Monday, December 23: Liz Schleicher

“God at the Bottom”

Breathe

Hold your breath.

Breathe.

There’s a mural on the inside of the CT machine–a flowing, water-like design, with koi fish swirling through a black and gray-stenciled pattern. Maybe it’s meant to calm patients down, give them something to look at, keep them from claustrophobia as they slide in and out of the scanner. But it also calls to mind being held under — close your eyes. Dive. You have no choice. Open them. The koi are darting around you. The machine is buzzing. The mechanized voice commands again:

“Hold your breath.”

“Breathe.”

You’re lifted breathless out of the depths of the machine. It’s all over. The technician removes your warm blanket and helps you up. You’ve done this so many times that you know her now. 

So many scans. So many koi. So many baptisms of fear. In this room, the only salvation you’re longing for is three letters long. 

NED. No evidence of disease.

——

It’s been this way since March of 2017, when I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer while 40 weeks pregnant with my second child. That first dive was deep and icy cold, and I didn’t know if I would ever come up.

Breathe.

Hold your breath. 

“What is this thing on my hip?”

“That bump shouldn’t be there.”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but you have cancer.” 

“We have to get this baby out of you NOW.” 

Breathe. 

“Your baby is not at any risk of cancer.”

“It’s called synovial sarcoma. It’s a rare soft tissue cancer. We put you at Stage Two-B.” 

“Your cancer hasn’t spread, so that’s good news.”

“Your tumor is right on the line between small and large, so we are going to treat it aggressively. You’ll have chemo, and radiation, and surgery.” 

But the next dive was even deeper and darker. 

Breathe.

Hold your breath. 

Anxiety attacks. Depression. Disordered eating. Weight loss. Hair loss. Fevers. Vomiting. Hallucinations. Critically low blood counts. Transfusions. Confession with a strange priest in a strange hospital. Failure to tolerate chemotherapy. “Let’s just move on.” Radiation. Surgery. Clear margins. Success. 

NED. No evidence of disease.

Breathe. 

Up for air, gasping and clawing my way to shore, limping and crying but very much alive. And for the first time in many months, the longing to have the tumor out of my body and the fear of death were accompanied by another, very fragile emotion:

Hope. 

Dive again. Not as deep this time. 

Breathe.

Hold your breath. 

“We’ve decided on two more cycles of chemotherapy, at a reduced dose.”

Breathe.

“You’re still good. All good. We’ll see you in three months for your next scan.” 

Having three whole months to do with as I pleased seemed so extravagant that I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was difficult to adjust, to switch from learning to die to learning to live again. Some days I celebrated. Some days I slept. Some days I threw dishes. And all the while, I waited for that looming deadline, that next dive.

Breathe. 

Hold your breath. 

I was still clear in February, May, August, November, repeating again and again the same ritual. Pack as much life as possible into three months, then prepare for the worst. Steel yourself physically, mentally, spiritually. Walk into the cancer center. Sit in the same chairs you sat in before, bald and dead to the world. Chat with a nurse as she hooks a line up to a port in your chest. Drink a bottle of water. Answer questions. Remove any clothing containing metal. Take off your wedding ring and your miraculous medal. Step into the room. Get a warm blanket. See the koi. Dive.

Breathe. 

Hold your breath. 

But always, in the depths of all that breathless, dark water, as I touched bottom again and again, I found God waiting. Each time he was there with a new lesson. Each time he gave me the push I needed to resurface. 

Slowly and almost imperceptibly, my longing for “no evidence of disease” was joined by by a deeper desire. A desire for something unsinkable, something I could hold on to even if the cancer returned. Even if everything else was lost.  A desire for peace and joy. The kind that St. Paul writes of when he says, 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I had a recurrence scare in May of 2019, but was ultimately found clear of cancer once again. In September, I graduated from seeing my oncologists quarterly. For the next two years, God willing, I will see them only twice a year. 

I still long to remain cancer-free. Who wouldn’t? I have a husband and two beautiful children to care for, family and friends to love, a home to manage, so many more stories to tell. I need to learn more, trust more, pray more and worship more before I’m ready to praise Him forever in Heaven.

Strangely, though, I’ve never wished to go back in time. I don’t really even want to erase the cancer, the scans, the sickness. The fear of death. That would mean erasing my two-year-old son’s entire life, my daughter’s toddlerhood, my husband’s heroic love. It would disappear the compassionate work of my family, doctors and friends. It would wither the tiny sprouts of lasting peace and joy that have been growing in my heart. 

Corrie Ten Boom said, “There is no pit so deep that God’s Love is not deeper still.” 

Sometimes, you have no choice but to dive. 

Breathe.

Hold your breath.

God will be there at the bottom.

Breathe.

Liz Schleicher is an opinion columnist and stay-at-home mother from rural Missouri . You can find her on Twitter as @Punky Mantilla, telling tales of Catholicism, country folks, children and cancer

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