Part 7: 'Small deaths and resurrections': Her long Lent is ending; tested by cancer, Episcopal Bishop Geralyn Wolf finds her spirit reawakening
March 30, 1997
Episcopal Bishop Geralyn Wolf has a new house, with freshly-painted walls the color of linen, and poetry on the fridge in the sunny kitchen, and curtains from Job Lot on the windows ("$9.95!"), and her three-legged sofa finally out of storage and propped up on a concordance of the Bible ("Oh, that's where that is! That's good!")
She also has hair again.
And full use of her pitching arm.
She looks strong and energetic and, one thing's definite, she has no problem with her appetite.
Recently, she was at a breakfast meeting of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, she says, when the host, Roman Catholic Bishop Louis B. Gelineau, invited her to have another waffle.
"And I did. Then I said, 'Maybe I'll have another waffle.' Then he said, 'How'd you like another waffle?' Four waffles later, I decided I'd probably had enough . . . "
It's okay. If anybody needs the carbs, it's Bishop Wolf.
She swims every morning and, as if making up for the year she lost battling breast cancer, she has been putting in 10-hour days at the office and racking up the frequent-flyer miles.
Since January, she's been to North Carolina, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., then back to North Carolina - all on church business.
Today she is flying to Louisville, Kentucky, on a personal errand: She is finally reclaiming her yellow cat, Gyro, from the people who've been taking care of him for more than a year.
(The name Gyro, she says, comes from St. Benedict, who identified three categories of monks: Gyrovague is the type of monk who flits from one monastery to another; Gyro is the type of cat that bonds with anyone who pets and feeds him.)
"Isn't it great? I'll get Gyro, and then I'll be all set," said the bishop the other day, standing in her new Everett Street digs and looking as contented as she has in a long time.
Occasionally, she has a stab of worry about the cancer returning, she says, but otherwise, she feels her long season of Lent is over.
"Lent for me came maybe sometime in September or October," she says, referring to the grueling chemotherapy regimen that sapped her energy and made her moody. "The darkness, the wondering if there was an end in sight, the idea of betrayal, that my body's been betrayed and I don't know what's betrayed it.
"And then to be so vulnerable to drugs and doctors and nurses and X-rays -all of that was sort of a Gethsemane, in a way," she says, referring to Jesus' agony in the garden. "Except that there were so many people there with me in the garden, it wasn't as if I was alone."
BISHOP WOLF, came to Rhode Island from Kentucky in February, 1996, had been bishop only three months before finding a lump in her breast. After tests revealed the lump was malignant, she had a radical mastectomy on July 3. A week later, she learned the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, and she soon began chemotherapy - an experimentally high dose of two powerful chemicals, plus what her doctor called "a whole hatful" of other drugs: anti-nausea medication, a preventative antibiotic and a white-blood-cell stimulant.
It took a toll.
At her lowest, she reported being tired and sad and impatient with people's facile assurances that "this, too, will pass."
Always, though, she maintained a cheerful public presence: tossing a ball at a clergy picnic in September, mugging it up with Mayor Vincent A. Cianci at a breast cancer walk in October and, without bothering to hide her bald head, preaching at a different Episcopal parish each Sunday.
She took some time off over the holidays to visit friends and get settled in her house. Then in January, she sat down again with the Journal-Bulletin for an interview at her office.
It may as well have been spring. In the corner of the room, an unusual tree bloomed with what looked like daisies, and the bishop, her new hair a churning sea of cowlicks, was beaming.
"Just to feel myself regaining energy, hopefulness, expectation and excitement about my work] I am just so surprised now at how much energy I'm getting, how many ideas I'm beginning to have. I feel like I'm coming back to life again.
"The only thing," she continued, her smile fading, "is that on Thursday, I go back to the doctor for my next drug, Tamoxifen, so I'm not looking forward to it."
Tamoxifen is a hormone therapy that Wolf will take in pill form for five years. Its side effects include depression and mood swings, something Wolf is not eager to endure again.
As a precaution, she met a few times with the psychiatrist affliated with her cancer doctors, someone who can monitor her progress and prescribe anti-depressants, if necessary.
Another side effect of Tamoxifen is that it causes menopause to kick in, but the bishop, who will turn 50 in April, was less worried about that. "Every woman goes through it. It would be in my future real soon, anyway. That's a fact of life."
As it turned out, she said last week, the mood swings didn't happen, and the occasional menopausal symptoms are practically unnoticeable, amounting only to what she called "warm flashes."
She did have a scare earlier this month when she found out her liver enzyme count was high, a sign of , and she also had a mammogram done of her left breast.
It was just a regular check-up, but it was her first since the surgery, and she was nervous - especially when her surgeon, Dr. Chang said, "Let us look at the results together."
"Those were the same words she used the first time," says Wolf, "and I'm sure she didn't notice. I'm sure she uses those words all the time. But for me, it was, 'Oh, no] Something else is wrong]' "
Nothing was. The enzyme count was just some leftover effect of the chemo, she said, and the mammogram was clear.
And so, with her health issues thus under control, Bishop Wolf turns her attention more and more toward defining her mission as bishop.
ONE SATURDAY, for instance, she got curious about South Providence, where one of her parishes is having financial trouble, and she drove there, parked and walked around.
"It was wonderful," she reports. "I went into a shop that sold all kinds of religious candles, including those for Buddha and Martin Luther King and Mary." She visited the soup kitchen run by the church, then drove to the Cranston line, where she stopped at a thrift shop and bought some chairs.
"I wanted to see, get a feel," she said. "It's too easy to sit in my office from afar and say, 'Well, I think this should happen or that should happen,' when I don't know the neighborhood."
She has hired an administrator to run the nuts-and-bolts of diocesan businesss so that she can devote more time to such pastoral tasks, and her calendar is fast filling up.
She's slated to speak about spirituality and healing at Butler Hospital on April 28. She's planning a hunger march for May. Next year, she wants to lead a group on a trip to visit monks in Taize, France, to experience their chanted meditative prayer.
In her own spiritual life, she says she is just beginning to incorporate her cancer experience into her preaching.
"If you're in a dark room and the light goes on, you can't see," she says. "It takes a while for your pupils to adjust, and then things become increasingly clear. I think my eyes are adjusting."
Recently, she had an insight about death.
It happened after she returned home from bringing communion to a Barrington parishioner. The woman had developed breast cancer when she was the same age as Wolf, and now, seven years later, was dealing with a recurrence.
"So I was hit square in the face with the reality of the power of this disease," says Wolf. "Whether or not I would ever have a recurrence, still, she did, and I identified with her. I thought, my goodness, what if I died? What if I died? I thought, what would happen to all that I am?
Those words - "I am" - reminded her, she said, of Moses's exchange with God at the burning bush.
- Who should I say that you are? Who should I say sent me?
- Tell them, I am sent you.
For Wolf, this idea was a great comfort, to think of living "forever in the great I am."
By last week, when she was interviewed, Wolf hadn't yet prepared her Easter message, but the thoughts on her mind seem appropriate to the season.
She spoke of all the "small deaths and resurrections" that a human being experiences in a lifetime, and how one is not alone, no matter that it seems that way.
At times during her recuperation, she says, she was so tired, confused or anxious that she let her usual spiritual disciplines slip, and even wondered where she was in her faith.
It was as if, like the apostles on Good Friday, she had fallen asleep.
"But even as I'm talking to you, it's sort of unfolding for me. I can see that, even when I fell asleep, that Jesus did not sleep. That he was praying in me."