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
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
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
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
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
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
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.