(Update from Janie: Thank you so much for reading my stories and for the insightful responses you have emailed to me these past two years. I’m sorry I haven't been able to respond to every email but I do appreciate them very much. I have been intent on getting my book finished this spring and summer, hence the dearth of blogs of late! I am now on the hunt for an agent and publisher, so wish me luck!)
I have always loved the 'Polyptych of the Misericordia’ painted by Piero della Francesca over a period of seventeen years and finished in 1462. The painting hangs in a museum in the little Italian town of Sansepolcro, Tuscany, where della Francesca was born. The central panel (above) is of the Madonna della Misericordia protecting the townspeople under her magnificent cloak.
The expression on the Madonna’s face has always intrigued me. What is she feeling? Is it serenity, compassion, responsibility, neutrality, or something else? I have come to understand that my fascination over many years with her facial expression is my desire to make sense of my own feelings about choosing a life of caring for others.
I hold the image of the people I care about being tucked inside my cloak, and I want to do more for them, to protect them, keep them safe from the harms of the world, of cancer with its horrible treatments, and the heartaches of having to live a life given, not chosen.
Recently, I went to see Rima at the chemotherapy unit of the B.C. Cancer Centre, a woman I have known for seven years, since she first attended one of our retreats after a diagnosis in 2009 of metastatic breast cancer, at the age of 34. She immigrated to Canada from Trinidad at the age of 24 to start a new life full of promise and hope.
When I arrived, Rima was tucked into the chemotherapy chair, her fleecy turquoise toque pulled well down over her ears, and a blanket tucked around her legs. I had seen her bald before but not for a long time. Her face seemed even more accessible without her huge shock of gorgeous, long wavy, shiny black hair.
“Hey Janie. So nice to see you. The new chemo is about to start in a couple of minutes.” She reached her arm out from under the blanket for a hug.
Rima’s warmth has always come at me like a tropical breeze, her cloak always wide open to receive me, even when new drugs are about to enter her bloodstream, even exhausted at the Finish Line of the Whistler Gran Fondo, after she had cycled, not long after chemotherapy, up the mountains from Squamish, with her 'fuck cancer' sign pinned to the back of her saddle, as she waited for me to cross the Finish. “You did it,” she congratulated, as she hugged me.
Within a minute of the chemo infusion, Rima’s eyes started to roll back and she grabbed at the neck of her shirt, gasping for air. “I can’t breathe,” she whispered, her wide eyes filled with terror. I knew from my years as a chemotherapy nurse that Rima was having an allergic reaction so I moved closer and grabbed her hand. “You’re okay,” I said. “The nurse has just given you some Benadryl. It will settle soon. Just keep your eyes on mine, okay?
Rima’s body writhed and convulsed as it tried to reject the drug that was supposed to help her slow down the progression of her liver cancer. My cloak stretched as wide as I could make it, trying to protect and comfort this woman who had been tucked inside my heart from the moment I met her.
Looking into Rima's eyes, I remember thinking many thoughts as the drug tried to swallow her up: that the will of her body and mind to live is so incredibly strong; that her love of life surpasses the desire to opt out when things get too hard; that cancer has required so much from her; that our modern-day treatments can be harsh; that death is not always the worst thing; that she will accept death when her time comes; that I love her and don't want her to suffer, nor do I want her to die; that we both had held protective cloaks around one another over the years, which is what you do when you deeply care.
I knew then that the expression on the Madonna’s face was one of equanimity, a deep, steady intimacy with the ways things are, beyond preference. The Madonna holds a calm and unencumbered space for all the people who need her shelter. We can all do that for each other, if we choose to.
Within five minutes, a time infused with eternity, the drug reaction passed. Rima looked at me with immense kindness and the relief that passed between us was palpable.
‘Thank you,” she said. “Did you ever choose the right moment to come?” Her smile was as wide as ever.
I nodded, kissed her on her clammy cheek, told her I loved her, and left to get back to work where someone else was waiting.