Losing a Loved One to Cancer: A Memoir
Why Do We Suffer?
The are few diseases in human history that have cut a wider swath through human lives and human relationships than cancer. Everyone has a story of how it has affected them, either through their own experience or through the pain it inflicted on a friend or loved one. I have never had cancer, but my grandfather died of an inoperable brain tumor when I was seven years old, and the ravages of cancer have been steadily pursuing people close to me ever since.
This is the story of the darkness that cancer has brought into my life--how it has scared me, crushed me, and wounded me. It is also, however, the story of how I have come to accept its presence in my life and the one source of healing I found for my own heart. I share it in the hopes that it may comfort others who have faced the same trails and, perhaps, help them along in their own search for meaning and for healing.
One final note: those who have read this memoir in preparation for publication universally indicate that, while the memoir ends with a sense of catharsis, it makes for hard reading. Know going in that this memoir will stir up your own hard memories, but sometimes the willingness to go there is an important step forward towards our own healing.
6 July, 2012
My breath stopped, and I became very, very quiet. Shadows, coming in like a descending fog, settled behind the furniture—here in this place where they did not belong. I did not really see them; I felt them, hovering close, hungering. It was late afternoon, and the sun was casting its light down through the front bay window of my grandfather's house in El Paso, Texas, painting a bright golden rectangle across the room. The reflection of the light off the battered wood floor spread a faint orange glow throughout the small space, washing out the details like a transparent watercolor. My grandfather, my Lito, was standing there in front of the window, looking back at me. But it was not him. Whatever it was had stolen my Lito’s face. His simple joy, his quiet intelligence, and his open smile—they were all gone. This face was blank, like a lifeless puppet. Its eyes were vacant.
This could not be my Lito, standing there in his dusty overalls and striped engineer’s cap—empty. This was something else. Somehow, something had crawled inside of him, eaten him away, and stolen his form. My Lito had been erased. Replaced. At all of five years old, I felt the darkness, but I did not understand it. Weakly, I called to him, “Lito?”
Silence. A vast, insurmountable silence. He did not see me. Hurt and confused, I looked at him. Moving slowly forward, I sat down on the couch just in front of him. I wanted to touch him. I wanted to hold him and feel the crinkle of the denim in his overalls fill my hands and inhale his old, dusty fragrance. Instead, I looked down at my own small hands, clasping tightly together, and whispered, “Lito.”
Somehow, I knew that he was gone. Never again would I feel his large, rough hands reach down to take my own, engulfing them. Never again would he lift me from the hot, dusty ground, sailing through the air, into a rusted-out wheelbarrow for a jolting, joyful ride. Never again would I watch the rhythmic movements of his fingers, pen in hand, as they danced over a sheet of paper, capturing my imagination with his delicate drawings of a simple life. No more slow and measured shuffle over to pick me up. No more white mustache to tickle my cheeks with a kiss.
In my chest, there was pain. The shadows hiding in the corners of the room trembled and seemed to grow larger—closer. Cringing, I turned and ran; I ran to my mother and cried.
“He has what they call an inoperable brain tumor. It puts pressure on his brain and makes it difficult for him to think.” This is what my mother told me. It made no sense. How did it get in there? Why couldn’t they just take it out? “Don’t worry, Bert. He’s going to be just fine.” I heard this many times. My mother said it to protect me.
It didn’t work. The shadows still lurked in the back of my mind.
“I don’t want to see him,” I said, my voice low and stubborn.
“He is your Lito, and you will go in to see him.” My father said this to me as I stood outside my Lito’s bedroom door, trying not to cry. Within lay my Lito. Taking my hand and gently, but firmly, pulling me forward, my father opened the door.
His hands. My Lito’s beautiful hands. They were bound in wraps of linen, looking oddly like giant Q-tips. They were bound so he would not pull out the tubes they had stuck up his nose. I did not know what they were for, and I did not care; I wanted to run up and pull them out. All I could do was watch him fumble uselessly, struggling…suffering. He wanted freedom.
Finally arriving at my Lito’s bedside, my father reached out and touched his shoulder. His head turned, really more fell, towards us, delirious. “Papá,” my father said, “Soy yo. Beto. Yo soy tu hijo. Y aquí está tu nieto, Bert.” My Lito’s head shook, bobbing up and down irregularly, and his eyes almost opened before he turned away in a fit of coughing. The tears I had controlled till then overflowed, blurring my vision. Those moments, as they passed through me, burned a hole in my memory that will remain a scar on my soul forever.
Around this time my family moved from Texas to Colorado. The shadows of Fear and Pain, while I have no clear memories of seeing them directly, followed us there and hid in the dark corners of my family’s life for the next two years. They hid in my parents’ sudden silence whenever I entered the room. They hid in my father’s sudden and unexplained need to be alone. And they hid in the glimpses of memory that I carefully avoided.
But such things cannot be avoided forever. One day I came home from school to find my father staring out into the afternoon twilight at a darkness that none of the rest of us could see. Unlike my Lito, the shadows did not crawl into my father to take him away but rather to torture him. There was no vagueness in how my father clenched his teeth or the slow movement of his hand as it stroked his face, over and over again. There was no emptiness in the whirling images that were passing before his eyes. And though he did not speak, I could hear the silent wailing of his soul.
The rest of the house was quiet except for the hurried rush of my mother packing. “Your Lito is dying,” she whispered, “If we leave now, we might make it before he’s gone.”
We made it in time for me to sit in a hospital waiting room that I cannot remember. There is only the impression of a doorway and a pot of large white flowers as I heard that my Lito was dead. He died holding my father’s hand. I wondered what it would be like to sit by someone when the shadows finally let go.
I wrote a poem about this moment in my life entitled, "I Am Here."
A few days later, I was looking up to my father’s face at the funeral; he was crying. I had never seen him cry before; he looked like a weeping statue—as if a medusa had walked through the room and frozen him in that moment—as if this had been, and would be, the only expression his face would ever know. Something I couldn’t quite understand wrapped itself around my father’s heart and cracked his soul.
Too much. It was just too much. Whatever this was had taken my Lito, but it would not take me, and it would not take my father. We would not be defeated. Drying my tears, I reached up to grasp the thick fingers of my father’s hand. He looked down to me, his eyes shining, and I felt the pressure of his grasp, holding firm. It did not diminish the raging storm of darkness around us—Fear and Pain—but it did give me the courage to look straight ahead.
Twenty-five years later, I was sitting at the dining room table coloring with my five-year-old daughter, Naomi. She paused, cookie in hand, and wrinkled her little brows, “Daddy?”
“Yes?” I smiled, oblivious.
She looked at me for a moment, thinking deeply, “What is cancer?”
My smile turned to stone. She must have been listening more closely than I thought. I should have known that such a thing would not pass by her without questions. A few weeks ago, Naomi’s Great Aunt Debby had come for a visit:
“Your feet look just like my feet!” Naomi had said, smiling up at her Aunt. Debby looked down and smiled back. Aunt Debby looked odd with no hair, but Naomi did not seem to notice. I looked from Debby to my daughter and thought of my mother-in-law’s eyes. They are strong eyes; they have seen their share of Fear and Pain. But these days a shadow has fallen on them, bringing a visible strain to their gentle composure. I see it when she speaks of her sister, and somewhere deep within, I tremble. It is all too familiar.
Remembering this, I looked down into my daughter’s eyes and, faintly, saw the same shadow hovering there in her question, grinning manically back at me. I closed my eyes, turned inward, and ran. Collapsing in a far corner of my mind, curled up in the darkness, I tried to hide from my daughter’s question. It was my Lito who found me.
You see, twenty years ago I built an imaginary sanctuary in my mind. A place crafted from the images and symbols and places and people that have populated my life. At first it was a simple stone castle sitting on a bare beach by the soft, rolling waves of an ocean. It was a place that I could go to play out the events of my life, to work out my challenges and my frustrations through fantastical stories. It was a place where I could go to find the quiet I needed for meditation.
Supportive Hubs By Other Writers About Cancer
- Cancer Etiquette
This is a great hub by Sunshine625 about how to talk to a person who has cancer in such a way that you can actively comfort them.
- Cancer-Raising Awareness and Fighting Back
Judy HBerg gives a large amount of practical information here about ways to support cancer research and a wide variety of people who are currently suffering from the disease.
- Knitting for Cancer Patients
SweetMarie83 has a marvelous suggestion here for a way to keep a cancer patient's mind occupied. Thoughts wander to unhappy places during downtime. This will help to keep that to a minimum.
Some years later, I constructed a wooden arbor in a high-mountain plain, situated far above the castle down below. A large river flowed through the soft, green grass of the plain to eventually end in a roaring waterfall where the water descended into a thickly wooded valley: a place for me to think. Over the years, I have talked here with many people from my life, both living and dead—all of them a kind of manifestation of my mind’s own conception of itself.
But there is one who is always there: my Lito. Every time I have stepped over the bridge separating the real world from my dream world, I have found him busily tending the flower garden that surrounds the arbor. Always quiet. Always waiting for me.
At this moment in my mind, however, I could find no comfort. In the sky above, the clouds were brooding, tumbling in and around one another unnaturally fast. A driving rain fell with relentless persistence, filling the air with an oppressive weight. I was lying beneath the arbor, gripping the cold, wet grass between my fingers—trembling as the phantoms of my memory spun around me.
Lito knelt in the grass, placed his large, rough hand on my shoulder, and spoke, “Mi hijo. Mi hijo. I’m so sorry.” Lifting my head, I looked up to his soft brown eyes, confident as ever. In his own slow and measured time, he sat down in the grass beside me and opened his arms. In my mind, I ran to him as I used to, and he held me. I could smell his overalls, slightly damp from the rain, and feel the strength of his embrace. These were things I remembered, and they comforted me.
The briefest of smiles passed between us, and the rain calmed to a drizzle. Standing up together, we walked over to a simple oak table set off to the side of the arbor. There we sat in a pair of comfortable matching chairs—this was the table where I used to enjoy my Lita’s fine cooking so many long years ago.
I took his hands, still dusty from his recent work in the garden, and spoke, “I’m worried, Lito.” I paused, staring off into the distance. He waited patiently. “My children are growing up. Naomi asked…” I hesitated, finding it difficult to face, “…she asked me about cancer.” His facial expression did not change, but his eyes became distant, as if he were watching for something on the far horizon—something important. “Lito, I don’t know what to do.”
He returned his gaze to me. There in my mind, I felt him look down on me as if I were still five years old even though I never ceased to be my thirty-two-year-old self. He leaned forward, and squeezed my hand, “Mi hijo.” There was understanding in his face, but also sadness. “You don’t need to do anything,” he said simply. “I’m afraid you can’t. The only way to understand this is to live through it. Or die from it,” he gave a wry smile and a dry chuckle, “That seems to work too.”
I tried to smile back at him, but instead I looked down and began to trace the wood grain in the table with my finger. “I can’t accept that. I don’t want her to have to endure what I’ve suffered.” Remembering, too late, to whom I was speaking, I looked to his face as a spear of guilt ran through me. I tried to turn away, embarrassed, but his smile held me: he understood. “Can’t my kids go without knowing? There has to be someone who doesn’t have to endure this. Can’t they be the lucky ones?”
He sat for a moment then quietly responded, “Don’t you think that your parents wanted that for you? Do you think that I wanted my sons or my daughter or my grandchildren to watch me wither away? Do you think that my father wanted this for me? None of us want for these things to be, but it is not for us to choose.”
I looked down at my hands, and they seemed to be very old, “But there is so much to endure, Lito. You were only the first, you know, and I’ve buried that memory deep; the weight of it was too much. I put it in a box a long time ago. Sealed it. Hid it. For years now it has sat, like a dusty old photograph, stuffed in a storage room at the back of my mind—always present but mostly forgotten.”
Slowly, I stood up and turned my eyes to a battered shelf that appeared at one side of the arbor. Walking over, I rummaged through the motley collection of boxes, stirring up clouds of dust in my wake, until I found it: an old gray shoe box.
Returning to the table, I lifted the lid and, with a kind of fearful reverence, pulled out a photograph: I am sitting between my Litah and Lito on the dark brown couch in their living room. Litah’s grey hair is bound in a tight bun at the back of her head, and she sits in her favorite flower-print dress. Lito is wearing his dusty denim overalls without his hat, so his bald head, surrounded by a semi-circle of pure white hair, shines lightly. I, no more than four years old, am beaming at the camera beneath the sheltering arms of my grandparents. I hand the photograph to my Lito. He smiles.
“It’s not the only box,” I said. I returned to the shelf and began to sift through boxes once again. Selecting them carefully, I carried them back to the table as if each contained something alive and dangerous. Finally, I sat down beside my Lito and began to open the boxes, pulling out the photographs one by one, remembering.
Cancer and Family
Nine years old. My smile is beaming in the over-exposed light. I am wearing a navy blue sport coat and a pink tie. All of it seems a bit too big for me frozen there in time with my overzealous dance step. Before me is a beautiful girl with long, deep brown hair, a shimmering blue dress, and a much more reserved sense of movement:
I am dancing with Amelia at my Cousin Bob’s wedding reception in Texas. More importantly, I am dancing with a fine-looking eleven-year-old girl for the fifth time and feeling pretty good about myself. The band brings this number to a rousing end, and I feel a small shock of disappointment as her soft hands release my own. Smiling at her awkwardly, I am about to turn to her to ask for another dance when Bob approaches the mic, “I’d like to ask for a moment of silence to remember my Mom, Patricia Aguirre. She wanted so dearly to be here.” Amelia reaches for my hand. The electric charge of her touch mixes strangely with the aura spread by what we hear. He pauses a moment, eyes closed, “She is here in spirit.”
I am reminded of when I met Amelia: two days earlier at Aunt Pat’s funeral. Cancer had taken her just two days before her son’s wedding. As I cling to Amelia’s hand, the shadows in the room come alive. They whisper of dark memories deeply buried and laugh at my desire to dance.
Uncle Ralph is sitting in his ratty green lawn chair poking at the campfire with a long stick, casting his silly grin up towards the camera from underneath his frumpled fishing hat. Uncle Ralph: always ready with a story for the late night hours when the fire dances with the moonlight and plays shadows across everyone’s faces. He became a lot harder to hear that year:
I hang up the phone, “Dad?”
“Yes?” he replies.
“Why does Uncle Ralph sound so funny? He’s really hard to understand.”
“He had throat cancer. They had to take out one of his vocal chords.”
“Oh,” I respond, not knowing what to say, “I didn’t know that it could do that to a person.” Briefly, I move my hand to my throat.
I have my arm around Patty. We are both well dressed for her retirement party and posing for a picture, smiling broadly. Donna, a mutual friend, had given this picture to me as an afterthought, saying, “I didn’t think anyone would want a picture of her looking that way.” I did. Actually, I found her difficult to recognize in the pictures of her from the years before I knew her—when she was well. She had changed so much:
Just after twelve o’clock, time stops for South Valley Middle School. The announcement comes: “We are sorry to tell you that Patty Schaffer passed away last night. Councilors and administrative staff are here for both the staff and the students. You are welcome to go wherever you need to go and do whatever you need to do: sit and visit with teachers or friends, or go home to your parents. We are very sorry for your loss.”
For just a little while, the world falls apart; South Valley Middle School becomes a sanctuary of grief. I wander the halls. There in the corner are Lisa and Mike, huddled together and whispering through quiet sobs. Here is Mrs. Joseph with a host of students, all sprawled out on the floor with a picture album in their midst. In the room across the hall a woman I have never seen before is holding Misty close. Over there is Guadalupe, alone and staring intently at nothing.
Many of my friends--my fellow teachers--have gathered in the lounge. I cannot face them. I need time alone. Patty made the call to hire me, a crazy, unprepared band director, to teach reading and writing. Patty guided me, pushed me, and celebrated with me as I grew from an enthusiastic novice into a competent professional.
People turned to Patty with their problems because they knew she would speak the truth—however hard it might be. And yet, they knew that she had their backs. She is the only person I have ever known who was capable of being so hard and yet so gentle all at once.
A few months into my teaching at South Valley, I learned that she had cancer. It had been at work in her since long before I knew her. But the darkest reality for me was knowing that her classroom became my classroom because Cancer took her, tortured her, and—finally—killed her. Cancer dragged a noble woman away from her life’s work, leaving a blank space that needed to be filled. I am honored that she chose me for the job, but, try as I might, I cannot forget that I have this job because Cancer gave it to me.
So I retreat to a back room in the office, turn off the lights, and close my eyes. It is to my sanctuary that I go, carrying my shadows with me, calling out Patty’s name into the void of my own imagination.
To the far right is my mother. Beside me is my new wife, Lacy. We are standing in the reception hall while the photographer choreographs yet another picture of the new extended family. Everyone is smiling except my mother. Her expression looks something more like a glare, thinly veiled. I am not surprised. I heard how she muttered, “I’m trying,” under her breath when the photographer said, “Smile.” I also know, deep down, that this decision, the decision to get married, is one of many decisions I will make that will run counter to my mother’s vision for my life. It will not go well; this was the beginning of the end for us.
It is just after midnight on a day in early January. I receive this e-mail from my uncle Nash:
This is just a short message. It has to do with your Mother. I do not know if your brother or sister has mentioned to you, but your Mother's health has turned to the worse. She is no longer taking any intake so she may pass away as early as 3 to 5 days. This is my guess. At this time, Sarah and Steve are with your Dad and Mother. We will keep all of you in our prayers.
Love Uncle Nash and Elida
It feels like something inside of me, something very important, has just disappeared, and my heart and mind are scrambling in desperation to find it, spinning in endless circles around a vacant space. I have not spoken to my mother in three years. Yes, I know she has cancer. I also know she is going through chemotherapy, but this does nothing to ease my reaction. “My mother has been going through hell for several years now,” I thought to myself, “and I have never called her.” It was a conscious decision—the hardest I have ever made.
In my mind, I try to deny reality and hide behind righteousness. I repeat to myself how justified I am in the difficult decisions I have made—how wrong she was in the choices she made. Useless. Pain and Fear, always lurking, come down on me with a vengeance, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
I go upstairs and wake Lacy, my wife, “I don’t know what to do. Can I call her now, at the end of her life? What would it accomplish? The call would not change anything. But she is dying. At least I could tell her I love her. Angry as I have been, I have never stopped loving her.”
Lacy, a woman who has earned every right to despise my mother, holds my hand as the midnight shadows of our room hover around us, “I want to help you,” she says, “but I can’t make that decision for you. Only you know what the right decision is. Whatever you choose to do, I’m here.”
A week later. I am sitting on my bed waiting for a phone call from my mother, engulfed in some of the most profound fear I have ever known. Having no idea what to do, I try faith; I open my Bible to a random page and find Psalm 27:
The LORD is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid? …
...Though my mother and father forsake me,
the LORD will take me up...
It seems too simple, but I read the words and the fear falls back. How is it possible that mere words can do this? In the back of my mind, Lito’s voice murmurs. I listen and try to decipher the words, but they are too distant. I do not understand, but the fact remains that I have somehow discovered the confidence I need to face my mother.
“I know that I have made mistakes, and I take responsibility for them. I’m sorry for anything I have done that hurt you. I love you, Mom.” There. I said it.
She did not say it, “Well, I think you made this call for yourself. That’s all I have to say.” And it is.
A few days later, I return home from church and receive a call from my father: “Your mother died this morning.”
I do not go to the funeral; I am not wanted. I will not mourn my mother in a place where I am not wanted. I mourn her with my wife, my pastor, and a few family friends who remember her.
As I kneel down—alone—to pray, the shadows close in around me. Impossible as it may have seemed, while she was alive there was always the hope that somehow things could be made right between us. But now... I will never forget how Cancer strangled Hope and left it, withered and dead.
“Enough!” In my mind, I stood up and shoved the table over, knocking it to the ground, scattering boxes and photographs across the wet grass. I turned on my Lito, and now it was I that was looming over him, “You know, you don’t see everything! You sit up here on this mountain looking at the pretty flowers, but there are deep pits in this place, hidden below the surface, filled with darkness and filth. Places where God looks down on who I really am and discovers what I really think: that he’s a devil. Spiteful and vicious.” I turned away, growing smaller. “He is cold. Cruel. He doesn’t care.”
Lito remained unmoved, “You don’t really believe that,” he stated simply.
I stopped, closed my eyes, and sighed. “No. But I want to. At least then it would make some sense. At least then I might be able to understand. He’s supposed to be a ‘father’ isn’t he? I can’t imagine allowing my own children to suffer that way if I had the power to stop it. He has that power. If He created the world then He created Cancer, and He could wipe it out. Yet, He allows it to come down here and torture millions of innocent people. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
I turned back to him to find his eyes focused on me, but looking inward, remembering, “Yes. To understand. I remember seeking always to understand.” Lito stood, shuffled over, and placed his hand on my shoulder. Then, he peered into my eyes as if he were looking for something obscured in a heavy mist. His eyes then relaxed, his decision made, “Come with me.”
Unsure of what to expect, I followed him. For a moment, there in my mind, the world dropped away and then reformed in the shape of my living room. My two-year-old son, Asher, was climbing the stairs. He stopped when he reached the third one up, turned, and gave me a winning smile. He then began to swing his arms and flex his knees, ready to jump.
“No!” I yelled, charging over and catching him in mid-leap, “Asher, you are not allowed to jump off the stairs.” Like a wet fish, his body contorted and squirmed, struggling to break free. He screeched. I held him fast. Placing him on the floor face down, I stepped away to let him throw his tantrum and turned back to my Lito, purposefully ignoring Asher.
“I don’t get it,” I said, “Why are we here? What does this have to do with anything?”
“Just wait,” he said.
“Wait for what?” Mildly annoyed, I looked around the room, trying to decipher some sign of why he had brought me to this place.
A few moments later, I noticed that Asher had calmed down; I knelt and looked into his red, tear-stained face. He reached out to me, and I took him—so very small—up into my arms. As I knelt my head down to him and felt the warmth of his cheek against my own, I said, “Asher, I love you, boy. I know you don’t understand. I know you think it’s fun to jump from up there, but you could get badly hurt.”
Asher then reached out for My Lito, who received him with enthusiasm and immediately began to poke Asher’s nose and tickle him.
“Lito,” I said, my voice short, “you still haven’t explained to me why we’re here.”
“Oh, sorry.” He chuckled, then turned his attention back to me. “Asher didn’t seem too happy with you just now. Why don’t you just let him jump?”
“Lito, I asked you a question.”
“Yes. And I’ll answer it soon enough.” He looked back at me expectantly.
Looking off to the side in frustration, I replied, “Because he’ll hurt himself, and he’s too young to understand. Sometimes I wish he would just listen. He knows I love him. Besides, I just know better. But then, I suppose you used to let me fling myself off of any old place, then?”
“No. Of course not. I can’t count the number of times I made you cry—and that was
only in five years. Just think about how often I annoyed your father.”
While that was a refreshing thought, I was still very confused about this whole diversion. “Okay, Lito. That’s enough. What’s going on here?”
Still smiling at Asher, he said, “I can see that thirty more years of life has not earned you much in the way of patience.” I glared at him. Smiling, he continued, “You’ve had to do a lot of things that make Asher unhappy haven’t you?”
“Some of them have even hurt him, haven’t they?”
I considered this for a moment, “Yes.”
“So what you’re saying here is that there are certain things you have to do as Asher’s father to help him and protect him that he himself does not understand?”
Here his tone changed, ever-so-slightly, “Do you also believe that God knows more than you do?”
This threw me off for a moment, “Well…yes.”
“Then why is it that you expect to understand what God has to do?” I had nothing to say to this. “You see, as it turns out, God doesn’t want you to understand Him because He knows full well that you can’t. What He wants is for you to love Him. The ultimate truth is not about understanding. It’s about love and trust and relationship. Just think, the very first thing you did once Asher calmed down was to go to him, hug him, and say you loved him.” I looked back at my Lito with nothing to say. “And all he wanted was for you to love him back. Jesus spent his whole life doing just that—loving God’s children—regardless of who they were, what they had done, or what they had suffered. He’s still doing it, and His only desire is that His people love him back. Mi hijo, you must learn the lesson you have been trying to teach your son: trust your father. Know that He will lend you His strength and His wisdom as you walk through darkness, and that He will not allow it to consume you. After all, I’m still here.”
I stood for awhile in silence while Asher tugged at Lito’s mustache. He then put Asher down to play and around me, as my thoughts were forming, the world faded away again, returning us to the arbor beneath an overcast sky. Standing there in the wet grass I said, “We spend all of our lives trying to understand—lives filled with difficulties that we are forever wishing would go away: suffering, work, pain. But they won’t go away, and, while we can certainly whine about it, we can’t really understand why. The ‘why’ behind it all is hidden from where we are. So, somehow, I have to surrender my need to understand.” Lito stood beside me quietly, waiting. I continued, “But then, whether I understand it or not, the fact still remains that this is just the way life is. All I can do is stop hoping that Pain and Fear will not come again because they will. I will be afraid again. I will hurt again. And I cannot move fast enough to outrun it and neither…” here I hesitated as my thoughts crystallized, “…and neither can my children.”
This thought sat with me for quite some time. Slowly, almost absentmindedly, I looked to see that I was once again surrounded by photographs laying on the wet grass. I bent to collect them off of the ground, drying them with the sleeve of my shirt, and returned them to their boxes. My Lito helped me to set the table upright again and, once more, we sat. Finally, I said, “So, what? I just accept it?”
“Yes,” he said, “precisely that. You must be like Asher is now. He trusts you—even when he is very angry with you, he eventually comes back even though he does not understand. And this is the good news: that, while Pain and Fear will come again, they will also pass. Health and joy and happiness—one way or another—are waiting just behind it. God has prepared this for you. And He will see to it, in the end, that the shadows won’t win.”
I considered this, but it still seemed too simple, “Well, you’re metaphor is all very nice, but that could all be bunk.”
He took a moment to think, “Yes. But it’s not.”
“How do I know?”
“You don’t. That’s why it’s called faith. But faith is not as blind as some would have you believe.” He looked to me for a sign of understanding. Unable to find one, he continued, “You see, you have been trained not to accept something unless it can be proven. Proof requires all the facts which are, unfortunately, unavailable in this case--and will remain so as long as you are living, so it can’t be proven. You’re just going to have to guess based on how you feel. I’m afraid that’s all you have.”
Without much conviction, I said, “So I just guess?”
“Well, that’s not really the right word,” he responded, “If it were that random, then why would we be here having this conversation?” He took a moment to look around and take in the scenery, “After all, what is it that you do here, anyway?”
I had never really thought about that before. “I build stories. Stories that help me see when things are unclear.”
“Yes. And how do you know when your story is finished?”
“Really, I don’t know. There are times when it feels more right than others. Eventually, it has to be finished, and so I call it finished. That’s about all I have to hold on to.”
Lito smiled, “And that’s all you need. You know, in this sense at least, the world outside is no different from the world you’ve built here. When you think of all you’ve seen and experienced in your thirty-four years, does it seem random or does it seem like there’s someone behind it, choreographing the show? How does it feel?”
“Some of it’s random, but some of it’s not. Sometimes what seemed random before suddenly falls into place later. I guess I really don’t know. There are times when it feels more right than others. That’s the best I can say.”
“It is. So given what you know, make your best guess. That’s faith.”
“But I’m always changing my mind.”
“Yes. He’s expecting that, so don’t worry about it.”
We sat together for a few moments longer, and then I looked up to him and asked, “Who are you?”
My Lito looked a bit confused, “What do you mean?” I was quite pleased to have finally confused him for a moment.
“I mean, I know that you’re not actually my Lito. Essentially, I’m talking to myself, but I’m not sure you’re entirely me either.”
“Pastor Doug talked about the Holy Ghost a few weeks ago. He said everyone thinks it’s an idea—God in you and such. But he argued that it was a person—a being with a sentient identity like God or Jesus. Maybe you are the Holy Ghost in me.”
Lito’s face was blank, “Could be.”
“Maybe you’re the Holy Ghost, and my Lito, and me all wrapped up into one.”
“That could also be.”
“I guess there’s no way to tell, is there? So I’ll just have to decide for myself.”
“Now you’re getting the idea,” my Lito replied, his eyes brightening.
I smiled at him then and said, “Thank you.” I embraced him once more, feeling the reassuring crinkle of his overalls around me. As I pulled away, I noticed that the clouds above the arbor had begun to clear and a cool breeze—smelling like the breath of spring—surrounded us. I took a deep breath and stood up to go.
As I approached the bridge that would take me back to my waking life, however, the fine weather began to fade. The shadows, which had hovered near by while I was gone, began to pulse once more at the edge of my consciousness and tumble over the sides of the bridge like a living darkness. In the mist, a pair of vengeful, malicious eyes appeared, and, as they grew closer, the shadows came together, taking on shape and substance. Finally, I recognized it--or rather, him: it was me. A dark and angry apparition of myself. I turned away, about to run, but Lito was standing there, his gaze steady. I turned back to stare into my own eyes, my heart screaming, “Ru away! Run away!”
We spoke our thoughts together, I and my shadow, “What happens if I step forward? Trust? Trust that whatever lies within can be overcome—and that whatever lies beyond will have been worth the effort? I closed my eyes and walked forward into the shadow, back to the outside world.
Opening my eyes, shaking my head, and recovering myself, I looked at my daughter’s round face across the table, now shining with a chocolate smile, “Cancer is a disease, honey. It makes people very sick.”
“Why do they get it?”
I answered honestly, “I don’t know.”
“Oh,” she said, “Ok.” And her face was like sunlight in summer. That quickly, she was back to eating her cookies.
My eyes dropped to the cookies left uneaten on the plate in front of me, and I closed them ever so briefly for a prayer of thanksgiving: “The day will come when she, too, will meet her own shadow. By grace, that day is not today. When it comes, let it be what it must, and help her, Lord, to understand.”
I open my eyes.
Naomi pulls a picture from her drawing desk off to the side and displays it for me, full of pride, “Look, Daddy! I drew you and Mommy and me and Asher. All of us together!”
“Yes, dear. All of us together.”
And somewhere in the back of my mind I could hear the whisper of my Lito’s voice, “Forever…”