Why I’ll Never Write a Cancer and Me Book

If I’m honest, and I do try to be, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which we celebrate today, is barely noticed in our monastic calendar. It is overshadowed by St Scholastica, celebrated yesterday, and SS Cyril and Methodius, celebrated on 14 February. It is one of those devotional feasts we pass over with a collect and very little else, other than remembering to pray for the sick. Being sick myself (metastatic leiomyosarcoma), you might think I would have something to say about it, but I haven’t. While some people find the experience of serious illness transformative, I have not. The world hasn’t changed, nor have I. I’m just as irritating as ever, and just as interested as I always was in the things that interest me. Admittedly, I haven’t the energy I once had, which I find frustrating; but I am not ‘battling’ cancer or ‘fighting’ my disease. I am just getting on with things, and tidying my sock drawer as best I can. (Tidying one’s sock drawer is nunspeak for preparing for death by trying to ensure there aren’t too many things for other people to clear up once one’s dead.)

I wonder whether we expect too much of the sick. If someone with cancer has no bucket-list, no special insights into the beauty and holiness of life, are we a little disappointed? If the sick person isn’t patient and humble and doesn’t accept a restricted diet and activity with never a grumble or rebellion, are we unnerved? It is not quite what we expect. The truth is, illness isn’t romantic and doesn’t necessarily make heroes or saints of us— it’s messy and expensive, and tends to make huge demands on others. On this feast of Our Lady of Lourdes we should be praying for the carers, the medical and nursing staff, the pharmacists, everyone who enables the sick themselves to go on. We often forget that when we are praying for the sick, what we are really doing is praying the prayer they themselves are unable to make. For myself, at the moment, that is above all a prayer for those who are helping me. The time will come when I will probably be too ill to pray. Then, more than ever before, I shall rely on the prayers of the Church. It will be for the Church to utter the praise and thanksgiving that will be beyond me. Just as every psalm sung in choir ends with the Gloria Patri, so, I hope, will the life of every one of us, including mine.

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