Part 4: Bishop draws upon inner strength: Wih grace and humor, Episcopal Bishop Geralyn Wolf begins recovering from surgery for breast cancer
July 7, 1996
*Two old friends by her bed.
*A bowl of red Jell-O (with a tiny flag stuck in it for Independence Day).
*The button on her bedrail that she presses to deliver morphine when the pain creeps back.
At this moment, shortly after noon on Thursday, one day after her breast cancer surgery, little else seems to exist in the world of Episcopal Bishop Geralyn Wolf.
"I like red Jell-O, so I'm very happy," says the bishop, speaking softly in a room that, to promote healing, is kept so warm, life seems to unfold in slow motion.
Her doctors are satisfied with the surgery at Women & Infants Hospital, a modified radical mastectomy in which her right breast was removed, then reconstructed using fat and muscle from her back.
This week, tests are expected to show whether the cancer has spread, and what kind of post-surgical treatment she'll need.
Besides the pathology report on the removed breast and lymph nodes, Wolf also will get the results of a biopsy of some "calcifications" in her other breast, a condition said to be common among women with dense breasts.
"Most calcium turns out to be benign," says Dr. Douglas J. Marchant, head of the Breast Health Center at Women & Infants.
On this first day of her recuperation, the bishop - who has agreed to let the Journal-Bulletin chronicle her journey with breast cancer - is attached by plastic tubes to hanging bags of intravenous drugs and fluids, her right arm elevated on a pillow.
She is "amazed," she says, by what's been done for her so far, and most of all, grateful.
"She just loves everything we do," says nurse Louise Frenger, as Wolf, succumbing to a dose of morphine, slowly closes her eyes and drifts off again.
Each time she awakes, one of her friends - Vicki Ellis, a social worker from Philadelphia, or the Rev. Jo-Ann Drake, rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Providence - is there to offer a sip of water through a bent straw.
"Fire away with your questions," says a revived Wolf, turning just her head toward a reporter.
"Do you still believe in God?" she is asked.
The bishop smiles, it is such an easy one, but she goes ahead and puts it on the record - "Absolutely."
*A roll of aluminum foil.
*Two new sponges.
*Two plates, two knives, two forks, two spoons and two bowls (not including a few spoons and a bowl left behind after a potluck dinner.)
Such are the contents of Bishop Wolf's kitchen, and oh, she says, some cans of chicken noodle soup, though, unfortunately, no can opener.
"How wonderful it is to have nothing," she said she's discovering. "There is something to be said for carrying very little when one is on the spiritual journey."
At a healing service at the Cathedral of St. John last week, Wolf rejoiced that most of her belongings are in storage until next month, when the bishop's residence on Brown Street will be sold (with 16 large rooms, it's too big to maintain). She delighted in having not even a cat to go home to.
Marriage might be nice, she said in an interview the next day. But "it is not always easy to meet someone who shares a common spiritual life and is willing to be patient with somebody with a crazy schedule.
"I've always put my vocation to the ordained ministry first, and I've never regretted that."
Simplicity. Freedom. Now she knows what Luke 10: 1-6 - about carrying no purse, nor pack, nor shoes - is all about. "I've seen that gospel passage come alive in my life," says Wolf.
Indeed, by the time surgery day rolled around, her world seemed so pared down, it had all but disappeared.
"We're in this room right now," she said in the hours before surgery Wednesday, in a Zen-like answer to a question about whether she sees herself as a role model. "Right now, I only know these four walls and they all happen to be greenish - which is not my favorite color."
IF PRAYER is water, Geralyn Wolf is a fish. She breathes it, she swims in it. It lives in her and she lives in it.
During quiet moments in the recent healing service at the Cathedral of St. John, which was packed with people, she seemed so lost in meditation, one wondered: Where did she go? What was it like?
She was "resting with God," she said later. "Even when there's a big liturgy or a big service, once we start, then for me, anxiety leaves. On that day, I could have been in my own room or with 400 people, it's the same."
Prayer is "part of my being," she says. "The garments of prayer have been worn over a long time and through many different occasions in life."
She was 5 years old, the daughter of nonpracticing Jewish parents, when, while standing outside a church, she felt "the loving presence of Jesus."
It led her to the priesthood.
Then, when she was 33, she was interviewing to become the vicar of St. Mary's Church in Philadelphia, and felt it again, "that same profound experience of God that I had at 5."
Asked to describe it, she thinks a minute - "I don't want to be trite, you know. I could use words like 'peace' and 'presence.' They would be accurate words, but I also want to say that, in both cases, I had a great sense of freedom," and also of "energy for action."
All her life, she has devoted herself, mind and body, to spiritual things, trying many different forms of prayer and meditation, and finding each one suitable.
"There are universal yearnings," says Wolf, "and they're not owned by any one particular person or group."
Last year, while visiting a friend in Nepal, Wolf meditated there. She hadn't planned on doing so, she says, but "I'm not sure one can go to Nepal without meditating."
"I found a beautiful, holy spirit about the place," she says, and "even though I'm a Christian and not a Hindu . . . it is very easy to pray there."
At the local Roman Catholic church (there was no Anglican church), she found a "humbleness" and a respect for Indian customs: People removed their shoes at the door, and sat on cushions. Incense was burned in an Indian pot.
(Of the few items of clothing Wolf owns, several were made for her in Nepal.)
These days, the bishop's spiritual routine includes spending 10 to 2 8minutes each morning reflecting on the prayers selected for the day by the Episcopal Church. In this way, she says, she unites with others who have kept the same discipline.
"I'm always inviting the word into the heart of my life," she says. "And sometimes, there is a meeting ground, and sometimes there isn't. Sometimes it's very rote and merely a discipline. And then there are those moments when the word has become my own. There's a profound encounter with the word of God."
Art, too, is a form of prayer.
From blocks of wood, Wolf makes sculptures - "Beeple People," she calls them. One, named Rachel, who faces the bishop's desk in her diocesan office, especially delights her. Rachel is painted bright purple and blue, with painted wooden balls for eyes and wire curls on her head. Her job, says the bishop, is to "just stand and look wonderful."
These "utterly ridiculous and whimsical figures," says Wolf, spring from a spiritual source. "For me, creativity and spirituality are closely linked."
It is what Jesus meant, she believes, when he said to become like little children.
IT WAS that same childlike spirit, which, 10 years ago, compelled Wolf to decorate her church altar with weeds.
She was the vicar of St. Mary's in Philadelphia, a poverty-stricken place that she loved, (though visitors thought she was "nuts.")
With 40 percent of the houses boarded up, it was "a neighborhood most people would not wish to walk in, much less live in," she said, and indeed, three previous candidates for vicar turned down the assignment. But in her eyes, the place was "fantastic."
"The empty lots had good stuff in them," she says. "Some people, they saw weeds. For me, I saw wildflowers."
Since there was no money in the church budget for flowers, she'd gather the wildflowers into bouquets to decorate the altar. "Bachelor's buttons, Queen Anne's lace . . . people wanted to know why we had these weeds in the church. They were very nice, I thought.
"A sole of a shoe, junk in the lot, I could see that as being the raw material for some artwork or something. I didn't see it as being horrible or dangerous, but as sort of fun and filled with possibilities.
"Not so unlike Rhode Island."
WHEN SHE was picked to come here, people warned her:
"Oh, my goodness, the economy is so awful, and the politicians are so crooked, and the state is so small, so many parishes in trouble, the stewardship isn't very good. But I saw these things as all being wonderful opportunities - sort of like the wildflowers - to teach the whole church what's possible when you think things are down."
She's visited 50 of the state's 65 Episcopal parishes so far, and what's she's discovered in the people here, she said, is "a tremendous amount of honesty, faithfulness. They're seekers. They don't have all the answers, which I think is very positive."
Rhode Island, she declares, is "a little bit of heaven on Earth."
She loves all the small, ethnic grocery stores, where at Easter time one can find "an egg in a bread." She loves the bakeries where she gets bowties - "a wonderful cookie you usually find in Jewish bakeries, and they sell them here]" She loves Japanese food.
"You can get all these things right here in Rhode Island] All within 1 8minutes of where I live]
"The state is beautiful and the people - they have opinions, emotions, passions. It's not bland, that's what I like about Rhode Island. I haven't found anything bland about it."
She quotes a former archbishop of Canterbury: "There's nothing worse than the bland leading the bland."
WOLF IS herself anything but bland, but can be rather formidable.
The Rev. Jo-Ann Drake, who has known the bishop since they were in seminary together, agrees that, though her friend is largely a gentle soul, she does have a "practical businesswoman side," the side that makes Drake react with, "Whoa] Whatever you say]"
The bishop makes no apology.
It goes with being a "truth-teller," she says, a person who is "clear about thoughts and feelings," and who can say, "What's the reality of a situation? What needs to be done?"
"I think I'm a realist, with a heart," she says. "A realist with compassion. I'm not afraid to make decisions, nor do I have to please everyone."
As a leader, she says, she tries to discern what's important from what's insignificant, while staying aware that she may be wrong.
Spiritually, she says, her goal is to be present to the word of God, not trying "to manipulate it or to reshape it for one's own needs."
Even if one's needs - especially one's physical needs - are great?
"I have the need to be cured of cancer," she says, with characteristic directness. "I have the need to be settled in my new house. I have the need to have my possessions taken out of storage and put in appropriate places.
"But in the end, those aren't the deep needs that I have in life. The deep need that I have in life is to experience the presence of God and to love and to be loved.
"That, at the heart of everything - that - is what I need. All the other, I could do without. There is nothing that I have which I could not let go of."
YESTERDAY, "Rachel Beeple" was still at work - standing and looking wonderful - only now she did it on a counter across from the bishop's bed, her curly head tilted in an attitude of loving concern.
Which may be why the patient seemed so much stronger.
"She's a tough lady," said her plastic surgeon, Dr. Richard J. Zienowicz, pausing in the corridor after visiting her. "Her post-operative course has been very predictable. She looks great."
With her bed slightly raised, and her head against a plump pillow, Wolf cheerfully rattled off the "real food" she'd eaten on Friday, her first since the surgery: "Eggs for breakfast, and pineapple juice. Red Jell-O for dinner - I really like red Jell-O - tortellini, a lot of vegetables: spinach, broccoli, green beans . . . "
She gave it four stars.
Asked how she's feeling, she said she's "sore and tender," especially when she coughs or laughs (and she laughs quite a bit), and she can't raise her right arm, but she feels better every day.
She has an itchy head; she can't shampoo her hair until the drains are removed from her incisions. And her wounds itch, too, but that's "good news," she says, because it signals healing.
She is off the morphine, and is glad about it, since "I seemed to see things in snapshots and not in fluid motion." Now she is using Tylenol with codeine to relieve pain.
The only other medical news, she says, is that she had a brief fainting spell on Friday night when, restless from lying still, she tried to move from the bed to a chair and wound up slumping into the arms of a nurse. But such spells are not unusual, she was told, which is why smelling salts are handily taped to the back of the door.
She will try walking a little today, then may be discharged tomorrow, a day or so later than had been predicted, to guard against complications.
"The doctors reminded me that I've had two major surgeries at once," says Wolf, "so I would realize that the recovery is going to be a little slow - not to overdo it, to be careful."
She glanced at her chest, covered by a blanket, and asked how it looked. (It looked normal.) "Isn't it fantastic? The reconstruction is so good," she said, "that from where I am, I can't even tell the difference."
In fact, when a social worker came in to talk about the "mourning, loss and grief" that typically follows a mastectomy, Wolf told her that, having had the reconstruction, she's fine, that "it wasn't a big thing."
Nor does she have any trepidation about the test results she'll receive this week, she said, but is "feeling good about it."
She is so upbeat, one can't help but wonder: Is she just being brave for her flock?
"I don't think I'm being brave at all," she replies.
She motions toward Vicki Ellis, her friend from Philadelphia, who works with children with HIV. It's people like her, working in the cities, she says, "where there's so much chaos and discord," who are brave.
"This isn't bravery," she says. "This is just cooperating and being honest."
Out the window of her room, a visitor can see part of the hospital's black-tar-covered roof, a dreary expanse of parking lots, some nondescript medical buildings and, way off in the distance, a storage tank.
The bishop, from her bed, sees something else: "Blue sky. Stars at night. One big star, probably a planet."