There’s nothing quite like leaving your baby for the first time. The day after Susanna was born I went for a walk, by myself. As cars passed and pedestrians crossed my path, I wondered if everyone knew what had just happened. Did they know why I was shuffling along slower than usual? Could they sense I’d given birth, just hours ago, on my own bed only a block, or two, away? My tender abdomen and swollen breasts reminded me of my recent labour and on one hand, it seemed ridiculous my feat wasn’t obvious to passersby. On the other hand, it was my own precious secret.
As people went on with their ho-hum lives, answering phone calls and filling up their cars with gas, I had brought a new human being to this world. When Susanna gulped her first molecules of oxygen, and I lay shaking with exhaustion and wet with sweat, my neighbour was probably feeding her cats or sweeping the floor. While the rest of world went on as normal, Susanna had inched her way out of me and with every contraction I, too, felt myself inching towards a strange place. A borderland, where the newness of life seems awfully close to death, and where a bellow of pain, in one slippery second, can turn into a gasp of relief accompanied by a baby’s first cry.
In the same way that panting through childbirth made me feel privy to a different reality, so did living in Bolivia. Of course, during the years we lived there I wasn’t in a constant state of enlightenment, but after we returned to Canada, I’d get flashes of perspective when I remembered where we’d been. This was especially helpful as a substitute teacher facing high schoolers I didn’t know—half of whom were bigger than me, most were apathetic, and a few were angry and offensive. To keep from being intimidated by the latter, I’d think of Bolivia. Of clambering onto a truckload of corn and sliding around the muddy curves of the Inca Wasi, where graves dot the side of the road instead of guardrails. I’d think of my friend, Lucia, who told me she cried at night when she was worried about what she’d feed her family the next morning.
And so, when some fifteen-year-old would tell me to “F— off”, I’d reflect (in a 3-second-sweaty-armpit way) that if I could learn a tonal language, survive parasites and wash my clothes in a river, I didn’t have to be scared of an adolescent tantrum. Secondly, I reminded myself of the world outside the classroom; even though the kid in front of me was making a fuss, millions of other people were foraging for food and fighting for their survival at the very same moment.
Thinking about where I’d been at times like these, was like tapping into a confidential file. Not that my personal experiences made me better than everyone else, but they reminded me more is happening on our planet than the daily circumstances in front of me. The secret feeling I had after having a baby, or returning from an indigenous community in South America, came from getting a peek at the edge of life and my own mortality. These experiences illuminate the tight-rope we’re all walking on, when most of the time we barrel forward distractedly, not even aware we’re dancing on a 2-inch thick cable.
It happened again when Stan called me, while I was on the road, to tell me about Lucy. Before he even started, I knew something was wrong by his voice. It was soft, sad and sorry at the same time.
“They think she’s got cancer,” he told me, and then said it again when I responded in disbelief.
How could I believe my eighth-month-old niece has cancer, when a few weeks before she was standing in my lap, pumping her legs and grinning with one slobbery fist in her mouth? (The details of this position may not be completely accurate since my sweet, baby-snatching daughter, Susanna, whisked her away every time I’d get her.) How could I imagine what Philip and Anne, Stan’s brother and his wife, were going through when we’d just spent days lazing around a pool together, playing tennis, and challenging each other to foot races? (Philip is the fastest sprinter of the four of us, by the way.)
Over the next several hours, on my drive home, I had that same secret feeling. Only this time it was awful, and instead of making me braver or wiser, it left a taste in my mouth of something gone desperately wrong. When I stopped for food, I numbly paid for my meal while customers around me laughed at dumb jokes and poured cream into their coffees, not knowing how the world had changed. Not knowing that nothing will ever be the same—no matter what happens–for Lucy, Philip, Anne, and the rest of us who care, again.
As Lucy undergoes chemotherapy and her little, but fierce, body fights to survive, I am praying every day. In fact, I know people that don’t even pray, who are praying. We are praying she won’t suffer the side effects of the treatment, that she can still breastfeed, that she sleeps peacefully, that she doesn’t remember any of this when it’s over, that Philip and Anne don’t lose their minds–or their patience and love for each other, that Lucy’s big brother is protected from the pain around him, and that Lucy lives.
But I’m also praying for something else. I’m praying that if there are others like me who are pushed just a little closer to the edge, out of the blinding normalcy of work and every-day routines, because of Lucy they find something else besides a dark chasm. And that when they cry for Help, whether cynical, apathetic, or angry, swinging their arms wildly to maintain balance on the wire, Jesus meets them right where they are.
If you are able, please pray for Lucy. If you aren’t up for prayer, start a conversation with someone about the moments you’ve experienced “the edge” in your life and how it affected you. Either way, I wish you peace, wisdom and strength for the length of tight-rope you’re walking today,
Lucy and her beautiful mama, Anne (photo taken in April)