Love in the time of COVID

Photo by James Emery, creative commons licensing

I am grateful for my cancer. Cancer has taught me to focus on the moment. No matter what happens to me, nothing can take away the moments I’ve lived in. It is impossible to fully take in a moment without love. Without love there is no inner peace, there is no stillness. Can you imagine fully appreciating a hot shower, a quiet walk, or looking out at the stars without love? 

I’ve read that 99.9% of our universe is composed of empty space. But I don’t think so. I think it’s composed of love. It’s hidden in plain sight, right in front of us, waiting to be taken in. 

Yes, there is also great suffering. But suffering can show us how love unfolds. It can show us the infinite dimensions of love.I don’t know why we need suffering to really see it, but we do. Suffering forces us to focus of the moment with sharp resolve.

There was once a man who was running in through the jungle, chased by a hungry tiger. After breaking through a clearing, he came to the edge of a cliff. The long fall into the river below would be fatal. The tiger forced the man to stumble and fall but he grabbed onto the edge of the cliff with his hands. The tiger was relentless and started for the man’s hands. The man saw a branch growing from the face of the cliff just below him and he managed to grab onto the branch with his hands. Dangling from the branch, the man saw a plump strawberry had sprouted out of some greenery on the branch. Hanging on to the branch, he reached out and grabbed the strawberry and popped it into his mouth. “This strawberry tastes delicious,” he said.

The tiger is our past, always chasing us, never relenting. The cliff and the fatal fall is our future. Can we live in the moment? Can we pluck the strawberry and really focus on its taste?

It’s easy to draw a comparison to our situation today. We have the tiger of our glory days in the past, always haunting us. And we have our COVID cliff in front of us.  Can we concentrate on the moments we have between them? Can we enjoy our home-cooked meal? The bike rides with the kids? The quiet moments of nothingness, filled with peace? 

It’s easy to draw a comparison to our situation today. We have the tiger of our glory days in the past, always haunting us. And we have our COVID cliff in front of us.  Can we concentrate on the moments we have between them? Can we enjoy our home-cooked meal? The bike rides with the kids? The quiet moments of nothingness, filled with peace? 

It’s been one year since my hospitalization (April 18th, 2019) and one year since my surgery and “death” (April 23rd, 2019). And while this isn’t the environment I expected to be reflecting on for this anniversary, I am still filled with gratitude and awe for the journey I’ve been through and the journey that everyone else has been through with me. This was supposed to be my 52nd post (once a week for a year) but it’s my 40th (I believe), but even now, posting on this anniversary, I don’t feel a sense of conclusion but instead I feel more of a sense of beginning. 

This feeling comes along side the news of a church friend recently diagnosed with cancer and facing surgery in the coming week. As I relive my own steps one year ago today, I think to his coming trials– the physical distress, the emotional fragility, and hopefully a sense of peace in the face of whatever torrents may surround him and his family. 

I’ve written before that I started this blog to prove to myself that I could so accomplish a goal during my treatment and recovery. But that’s not the truth. I started this blog as letters to my children. All of these posts have been weekly attempts of wisdom I’d like to impart to Will and Mina. If I disappear tomorrow, these writings will still be here for them. (They’re all saved off-line too, still accessible even if the domain and website disappears.) It’s my hope that they can have a sense of who I was and what I explored spiritually, and that it helps them on their journey. We need to leave more than just pictures.

I don’t fear death. In death we join the infinite. It’s the final paradox. The big five: love, God, suffering, death, infinity…While we can attempt to derive some of the meaning of those titanic concepts through life, we won’t understand them until we die.  

To close, I’d like to share this story I heard through Tara Brach‘s podcast. It reflects my own experience, and the emphasis is mine.

“A 52-year old Tibetan refugee named Tenzin was diagnosed with lymphoma, admitted to a hospital and received chemo, but then he became extremely agitated, angry, and upset. He pulled the IV out of his arm and refused to cooperate. It turns out that he had been a political prisoner of the Chinese for 17 years. They’d killed his first wife and had tortured and brutalized him through his imprisonment, and something about the hospital rules and the chemotherapy was triggering flashbacks. 

“I know you mean to help him,” his wife said, “but he feels tortured by your treatments. They are causing him to feel hatred inside just like he felt towards the Chinese. He needs to be able to pray and cleanse his heart.” So they discharged him and they sent him home and they gave him a hospice team to work with.
So here is the story is coming through the hospice person who first looked for some ideas on how to work with him. She was told by Amnesty International to just help talk it through. 

“This person has lost his trust in humanity. If you are able to help him, you have to be able to give him some hope that he can connect.” 

So, she encouraged Tenzin to talk about his experiences and he held up his hand and stopped her. She writes: 

“…he said, ‘I must learn to love again if I am to heal my heart. Your job is not to ask me questions, your job is to teach me to love again.’ It’s quite an assignment for a hospice worker. I took a deep breath. ‘So how can I help you to love again?’ Tenzin replied immediately: ‘Sit down and drink my tea and eat my cookies.’” 

Now, just so that you know, Tibetan tea is black tea laced with yak butter and salt, but she did it. . . for several weeks, they sat together and drank tea. 

She continues: 

“We also worked with his doctors to find ways to treat his physical pain, but it was his spiritual pain that seemed to be lessening. Each time I arrived Tenzin was sitting crossed-legged on his bed reciting prayers from his books. As time went on, he and his wife hung more and more colorful thangkas (that’s Buddhist Tibetan banners) on the walls. The room was fast becoming a beautiful religious shrine. 

When the spring came, I asked Tenzin, ‘What do Tibetans do when they are ill in the spring?’ He smiled brightly. He said, ‘We sit downwind from flowers.’
I thought he must be speaking poetically, but Tenzin’s words were quite literal. He told me Tibetans sit downwind so that they can be dusted with the new blossoms of pollen that float on the spring breeze. They feel that pollen is a strong medicine. 

At first, finding enough blossoms seemed a bit daunting. Then one of my friends suggested that Tenzin visit some of the local flower nurseries. I called the manager of one of the nurseries and explained the situation. The manager’s initial response was, ‘You want to do what?’ But when I explained the request, he agreed. And the next afternoon, I picked up Tenzin and his wife with their provisions – black tea, butter, salt, cups, cookies, prayer beats and prayer books. I dropped them off at the nursery and assured them I’d return at 5. The following week, Tenzin and his wife visited another nursery. The third weekend, they went to yet another. And the fourth week, I began to get calls from the nurseries inviting Tenzin and his wife to come again. One of the managers said, ‘We’ve got a new shipment of Nicotia coming in and some wonderful Fuchsias and, ah yes, some great Daphnia. I know they’ll love the scent of that Daphnia. And I almost forgot! We have some new lawn furniture that Tenzin and his wife might enjoy.’ Later that day I got a call from another nursery saying they had colorful wind socks that would help Tenzin predict where the wind was blowing. Pretty soon, nurseries were competing for Tenzin’s visits. People were beginning to know and care about the Tibetan couple. The nursery employees started setting out lawn furniture in the direction of the wind. Others would bring out fresh hot water for their tea. Some of the regular customers would leave their wagons of flowers near the two of them. It seemed that a community was growing around Tenzin and his wife. 

At the end of the summer Tenzin returned to his doctor for another CT scan to determine the extent of the spread of the cancer. But the doctor could find no evidence of cancer at all. He was dumbfounded. He told Tenzin he just couldn’t explain it. Tenzin smiled back and said, ‘I know why the cancer has gone away. It could no longer live in a body so filled with love. When I began to feel all the compassion from the hospice people, from the nursery employees — all those people who wanted to know about me — I started to change inside. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to heal in this way. Doctor, please remember your medicine is not the only cure. Sometimes love can heal as well.’”

One year removed from my surgery and start of this journey, I find myself where I started but this time completely changed. It’s a reflection of all of our journeys. A mystical poet said it best when he said:

“We shall not cease from our exploration and the end of all of our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

PS- I’ve temporary lifted my self-imposed ban on social media in an effort to stay more connected with people during COVID times. Follow me on instagram: john.catoe.

PPS- I thought this blog would be a good exercise for one year, but I’ve renewed the domain and site so I’ll continuing posting and maybe renovate the site a little bit. If there’s something you want me to read / explore / write about, then email me and let me know. Grace, love, and peace. -John

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