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Good Letters

There are three large cysts growing in my ovaries. The doctor says “oh my,” before asking if I’d like to take a look. I would not like to take a look. This feels like a parody of pregnancy, something my body would not let me do, because errant uterine cells began spreading across my inner organs while I was still in adolescence, creating a mesh of tissue and pain that can’t support life. I take a look. It’s all abstract shadows and grey murk. Later that day more probes, more images, another week goes by, and it’s determined the cysts are old, trapped blood: blood is supposed to exit, but mine misdirected and went stagnant. They could rupture, leak, turn cancerous, stagnate, disappear. No one knows. Across town, my friend is dying, bit by bit. Errant cells again, in her case metastatic ones from a breast, have multiplied and locked around her spine, liver and lungs. We are both becoming bodies.

Years before, a priest in his late 80s told me that the greatest miracle of faith is the resurrection of the body. After death, we’d walk again “in our bodies,” he said, his voice expressing something that sounded like delight. He could barely raise himself off the squashy beige couches every church uses for the catechesis of adults. He’d recently had pneumonia, and his thin frame would explode regularly with coughs. Sometimes he’d cough so hard the Mass would go unfinished. One night at Taizé prayer he knelt and fell, head-first, onto a wooden cross. Blood leaked down, and everyone looked on in horror, but he smiled. He’d been a medic in World War II, a priest for more than fifty years. “They keep priests going until they die in their boots,” my mother said when she saw him. He, too, was becoming a body.

When my friend was diagnosed with cancer, I’d gone with her to the doctor’s office to receive the news. I’d turned my head when she bent to change into the paper gown; we weren’t close enough to be comfortable with one another’s bodies, but there was no one else who was free that afternoon, and someone had to take in the doctor’s words. Percentages, odds, procedures. “Do you want to keep your nipple?,” the doctor asked. She, too, had never had children. She was private, and I never found out why. She lost the nipple. I’ll probably lose my ovaries. Maybe my uterus, which is also full of errant cells, will be cut out as well. An atheist friend used to grill me about what happened to Christ’s foreskin, the Holy Prepuce, the lost part of his body. Apparently, there are Renaissance depictions of it flying after him toward heaven. But I’m guessing my bloated, malformed ovaries will be incinerated. Someday, we’ll all be ash.

Saint Augustine wrote that the resurrected body would be a glorified body, incorruptible, agile, and beautiful. The resurrected Christ who faces Thomas presents his wounds. We don’t know if Thomas touches the wounds. We know he craved touching them, but the Gospel remains vague about what people did with their bodies until one of them gets crucified. We don’t know if those wounds continued to bleed, fester, or mend in their resurrected form. The last person to touch them was probably a woman. The Tahara, the Jewish ritual for the dead, involves washing the body, praying over it and enshrouding it. Bodies were women’s work. The Marys and Joanna who went to the tomb were probably the same ones who prepared the body.

On the morning my friend died, another friend and I drove over. Our friend couldn’t speak. Her body was a morphine-soaked sliver on flowered flannel sheets, the bed covered in bloodstained towels, discarded diapers bundled to be burned. A caregiver had closed the window, so I opened it, vaguely remembering some Medieval superstition about souls flying out. A different friend who was with her hours later said she opened her eyes, looked out the window, breathed, and died.

The old priest died. He’d introduced me to my friend who is dead now as well, figuring the two childless women might have things to talk about. But she was athletic and outdoorsy, and I am not. She never married, and I did. She read, I wrote. Our common core was faith, or the lack of it, or both. When her diagnosis arrived, it was the resurrection of the body that tripped her up. She stopped saying that line in the Creed. “What does it mean?” she kept asking. “Which body?”

A year before she got sick, I opened my email in Rome and saw that the old priest had died, walked across the bridge over the murky Tiber toward the Vatican in the thick, noisy fug of Roman September, stood sweating and facing Saint Peter’s intending to enter and say a prayer, and remembered he’d never been to Rome. When I asked why, he told me that Rome would probably be better in his imagination. Toward the end, he was in a nursing home full of old priests, and an even older priest whose hands haven’t been still from a tremor in decades had said the blessing and laid hands on his dying body.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus tells busy, bustling Martha, Martha who gets all the hard knocks for refusing to sit down. My friend once went on a 30-day silent retreat and said she could have kept going forever. The old priest held “busy people’s retreats” for workers who couldn’t take time off, squeezing some silence into a handful of nights. I left an eight-day silent retreat on the fifth day, restless and bored.

My friend’s favorite Gospel was John, the highest Christology, the most abstract body. The old priest’s was Mark, the earth-bound Gospel of a Christ who spits into his hands to cure the blind. Mine is Luke, the Gospel of the preoccupied, those who meet a resurrected Christ on the road and don’t recognize him when he walks beside them.

My body will never create another body, nor did my friend’s, nor did the old priest’s. Our bodies may be someday be glorified, but what will happen to our missing organs, our shed skin, the silvery filaments of our hair? Which body? Maybe, I once told my friend, it’s all cellular: the resurrection is trees growing from soil we soaked with our sweat, the resurrection is fish feeding on her ashes thrown into the sea, life everlasting is just cycles of bodies and their waste composting and nourishing, degenerating and regenerating. Which body? It is Christ’s that we feed on. And then, we become food.

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Written by: Kaya Oakes

Kaya Oakes teaches nonfiction writing at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of four books, including Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture (Henry Holt, 2009); Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012); and The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (Orbis Books, 2015). She is a senior correspondent at Religion Dispatches, an editor and contributing writer at Killing the Buddha, and a contributing writer at America Magazine.

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