Six Lessons from a Cannonball Diagnosis

Editor’s note: Throughout July we are celebrating 31 days with St. Ignatius, a month-long celebration of Ignatian spirituality. In addition to the calendar of Ignatian articles available here, posts on dotMagis this month will examine cannonball moments – moments that changed the course of a life, just as the hit from a cannonball changed the course of St. Ignatius Loyola’s life Has. The inspiration for our theme is the Ignatian Year, which marks the 500th anniversary of Ignatius’ injury and conversion.

It was 1:17 when I finally gave up sleeping. How can it be that I cannot make myself comfortable in a hospitable bed with 47 different positions? I opened my email and reached for a connection to normal life that I hadn’t seen as a hospital patient in a week to find a prompt to write about a “cannonball moment” in my life. It felt like not just an invitation, but a call to see something much bigger than my fear. Four days later, my cannonball was given a name: Stage 4 T-cell lymphoma. My identity suddenly added a new aspect: cancer patient. I know there are so many others who have had similar cannonball moments. At the very beginning of me, here is what I am learning.

Nobody is allowed to choose a cannonball and nobody is immune.

Cannonballs are those life changers that come without warning: an illness or an injury. A job loss. A loss of a loved one. A natural disaster. There is simply no preparation or safeguarding of life beyond such experiences. Instead of blaming them or asking, “Why me?” or “Why now?” I learned from Pat Malone, SJ, that cannonballs like this are invitations to discern with God: “OK, what do we do with them now?”

Discrimination is not a prophecy.

My diagnosis came 15 days before we closed our 19-year-old house to move to Spain to begin the “second half” of life as empty nests. It had taken us two years to realize the move. Every step of the process was full of comfort: cleaning up and selling the house, getting the visa papers, finding an apartment in a strange city, and constantly working on language skills. Just as we were so confident and comforted that we were realizing God’s call, our cannonball made it very clear that discernment is not prophecy. St. Ignatius once said that if he were called to leave society, he hoped that it would take him 15 minutes of prayer to respond to God’s new invitation. Discernment means finding God’s call in the moment without being tied to the future. God is in the now.

The cannonball is just the beginning.

My cannonball moment is the catalyst for a new journey with God. The end of the trip is unknown. Ignatius did not immediately surrender his life to God when his leg was shattered, but began a new journey. Faith is about letting this journey unfold over time with the only desired result being union with God. My treatment plan is 18 weeks, but I expect the journey and effects of this cannonball to last for the rest of my life.

Instead of expecting a miracle now, I learn every day that I’ve lived that the miracle is and was already.

Cannon balls bring unexpected grace.

My lymphoma diagnosis has re-prioritized everything in my life. Tasks that I thought I would have to do alone because no one else could do them are now being blessed by the talents of others. The world and all of its daily pressures did not collapse without me. I find relief and joy in the most common of human life: taking a hot shower and taking care of my body, a frozen yogurt, a fresh breeze, breathing freely and being with the family. The miracle of how my body, with a million small parts, managed to silently fight accidental infections and injuries went on every day without my thinking about it. Instead of expecting a miracle now, I learn every day that I’ve lived that the miracle is and was already.

Cannon balls call for surrender.

So many people encourage me to fight and be strong, but the reality is that my body is no longer my own. I have to let the medication take control of my body to fight the disease for me. Outside of my body, however, I have found that the Suscipe’s surrender – surrendering all of my memory, will and understanding to God – is the greatest relief. I don’t have to find my own will to get through this. I can give up this facade of the ego and then trust that the grace to walk the path in front of me is already carrying me.

Nobody survives a cannonball alone.

Without the soldiers who carried Ignatius so many miles from Pamplona back to Loyola, without sister-in-law, family, and medical care, as was the case for recovery, Ignatius would not have survived, converted, or changed the world. The grace of so many friends and families to support us is a living testimony to God’s presence every day. It was really overwhelming. But the reality of human existence is that all too often people are alone or marginalized in this world when their cannonballs strike, and without the compassion of strangers they will not survive. We have to carry each other through our cannonball moments.

Tonight I’ll sleep a lot easier than before my cannonball got a name. I am not grateful for this diagnosis. I would give it back if I could. But I find that even in life’s worst cannonballs there are invitations to see something bigger.

Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash.

Today in 31 days with St. Ignatius we present From a Mountain of Trash to Beauty by Marina Berzins McCoy.

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