My oldest grandchild (7) has leukemia. We got a 1:30 AM phone call from my son a few days before the July 4th weekend telling us the news. She’s in her first round of chemo at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, a fine institution by all accounts, and unfortunately 300 miles away from where my wife and I sit, deeply concerned and wishing we could do more than take a shift caring for their house and other children.
Change is, of course, the only constant, and our lives are in a continual state of flux. Usually this movement is incremental and goes on below the surface of our awareness. Once in a while, though, there is a blinding flash and everything is dramatically different. Short term plans are abandoned, whatever long term plans have been made are shelved or discarded, the relative importance of all the different facets of our lives undergoes a seismic shift, and we are stripped down to the immediacy of the present (which is where we are all the time anyway, but not cast in such stark relief), looking around for solidity.
The last two weeks have been an exercise in riding the waves, making decisions based on information that is known to be incomplete but because of circumstance has to be enough to be grounds for deciding. From chaos order begins to appear; in the next hour, or day, or week, things begin to happen in a more predictable fashion, schedules can be made, and work, child care, pet care, house and garden maintenance can be arranged, and so on. Almost all of this has fallen to my son and daughter-in-law, and has had to be done while dealing with one piece of gut-wrenching news after another.
The network that surrounded my son’s family almost immediately is part church, part community, and part extended family, and before long the dogs were living in temporary homes, the yard was mowed, the garden weeded, the two middle children were visiting family in Tennessee, and all manner of support began flowing into the hospital room that has become my granddaughter’s temporary world. The Ronald McDonald House provides nearby eating and sleeping facilities, and my son’s employer is making arrangements for him to continue to work, remotely when possible, so his position is secure. Since his health insurance, like that of so many, is tied to his job, that is a very big deal.
When my son was in elementary school he became ill with ulcerative colitis. The final healing stage of that journey took place, coincidentally, in Ohio, at the Cleveland Clinic. What my son is going through right now with his daughter is certainly different from what I went through with him, but there are enough similarities to trigger many memories. My family was surrounded by a network of care then, as my son and his family are now.
These networks are always there, invisible until they are needed, then emerging into action and support. Sit with this idea for a bit, let it ripple out, and the echos start coming back from a wide variety of places both sacred and secular. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is at hand, which I used to think meant coming soon but now I believe means exactly what it says. Thich Nhat Hanh says that the Buddha never meant that Nirvana was something off in the future; it is here, now, if only we can see. Lao Tsu says that giving and receiving are the same thing, that this is the great secret of life. Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell is about people responding to disaster with grace and caring and practicality while the official response was still in the planning stages. The shooting at my church, an openly political act of hatred, resulted in a wave of care and support that crossed denominational, geographic, political, and socio-economic lines. When asked by a cynic in the wake of the World Trade Center attack where God was in that situation, one person replied, “The last time I saw Him, He was driving an ambulance.” In a similar vein, Mr. Rogers once said when disaster strikes, look for the helpers. This is obviously an incomplete list.
I told a friend I see occasionally while walking our dogs at the local community center about what was happening in our family, and he said, “My prayers are with you.” I replied that I was a Unitarian; I’d take thoughts, prayers, healing energy, love, sacred dance, whatever you’ve got to throw at this thing. He nodded and said, “Spokes in the same wheel.”