A burden I need not carry

We’ve just celebrated Easter… but I’m left thinking about Maundy Thursday and the word God spoke to me during our church’s service that evening.

I really didn’t want to go to the service, with its focus on Christ’s final days, his death, and burial. Anything related to death makes me uneasy lately, and I often land in a place of sad contemplation about my own mortality, which I’d prefer to avoid, thank you.

I was ready to skip the service, but thanks to a rain-out of my son’s sporting event, I had no excuse. Out of duty I went, fully expecting to become emotional at some point and leave feeling burdened and depressed. When I arrived to find the only light was from candles that we’d extinguish one by one throughout a tenebrae service, my sense of dread intensified.

Instead, what I experienced was a release. During a time of reflection, I felt God illuminating within me an understanding that I’ve been focused for too long on death—my own, that is—and it was time to lay that down. I felt suddenly quite at peace, and somehow lighter.

backpack

When I got the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, I mentally and emotionally packed up what I thought I knew of my eventual demise into a tidy pack, and I’ve carried it along with me every day since, sometimes adding to its contents along the way. Some days that pack has been just a subtle weight pressing on my mind and emotions, some days it has been heavier than I can bear, and some days I’ve almost forgotten it was there. But it has been an ever-present accessory.

In our gathering, it was as though God was asking, “Will you let me carry that for you?” In that moment, I let him take it.

And by the end of the service, I was convicted that Jesus did not go to the cross and rise to new life so that I may waste time pondering my own end. He died and rose again and filled me with his spirit so that I may have abundant life—now and until the moment I draw my last earthly breath and even into eternity. And as for the last breath part, I don’t get to know when that will be or what it will look like, and any energy I spend contemplating that is energy I’m not spending living fully.

I’m sure I’ll wrestle the metaphorical pack away from God and insist on carrying it myself again. I’m stubborn that way. But maybe the realization of what I’m doing will come more swiftly each time I snatch it back and feel its weight. And maybe one day, through prayer and practice, I’ll fully surrender it.

Choosing to Journey with God, Even in the Rocky Places

cross on the path

Our church recently held a retreat to begin a season of exploring the concept of pilgrimage. Our speaker defined pilgrimage as an intentional journey with God to find God, together. After hours of prayer and discussion, we were given the task of making a mini-pilgrimage around the building and grounds. We were instructed first to pray—to get in touch with God’s loving presence with us—and then to walk around, looking for something that spoke to us of God in our surroundings, keeping our eyes and heart open to see or feel what God had to say to us. Once we found it, we were encouraged to talk to God about it and what he had for us in that object or space.

I wandered around the fellowship hall, noticing signs and scripture verses on the walls. I stood looking out the window, regarding nature—the bright sunshine, the snow on the ground, the bare trees.

And then I saw it—a painting of a rocky path with the verse from Proverbs 3:6 underneath: “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path.” I’ve always liked that verse, so my eye stayed there a minute. And then I looked at the path. It was covered in stones and looked really hard to walk on. It also went uphill, leading to a destination around a bend that was not visible in the painting. Everything about that path spoke to my heart in this season of learning to live with cancer. It made sense that God would draw me to that image, as though saying he understood how I felt. That was comforting. I rested in that idea for a moment.

God being the good and loving Father he is, though, he had so much more for me in that painting. As I stared at it, I shifted my focus ever so slightly, and then I saw what God really had for me. Reflected in the frame’s glass was the stained glass cross in the sanctuary behind me, which by this time in the afternoon had the sun beaming through it. And where I was standing in relation to the painting and that cross put the cross directly on the path. THAT was God’s message to me. He is with me on this cancer journey—in fact, he is going before me on it, he knows each stone I’ll encounter, and he’s┬ápreparing the way.

The second day of the retreat, we were each given a little stone (seriously? a stone?) as a token to remember that we are all pilgrims, and God is with us.

Living with this disease is not anything I’d choose. But I can choose to make it a pilgrimage—to journey through it with God, seek to find God in it, and do it together with those I love around me. I don’t even have to look very hard to see God in this experience–he makes himself pretty obvious, if I’m at all attentive. A few days after the retreat, I received a card from a friend who frequently sends me notes of encouragement. On the front was a path that looked similar to that painting. Further affirmation of what God had spoken to me at the retreat.

Beauty, Purpose, and Peace in Life’s Transitions

leaves

Fall has always been a time of contemplation for me, and it tends to stir a mix of emotions each year related to change and loss and beauty and grace.

This fall, I’ve been feeling something decidedly different, as the cancer diagnosis of this summer has me pondering my own mortality. Being told that you have a disease for which there is no cure, and to which you will likely succumb in a foreseeable time frame, can skew your thinking quite substantially. These days, my brain flip-flops often between the extremes of “I have to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do and become the best person I can be and leave a positive impact on all humanity” and “What does it really matter? If I’m going to die, I might as well just live comfortably and coast to the finish line. How much can I really change in a potentially short time anyway?”

A couple days ago, I received a tremendous gift in this regard that has helped me land (at least for the moment) in a place of hopefulness for this season. On a mini-retreat with a church group at a local farm, we had the opportunity to spend an hour in solitude and silence, to spend some “quality time” with God. I found a large stone on the property next to a bright yellow tree and decided to just sit and stare at nature around me for awhile. I emptied my mind as best I could of myriad distractions and asked God to talk to me. Within a few minutes I heard a gentle voice telling me it was OK to let go of the tight hold I’ve kept on my emotions, that I needed to face them to move forward. I was suddenly overwhelmed by deep sadness and gripping fear.

Now, I have allowed myself to feel fear and sadness and anger over my cancer diagnosis before, but only in short little snippets. I’m a busy women with work to do, family to care for, life to live; I don’t have time to sit for a long spell with my emotions laid bare. But there on that stone, knowing I had nothing else to do, no one to interrupt me, nothing demanding my attention, no one to explain myself to, I curled up into a ball and wept. And I began to let God into that space that I’ve tried so hard to avoid, to keep hidden even from myself.

God and I had a long conversation through my tears. And then he used my surroundings in nature to teach me a few lessons about this time in my life.

I looked again at the golden tree next to me. Its yellow leaves danced in the breeze, intermittently catching the sunlight and becoming even more vibrant. And I realized those leaves were nearing their end. They’d lived through their life cycle–as buds, as bright new leaves in the spring, as hearty green leaves enduring the summer heat, and now as autumn’s golden leaves, some them already drying around the edges, waiting for their turn to return to the earth. And those leaves were beautiful. More beautiful, in fact (at least to my eye), than when they were green and lush. It is in the journey toward their death that their beauty is most notable. Lesson number 1: Transition, even death, can be a time of beauty and wonder.

I picked up a few leaves that lay near my feet and looked at them closely. One had a little tear on the edge. Another had some tiny parasites on it, causing the surface to pucker and feel bumpy. But each of those leaves had done its job for the tree, providing respiration and creating energy from the sun, despite its imperfections. Lesson number 2: We are all broken, but all still have a role to play. In my case, part of my brokenness is my disease. But I still have a purpose here. I can still serve my family, my community, and my world, and do whatever work God calls me to.

Then I watched several leaves flutter to the ground. How poignant to think that I was witnessing the moment of death for those leaves as they separated from the tree. What struck me was how quietly and gently they fell. Lesson number 3: Perhaps in the transition from life to death, there can be peace.

While sitting a little longer with these thoughts, I stared at the ground, and my eyes fell on a single blade of grass moving as the wind hit it. I remembered that it is God who made the wind that moved that tiny blade of grass. In fact, God made that blade of grass. Indeed, he formed the seed it grew from, made the soil it lived in, and provided the water and sun it needed to grow and survive. Lesson number 4: If God cares for even the grass, and is in control of its tiny, temporary life, how much more does He care for me. (OK, that revelation is not my own–that’s pretty straight from Scripture.)

I left that morning feeling drained… but in a good way. I had emptied some of the bucket of grief I’ve been carrying around–not only about my own situation, but about some significant losses we’ve experienced recently–and it was cleansing for my soul. I also left with a greater sense of peace than I’ve had in quite a while. My circumstances have not changed one bit. But I received assurance of God’s presence in them. And perhaps more importantly, I was reminded of how powerful and positive (even if a little scary) the practice of making space to bring myself fully open and vulnerable before God can be.

Drinking from a Fire Hose–and I Need a Break

When we learn a friend has a serious illness or other health condition–or a financial problem, marital issues, trouble with a kid’s behavior…you name it–we often rush in with advice, share anecdotes of what worked for us or another friend faced with a similar situation, pass along helpful articles and websites, and ask if they’ve done this or that. This is natural. And we do it because we care. We want to help our friend fix what’s wrong. We don’t want them to suffer, and if we have information that might be useful, well, we need to share it with them, in love.

drinking-from-a-firehose-300x198

As a person now walking in the shoes of the “friend with a serious illness,” I have to be honest–I am really struggling with the outpouring of helpful information, advice, and questions. Between the information about treatments and test results I get from my doctor and physician assistant, the nurse follow-up calls to discuss my meds, the nutritionist’s guidance, AND everything that is passed along by well-meaning friends and family, it’s like drinking from a fire hose–or, perhaps more accurately, a bunch of fire hoses.

Cancer treatment is complicated enough on its own. Keeping up with regular blood work, remembering to take pills every day at the same time, going in for check-ups every couple weeks and a shot once a month, scheduling various tests. All while keeping up with our teenage son at home and trying to stay connected with our other son at college, trying to be a decent wife, and not letting the household fall into utter disarray. Oh, and working a full-time job at the same time. Now, toss in the texts, emails, phone calls, and personal conversations from a couple dozen people who want to share a nugget of information, tell you about some supplement or other product, recommend a doctor, or suggest a clinical trial.

I desire to hit cancer from every angle, to know that whatever and whenever the outcome, I did every single thing I could do, within reason, to fight this disease and live well at the same time. So every suggestion that comes to me ends up being considered. Maybe not initially–sometimes my reaction is, no, that’s crazy or thanks, I’m happy with my current plan. But the information continues to swirl around in my brain, and I eventually mull it over and play out in my mind. That means, in addition to managing treatment and family and work, I’m also spending considerable mental energy researching what the healthiest diet is, trying to fit regular exercise into my schedule, thinking about removing toxins from our environment by switching all our cleaning and personal care products to something nontoxic/organic, looking into water filter systems and researching glass storage containers to replace plastic, finding time to meditate/pray to relieve stress, reevaluating my choice of medical team (which I am happy with, for the record), and formulating lots of questions for each doctor’s appointment.

If you got a little tired reading through that long list, think of how I’m feeling–particularly when it’s all layered on top of the stress that comes with a metastatic cancer diagnosis, the thoughts of my own mortality, and the emotional effects of hormone manipulation.

So, I have a request (for the couple dozen folks who might read this blog). For now, please just file away any helpful suggestions and information sources for awhile. My mental inbox is overflowing and I need to process what’s before me already. Feel free to reach out and tell me you’re thinking about me or ask how I’m feeling. But no more information or suggestions, please. Not for a little while. Not even if you’re convinced you have the 100% sure-fire cancer cure (because, let’s be honest, that doesn’t yet exist).

In fact, I suggest we apply my request to the way we approach any of our friends who enter a time of crisis. When we have information to share or a story of hope we just know will be helpful, let’s ask our friends if they would like to hear it and acknowledge that we realize they might feel bombarded and now might not be a good time. Here’s some suggested language: “I know you’ve got a lot to digest right now. A friend of mine followed a diet that really helped her while she was in treatment. I’d like to share it with you, but only if you’re interested and ready to think about stuff like that.” This gives our friends a choice to accept new information into their mental inbox or to opt out. They may welcome whatever you’ve got. Or they may say, “I might want to hear about that later, but right now, I can’t deal with that.” Odds are, if they’re at all interested in the topic you mentioned, they’ll ask about it down the road. In the meantime, we’ll avoid adding to the mental chaos they’re trying to sort through.

Hold both my hands

Last month, I heard for the second time, “It’s cancer.” Metastatic breast cancer this time, to be more specific. Metastatic. That’s a terribly scary word. All too recently, we saw what that can mean. It’s not good.

In June, my mother-in-law died from metastatic cancer, from a sarcoma on her leg that spread to her lungs. In her final week on this earth, I watched her grow weaker and weaker, seemingly by the hour, until she couldn’t get out of the little hospital bed that hospice had provided. I watched in agony one night while she struggled to breathe, as her sons and daughters-in-law and other family members took turns comforting her the best we could while hospice nurses administered various medications to bring her relief. We buried her 7 months after finding out the cancer had spread. This experience is the filter through which I heard my oncologist’s words.

Metastatic cancer is treatable, but not curable. My oncologist was blunt in that regard, and medical literature backs him up. No false promises here. But chemo and other drugs can mange it, can keep the tumors from growing or spreading for awhile, often for years. “It’s like diabetes or other chronic diseases,” my oncologist says. (I’m sorry–diabetes, when managed, doesn’t typically eventually kill you. So, not quite the same thing, doc, but thanks for trying.)

The prognosis for metastatic breast cancer is better than for my mother-in-law’s sarcoma. There are more effective treatments and more options for treatments. Still, the best I’ve been offered is the possibility of keeping the disease at bay to prolong life, and hopefully with a decent quality of life.

I know, I know… people have lived for many years past the prognosis they were given, there are stories of people whose cancer went into remission when doctors said it was impossible, and we don’t know what new medication they’ll come out with. I also believe God still works miracles today. Trust me, I am grasping onto hope that I can defy the odds.

But while I hold firmly (desperately) to hope in one hand, I cannot avoid holding in the other hand the very real possibility that my time could be relatively short–certainly shorter than I’d planned. Most of the time, I keep that hand–the hand of fear, sadness, anger–tightly clenched and hidden behind my back, where neither I nor those I love can see it. Yet, it’s there. And sometimes it relaxes open and out slip thoughts of suffering or heartbreak. In those moments, either a lump forms in my throat and the tears flow or cuss words flow and my fists flail in a rage.

Those around me want to hold the hand that contains hope. When they reach out to me in support and encouragement, they grab hold of the hope hand, and if that other hand starts to slip into view, they’re eager to push it back, out of sight. Few want to acknowledge what’s in that other hand, let alone actually talk about it.

But there’s no denying the other hand exists; I can’t pretend it’s not there and ignore what it contains. That’s not healthy. I need to be willing to unclench that fist occasionally and confront the fear, disappointment, sadness, and pain it contains so I can process my circumstances fully, so I can be prepared emotionally and materially when the end arrives–whenever that is. And I need the people who support me to be willing to hold BOTH of my hands in this journey–the hopeful and the fearful. Even if it’s painful for both of us.