Christmas 1999

Dear Friends:

What a gift to celebrate a feast of the Incarnation, while thinking on you in the same moment. We are at the cabin (the "cabbage" as one of our god-daughters has dubbed it in wordcrossed fusion with cottage). That luminous solstice moon has encircled us lighting up the landscape for nightwalks. This morning we wove wreathes from seven varieties of pine branches, plus pods and cones and berries, harvested in a hike about these woods. (One of those lies now beneath the tree, a present for Jeanie's Mom, immanently expected). Actually, we all had homemade gifts for one another this morning. This gift-of-our-hands way of marking the day makes my heart glad.

Last night Jeanie had a seizure about 5pm, which not only sent us scurrying in near panic to find among these small towns a pharmacy still open Christmas Eve, but also foreclosed our plan for candlelight eucharist with the Episcopalians. This turned out to be an odd and lovely providence as we ended up at the kitchen table in a candlelight caroling and intercession service of our own, reading the gospel from a store of favorite children's books and taking communion from a bowl and mug. In luminous sacrament, we were given one another in a way I'll never forget.

OK, this seizure. We are convinced that it, like a bigger one ten days ago, stems from a medication imbalance rather than new tumor growth. A course of antibiotics prescribed some weeks back in the wake of superficial corrective surgery, taxed Jeanie's liver and sent things out of whack. It's compounded now by a transition from one anti-seizure med to another.

In point of fact, Jeanie has had a very good autumn, not without bouts of symptom or deficit, but she edited an amazing issue of the magazine on "Healing from Human Evil" - soliciting and shaping the articles, choosing art, sizing photos, doing layout, and summing it all up editorially - the entire shtick. No issue at The Witness is a single-handed affair; it's a skilled circle of friends. But Jeanie did what she does - something of a minor triumph.

Need I tell you this is one remarkable woman, caring for us and exercising wisdom in the midst of it all. She wrote the attached meditation for the January issue on Time. To be honest, she had forgotten she'd promised it, then sat down to the keyboard and poured it out of her head and heart in an hour. The way I labor over similar things, you'd think I had a brain tumor.

On the complicated medical front, we did arrange (yet another tale of providence) to get a Groshong port put in (yet another surgery), which we self-manage with highly ritualized sterile procedures of care. (Feature me in a mask with surgical gloves and you get the picture). We do daily injections of the NDV virus. You'll recall that we had completed the radiation end of August, and this period falls within the six-month benefit the medicos would hope in consequence. But several weeks ago following an MRI showing no new growth, when I asked one of our doctors if he credited Jeanie's well-being to radiation, he replied, "Well, you're also taking that vaccine. You know I can't tell you to do that stuff, but I sure wouldn't tell you to stop."

So far, I've been present for each of this recent series of seizures, holding Jeanie and riding them out, but I'm praying for an even medication keel as we begin a new term at SCUPE in Chicago and my teaching kicks in. I continue to walk the line between commitment to the program of hope in which we live, and making mental preparations (usually late in a sleepless night) for more dire outcomes conventional medicine would call realistic. I know I often "stuff" the emotions which accompany the latter trains of thought.

The staff at SCUPE is remarkable in its willingness to accommodate our uncertainties. In Chicago we have begun a new program, Nurturing the Call, which recruits working African American pastors in the city (from storefronts and big congregations both) to use the SCUPE program as an entre into seminary training. It's an exciting year at hand with new and gifted colleagues at the table. I'm working on a lecture for the first go round, the Jterm course, on the Gospel as Urban Nonviolence. In a related connection, I was pleased to do a training several weeks back for a group of friends traveling as direct action from Detroit to Iraq, bearing medicine and wide-eyed witness. (What a time to be there, no?) As for Detroit, the casinos have arrived bigtime in "temporary" digs. Last week when I went to do the homily at Day House, it was in a sea of cars - employees parking blocks away and shuttled to the old Wonder Bread factory, now "converted." This is an economy?

The girls flourish. Here at the cabin, Lydia, with Lucy's attentive help, has been working on a new Epiphany play for our community at the Catholic Worker. Her script from last year (a talk show, you may recall, interviewing all the principals including the "wisewoman" and the donkey), got picked up and performed at several churches and for their own school performance. When she saw the fifth-graders rehearsing, she came home downcast: "Dad! They've added commercials!" Theater remains her activity of choice - she's just been in productions of Charlie Brown Christmas and a fractured musical version of Sleeping Beauty. Lydia is in all her glory as an eighth grade student, something of a senior year for middleschoolers. Which also means, we are trying to figure out high school for next year.

Lucy does the theater too, (she was Sally and Woodstock variously in the traveling Charlie Brown), but basketball is her new love. Wish I could say I'd been working with her, but any credit I could claim would have to be genetic (who can claim credit for that?) She's learning it all from scratch. Signing on as a fourth-grader in the 5th and 6th grade CYO league, she's nonetheless fastest among her teammates. As a guard she is tenacious as the "last line of defense" against a fast break of girls often twice her size. Lucy has also latched suddenly and unrelentingly onto the piano, though she declines lessons on the premise that Mozart taught himself.

I can hear the girls talking quietly upstairs. It's late now as I finish this. Another log goes on the fire. I think of the sleeping calm in Eichenberg's CW print which we also enclose as a greeting and meditation. The dragons in the floorboards sleep quietly too. But like Herod's troops or cruise missiles or malignancies (economic or otherwise), they can wake with a start. When they do, we trust not so much our own wits and resources, as the dreams and messengers of grace who open the Way. Like you, dear friends. Thank you. Bless you. You are sacraments luminous.

Soon and very soon,
Bill (for all the Wylie-Kellermanns)


"We may never pass this way again . . . "

By Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann

I had the misfortune to finish high school just as this song peaked in its popularity in my small Michigan town. At an all-school assembly, it was announced as our class' song and I fled. A friend tagged along. She knew that my father had just died in New York City in 1974. I was glad for the company but also frustrated that she seemed self-absorbed, "I've never been this close to death before . . . ." "Yeah, well, get a grip," I wanted to yell. Or, had I known it then, I could have quoted Julie Wortman's favorite Emerson line, "Life is real; life is earnest."

So now I'm about to turn 43 and have a high grade cancer in my brain. I spent the whole last year struggling to digest the news that the seizures I had Labor Day weekend in 1998 were caused by an anaplastic glioblastoma. I fought believing that it was actually cancer until there was no other conclusion. Until that moment, I kept thinking, "Unhuh, I won't join that club til I have to. I'm not the cancer-personality type!"

Since then my partner Bill and I have read more than anyone wants to know about the theories on cancer, the composition of cancer, the treatments for cancer. I was quickly overwhelmed even on the lack of agreement about what cancer is. And then there is lots of literature on how to develop the right attitude, how to grip something in this world so strongly, that dying is not an option. Some people refuse to die because they have kids to raise. One farmer-type said, "Nope, I got to get home to my garden." Doubtless some people live for their pets or the view or their neighbors. Perhaps they simply want to praise God in some particular way.

Recently I was sitting at my kitchen table talking with my 13-year-old. It's easy to forget that she's 13. She is extremely attentive and has always had a mind like a 35-year-old. She's good on details and usually right. It's hard when parenting her to try to recall that she is a child and needs to be protected like a child.

So, there I was in one of those judgment spirals when I was having an insight and she was my companion. I said to my own kid, "You know, I've been thinking about time. While it matters whether I die at 42 or at 82, in many ways it doesn't matter at all." Ever so gently, testing what I could bare, she said, "Mom, do you want to hear some reasons why it does matter?"

As it crashed in on me that I was having this conversation with the very last person in the world who should hear my philosophizing, I nodded. She told me that if I live to be 82, I would meet our grandchildren (should the girls choose to have any). I would have time to walk in the woods.

She tailored the list to the things I love, with a strong but gentle bias toward being there as our kids grow up. At the same time, she managed not to put pressure on me. She was artful -- as usual. It's challenging parenting a child who is often older than you. (Lydia does have her faults, not to worry. And meanwhile Lucy is a bundle of joy and challenges of a different type. Lucy is much less likely to tell you what's on her mind. You have to notice. And she'll notice you notice! Both girls are smart and loving in radically different ways.)

But, despite my regrets for announcing my great insight about death and time to my oldest child, the thoughts remain true.

Daniel Corrigan preached at my Dad's installation at the Church of the Advent in Boston in 1960. I've heard that he leaned forward with a twinkle in his eyes and said, "Sam Wylie is my best friend and I don't care if he lives or dies!"

It's the great tension of our faith. What is it we are about? Are we living or dying? Does it matter? Knowing some of the stats on cancer, I look around rooms now and wonder. If it's one out of three, who else shares this ailment? How can we help each other? What worldly things need to change? Which factories close? Which pollutants get screened out of smoke? How can we learn to walk in beauty and trust, while also fighting back? To model what it means to be an elder, yet also be effective at bringing change? And most of all, how can we praise God without ceasing in this time-bound world?