Why do we suffer?

This weeks New Yorker (June13 and 20) has a heart-wrenching account of Isabel Hemons battle with cancer. She was 9 months old when diagnosed about a year ago. I read it before going to sleep last night. My dreams asked some questions.The Personal History is written by Isabels father Aleksandar Hemon who ranges across the many events that took place from July to October 2010. It is a drama and a lament worth reading, especially his reflections and description of Isabels three-year old sister, Elsa. Elsas imaginative means of coping with Isabels several surgeries, multiple medical crisis, chemo, and her parents distraction included the invention of a brother always at her beck and call and whose story gave her a way of talking to her father.When I woke up this morning, other parts of the account were foremost in my mind. Above all, Hemons indictment of religion:

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennoblingthat it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabels suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. Who could dispute his personal experience? And yet, who was responsible for her suffering?In July 2010, Hemon and his wife are devastated at the news that Isabel has an atypical teratoid/rhaboid tumor of the brain. Hemon googles the diagnosis: the survival rate for children younger than three was less than ten percent. He recoils from the news and decides to trust only Isabels doctor for information. Many weeks of treatment, much of it life-threatening in itself, ensues. Isabels parents are faithful caregivers, and Elsa joins them at times to be with Isabel, who dies in October. At the last, desperate efforts are made to resuscitate her when her heart fails (her kidney are gone and she has suffered several seizures). Teri and I held our dead childour beautiful, every-smiling daughter, her body bloated with liqud and battered by compression [from the effort to resuscitate her]kissing her cheeks and toes.What can one say?Nonetheless, let us ask: Since survival rates for teratoids in children under three are less than 10 percent, what if the doctors had offered palliative care at some point? Isabel would almost certainly have died--but so brutally?Here for subscribers http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=2011-06-13#folio=050 or go to the dentist and read his/her New Yorker.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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