A few years ago I had the pleasure of editing and then including a chapter by Debra Jarvis, “Inside the Russian Nesting Doll,” in the anthology Neither Here nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality (The Lutterworth Press, 2019). Her writing evocatively described her experience as a chaplain in a cancer hospital, being the daughter of a mother with cancer, and her own cancer and treatment – all at the same time. Her catalogue of insights resonated with my own experience with multitudes of people crossing the waters of diagnosis and treatment. My own wife, Kathy, has received effective treatment for cancer over the past ten years. Those liminal spaces had become familiar to me by sheer exposure. I was fairly at peace with them. And then my daughter was diagnosed.
Of course, every life-threatening diagnosis is of great concern, regardless of the friend or family member who faces it. When we receive our own diagnosis and our mortality moves up front and center, the concern becomes existential. But then, as so many parents already know, when your own child’s life is on the line, the concern moves to a different order of magnitude. Every parental protective impulse mobilizes. Each and every other concern becomes secondary.
Following Savannah’s diagnosis of a stage three malignant tumor, we were relieved; it had not metastasized and would be treatable through a combination of chemo, radiation and surgery. It would be challenging, but not fatal. We moved through the vertical labyrinth of the medical system, ushered from space to space, procedure to procedure, by healing liminal guides. For my grown daughter it was new and frightening territory; she had never been hospitalized before and faced an array of uncertainties. For me, her father, used to hospitals and sickness and treatment, it represented a double-edged sword; I was at once familiar with this liminal process from past experience and new to walking alongside a daughter passing through it. Call it a kind of dream walking, passing through familiar spaces in different dimensions and overlapping times.
Most people view a doctor’s office, clinic or hospital in functional ways, according to practicalities on the way to getting well, or worse, toward death. But these domains are distinct in their position alongside our ordinary, everyday life. Even as we cross a threshold by way way of a diagnosis or the awareness that we must seek and receive help, so we cross a threshold into the healing domain. Part of that crossing requires assuming a new persona, as a liminal person, receiving what is offered, following the direction of guides, ceding our independence as we place ourselves into trusted hands. Uncertainty rules. And the physical surroundings and procedures are not the only strange places. Those outer precincts are paralleled by the noisy world inside our own heads.
Fear is the dominant emotion, of course. That fear is best offset by a kind of love for life itself and those who preserve it. When we dare trust as best we can, when we place our dear ones into the hands of others who promise to carry them to the other side, we have to practice trust insofar as we have it within us. In time, that trust may transform into some version of courage, a courage that may be contagious and caught by others around us. It is in the liminal wilderness that we find things – lost things, misplaced things, hidden things, things waiting to find us. Call it by any name you wish – the sacred presence, the spirit, god, the power that animates life, the love that will not let us go – this is the mysterious reality that shows itself when our egos permit it in. And few things can do that like boarding a vessel with your child and crossing dark waters with nothing more than hope as your north star.
I love your writing! As i am reading your words which resonate so deeply, it takes me back to some familiar feelings in my own journey and that of my mother and father. Allowing peace and vulnerability to exist in the same space is a tricky balance. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you, Jan!