A Benediction
Sally Franson

Triptych of Useful Definitions

I. Ma-lig-nant. Adj.
1. a. Threatening to life; virulent
b. Tending to metastasize; cancerous
2. Highly injurious; pernicious
3. Showing great malevolence; disposed to do evil

This Is My Body, Shed For You

The day of my First Communion, I filed up the main aisle of the nave with my fellow fifth graders, folded my knees onto worn maroon carpet in front of the altar, and solemnly interlaced my fingers onto a blond wood railing. I wore black-and-white checked pants and a baby tee that was far too thin for such a chilly March day. My cowlicky bangs were smashed down with a mix of water and blue hair gel, and I peered through them as Daddy went through the liturgy, the same one I'd heard since the week I was born.
By then I could mouth it silently along with him without glancing down at the Lutheran Book of Worship, though my finger traced his words across ancient, tissue-thin pages. Take, eat, this is my body. Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of me. Body and blood. During our Communion lessons, Daddy drew a thick line of chalk across a blackboard. Catholics were on one end of the spectrum, and Unitarians sat placidly on the other. Our people fell somewhere on the center-right -- not quite transubstantiation, but not quite My Dinner with Andre, either. Somehow the true flesh and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ entered our open mouths every Sunday, but we recognized that the stale bread and cheap wine we ingested came from the nearby restaurant supply store. Nobody could give preteens a clear answer about this transformation, so our understanding remained muddled at best.
Daddy stood under a huge, wrought-iron cross that hung like a burden from the sanctuary's ceiling. He held a large piece of bread above his balding head and tore it apart for the congregation to see. His oatmeal robe with the rope belt billowed from his tall and trim frame, and a green stole was draped around his neck. After completing the traditional liturgy, he walked around the communion railing to each of my classmates and pressed a hunk of pita bread into their damp hands. He saved the biggest piece for me, ripped it off with a flourish and dropped it into my cupped fingers. Then he laid his big palm upon the top of my head, tousled my hair, and winked.
I winked back, beaming from this private blessing, the anticipation of my first taste of wine. I gobbled down the pita, threw back my thimbleful of alcohol, and waited for something holy to happen. And waited.
I wanted sanctification, but it never came. My tongue tasted for Jesus in the morsels I received, but try as I might I never found him.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

It is like this: fifty billion cells live harmoniously inside of you. Then one day a rogue cell mutates, falls from grace. For this cell, the rules no longer apply; it stops singing the body's shared song. No mechanism exists to stop its thoughtless division. No mechanism exists for a natural death.
Before long this rogue cell is a horde of rogue cells. They grow at a freakish speed, they dismantle your usual defenses. This reprobate mass is the monster of your childhood nightmares, the Hydra to your Hercules. Kill one, and three more pop up in its place. Rumors travel from village to village -- whisperings of a ravenous dark presence. Every surface it touches falls victim to its venom.
If the rogue cells claim victory, everything breaks; what God rejoices in, they defile. They are committed to Nothing. The extinguishment of creation -- making the whole sick, the entire partial, the sacred profane.

This Is My Body, Shed For --

People pray for her. People whisper, God will never give you more than you can handle. People proclaim, You can beat this, as if she wages a holy war and needs only to unearth the right weapons within herself.
She accompanies her mama to church one morning, not long after a machine revealed the dark monster hidden inside of her. She hasn't gone in years, didn't even go last Christmas, when Mama looked at her with sad eyes and asked quietly, Please. But here she is, right back where she started. Though Daddy's retired now -- worn down from years of absorbing everybody's bad news. She looks across the altar to the blond wood railing, where she swore she'd never return.
She runs her fingers through her newly short hair, and a few, maybe six, strands stick to the webbing between them. She sits down; she is tired. From the drugs. From everything.
The praise band, a grudging concession to modernity, strikes up an unfamiliar number. Gone are the mighty organ anthems of her childhood, yet the vocabulary remains the same. Hallelujah. Kyrie Eleison. Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy. The congregation is full of old ladies with elaborate hats and little girls whose dresses are smeared with the contents of sippy cups. People stand up, clap their hands, and raise their voices -- the way in the olden days they'd drive out devils.
Mama smiles at her, her doe-brown eyes brimming as she sings, All the powers of darkness will tremble at what they just heard. She herself is not so sure. She does not understand why God, the Omnipotent, the Holy of Holys, masked His Only Son in an animal body. Why he placed his beloved in this frail human form that bleeds and shits and cries and hurts and ultimately expires. Jesus did everything his Daddy asked, spent forty days in the wilderness thinking about it, and afterwards brought his death upon himself, or at least did nothing to stop it.
Yet in the Garden of Gethsemane, before the kiss of Judas, they say Jesus dropped to his knees. Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. She wonders about this prayer, if while his disciples rested against the trunks of olive trees, Jesus ever thought about starting over, pulling a quick cut-and-run. There was still time. He could have been back in Bethlehem by sunrise. She imagines him throwing stones against the garden wall and shouting uselessly into the wind, still God, but man enough to understand heartache.
For he did have a choice. He saw it, he made it, and they say this changed everything. Thy will be done. With this in mind she takes the Eucharist, Thanksgiving, letting the cardboard-like wafer dissolve on her tongue. She drinks the wine straight out of the chalice and swishes it around her mouth. She walks back to her cushioned pew (another concession) and bows her head in prayer. The only word she discerns in the silence is Please.
Why she is here she cannot say. Maybe out of desperation. Maybe out of humility. Maybe for the doughnut holes and burnt coffee. Maybe she likes the idea of a God who gives up everything for her sake.

Triptych of Useful Definitions

II. For-give-ness. N.
1. The renunciation of anger; freedom from condemnation. Ex. Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed (ancient Buddhist phrase)
2. Proven to reduce stress and lower baseline levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with impaired immune function. Ex. An organism at war with itself is surely doomed (Carl Sagan)
3. Letting go of your own suffering

Stories We Tell Ourselves

Then again, it could be like this: fifty billion cells live harmoniously inside of you. Something injures one cell, damages it so deeply that something in its cell-brain snaps. Trauma -- Greek for wound. Wounds left untreated fester; hurt begets hurt. The injured cell starts running, dividing, multiplying. It escapes to dark corners, shivering and ashamed, spreading infection.
Some time later the cell looks at itself and sees a hideous dragon. It doesn't remember becoming a dragon; it certainly never intended to do so. Its last memory involves slapping a hand that reached in to heal it. After that everything is blank.
In the children's hospital ward, fuzzy-haired children wearing masks over their mouths and IVs in their spindly forearms tack drawings up on the wall. Many of these drawings feature tiny warriors vanquishing ferocious monsters -- monsters with jagged teeth and breath of fire. The children are at war with themselves.
Many years ago, a German man took a different approach. He sat his creaky old legs down at his creaky old desk and wrote a series of epistles to a tortured young artist. The hoary poet was a sensitive soul. He, too, knew suffering, knew the scars of fire and the wind on the back that befell the fighters of dragons. Yet in a letter to his jejune friend, he wondered if perhaps all those years of fighting had missed the point entirely. Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses, who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.

This Is My Body, Shed

A nurse -- usually a kind, slightly overweight woman -- injects noxious chemicals into your body through a thick vein in your chest. She touches you only with Latex gloves and wears a blue Haz-Mat suit over her cat-patterned scrubs, per regulations by the FDA.
These drugs are meant to destroy the rogue cells that currently sweep through your body like a California wildfire. The chemicals, however, aren't yet sensitive enough to distinguish between rogue cells and other quick cells, like hair, and maybe blood. God rained an entire ocean down on the earth to rid it of a few bad seeds. Goodbye, flora. Goodbye, fauna. Goodbye, happy, fertile things that drown in the essential flood.
Consequently you watch as your blood counts drop perilously low. But you manage. You learn to inject a syringe into your belly to make the cells regrow, and you enjoy it, though it makes the bones behind your heart ache.
You watch, too, as your hair falls out -- not in clumps, the way it goes in the movies, but in fine, silvery strands you find on your pillowcase and in your shower drain. Not just the hair on your head, but your eyebrows, underarms, the soft down above your lip. The tender space between your thighs emerges hairless, devoid of moisture, scraped clean of desire.
Again, you manage. You learn where to buy hats and how to tilt them at rakish angles. You learn to color neat arches above your brow bone with eyeliner. You learn to wear new clothes after your skin starts hanging off your bones.
One cold November evening your mama will bring you a plate of toast and scrambled eggs, but you cannot eat anymore. Your mama will bring you a book to read, but your eyes can no longer focus on the letters. You will stare at the TV instead and listen to its hissing static before the rabbit ears can settle on a station.
You will watch from a window as the first snowfall lays white down on the backyard and will not recall the last time you stepped outside. You watched everything you counted on, everything you carefully saved disappear like small flakes on the still-warm earth. Even after it was gone, your fist instinctively clenched around its ghost. It takes you a long time to let go.
Soon after night falls, you will lay back down in your childhood bed and place your trembling hands on your belly, an empty husk amidst an empty husk. Daddy will lean over you and whisper at your request the 23rd Psalm (Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil) as you cry and cry, because you are not sure why you are enduring this anymore. You are not sure if there is anything left of you to save.

Triptych of Useful Definitions

III. Ec-dy-sis. N.
The process by which a snake sheds her skin. Or not her skin, per se, but a layer of it. The real skin, the essential skinness remains, no matter how many times she leaves her scabby self.
The snake sloughs off her skin because she's outgrown it, and a new layer is emerging.
Sometimes the only thing to do is start over.
If the snake cannot, or will not, shed, she will go blind and eventually die.
But the skin that remains after ecdysis is far more vibrant than the last.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

Or maybe it's simply this: fifty billion cells live harmoniously inside of you. One cell mutates for unknown reasons; it grows too quickly, reproduces too frequently, migrates throughout the body, and lives far longer than nature intended.
Maybe this cell is the closest we'll ever come to immortality.
Growing up, Daddy taught me that though our bodies may die, our spirits will ascend to the Kingdom of God, where Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. Here in paradise we reunite with everyone we have loved, everyone we have lost, everyone we must live without now.
Last year, my meditation teacher taught me that though our bodies may die, not all of us dies. Something sacred inside of us lives on, something that was never ours to begin with.
So many beautiful stories. I don't know what to make of them.

This Is My Body

I haven't been to church since last Easter, the last time I acceded to my mama's request. Despite everything that's happened, I still can't wrap my mind around the Resurrection. I admire Jesus' courage, though. He remained nailed to that cross (Excruciating -- “out of crucifying”) until the weight of his wounds tore the flesh from his ribs, and the ragged inhale was no longer worth the effort. I like to think his flesh mattered little to him, that he didn't cling to it as desperately. They say he was God, after all. There was nothing to lose.
But then again, his flesh could have meant everything. Beyond his human frailty, he understood its impermanence more than anyone. Each breath was a gift, each scar a commemoration. As the nail sliced through his palm, he remembered each warm hand he'd clasped, and each tremulous soul that waited for his benediction. So it's no wonder they say he wept real tears as he left them. It's no wonder they say he returned. Dead, but risen. Hurt, but healed. Bearing the puncture marks on his hands and sides for the whole world to see.
Most mornings I ease myself into a hard-backed chair and stick a pillow behind my lumbar spine. I close my eyes. I don't know what a prayer is anymore, but I'm learning to pay attention. Scan the body. Nestle down into the crook of my neck, into the scar where a young surgeon sliced a node and carried it by hand to a pathology lab. Walk on my chest the thick rope of mended flesh where a portacath once lived, tail connected to the biggest veins of my heart. Marvel at the skin of my tummy dyed mauve from months of medicine. And bask in my sweeter scars: the notch on my right hand where the family dog once scratched me; the mark on my left forearm from Mama's birth canal; the place where a screw from my neighbor's jungle gym pierced my knee; the nubbly bit on my other knee from the time I tripped on a hike with Daddy.
Memento mori. I learn to meditate after the rogue cells and I come to a wary truce. Fear of their betrayal runs through me as deep current. There are no guarantees. You are here now, my teacher would remind me as my mind darted from past to future. My body is meant to remind me of this. But my body is also a map of the past. I feel my ribs expand as I inhale and try to give thanks for this moment, this breath. My youthfulness follows me like a phantom limb. I do not wish to replace it, but I miss it because it was mine.