Are you a survivor? Aren't we all?
I just got in from dinner out with my mother. A couple of weeks ago, she invited me to join her at a dinner given at our church for widows. I know that there are myriad outreaches at our church; it’s one of those “mega-churches” that reaches out to meet nearly every need that our community faces – or at least it was in my mind until I recently spoke to a friend who lives in Colorado and attend a church of 11,000. Ours “only” has about 2800 on Sunday mornings.
Anyway, I accepted my mother’s invitation, although a question played repeatedly in my brain until it was verbalized by one of my inquisitive children this morning: “Why is she inviting you? You’re not a widow.” Well, as it turns out it wasn’t a dinner for widows; it was a dinner, a banquet really, for the cancer and grief ministry at the church. There were about 90 people present, and I was struck by the variety of people. I expected it would be a room full of somewhat sedate women whose loss would be written on their furrowed foreheads. Instead I was greeted by what seemed like a knitting club’s annual gathering: there were holiday sweaters galore. Red ones, white ones, green ones covered with sequins, bells, bows, glittery beads, and all sorts of doo-dads that cannot possibly survive intact after even a single round in the delicate cycle of any 20th or 21st century washing machine. The men wore colorful ties and crazy sweaters of their own.
There they all were, grief and cancer survivors. Men and women of all ages, various nationalities and obviously in varying stages of recovery and survivorship. Wigs, hair pieces, newly grown hair, slow gaits, and far off stares abounded. But there was also great laughter. The people at my table were quite entertaining. A retired fireman who began his career the year I was born was the funniest of the bunch, regaling us with tales of being burned at the stove of the firehouse. Going into burning buildings, he quipped, was far less dangerous than taking on the challenges of preparing a meal for his coworkers. We talked about the heavyweight plastic utensils we were using, the weather, the differences between life in Charlotte and life in New York City, and who would win the door prizes that were being raffled off. And I wondered what brought each of those people to the dinner. Which of these hearty and happy souls had gone under the knife, had lost a loved one to cancer, or are currently dealing with cancer themselves?
Dinner itself was delicious – and quite interesting. The appetizer was a jello mold with lots of fruit floating in it topped off with a glaze of reddish whipped topping. At first, I thought it was some mistake and they had served dessert first. I looked around the room in confusion and saw several tables on the perimeter that were covered with sizeable slabs of all kinds of cakes: chocolate, carrot, red velvet, and two kinds of cheesecake. Nope, the jello wasn’t dessert; it was indeed the appetizer. I’m no big fan of jello by any stretch of the imagination, but I ate most of it sans the whipped topping. Dinner was ham, potatoes au gratin, and peas, which the elderly gentleman to my right referred to as “buck shot.” He poured my water with a shaky hand and an iron-clad determination. We all watched in nervous silence as he poured and breathed a collective sigh of relief when he put the pitcher down. The slice of ham I was given covered half of my plate. HALF OF MY PLATE! The potatoes had a mound of cheese on them that could have stopped the ticker of any serious heart disease patient.
Jello, a side of ham, the cheesiest potatoes I have ever seen, and a sixth of a cheesecake. Are they kidding? No, they aren’t. This life is short. It’s plagued with plagues. Why not wear the festive sweaters, tell the tales of firehouses and friends, eat well, laugh hard, sing loudly, and then go home with a song in your heart? For cancer survivors, for the caretakers of cancer survivors, and for the loved ones left behind, every Christmas is a time to celebrate. Every Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate. Every day is a time to celebrate good food, toe-tapping music, and life itself.
As I sat there and looked around the room, I wondered how much different that group must have looked last year. Some of the members of the cancer support group hadn’t survived the year. Some had moved to warmer climates for the last few months and years of life. Some have gone into remission and have chosen to take this year off from the reminder of being a survivor. And next year, more of their number will have passed away, gone on to the heavenly home they have prepared themselves to enter. New members will join. New caretakers will come to be taken care of. I arrived at the banquet wondering what I was doing there, but it wasn’t long before I was wondering why there weren’t hundreds of people there, even thousands. There is no one I know who hasn’t been touched by cancer or grief in the past year or two. There is no one I know who couldn’t use a little encouragement as we care for the ones that we love who are suffering. And the people I know who aren’t in either of those categories, should be in a room like that offering encouragement and hugs to the rest of us.
Just as I entered the prison last weekend convinced that I’d have little or nothing in common with the inmates or their visitors, I entered this evening’s event with a baseless and arrogant detachment; “I’m here to support my mother, but I don’t really belong. I’m neither a widow nor a cancer victim.” Just as I left the prison last weekend with a fierce attachment to my new friend Daniel and his mother, I left the dinner with a few more fierce attachments and several questions that I wanted to ask every person in that room: “What brought you here tonight? What grief are you carrying? Are you sick? Who have you lost?” I wanted to listen to every story, write down every detail, and give each of them a hug.
As the raffle drew to a close and it became apparent that I wasn’t going to win anything, I sat back, took another long look around and realized that I had won something far greater than a gift certificate to Red Lobster or Dean and DeLuca. I had gained new friendships, found new reasons to laugh, and tried to learn new names and faces that I can add to my growing list of requests when I sit, not on the lap of Santa, but at the feet of Jesus in prayer. “Lord, can you remove a few tumors, grow back some hair, and give all those folks whatever it will take for them to have a very Merry Christmas? For some of them, for some of us, this could be their last Christmas; please let this one be as fully festive, jubilantly joyful, and markedly merry as their first Christmas many years ago. And would you please bring me a gift card from Barnes and Noble while you’re at it?”