Journal entry by Michael Bischoff

Short: I have a MRI tomorrow,haven’t noticed side-effects from chemo yet


This past week I’ve been a little obsessed, biking over the Twin Cities, looking for pelicans.  Two years ago, I walked in a shallow lake with hundreds of pelicans, and I’ve been wanting to recreate that experience ever since. I saw a recent report that a bunch of pelicans had been in the river near an industrial part of St. Paul, but they weren’t there after I biked 15 miles to get there. I repeated this a few times, in different places, missing the pelicans each time, except some fleeting glances of them flying over. I can act similarly in chasing promising treatments for brain cancer. I keep pushing health professionals to look for new, possible treatments, even though they keep saying there aren’t any available that I qualify for.

Yesterday, on my way to pray with a friend, I sat next to the rapids of a creek close to his house, reminded that even when I don’t find the pelicans, what I need is available. Sitting next to the creek, it felt like there was a metallic claw rising up from my belly, reaching out from my chest, grasping for pelicans--and also grasping for a good MRI report tomorrow, and for close, growing relationships. I don’t like to admit to myself how strong my urge to grasp is, and how much desperation that can be underneath it. Even with terminal brain cancer, the longing I feel most intensely isn’t for a cure from the cancer, but for authentic, transformative relationships with people I’m connected with. Watching the rapids washed away the top layers of my grasping for pelicans and MRI results. Underneath those longings, there was still a restless longing for Intimacy, belonging, and living with purpose. And I still would love an encouraging MRI tomorrow!

My friend, Elizabeth, recently loaned me a book that helped me see my longing and grasping differently, Love is Stronger than Death, by Cynthia Bourgeault. In the book, the author describes a rather clinging, desiring spiritual friendship she had with a wise monk, as he was dying. The monk kept challenging her to release her grasping for him, and the author kept challenging the monk to lean into their connection.My interpretation is that our desire for closeness, even as we grasp for it, can be an essential part of our transformation and healing, if we combine the desire with ongoing practices of releasing.

After sitting by the creek, I met with my friend, Bob, to pray. We’ve done this every month for the past ten years. I need lots of ongoing practice releasing what I’m grasping for. This time of prayer, it felt like I was sitting in a hair salon, receiving a divine hair combing, slowly working on the tangles and knots in my spiritual hair.

This weekend in an interview with Atul Gawande, I heard him describe a study that showed that lung cancer patients who received palliative care, and did less chemo and fewer surgeries, ended up living 25 percent longer than the standard treatment control group. That paradox--that if we’re less attached and aggressive about our treatment, we might have better health outcomes, is one I think of often.

Right now I’m doing a less intense chemo than my oncologist recommended, but if I think that is the magic trick, that’s not less attached. I’m a desiring, grasping creature--just ask anyone close to me, or any of my health care providers who know how high maintenance I can be. But I’m going to keep watching water go past, praying with friends, and telling you stories about it all, in hopes that both the desire and releasing can be a part of a larger whole.

One larger whole that will be with me tomorrow, in the loud MRI machine and the nervous waiting for the results, will be all of you, and the care and engagement you’ve given me. In addition to tomorrow's appointment, I also have a second opinion appointment at the Mayo Clinic a week from tomorrow. And I'm working on a healing story event on June 10 that you're invited to. Thanks for your many forms of companionship.

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