Check-in time was February 2nd at 3:00.
On the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple, it was time for a repeat mammogram at the beautiful cancer-care campus downtown. In the end, the Temple priests sent me home until next year. But on February 2nd at 3:00, we didn’t foresee that.
This is the third year now that doctors have paid attention after my annual mammogram. Of course, given the spectrum of other end of life options for a majority of people across the globe throughout history, the path to the beautiful campus would be a highly privileged way to go. And wouldn’t I be more fit to cope with it at 55 than at 65 or 75? Still, it’s something to wake up and fret about in the wee hours, the thought of dealing with that whole marathon living alone.
So my wee-hour reading this month was Alfred Delp’s letters and sermons. The book came with me to the clinic waiting room, too. Alfred Delp was a German Jesuit. He wrote that when our life is really darkest with no visible way out, that is our personal Advent for our personal revelation of Christ. He did his writing in a Nazi prison 66 years ago. Between torture sessions the guards sat him at a table in handcuffs all day every day with a stack of paper and a pen so he could write his confession. What he wrote instead was letters and sermons and plays, on tiny scraps of paper rolled into the seams of his clothes and smuggled out with the laundry. (The guards didn’t figure out that one priest chained at a table was going through an awful lot of clean clothes.)
My Radiology technologist (let’s call her Sarah) welcomed me for my own Presentation Day. She got to work, marking me up with circles and arrows, posing me for pictures. She was kind and calm and good-humored, reining in the worry level to the here and now. (Deep breath, hold still, steady. There! You can put your sleeve back on.) Twice after a round of images she and I waited around for the radiologists to view them and give their opinion. Twice they told Sarah to rework this or that view. But Sarah was steadfast and positive about taking it a step at a time, with no attention wasted on any big implications lying in wait.
With the book I brought the bowed psaltery too. Here is a demo of my very model, made by Master Works in Oklahoma. Then each time Sarah finished a round of images and left the room to meet with the doctors, I picked up the psaltery and practiced playing “Agni Parthene,” or Most Pure Virgin, also called “Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.”
The third time Sarah set out to meet the doctors, she settled me in the dressing room, with its two doors. She explained that if the doctors were satisfied with the final round of images, they would send her to knock on the waiting-room side of the dressing room and send me home. If it was time for an ultrasound and more tests, then a doctor would knock on the other treatment-room door to deliver the news. So their setup is like that school story about the lady or the tiger.
Anyway, in the dressing room something occurred to me. What really scared me was not the prospect of the end of life. Life will go on beautifully anyway, and besides I have hopes that at the end of the road there is still some very good landscape beyond. No, the very heart of the upset all month was that my childhood role might come true. Back in the day, the adults saw me as a sweet saintly child who was always sick and was always tuned out in her own little world. It was sad to think that those doctors might be coming to tell me that the grownups were right after all.
That’s where the psaltery came in. If the knock came from a doctor, I wanted him to find me practicing my music. Then my answer could be “All right, let’s talk. First, how about if I play you the rest of this hymn.” After carrying news to patients all day every day, they could probably use a tune.
Well, Sarah caught on to my strategy right away. It happens that when she is not playing dials and radiation, Sarah plays ukulele. During those moments when we sat there waiting for the next step from the doctors, she encouraged me to tell her all about the psaltery. She listened as if she had no other care in the world. For that hour in the imaging room she treated me as not only a patient in need of care, but as a whole person with an interesting hobby — no matter what results came to us and how this story ended.
At 4:00 the knock came. The waiting-room door! There was the sweet face of lovely Sarah, all beaming and happy. So she got to be the lady. I got to be the tiger, leaping on her with a big hug. Of course, if the news were difficult I would be still more huggy and more grateful for her help.
I said, “Statistically speaking, health and illness are a big continuum, not an either/or. Life is not in the end a scot-free experience.”
She said “Ya well, that’s what statistics are for. Meanwhile, keep playing that psaltery. And do wonderful things for yourself.”
From the campus I headed right over to the little square outside Trader Joe’s, and played “Agni Parthene” and other hymns for an hour that evening. People and their kids came right up to listen. I earned my first 35 cents in my debut as a street musician.
There is of course the religious idea, “My results came out well, so God really took care of me.” But to me that is not a very interesting God. The God for me is the one who is closest and most powerful when everything is spiraling into a dark vortex. We don’t know what God has up his sleeve for me, or in what sort of gift wrap. But for that one day, it meant I got to go home and tuck my magic-markered labeled self into my blankie roll on the floor for the night.
But wait, where did we leave Alfred Delp? What about him?
Tucked in that blanket roll that night I finished the whole book, even though the story is familiar by now. For the Jesuits, the journey to taking final vows is a 15-year process. He was arrested just a bit short of his 15 years. In prison he wondered whether this was a sign; did God see him as not worthy of his final vows? But then, the Jesuits sent one of the superiors to the prison anyway, with the vow written out in Latin. Delp realized that the Society of Jesus had made a special exception, and it meant they’d learned he wasn’t getting out of this alive. To him it also meant that God didn’t think he was unworthy after all. The guard meanwhile was posted in the cell with orders to keep watch and intervene in any kind of Catholic propaganda going on. But while speaking his vow out loud, the candidate burst into tears and wept so hard that the guard couldn’t figure out what was going on. The guard was so distraught at all this emotion that he didn’t even want the priests to translate the document into German for him, and refused to listen in to their conversation.
Father Delp put up a hard fight on his legal defense and trial. But somehow he managed to find words to lighten the spirits of people around him. Sending his farewell to his mother, Delp signed one letter “Your Big Trouble-maker.” In another letter to a friend, Delp wrote “Don’t let my mother tell pious stories about me. I was a brat.” At the execution, the prison chaplain tried to comfort him with the thought of heaven, but Delp remarked “In half an hour, I’ll know more than you!”
The book ends with the official execution record. Before turning out the light I read that too and noticed for the first time that the new Jesuit was hanged at 3:00 on Presentation Day.