In the Mouth of the Cave

Published June 19, 1997 5:32PM (EDT)

Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.

I started to think this exactly a year ago when a doctor substituting for Sam's regular pediatrician ran some routine blood tests on him because she suspected he was harboring a parasitic memento of a trip to Mexico. He was in fact treated for parasites, but two weeks later when they tested his blood again, there was still something wrong. By then he had had blood drawn half a dozen times, and was so panic-stricken each time that he had to be held down by a monolithic man named Ira. Ira would be summoned from the back room, and basically sit on Sam while the lab technician drew blood. It was just awful. But it was a Parisian holiday compared with the next phone call from the stand-in doctor a day later, when she said, over the phone, "We've ruled out almost everything obvious. I'm afraid I went ahead and sent his blood work to the head of oncology in San Francisco. And the oncologist wants to see you Monday." I felt the top of my head come off, lift up and blow away like a paper painter's cap.

"Oh," I whispered.

"We need to draw more blood today," she said. I felt terror like I'd never felt before; and rage, rage: I saw myself cutting through her head with an electric carving knife. I wanted to shout that he didn't have any more blood, that she'd already drunk it all up, because she was a PIG, and not to bother us again.

"Oh Jesus loves it when you talk like that," my priest friend said. "Jesus goes and calls the escort service when He hears you talk like that."

I called our other best friends and they immediately started listing all the things it could be, besides the bad thing. This was the battle cry, that it could be any number of innocuous things, but I have been through a lot of cancer with a lot of people, and I'm definitely nobody's fool.

So everyone including Sam's real doctor -- who was out of town, but who spoke to me by phone -- and my doctor friends all said I needed to stay as calm as possible because it was going to turn out to be OK. My priest friend reminded me that sometimes you simply get to see just how little you're actually in charge of. I told him I was never going to call him again.

I started to cry and I cried off and on all day. I picked Sam up from school and made some lame excuse for my tears and I offered him any toy he wanted in exchange for him giving a little more blood. We went to the lab and they summoned Ira, who lumbered out and sat on Sam while blood was drawn. When they were done, I took Sam off to the bathroom with me because I had to pee, and that was when I first discovered that God is in the ladies room.

Maybe God is in the men's room too, but I have been in so few of them since I got sober. At any rate, I sat on the toilet and closed my eyes. It was incredibly quiet. Then Sam began to fill up urine specimen cups with tap water and to do various pouring experiments with them -- pouring water from cup to cup when the brims were touching, pouring from one cup to another from many inches away, covering the mouth of one cup with another, and trying to transfer the water without spilling any -- or, the second time, so much.

We have a number of friends whose children got sick. The nightmare always began with blood that was all sampakku. When these friends heard about Sam's funky blood, they insisted it could be so many other things. In their cases, it hadn't turned out to be any of the other things, the better things. It turned out to be cancer, cystic fibrosis, brain damage, a heart that wasn't growing and was never going to grow.

Mostly these friends were atheists, so you couldn't fob off some easy hope on them: They had no truck with grace lite. You couldn't distract and encourage them with what we Christians believe, that death is basically a pretty significant change of address, or what our Eastern friends believe, that death is -- as someone put it -- a little like selling the old Ford. All you could do finally was to just show up. But as it turns out, showing up was the most important thing. Your there-ness, your stepping into their line of vision, was almost life-giving, because usually everyone else was in hiding -- especially, in the beginning, the parents. So you showed up when it felt like the whole world was falling apart, and your being there said that just for that moment, this one tiny piece of the world was OK, was better. You didn't do anything; you were just there.

So in the women's lab bathroom, watching Sam contentedly do his pouring experiments with urine specimen cups, I decided I would simply show up and be as sane as I could, as faithful and grown-up. It helped me back myself out of the tunnel of fear. I looked in the mirror at my worried face, but instead of fixating on the crow's feet, the brand new Harry Dean Stanton crease in the hollow of my cheek, I prayed. I asked for faith in His will, for faith in His love and protection. I prayed for my sense of humor to survive. I prayed for guidance, studying my scared mother face in the mirror, I suddenly got my answer: Go forth, I heard, and shop.

So we went to our favorite cheesy toy store at the mall. I had, after all, promised Sam a toy. So we went to the mall and he bought a plastic toy that changed from a race car to an armed replicant.

There in the toy store, watching him tear off the plastic packaging, my mind raced with images of him pale and quiet and weak, and before I knew it, I had taken him by the hand and made a break for the women's bathroom.

We went into a stall and I sat on the toilet and he began to play with his toy, which was in its replicant stage. I closed my eyes and prayed beggy prayers. I suggested all sorts of really awful people He or She should go after instead of my boy, people of dubious political responsibility. Sam was making quiet replicant noises, windy and metallic, like a breeze passing through rusty machine parts. He seemed entirely happy, whereas I felt like I was facing annihilation. An ache of homesickness came over me, for our old life before Sam's blood got funky, for the sweet functional surface of our old life, for all the stuff and routine that holds me together, or at least that I believe holds me together. It's the place that I like to think of as reality. So maybe it's full of lusts and hormones and yearnings for more, more, more, and maybe it is all about clutching and holding and tightness, but I just love it to pieces and it is my home.

Now everything felt so ominous, full of darkness and shadows, blackness and cold. And then the image floated into my head of the cave where the prophet Elijah hung out while waiting to either be killed by Ahab or saved by God. He was, like most prophets, a little crazy, and utterly lacking in social skills. An angel had come earlier to where he sat in the desert, under a broom tree, and the angel had given him a message.

First he told him he should eat. I love this. This is one of my favorite moments in the Bible: Ludwig, you must EAT. The angel said he should eat, and then rest, and then retire to the cave and wait for further instructions. The angel promised that the Lord would be passing by there soon.

So this is what Elijah did. He ate hearthcakes and drank a jug of water and then went to wait in the cave for the word of the Lord. First he heard an earthquake, but he didn't go to the mouth of the cave, because he knew that such loudness wasn't God. Then he heard a howling gale, and then a fire, and still he didn't go to the cave's opening. But then he heard a tiny whispering wind, and he knew to go to the mouth of the cave because he knew that this was God. And he went, and was refreshed by the breeze, and shown what he needed to do next.

Sam wanted to leave, but I felt unattached and unaccounted for, in a lovely porous way, as though something was dissolving. I felt that I was in a safe little cave with God and Sam; and also, that I probably should not be moved.

After a while I got up and took Sam's hand and we went and got some smoothies. You really do have to eat, anything at all you can bear. Then we got in our car to go home. I liked being alone with him and just driving around. I didn't have music on and he was talking about wonderfully uninteresting things. He seemed great. He has so little armor, so few bulwarks or patterns that he thinks will protect him. Sometimes I feel like I am made up of nothing but. However, I have noticed that the people I know whose children are sick have had so much stripped away. And I've been watching them survive, with mostly enormous grace. I shake my head slowly in wonder. I've seen them get immersed against their wills into the very seats of their souls. They've been pushed down into the depths so entirely, in surviving something that can't be survived, that it left them wide open. Then one by one their friends showed up and stepped into that opening, wide as the mouth of a cave, and that helped them hook into something so big. I don't even know what it is. Maybe it's the stripped down moment of it all, so much bigger than the grasping, crying I; maybe it's being hooked in to so much more of the life that surrounds us, and shimmers. The common denominator was that, little by little, all of them found themselves stunned and humbled by their friends' love. Their friends' love turned out to be the word of God. Their friends' love was God passing by.

I spent the next two days taking care of us, trying to act less hysterical than I felt. I went into the bathroom a lot to pray. People came by and sometimes they sat with me on the floor of my bathroom, and they were so kind to sit there and just breathe with me. It was like the old days when we all sat close together on LSD and breathed together. It would be so great to get to go in and out of this place without needing a crisis -- to go into the possible presence of the mystical or the eternal present or whatever we might call it out here in California that would make you hate us even more. But mostly it seems like you can't do it when you have your act together, because you can't do it when you're acting.

Several days later the doctor called with great good news -- that she'd canceled our appointment with the oncologist in San Francisco. Sam had to go back for more blood work -- had to be sat upon one more time by Ira -- but she no longer believed that he was in any serious trouble. He was eventually diagnosed with a really uninteresting allergy.

God: I wish you could have some permanence, a guarantee or two, the unconditional love we all long for. "It would be such SKIN off your nose," I demand of God. I never get an answer. But in the meantime I have learned that most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people.

I called my priest friend and told him our good news. He said that grace is as cool as the air in a redwood grove.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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