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Measuring Life

The lone bird, perched high in the tree, holds tightly to the limb which supports it, moving to and fro with the rhythm of the wind. But on a particularly stormy night, it missteps, falling to the ground with a resounding thud. It attempts to right itself, to shake off the trauma and fly back to a place of safety, but it cannot. Its wing is badly broken. And so it lies there, helpless, waiting for the inevitable attack from a hungry predator. But in the morning light, a young boy finds the poor creature and places it in a small cardboard box. He takes it home and gently nurses it back to health. Within weeks, the bird is strong again, its wing miraculously healed and the boy returns it to the woods, watching with pride as it flies off against the crystal blue of a cloudless sky.

It is a simple story, one which has been told, in one form or another, for countless generations, but it raises an interesting question. Does the bird live in fear that it will once again fall? Does it speculate about when the wind will prove to be too powerful for its grip and hurl it to the ground? And does it become crippled by the resulting anxiety? I am no expert, but I am inclined to say that once healed, the liberated fowl never thinks about what has happened to it ever again, contented to live life as it always did, free from the confines of human worry.

Are we smarter than the average bird? Sometimes, I wonder.

You see, as a person with the ability to think and reason, I tend to research things. (Aren't we all inexplicably tied to Mr. Google?) I explored all that I could at diagnosis, desperate to become an educated patient. I wondered how this monster chooses its victims and why. And I mused at the irony that I never win at random drawings except for this unlucky time. The concept of knowledge containing power is often a good idea, but it can backfire, especially when I uncover facts I would be better off not knowing. You see, statistically, I have a ninety percent chance of a recurrence, of a new alien taking up residence in my body. The implications are huge. And so, every little ache and pain, every sign of fatigue or bloating or indigestion sends my mind on a runaway course of worry and wonder. I often fret and imagine, the anxiety taking on a life of its own. But I have learned that there is a difference between living “with” fear and living “In” it. The key word here is “living.”

I am reminded of something from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Prufrock,” where the character describes his existence with this verse.

I have known the evenings, morning, afternoons

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

I always thought it was an interesting way to view the passage of moments, most of which are ordinary, mundane, marked by one daily cup of coffee after another. And I suppose I could pen my own bit of verse, saying

My time is marked by appointments and tests

I trust in my doctors who seem to know best

(My deepest apologies to real poets everywhere)

The time quickly passes from one check-up and lab report to the next, and I am able to be distracted during those periods in between, pretending that life is as it once was. But a turn of the calendar page reminds me that in an instant, all of that can change, as I wait for the newest declaration of the state of my health. I try to remember that worry and fear simply takes us in circles. Like a dog chasing its tail, we end up living in frustration. Conversely, joy and harmony keep us alive when we are suffering from anxiety. Instinctively, we know how to reach into the pantry for a slice of bread or a can of beans when we are hungry, but sometimes, we don’t know how to settle into that harmonious place for which we yearn. And that’s what faith, coupled with experience, teaches us. It is a practice, a communion with the divine, and necessary for us to be at peace. I hold onto that promise, especially this week as I wait for the phone call from the oncologist.

I started this with a bird analogy, so I guess I will end with one as well. This is my favorite: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He's watching me. I’m counting on it.

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