Cancer is a lonely word, especially for an agnostic. Sitting in the oncology ward of the Baguio City Medical Centre, chatting with a friend of Helen's, a cancer survivor, a Christian, a believer, I feel shame at my own uncertainty. She is telling me that God saved her, that God healed her, that she was spared despite the doctor's certainty surrounding her supposedly terminal condition, and that Helen can be spared, too -- and who am I to argue with that? She is here. She prayed; she survived. Shit, if that happened to me, I'd be a believer too.
But truth be told, I've never understood prayer. I understand the need for it, yes, the reaching out, the longing to be heard, the hope for redemption and absolution and change. But I've never got it. If God has a plan, then what good is prayer? And if His plan is to give a thirty-five year old mother ovarian cancer, then what kind of a plan is that? That's the best His power can do? There are times when I want to take God outside and confront him in the back alley behind the garbage cans and ask Him just who the hell he thinks he is, fucking around with us mere mortals like this. I can accept free will; fine. Let us humans fend amongst ourselves and screw up our own little lives. But I can't accept cancer, or tornadoes, or malaria. The older I get, the more I realize that the questions kids ask, the dumb questions, the why-is-the-sky-blue questions, the where-do-we-go-when-we-die questions, are really the only questions out there. Everything else is scenery.
And yet these very same basic, maddening inquiries are the ones that linger and fester, that make me feel like Allie Fox in Paul Theroux's brilliant book The Mosquito Coast, which was made into an equally compelling movie (featuring what is probably Harrison Ford's finest performance). Fox ranted and raved about religion and society and the stupidity of man; if I don't catch myself, watch myself, I could end up like that.
Still, cancer attacking someone you care about does that to you. Makes you ask the big questions, and then pisses you off when the answers don't come. And then you realize that cancer's everywhere. I reread the Afterword to Stephen King's Dreamcatcher and am reminded that its original title was Cancer, until his wife wisely told him that that was a bad idea, an invitation to doom. I read an article about the making of Rebel Without A Cause in Vanity Fair and learn that the director's mother died of ovarian cancer. I sit and wait in the oncology ward and watch the sad but patient faces of people with the disease, hoping against hope. Praying.
It is what it is. I will keep asking the questions and waiting for the answers. The consolation comes with the realization that, afterlife or not, master-plan or not, prayers or not, there is still today. Today is real and present. I can feel it, however fleeting. There is still the here and the now, the people around me and the times we share, the essential solidity of the sky above and the ground below, which may, in the end, by its sheer emotional, tactile, resonance, render any kind of heaven null and void.