Today’s guest post comes from the ever talented Anya Silver. Anya is a critically acclaimed poet and Professor of English at Mercer University. But that’s not how I know Anya best. Anya and I met as moms. Shortly after our family moved back to Middle Georgia we began attending the same Celtic communion service as the Silver family. Our sons, who were a couple of years old at the time, are weeks apart in age. Though I admire Anya’s great talent and have learned much from watching her as a writer, I enjoy most watching and learning from her as a mom. My gift to you this Mother’s Day weekend is Anya’s motherhood story.(And if you haven’t yet read her poetry, you are missing a rare treat).
There is an ancient Nordic rune for healing that looks like two triangles sitting on top of each other, sideways, so the apex points rightward. The rune looks remarkably like a rough sketch of a pregnant woman, her head or her breasts over her extended belly. Healing and pregnancy should go hand in hand—after all, pregnancy creates a healthy new life, brings a new being into the world. For many women, the process of pregnancy and birth is their closest moment to emulating and sharing in the constant re-birthing of the world as engaged in by the creator God.
But what happens when that moment of health is disrupted? Does that then disrupt the connection of love and trust between a woman and God? In my own experience, it both can and, hopefully, won’t.
When I was pregnant with my son, now ten, I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is the most aggressive form of breast cancer, with a five year survival rate of only between 30 and 40% and an even lower ten year survival rate. For months, my midwife had ignored the fact that one of my breasts was swollen to twice the size of the other breast, and ignored my other symptoms of hardness, redness, and pain. However, when antibiotics failed to make a difference, she showed my breast to a doctor, who immediately recommended that I have a biopsy to check for this cancer that he called “rare as hen’s teeth.”
Unfortunately, I fell into that 2% of women who will develop cancer while pregnant. I immediately began a very strong regimen of chemotherapy, which actually does not cross the placenta barrier, and gave birth to a healthy son. I was in remission for five and a half years, but then the cancer recurred as a small spot in my sternum, and I am now considered as having advanced breast cancer, usually called metastatic or Stage IV.
My first faith response to my experience was intense anger at God. Of course, this is the old question of theodicy. Why would God allow me to become pregnant and then a mother only to curse me with a terminal disease. Or, as poet Jacqueline Osherow writes in her poem “Villanelle: Tikkun Olam: “Should I ask the obvious? Why would God/create a world requiring repair?/And what was He thinking when He called it good?”
I had not been attending church in the few years before my pregnancy, but I now found the need for answers to existential questions that religion brings. The first service that I attended was a baptism. I watched as joyful mothers carried their babies up and down the aisles of the church. Meanwhile, I stood there, bald and afraid for my life. The triumphant tone of the service left me bitter and lonely, and I ran out of the sanctuary and into the bathroom. There, praying for God’s presence, I felt a warm presence enfolding and comforting me. And so, rather than in the pews, I felt God’s healing on the floor of the church bathroom. And really, that’s not surprising, because that’s probably where Jesus would be, wandering the halls of the church, looking for those who, for whatever reason, exclude themselves from the ritual, and lovingly bring them back in.
My experience with mothering, therefore, has always been closely linked to the knowledge that I will die. What will happen to my son when I die? Will he be happy again? Will he believe?
Here’s what I’ve learned: God is with me. God is not just watching from above. God will not decide whether I live or die by how often I pray. God is with me the most when I am at my most lonely and afraid. God will be there for my son. When I call for help, I feel God’s presence in calm and peace. As God tells the reader in Isaiah 45: 7 (KJV): “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” I interpret these enigmatic words not to mean that God literally created and gave me my cancer, but that God is in all things, both the light and darkness, the peace and the evil. Where evil exists, God does not absent God-self.
Three simple words: God is there.
Anya Silver is the author of two books of poetry, I Watched You Disappear and The Ninety Third Name of God. She is Professor of English at Mercer University and lives with her husband and son in Macon, Ga.