If I were the kind of guy who believes in miracles, I would say meeting a certain elderly fellow yesterday morning was a miracle.
I was about as uncomfortable as I could be. I’d been wracked by worry the previous few days, fretting over my six-month CAT scan and the results thereof so much I could hardly sleep Tuesday and Wednesday nights. The worry and the lack of sleep had turned me into an even ornerier bear than I normally am. If it was uncomfortable for people to be around me, imagine what it was like actually being me. Suffice it to say among my least favorite people on Earth was…, well, me. (I wasn’t my absolutely least fave human; there still exist, after all, tyrants, racists, rapists, child molesters, and D. Trump.)
No matter that it was a gorgeous, sun-dappled September morning. I couldn’t see the beauty of it. I could only see the possibility that My Olive Pit™ and its little friends that had resided in my neck up to half a year ago might — only might, mind you — have started to grow again.
Fear easily becomes hate. The sleepless previous few days had provided fertile soil in my heart for the invasive, destructive weeds of odium. I’ve no doubt others could smell the loathing within me. I hated the world.
I walked into the Book Corner and didn’t greet customers and my co-workers with my usual bonhomie. I grunted. My brow was deeply furrowed. I was dismissive.
A customer was asking Margaret, the owner, about music books. Having seen me enter, she immediately told him, “Mike’ll help you. Mike, show this man our music section.”
I hated her with a deep, abiding passion at that moment. I thought, “Can’t you see I’m miserable? I just walked in, for chrissakes. I haven’t even taken off my sunglasses yet. I’m still carrying my lunch and my coffee mug! And now you want me to help some idiot?”
I grunted again.
I passed the customer who looked toward me expectantly. I ignored him. Out the corner of my eye, I could see the look of puzzlement on his face.
The hatred within me grew exponentially. I hated him, sure, but I hated myself even more for hating him. I hated him doubly for his innocence, causing me to hate myself all the more. Hate cubed.
I dashed downstairs to the toilet where I could sob a bit and try to get hold of the raging hatred within. “Get it together, you jerk,” I muttered to myself. “You have no right to visit all this upon the world. Straighten up!”
I climbed back to the sales floor determined to fake it. I slapped the phony friendly face on. Margaret glanced at me, a questioning look on her face. I was afraid if I tried to explain what had been going on within me I might break down and cry. The customer who’d been interested in music was sitting in a folding chair, thumbing through some music biography. He, too, glanced at me. I was fully expecting him to throw eye darts at me. Hell, he’d have been more than justified.
But the man looked at me with what I could only interpret as love.
Patty, my colleague, asked me what was wrong. I said I’d be seeing my oncologist the next day.
The customer closed the book he was looking at, rose from his chair, and inched toward me.
“I heard what you said about the oncologist,” he said in an African accent. He was thin and well-dressed, with distinctive wrinkles on the bridge of his nose. His eyes were warm but rheumy. His hands and fingers were long and tapered; he used them for punctuation.
“I myself was given the same gift,” he went on.
Gift? Cancer is a gift? I might have concluded this bird was specifically a loon but somehow, some way, that ridiculously inappropriate descriptor drew me in. I knew — I just knew — I should listen to him .
He shared his story* with me.
His name is Emmanuel. He was born in what is now Zimbabwe but, when he was a child, was known as Rhodesia. He grew up in an apartheid world, the dark-skinned majority ruled by paternal and despotic white sons and grandsons of immigrants from England and Scotland. Emmanuel attended the Catholic-run Chishawasha Mission Primary School, inspiring him to enter the priesthood.
He served as the chaplain of Rhodesia’s main state prison for a time. There, he came into contact with Zimbabwe African National Union leader (and future Zimbabwe prime minister) Robert Mugabe. The two had already known each other. Emmanuel first met Mugabe at Kutama College in the Zvimba region, southwest of Harare. Emmanuel was a student and Mugabe a teacher there at the time.
Mugabe and his allies had been sent to the state prison for their independence efforts and spoke often about their cause. What they said made sense to Emmanuel so he pitched in and helped them when, after their release from prison and subsequent sentence to house arrest, they attempted to flee Rhodesia. Emmanuel hid them in his rectory and then drove a getaway car that took them into Mozambique. From there, Mugabe led rebels in the Rhodesian Bush War that eventually toppled the colonial government.
Emmanuel considered himself a writer in the early part of his adult life. He wrote Machadura, called “one of the most prominent Shona novels of the 20th Century,” by Harare journalist Tendai Hildegarde Manzvanzvike. (The Shona are a Bantu subgroup of some 11 million farmers and herders in southern Africa.) His real passion, though, was music. One Catholic magazine has described him as the composer of the first Shona church hymns in the 1950s. He travelled around the country listening to children singing folk hymns and spirituals. “I wrote them down,” he said, elegantly pantomiming the act of putting pencil to paper. “No one had ever done that before.”
His diligent recording of the songs brought him worldwide attention. Indiana University came calling, offering him a position at what’s now known as the Jacobs School of Music. “They invited me because they wanted my collection of songs,” he said, laughing.
One day some 13 years ago, Emmanuel woke up in the middle of the night bleeding profusely. “I cleaned the blood up,” he said, “passed out, and then drove myself to the hospital.”
Doctors discovered a massive tumor in his abdomen that had ruptured. “It was the size of two babies,” Emmanuel said. Pantomiming again, he explained, “They cut it out of me.”
He’s been cancer-free ever since.
As I listened, I watched his rheumy eyes. They were magnetic. I couldn’t understand why anyone would describe such a horror as a gift. But he did. I might have asked him what he meant, but I didn’t. I suppose it was enough for me to know he simply saw the malady as something that added to the sum total of his life.
All I could do was offer both my hands to Emmanuel. He said he was in town for the usual round of tests to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned. I stared deep into his eyes. I stopped hating myself for being such an ass.
Perhaps that’s why he sees his two-baby-sized tumor as a gift.
Fr. Emmanuel Ribeiro is one of the heroes of Zimbabwe. Journalist Manzvanzvike has called him “the embodiment of Zimbabwe’s spiritual, social, cultural and political journey.” She observed, “Beyond the oceans, he has been Zimbabwe’s unofficial ambassador….” Manzvanzvike once asked him who he was. He replied, “This will produce a five-volume book, but the simplest answer is that I don’t know.”
I know. He was the guy who had an almost supernatural capacity to save me from myself on a very bad day.
[ * Part of Emmanuel’s story comes from Emmanuel himself. The rest comes from articles in the Zimbabwe Herald, allAfrica, Zim Catholic magazine, and The Sunday Mail.]
BTW: The results of my six-months post-chemoradiation CAT scan and complete blood panel are in:
- All kidney, liver, and thyroid functions are good.
- No cancer markers found in the blood.
- No signs of any growth of previously malignant lymph nodes or development of new ones.
In other words, Yay! I remain in remission. Phew! Now I can get my first good night’s sleep in days.
That’s a gift, too.