By Dana Haight Cattani
I HEAR THE telltale thump. Walking to the window, I confirm what I already suspect. In spite of our decals and shiny reflector tape, another sparrow has flown into one of the panes along the back side of our house and fallen to the deck below. In vain, I watch the tiny brown body for signs of life.
A few hours later, I get the shovel and carry its rigid form out to the woods.
Each spring, sparrows nest in birdhouses I have nailed to a post in my yard. Chickadees try to move in on the sparrows, jays torment them, raccoons and opossums rob them, and falcons patrol the skies like toughs, but every year the sparrows rebuild, laying and fostering life. We know when the eggs hatch because the houses vibrate with sound.
The birds have three distinct cries: jigga jigga when they are agitated, chirv in flight, and chirp just because the dogwoods are in full bloom or the blackberry bushes are humming with bees or the cerulean skies beckon. Carrying the small corpse on my shovel blade like a waiter serving the sacrificial gods of this earth, I think the sparrows’ lives may be equal parts terror, exasperation, and joy.
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. Matthew 10:29
April 2012: I awaken in the hospital in Indianapolis with a ten-inch suture across my belly. While I was sleeping, my laparoscopic hysterectomy turned into major abdominal surgery, revealing advanced endometrial cancer. One week, I am a healthy 46-year-old woman, a writer, a basketball and tennis player, a wife, and the mother of three teenagers. The next I am a hapless, helpless version of myself, trapped in a morphine-induced haze and waiting for the doctor to bring me a different pathology report, one that tells me I’ll be good as new in six weeks.
Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? John 9:2
May 2012: At home in Bloomington, I lie in bed, memorizing the wood grain in the ceiling fan, its five paddles an asterisk, as if an explanation might be found nearby. For weeks and weeks, I waken in the morning—and often in the night—inconsolable. Over and over again, I walk the same circuitous path of disbelief, sorrow, and fear.
Then one day I wake up and realize that I do not have to keep getting lost in the same thicket. I know I have cancer. I knew it yesterday. I knew it last week. I knew it last month. I do not have to wake up every morning and start grieving from scratch. I can pick up where I left off and inch forward.
[Jesus] saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other. Mark 3:5
May 2012: The night before the first of six chemotherapy infusions, I call my mother in California. For the past 12 years she has been an ovarian cancer patient. She knows the drill. Perhaps more to the point, she stood between danger and me my entire childhood, ready to stiff-arm anyone or anything that posed a threat to my safety and well-being. Cue that mother. This is her moment.
With studied calmness I say, “I’m having my first treatment tomorrow.”
“That’s good, dear,” my mother replies. “I’m sure it will be fine.”
I want to say, “I don’t expect you to solve this problem or make it go away, but I really would like you to be present with me right now,” but I do not. She is too far away to help and too ill to travel. This is not her moment. It is mine.
After the treatment, my mother calls. “Bring in palliative care,” I say. “I cannot do this five more times.”
“You’ll get tougher,” she says softly.
Wilt thou be made whole? . . . Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. John 5:6, 8
July 2012: The last time I see my mother alive, I wash her feet. I have no alabaster box of ointment and, fresh from chemo, no hair on my head to dry them with, but I do have some peppermint-scented lotion and a hand towel. My mother’s feet are misshapen with bunions, her toes stiff with arthritis, her nail beds discolored and warped from her own chemo. And yet, how beautiful are the feet. With my thumbs, I rub the lotion in swirling patterns until her feet are soft and smell like Christmas. It is what I needed most to do for her before she died.
And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind [Jesus], and touched the hem of his garment. . . . He said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour. Matthew 9:20, 22
August 2012: A CT scan and biopsy reveal a recurrent tumor in my abdomen. My cancer is Legion, for it is many, indeed. I have a second surgery. My family holds a fast. My dear home teacher gives me a blessing. My neighbor tells me that her dinner gets cold every night as she prays for me. Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and even agnostic friends tell me they are praying for me. A fellow cross-country parent raises my name in her prayer circle. A friend who visits a medieval cathedral in France lights a candle there for me.
Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief. . . . This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting. Matthew 17:19-21
September 2012: I never drive myself to radiation. For 28 days, friends and neighbors provide rides to each appointment so that I will have a companion and advocate. Even so, every time the technicians close the 6-inch-thick metal door and leave me in the vault alone, nearly naked, I experience a wave of profound loneliness and vulnerability. What is flesh against the searing beams of radiation? The machine whirs, clicks, and buzzes through its six different positions, a soundtrack for nightmares.
And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Matthew 8:2-3
October 2012: I cannot attend my mother’s burial. I am 19 days into radiation. Though my doctor allows me to postpone one Friday treatment to go to California for the funeral, he tells me to report as usual the following Monday morning. My mother will be buried in Utah on Monday afternoon.
On the day of the interment, I attend my 8 a.m. appointment. Then I go home, climb into bed, and pull the covers over my head.
All day rain splashes against my bedroom window.
Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. Matthew 15:28
February 2013: In the produce department of the grocery store, I run into an acquaintance. “I heard you were sick,” she says. “Fortunately, God never gives us more than we can handle.”
It has been an extended season of losses: uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, hormones, appendix, hair, 58 lymph nodes, six inches of bowel, 15 pounds, 18 percent of the bone density in my lower spine and hips, a robust immune system, future plans, my family’s peace of mind. My mother. I nod, smile wanly, and busy myself choosing between Granny Smiths and Fujis.
And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour. Matthew 8:13
January 2014: I love Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Aside from crazy Genesis, the gospels are my favorite books of scripture with their Word Made Flesh wandering the desert healing people of their sins and ailments. Fevers break, severed ears are re-attached, demons depart into swine and run off cliffs, and a widow’s only son is restored to life. Suffering is cause enough for relief, and compassion flows freely. Yet again and again Jesus tells the healed, “Thy faith hath made thee whole,” as if they, themselves, have wrought the miracles.
But generating your own miracles is harder than it looks. News can be bad and get worse. Some suffering can be eased, some cannot. Treatments work, or they work for a while, or they do not work at all but still cause horrific side effects. The faith and prayers of entire communities cannot reliably call down the gifts of healing or life, although I believe that communities can bring the gifts of empathy, companionship, and even lasagna. I trip over blessings every day, my path is so strewn with them. Still, in peevish moments, I wish those blessings were more comprehensive and immediate, arriving with an ironclad guarantee.
And [Jesus] took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. Mark 8:23-25
This miracle stands alone in its depiction of healing as a multi-staged process. Jesus repeats a protocol—touching the eyes, sometimes with spittle—that has healed others of blindness. When he checks his work, the formerly blind man reports that he can make out human forms, but that they look like trees. Jesus lays his hands upon the man again, and after this second attempt, his vision is clear and fully restored.
What if this story had ended with the man able to discern light from dark and make out treelike shapes but not recognize people’s faces? What if the lepers had been healed but left with disfiguring scars that carried their own stigma? What if the father who cried out with tears, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief,” had been told that, according to his faith, his son would be healed gradually over the next three to five years? Would these stories be included in the gospels?
Some fixes are slow. Some are partial. Some are not fixes at all but rather brief respites—if that. I do not know why, nor am I inclined to fuss about it. At this moment in my life, I am not particularly comforted by theodicy. Or philosophy. Or doctrine. Just kindness—and certain images. Just baby birds chirping and singing out their distress or hunger or sense of awe until their house shakes with the ruckus, the hearts in their warm little bodies vibrating together. Like the sparrows, I am biologically disposed to rebuild, to discount long odds, to trust the goodness of this world.