The National Catholic Review

I spotted the woman the moment I walked into the hospital lobby. Shaking and sobbing uncontrollably, she was talking to someone on the phone. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, yet I felt a strong urge to comfort her. But something stopped me. She’s a stranger, I reminded myself, and it’s none of my business. I hurried onto the elevator and went upstairs to the women’s health center, where I was scheduled for my yearly mammogram.

After the X-rays were completed, I sighed in relief, drove home and happily busied myself in my garden. A few hours later, the phone rang. It was the X-ray technician. It seems there was something unusual about my mammogram, and the radiologist wanted me to return for more films.

In a panic, I dashed to my car and plunged into the wild sea of traffic on the busy highway. As I drove, I tried unsuccessfully to block out images of my mother, who had died of breast cancer 25 years ago. And I found myself acknowledging on a deep soulful level what I had only considered superficially before. It’s a big world out there, and it will go on spinning just fine without me.

In the hospital waiting room, I paced nervously while the other women sat peacefully reading magazines. What if it’s cancer? I agonized. How will I handle it? It was a question I had pondered on countless occasions before, ever since I first began having mammograms. And still I had no answers.

After another round of X-rays, the technician ushered me into a small, lonely room and told me the radiologist would speak with me. With a cold fist of terror forming in my heart, I telephoned my husband and wept. More time passed, and finally the weary-looking radiologist joined me. He explained that I would need a biopsy to determine whether or not I had breast cancer.

Trembling all over, I rushed from the hospital. As I drove home, I kept switching on the windshield wipers even though the sky was clear. It’s tears, I finally realized. Still, I didn’t feel inclined to shake my fist at heaven and yell, Why me, God? After all, I had never asked, Why me? when God gave me a nice marriage, a decent job and a good home.

As the day of the biopsy approached, my friends and family members rallied around me. They all told me I was in their prayers. Everyone encouraged me with scriptural verses. Ask and you will receive, one enthused. If you pray in Jesus’ name, another assured me, you will receive healing.

And so I prayedwhile gardening, while showering, while driving. I did more than that: I shamelessly begged God for a good outcome. By the day of the biopsy, I was so wracked with worry I had lost five pounds. After the procedure, I went home to collapse on my bed and storm heaven some more.

Two days later, the surgeon called to deliver the news that would change my life forever. The biopsy had shown the presence of cancer. As I wept over the phone, he assured me that in six months, I would look back and be glad I’d had the mammogram. But all I could think of was my mother’s face as she lay dying. And I cried again.

As I told the dreadful news to all the people who had been praying for me, I began to feel that perhaps I had done something terribly wrong. Maybe I’d missed some vital part of the prayer formula. Maybe I didn’t have the proper relationship with God. Worst of all, maybe God didn’t love me enough to answer my pleas for healing.

These were agonizing thoughts. I began a mental journey into my past to probe my relationship with God. As a child, I was spoon-fed an image of God as an old man in the sky with a long, white beard. The nuns had told me God was our heavenly father, but that was little help for me. My earthly father was emotionally distant, a man so puzzled by the whole parenting endeavor that he rarely showed his daughters any affection. I hoped my heavenly father wasn’t as standoffish.

Later I discovered that many religions define God as love. Since God has no limits, I figured that his love would be boundless too. It would be a pure unconditional love, I decided. This made sense to me, although it was hard to imagine how it would feel to be so loved. In my childhood, love had been doled out with strings attached. If I got gold stars on my spelling tests, my aunts and mom toasted my success. If I brought home a B, they were sorely disappointed.

When I learned about Jesus, I was truly comforted. Here was a man of fiery, swelling emotions, a man who passionately celebrated life. He loved his friends, embraced children, cherished the suffering masses. He gave us the 11th commandmentand it was all about love.

But Christ suffered the most horrible death imaginable. And he had the added burden of knowing the exact details ahead of time. That he would be slowly tortured and nailed to a cross. That he would suffocate in the broiling sun. That there would be no relief for his pain. No wonder he sweated blood the night before his death. No wonder he pleaded with his father to take the cup from me. Still, he realized that prayers are requests, not demands, and so he added: Not my will, but thy will be done.

Like Christ, I’ve done my share of begging. Please, dear God, I’ve whimpered, don’t let this be cancer. But now the cup has been passed to me and I’ve reluctantly taken a sip. The taste is bitter, just as I feared. But I keep reminding myself that Christ tapped into new life after his agony, and perhaps I will experience some sort of enlightenment myself.

Maybe, in some small ways, it’s already happening. Until recently, I’ve been pretty skilled at avoiding the suffering masses. Oh, I did my share of volunteer work, but it was all tidy and neat. When it came down to brushing shoulders with the decrepit and dying, I fled. I considered doing volunteer work at a local hospital, but I feared getting too involved emotionally.

Ironically, I am now spending much of my time at that hospital. Since having the biopsy and surgery, the medical center has become a second home. Now it is becoming more difficult for me to block out the faces of the worried, broken people who stream endlessly through the doors: people facing surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy; people trembling in fear; people just like me.

I still whine and complain about my illness. I still grieve for the days when I didn’t have to struggle daily with the blues. But every so often, I notice some small secret door opening in my heart. It’s a door that was sealed before. And perhaps this is God’s answer to my prayers. A heart that mysteriously is starting to awaken. A heart that may stretch larger over time.

Sometimes I think about the woman I saw that first morning at the hospital sobbing into the phone. And I promise myself the next time I see someone in such distress, I won’t miss my chance. I’ll brush aside my fears about impropriety and give her a big hug. It shouldn’t be that difficult to do. After all, that woman was me.

Lorraine V. Murray is a parishioner at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, Ga.

Recently in Faith in Focus