Inspiration for the photograph,
The report came in.
I went upstairs to my bedroom, crawled into bed with my Siamese cat, Ollie. As soon as I pulled the duvet over our heads, my whole body started to shake. My teeth clattered. I had the feeling I was disappearing. I imagined doctors opening me up and finding cancer spread all through my body. I had visions of myself going through the same gruesome death my mother went through—one painful operation after another, months of throwing up from chemo, unable to eat or swallow, then dying in pain and anxiety.
I sprang out of bed and rushed downstairs to the bathroom and knelt over the toilet. I couldn’t throw up. I grabbed hold of the sink and pulled myself to a standing position. The horrible realization shot through me—this must have been what my mother felt the last three years of her life and I didn’t understand how scared she had been, until now.
I felt more alone than I’d ever felt in my life. I missed my mother. I missed my father. I missed the me who could still swim a quarter of a mile and loved life.
The phone rang—it was nine-thirty. I picked up the phone and heard Dr. Levin
“I hear you got some scary news yesterday.”
“Yeah,” I sucked in my breath, surprised to hear from him on a Sunday night.
“Well,” he said, “I’d like to help you through this cancer, as your friend.”
I burst out crying. It felt like I’d been drowning and someone just saved me.
Before he hung up he said, “You know, Toby, when we get a paper cut, no one has any idea how our body heals that cut…but it does.”
When I walked into Dr. Levin’s office the next day he hugged me and said,
“Do you do any meditation?”
“Some,” I answered, “why?”
“Well, I’ll tell you a story”—he walked to his desk and settled into his chair— “I tried meditation at different times in my life and thought – “Oh I don’t know why I’m doing this. Then, when I was diagnosed with kidney cancer, I sat down to meditate and in my first sitting I understood what meditation was about.”
I thought, “What luck,” my hands unclenched, “I’ve got a doctor who’s had cancer, he must know what to do.”
Then Dr. Levin proceeded to tell me that while he was doing his meditation, he told his body to cut off the blood supply that was feeding the cancer in his kidneys. He only did this meditation once, he said, but when the surgeons finally went into his body for the cancer, they found that the blood supply to his kidneys had mysteriously shut off, and the tumor was necrotic.
“After this happened I realized what a wonderful thing all this had been—if I didn’t have the cancer, I wouldn’t have been able to show my patients how they could heal themselves.”
“Do you pray?” he asked.
“Um…well… I don’t pray in the conventional sense and I have no religion. Guess the closest I ever come to thinking I have some kind of religion is when I’m doing my art work.”
“Well,” he said, and leaned back in his chair, “that’s a wonderful thing that your profession can be that close to your spiritual roots.”
“My roots?” I said.
“Because what you need to do right now is to get back to your spiritual roots. You need to go to your art work and let it pray for you.”
A puff of air came out my mouth. “But I’m not sure I know what prayer really is.”
“Prayer is calling on some power larger than yourself,” he answered. “You see, there’s a certain kid of energy that is available to us,” he ran his hand through his short gray hair, then pointed to his phone. “Think of the energy of the phone or the TV where you can get all these channels and wireless. But that’s not a miracle, that’s all man- made knowledge.” He shifted in his chair. “But there is a force that we can hook into. A force that we can direct into healing. You can welcome this force, you can open your arms to this energy and let it flow into your own body. Then you ask this force to help you.”
I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out.
“It is possible for us to do this,” he said, nodding through my doubt. “If Jesus Christ were here, he could put his hands on you and heal you.”
“Now,” Dr. Levin continued, “at the same time that you have to forgive your body for letting you get cancer, you have to go sit someplace quiet and tell your immune system that it didn’t do its job and it has to get busy and help you. Then imagine the place where the cancer is in your body and send something down to that place to fight the cancer.”
This was the end of our session and I stood up. “We’ll talk more, Dr. Levin said, hugging me as he usually did at the end of appointments. Only this time the hug was full of hope, I could feel it. It was like being hugged by Santa Claus when I was a kid and still believed.
As I stepped out of the elevator and hit the air on 28th Street, my insides suddenly felt like sand was scrapping over them. I swallowed, then swallowed again. I was all on my own now—what I did or didn’t do from here on would influence whether of not I recovered from cancer.
Now, even though I was used to throwing myself into unknown places for my art and had years of experience imagining and visualizing what’s not visible, this was different. I was pretty conservative in my day to day living and wasn’t confident that I could envision, much less influence, the cancer in my own body.
But I tried. I began by quietly sitting in a comfortable chair that faced the window looking onto pine trees in my backyard. I closed my eyes and began to meditate, counting my outward breaths, feeling my breath leave my body and dissolve into the air, out the window and over the trees, Over and over I breathed and counted and watched my breath flow in and out and slowly, very slowly, I felt myself sink down into a place that had few boundaries.
As I meditated I tried to imagine Jesus Christ standing in front of me, with a beard and long white robe, like I remembered from Sunday school as a kid. Once I imagined my image of him, vaguely, standing in front of me, I fantasized him walking toward me. I then imagined him reaching out and putting his hand on my stomach.
Many mornings, many hours, I tried to imagine this Jesus, this force in the universe, but nothing felt natural. I’m faking everything, I thought, I’m not connecting to any force whatsoever. Then, one morning as I was sitting by the window, eyes closed and counting my breaths, Dr. Levin’s words echoed through my mind, “open your arms…welcome in the force.”
I felt my hands lift into the air over my legs as if to receive something. I didn’t feel like I had raised my hands. Tears welled up. “I need your help,” I whispered, “Please help me.”
Something brushed the top of my hair—like the way wind ruffles your hair in a breeze. Then I felt pressure on top of my head. It got heavier. As if someone were doing a head stand on my head.
The pressure began slipping head first down down through my face, into my throat, slipping down down into my chest.
It was the figure of Jesus.