April 17, 2014

Dixil Rodríguez is a university professor and volunteer hospital chaplain living in Texas.

Cartography of Faith

We’re all pilgrims.

“Some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.”* I have known both.

* * *

I drop the last journal into a packing box. That’s 10 boxes of journals; 10 boxes detailing a journey I never expected. This is the only tangible proof of who I was and what I have gone through. These will be the only boxes I pack. The contents too personal and precious to trust to anyone who fails to understand their content. I look around at the chaos surrounding me.

Preparing to Say Goodbye

It is late in the evening. In my apartment in Orem, Utah, my parents are helping me pack. My life represented in boxes: small boxes, big boxes, boxes full of clothes, books, and memories. I hear the distinct sound of tape being pulled off the dispenser, rolling over the seam of boxes. Closure. Temporary or permanent? Who knows which boxes I will open first, or never?

In 14 hours we will travel down an unknown road. Earlier Dad plotted a path on an atlas. He opened the oversized book, looked at the options, then closed the book. He pushed it aside and said he had found our way “there,” no worries. But exhaustion and doubt roam about the apartment, and I find his words to be of little comfort. I have little to offer this expedition. Except this journey is for me. Mom and Dad have taken time away from work to spend the holiday moving me to a different state, a state of being and a state of location. A new beginning somewhere, anywhere but here.

Collecting mail at my apartment mailbox has become an athletic feat. As I walk through heavy-packed snow to pick up mail, I stop to look at the mountains. Beautiful. Utah. A place I have called home for years. How long? Who knows? The calendar I look at each day outlines teaching schedules and oncology treatments; a calendar that tells me when and where to show up, but provides no promises for what will happen when I arrive. As I wade through piles of snow and clumsy motions between mittens and a tiny mailbox key, I find there is only one letter in my mailbox. My heart drops into the snow as I see the letter is from Texas Woman’s University. Am I in?

I sit in my favorite spot in the world: the lake. It is a short drive from my home. There are benches and a view that no skilled painter could truly capture. I am meeting my friend Viola. Four weeks ago Viola’s daughter, Julia, died two days before the end of her chemotherapy infusion trials. Two days. She was my best friend. As I see Viola’s car pull into the parking lot I notice the car seat. All that is left as evidence of Julia’s life is her precious 5-year-old son. What will be the evidence of my life?

We sit and talk for a while. I tell Viola that on my last night teaching, my college students brought a cake and balloons. They prepared a banner that said “Good Luck!” We simply spent time with one another. The celebration ended with words of goodwill, hugs, and a gift: a disposable camera to take pictures of my trip. Viola smiles as she listens. She has cared for me so many times through this journey of uncertainty.

I show her the letter from Texas Woman’s University. She reads it, carefully holding it by the edges with her gloves. Then she looks at me and simply says: “It’s time. God has kept you alive through a trial where you alone survived. There is no one left but you. This is not a coincidence or a mistake. This is God’s work at hand.”

Holding the letter, she closes her eyes and whispers, “Praise God.” Her smile and tears are so genuine. “This, my child, is your next journey. It will be a blessed journey. Move forward, but don’t forget where you’ve been.”

I hold up the camera and take a photograph of where we are sitting, the beautiful view, because I don’t want to forget where I have been.

A Survivor’s Tale

The room is colder than usual. I sit in a chair not far from the examination table. I am not sitting up there today. Today I get to wear my regular clothes, not a hospital gown, and I get to speak to my doctor on a level plane.

There is nothing unfamiliar about this room. I can tell you how many tiles there are on the floor, how many cabinets there are and their contents. This has been more than an oncology consultation room for five years.

Usually I sit on the examination table wearing a small frock, freezing, waiting for the oncologist, phlebotomist, nurse, radiologist. Sometimes it seems as though it’s just for a moment, but sometimes I can feel the waiting seeping into my day, stealing precious hours from me, more so than the cancer itself. All I do is wait.

I have been part of a case study for five years. Today I get news about my treatment. The doctors tell me I am a “medical mystery,” that I “must have the most amazing faith to get through this,” and some days that almost sounds believable. If I think about how I have affected future oncology treatment, the progress, how others may not have to endure what I did, maybe this could all make sense. Maybe. Otherwise I have simply lost all my friends in this oncology ward. I was the first one expected to die. With such an aggressive cancer, I was the first one expected to die. Yet here I am, the last one standing where hopeful souls once stood with me.

I hear the familiar voice of my physician outside the closed door. And there she is, walking through, healthy and vibrant, with a piece of paper that determines my future. She sits next to me, her familiar blue eyes lively. There is a smile on her face. “Good news,” she says. And I wait.

The Journey Ahead

I close the door to an empty apartment. The morning is gray and cold. Fall has long passed. Winter has gripped the mountains. My future has been plotted as carefully as our route: straight ahead, no, left, no, right. It is time to head to a new place, a new home. As I unlock the car, I see the disposable camera. Maybe one last picture of the mountains. I will miss them. Carelessly I turn around and snap the photo, not taking time even to frame the photo or look back and see with my own eyes what the lens could warn us about.

Two hours later we drive in silence. The road is nearly impenetrable. Mom travels in the vehicle with me. The only guidance I have are the taillights of the U-Haul truck my dad’s driving in front of me. We travel at less than 10 miles per hour. Angry winds blow snow all around us. Our first hours of driving have placed us in the middle of a storm so severe I cannot imagine how my father has any visibility. My spirits are low, and the only grounding I feel is the traction of my vehicle rolling over the tire marks left by the truck ahead. I am simply following, wondering if this was a good idea or not.

I lie sleepless. My parents are asleep in the adjoining room. Christmas found us traveling somewhere between Utah and Colorado. There was no special holiday gathering or meal; just us. Earlier we sat at a table in a fast-food restaurant and watched the snow keep falling, building. The town we are in has been shut down by the perilous weather. Watching the snowfall, I feel as if I am sitting inside a snow globe violently shaken, and there is no hope of clarity amid the constantly shifting environment.

How did we get here? My eyes fall on the atlas that has made its way to my backpack.As I leaf through the atlas I see the clusters of multicolored lines, the empty spaces that run off the page. Maps, a guide, a visual guide to observe the populated and newly discovered terrains of the world. I don’t think maps have ever lacked in humanity. What are the markers we recognize, the ones outside the span of a map or the pages of an atlas? Those markers that let us know “we are almost there,” such as a gravel road, a magnificent tree, or the last hill on the journey home. A map is a guide to keep the explorer, the traveler, the one embarking on a journey, safe. It shouldn’t be expected that said “journey” would be perilous. But if you don’t know where you are going, is it not dangerous to move forward? Maybe maps were intended to entirely avoid the perilous parts of a journey. How long have we relied on cartography to help us traverse spaces?

Of interest to me are not the lines that delineate how to get from point A to point B; of greater value to me is the question of space. The area outside those lines: the space between. Our journey, this journey, transcends the lines of a map. Some journeys begin with the best of intentions. Some, like ours, are full of great hope and faith, emotions that linger on the margins of any map. I trace my finger along the line, the “road” to Texas. New Year’s will still find us on the road.

Dangers and Delights

The road is dangerous. I should know this. What was meant to be a two-day journey has become a weeklong traverse. On our seventh day of travel the snow has not stopped, but the temperature is rising. With one lane to travel in, the snow around us sometimes reaches the height of my car window. At any point where the snow has become ice, trucks venture over it to pass slower traffic. The road is dangerous.

As we begin a downhill crawl, I notice the truck behind me taking the left lane and passing us. As one truck begins to pass, I notice another truck behind me traveling at a faster speed. The truck on my left splashes snow, mud, and sand on my windshield. My attempts to clean the windshield prove useless as a light on my dashboard begins to blink: no windshield wiper fluid available. After days of silent travel, I hear my voice claim my own human condition: “Help me! I can’t see where I’m going.”

As soon as the words leave me, I feel a blast of cold air as my mother lowers the passenger window and looks ahead, directing my driving, leading me forward. I barely hear her above the incessant screaming of the truck’s horn. After a half mile of driving blind, an exit appears. I pull into the first gas station we encounter. As I turn off the engine my entire body is shaking. Now I recognize danger, uncertainty, and the perilous journey we are in. I recognize it as if I have been oblivious to it all along.

I am the only customer in the small convenience store. I find the last two blue bottles of windshield wiper fluid. My hands are still shaking as I hand the money to the old man behind the cash register. He tells me he hasn’t seen snow like this for more than 10 years. He tells me the roads should not be traveled on in this weather. Then he asks, “Where are you headed?”

The stranger closes the register drawer, offers to carry the heavy bottles to my car, and helps me refill the empty fluid tank. He tells me to wait a minute. I watch him walk to a pickup truck and bring out two more blue bottles. He places them in the trunk of my car. “You can’t be too sure about those roads,” he says. “Best take the extra bottles. No charge.” He shakes my hand, tells me to drive safe, then walks back into the store.

We begin our travel before the sun comes up. I am driving alone. We have weathered the storm and we will reach Texas today. What will happen? The journey on the dark road is slow. Then all of a sudden something beautiful happens. The sun comes out. The beauty of the colors is amazing. As we pull in for breakfast I take a picture of the sunrise. I have never seen anything like it.

Minor Details

We travel a few hours more, and unexpectedly I see my father pull into a gas station. We don’t need a break; what could be happening? He tells me that it’s time to call the university. I pull out the business card for Hugh Burns, the department chair for the rhetoric program. It’s January 2; nobody will be in the office. My father does not listen to my arguments, but simply hands me a phone.

One ring, two rings. Burns is there. His cheerful voice is a welcome sound: “Ms. Rodríguez! We’ve been expecting you! Classes begin Monday. Let me give you some enrollment codes. I trust you’ve had a wonderful journey?” As I write the enrollment codes down my father takes out a credit card from his wallet. As Burns transfers me to the registrar’s office my father says, “Pay for the classes. Make sure you’re enrolled; then we’ll keep driving.” I hold back tears as I talk to the registrar.

We sit in a small office across the desk from Amber. Right now she has all the power and authority in the room; she is the apartment manager. She explains why there is no vacancy: “Classes begin in three days. There was a waiting list. You should have called months ago to reserve one of our units.”

A waiting list. Even in a new environment I am destined to wait. My father sits calmly with his coat on and his hat in his hands. He looks at Amber and in a kind voice says, “Would you check again? You see, we have traveled a long way to get here.” He pauses, leans into the desk, and with a determined smile says, “This is where we are meant to be.”

I look at my family. They are tired.I have traveled to Texas borrowing on the strength and faith of my family. Having them carry me along the dangerous path because I am not able to walk it on my own. God, the author of this journey, has opened many doors. Still, we wait.

As Amber checks her computer, a knock on the door distracts her. The gentleman at the door wears a maintenance uniform. He apologizes for the interruption and explains that the maintenance crew worked on apartment 401. “The paint is dry, and we just installed the carpet. It’s ready to go,” he says, and leaves as quickly as he appeared.

I watch as Amber slowly withdraws her hands from the computer keyboard and with wide eyes looks at my father, who nods in greater understanding of the event. “That is our apartment,” he says with a smile. Amber draws up the rental contract.

The Life of Faith

I awake alarmed, as if someone has just recklessly disregarded my need for rest. I immediately find my surroundings foreign. The small apartment seems too big. This is where I will begin a new life. Feelings I haven’t revisited during the journey have traveled miles to come find me, and they have arrived. I am alone here.

I get up and walk to the window, pulling aside the blinds, hoping that the U-Haul is still there, that my parents are still here. No U-Haul. The day is clear. It feels like spring. I see my itinerary of classes carefully written out on a piece of paper next to my computer. I have to buy books for tomorrow.

As I pull into the university bookstore parking lot I am intimidated. Everyone knows where they are going. On the bookstore door is a sign: Please Leave Backpacks With Attendant. As I place my backpack on the counter, my hand feels the front pocket: the camera.

Five hours later I stand at the counter of a local pharmacy where my photos have been developed. The photo attendant watches me open the envelope and carefully remove the only three pictures that were in the camera. “Are you OK?” he asks. “Do you have to sit down? You look pale.”

I carefully lay all three photographs on the counter in order of succession. “Some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” I look at the picture of the lake where Viola and I sat, then at the picture of the angry blizzard coming over the mountains minutes before our departure from Utah. The last photograph is the unexpected, beautiful sunrise provided by the Great Cartographer of our journey; a sign that the storm had passed. It is evidence of our journey, a cartography of faith, and evidence of a heavenly authored journey.

* Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1915), p. 443.

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