It was a sunny almost-spring day, and I was getting into my car in a sprawling parking lot when my phone rang. Because I wasn’t driving and wasn’t, as I often am, running late, I answered it. So my memory of receiving the first news of my breast cancer is surrounded by asphalt and contained in a car that was not running or moving, just growing stuffier as I sat inside with the windows rolled up and listened to a woman from the breast care center reciting the results of my biopsy and the names of surgeons and the recommended next steps.
There is a certain surreal quality to receiving news like that. Not that the news itself is unreal. Rather, it is so dense with reality it can strike with a blunt force that will leave you reeling, caught off balance, reaching for anything that will connect the trajectory you thought your life was on a minute ago with the new direction it has now abruptly taken.
It is not only news of cancer that packs a punch like this. It can be any life-altering illness or event or loss that comes to us unbidden and unwanted, standing briefly on our doorstep as an uninvited guest and then boldly walking right in, whether we open the door or bolt it securely.
One of the more challenging practices of hospitality, I am learning, has nothing to do with other people but is about other circumstances in our own lives that we have no desire to welcome in. Those unexpected visitors Rumi mentions in “The Guest House” poem – “a depression, a meanness… the shame, the malice,” all of them, like illness, wise guests from beyond. Invite them all in, Rumi advises; and treat them each honorably, as the teachers they are.
During the weeks after my diagnosis, which included more tests, a second biopsy and meetings with several surgeons, another bit of wisdom gleaned from my bookshelves reminded me to practice hospitality toward this new turn of events. In a blessing for a friend with a serious illness, John O’Donohue wrote, “May you find in yourself a courageous hospitality toward what is difficult, painful and unknown…. (May you) listen to your illness: Ask it why it came. Why it chose your friendship. Where it wants to take you. What it wants you to know.”
I am now well on my way to physical recovery and still carrying these words with me. Still asking these questions. Still learning this lesson in hospitality toward my own life and illness. And though I may be no closer to answering the questions, I have noticed I no longer place myself in that stuffy closed up car in the middle of the asphalt parking lot. By opening the door to my cancer and welcoming it in as a teacher, I have also opened the windows of my heart and my mind to the air that I need to emotionally recover – and eventually to discover what this new unwanted, but now welcomed, guest wants me to know.