theirs.
In Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illyich, one of Ilyich’s friends comes to view his body. The friend looks at his watch, anxious to get to a card game, and says to himself: he must have done something terribly wrong to have died. Susan Sontag remembers people who thought she had a “cancer personality.” We are human; we want cause and effect. He must have done something terribly wrong; she has a cancer personality; it must be because I wasn’t thinking positively. We are afraid, deep in our hearts, that disaster is contagious.
In the Gospel account in Luke 7:11–17, I can imagine people crossing the street to avoid the woman from Nain and her dead son, keeping well away from their disaster: it must have been because she did. Or maybe because he …
Here Jesus enters the story (“In his compassion,” the Gospel says). Rather than distance himself from the situation, rather than give her advice, rather than stand far away on the other side of the wall from this weeping woman and her dead son … or the man who just lost his job, or the woman with cancer … Jesus was overwhelmed by compassion. He enters into the suffering. And the God I prayed to or with, was a God who did not make it all go away but who was there, inside the suffering, unafraid of the suffering. A God who did not so much lead me as accompany me.
When I looked over at the girl in the wheelchair at the Mayo Clinic, and she looked at me, I had the sense that there was a third person there. He was there because she was there. And I was there. A very fragile line connected the three of us. Whoever this man was who lived and died and lived again was there, not literal, not visible but not absent, not without influence, not dead. The resurrection when looked at this way is not a magic act but is, instead, a revelation of what stays alive and what does not. Love and its close cousin vulnerability stay alive.
This God understands that it’s the nature of things to be vulnerable; the disorder is imagining that we are not. Amen.