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Teacher of Grace

by Michael Allyn McCormick

On September 5, 2001, my wife Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer. Six days later, terrorists flew three planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A day after that, our beloved dog Maya was diagnosed with a terminal liver disease. Sarah and I staggered into silence.

One starless night about a month later, she and I were walking our two dogs on the damp, quiet streets of the New England village where we lived. I stopped to tie my shoe as she walked on with Maya and Pepper. As I rose from kneeling on the street, I looked up to see Sarah standing under a street light facing me. Her face was shining in clear view but it had no features nose, mouth, or eyes. It was completely blank. I knew then, though I never told her, that she would not live.

Sarah was a history professor and a lapsed Unitarian who voiced no particular spiritual belief. As her highly trained, reliable intellect tried to wrest a reason for being stricken, she lashed out at me in anger, merely due to my being the safest target. I worried she would not find the inner strength to confront her real assailant. Over the next two years, the greedy disease would overpower two surgeries, two radiation regimens, and four runs of chemo treatments. But within a few months of her diagnosis, Sarah began to draw on an invisible reservoir of grace to decide to be, as she put it, "reasonable and calm."

In August of 2003, Sarah's options were running out. In February of that year, she had endured a radical mastectomy that had never healed. A tumor was growing through the wound on the outside of her chest. She felt increasing pain and often short of breath, and fatigued easily. But she loved to travel and refused to let her condition stop her from drinking in the pleasures of life. We took a trip to mid-coast Maine. One of the places we visited was Acadia National Park and Isle au Haut, a small island off the mainland. Early one morning, we drove to the village of Stonington and walked to a dank wooden dock engulfed in fog. After a thirty minute wait, we boarded a small mail boat which cut blindly through the chilly gray soup for an hour, once barely missing a fishing skiff. The boat let us off about 9AM, to hike around the island. The captain told us to be back at the boat launch no later than 5PM to get a ride back. If we missed him, we would spend the night on the island, where the only shelters were outhouses to serve the open campsites.

Sarah and I happily set out to explore the island. We found some trails too steep and rocky for her to navigate. Others were well trod, level paths we trekked easily and enjoyed mostly without comment. After some hours, we ended up on a rocky beach and discovered we had left and lost the trail.

We looked for the trail together for more than an hour, unsuccessfully. Sarah grew quite tired, and began to worry that she would not have the stamina to get back to the boat launch. As her energy and breath waned, her worry turned to fear, and she broke down into tears. We stopped our search for the trail as I tried to comfort and reassure her out of her growing agitation. But her panic and breathlessness began to reinforce each other, and I knew the only solution was to find our way back. After persuading myself that she could manage on her own for a while, I went off again to find the trail.

In twenty minutes, I returned to Sarah to tell her I had found it. Still sobbing, she followed me off the beach and into the edge of the woods onto the trail. Within ten minutes, we were passing over fifty foot high cliffs of rock hovering over the crashing waves of the sea. It was dramatic and resplendent, but I was focused on how Sarah was doing. To my great surprise and delight, she soon stopped at the top of one of those cliffs, stood still as the spray from a wave leapt over and rained down on her, and loudly exclaimed, "This is beautiful! This is wonderful!" She was beaming, and exhorting me to join in her reverie.

After a celebratory pause, we walked on. Soon we came to a small spit of rocky shore that pointed across a narrow channel to another tiny island. The spit was a sprawling bed of small stones smoothed by the waves. I ran out to its edge as Sarah hung back for a broader view. As my eyes scanned the rocks, I spotted one the size of a golf ball with unusual reddish and grayish brown stripes. I picked it up and turned immediately to lope over to Sarah, offering it to her. With a wide and free smile, she crooned, "Thank you."

"This feels like victory," I replied.

Sarah's recovery that day was just one of many times that she faced devastation or despair, and chose to draw from it wonder, awe, courage, joy, and grace. I will always be learning from her.

Michael Allyn McCormick has enjoyed a thirty-five year journey in community organizing and political activism, mediation and conflict resolution, public dialogue, training, and teaching at the university and graduate school levels. A practicing Buddhist, he has also been published in the areas of community organizing, mediation and conflict resolution, and public dialogue. Among other interests, the role and identity of men in our culture has been an ongoing concern in his work.