Remission by Patricia Contaxis
It is Easter morning, one year after Brianna’s life-saving neurosurgery. We are standing in a pew at the congregational church in our hometown, to which we had walked that morning. Long banners hang from the vaulted ceiling of the sanctuary proclaiming Alleluia, and pots of tall lilies surround the communion table. The choir and congregation are mid-song, a big, glorious Easter hymn.
Wild sopranos careen behind me: “Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!”
All this shouting about triumph over death is making me nervous. I read the hymn, but I don’t sing the words.
We woke this morning to sun and freesias and four-year-old Brianna’s excitement. Maura and I followed as she trotted in her irregular, hoppity gait—still a focus of physical therapy—to the table where the Easter Bunny had left her basket. Last night we reveled in our preparations, feeling ourselves perfectly located in these rituals of parenthood.
The hymn ends, and we sit. I read through the Sunday bulletin and think about the resurrection. Well-wishers come toward us this year and through tears of relief tell us that Brianna’s story is a resurrection to them. I envy their sense of closure. From the outside, we appear to have come through a hard time, miraculously, and from here on are steadily putting distance between us and Brianna’s cancer. But that isn’t the whole of it. Every few months, as her regular MRI draws near, monitoring as we are for recurrence, I am all but shaken loose.
I’m not without joy. Since the early days of Brianna’s diagnosis, the usual discontents of daily life seem petty: wanting to be somewhere else, someone else. On the brink of losing what had become most precious to me, the shock of my predicament ushered in a radical gratitude. As a result, I am often happy, managing to want this, just this, whatever this is.
I listen to the stories being read in worship: the empty tomb, the risen Jesus eating a piece of fish. The early chroniclers drive the point home. Jesus is alive again, embodied, eating, doing what the living do.
But this life has too many gutting losses for me to find comfort in a death-defying Jesus. That life goes on, that we celebrate the return of spring, the new life all around us, that we are somehow part of this new life, even the possibility that the spirit, that placeholder for what we don’t know, endures in some way and that we are not entirely separate from one another in life or in death; all of this—even when I am sad and frightened—evokes deep, quiet joy. But the loss of the person, the heavy burden of specific loss, seems trivialized by the Easter mood and theme of triumph over physical death. Easter is not a holiday for the grieving.
Brianna is sitting between us in the pew, drawing cat after cat, each with a long, multicolored tail. I think about the film Field of Dreams, which I watched decades ago with friends shortly after my father’s death. In the film, a long-dead father walks through a field of corn toward his son to give him a message. Watching the scene, I became extraordinarily angry. It stirred deep longing in me, for which I had no magical solution.
“Dead fathers don’t come walking out of cornfields,” I spat out loud.
My friends looked at me with various shades of surprise and embarrassment. They had been moved by the film, privately wiping tears, and I had ruined the moment.
After the service, after Easter cookies and coffee in Fellowship Hall, we stand on the front lawn watching the Easter egg hunt. Other children, robust and coordinated, dash and dart quickly, filling their baskets with eggs. Brianna moves at a stately pace. She focuses intently on one egg at a time, struggling to manage her near-empty basket while balancing herself on the uneven lawn.
I am a bundle of contradictions. The bright, defiant mood of Easter feels incongruous with what I feel inside. Words that come to me are wreckage, chaos, smoking ruins. I cannot discount them. They don’t easily fit with a survival story, a good marriage, a satisfying career. But the resurrection is a somber thing to me, infused not with triumph, or relief, but with continual struggle.
My prayers are not words but instead, a feeling, an openness, an expansion that includes all that is good and right and true. It is a decision to emulate the best we can do. These feelings are also, at some level, magical thinking, wishes to stay in touch with grace and goodness, and that those wishes will somehow protect my little girl. I am bargaining, I know. I am bargaining, even though I do not believe in an intervening God. But it is not the bald, desperate begging of the early months of Brianna’s diagnosis. I am working on a quiet hope to house the fierce longing, the endless grief, and the dizzying joy that continually break in this life, like rough surf on a wild beach.
Patricia Contaxis’ work has appeared in The Loch Raven Review, Pithead Chapel, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Rivanna Review, The Pluralist, San Antonio Review, and Notes From The Seashore. She has been awarded a residency at PLAYA. Patricia holds a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. Retired after more than thirty years as a marriage and family therapist, she now spends her time on Trail Patrol with the National Park Service, and on Hawkwatch with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory.