Pilgrimage is … an act of devotion to find a source of healing ….”
—Phillip Cousineau, The Art of the Pilgrimage,
Right after my parents bought our first television set in 1953, our family watched everything from test patterns to evangelist Oral Roberts sitting in a tent healing people’s various medical misfortunes—you name it: tuberculosis, speech impediments, polio (“Praise God, Billy Ray, I can feel the stiffness leaving your little foot!”). Since my father was skeptical (What he said was that the show was a crock of shit), I too doubted the healing power of the prayer.
But I never felt strongly against the idea that faith can cure disease and other afflictions until my eighteen-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. The object of my most intense anger was not TV evangelism, but the alternative health industry. I recall sitting by Laurie’s bedside in the hospital, reading ads to her from a glossy magazine she subscribed to for Royal Jelly, Ayurvedic Ginseng, and macrobiotic hair care, “Refreshing Summer Seaweeds,” “Non-toxic Alternatives to Mercury Fillings,” and “Curing Infertility through Chinese Medicine.”
One afternoon, she wanted me to read an article titled “Alternative Cures for Cancer.” The gist of the article was that rather than “deadly chemicals and mind-altering drugs” (I remember those words), the best way to cure cancer is with a healthy, positive self-image built on faith and love. I think the article posited that eighty to ninety percent of all cancer is preventable.
When I finished reading, I heard a thick voice slurred by morphine: “I’ve tried … to be positive … but I guess I’m just not strong enough … I wish I weren’t such a wimp.”
Her words still haunt me. Bad enough that my daughter had to die, but for her to feel that it was somehow her fault because she didn’t have enough faith fills me with rage. Over the twenty-eight years years since Laurie’s death, I have walked out of a teacher workshop on “Wellness” in order to write angry letters to my principal and superintendant on the dangers of trying to teach what I saw as unrealistic expectations. I have seethed at Biblical stories of Jesus bringing some people back to life, while others die. And I remember grinding my teeth after 9/11 when a parishioner at the church I attend publically thanked God for saving her son who worked in one of the twin towers.
“What about the other 7000 who died?” I muttered to my wife. “What did God have against them?”
My attitude began to change, however, after Mary Lee and I attended a healing service on the Island of Iona, in Scotland. The pastor began by saying that we need to remember that healing doesn’t mean curing. The word “heal,” he said, comes from the word “whole,” and he believed that God’s purpose for us all is a life of wholeness. The healing service, he said, was not about changing God, but about learning to trust God, even as we don’t know when or how or what kind of healing will happen.
Gradually—very gradually—I’ve begun to understand his distinction. For example, when Mary Lee and I started training for our pilgrimage along Saint Cuthbert’s Way, the sixty-two mile hike from Melrose, Scotland to the island of Lindisfarne off the Northumberland coast, we both experienced back, hip, hamstring, calf, ankle, and foot pain. I have two artificial hips. The latest CT scan of my back has revealed severe narrowing of the lower thoracic disks, “vacuum disc phenomena,” severe narrowing of L2-L3 disc, “degenerative hypertrophic bone,” “mild compression, mild spinal stenosis, ossification,[and] lower lumbar facet degenerative disease.” I’m not sure what all that means, but I do know I’m four inches shorter than I was in high school. Mary Lee has had her right foot completely reconstructed. One of her shoulders is higher than the other because of scoliosis, and she has suffered from allergies and thyroid trouble.
And you know what? After walking the 62 miles of Saint Cuthbert’s Way, we still hurt. Neither my back nor Mary Lee’s miraculously straightened. My wife’s allergies didn’t go away. No amount of walking could cure the fatal disease of being human.
And yet, we returned from our pilgrimage feeling more than the rejuvenation one feels when returning from a vacation, or even from most of our retreats. We’ve bought bicycles, we’ve climbed some mountains, and recently taken up snowshoeing. I’ve tried to incorporate the walking meditation I practiced along St. Cuthbert’s Way not only into my daily walks around town but also into washing dishes, vacuuming the house, and sitting through this election’s political mud-slinging.
I think distinguishing between being cured and being healed is even more important when talking about grief. Over the years, a number of people have asked me if the pain of losing Laurie has become less. My answer lately is that my grief isn’t any less, but it’s less important. I still cry when I think of my daughter, I’m still angry at God for creating a world in which innocent children suffer and die, and I still feel irrationally responsible for her death, either because of what I did or what I didn’t do.
But at the same time, I am no longer consumed by anguish. I no longer base my identity on being Grieving Parent. My sadness, anger, and guilt have become enveloped, maybe even embraced, by something larger. I am more whole now than I probably have ever been, even if I’m not cured of wanting to watch my daughter become an adult, of talking to her on the phone, or of seeing her interact with my grandchildren, maybe even with children of her own.
Hell, I’m not cured of wishing I were 6’2” again.