"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet, listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made." -Luke 10:38-40, NIV
__I do not think I understood the Bible at all until I paid attention to the families I care for. In the pediatric cancer ward where I work, I see startling reflections of biblical themes. Scripture comes alive in the families I meet, showing me how the Bible lives and speaks to the complexities of our day. Two mothers in particular remind me very much of two friends of Jesus-the sisters of Luke 10, Mary and Martha.__
I never worried about my day starting on time if Teddy Campbell's name was on my clinic list. Martha and her son Teddy were usually in the waiting area long before the receptionist arrived. She wanted to be the first in line when the lab opened. By the time I entered the examining room, Martha was ready, greeting me with Teddy's completed blood report.
When Mary Bonito would finally reach the clinic with daughter Sarah, however, the nurses would be glancing impatiently at the clock. There was no way they could start the baby's chemotherapy and still get to lunch themselves. Mary would ask for the latest possible appointment but did not even make that on time. Nurses begged me to talk to Mary about punctuality, while the doctors coming in for the next specialty clinic grouched, "Why do your clinics always seem to run so late?"
Nine-year-old Teddy and nine-month-old Sarah came to us on the same day with the same disease. Their mothers, however, were quite different. Martha kept in regular touch with parents at other treatment centers, comparing notes. The only mothers that Mary sought out were those in the chemo room and the parents' support group. Martha shared with other parents what she had learned from Teddy's doctors about the newest research; Mary cared nothing for medical details and concerned herself with how the other moms were doing, whether their children were happy.
Like their biblical namesakes, Mary and Martha were as different as a fast and a feast.
When Teddy was born, Martha and Roger were ready. The young couple waited until they were financially secure before they started their family. Everything-even Teddy-had been planned. The birth of their second child three years after Teddy brought a brief moment of chaos, but Martha recovered quickly and restored order in no time.
Mary and Pete's children just happily happened. Sarah was their third in six years, the baby of the family and the only girl. Cheery chaos had ruled their home for so long that Pete could not remember the last time he had seen an uncluttered house. With each successive pregnancy, Mary's mother came a few days later, rescuing the family from the pizza taxi.
One day, Teddy's bones began to ache, keeping him awake at night. The first pediatrician called it "growing pains." The second doctor suggested arthritis as the diagnosis. Martha became frantic as she received no answer that helped. This was the first time that her life felt out of order. A neighbor stopped by one day for coffee, found her hysterical in her own kitchen, and took both her and Teddy to the emergency room.
A pediatrician showed Martha the x-ray film, pointing to the bones. "This should be all white, but the bones look moth-eaten, both legs. We think it's a tumor, a form of cancer."
Cancer! It was then that Martha knew that if Teddy were to survive-if she were to survive-she would have to get control of herself.
Mary was bathing baby Sarah one day when she noticed the little blue bump. Immediately, she took Sarah to the pediatrician's office. Upon seeing the baby, the doctor frowned and started to probe her body further.
"Mary, it's good that you noticed these so fast. But that's not all that there is. There's a mass deep in her belly, near her kidney, that I can feel." Cancer!
After her husband, Pete, arrived, they drove together to the hospital. In the elevator headed for the children's floor, Mary and Martha first met. On the same day that Teddy started his treatment at the school-age ward, baby Sarah began the fight for her life.
Both children started a six-month treatment program. Then one day, a nurse came into the conference room to talk to me. "You need to speak with Mary. I don't think she is ever going to get it."
We had progressed so much in the treatment of these children that we had passed on much of the daily care to the mothers. Most of them, like Martha, seemed to like the responsibility. Mary was another story. I went to see her, but stopped from entering when I heard another voice inside the room.
"I don't know why they expect that every mother will be Dr. Mom overnight." Mary's voice could be heard through the open door. "I'm just plain Mom and never pretended to be anything else." She was talking to Martha.
"Here, let me show you how I do it," Martha offered. She set up the dressing kit very professionally and then showed Mary her personal little tricks. "You've got it! See, I knew you could do it," Martha triumphed.
When I heard Martha's voice in the room, I knew that I didn't need to talk to Mary. She would get it now. Martha seemed to be a natural when it came to working things out.
Nevertheless, when the six months came to an end, Teddy and Sarah were in the chemo room together, and Martha was scolding Teddy about his attitude.
"Let's not get too serious about all this business, Mom. You're not the one getting the chemo. If the chemo doesn't work, it's nobody's fault. It's not your fault or mine."
She wasn't convinced by his answer. "Maybe we should go to another cancer center for an experimental treatment," she fretted.
Teddy answered, "But Mom, I like it here. These people are my friends." Sensing that Martha was on the verge of losing her temper, I walked into the room to defuse the situation. But the words "nobody's fault" rang in my ears. If the tumor came back, would Martha see it as her fault for not having researched enough? Or Teddy's fault for his attitude? Or my fault, because everybody likes to blame doctors today? Most likely, she would blame herself.
The problem was that the tumor was back. Despite everything we had offered, despite everything Martha had done, Teddy's cancer was back.
Mary and Martha faced the same medical crisis but handled it so differently, down to the questions that they asked me. My question to them was always the same: "Is it well with your soul?"
Sometimes, as in Martha's case, the question brought tears to the eyes and a droop to the shoulders. Struggling to care for a sick child, her life was preoccupied with the details of medical care. She had lost all sense of privacy and family. She was even losing her husband, who had been having an affair with his secretary for quite a while. Preferring this less- complicated relationship, Roger had moved in with the other woman, leaving the family.
"No," answered Martha. "It is not well with my soul."
Martha, with her strong personal interest in medical details and options, was typical of our times. I did not resent the intrusion of the laity into my medical realm. But I did regret that she spent so much time, commitment, and energy considering disease and treatment. There were more joyful ways for her and Teddy to occupy her days.
When I asked Mary the same question, she startled a bit, stammered a bit, then answered, "Well, I guess. Things are tough, but I'm grateful that they're going as well as they are." Her child was ill, but disease and treatment did not preoccupy her. Against the odds, she retained the ability to be woman, wife, mother. I listened to Mary and heard echoes of a civil-rights worker that Dr. Martin Luther King wrote about from a Birmingham jail. "My feets is tired," she said, "but my soul is at rest."
The first week after Teddy's relapse, Martha heard him crying in the night and woke from her sleep. She turned toward Roger, forgetting that he was gone. It had been two months since he had lived at home with them.
Martha went to Teddy's room and measured out the morphine to give him. She rocked him as it started to work its effect, then fell asleep with her child in her arms.
There was a knock at the door, late that night. The dream was so real that Martha even told herself so in her dream. She rose-in her dream-to answer the door and found a carpenter who held a lantern that was so bright that he seemed surrounded by light. But the light did not blind Martha nor hurt her eyes.
The carpenter told Martha that her house needed fixing, and he had come to repair it. She should simply rest. In this dream that seemed no dream, Martha surrendered herself to the deep, peaceful gift of sleep.
She awoke when her child whimpered slightly when she touched him. "It's okay, Teddy," she murmured. "We're going to the hospital. Like you said, they're your friends there. They'll take care of the pain."
Mary was at the hospital with Sarah on the day that Teddy went to intensive care. Sarah was to be admitted for her last course of chemotherapy. A "coming off" party had been planned for the final day.
When her daughter was settled in, Mary brought food back to the icu. Mary and Martha sat silently together, eating. It was Martha who broke the silence in an uneven staccato.
"Do you know how much I've resented you all these months? I'm ashamed to admit it. I even thought I hated you."
"Hush," said Mary, taking Martha into her arms. "You didn't really mean it. I know that." The tears were overflowing.
"I hated that you never seemed to work at being the mother of a child with cancer, and yet Sarah was doing well. How I hated you!"
Mary held Martha in her arms and rocked with her. I found them there together an hour later, unity and symmetry all together at once in the pose. Were they not each a part of the other?
This is how I came to understand the two biblical sisters: each a part of the other-and both a part of me. Are we not all some combination of Mary and Martha? Are there not times to be self-reliant and other times simply to depend on God?
Yet Jesus' words haunt me: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
Diane Komp is a pediatric cancer specialist and professor of pediatrics at Yale University. This article is adapted from her book Hope Springs from Mended Places (Zondervan).
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