Visiting the Valley

Recently I have spent some time volunteering at our hospital’s cancer treatment center, where folks come as out-patients  to receive their regular chemo-therapy.  The patients and nurses are grateful, and we seem to make things a little easier. We help with ordering and serving lunch, fetching drinks, blankets, pillows, and things like that; what would be orderly work in the wards.

Most of the volunteers are themselves cancer survivors.  I am not.  And I got to thinking about the significance of that reality.

My wife is a cancer survivor – a very successful one.  Twenty-eight years since her cancer, with no recurrence!  But I know the fear of it never entirely leaves her.  Her annual screening is always a time of some anxiety, for me as well as for her (though she hides hers well).

While working at the center, I had a thought: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” The 23rd Psalm. And I understood it, in a way I never had before.  Every patient in there was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  And the fortunate ones, the survivors like my wife, never entirely leave the valley.  They just make it to the brighter side of the valley.  But they never entirely leave the shadow behind them.

Of course, the rest of us are just as mortal; we all live with the daily possibility of death being around the next corner.  Car accidents, heart attacks, whatever – the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.  But we don’t think about it.  The shadow of our mortality does not block our sun.

But cancer is different.  No doctor will ever tell you that they got all the cancer cells.  You know there may be some in there, lying in wait for you.  You know their name.

I suppose heart attack and stroke survivors may be in a similar situation.  The chance of recurrence of those seems never to go away either.  Maybe they dwell in the valley too.

What is remarkable to me is how well most cancer survivors deal with the shadow.  Judging by the ones I know, they may be the least depressed people around. This is courage, no doubt, but also something else.

The awareness of the near presence of death has often been regarded as a morally salutary thing.  “Memento mori” (“remember death”), the Romans were told in their moments of greatest triumph.  Yet I think no one really does that except those dwelling in the valley of its shadow.  I know my wife cherishes every birthday as a gift, a gift of time, of life.   I try to emulate her attitude.  She is a constant example to me, of the courage to live life to its fullest.

When I volunteer at the center, I am visiting the valley. I find the valley-dwellers to be for the most part surprisingly cheerful, yet never frivolous.  They are serious about life, but never somber.

And when I sit at a bedside vigil for a dying patient, I watch them exiting the far end of the valley. I bid them farewell.

This volunteering is an invaluable gift to me, a memento mori as well as a memento vivere: “remember to live”.

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