By Robert C. Koehler
You want to convey sympathy, but come out instead with a shudder. Someone you care about has just been diagnosed with …
Well, in this case, breast cancer.
News like this never fails to overwhelm, even at a safe distance. When I heard about Kay’s condition from my sister, I felt crowded by it, pushed to the very edge of adequacy. I wanted to whimper; I rallied, after a few heartbeats, only because I knew that wouldn’t be of use to anybody. I offered, of course, “whatever I can do to help,” but I wanted to offer the blue pearl.
I offer it now, having rummaged for it beyond my fear and self-pity. Would that it could be issued routinely at the time of diagnosis, especially to those who are lost and don’t know where they’ll find their courage. It’ll be there when you need it, I want to say, though Kay already has it, of that I’m sure.
The blue pearl is mortality’s unit of currency. It’s passed between the wounded like a secret handshake — secret only because the polite constructs of everyday life require discretion, averted eyes and an allegiance to the fiction that we’re strangers. The blue pearl has no tolerance for this, because the truth is, we’re “strange” to each other only on the surface.
Thus, when my wife was diagnosed with cancer, I noticed a charged change in conversations. For instance, here was my friend Herb, constructor of crossword puzzles, divulging that he’d lost his son in an accident some years earlier. I was his editor; we talked routinely on a weekly basis, but not till now had there been room for such a disclosure in our amiable chats. His telling me this was like a warm hand on my shoulder — “Yes, I too am mortal” — and gave me courage. This is the blue pearl.
I came across the term during one of my forays into Eastern religion. Swami Muktananda, the Siddha yoga master, had talked about a “blue pearl” the size of a sesame seed, which became apparent in the rarified subtlety of deep meditation. At the time, I wrote it off as one more treasure — if it really existed — that would be forever out of my reach. But after Barbara was diagnosed with terminal cancer and our lives scraped bottom, I realized that such a treasure has no intention of hiding from us.
My glimmer of its existence came on a moonlit night as I stood in the empty parking lot of my neighborhood Osco. Barbara was home from the hospital, recovering from major surgery and newly diagnosed with cancer; I had just made my first purchase of prescription morphine. I’d paid the pharmacist, at the same time, for a gallon of milk, but as I left the store with bulging breast pocket and unbagged jug, the security guard stopped me, demanding to know where I was going. His eyes told me I was stealing the milk.
Had I expected “sympathy” from the world? Certainly I hadn’t expected to be accused of theft! The misunderstanding was untangled in a few minutes, but I emerged from the store trembling with disbelief, my self-possession unraveling like a dirty bandage. I looked up at the moon; its silver light streaked the lifeless lot. I felt naked, but something in me refused to give and I met the moon’s glare. “We’ll get through this,” I heard myself vow, gripping this moment fiercely, holding on for dear life.
Most of the time, so little is asked of us.
Many years ago, when my 3-day-old daughter was hospitalized for a mysterious viral infection, the words bedecking the waiting room of the pediatric ward caught my eye. “The will of God” — read the hand-stitched sampler — “will never lead you where the grace of God cannot keep you.”
I extend the blue pearl to everyone who has just been served notice of mortality, to everyone entering the cancer universe, to everyone looking around wildly for comfort and courage. Life is more than we’ve been told it is, more than we can imagine. All of us will have a chance to hold hands with the stars.
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Tribune Media Services
Originally published in February 2002
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.