One Journey, Two People: Part 3

My two most recent posts set the stage for a conversation with my husband about his baby boomer angst. Read One Journey, Two People: Part 2 and Part 1 before you judge David’s navel gazing (his words, not mine).

Simply put, he described himself as content a few years back, even to a place where he could “leave this life for the next tomorrow without regret.”  Although far from ready to quit and head for the golf course in his twilight years, a life suddenly interrupted would not be one of ‘I-wish-I-had’s’.  He felt satisfied about his contribution and life’s purpose.  He felt at peace.  An even better description would be shalom; a Hebrew word normally translated as peace but meant to be more – a state where everything is where is should be; a whole and complete existence.  We have all had those fleeting moments when our since of joy or contentment was so complete that we could ‘die this very moment happy.’  To my way of thinking that captures the essence of shalom.

My cancer diagnosis wasn’t the catalyst for Dave’s discontent.  Although often a tremendous strain, providing physical and emotional support to someone you love provides tremendous meaning and purpose.  But he has found himself often flummoxed and pained by not being able to reassure a wife whose fear and angst could be impenetrable at times.  His feeling of inadequacy in being my comforter brought out some deeper stuff.

We both knew that something else was going on.  I agreed to do some research on middle life angst but my findings were not very satisfying to him or me. Previous post explains.

Through this process David has done his own work.  He listed the components of the problem in typical bullet point format.  He felt this angst might be brought on by the following:

  • Loss of influence, insider status or being needed. (This is in part due to his age. Younger people are taking the reins of responsibility and leadership as they should.  Another factor is that at this point in our lives we do not stay in one geographical location long enough to built the connections that can make a difference.)
  • The grand adventure might be over. (Throughout his life David has worked hard to place himself in situations where he could generate stories to tell the grandchrisk-takingildren.  And he does have some great stories that he would love to tell you about.  These opportunities are now mostly in the past.)
  • But still busy. To use a David phrase, “I’m in a rat race in the wrong race.”

David realizes these feelings are not as negative as they might indicate on paper. To his mind, most of the time his world is one of satisfaction and opportunity. He is doing a reasonably good job navigating the transition from the back side of a career peak with its mantle of influence and insider status to one that involves more of a support role. But every so often, and these days more often than he wants, he feels those bullet points as forceful shots across the bow.

Of course, he sees this trap and realizes he must reintegrate himself emotionally into the grand purposes of God.  I say emotionally because he has always put mind and feet to loving God and people.

At this point I have to resist the desire to write something original.  Ego says, “Dazzle David and my readers with my unique insights.”  Common sense says, many wise ones have tread this road before.  If I really want to be helpful then capture their insight.  To quote CS Lewis from Mere Christianity, “Even in literature and art no man who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will nine times out of ten become original without ever having noticed it.”

So, with that caveat be prepared to hear from a few wise folks who have articulated insights with clarity and spiritual maturity that make sense to David and me.

The Problem:

Tim Keller from his book, “Counterfeit Gods,”

“How can we break our heart’s fixation on doing “some great thing” in order to heal ourselves of our sense of inadequacy in order to give our lives meaning? Only when we see what Jesus, our great suffering servant, has done for us will we finally understand why God’s salvation does not require us to do “some great thing.” We don’t have to do it because Jesus has. Jesus did it all for us and he loves us – that is how we know our existence is justified. When we believe in what he accomplished for us with our minds, and when we are moved by what he did for us in our hearts, it begins to kill off the addiction, the need for success at all costs.

The gospel does not work directly on the emotions or the will. The gospel asks, what is operating in the place of Jesus Christ as your real, functional salvation and Savior? What are you looking to in order to justify yourself? Whatever it is, it is a counterfeit god and to make a change in your life you must identify it and reject it as such.” Tim Keller, page 174 of counterfeit gods.”

The Process

In the book “The Sensation of Being Somebody”, the late Dr. Maurice Wagner, gives a formula for a rock solid self-concept. “God plus me equals a sense of being a somebody.”  He explains that dependence on status, performance and appearance – attributes that many times come out of insecure attachments or over attachments in our childhood – are our default for feeling significant but they end up “biting us in the butt” (Dona’s words).  They are fleeting and unreliable in taking us through life’s challenges and natural aging processes of loss and deficits. They are also dependent on others to justify ourselves as significant. Others, are people like ourselves-imperfect who will eventually die, disappoint or both.

Dr. Wagner gives an explanation for the Trinity that is psychologically unique. From God, the Father we get our sense of belonging as we submit to the Creator of us all; from Jesus Christ we get our sense of acceptance as we embrace the forgiveness he offers and from the Holy Spirit we receive our sense of competence as he leads, teaches, counsels and redirects.  Belonging, Acceptance and Competence are the building blocks of a healthy self-concept and we get them all in relationship with the triune God who is perfect, permanent and predisposed to carry us through all of life’s stages, disappointments and losses into a forever life of ultimate significance and wonder.

So, how do we absorb the above in a tangible way that makes for the closeness with God that we are longing for?  We (David and me) need help to move from intellectual assent and understanding to a heartfelt sense of what truly validates us and makes us feel known and loved by God. Tim Keller tells us what the problem is and what needs to be believed and understood. The late Dr. Wagner tells us the anatomy of true self-worth and significance as found in the trinity.  But, there is another leg to this three legged stool which still needs to be addressed. Part 4 of “One Journey, Two People” is coming next as David and I need to further digest a book by Dr. Curt Thompson called, Anatomy of the Soul.

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Images and Infusions pointing to spiritual truths

An Image of hope in crisis:

My story:  Half way through chemotherapy I found myself in an acute medical state that would require a rapid response team in the hospital to revive me and three days in the hospital to stabilize me.  Monitoring and intravenous products were needed: antibiotics, hydrating fluids and 3 units of whole blood.

My husband’s story:  “When I brought you into the hospital because of a shocking 104 degree temperature, you were conscious, lucid and chatty.  But while the intake nurse took your vitals you suddenly became unresponsive.  The rapid response team was paged over the hospital PA and within a minute a seeming chaos of a dozen or more people gathered around you.  It was like one of those ER movie scenes where the door closes in the face of the panicked family member who is left in the lobby alone and fearing the worst.  Within those lonely powerless moments, I had a God given image: Christ was in the corner of the room with His arm stretched out over you and all those attending to you.  It was reassuring.”

“Lo, I am always with you even to the ends of the age.”  Matthew 28:20b

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Hebrews 13:5b

“Even if it were possible a mother could forget her nursing child, I will never forget you.”    Isaiah 49:15b

An image of restoration:

Back to my story:  Later in the hospital room as I looked up at the IV pole with a unit bag of blood hooked in its place I thought of all the people who gave their blood for future needy unknown recipients. I was grateful.  Much later, I realized that the blessing of my medical emergency was those 3 units of whole blood.  I had not realized how bad I felt during the past two months of chemo.  That whole blood was a ‘miracle’ of rejuvenation.  I could now face the remaining two months of infusions.  And predictable to someone who thinks “Christian-ly”, my thoughts went to the One who gave His blood that we might have life. The New Testament makes it clear that like a blood donor, Christ’s blood was willingly given for life. In some transcendent and mysterious way that death and giving of blood was meant to secure forgiveness, life and hope.   Christ’s ‘blood shed for me’ was always a reality but it was not quite the obscure reality it once was for the ‘new fortified’ (3 units worth) Dona.

David needed an image for comfort in crisis; I got an image for restoration.  They both were God-given, but our knowledge of the promises of God in scripture provided the brush strokes for these pictures.

It’s not always a crisis that proves the reality of God’s love and presence.  But often an intense emotional experience can give us biblical insight into a reality that is bigger than ourselves.  Cosmic truths reach deep into our personal stories and transform them.

What about you?   Could you go back and revisit a crisis or ‘intense period’ in your life?  What biblical metaphor, image or teaching does the crisis highlight that makes the God of the universe relevant to your finite human dilemma?  And, if appropriate, could you share it in the comment section of this post?

Next week’s post will be someone else’s article, an excerpt from J.Todd Billings’ forthcoming book, Rejoicing in Lament (Brazos Press, copied with permission).  His cancer story will challenge us with the truth of God’s “engrafting.”  It is a seriously moving and insightful story.

 

The scales were tipped and I was feeling guilty

Party

I just got home from a party given by friends, Kyeonghi and Bernard, of the Buffalo church we attend.

Thirty-five people showed up, many wearing hilarious wigs in honor of my (still) hairless days. It was a blast. Most are young and full of “we are hard-wired for fun!”

Later

I sat in the dark of my apartment explaining to David that I was having some internal dissonance.  (Poor guy – he has to endure therapist phrases and he probably just wants to say, “Can we simply call it confused feelings?”)

“Maybe it wasn’t all so bad after all (my cancer treatment).  I’m kind of feeling that I may have made a big deal about nothing so terrible.”

David’s response was straightforward, “Yes, it was a big deal; trust me.”

Maybe I am going through something like the aftermath of child bearing. The relief of new life causes a kind of amnesia of the pain you thought you would never get over.

But then again, I wasn’t satisfied with that analogy. Something else was going on. I stared at the basket of cards from friends from Juneau and other places.  I looked at the books and gifts sent and reminded myself of the countless phone calls from family and friends and the many emails even from David’s clients and colleagues who had never met me but wanted to encourage me.  People read my blog and were unbelievably kind in their responses. Friends traveled to visit me or house me.

The kindnesses that I received from my health providers and just random folks I would meet in the hospital – all of these memories were flooding me with that “internal dissonance” thing. The level of kindness far exceeded the level of suffering.

Because I was feeling unworthy of this amount of kindness crazy thoughts were entering my head in an effort to make sense of it. “I must have communicated to everyone that it was worse than it was. Did I tell them I was dying?  Did I let on like I was bedridden and hospitalized most of the time?  Did I say that my head was in a bucket 24-7 during chemo?  Did I intimate that surgery had complications or that radiation could only be endured with drugs, prescription and recreational?  In short, did I exaggerate this whole thing in spite of the fact that my doctors were telling me I had a high risk disease and treatment would be intense?”

I thought of the support of my sweet daughters, their husbands and my grand boys and my courageous 88-year old mother who looks after my 91-year old father.  It was beginning to feel like too much.

Too much support.

Too much love.

Too much guilt from all that love and support.

Too much God – is that even possible?

The scale was tipped in favor of love – far outweighing the trials of cancer treatment.  I was overwhelmed with undeserved love.

Of course it was undeserved.  Christianity 101 tells me that.  None of us get what we deserve.  God help us if we do. It just can’t be about deserving. I don’t even want it to be.  It gets back to that fair thing I talked about in my last post.  After all, do I deserve all this support and some other person in a hostile dangerous place who is being horribly persecuted for their religious belief or ethnic heritage deserves being alone, feeling forgotten and wondering why God is silent.  Does she or he deserve that treatment while I am showered with love and support from friends and family?  Of course, not.

What to do with all this

There is something else going on.  What are we ultimately meant to be thankful for? Please don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful for the support of friends, family, and health care providers who, in part, sustained me through this ordeal. But I know that right now at this moment countless people of Christian faith and other minorities in faraway places and prisons are suffering, even dying, alone and unnoticed.  What sustains them?  It can’t be, “God loves me this I know for I have so many friends and family telling me so!” Equating God’s grace and blessings to family and friends and medical support just do not cut it for the multitudes deprived of basic human rights.  I once read John Stott, the late theologian and vicar of All Soul’s Church in London, say something to the effect that he could not worship a God who had not suffered pain, abandonment humiliation and forsakenness. Thank God we have that God in Jesus Christ. His suffering appropriated something profound, cosmic and eternal for which anyone of us can be blessed, whomever and wherever we are. Now, I am venturing into territory that I cannot speak authoritatively.  But someone can and has.  His name is Ziya Merkal.  I read an article of his in Christianity Today back in 2008.  I printed off a copy, put in a manila folder and over the years have reread it many times.  Here are the links to two articles by Ziya Merkal , “Bearing the Silence of God” ( the one I carry around) and “Standing with the Desolate” (recently read this on line). Please read them.

After listening to my angst in the darkness of our apartment after the lovely party thrown in honor of my end-of-treatment.  My husband said, “Dona, just be thankful.”  Good words spoken by the champion of support, love and perspective during one of the toughest 9 months of my life.  But David was quick to point out that the apostle Paul said it better in I Thessalonians 5:18,

“For this is the will of God, that you be thankful.”

What a dead rat on a grill taught me about caring for people

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in February David and I have been living in Buffalo, NY. Daughters, grandchildren and a cancer institute two miles from the apartment we rent year around made the decision to settle in for the duration of treatment. Adding to those blessings has been the small urban Buffalo Vineyard Church that we attend.

A debriefing session was held after church today about the Friday evening barbecues that the church hosts in Buffalo’s urban west side during the summer months. This urban church is small in number but its members, mostly younger than 35, have big hearts and active mission to the people in their urban community.

We sat outside after church eating snacks while discussing the usual questions posed during a debrief of a major church initiative:  “What went well, what needs to be improved upon, what lessons did we learn for next year, and how did anyone see God at work?”

I shared my story and Maryanne said, “Dona that can be the title of your next blog post.”  I have taken her up on it because among other things rats can be great ice breakers of which I will explain shortly, but first I will share another time when a rat played an important role in a social setting.

Senegal World Vision trip 2005

Eight of us were eating in a restaurant in a small town near villages we were visiting.  Our church in Juneau Alaska was partnering with World Vision and village elders to bring clean water to an impoverished area serving a couple thousand people.  As we were eating our meal a huge rat darted past the door keeper.  Women screamed, maybe some men, too.  Some folks jumped on chairs and others like me were in denial saying ridiculous things like, “That’s not a rat. It’s too big. It’s probably a gopher.”  The rat was frantically running underneath tables and chairs trying to avoid the door keeper whose powerful legs finally won the day when he soccer- kicked the “gopher” rat across the room, through the door into the dusty dirt road from where he came.  The room erupted with applause, cheers and high fives as we witnessed this great athletic feat by our door man.  We laughed, told our versions, commiserated with the other patrons of the restaurant about their versions. Met new people. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

West Side Buffalo, June 2014

The grills were being prepared as adults from the community were coming and sitting on folding chairs and children were running around waiting for the food to be cooked and offered.  Many folks from the church had their barbecuing tasks to prepare for and others like me were sitting around trying to get to know some people who were coming to this weekly event.  I set my sights on a group of three women who seemed to know each other well as they talked about things in the community of which I knew nothing about.  But being the talker that I am (not even chemo can take that away from me) I ventured into their space and introduced myself and they did likewise.  They asked me if I went to the church that was putting on the barbecue.  I no sooner said yes, then they told me that they had seen a dead rat on one of the five grills that was getting ready to be fired up. In fact, they emphatically told me that the grill had been leaning on the side of the church for two days with the dead rat on it for both days; and someone needed to do something about that grill.  I had the distinct feeling that that someone was meant to be me.  Two reactions came up immediately. The first was laziness.  I didn’t want to do anything about it because I figured a grill heated up to over a 1000 degrees would kill any left-over dead rat-ness. I said as much but they were not impressed and seemed annoyed.  “Someone needs to wash that grill with hot soapy water,” the women said again and again. I knew that someone was meant to be me.  My second reaction was disgust.  I didn’t want to get that close and personal with a grill that had been the resting place for a dead rat for two days. I wanted to shoot back by using my cancer card, “You do it, I’m in cancer treatment and don’t need this”. But I knew that this was not the way to make new friends.

After cleaning the grill with hot soapy water, the women invited me back over to their circle with a, “You did good, girl!”  We all warmed up to each other.  Finding out I had cancer they told me encouraging stories about family members who got cancer and were treated wonderfully at Roswell Cancer Institute before they died ( hmm…..not the most encouraging of outcomes) but I knew for them the question of life or death was not the point  of the experience.  It was that their loved ones and they by virtue of proximity to their loved ones were treated respectfully and lovingly at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. They wanted me to be encouraged by such an important truth: how we are treated by strangers whose job is to care about us is the point.  I was so glad for hot soapy water and the presence of mind to finally show that I cared for what they cared about. This was my story of how God was at work, even through a dead rat.

Galatians 6:9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we don’t give up.”

The Waiting Room

I have a friend who was quoting an elderly relative to me once. The relative lived in a nursing home. The quote went something like this: “Sometimes I imagine that while I am living here I am in one of heaven’s waiting rooms.” I think we would all have to admit that she had to be one of the most positive and optimistic women we have ever heard. There are a lot of ways that this post could thematically be approached based on that one comment but I want to talk about waiting rooms.

The nature of waiting rooms
I usually do not mind waiting rooms if I am not hurry to be somewhere else after the appointment. Being a people watcher and communicator waiting rooms afford me many possibilities of entertainment. Admitting however that cell phones have changed the human interaction potential in waiting rooms, I still find the scene unusual enough to be interesting. I imagine myself sitting like an obedient dog with tail wagging and tongue hanging out hoping some human will pay attention to me and rub me behind my ear. I don’t just start talking to anyone. I look around, size up the mood of the waiting room crowd and wait for an opening and then off to the races I go. It is amazing what you can learn from people’s stories or opinions. And if you know me, you know that I am not short of my own.

The Phlebotomy waiting room
Last week I walked into the Phlebotomy waiting room to have blood drawn. It was crowded. Every seat was taken but there was one left for me. I sized up the mood. It was grim and motivated me to send up a quick prayer on behalf of my fellow cancer patients who needed what I needed – encouragement – before seeing their oncologist, surgeon, or oncology radiologist. All ages were represented but everyone looked old. You know how not smiling or talking makes the lines around our mouth droop down so we either look sad or mad? Well, if you did not know that – you know it now. If you are over 50 and don’t want to look 70 then smile more often. It makes everyone look younger. I ought to know. I have had deep laugh lines since realizing I wasn’t going to be young forever. My children and even my husband would say at times, “What are you mad about?” This was not fair as my only fault was that I was not smiling and not smiling apparently made me look like I was mad when I was just feeling and looking neutral, or so I thought. I have defended myself enough that I no longer get those comments.

Well, anyway, back to the scene in the phlebotomy waiting room where I was among the most isolated looking and silent group of individuals I had seen yet in a waiting room since my cancer diagnosis. 15 minutes into my silent wait something changed and it happened so quickly and dramatically that I had to ask a woman later on in the day who had been there whether she noticed what I noticed. She didn’t hesitate to agree that something odd was at work. Here is what happened: A woman walked into the waiting room and the man next to me noticed that there was nowhere for her to sit. He got up out of his seat and said for her to sit down in his seat. She was several feet from him so the interaction was heard and witnessed by all of us. She said, “That is alright, I have been traveling in a car to get here for two hours and don’t mind standing”. This older gentleman was having none of it. He insisted and she capitulated. The moment she sat down, the gentleman’s name was called to have his blood drawn. And it was at that moment that the entire waiting room burst into laughter. Why? I am not sure. Maybe these folks and I included were unsuspectingly waiting for an uplifting moment to bring us out of ourselves. The sweet irony of this man’s good deed seemed to earn him a surprising reward or a dispensation of grace- He no longer had to wait. He was called and in!  Ok, that was cool enough for this sad looking group but it wasn’t the end of the story. As soon as the laughter died out, strangers started talking to each other. I mean everyone was talking except for one cell phone engrossed person. People were talking to those next to them and to those across from them and the conversations were animated and prolonged. The buzz in the room solicited a comment from the receptionist: “Hey, is there a party going on in there?” she yelled from a room close by. I remained detached for a short while as I tried to understand this phenomena objectively. Questions of psychological and spiritual nature were being raised but before long I, too, wanted to be a part of these human connections.

What to make of the waiting room transformation
“And God said, Let us make humanity in our image. God made man and then announced that it was not good for man to be alone, so he made a helper suited to the man and he made them male and female; both made in the image of God.” God, Himself, is community, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and apparently does not want us to be alone. We are wired to belong to each other. A spark of the Holy Spirit is what I believed happened in that waiting room. Isolation gave way to community and we were all better off for it. Encouraged, uplifted and hopeful is what we experienced and all of that without one of us having yet to see or hear from our doctors. God bless our doctors and what they do but at that moment we didn’t need them.

Forgetting Cancer

For 6 months my invasive breast cancer was always before me. First, there was the diagnosis and the anxiety of waiting for various test results.  Then there was the mastectomy with the pain of the surgery and the discomfort of the lymph node drains.  Four months of chemo beset me with nausea, fatigue, and a compromised autoimmune system that at one point landed me in the hospital for three days.

Grim Realities Helped Me Forget Cancer

But when chemo was over I got a 3-week reprieve before radiation therapy. I was feeling pretty well; almost normal aside from the fact that I was missing a breast and had to decide each day which wig or scarf to wear to cover my hairless palette.  So I used the break to visit elderly parents in another state. David, my husband, had to return to Alaska for over a week to keep his business going so I was on my own as I scrambled frantically to “fix” my parents’ needs before I left to go back to Buffalo for radiation.    A combination of guilt, sadness and frustration with my limitations in fixing their limitations would begin the process of cancer-forgetfulness.

My parents, being house bound, watch a lot of TV……CNN, Dr. Phil, Judge Judy.   I normally keep up with news through radio and the web.  I was not used to seeing the CNN images of conflict, terror and extreme hardship from around the world.  As I tried to process the suffering of the Gaza and Israeli conflict, the ISIS reign of terror, and Ebola crisis in West Africa I was unconsciously strengthening the process of cancer-forgetfulness.  Even watching Dr. Phil and Judge Judy every weekday with my folks provided distractions from my current health despite of my temptation to be critical of media exploitation of these human messes.

Now all this might sound a bit grim.  There I was dealing with cancer treatment yet distracting myself with morbidity and tragedy. But I could not allow my situation to keep my head in the sand about the tremendous suffering happening in this world.  If I did I was at risk.  My situation with its potential for corrosive self-absorption would end up robbing me of empathy for others. Now, I am not speaking to those who suffer severe pain or those in late stages of a terminal illness.   Nor am I writing about those in the midst of anguished grief for the recent loss of a loved one. What I am addressing is the threat of self-absorption that can come from dealing with a serious health challenge, robbing of an identity other than the illness, itself.

Taking time to think helped me to forget cancer

There was  something else that was going on that aided my cancer-forgetfulness for those weeks; something upbeat and something I will need to continue whether I am  busy with obligations or not.  I took time to think in the midst of parent care.  Each morning before I hit the ground running I would find a quiet place in the home of my gracious hosts to read, pray, write and think. My thoughts were being reoriented to life’s meaning and purpose. The essential Christian doctrines of faith I held had to be thought through deeply if I was going to find the peace I was looking for.  God, Jesus, sin, human nature, salvation, the world and God’s plan for the world, hope, faith, love, and service to others were the grist for the mill of my soul’s peace. It always came down to, “Do I really believe what I believe?” and if so, “What’s the big sweat?”  God is in control and I can trust Him.   And eventually gratitude found its way into my thinking as I thought of family and friends that spanned the world who were not just blessing my life but blessing the lives of so many others.

(Tim Keller talks about this in his book, “Walking with God in Pain and Suffering”).

Being in awe of the sacrificial service of others helped me forget cancer

AsIDP CHILDREN IN NARUS_cropped I spent time thinking something else happened. I would read or hear stories about people who were doing extraordinary acts of service because of their compulsion to serve Christ.  Some of these people I knew through my Juneau church’s partnership with ministries abroad.   Pastor Saphano, the Sudanese pastor of a poor struggling church in southern Sudan, who manages to house and feed over 250 orphans and refugee children from the civil war.   Hannah who currently pastors a church in Amman, Jordan for Syrian and Iraqi refugees but once was the pastor of the Baptist church in Gaza.  He continues his ministry in Gaza (see an interview with Hanna here) by providing aid to hundreds of Gazans as well as most recently opening his home in Gaza to 100 frightened refugees of the Israeli/Hamas conflict.  David and I have stayed in that home and it is hard to imagine 100 people staying there. There are thousands of people like them who are servicing in lands of great conflict and suffering with sacrifice and love.  When I take the time to reflect on such things I begin to forget cancer.

Thinking more, not less, helped me forget cancer

I read or heard once that perhaps God commanded a day of rest (Sabbath) in the Ten Commandments because he knew that if humans were left to themselves they would never stop in their frenetic work to eke out an existence in order to think through the big questions of life. Taking time to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life will bring many back around to Him with a growing awareness of how life is meant to be understood and experienced.  This reflection cannot always be done perfectly, that is for sure, but nonetheless, this type of reflection builds an appreciation that this life is not all there is.  It is a reminder of the promise that He is with us through the tough and good stuff whether we feel it or not.

I am back in Buffalo now.  I’ll be reminded of my cancer every week day morning for the next 6 ½ weeks of radiation therapy.  But I can still practice the discipline of thinking about the big picture; making sure I find the time to remember who God is and who I am supposed to be with cancer or without.

 

 

 

 

No skimping on kindness during cancer treatment

I looked up and there she was. I was waiting for my big breakfast egg scramble at an outdoor café, excited that I was feeling energetic and had an appetite. I had walked from my apartment to my favorite breakfast place to eat and work on my latest blog.

I was finishing my blog post on body image as I waited to be served my breakfast.  As she sat at an empty table I could feel her eyes on me. My initial knee jerk response was not to make eye contact.  I sensed she would approach me for something maybe just conversation but I had my own agenda and it didn’t include a long conversation with anyone. I couldn’t resist so I quickly looked up and then returned my focus back to the lap top faster than I could say egg scramble. Not sure but I thought we had actually met before in front of a laundry mat (a real talker – it takes one to know one) but I doubted she remembered me. She hangs out a lot on the street looking for approachable faces. Now, if this wasn’t bad enough on my part here’s where it gets really down and low. How I was behaving was a violation of one of my own recently acquired rules since becoming a city dweller. The rule: make sure eye contact is made and at least a few words are spoken to someone pan handling when responding to their request.  Why?  A few years ago while walking the streets of Jerusalem I was  reminded out of nowhere that people who panhandler or those sitting  against walls with blankets and change cups in tow were human beings, made in God’s image and deserving of dignity.  Furthermore, they were once children who didn’t have the ambition to become homeless or a pan handler when they grew up.  Like me and you and all 6 year olds they couldn’t conceive a future, regardless of how bad their childhood was, that excluded a dream of being a firefighter, teacher, nurse, shopkeeper, or professional basketball player.  I doubt that any of these adults on the street said to themselves at 6-years old, “When I grow up I hope to wear tattered clothes, be alone and ask people for money as my daily routine.”  So, from that time on I determined that I wouldn’t just place money in a bag or hand without making eye contact and saying something. It’s not as easy as you would think. Folks experiencing homelessness are accustomed to thinking of themselves as nobodies. They know we are uncomfortable with their circumstances and they are counting on us to relieve a little of our own guilt.  Just drop it in or hand it out and keep moving; that’s all that is expected in this street drama of the haves and the have not’s.

Well, back to me – My breakfast came and I don’t know if was the size of it or the presentation of it; but staring at it I was immediately overwhelmed by my privilege and plenty.  I then knew what I wanted to do and it wasn’t out of guilt. I wanted to invite her to join me and share my breakfast or order her own. I looked up. She was gone. I waited hoping she would return but she didn’t.  I finally ate disappointed and a little dejected for a missed opportunity for both of us.  Interesting that I felt disappointed and dejected; emotions that are likely standard fare for my would-be eating partner.

For parents, grandparents or anyone who have opportunity to influence children for goodness and kindness please read the following article: A Mom’s Hope for a Better World.  Full of interesting statistics, good insights and practical suggestions, this mom does a great job of looking at the world and ‘bringing it home.’

The upside (I mean it!) of being bald

 

In this post I want to  speak to the pluses and minuses of being bald. I’m serious….not tongue-in-cheek, or just funny or sarcastic. I have come to see some real advantages about being bald.

The positives:

1. You feel squeaky clean after a quick shower.

2. Your head dries within seconds – no blow drying, no nothing – just you and your natural born head.

3. You never have a bad hair day.

4. If you ever get head lice it will be easy to get rid of.

5. You get to reinvent yourself with the many wigs that you have conned from the American Cancer Society.  (Not really a con; it is just a matter of going to all the different ACS sites and asking for your one free wig.  They don’t care that you got one at another location.  Thank you, ACS.)

6. Friends give you gifts.  Some are beautiful scarves that you can wrap your head in different styles: African, Gypsy, Egyptian.   Again you’re reinventing yourself.

Aside:

You know how our mothers always told us to make sure we had clean underwear on in case we were in an accident and had to be taken to the hospital?   Well I’ve got another one for you ladies:  always make sure you have on 24-hour stay lipstick and earrings..

True story: In an earlier post I mentioned that I passed out at the oncology clinic due to fever and infection; an episode that required the hospital’s  rapid response team to be summoned.  Once they were reassured  I was no longer in crisis  they started talking to me.  Let me rephrase that. They started talking about me.  At that point I was slowing regaining consciousness.  I could hear and understand but I just could not summon the strength to open my eyes.. I heard one responder say, “Look at her she still has her lipstick on!”  At that moment I knew something critical had to be said whether my eyes were open or not. So I said, “By the time I have my eyes open I expect all of you that are surrounding me to have your lipstick on.”  (I desrved that.)  They laughed and said that Ralph only wore his at night.  (Ralph had to have been a medical student.) See ladies, clean underwear won’t generate admiration or laughs.  Wearing clean underwear is just doing your duty.  Wearing 24-hour lipstick is above and beyond.

Positives of baldness continued……

6. When you want your husband to feel sorrier for you than you deserve you can  walk around the house bald or with an unflattering scalp cap; looking very pitiful without your lipstick or earrings. It might get you a back rub or yet another glass of lemonade. But don’t overdo  this, it will backfire. One time after being particularly demanding my husband looked at me in my scalp cap and said, “You look and act like you are in the mujahedeen!”

7. When you finally decide to spruce it up a bit you get more than your share of compliments from your husband. He really means it because he’s really relieved!

The downside:

Did you notice that I didn’t mention a single negative? There is one big one:

You cannot ride in a convertible.  If you ride in a convertible you wig will invariably fly off once the car attains a speed of 45 miles an hour. It is likely your friends will be videotaping you when this happens. The video will be uploaded and go viral within minutes. This is subject to YouTube embarrassment and notoriety worldwide. I know this to be true because I know of it happening to at least one other woman.

So I’ll close with a link to the  Church Lady’s Wig Flies Off. I have watched this YouTube a dozen times.  I love this woman and I love her family and you’ll see why.  Listen carefully for some few  keywords. She explains what a “Treacher” is.  Listen for the word, “road kill”.  Watch the  the expression on her daughter’s (the driver’s) face.  Listen to the teasing of the other daughters that are on and off-camera.   And finally listen for the expression that I could have said, “at least you wearing your lip stick!”

 

 

Please weigh in on this topic of plusses of baldness in the comment section. No negatives please.

Some illustrations from my own creative hand to amuse and educate: remember you are reinventing yourself.

Lipstick, earrings, wig and looking twelve
Lipstick, earrings, wig and looking twelve

 

 

Egyptian scarf with lipstick and cool earrings
Egyptian scarf with lipstick and cool earrings
No lipstick, no nothing but grumpiness
No lipstick, no nothing but grumpiness
Short curly wig. Too much lipstick but cool earrings.
Short curly wig. Too much lipstick but cool earrings.
Gypsy scarf with lipstick and earrings but looking 10-years old.
Gypsy scarf with lipstick and earrings but looking 10-years old.
African turban, lipstick, earrings
African turban, lipstick, earrings

The Rumble of Panic beneath Everything

Anxiety (1894) by Edvard Munch
Anxiety (1894) by Edvard Munch

The counselor in me has always had a vulnerable side when the professional hat is not worn.

I’ve been an interested and emphatic listener of others’ stories since my twenties when the Jesus story first made its impact (coincidentally or consequentially, I’m not sure).  But I’ve not always been able to be a dispassionate empathetic listener. This vulnerability presents itself when I move from empathy to over-identification. The self-centered and self-protective side of my psyche hijacks the genuinely compassionate side and the fearfulness of “this sounds too close to home and could happen to me or a loved one” takes over and I am sorry I ever listened to that person’s story. I don’t know why but this does not happen when I am “clinical Dona” which is a good thing or I would have been admitted to a psych ward after my first year of practice.

I just spent three days in the hospital after getting an acute infection driven bya low white blood cell count due to chemotherapy.  I spent 24 hours in the ICU and two and a half days on a regular floor. In both situations I was in better health than the patients around me and because of this I had conversations with worried and distressed family members that I would meet in the hall or waiting room. I heard stories of protracted and acute suffering and misery in a very short period of time. The empathetic listener had not turned off while I was hospitalized.text for rumble_rev

But there were times during my hospital stay that I wanted it to turn off; like when the descriptions of misery were too raw and graphic. At that point cancer would interrupt the counselor – butt her out with one quick unexpected slam – reminding her that there could be much more misery in store down the road of cancer treatment.  So, after a while compassionate listening would give way to cowardly recoiling and shutdown. I would walk back to my room with more Dona-sadness than with Jack-sadness or Terri-sadness.  Not pretty or admirable.  Thankfully this overly anxious display of self-pity did not last long and did not keep me from praying for these folks and their distressed families.

My guess is that most of you readers are not going to be too hard on me.  In most of us there is that nagging feeling and suppressed thought that suffering and loss are not that far from any of us regardless of the many precautions we take to stay them off. They blindside even the most cautious and genetically hearty of us.

In the introduction of his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller quotes Ernest Becker:

 “I think that taking life seriously means something like this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation…… of the rumble of panic underneath everything.  Otherwise it is false.”

So how are we to live with peace, purpose, joy, love, and hope in light of this rumble of panic?  How are we to recognize a caring, loving God who is for us when at any time the shoe can drop or has already dropped?  I am a novice in this world of suffering but let me offer a couple of thoughts.

David my husband says that in times of crisis we are what we have been trained to be. My experience in watching others who have walked various kinds and degrees of suffering, ranging from tragic losses to debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses, is that getting through it required leaning on spiritual resources previously learned or acquired.  I am not going to be so presumptuous as to imply that only those who rely on spiritual resources weather their tragedies well.  I have read or heard  inspiring stories of people who have weathered great hardship without apparently leaning on God.

But my experience in working in the US and the Middle East as well as meeting people from all over the world is that when push comes to shove it is spiritual resources that provide comfort and strength in times of critical helplessness; not perfectly or always heroically, but nonetheless “a leaning on” that brings comfort.  I heard similar disclosures last week in the hospital’s halls and waiting rooms.

So, what are these spiritual resources that I hear about from the sufferer?

  • Praying
  • Complaining to a God who is both there and not too thin skinned to take it.
  • Drawing on scripture for comfort
  •  Developing a Biblical awareness of the myriad of sufferings addressed in the biblical text with its various antidotes.
  • Receiving the practical and sacrificial helps and prayers of the church and friends that show the compassionate face of Christ, and finally,
  • Acknowledging that something supernatural is at work; ideally, a healing but certainly a feeling of the Holy Spirit’s presence. THEY ARE NOT ALONE.

I, too, have been relying on the above resources; not perfectly or even consistently . In a previous post called, Chipmunk Cheeks, I mentioned the futility of expecting God to give me the grace for my grim or fearful imaginings. He has not promised to do that. He has promised to be with me in the present and give grace for that present. If I lay hold of that truth once again I will be able to be fully present with those who tell me their woeful stories of pain and grief.  Only then can I be numbered as one of the spiritual resources on which they can rely. “Oh God let it be true about me.”

An exclusive moment within diversity

blessedThere was only one black man in the phlebotomy waiting room. Unusual because the waiting room was crowded and usually representative of ethnic origins and different races living in this city. One of the many reasons I love Buffalo.

I came in first and was seated. I noticed him because he was also the only one of us wearing a mouth mask, not an uncommon site in a cancer institute but noticeable. He sat across the room from me and I smiled at him.  His eyes told me he had smiled back.  I had not had much luck with anyone else (smiles are important to me; see my post, Duchene’s Smiles, Please).  Everyone seemed wrapped in their world of worry or boredom with yet another routine to follow for the care they need.

He pulled down his mask so I could see him smile and said, “Are you having a nice day?”

I answered back, “I have no complaints.”

As if talking to himself he said, “You trust in God and leave everything up to him” to which I answered “amen.”

He then directed his comments back at me as if returning from a place of prayer. “I am a blessed man, a very blessed man”.

Since we were talking across the room from each other I wondered what people were thinking.But it was like the two of us were there alone.  I continued, “I can tell you are a blessed man because of your ball cap.”

He seemed momentarily confused until he took it off, exposing his baldness, and read the words on the cap, “I AM A BLESSED MAN.” He laughed as he explained he forgot that he had that particular ball cap on but agreed with it wholeheartedly.  At this point I was called in to have blood drawn.  I left the waiting room feeling the exclusivity of a tender moment with a man who openly and unabashedly shared my hope.

“Always be ready to give account for the hope you have……”

–          I Peter 3:16