A few years ago, I bought a book compiled for/by the President's Council on Bioethics, Being Human. Boasting editors like Robert George and Leon Kass, the book has an impressive collection of excerpts, stories, articles, poems, and essays addressing different aspects of what it means to be human.
Some of the most poignant selections deal with cancer. More than once, I have sat and had my heart ripped out by an essay on a family in the pediatric oncology unit. I have imagined what it must be like to sit under the fluorescent lights in the sterile hospital room or doctor's office, and hear the diagnosis for yourself. Or for your child.
Then a couple of weeks ago I was reading The Cancer Ward by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and was struck all over again by the power of that horrible alone feeling, that your life is now dominated by the struggle with cancer, while everybody else's life goes on.
At some point about three chapters in, while I was exulting in heights of empathy, I remembered something that sent me crashing down.
All summer, I lived next to a cancer center.
We lived in a furnished apartment, the kind that long-term visitors rent out. Some of the closest apartments to the cancer center. There was a hospital bracelet in my nightstand drawer.
It was what I told the taxi drivers: "take me to the cancer center." The people who parked outside my apartment window every workday from 9 to 5, that was where they worked. Or where they went for treatment.
I remember one school morning walking back home from the bakery and seeing a man sitting outside the apartments across the street. He was thin, and old, and worn out. It crossed my mind that maybe he was a patient, and that he would die soon. I walked into the house with a bag full of warm bread and shut the door.
Often people would come to the door, begging. A man came once with a little girl, and a letter in broken English about how desperately his family needed help because of his wife's cancer. A clever ruse, I thought. Not all beggars were this pathetic. I handed the note back to Amber and told her to shut the door.
Never once did I sit there in my apartment, so close to so much pain, and let my heart be ripped out by true stories of families in the pediatric oncology unit. Never once did I look out my window at somber-faced families and imagine what it must be like to sit under the fluorescent lights in the sterile hospital room or doctor's office, and hear the diagnosis for yourself. Or for your child.
Lord, protect us from the "compassion" that cries for stories in books.
And shuts the door to the neighbors crying for help.