He lies on the living room sofa, propped on a bolster of pillows, covered with a blanket, head shaved clean and white. Cancer. I am here to talk about what this is like. Outside, orange leaves speckle the green lawn and pumpkins climb the three steps to the front door. My mind wanders. Why do I keep calling fall my favorite season?
When you have cancer, he is telling me, you walk around with a secret. On the outside you look fine, like everybody else, but inside is this problem—and it’s scary, dangerous. But what it taught me after a few years was that everybody has this-thing-inside-me but they don’t want to think about it. The awful ugly thing about cancer is, you can’t really deny that thing. That’s also the gift you don’t really want but there it is—you have to live with reality.
I knew then I was in the presence of divine wisdom.
He tried to move his body into some less painful position, rearranged the pillows.
But I see people out in the world, he continued, and I can tell they’re carrying something inside. They’re just trying to hide it. He smiled.
Susan Sontag famously characterized illness as something that literally removes us from the regular world and relegates us to a separate existence. “Everyone who is born,” she wrote, “holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
What I knew in that moment, sitting at the feet of a sage, was that we dearly need the “citizens of that other place” to show us the fullness of life. As Sontag says, we all hold dual citizenship. Those who are “well” are really just the ones whose illness isn’t showing at the moment. That’s what my friend could see so plainly. And the sick who are separated by a kingdom’s border can be the most alive and well people on the face of the earth.
Perhaps that is one reason Jesus spent so much time with the sick, especially those whose illness rendered them unclean and banished them to the other kingdom. He knew that the ‘well’ needed the ‘sick.’ For in the struggling, the wounded, we find emblems of grace and wholeness, men and women who have no choice but to embrace all of life, and in so doing become more and more like the God who holds together darkness and light, woe and weal, and pronounces it all good.
I walked down the three steps, past the honorary pumpkins, through the leaf strewn grass to my car. This-thing-inside-me. This is why, still, fall is my favorite season.