On Ash Wednesday 2002, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer that weakens the immune system and eats the bones. The chaplain at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, put ashes on my head and said, "Remember you are dust..." Talk about the ring of truth. At forty-three, and six months postpartum, I had two broken ribs, two, possibly three crushed vertebrae, severe osteoporosis of the spine, and a pelvis so weak that I was losing my ability to walk. Sternum damage precluded lying flat in bed. I was swiftly returning unto dust.
Fortunately, treatment came even more swiftly. That Friday I had a bone-building infusion and the first of many other life-saving pills, injections, and chemotherapies. Though researchers have not yet found a cure for myeloma, it responds to an ever-increasing array of treatments. Still, I won’t kid you: people do die from multiple myeloma, everywhere, still.
It has taken a year to draft this notice of my illness, and to work out and announce my new roles at Commonweal. That’s testimony to how absorbing illness and healing are-and to how reticent I feel in light of the whole genre of illness writing. Affliction is all around us. Some forms, like mine, are recognized. Others are barely noticed. My getting sick increased my attention to the everyday heroism of refugees, the depressed, the arthritic, the mourning, the lonely, all those who know how good it is simply to get through a day. It also wakened my shamefully rusty sense of the centrality to the gospel of mercy and healing and (at her best) to the church.
My struggle with myeloma has been taking place just as my country and my church are experiencing, diagnosing, and treating very dramatic ills: terrorist mass murder and child abuse. Commonweal, an able diagnostician, continues to address these ills. I am happy to be associated with such an enterprise-one that recognizes that even in the private struggle of one person to stay alive and see her children grow, the commonweal is implicated. My life now literally depends upon the public policy that shapes my medical care, and the conditions in which my caregivers work. It depends on the mercy of God, a mystery about which my church has considerable wisdom to offer. (Bishops: You ought to get vigorous Catholics into those hospitals with sacraments and expressions of that wisdom.) And it depends on the society that has so generously rushed to my aid. My family could not have gotten through this year without our neighbors, and our friends and associates from school, work, church, and synagogue. Among them: the woman who brought me the Eucharist and sacramentals every week for the nine months I could not go to church. The women laden with meals. Still. The sacrament-bearing pastor. The friend who negotiates Boston’s infamous streets so I can go hassle-free to physical therapy every Tuesday. The fathers and mothers of my son’s friends who provided him outings. All those extra "mothers" (from Trinidad, Hawaii, Maine, L.A., New York, and Medford, Massachusetts) who lifted and carried and cooed at my daughter (I can only coo). The colleagues who called, came, prayed, and cheered me on. Richard Alleva, who stepped in to write one of my Children’s Books columns. The neighbor who took my son to find out he had, not the strep I feared, but appendicitis; the one who provides acupuncture, gratis; the one who on a Friday night knocked with a warm challah and said simply, "I have heard of your troubles. Shabbat Shalom." But I go on. What I really need to explain here is my new role and new titles at the magazine.
Illness, like conversion, does not change personality. (I’m still cheerful, and still slovenly at my desk.) It does change energies and horizons. The therapies I am still undergoing are demanding, both of energy and of time. Fortunately this is less so as I get better: I’m now a vigorous and newly curly-haired woman with a cane, and that’s mostly because it beats wearing a "Fragile" sign. Thanks to a triweekly infusion, my bones are much improved, but they won’t be regularly riding the Boston-to-New York Acela train anytime soon.
Even with the limitations and distractions, I am able and want to be part of the great work that is Commonweal. Thus, I am At Large. Translation: I do what I can, when I can. I love the title. It makes me seem out and about, maybe even hard to find. A flattering fiction, as, in truth, I do a good imitation of Emily Dickinson. Stay put. Travel by other means.
Which brings me to my second title. Co-Poetry Editor. Cancer, as some of you know from experience, has a bracing effect. What do I care about? What can I contribute? Readers may not know that in an earlier life I was a university poetry professor: nineteenth-century American, mainly. I remain an ardent reader of poems written in many places and ages, including today. I have joined Poetry Editor Rosemary Deen to bring you beautiful poems. Why poetry? Simply because, in the words of the poet Sam Hazo, "It’s so damn / good to read what keeps alive / what’s dearest to a man."
I keep it light. Many of you know exactly what I mean when I say, You have no idea how much you count on your longevity until it is threatened. For me, nothing would do in the face of that shock except prayer, the sacraments, a good poem (Hopkins at 1 a.m., and nursery rhymes at every bone marrow extraction), the children’s writer Alan Garner (his collected essays, with their uncannily accurate descriptions of sickness and the imagination, was the only book beside the missal that I could read for months), and friendship. And my family, especially my husband Steve and our two beautiful children.