Copyright © 1998, Michael Mahaffey
As much as I resisted the inevitable, the trip to the hospital had become a reality. Kathy went with me to check in. I was feeling beaten, powerless and scared; the physical pain had become intolerable. Prior to this I had prided myself on possessing a high tolerance for pain, but I had not before experienced this kind of internal physical agony that permeated my entire body. My bones and joints felt as if they were going to explode.
In my youth I had learned to divorce myself from the hurting by focusing on another area of my body that was without pain. Or, I could simply create a picture of some future event that represented pleasure, and that would sustain me until my pain eased.
But not now. This pain was everywhere, especially in my mind. The intensity was so great; I couldn't take the time for my mind to find an oasis. I needed to be present in the pain just to survive it.
I felt powerless, and going into the hospital just reinforced this feeling. I knew, on some level, that there was something I could do that there was another way. Not necessarily a positive thinker, but a determined one, I had prided myself in being very smart and quick of mind. Sitting beside my wife, in this hospital admitting room, I felt very dependent, helpless and slow witted. I was not accustomed to Kathy leading, doing my talking, making arrangements, and discussing finances or policies. In the few short weeks since the diagnosis, the power had shifted. Kathy was the strong one. She was someone to lean on, and I was desperately weak and needed to lean. I was so ill, I felt awkward, child-like, and very sad over our role reversals. I struggled to think positively but also battled with strong feelings that I was not worthy to live any longer. I felt that my pain was my punishment from God. At that time the pain was so excruciating I only wanted relief and if that meant death, so be it.
Realizing the critical nature of my situation, I could not help but reflect on my past life. I had persisted in thinking life was forever and that I was indestructible. I had drowned in booze, tarnished myself with indiscriminate sexual encounters, and deliberately buried myself under countless hours of work. My way of minimizing my fear was to deny it, to act as if things didn't matter. Or, I had often let my fear come out as anger, accompanied by rage and violent, verbal outbursts. I had manipulated people into doing what I wanted by my intimidating behavior and physical size. To complete the facade, I had hidden myself and my spirit under an impenetrable blanket of emotional atrophy.
I watched as Kathy methodically went through the insurance forms with the admittance people. I sensed her anxiety as her voice rose. There seemed to be a problem, something about unpaid premiums. She looked my way and assured me she would handle it. I didn't have to worry. I was so grateful I was not checking into the hospital alone. I hadn't been the best husband and friend to her and, still, there she was, taking care of me. I remember thinking, with sadness that I would never be able to make it up to her eighth floor. Time to be separated from all that is familiar. Turn over your life. Get ready to be punished more. The eighth floor was the perfect place for me to see the reality of my situation. On eighth Floor, west, the mortality rate was high and the odds of surviving the cure were slim.
I walked around the hospital circular floor route and looked about me at the others, the dying and those who loved them. I saw a weary, older woman who looked as if she was afraid to leave her husband for a minute for fear he would die in her absence. A family gathered in a football type huddle stood outside a room discussing a doctor's last update. A young, totally bald woman sat beside her husband watching television. Death and its companions pain and despair, were everywhere. If it weren't for the intense aching of my body I would not have stayed in the hospital. My thoughts kept jumping from hope to hopelessness and back again, from "I won't die, and it will be all right," to "OK, Michael, breathe the air and look around because it may be the last time you get a chance." These two points of view were warring with each other for my attention. I felt myself leaning towards death.
Admitting personal led me to a room that had been totally sterilized. Everything, the brown linoleum floor, the cream colored walls, two metal chairs, the sink, the mirror, the small closet, and even the television mounted from the ceiling had been sanitized for the health of the occupant, in this case, me. Without any thought to personality or warmth, the room was "designed" to provide an antiseptic environment for cancer patients.
The only thing they couldn't remove was the smell of cancer. It dominated the entire floor. Near panic, I briefly thought of others who had stayed in this disinfected room of silence and had died here. Then everyone left me alone. I felt abandoned by the world and incredibly frightened.
Early the next morning, I was wheeled into surgery. Just the day before I had been scared and powerless, but now I knew that the depth of those feelings had been minuscule compared to what I was feeling this day.... frantic, trapped, dying, despairing, deserted by my "loved ones". If I'd had any fluid in me, I probably would have peed all over myself right there. I was weak, and tired. I didn't know if I was nearer to death or yet among the living. This was fear beyond fear.
In the operating room I acquired a new and unsightly orifice. They inserted a device called a "Hickman catheter" into my chest. It allowed the Doctors and nurses to inject fluids, blood, platelets, and the chemotherapy treatments directly into my blood stream without having to inject me each time. As it would also permit them to draw blood without inserting a needle each time, I would become accepting and grateful for it's presence.
Back in my adult size isolation I was suspicious of every twitch in my body and of everyone who entered my germ-free space.
I remember an incident that occurred when my son Brendan came to visit. He arrived directly from work and was covered with dirt. I was terrified that some tiny insidious virus would find its way into my cubicle, then into my body, and swiftly end my life. My son stood at the door as if hesitating to come in. I panicked; I longed to see him but at the same time I was afraid of the outside world. Falling back to my normal pattern of behavior, I yelled at him for not being more respectful of my condition. He turned and left.
I was devastated. I wanted to chase after him and bring him back, to tell him I didn't mean it. My words to him played back and forth in my mind. I had turned on my own son. Limitless fear and mindless anger were alive in me. I blamed the chemotherapy and the cancer. I told myself that they were eating up my body and because of them, I was out of control.
The hopelessness I was feeling in the hospital was, though not on the same scale, similar to the feelings I had experienced a couple of months before when I had made the decision to stop drinking. I had been a practicing alcoholic for twenty-two years. I had practiced so often that I was a very accomplished drunk. The end to my boozing happened like this: I awoke after a hard night of drinking and looked around the room. The empty bottles filled me with disgust for my behavior and myself. After all the times I had promised myself and Kathy that I would quit drinking, I knew that morning I was through with alcohol. Somehow, for some reason, I realized that day that I had put others and myself in jeopardy with my habit. As a self-proclaimed "good guy", I knew I could not stand the inner condemnation I would inflict on myself if I continued to imbibe. I was an alcoholic and could not drink ever again and that was just the way it was. So with that resolve I quit the boozing. My hopelessness came from not knowing how to live sober. Lying in that room connected to all those wires and machines, I thought about my life and in particular my drinking. Why had I quit drinking just to die some other way?
Faithfully, Kathy came to stay with me all day, every day, but her presence did not interfere with my reflections.
Don't get me wrong, I was not in that hospital being a model patient, contemplating my life and my limited future. I was still a son of a bitch, giving nurses and doctors a rough time. If they wanted me to do one thing, I demanded to do something else or at least do it my way. Against the advice of everybody, I made a lot of business and personal calls from that room. I tried salvaging the business, tried to make sure there was enough money for Kathy and the kids, all over the phone. These interactions with others occurred before Kathy got there or after she left. When she came, we talked about little things, things that really didn't matter.
Sometimes she climbed in bed with me and we simply watched TV. We never discussed her future, our finances, or even our children. In fact, I don't remember that the girls ever came to visit, and I didn't ask about them. If the doctors or nurses needed to draw blood or inject some chemical or other, Kathy simply left the room and visited with other patients and their families on the 8th floor.
Sometime during the week after I entered the hospital, one of my nurses suggested that I might like to talk to the priest that visited the floor. Well, a week is a lot of time to think about dying, and I knew that I was dying without any place to go when I did. For some people there was heaven, but not for me. As much as I had tried to clean up my act inside myself I knew that I wasn't acceptable to God. I thought that "they" had figured something out that I wasn't able to comprehend. "They" knew things I didn't know. So, just maybe, this priest could tell me. I agreed to talk to him.
He had come to visit me before I was ready to see him. I think that he had stopped in my room a couple of times those first few days, but I had been too sick and scared to even acknowledge him. At his first "official" visit I thought that he looked like many other medium built, sixtyish, graying men until I looked into his eyes. The depth of his blue eyes told me that he knew things I wanted-no, needed-to know. Serenity and comfort had entered the room with him.
I never heard him coming down the hall; he just quietly entered the room. Initially, he came two or three times a day, and we talked about his hospital experiences or, sometimes, about me. After a few days more had passed, I began to ask questions. I started by querying him about the hereafter, about heaven and hell. By this time, I was convinced he had some "secret" answers that would ease my feeling of hopelessness.
I don't know if I was on his "schedule" of rounds or if he came specifically to see me, but after a few visits I began to look forward to our talks. After several days I told him I felt I had been alone for most of my life, even though I had a wife, five children, family members and business associates all around me. I told him that the aloneness I felt was more real than the reality of being in my family's presence or being touched by my wife or one of my children. This separateness dominated my thinking process and my life. My feelings and thoughts of being alone and of being separate had made my life unmanageable and unbearable.
As I lay in that sterile bed, in that totally disinfected cubicle of a room, questions rose in my mind and in my heart. I couldn't help reflecting on what I had and what I felt I had missed. My feelings of loss, regret and grief were overwhelming. Hoping to find some comfort, I had opened up to this old priest and finally found the courage to ask him my main question.
"Tell me what God truly is and how do I get to know him in the few days I have left," I said.
He studied me before he answered.
"Michael, I'm not sure what God is. I'm not sure He is anything, although, I experience Him as everything. If you want to know God you must be willing to see Him with a child-like mind. Simplicity is the answer. You were born already in relationship with our God from above. It is his gift to mankind. You can not will or demand a relationship with the Lord. It just is."
I asked him what he meant when he said "from above"?
Laughing, he replied, " I do not mean "from above" as if it were a physical place. I mean "from above" limited thinking. An active relationship with God is preceded by rising above your current, limited way of reasoning."
His uniquely blue eyes reached directly into my heart when he asked, "Do you want to be in relationship with God? Do you want to experience inner peace? Then you must be willing to think God! You must be willing to forget all you know and all that you think you know and trust that God will open your eyes. Raise your consciousness. You must believe with all your heart that God's joy will make you complete. You must know that you are in Him and He in you. You must be willing to hold God as the most powerful Presence there is. You must be willing to believe that nothing is impossible to God."
Passion and power flowed from him as he continued, sparking hope within me. "To let Him reveal to you what is next, you have to be willing to surrender every moment of your remaining life knowing that He is leading you on the path chosen for you, His friend."
In this arena, devoted to death and dying, the influence of humor was never far from beside. Only half in jest, I said, "Dying might be easier."
This wise man of the cloth agreed, "You are right! Death is eminent! It is the death of good and evil, of judgment. Being in a relationship with God is about choosing life. If we do not make a conscious choice regarding Life we accept the alternative which is a living death. In choosing Life we accept each moment as a new moment in creation. By acknowledging that His Presence is sufficient for all our needs, we consent to let God come alive within every cell in our being."
I really wanted to accept all that he said. When he spoke of his God I became inspired, even hopeful. Before, desperation and fear ruled my thinking. Now, there was a small spark of optimism. Thoughts of living well, if not for long, seeped into my consciousness. My body was weak and being beaten by cancer, but my mind was still vital and questioning. And my spirit was beginning to awaken from a 40-year sleep. I asked him to continue.
"To acquire this knowing, that God truly is a Power greater than ourselves and capable of all things, a man must look to God, learn about God, study and think God until he is left no other conclusion, the conclusion that God exists."
The old priest inspired me deeply. With compassion and consideration, he offered me many things, never forcing himself or his God. When he spoke of "the way" and a "relationship" with God, I thought, "How simple it sounds? If it's this easy, why didn't I know before? An alliance between God and me? God and the godless? I heard him, but what is God?"
At that point death still seemed to be the only option. Not that I was consciously choosing to die, but it was so close I could feel myself giving into it. By now I was feeling the full effects of the chemotherapy. I had lost over two pounds a day and my hair was falling out in clumps. I was living in constant terror that each day would be my last, and I began to be angry. I directed this anger toward my doctors and accused them of not telling me the full story of my illness. Richard, an intern specializing in cancer patient care, came in often to check my Hickman and to record all my vital signs. He and all those who ministered to my physical body did nothing to distract me from my private thoughts or change my feelings of living in a conspiracy of the medical community.
In the middle of the night I could feel death approaching. Yet, there were two distinct feelings within me. Part of me wanted to hide, to stop fighting life, to die. Another part of me longed to be a contributor to society, to be a good husband and father. That part of me wanted to be anything except alone and separate. It was clear to me, lying there in that hospital bed, that the me that had challenged the world was filled with frustration and anger and just wanted to escape to death. In that role, I thought, "Screw this, I am out of here. I'm gone."
My hidden, passive inner nature wanted another shot at participating in the world. This side of my persona had been like my silent observer, my conscience, and had forever tugged at me regarding poor decisions and behaviors. This self was now suddenly becoming more assertive, becoming stronger. Somehow the conversations with the priest were inspiring that part of my spirit to come alive.
Rapidly, I became more trusting of the Father, more and more comfortable telling him what I was feeling and why. During one of our talks he suddenly and uncharacteristically became very silent. The intensity of the silence seemed to be an invitation, an invitation for me to stretch beyond my limited thinking and understanding. Something was about to happen. I was nervous, and just a bit concerned.
It took a while before I was finally able to quiet my busy mind. The old priest waited patiently for me to open to the silence he offered, and when I became still I surrendered to the peace in the room, I wanted it to last for an eternity. In that moment of surrender my feelings slipped away to an unknown destination and were replaced by a promise, a promise of life and peace I saw mirrored in the old man's face. He had somehow helped me to experience the Sacred Presence. In that void of thought, yet filled with feelings, I recognized the nature of my longing. There was now a bridge across the gap between the god in my mind and the God that lived in my heart.
In that instant the priest became recognizable to me. He was the Christ Spirit. Alive! In my room! In the flesh! I felt scared, and unworthy, and joyful!
When the old priest next visited I told him about my experience of seeing him as Christ. He assured me that what I felt and what I thought I saw was within myself and that he was just an old priest long overdue to retire. I told him that I knew that the vision had precipitated a shift in my life. I was beginning to feel more alive. And now I was experiencing this conscious awareness as a life force within my body. I explained to him that when I was quiet, I was also aware of a sense of aliveness. I told him how this aliveness was beckoning me to question the diagnosis and the prognosis of 30 to 90 days. Anxiously, I asked him if it could be a sign from God. The old priest laughed and assured me that it was my longing for peace without end, for divine presence and for spiritual nurturing that had allowed me to see and experience God's compassion and love.
He went on to say, "Michael, it is the crisis of your impending death that has rendered you so broken. Without the ability to be in control you have had time to listen to your inner voices. You are recognizing that your feelings and thoughts about "being separate" from God were only beliefs that were solely in your head."
Flat on my back in the ICU, with tubes running in and out of my weakened body, I had countless hours to contemplate and meditate on the priest's uplifting words. I determined that even though I had chosen a path contrary to God's, He had not abandoned me. Still feeling unworthy of love and comfort, I thought about some of the choices I had made. I was ashamed. But, with deep humility, and desperate need for something, someone to turn to, I opened my heart, just a bit, to God.
At that point I did not consider myself changed, nor did I start acting like a loving person. Being on the eighth floor had its small privileges, of which I took complete advantage. No one cared what you ate, so I demanded lots and lots of ice cream. I pitched a fuss each time a nurse interrupted one of my visits with Kathy or the old priest.
I got it into my head that I would feel better if I could have a daily soak in the hot tub in the physical therapy. Well, the doctor and the nurses were beside themselves with frustration. I drove them nuts until they agreed that I could use the spa. My use of this facility had many stipulations, but I met them all, and for the last two weeks of my hospital stay, I immersed myself in hot, soothing water every day.
A few days before I got the "bug" about hot tubbing, the old priest and I were deep in another one of our conversations about God. It was to be one of our last. He suggested that I become willing to have God in my life rather than continue to seek His Presence. He said, "God's Spirit will continue to draw you upward and closer if you just remain willing."
"Spirit is coming alive within you. If you continue to embrace God in your heart God's Spirit will become brighter and brighter in your life," the wise old priest assured me.
He then gave me something that I treasure to this day. He had written the twenty-third Psalm on a small piece of paper for me.
"The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down
in green pastures;
He leads me beside the
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths
For His namesake.
Yea, though I walk
through the valley of
the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table
before me in the
presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and
mercy shall follow meAll the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the
house of the Lord Forever."
Father Pete instructed me to read this five times per day for seven days. He encouraged me to make the prayer a part of my daily life for as many days as God gave me. I was not to memorize it, but to read it. I was to be willing to think about each verse while allowing sufficient time for the words to come alive within my heart.
In the quiet of that night a question emerged from all that had happened and all that I had discussed with the wise old priest. Could it be that the death I feared had nothing to do with my body dying? Maybe it had something to do with facing my innermost fears. The depth of my inability to comprehend seemed endless and overpowering. The mere thought of addressing these feelings and thoughts caused my heart to pound loudly in my chest.
Late that same evening I began running a very high fever, an expected condition in leukemia patients, usually followed closely by death. As the fever continued to rise I knew I was dying. My body was on fire, and my bedclothes were wet with my sweat. Everything my eyes tried to focus on looked blurry. I wanted to press the call button to alert the nurse's station, but I feared all the commotion. I knew the second I pressed it people, shots, machines and noise would follow almost immediately. For a moment I thought maybe if I didn't signal them it wouldn't be real.
"My God, my life is going to end right here." I thought why would this be happening now? Why had I opened my heart to God if I was going to die? With my heart beating frantically with fear and anxiety, I held the call button in my hand.
With complete terror, I remembered overhearing Richard, the young intern assigned to me, explain how sometimes leukemia patients get spiking fevers, and if the fever is not quickly arrested the patient dies. As my body began trembling with the fever, I heard Richard outside in the hall. The sound of his voice released me from my inertia and allowed me to press my call button. He was in my room in an instant and after one look at me called for immediate assistance. Within seconds, an entire crew of nurses swooped in, gave me several shots and then, as quickly, they all left, all but Richard. He held my hand and said he would remain with me as long as I needed him.
Struggling to overcome the nausea and close too delirious with fever, I cried out to God, "Oh Lord hear me, hold me, love me, and let me know I will survive".
Complete darkness overcame me and I knew that I had died.
Suddenly, there was light, and I knew God was there, in my sterile hospital room. I felt His presence.
Slowly, I realized I was up in the corner of the room looking back at myself lying in bed with Richard standing beside me holding my hands. The light's glare was like a stadium at night, alight for a Friday night football game, only more intense. The brilliance seemed to have a center, and my eyes were focused on this center illumination.
A figure emerged out of the brightness. I knew it was God coming to retrieve my soul. And then, I saw Christ!
From my vantagepoint in the upper corner of the room I saw him put his arms around me, and then, as though I was in two places at one time, I could feel His mighty arms around my physical body. As He held me without effort I felt myself crying. Even though I was not in my body I felt the joy and peace of his comforting touch. He was cloaked in brilliant light and fully visible to me. I was enfolded in His power. Had I wanted to turn away, I would not have been able to. Jesus lifted my spirit out of my physical body and I watched His light flood every cell of my being. My body glowed with the outpouring of His love. I knew then that some part of me would always be alive. The cancer had driven me to an unceasing prayer, "God, please hold me, let me know that you are real, tell me that I will be OK, and, God, please love me." My answers came from Him to me on my death, and He was here to offer me every possible comfort.
I knew that I had experienced a death. Old beliefs and perceptions that had influenced every moment of my life, and ones that had left me feeling alone, unloved and angry at everything would now begin to die. I wasn't sure what would happen next but I felt that God would not have created this miracle and then abandon me. I was given life. I now had hope!
Early the next morning, I was still alive. Alive with anticipation for the coming daylight.
I felt full, complete and temporarily at peace. The disinfected cell of a room no longer seemed stark and dreary. Everything in and around me glowed.
My fever was totally gone; I felt renewed.
I had been with God! He had held me and filled me with His light.
I knew it was not a dream. I felt like a kid who had discovered something wonderful but didn't know who to trust with my discovery.
Shortly, Richard came in to do a blood draw. For the first time, I truly looked at him. I saw a young man, about twenty-five, medium height, with dark hair. A skinny guy, with bulging gray eyes, someone that at any other time in my life I would not have even acknowledged.
Now I saw him as my friend. He wore silly bow ties that, for some reason, infuriated his superiors. Always laughing, he told jokes that ranged from completely boring to hysterically funny. He used his light heartedness and his genuine goodness like a magic wand when circumstances were critical. Despite his youth, he was a calming influence in the frantic life of the 8th floor. Wearing a smile he crossed the room to my bedside. He stood there looking at me, then placed his hand on my shoulder saying, "Michael, you are on your way. You are going to go far from where you are now. The first day I saw you I realized you knew little about being alive, but in being around you the past few weeks I have seen that you have the capacity to demonstrate tremendous spiritual power. I feel that if you could somehow access that power you possibly could move through this crisis."
He paused before continuing, "You probably don't have any of an idea of what I am talking about, do you? Last night when your physical crisis seemed to peak you let go of control. I suspect in so doing you accessed a holy part of your being. The Presence, God, lives in each of us and is always longing to be acknowledged and to be able to express itself through us. Last night when you cried out to God for help I experienced you not as an adult but as a lost child. You showed yourself to be naive to your own spiritual principles and truths, while the more intuitive part of your spirit led you to what you had prayed for."
I interrupted him, "Richard, stop! I am at a loss to explain why or how last night happened, all I know is that Jesus was here for me and held me in His arms, in this very room."
Richard looked at me in a way that resembled the old priest, "I know. I was here with you, remember?"
He said that as he was working on me, I had suddenly screamed out, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!"
I recounted my version of the night's events as Richard listened. I told him I remembered crying out, and that I remembered being out of my body watching Jesus hold me. With a happiness that I hadn't felt in years, I told him I would never forget the brilliance of the light and how God flooded me with it until my whole body was filled with that bright energy.
Later that day, Richard encouraged me to consider studying the life of Jesus. It was a recommendation I would have ignored a few short months before. He suggested that Jesus coming to me in my crisis was a beckoning, and that God, through Jesus, was leading me forward.
"Have you seen Father Pete in the last few days,?" Richard asked. I was puzzled at his inquiry. I asked him what he knew about the old priest. He laughed as he said that he personally held Father Pete in high spiritual regard even though they did not really know one another.
Richard went on to tell me of his own spiritual path and of a time he had spent with a spiritual teacher similar to Father Pete. He wanted to know if I had been reading the twenty-third Psalm five times per day.
"Yes." I answered with surprise. I was astonished to find out that Richard had been watching over me.
Looking straight into my heart, he said, "I believe that you have strong visionary talents."
He went on to say that he felt that as Father Pete had shared his spiritual beliefs with me, my inner spirit had responded to the rhythm of the words, and a part of me had begun to come alive.
"Does this make any sense to you?" he asked.
"I feel a sense of rightness to the twenty-third Psalm and to what the Father told me. I, too, feel that something deep within myself coming alive," I answered.
I went on to share with Richard how earlier in my life I had felt called to become a minister. But on both occasions, I had suppressed and hidden my feelings, quickly gathered myself together and gone right back to living as before. After last night's experience, I knew that I was clean, whole, loved and forgiven of all that I had been that was hurtful to others and myself.
Richard spoke about gentleness and about being open to the feminine side of my nature. He communicated the necessity to love my family. Many times he stated that the key to happiness lay in accepting myself as I am, rather than manipulating the world and striving for external success in order to be happy.
At one point he said, "You're trying with all your might to stand on your own two feet, to make life happen through your personal exertions, and although the effort is heroic, it's just unnecessary. If you let go a bit, take your hands off life's jugular vein and let life happen, you will trust more. Trusting in Him will give you the ability to continue when things seem hopeless." We talked all through that day and began again the next morning.
I told him about my feelings of failure as a husband and a father, about my fears for the business and my terror of dying from this cancer inside me. When Richard said that I could have everything as long as I was willing to surrender to God, I began to sob uncontrollably. This young man climbed up on my bed and held me in his slender arms as my body jerked convulsively. My old beliefs rose up and I wanted to throw off his embrace. I was afraid of what someone might think or say if they saw us. But I was so thankful for the validation and comfort that he gave me that I just continued to be consoled by his presence.
When he left, I began repeating the twenty-third Psalm over and over again, like a chant. It seemed to have a certain hypnotic effect on my me. I would rotate between reciting the Psalm and the Lord's Prayer each with a Hail Mary on the end. Meaningful phrases from these prayers became my companions and my assurance when I needed positive affirmation. I would chant silently to myself before going to sleep, rarely ever missing a phrase, then continue the process while sleeping and wake up to continue the same prayer, all without skipping a beat! I watched myself in utter amazement and wonder. Just a few days earlier I had been a completely different person. I hardly recognized myself. I would isolate "He restores my soul" in my mind and have it churning through my consciousness while sleeping, then pick up its thread in the morning when I awoke. Slowly, my attitude began to improve.
I also began to see myself as others saw me. My old, controlling ego was frequently on the phone, screaming to attorneys, "You bastard, finish off this deal the way I want it or I'll come down there and kick your ass!" And then, after putting down the phone, I'd look at myself, with tubes protruding from my chest, and say, "Oh sure, I'll be there any minute!" I'd then consciously try to relax, become more receptive.
These two aspects of my character were in constant combat in my mind, like two opposing attorneys presenting their respective arguments. As I mentally reviewed my transgressions, my physical body responded by making me violently ill. The hospital staff thought it was simply a reaction to the chemotherapy, but I knew that I no longer could stomach who I had been.
During the quiet hours of the night I began to realize how much my family meant to me, and, worse, how badly I had treated them. The more I looked back and saw what I had been, the more depressed I got. I began to believe that my family couldn't love me. As the days and nights went by my "beliefs" regarding my inadequacies overpowered my experience of being in Jesus loving arms. Although I doubted my value as a human being, I continued to pray, still searching for a relationship with God.
I had been in the hospital for three weeks when the doctors unplugged my I-med machine, a device that fed me the chemotherapy. They said it would give my body, by now weakened to its limits, a chance to regenerate. The machine vanished; the tubes to my chest were removed, and the opening to the Hickman capped off. Because my immune system was still non-existent, I lay defenseless in critical isolation. While the tubes had been connected to me and the chemotherapy was flowing I had felt I was doing all I could. Now lying there just waiting, I missed the reassurance and sense of purpose that the gurgles and noises of the machine had provided.
Richard continued to spend long hours at my bedside. After taking what care he could of my physical needs, he would make suggestions on how I could improve my thoughts and attitudes, which, in turn, would improve my health. Richard advised me that concentrating on solving my personal problems depleted my physical and emotional energies, energies that I needed to challenge the cancer. "Survive first, concentrate on what's right before you, I promise you that the other issues will take care of themselves."
"Think about remission. Put all your efforts into focusing on health for the next week and then the week thereafter. Until a remission turns into a cure, stop thinking about your tomorrow's or your colorful past. Simply and purposefully live to live."
The old priest and Richard had taught me that my health and well being were dependent on my participation in relationships based on open communication and honesty. I knew I had to be consciously aware in my relationship with myself, my family, my community and ultimately with God to hold my new inner peace. It would be my choice as to how I defined various physical symptoms. I could be constantly on the lookout for the return of the cancer, or I could live expecting to be cured. Like a pendulum, my resolve to improve swung in wide extremes. To the dismay of the nurses and doctor, I would insist on walking the hallways until my muscles got sore, even painful, from the exertion. Then I would become anxious about my body because of the discomfort. Convinced that it meant that the cancer was back I would forgo the walking activity for a day or so.
It became clear that I needed to choose which direction I wanted to follow with my thoughts. Richard counseled me to be vigilant with my choices. He said that by maintaining healthy thoughts I would be actively participating in my healing.
Both of these men had helped me see the benefits of using the tools of positive thought, kind deeds and words, and spiritual strength. If I had the courage to use their suggestions, I could influence my reactions to the negative chatter going on in my mind. With study and practice, I could have the power to choose what entered my heart and what influenced me. If I were vigilant against accepting unwanted thoughts, negative people and their negative views of cancer, I would have room in my life for a more positive diet of hope, conviction, and faith. I could learn to have the confidence in my ability to be healed through the grace of God.
Father Pete was at my bedside when Dr. Lewis came in to speak to me about going home. "Mr. Mahaffey, (he never once called me Michael) your body has responded well to the chemotherapy, when the leukemia returns we can easily pop you back here for more treatments."
I was barely controlling an instant and intense desire to rage and throw things (including the Doctor), when I said, "You have no idea what went on here. You don't know where the cancer came from and you don't know where it went. It really is a mystery to you."
My eyes sought Father Pete's. "My friend, you don't know either, But, then you never pretended to know."
He acknowledged my statement with an affirming smile. He was letting me know that I had learned this one lesson, the one about rejecting the negatives.
For just a fraction of a second, the huge, schoolroom kind of clock caught my attention. As I watched the dial snap to record the next minute, I knew that I had also learned a truth.
"Only God provides the next moment!"
I made up my mind, right then and there, that Dr. Lewis was history. I would get myself a new doctor. It was obvious that Lewis wasn't a healer. His attitude accepted, maybe even encouraged, disease, not health. I didn't need or want his negative thoughts directed at me. After all the long, cold nights I lied in this bed on the 8th floor cancer ward wondering if the next twitch of my body would be my last, this pompous ass had the gall to say that it would be OK for me to do it all over again.
Thirty-seven days after I was admitted to the sterile world of isolation, it was time for me to leave. My weight had dropped from 275 to 178, and my clothes hung off me like grandpa's nightshirt on one of my kids. Most of my hair was gone, and the few little hanks scattered across my scalp embarrassed me. Though I was incredibly weak, I had walked the halls often enough that I had the strength to get myself out of bed and dressed. But my muscles had atrophied so that my walk was a mere shuffle. I felt old. I looked old.
It was with weary joy that I prepared to go home. I was afraid that it wouldn't be for long, but for now I was ready to go home. It didn't matter how I looked. It didn't matter that I still had the catheter in my chest. I was going home, out of that room, off the 8th floor, away from the hospital, and away from the smell of cancer.
As Richard assisted me to the car he said, "Michael, you are a perpetual learner, and just a beginner. Wherever you go you will meet other teachers, other mentors who will see you through various stages of your growth and unfoldment. Remember your passport to this new awareness is patience and willingness. Your restoration has begun. You are not the person whom I first met here 37 days ago. Go in peace!"
I had waited impatiently for Kathy to check me out, and now, with help, I slid into the passenger seat of her car. During the ride to the ranch, we were each locked into our separate thoughts and talking was kept to a minimum. Generously, Kathy had chosen to drive me home the back way, a small road winding through the foothills of the Sierras. I had traveled this road hundreds of times before but never had I experienced such intensity of colors and light. I saw the beauty in every flower, every rock, every cow, and every tree. Even though I was still very close to physical death I felt alive. I cried! I was so glad to be out of confinement and to be in the countryside I loved. Going home was not something that I had anticipated when I entered the hospital. Being alive in that car, that morning, was a miracle to me, and the world exposed itself to me in a glory I had never seen before.