This body of mine has let me down.
Some people place their confidence in their relationships, their appearance, their work, in money or in possessions. I have always had confidence in my body—not in how it looked, but how it worked. This is a body that knew no boundaries when I was a kid—running, climbing, jumping, hanging upside down in trees and dancing. I never went to hospital; I never had the flu; I had no broken bones. A bit of acne and a few rounds of laryngitis were about it.
This is a body that stood up to many years of ballet training and asked to be pushed. Being a ballet dancer (and a bit of a perfectionist) doesn’t exactly make for a relaxed relationship with your body, and we had our moments. But this was a body I understood intimately. It earned me my living as a ballet teacher, and I kept it in good shape—more or less.
Then this body of mine reached 40 and, of course, I had to concede some age-related limitations gracefully. I didn’t mind that; I just smiled inwardly as I learned to use my hands to get up from the floor—as my knees began to whinge a little—as I discovered the need for caution in running for the bus, where once a couple of grand jetés might have got me there to a standing ovation.
But then this body of mine really let me down. For an undisclosed period of time, it had been harbouring a rogue cell that now set out to divide and conquer. And then I couldn’t turn a blind eye anymore: what I could feel just under my skin was the tip of the iceberg and it all had to come out. Then came the toxic flush of chemo, which destroyed good and bad; then came the blitz of radiation, burning me from the inside.
I did not trust this new body at all. It was faulty—stiff and creaky—uncoordinated and fragile. I couldn’t walk and talk at the same time. I discovered that my street has an incline to it. Napping became a highlight of my day.
I hated how I felt. I despised taking pills every day. Seeing my reflection in the mirror each morning was like a kick in the teeth. I missed my old self and longed for a rewind button so I could at least go back and say goodbye to her.
But then, like those powerful images of burnt forests sprouting greenery, stark against the blackened trunks, in this body of mine, there were signs of new life. In my taste buds, my nails and my hair, there was regeneration—of a sort.
Our bodies are meant to be healthy, and they are beautifully designed to recover. Sometimes they can’t do it on their own and they need help, and sometimes they don’t succeed, but not for want of trying.
This body of mine, battered as it is, has withstood the onslaught. It’s been through the mill and it’s going okay. I now feel such affection for it. I look at it with bits missing—the scars and reminders—the bits that don’t work as well or look as good—and I am so proud of it. It is not a new body; it is the same body that used to climb trees and do fouettés—the same body that hiked up mountains and went clubbing. It has been through a lot recently, and it has not let me down at all; it has coped magnificently.
As a Christian, I have a particular view of this tent that I inhabit: this body, since the minute it came into being, was heading towards the inevitable. I am so thankful for the fun I have with this astonishing arrangement of bones and muscles, sinews and nerves. But it is a temporary playmate; I cannot extend its lease, prolong its usefulness or reverse the effects of years on it.
I believe in a God who has decreed the length of my life and lovingly numbered my days—a God who has counted the hairs on my head (even when there were none to count; he knew the dormant follicles that would spring back to life!)—a God who became flesh in order to suffer in that flesh for me so that I might look forward with joyful certainty to a new eternal incorruptible body.
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable;
it is sown in dishonour, it will be raised in glory;
it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;
it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
(1 Corinthians 15:42-44 )
Honestly, I am scared that, in time, my body will need to rise to the challenge again. That is the nature of cancer. Next time the attack may be more brutal and more difficult to treat. My defences may not be as strong. But I trust that this body will try until there’s nothing left to give. Each day, my body gently—and sometimes not so gently—reminds me I am finite, and asks me to remember who I am and where I’m headed. I have a different sort of love for my wonky body now, and a different sort of confidence.
This last decade or so, I’ve been doing an annual cartwheel just to make sure I still can. I’m a bit nervous about the 2020 cartwheel—nervous that it’s all going to end in a crumpled, undignified heap on the ground. But you know what? If I can’t do a cartwheel anymore, who cares? It’s the scars and the tightness—the tweaks and the tiny tattoos—that will testify to this body’s God-given strength and beauty so much more than a cartwheel ever could.