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To Crawl Inside
Can we ever truly know another's suffering?
The local NPR station airs a show on Minnesota caves. One guest is an interpretive naturalist from Mystery Cave; another is the part-owner of Niagara Cave. They speak of karst country in the southeastern corner of the state: sinkholes, caves, and underground springs formed where water sunk into limestone. Whole systems hidden beneath the soil.
I am fascinated with caves, the deep underground beneath all of us. The dark places of grief, mortality, and mystery that connect us. Each summer I drag my family through another cave, leading my beloved children from road trip sunshine into subterranean cold. They like them, too: the eerie lighting on slimy walls, the spindly stalactites hanging like spooky chandeliers, the lurking threat of bats and bugs.
But they do not feel the same tug that I do, the lingering regret when we leave behind the dank dark and climb the stairs back toward light. I always turn, wanting to stay longer, wondering what more we might find.
“Caves are windows to the underworld,” says the expert on the radio.
Each one tells a different story.
My older brother was diagnosed with cancer when I was ten. The pain in his leg turned out to be not a sports injury but Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer usually found in children or young adults. Even at 19 he was assigned to the pediatric ward, Sesame Street characters beaming from the walls of his hospital room.
My younger brothers and I spent hours in hospital lobbies, waiting for Jay to finish chemo or radiation. I knew he was getting sicker, losing his hair, walking slower, wincing with pain. I heard my parents talking late at night. By the end I helped push his wheelchair into church, half-thinking it was cool that he had wheels, half-worried what would come next. But I had few words to make sense of what was happening.
A child can climb up into a lap, but not inside another’s suffering.
Caves are repositories, long used as burial sites. Jesus himself was buried in a cave, the rare rock tomb that held both death and life. They demand our respect, not only from fear of the unknown but also honor of the known: grottos and caverns are ancient sacred spaces.
On the radio, the experts discuss the difference between public or “commercialized” caves and wild caves. Both wild and tame caves contain surprises: underground waterfalls and unusual species. Both attract scientists keen on research that can’t be done on the surface. Both stay oddly consistent, always 48 degrees in Minnesota even in the baking heat of summer.
But in wild caves, you must respect the risk of danger. You need a guide with the right experience, expertise, and equipment. You must always bring three people and three sources of light with you. This is a hard and fast rule, they insist.
Yet you need not fear the wild underground. The cave owner shares his father’s wisdom, words he has carried with him for years: “If you got in, you could get out.”
Different person, different cancer, different outcome.
I repeated this mantra over and over in the early weeks after diagnosis, the terrible morass of unknown that every survivor told me was the worst part.
Just because my brother died young does not mean I will, too. Now I know more of what he suffered, but our stories are not the same. Rare bone cancer in a 21 year-old is not the same as breast cancer in a 42 year-old, even if both are startling in the way of suffering, even if both disrupt our easy assumptions about how a life should stretch.
Yet I have followed him into the cave, a place where none of our siblings have gone.
By definition, compassion must reach beyond curiosity. If we are to suffer-with someone, we cannot keep a safe distance.
We need training to build endurance. Prayer can be a first step: our petitions for others and our willingness to remember those suffering when we ourselves are not. Service invites us into another step: to care, to cook, to call, to nurse, to drive, to listen.
But even empathy has its existential limits. We cannot go where the other goes. Even when we long to stretch across the divide, those who are safe or healthy remain on the opposite shore. It is counterintuitive to keep taking one step beyond fear, convincing our animal bodies that we can draw close to deep suffering.
When you learn of a whole dark world opening beneath you that you never knew existed, it’s only natural to shrink back and want to stay on the surface. No wonder so many of us are claustrophobic or afraid of the dark, even in adulthood. Yet life and love keep asking us to try, beckoning us to love even when we might lose.
One radio guest talks about “the long crawl”: sixteen hours he spent exploring a wild cave, hunched over in less than twenty inches, trudging through a foot of water. The show host is baffled: how is this possible? Our bodies and minds adjust, he responds.
“The cave just keeps going, and that’s why we keep going.”
My parents published Jay’s journal and letters after he died. The evolution of a young man’s suffering, a testimony to his faith.
In one small part before he got sick, he mentions young me by name: “Laura sent me a little laminated picture which reads ‘GO ND! TO: AN ND FAN. FROM: PH.D.’ She is quite a kid, she is going to make something of her life. I hope that I can help her.
Everyone needs someone to talk to.”
For thirty years after his death, I carried the first few sentences so close to my heart that they became embedded. Our connection, his perception, my mission.
But now I carry his last sentence even closer. No longer a puzzling toss-away at the end, but a prescient invitation into lasting kinship.
His arm reached out to me who would come behind him.
All we can do is crouch low to enter the darkness and follow each other down. We go step by step even as the cold grows, knowing we are far from the first. We hold our breath as we inch along the tight spaces and hold the hushed silence when faced with the rush of awe. Here is something we have never seen before, a part of existence we would not have known if another had not led us inside.
Jay’s presence with me has become so strong in these past months that I dare not put it into words, not yet. But I can tell you this: no cave is empty. The darkest spaces can become the most sacred.
Be not afraid. I am with you.
If this promise was given in the light, will it not carry us through the dark?
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