Ash Wednesday in the oncology ward

My friend and fellow-member of the community at Collins Street was unable to be with us last week for an Ash Wednesday service. Instead he encountered the God of ashes in an unexpected place. I share this with his permission.

ImageIt is Ash Wednesday and although I am surrounded by aspects of passion I shall not get to church.

I push the button and the chair goes up.  Push another and the foot support rises as the seat tilts back.  Push again and the back rests down.  I am comfortable and in control.  I have told them that if one of their chairs goes missing to look in front of my TV.  The arm rest folds out to give a flat surface and my left arm rests on a pillow.  The tube running into my arm gives me no bother and I hope that it will continue to be so for the next twelve hours.

As I sit there the thirty or so other chairs in the room become occupied.   For some it is a social occasion.  Chatting to the people they saw yesterday or last week.  There is chatter as those important trivia of social interaction are exchanged.  For some it is privacy they seek, their faces revealing the pain, the tiredness, and the debilitation of the cancer journey.   For this is a Day Oncology Ward and I am here on a clinical trial of a new drug.

I am not on a heavy sledgehammer cytotoxic drug.   I am on one of the new smart drugs,    one that has come out of an understanding of creation.  It targets the production of an enzyme critical to the survival of my cancer cells.  Its effect should be huge and its side effects minimal, or that it the hope.  This is the stuff of practical miracles and it raises the question, why do we seek to contain God in the supernatural?  But this mercurial God who encounters me cannot be contained by our conceptions of action.

There is quiet laughter from across the room.  Clearly a day spent in a chemotherapy ward can be a social occasion.  The room is designed for this, but it is also designed to allow privacy for those who want it.    There are some who seek that privacy; some who just want to be by themselves, or whose faces are creased with pain, eyes shut tight against the gentle diffuse light and the view of the tree through the glass wall.  The staff are especially gentle with these people.  Opposite me is one such person.   She has got the chair into a comfortable position and the staff do not risk disturbing it.   So they squat or kneel beside her, gently lifting her arm to put on a blood pressure cuff.  They take their observations and ever so gently insert a cannula into her arm and connect her to more solutions of drugs.  They whisper gently to her as they do things but she seems oblivious.   A pillow appears and is placed at the side of her head.  The mercurial God is gentle with such people.

Oncologists do their rounds, asking questions, seeking symptoms, adjusting doses and drugs.    Nurses follow setting up tubes that disappear into bodies, connecting them to bags of fluid.  They appear to have their regulars for they ask questions about each individual and their interests.  They seem to know what is important  – grandchildren, hobbies, gardens, what movies they have seen.  This is the Mercurial God who knows when a feather falls from a sparrow and for whom it is important.

A voice from beside my right arm.  Would you like a cup of tea?   How do you have it?  Two minutes later a large mug of tea is on my folded-out arm rest with two biscuits.   I am not allowed the biscuits at this stage but I save them, for later.  It is a volunteer who traverses the detritus of cancer each day to bring that little bit of extra care to each patient.  I do not get the chance to talk with her – she is busy.

Trolleys appear at regular intervals and blood samples are taken.   Each carefully labelled, bagged and sorted to ensure no mistakes are made.  For the Priestly God of Genesis is at work here, ensuring that order, not chaos, is retained.

It is midday.  Another volunteer brings round brightly coloured boxes, each a riot and swirl of colour to make them interesting.   They contain carefully displayed ribbons of sandwiches.  Each attractive in its own right, but collectively stunning in their impact.  Next to them is cradled a piece of fruit, ripe, attractive, luscious.  Someone in the kitchen has taken care to tempt a person on chemotherapy to eat something.  This is “Lord, deliberately tempt us – to eat something!”

The day wears on and gradually the day ward empties.  Lights are dimmed as staff clean each chair meticulously.   Nurses sit down at computers and enter up the day’s notes.

Those of us on the trial still have six hours so we are taken to a different section and handed into the care of another nurse.   She ensures that we are fed; that the tubes into our veins are kept clear and do not block.  She ensures are arms are kept warm until the final blood draw and cannulas removed.  She makes sure we have food to eat and caffeine to drink.  But, she does more than that.  She engages with us.  We swap stories of locations and people, of events long past and yesterday.  We are important to her, not as patients to be professional with, but as people who have lives that are interesting.

Ten o’clock and we exit the building into our waiting cars and home.

It is Ash Wednesday.   I did not get to church, but I encountered that Mercurial God who comes out at you when you least expect, who appears out of the cracks of everyday life.  A gentle caring God.   A social God.  A God of order and routine.  A God who intervenes between hope and despair. 

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