Here are two stories for Maundy Thursday.
In the spring of 1999, after she had undergone unsuccessful surgery for alveolar cancer, I went to visit my best friend in the hospital. Her family was just leaving as I arrived, not because they did not want to see me, but because they needed a break from their shock and their grief. No one at that point had the slightest idea what to do. If you have ever been present at the time that cancer is diagnosed, when the awareness of love, malignancy and helplessness is especially high, when medical treatment fails, you will know how strange it feels. So many fears hover in the room. “Is this going to metastasize into me, too?” "Will I die with her?"
She was sitting in a darkened room, a dinner tray on the little wheeled table beside her. We had talked about a lot of this already. Now she turned to me and said, “They couldn’t get it. It was in the wrong place. Right where the lungs meet. They couldn’t get the cancer without taking out both lungs. They did what they could. I’ll have to have chemo and maybe radiation. Would you like my dinner?”
It was a little plate of quiche, salad and broccoli. I answered, and I’m still not sure where this answer came from, “No, I don’t want your dinner, but I’d love to share it with you.”
She smiled as we began to divide the plate into two servings. “I asked them all if they wanted it. Nobody did. They thought it would make them sick. You know how I hate to see food go to waste.”
“That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. Cancer may be many things, but it’s not catching.”
“I probably caught it from my father’s second hand smoke when I was a child. He smoked all the time.”
“Shall we pray?”
And so, as she prepared for the work of her dying, Priscilla and I shared a little meal of quiche, broccoli and salad in a darkened hospital room on a spring evening in San Rafael. I would not be a priest until much later that year, but I knew I had just celebrated my first communion.
I never met Patrick Mariner. I only knew him from the prayer list. He was a little boy who went to our church. He was ten years old and he suffered from leukemia, and every week we said his name. I was in my early thirties at the time and it seemed sadder than anything I could think of that a ten year old boy should have cancer and would maybe, even probably, die of it.
After a couple of months, a request went out in the parish that Patrick needed infusions of platelets and if anyone at church had Type A blood, could they possibly become a donor? As it happened, I had the right blood type and one day I drove into the city to be hooked up to a machine through which my blood was circulated, processed and returned to me; the process took about an hour. We all lay in a room and watched TV. It was Never Cry Wolf, a movie I loved, until one woman complained that it was unpleasant to give blood amid so much howling and we should watch something more “positive.” I only remember this well, because when the vapid comedy replaced the wolves, I developed a terrible reaction to the anticoagulant drugs and had to be unhooked for fifteen minutes so that my body might catch its breath.
Two days later my blood was flowing through the veins of Patrick Mariner. I knew this because I woke up that morning knowing that I lived in him. I could feel his little life. Even though we had never met, he was suddenly my child, my heart, my very own being. He was, indeed, my blood and since my invisible encounter with Patrick, Holy Communion, indeed, the whole meaning of the Body of Christ, has never been quite the same.