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“I should put the kids to bed,” Jeremy said, standing. I nodded and sat in a chair in the living room with a sigh: my shift was over. I pulled up a photography app and scrolled through photos while the kids wiggled into their pajamas in their rooms.
A sneaking thought entered my mind: just because my doctor couldn’t diagnose me, didn’t mean I couldn’t do some research of my own. I had avoided it before– of course it’s a terrible idea to diagnose yourself on google. But now I felt compelled — I had to know what was wrong with me. Before I could lose my nerve, I typed “eye issues” into the search bar on my phone. A cascade of results appeared.
“Where to start?” I thought to myself. I felt like I stood at the edge of a waterfall, doubtful if I should throw myself into the pounding current.
I held my breath and clicked on a link from the mayo clinic, a summary of the all the ways an eye can break. I scanned, clicked to dive deeper, frowned, backtracked, opened a new screen to ask the search bar, “what does macular oedema mean?” I found myself in need of a dictionary in order to decipher the most basic of medical terms.
I sighed, decided to start over. This time I typed “eye lesions” into the search bar. As it loaded, I heard Jeremy say, “Tiiiger! Please be quiet. I’m trying to read!” The kids erupted into giggles; I smiled.
I looked down at the list of websites collected by the search engine and immediately noticed that nearly every result had “cancer” in the title. I shivered. I clicked, read: “Conjuctival tumors can be deadly to a patient.” I scanned, holding my breath until I reached the end of the page and a new link appeared, titled “Eye and Optic Nerve Tumors.” I clicked and read, “Tumours in the eye principally occur in the middle layer and inner layers of the eye. The middle layer consists of the uveal tract: iris, ciliary body and choroid; the inner layer of the retina and optic nerve.” I gasped — “the retina!” — and scrolled quickly, studying each type of eye cancer from which I might be unknowingly suffering.
A heading caught my eye: “Tumors of the Retina,” with two links below it. I could hardly tap fast enough. The page loaded and I read like my life depended on it, like I was running out of air at the bottom of the ocean, like an asteroid hurled toward the earth’s surface that very second and all that existed would soon be obliterated in a cloud of ash. I scrolled with a shaking hand.
Of course, I ignored the introduction that came before the list of malignancies, disqualifying my disease as cancer: “Most tumours of the retina are extremely rare, the slightly more common ones (such as naevi) being benign.” And I ignored the sentences that followed, disqualifying me to diagnose myself of anything: “All…of these tumours…are managed by opthalmologists, usually in specialist or superspecialist centres…” Instead I named myself superspecialist, and I named my lesion cancer.
Accordingly, I focused in on treatment methods. At the words “surgical excision,” I imagined a sharp utensil slowly descending toward my eyeball as a metal contraption held my eyelids open. At the words “retinal detachment,” I saw my vision slowly blinking out in a flash and tear of tissue from tissue. At the words “laser photocoagulation,” I envisioned James Bond strapped to a table as a laser traced a path toward him, evil scientist skulking in the background.
Then came the phrase “treatment is with enucleation of the eye,” and I gasped, not knowing exactly what “enucleation” meant but having a hunch. I looked it up to be sure: it meant “removal of the eyeball.” By now, all the particularities of each disease had run together, their distinct symptoms and treatments seeming to add up to one massive, inescapable disease that I most certainly had contracted, its tendrils holding me captive. All thought of God and the “wonderful plans he had for my life” vanished; I felt I had been left at the bottom of a well to starve slowly in the dark.
I remembered how my first instinct, upon hearing a lesion had sprouted in my retina, was to hear legion instead of lesion, recalling the oppressed girl in the gospels whose demons speak for her as Jesus approaches to free her: “I am legion, for we are many.” Now I felt the weight of that mishearing; I felt crushed by my fear, and perhaps by something more. “Help!” I prayed, unable to move from my chair, breathing fast, imagining my own horror story, hoping to be healed instead.
Just then, I heard a door open, shut, and footsteps in the hall. Jeremy appeared at the hall entrance. When he saw me, he stopped, frowned. “Are you okay?” he asked. I sighed, stared at my phone, immediately embarrassed by my choice to torture myself with false diagnoses provided by anonymous doctors on the internet. “Liz?”
“Just go away,” I said, pointedly studying the screen.
“What’s up?” he said.
“I don’t want to talk right now,” I said.
“Alright,” he said quietly.
“I’m in the middle of something,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. He stood just feet from me, and I could feel him watching me. “Do you want me to sit with you?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Just go.” I couldn’t lift my eyes to look at him.
He hesitated, then said, “If you need me, I’ll be downstairs, okay?” He strode through the living room and kitchen, and I heard footsteps on the stairs. Now I was truly alone.
The tears started, and soon, I was weeping, shoulders shaking, my throat thick with mucus, moans escaping irrhythmically. I threw the phone to the floor and it thudded along the pine boards.
I stared at the plaster ceiling and thought, “How can I live like this? How can you ask this of me?” A sob escaped my mouth, and I brought my head to my knees and rested my face in my hands; tears pooled in my palms. I rocked, moaned.
Suddenly my phone buzzed; I ignored it, pressed my forehead harder into my hands, gripping my hair. But that message irritated me, and after a minute, I looked up. I knew it was him, downstairs, worried about me. Something in me shifted: I wanted to be with him. I gulped a few times until my breathing calmed. I wiped my cheeks, my chin, my neck — even my knees were wet. I looked down at my hands and noticed smudges of mascara.
Then I stood. I ambled step by painstaking step through the kitchen, down the stairs, and collapsed onto the couch opposite Jeremy. He stared and I stared back. Then he bridged the gap between us, stretched out his arms, and held me close.
This post is part of my “Through A Mirror Dimly” series about a recent health issue I’ve been experiencing. I started telling this true story during the season of Lent as a way to make sense of the ways that my own suffering teaches me about the suffering of Jesus Christ.
I also invite you to engage with your own suffering through this series: how does your personal pain illuminate the suffering of Jesus for you? And what can your pain teach you about the life of faith?
And just a reminder: these words represent days in February of this past year – which means all of this that I’m documenting are past realities and feelings. I know it’s hard to keep track when you read only once a week! But the place I’m in today (both medically and emotionally) is different from what I’m representing in these blog posts. Thanks for your concerns and prayers in any case! They are not wasted and are very much appreciated. 🙂