Blessed are the sick?
You could have fooled me. I would have sworn that the phrase “blessed are the sick” came from the Beatitudes delivered by Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. But thanks to the wonders of Internet research, I learned instead that the phrase is merely the title of a 1991 album released by the death-metal band Morbid Angel. The album cover is shown at left. To complicate the provenance of the phrase even further, according to my research, Morbid Angel fans later accused the Swedish thrash-metal group Hexenhaus of stealing the 19th-Century-Belgian-symbolist-occult-cover-art idea for its own album, called A Tribute To Insanity. But then Hexenhaus fans pointed out that their album had been released a full three years earlier. So screw YOU Morbid Angel fans!
I guess the main point here is that the sick couldn’t even catch a break in the Bible. The Poor, the Meek, the Hungry, the Persecuted, the Merciful, the Grieving, the Pure of Heart and the Peacemakers all made the cut for the Most Important Sermon Ever. But not the Sick. Apparently they’re never going to inherit anything — except a dumb, overwrought album cover.
I don’t care. I’m going to write about the sick anyway. I always thought I had the ability to empathize with the sick. But that was before I got sick myself. Now I have a little bit of a taste of what it’s really like. Talk about life delivering a major beatdown just to teach me a simple lesson.
Before now, the worst that had ever happened to me was a cold or flu — maybe chickenpox or mumps as a kid, a banged-up shoulder or hip from cycling accidents. I can’t really even remember much about what that was like. Being sick just meant being down for the count for, at most, a week. More recently, I cared for both of my parents through their own sicknesses: Alzheimer’s disease in my Dad’s case and bone-marrow cancer in my Mom’s case. So did that experience increase my capacity for empathy? Maybe a little bit, but not as much as I’d thought at the time.
The truth is that people who were really sick were never on the same path as me. Our paths just crossed from time to time. Sometimes that intersection would be at the bedside of a loved one — like my Mom or Dad — where I would be attentive, indulgent and say all the things a good son was supposed to say. Other times the intersection would be at a place like the dairy case at the grocery store, where some guy in a bulky, motorized wheelchair was taking too long to decide between 1 percent milk and skim milk, holding me up while I quietly cursed him under my breath. In either case — parents or stranger — the encounters would end whenever I decided to put one of my healthy legs in front of the other and just move along.
But here’s the thing about sick people: They are ALWAYS stuck at that unpleasant intersection. They live in it, by definition. They’re always hanging out there, exposed, in the midst of speeding traffic while the world of the healthy surges around them and bumps into them from all directions. Whether they happen to cross paths with me or with someone else hopping down another healthy rabbit trail at some other intersection, there is no choice if they don’t like it. They’re just sick, and they have to stay on their path.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like sick people are all walking and wheeling around out there with halos over their heads. Sick people can be pricks, too. I think after awhile many of them just get fed up with the constant life in the middle of crappy intersections. So some of them start to take advantage of their sickness, in a way. They use it as leverage and begin to treat the indulgences of the healthy as their prerogative. (I have felt the tug of this temptation myself. I have known the pleasures of having someone like my sister Kathleen make me a fabulous sandwich when I could probably have made a serviceable one for myself).
On Sunday, I saw something funny in that vein: Two guys with ‘handicapped’ license plates on their cars pulled into a church parking lot and got into a horn-honking standoff over the last remaining handicapped parking spot. They were red-faced and furious with one another as they jockeyed for position. Almost simultaneously, each of them grabbed the little cardboard handicapped symbol hanging from his rearview mirror, rolled down the car window and then started waving the little blue cards frantically and shouting at each other. The other churchgoers filing by were mortified. You could see the confusion in their faces. It was like: “Which one is sicker? Whose side are we supposed to be on here? What would Jesus do?”
Well, Jesus definitely would NOT have miraculously created two handicapped parking spaces where before there was only one. I’ll tell you what Jesus would have done. He’d just have said: “Goddammit, I’m crossing both of you horn-honking jerks right out of my Prime Time Speech, along with the rest of The Sick!” In fact, that’s probably what did happen right before the Sermon On The Mount: Not enough handicapped parking spaces for donkey carts. Hence, the Biblical omission.
Jerk or not, at least now I know slightly more about what that feeling of being sick is really like. It’s the primal fear of being weak and in constant danger of being cut out of the herd. Being wheeled around on gurneys by ambulance drivers and hospital workers taught me a thing or two about feeling powerless and vulnerable. And as I enter Week 5 of my chemo and radiation, I have learned what it is like to be so exhausted that I guard every minute of my time and every ounce of my energy day after day because I need to spend them wisely. When you are fatigued like this, a “productive day” can consist of accomplishing just one or two basic tasks that healthy people take for granted and do as they go about bigger business. I hunt small prey these days — stuff like paying the bills, doing a load of laundry, going to the bank or post office, having a couple of phone conversations, reading through e-mail, spewing some random thoughts onto this blog…
Still, as much as I’ve learned over the past two months, I can at least see a horizon out there. My last day of therapy will be Oct. 1. After that, I am looking forward to a month of no treatment at all, followed by an indefinite period of “maintenance” treatment in which I take chemo pills for five consecutive days each month with no radiation. I don’t think that will wear me out as much. I’ll still have brain cancer — because the kind that I have is considered only “manageable”, not “curable”. But at that point, I hope, I will have started to get my energy back and will have psychologically moved on from this world of the sick. At least for a little while.
Lots of people will go on living in this world. There is no horizon for them. At least now, because of my experience, I hope to have more genuine empathy for them when they get in my way at the dairy case.
The gulf between sickness and health has everything to do with weakness and power and how a society handles the relationship between the two. In a good society, I think, the weak and the powerful should be able to get along just fine. They should be able to walk the same path instead of just running into one another at intersections.