I keep thinking about bodies lately. My own as I pick something I can control, scrubbing my kitchen floor furiously, convinced that keeping it clean can fix things, change things, make things better. I think about my mother-in-law Nancy’s body, beginning its swift descent back to the earth. I think about what it means to set down my mop, choosing to become present in my own body as it rests next to hers—physically, emotionally and spiritually. I think about Jesus’ body—what it meant that he even had one, and that it got banged up until it was unrecognizable. I think about that unrecognizable-ness while I rub Nancy’s feet, swollen and purple.
I lift a straw to her lips but she cracks a joke, so I wait with the water. I don’t want her to choke.
I’m re-reading Marjorie Thompson’s Soul Feast and her words are doing the healing work words can sometimes do. She calls the Incarnation, God coming to us wrapped in human skin, “the second great act of divine hospitality.” The first, she states simply, was Creation. In both we are invited into action central to what it means to be human: eating, walking, dressing, conversing. God is hospitable to us by putting on a body and making these boring human-y things somehow holy. Nancy’s body is currently dressed in a bright orange “Urban Immersion” t-shirt, and to the best of my knowledge, no pants. This, to us and to her, is a dignity upgrade from the starchy, breezy, hospital gown. She has come home to die, but at least at home one gets to wear home clothes.
I watched her body in that orange T-shirt for a long time yesterday. I watched her one good lung heave to inflate, the other lung still enough to place a chess set on. I couldn’t shake the thought that I was watching her disintegrate, bit by bit, before my eyes, the cancer eating her away from inside.
Last week, the check-out guy at Trader Joe’s asked me how I was doing as I stood there dumbly—$70 worth of smoothie making materials on his counter for someone who could no longer swallow food. “Not great” I replied, and detailed why. He was surprisingly gracious. We fell silent as I watched him scan my items: protein powder, almond milk, chia seeds. I thought of a cheeseburger she ate last month that was so big we took a picture of it. She had to eat it in quarters. Then she ate half of my fries. I opened my mouth to tell him this story, but he was already done and handed me my receipt.
As my body sits next to her body, I appreciate the imagery and language of “divine hospitality.” But these are just words and words cannot fix everything. That is hard for me to admit because I want them to. I love words. I gather them around me like a hoarder, or like people who have lots of cats, hoping their very presence will give me what I need. Sadly, words cannot take me where I need to go. My mind cannot ingest enough information, listen to enough sermons, read enough theology; my mind cannot heal a broken body—hers or mine.
Minute by minute this feeling grows stronger. I feel like I want to claw out of my own skin some days. It’s like my body needs to participate in grief in a way that my mind cannot. It’s like my internal world and external world are so incongruent that it’s making me crazy. I just want to spend all day in bed, or at least on my knees—that would feel more authentic. Instead, I’m shopping at Trader Joe’s and wiping my toddler’s butt and putting gas in my car like everything is normal. I feel like a fraud, and like maybe I might feel better if I could just go to the bank on my knees.
I know that doesn’t make any sense, but the words coming out are failing me just as much as the ones going in, which is truly disappointing. So instead, I’m making sure I’m early for church. I do not want to miss worship. My body does not want to miss that opportunity to align the inside with the outside. My body wants to be in my garden and rip out weeds with deep, tangled roots. It wants to do long, slow laps in the cold pool. My body finds people it can cry on, with no explanation or qualifiers. My body seeks out Hannah, the one-woman Ministry of Hugs, without which I’m sure our church would not stand.
Above all, I’m drawn to gratitude, of all things. I’m overwhelmed that Jesus would become one of us: to elevate our smelly, sticky bodies to holy status—to intimacy, to connection, to enjoyment. It feels like gratitude that these basic human tasks—eating, sleeping, urinating, dying—become transformative simply because he did them too. I’m watching my husband and my brother, sister and father-in-law buzz around Nancy’s still frame. They act like caring for her body is the most important thing they could possibly do. They help her eat and then manage all the variations of what happens after that. They bathe her, console her, turn her. A few days ago, our friend and self-appointed nurse, Aya, changed her abdominal bandage. She slowly, reverently smoothed the edges of it, and when she thought no one was looking, kissed it gingerly.
Maybe my mind just needs some time to catch up with what my body has known all along—that to rub, cool, and feed her is my ultimate act of hospitality, not only to her, but to God. When I open myself up to her suffering, I open myself up to Christ who dwells in her, even as he dwells in me. What is left, then, except for gratitude? I can only gratefully receive what I am given: divine hospitality. I can only reject or welcome Christ in whatever way he comes to me. Maybe that’s why I need to stay on my knees. The posture is the same for both sadness and gratitude; only there can I hold the tension of beauty and grief. From that view, I can see they are not that far apart.