The morning after my daughter’s seventh birthday last fall, I woke to a startling email. I wasn’t even out of bed yet, but with a press of my thumb I opened a radiologist’s report on an ultrasound I’d recently undergone. I thought I had no reason to worry; it was a routine check. But in the dim light of dawn I read the alarming news: it was highly likely—with more than 85 percent probability—I had thyroid cancer.
My four-year-old slept on the floor nearby. Most nights he wanders into our bedroom, and if we leave a pillow and blanket out, he doesn’t even wake us; he just cozies up on the carpet and drifts back to sleep. I stared down at his perfect cheeks. I had recently been reading Simone Weil. (I’m always reading Simone Weil. She irks me and compels me, like the Church does, or my spouse.) Weil writes, “To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.” But I did not want distance from my child. Everything in me revolted against this new threat. Later that day I watched my children playing outside through the kitchen window as I peeled carrots. I felt afresh the truth of Mary Karr’s claim that “the human frame / is a crucifix, each skeletos borne a lifetime.”
We waited many weeks—first for a biopsy, then for results—alone. The government in Saskatchewan, where we live, had banned household gatherings to help contain the pandemic. Our friends couldn’t come to sit with us in the agonizing unknown. Our families live in the States. Our small church met exclusively online. My body ached for something like anointing.
In the month leading up to the unexpected news, I’d been reading cancer memoirs. My husband, Josh, was preparing a class on death and dying, and I often teach one on biography and memoir, so I’d been catching up on books like When Breath Becomes Air and My Wife Says You May Want to Marry Me. I was just about to start The Bright Hour when I opened the radiologist’s report and realized my reading streak should probably end. These books all narrate what Weil calls “gravity”: the inescapable pull of pain, of sorrow, of death that structures the cosmos. Who among us hasn’t been touched by cancer or chronic illness? What hour’s headlines fail to confront us with the forces of violence and despair?
But the memoirs also insist on grace, the love that grounds our being and so often crops up unannounced. In those weeks of waiting I felt this too. I worried more than anything about the kids: not only the unlikely chance of dying and leaving them behind, but also how we’d care for them if I were to undergo treatment, especially with the pandemic’s pressures. Out of the blue one day my friend Emily called to say she and her husband would look after our children, however and whenever we needed them to. They’d considered the risks, and had decided to help anyway. “Pure friendship,” Weil writes, “like the love of our neighbor, has in it something of a sacrament.”