“While an impulse toward wholeness is natural and exists in everyone, each of us heals in our own way. Some people heal because they have work to do. Others heal because they have been released from their work and the pressures and expectations that others place on them. Some people need music, others need silence, some need people around them, others heal alone. Many different things can activate and strengthen the life force in us. For each of us there are conditions of healing that are as unique as a fingerprint.”
–Rachel Naomi Remen, MD.
It felt timely for On Being to recirculate Krista Tippet’s conversation with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen this past week. I first read her most popular book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal, a decade ago. Originally published in 1994, Dr. Remen shares the wisdom she gathered from coming alongside and listening to stories from those grappling with illness and pain, mostly cancer patients. They are folks who are journeying along the edges of life, where uncertainty and mystery most often reside. Stumbling upon Remen’s wisdom during my morning commute the day prior to Brian’s first (and hopefully last) chemo appointment felt like more than a coincidence. At one point in the interview, Dr. Remen reflected on the importance of pausing to acknowledge loss and even more so to pause and take note of what has sustained them in the midst of their suffering.
It was this invitation to reflect that primed my heart and mind to see beauty and strength in the midst of the long and challenging days that would follow. Over the last six years we have encountered a significant amount of loss – we’ve lost jobs, a home and our sense of rootedness, we’ve each lost body parts and our health (even if temporarily), my grandmother passed away almost a year ago, and we lost our beloved chocolate lab this past spring. There is undeniable grief still unfolding in the face of these compounding losses. AND as I sat in the cancer center waiting room this past Wednesday, allowing curiosity around what has sustained and strengthened us to take over the driver’s seat of my mind, I was overcome with a gratitude that did not feel contrived.
I am thankful for good and soul healing music, for strangers who donated blood and plasma and time from their lives, for meals and groceries from dear friends, for fellow cancer patients and their loved ones greeting us with knowing smiles, for understanding teachers and coaches who’ve held space for our kids, for financial gifts from my brother, dad and family friends who knew we were being buried by medical debt, for hospital leg massages from my sister, for coworkers and friends who have offered care baskets, Grubhub and Uber Eats gift certificates, for a mother who fiercely advocated for quality medical care, for so much laughter and play in our snapchat feeds, for a mother-in-law who cleaned and offered care for our newborn baby, for the discovery of Granny’s many wigs the day after her passing, for an especially empathetic and kind veterinarian clinic staff, for sunshine and the many rainy days – yes even for them, for spending so much time in hospitals where we’ve been reminded that we are not the only humans encountering suffering, for glimpses of the Colorado Rockies, the Cascades and the Olympic Mountains, for each of our girls and the unique ways they invite us to be present, to tend to grief and awaken to life, for puppies who dug under fences and into our hearts, for all of the lessons and wisdom we’ve gained and carried forth from our stories of trauma and recovery, heartache and healing, for all of the doctors and nurses and medical professionals who’ve offered us care along the way.
This is just a snapshot of my stream of consciousness that I decided to jot down as I sat there waiting for Brian to finish his treatment. The infusion room was full that day so there wasn’t an extra chair for me to sit with him. Did you catch that? The infusion room was full. My hunch is that it is often (always?) full. And on that particular day, all of Brian’s chemo chair neighbors were walking far closer to the edge of life than Brian and several of them had been walking along that edge for far longer than either of us. Darren, Arden, Ingrid, Fred and others were complete strangers before that morning, yet they welcomed Brian into their community of sufferers and sustainability teachers and offered him gifts of insight, natural anti-nausea remedies, books about cannabis, and they filled the room for those three hours with all of their sacred stories. And so I’m beginning to understand Dr. Remen’s invitation to reflect on the suffering and the sustenance and strength – that’s where the mystery is found. It’s where the Divine resides.