In May of 2009 my ten-year old friend Seamus Morrison was diagnosed with a medulla blastoma on his cerebellum. They are a poorly differentiated malignant neoplasm composed of tightly packed cells of spongioblastic and neuroblastic lineage. Or to put it another way: they are not good.
To be clear, I’m really a friend of Seamus’ father James Morrison. An actor and yogi, neither of which are terms I toss around lightly, James called me after Seamus’ diagnosis and into the world of pain, surgery, chemo and prayer we went.
Seamus had complained of blurry vision, which resulted in a visit to an ophthalmologist. Upon noting the pressure on his optic nerve Seamus was sent to a neurologist. Before his parents had him home they received a call in their car that Seamus had cancer and would require surgery the next day.
“Pack a bag,” the doctor said. “And get back here tomorrow morning.”
Perhaps you have friends that have endured this journey of steep learning curves and hairpin turns requiring decisions about surgery and treatment that result in the end of one era and the beginning of another. After one visit to Seamus’ hospital bed when the worst had passed and Seamus was on the road to recovery I noted James’ fatigue and said something to him about it.
He replied, “We’re mourning the loss of our son. Because even if he survives he’s not the kid we had when we came in here a few weeks ago.”
If you don’t have friends who have been through this it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine their waves of grief pounding against your door on a daily basis.
James and his wife, Riad went through hell witnessing Seamus’ pain after surgery. It manifested in a flood of screams until painkillers subdued them complicated by their son’s inability to speak, walk or even see clearly. They lived in his hospital room for almost two months, going home only to shower and change clothes.
There’s a Zen koan that goes, “What do you when a wagon full of demons comes at you from hell?”
Koans are meditations. They are not riddles, not to be solved and not for the faint of heart. To experience the koan one must live it. The Morrisons were doing just that.
Aside from stopping by the hospital, bringing over Pinkberry desserts and finding ways to make Seamus laugh (his favorite was my impersonation of physicist Stephen Hawking commenting on cancer) there was little else I could do but pray.
Each of us, or those of us who pray, do it in our own way. Praying that Seamus would get better or that his pain would subside is one way to go about it. How could you not wish for that? But prayer is not a wish. And in Zen we do not pray to God. For the Zen practitioner there is nothing outside of us, no one to pray to, and Seamus and I are just different sides of one being. Yet, Seamus was the one unable to speak and looking for relief. He was the one who had to learn to walk and talk. (After speech therapy one of my favorite responses Seamus delivered to a nurse when asked if he was in school or on vacation was, “Hello! I’m in a hospital recovering from cancer surgery.”)
When Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center contracted cancer from which he died, Tai Shimano visited him.
"How are you feeling these days?"
Suzuki replied, "They have a new name for me: Cancer!"
Further, Suzuki Roshi had this to say, “I have discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing. That is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color - something which exists before all forms and colors appear. This is a very important point. No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea... In constantly seeking to actualize your ideal, you will have no time for composure. But if you are always prepared for accepting everything we see as something appearing from nothing... then at that moment you will have perfect composure.”
My prayer for Seamus and his parents was for composure. I never asked anyone or any being to grant it to them. They arrived at this on their own with or without the aid of my prayer. Now that I think of it, I was granted composure in the face of Seamus’ cancer by their composure. And by just being with each other we were composing prayers.
Seamus is chugging along through treatment and recovery. His parents and I played the Beatles Rock Band with him the other night. Seamus nailed every line of, “Let it Be.”