In Sickness and in Health

Fifty-eight years ago, my parents said “I do!” I wasn’t around back then – not even a sparkle in their eye. Nevertheless, I’ve had a front row seat to it all. If I had to choose, I would not choose their kind of marriage for myself, but it’s worked for them and they’ve managed to stay “in it” all these years. There have been a few times when I’ve given my Mom permission to leave it, begged her to, but she remained committed to her vows and politely told me to “butt out.”
     A marriage between two people is never between two people, regardless if the marriage is dotted with children. It’s a testimony to the world of sacrifice, forgiveness, commitment, endurance, and restoration – it’s a testimony of Christ. A good testimony, a bad testimony, and something in between. And children watch and learn. Family watches. Friends watch. Neighbors watch.
     My Mom is an amazing woman. Today she’s sitting in the hospital room with my Dad. His health has failed dramatically over the last two weeks and she is no longer able to care for him like she’s done for 58 years. His pain is severe due to broken vertebrate from a fall and there is no treatment except for easing the pain. In addition, he’s developed an infection from laying in one place for too long. Moving him was unbearable, for him and for us.
     We’ve spent quite a few hours talking about what all this means. She told me, “I thought we had more time.” But is there ever enough time? How much time would be enough if you knew it was coming to an end? She blames herself for his fall and I cannot take that from her. I gently remind her that this is his story, too. And falling was inevitable. I look at her face and I know she is grieving for the man she’s already lost to dementia, to the thought of her future without him by her side, and for that moment when she can’t care for him in any of the small and big ways. She has given her life to his comfort in small acts every day, for years. He has been a king in our home, and she has served him with gladness.
     I’m not close to my Dad. When I was a kid, my friends would all tell me how great my Dad was and how lucky I was to have him. And I believed them and saw him through their eyes. But when you have a front row seat, you see things and hear things that friends don’t. You sit at the dinner table, hear the harsh words spoken behind the front door, and withstand the long hours of silence and selfishness. And this is the Dad you remember. My love for my Mother and my desire to protect and defend her from my Dad came early in life. Were it not for those years, I am convinced I would not have the overwhelming compassion to care for women and children today. I am thankful for this gift, this grace, this life lesson.
     Several years ago, I started hearing teaching on “Father Hunger” and started to believe the nonsense. I’m convinced it was formulated to make men think more highly of themselves than they should. Did I make choices in my life seeking the love that was missing from my Dad? Possibly, but I also had the love and support of an amazing Mother who filled in the gaps and raised me to be strong, independent, and courageous. So many children are fatherless in this world due to stupid wars, selfish men, and love of empire…surely there is another answer. And I began to see that teaching children to know God, the Father, from an early age, is far more good for the soul. A loving Father God who seeks to restore our souls and continually reminds us of His love is more than any earthly Father could ever be. It wasn’t until I was able to change my expectations of my Dad, to see him as simply a man made in the image of God, that I was able to love him and confront him and see beyond all the spoken and unspoken hurts of the past. We sat and talked and I told him things I needed to say, we made peace, he asked for forgiveness and we forgave the past together. And I never thought that day would come, but God is faithful.
     So now my Dad is nearing the end of his story. I have mixed emotions. I hate seeing him suffer and I want it to end. I want him to have “more time” because that’s what my Mom needs. There are so many unanswered questions that only God knows the answers to. Does my Dad have a relationship with Christ? Will I see him again? Nevertheless, I pray this for him:

Heart, body, and soul are filled with joy.
For you will not leave me among the dead; you will not allow your beloved one to rot in the grave.
You have let me experience the joys of life and the exquisite pleasures of your own eternal presence.
— Psalm 16: 9-11

Don’t Fake the Story

My first round of chemo and week of radiation is over. Weeehooo! I survived it. I was brave and kinda “let’s get this over with,” until the nurse hooked up the Cisplatin and, in that few seconds, I realized everything was about to change and I lost my courage. I looked around the room filled with people hooked up to all manner of drugs and I realized I wasn’t any different. I resented their sickness because I didn’t want to be like them. This thing, this disease I’ve never seen with my own eyes, was changing everything. I couldn’t feel the poison enter my body, but I could see it dripping down and mocking me.
     It just so happened my friend Marilyn was sitting across the room caring for another woman. I reached for a tissue and tried to wipe away the tears that were betraying my braveness when I saw Marilyn walk over. Her eyes were filled with tears and she said, “Please don’t cry. It’ll be okay. Please don’t cry.” It’s all I needed. That little moment of kindness changed everything. And the best part is that I couldn’t have planned it if I’d tried. In the little details, in the unexpected moments, God tells me He loves me. He uses ordinary people, and orchestrates simple encounters, to love the world. He knows me. He wants me to know how much He cares. And when I’m weak, He is strong. And I may never have experienced the rawness of His love were it not for this disease, and all the other things that I’ve encountered these last few years that, on the surface, look like failure.
     Overall, the week went well. No nausea. No puking. I still have hair. My chemo will now be delivered every Tuesday. I’m supposed to expect 48 hours of good followed by, perhaps, two days of bad. But so far…no bad. This week was a bit unusual because I started out with a sinus infection prior to my first chemo treatment, which slowly moved in to my chest. I chose Tuesday for chemo so I can be fully rested by Sunday. And despite some difficulty breathing, I woke to a glorious day and managed to worship and serve in the nursery. Thank you, Dr. Rice, for the Z-thingy. I feel better already.
     Perspective changes everything. It is a necessity, not a burden, to raise my hands and worship the King. I’m trying to encourage Amelia to sing, so I sign with her and as I move my hands to the words it shakes loose the little bits of me that cling to my comforts, my pride, my own personal space. My emotion runs down my face and there are times when I need to stop just to breathe and find the words to express the wonder and joy that comes from knowing how much love God has for His people.
     This week has been filled with lovely gifts. Those pizzas. That hummus. That visit. That note. Those enchiladas. That nap. And that other nap. Lots of support from unexpected places. Though it is extremely difficult for me, I’m getting used to God using people to show me His love. It’s like there’s this moment when you realize the difference between “people” helping and God working through people. It’s difficult to explain. It’s as if the thin, tattered curtain of my pride is moved out of the way and I’m able to see through to where the help is really coming from. It’s a glorious life-changing moment and I need to find a way to better explain this, because it’s significant for so many reasons. And so I am asking myself, “How can I find a way to remove the ME from helping people so that they see Jesus right away?” Must needs be I spend some time thinking about this.
     They tell me that as the radiation and chemo accumulates in my body I will begin to feel changes. More fatigue. Maybe pain. Nevertheless, I still intend to fight. I anticipate some bad days, maybe I’ll lose my courage, and maybe I’ll hold on so tight to the hem of His garment that He’ll say, “Who touched me?” There’s a part of me, the over-achiever, who wants to sail through this and say, “Nothing but net.” But something Lonnie Frisbee once said to me sticks in my head, “Don’t try to get out of something that God has fixed in your life. Learn from it, because if you don’t, He’ll just fix it your life again, over and over again, until you get it right.”
     So this is my story. It’s not the story I would have written, but it’s mine. I have a feeling there will be days when I’ll want a do-over, days when I’m ashamed of my lack of courage, and hours when I just want it all to be over with. And I’m sharing this with you so that if you ever need me to walk over and say, “Please don’t cry. It’ll be okay. Please don’t cry,” you’ll know I’ve been there and I mean it. If all I can do in this life is tell people how much God loves them, show them even a glimpse of how much He cares, get out of the way and lead them to the cross, then I’m in the right story. And I am thankful!

Fight Like a Girl

cervical-cancer-ribbon-colorMy cancer treatment starts today. What I know today may change tomorrow, but here’s the schedule:

I’m loaded down with anti-nausea meds and I’m ready to fight this disease.

As crazy as this sounds, I am ever-so-slightly glad that my type of cancer is isolated to women. I love being a woman and I’m highly motivated to fight and make sure that no other women in my life are impacted by the HPV virus and cervical cancer. Please go get checked for the HPV virus today. Get vaccinated. Tell someone you love to get vaccinated. If you’re sexually active or you have been in the past, go get checked. If you’re concerned that people in your church, or people you know, will find out you’ve been sexually active and shun you or shame you, please call me and I’ll take you somewhere you’ll feel safe. Call me! I’ll go with you. Don’t put it off any longer. Don’t let anything stand in your way. Please!

For All the Good Things

Sunday was the first day in our new church building. The design is simple, it flows, it’s welcoming. Once you’re in it, you began to see all the little details that were incorporated that make a big difference in the lives of the people who will call it home. I am thankful. The building is icing. It’s lovely and functional, but there’s so much more to Real Life than its new building.
     A little less than a year ago I moved my household to Real Life. I had visited for a few weeks and had every intention of going back to my home church, but something in me longed for a change. At the time, I had three women and one baby living in my home and they were all consistently coming with me to church. Each Sunday, on the way home, I would try to engage them in conversation about the sermon, but either they didn’t understand it or were upset about something they heard and didn’t understand why. My frustration grew each week. The women weren’t hearing God speak to them. That’s when I knew that the longing for change was not just my own. My household needed more.
     These people, this motley crew at Real Life, are my people. They love God and love others. They get it. They live, breathe, and from the pulpit they teach it. They love the people that God said to love. And they talk about God in a way that restores people back to Him. They are Jesus to a hurting world.
     For the first time in my life I am hungry for the Word of God. It’s alive, it’s life-changing, and it’s sweeter than honey. Aaron Couch, the pastor, has such a hunger for “the Text” and he delivers it in a way that leaves me yearning for more. His sermons are short but powerful. I began eagerly reading the text on my own and then I started listening to Marty Solomon’s Bema Discipleship lessons. That, my friends, was a game-changer. Now and then Marty fills the pulpit at Real Life, too. Those sermons are like ripe figs falling into my hands.
     I’ve started to ask questions. Big questions. Not only do I know it’s okay to ask questions, I finally believe it is my responsibility to ask questions and to keep asking questions until I’m sure I understand. I am free. Free to love God without any restrictions. Free to serve God without any restrictions. Free to devour God’s Word and pursue Him with reckless abandon.
     At times, it’s overwhelming when I realize how much my life has changed. The big idols have been torn down: my career, my family, my stellar credit report, my savings account, my church, and my health. All the things I trusted in are gone or out of reach. The safe places I hid behind have disappeared. And in the midst of it all I have a deep, deep hunger for God like never before. He has brought me to a place where all I can do is trust in Him. He has brought me to a people who yearn for Him. And I needed this. He knew I needed this. And I have no choice but to trust Him, to trust the story, and to give thanks for all the good things.

Keep Calm and Trust the Story

tshirt For the last 49 days I’ve been compiling a list of new vocabulary words. A few of the words I’ve used before but never in the context I use them now. Prior to April 25th, H,P and V were letters in the alphabet, and the only time I saw them together was on pamphlets nestled away in plastic thingys hanging on the walls in the doctor’s office. Pappilloma has a lovely sound to it, but wedge it between human and virus and, well, stuff happens. It’s good to know that sometimes HPV may go away on its own and not all types of HPV lead to cervical cancer. A Pap test can find changes in cervical cells before they turn into cancer, and if you treat the changes, you may prevent cervical cancer. It’s really important to have regular Pap tests. My last Pap test was three years ago and it came back clean. I’m convinced HPV waits until you least expect it.

The pathology report came back and I studied it for hours, googled the big and the small words, and prepared a list of questions. I have low-grade, endocervical adinocarcinoma, initially staged as IB1 (i.e. the cancer can be seen without a microscope and is 4cm or smaller).  Nobody had said anything about a tumor, so naturally I was curious when I kept seeing the word come up. What I’ve learned is that cancer is a disease where abnormal cells don’t function properly, divide quickly, and produce too much tissue that forms a tumor. So they keep referring to “my tumor” but there isn’t a giant lump anywhere. There are symptoms associated with cervical cancer, but early cancers, like mine, usually show no symptoms or signs. As the disease attacks nearby tissue, symptoms start to occur. I have no pain or bleeding and there are days when I actually forget about the disease.

The first test, of many, came in the form of an ultrasound – internal and external. Invasive and awkward. Next came a CT scan served with a lovely barium sulfate beverage followed by an iodine chaser [BTW, barium is a chemical element with the symbol BA and atomic number 56. Because of its high chemical reactivity barium is never found in nature as a free element]. Bartender…I’ll have two!

I met with a Gynecologic Oncologist [GynOnc]and took my Mom along for moral support. There at Cancer Care Northwest, in Spokane, WA., the GynOnc broke it all down for me. She ordered a PET scan and referred me to a Radiation Oncologist [RadOnc]. I left the office numb. The words were all starting to run together and they were becoming a bit more real. She gave me three weeks to decide between option A (Radical hysterectomy followed by radiation) or option B (Radiation and chemotherapy followed by a standard hysterectomy). My BFF, google, helped me sort through more of the details.

The next test, my favorite so far, was the PET scan. Nuclear medicine. Basically, they injected me with a positron-emitting radionuclide, I took a nap in a recliner while it flowed through my body, then they put me in the PET scanner and cranked Jazz through the speakers while I took another nap. The results of the PET scan, taken from eyes to knees, indicated that the cancer has not spread to anywhere else in my body. However, the tumor is bigger than they initially thought and has been upgraded to a IB2 (i.e. the cancer can be seen without a microscope and is larger than 4cm).

photo2

One week later, I met with the RadOnc and asked him to confirm or deny my google findings. He confirmed it all and gave me good news and said he didn’t think I would need radiation or chemo, and the operation sounded like my best, and least harmful, option. “If you were my wife sitting there,” he said, “I would tell her to choose the surgery. And more than likely, you won’t need any radiation at all.” I left the office singing and returned to work. Less than two hours later, he called me with an update. He had spoken with my GynOnc, and she had thought about the treatment and changed her mind. He suggested I call or make an appointment to find out why. I didn’t take the news well.

There are times in my life that I fail to trust the story. Like the Israelites, I forget all the good things God has done and I simply need to be reminded. Time for a party? Without any hesitation, I simply yanked the pen out of God’s hand and made an appointment to get a second opinion from another surgeon, with whom I was familiar. Now you might say there’s nothing wrong with getting a second opinion, but I know why I did it – I wanted to have my way. The surgeon had an opening the next morning and I took that as a good sign and drove to Spokane to meet with her. She was kind and patient and answered all my questions. She reassured me that I was in good hands, the best hands, and suggested I call the GynOnc to give her an opportunity to explain.  And I did just that. I went to her office and asked if she had 15 minutes to speak with me. She was gracious and kind and explained her reasoning. My weight is a factor for a radical hysterectomy. Tough to hear, but it is what it is. She said, “When my heart and my head can’t come to an agreement over treatment for a patient, I listen to my head. It’s where my experience and training reside.”

I drove home from Spokane and used the time to hand the pen back to God. In reality, I know He was always holding it, but now and then I fool myself into thinking I actually know what’s best for me. The next day I met again with the RadOnc and his staff. They mapped out my body with another CT scan and I walked away with three, permanent tattoos. They will use the tattoos to line me up perfectly each time I come in for treatment. As it now stands, my treatment will be radiation and chemo for the next 6-8 weeks. External radiation five days a week, in Lewiston, and chemo every three weeks, followed by two weeks of internal radiation – every other day –  in Spokane. I’ve read all the scary bits. And, for the most part, I know what can go wrong, what the long term effects will be, and the hopeful outcome. The RadOnc told me I could not have planned my cancer better. What? “Your hips will play an important role during radiation treatment, acting as a barrier for your pelvic bones. And, just so you know, skinny women don’t do as well with radiation to this area of the body.” God has a great sense of humor. And, if all goes as planned, I will most likely just need a standard hysterectomy some time next year, or none at all.

If you think of me, please pray for the following:

    1. That I would be fearless and trust the story, and that my cancer would bring glory to God.
    2. That the radiation treatments would only effect the areas where the disease resides and no other organs would be damaged.
    3. Opportunities for me to share God’s greatness with others. I’m having a difficult time sitting in the waiting room with all the sick people, but I know God is beckoning me to share His love.
    4. That the effects of the radiation and chemo would not overwhelm me and I will be able to work for as long as possible – without needing to take time off.
    5. For the women and children of Peniel Crossing. That their daily needs would be met and God’s love would be evident to them.

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