Ups and downs, twists and turns

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When I was a child, I remember going to the fair with my Dad. I loved riding the rides but, most of all; I loved the Ferris wheel. As the big wheel rotated round and round there was a sense of freedom, of being weightless, floating high above the ground, soaring like a bird. At night, from my perch on the big wheel, the city lights resembled millions of fireflies twinkling in the sky transporting me to a fantasy world, a secret place without any cares. I still remember that strange feeling in the bottom of my tummy as the wheel descended and the exhilaration as the wheel approached the top – right before the big drop.  My mother would always caution Dad not to feed me before getting on the wheel, just in case my tummy couldn’t take the pressure! Going to the fair was a special time, just Dad and me, and, for a few hours, Dad and I were just two kids having fun.

 

In my early 20s my thrill-seeking ramped up a notch as I graduated to rollercoasters. The Ferris wheel of my childhood couldn’t begin to compare to the thrill of the giant coasters! I remember the suspense as the coaster slowly climbed upward, the cars clicking and clacking as they inched ever higher and higher. As the coaster reached the top, I recall the rush of adrenalin as it suddenly dropped over the edge causing my stomach to rise to my throat and taking my breath away all at the same time. As I made my way around the track, my body was pushed, pulled, twisted and sometimes turned upside down while defying the forces of gravity. Although I could see the course, I couldn’t really know what to expect until I got there. Each twist and turn became a new adventure.

 

For the past year, I have been on a different kind of rollercoaster – the emotional coaster of ups and downs, twists and turns. At times my inner self has been pushed and pulled to its limit. Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I spent eight months journeying with my mother as she battled leukemia. Thanksgiving was our last holiday together. Four days after Thanksgiving Mom entered the hospital for the final time. Three weeks later she would leave earth for heaven. One day short of the month after I buried her it was my turn in the trenches. Grief would have to wait. Game on.

 

Thanksgiving is here and the rollercoaster is once again slowly climbing the emotional mountain of our last weeks together. Click clack. I hear my mother’s voice and see her face light up as her great grandson snuggles close to her side quietly playing a video game. Click clack. I smell her perfume. Click clack. I see her savoring not the food but a time filled with family. Click clack. I remember being the one to break the gut-wrenching news that she would not live to celebrate Christmas. Click clack. I remember standing by her grave reading the liturgy. The coaster now comes to a stop. There will be no thrill waiting for me this time.

 

“At least we had a good Thanksgiving” was her immediate reaction after I announced the doctor’s prognosis. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul encourages the church toward a spirit of thankfulness. “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). In all circumstances…even in the face of death…we are to give thanks. A good Thanksgiving. In the midst of receiving a terminal diagnosis, my mother was thankful – thankful for a day with her family.

 

This year Thanksgiving will be different. My first inclination is to fast forward through Thanksgiving. In true honesty, I would prefer to move from Halloween to New Year’s. But I am already strapped in. Click clack. The car slowly begins to move again. Near the top, right before the big drop, a wave of memories flood over me. But something else happened. As I prepared my home to welcome my family, a wave of thankfulness washed over me. I am grateful beyond words for the gift of being alive. I have been blessed with the support of family, friends and a congregation who has loved and cared for me. I have been sustained by God’s grace in ways I would not have known without the “gift” of cancer. As we gather this Thursday for a family meal, I will light candles in memory of Mom and Dad and I will give thanks for their life and their love. Over the course of a year, I have experienced a season of ups and downs, twists and turns. In the midst of an emotional ride, through the deaths of my parents and my battle with cancer, God has blessed me beyond my wildest imagination. Now, Paul, I get it. It is truly a “good Thanksgiving.”

 

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  I Thessalonians 5:16-18

In the Pink

From my earliest memories, pink has always been my favorite color. When I finally got my own room at the age of six, it was decorated in various shades of pink. My Easter dresses were always pink with matching pink hair bows. I remember having a huge pink teddy bear with a white tummy. Whenever I was allowed the privilege of choosing a color, be it wardrobe or decorating, pink was my “go to” choice. In my early years I was “in the pink” for sure.

 

Once again I am “in the pink” but, this time, being pink is not yielding any fun.  As a result of my radiation treatments, the treated area is now pink – hot pink to be exact.  A few spots are bright red. It took 20 treatments before my skin reacted but on the evening of treatment 21, my skin showed a pink glow which has intensified with every treatment. My back, which has not been directly treated, has turned pink, as if the radiation beam has gone straight through me!  My skin is sore and now blisters are forming which complicates my wardrobe choices. Needless to say, I’m at the point where I am wearing the most comfortable clothing over and over.  I’m also at the place that I don’t want anything to touch my skin. My armpit is hot pink, swollen and starting to blister; miserable is the best adjective I can find to describe this situation so I try to keep my left arm away from my body as much as I can. On top of the painful skin reaction there is itching. The treated area is larger than you might think so there is a lot of itchy, hot pink skin. I’m not supposed to scratch or even rub as that might break the skin which could possibly lead to infection. It is more than difficult to refrain from rubbing or scratching. I keep the area slathered with prescription cream but it still itches. I have even worn gloves to bed to prevent scratching while I’m sleeping! If you’ve ever been sunburned, you know this feeling.

 

Cancer gives nothing and takes everything, if you let it. It will consume your time, energy and spirit. The physical toll from the treatments seems to feed directly into cancer’s plan – to beat you down until you submit. Therein lies the challenge – to remain positive in a very negative environment. It is a war that my mother fought valiantly even as the leukemia overpowered her body. As her body slowly gave way to death, my mother showed me how to persevere. I took mental notes, even though I didn’t know I would need them so soon after her passing.

 

The phrase “in the pink” means “healthy – in good condition.”  I am eagerly awaiting the day when my scans are clear and there is no further evidence of cancer in my body. I want to hear my oncologist say that I am “in the pink.” I want to feel the “victory” of being cancer-free. But even more than that, I want to be “pink in Christ.” I want to be in good spiritual condition. I want to stay close to Christ and serve Christ in whatever way he chooses. And that is something that cancer can’t take from me.

 

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”     John 15:5

 

 

 

 

 

Counting

As I am writing this, there are 68 days until Christmas. When I was a child, 68 days would have seemed like an eternity but as I have matured (at least chronologically), 68 days go by in a flash! Time seems to go by faster as one gets older. As a child, I remember being super-excited over the arrival of Christmas. Starting at Halloween, I would make a personal calendar (Mom would never let me mark on the “official family calendar” so I had to copy it). Each night before bed, I would mark off the day then count the number of days remaining before Santa’s arrival.  It was a nightly ritual that would encourage me to persevere in the misery of my waiting. Obviously waiting is not one of my virtues. Christmas Eve was especially difficult for me as far as waiting goes. The excitement would build until I couldn’t get to sleep. To encourage me to go to bed, my mother informed me that Santa would check to be sure I was asleep before leaving any presents. The Christmas I was six was particularly difficult because I was too excited to sleep and too afraid that Santa would notice I was awake and thus, fly over our house without leaving so much as a candy cane! So I squeezed my eyes as hard as I could, face bunched up, trying to give the appearance of being asleep while all the time listening for the sounds of Santa’s arrival. I still remember my face being sore on Christmas morning but by some miracle, I must have fooled Santa because presents were indeed under the tree!

 

My cancer treatments have reignited the need to count down the days. While I haven’t physically “crossed off” the days on my calendar, I have kept a mental list of the number of treatments left in each cycle. Over a period of five months, I endured 16 chemotherapy treatments. Now I’m undergoing radiation for a total of 33 treatments. As I am writing this, I have 16 treatments left. But who’s counting?

 

Cancer treatments are tough on the body and trying to the spirit. You just want them to be over. So you count down each one as another battle in the war – another battle fought and won. You look forward to the end of treatment as if you were once again a child awaiting Christmas morning. There’s a twinge of jealousy as you sit in the chemo room, poison dripping in your veins, and hear another person ring the bell signifying they’ve completed treatment. So you continue to count. The counting provides hope that you, too, will one day ring the bell.  

 

As I near the end of my treatments, my counting has taken on a different persona. Instead of counting the number of infusions left, I am counting my blessings. I have been blessed by so many who have fed me, prayed for me, driven me to treatments, and encouraged me with countless cards, notes, flowers, and phone calls. These are the blessings that have sustained me and given me hope. Through all the ways I have been ministered to over these many months, I have seen a glimpse of the kingdom of God in its fullness – with blessings too many to count. But who’s counting?  I am, of course!

Be Still

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When I was in the seventh grade, I learned the art of sewing. My grandmother bought me a sewing machine and I started making aprons, pillows, potholders and eventually graduated to making my own clothes. But, before I could sew, my mom’s sister made all of my dresses. Aunt Dot’s creations were far better than any store-bought clothing. I was always very excited to get my new school clothes except for one minor detail – the fitting. On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks before school started, mom and I would drive over to Aunt Dot’s house and I would try on my new dresses. Imagine the excitement over an entire wardrobe of new clothes displayed across my aunt’s bed! One by one, I would put on each new dress and stand on the seat of a straight back chair as my aunt checked the fit and pinned the hem. This procedure would require me to be still. How on earth could I be still wearing a new dress?  I remember swaying side to side, doing my best impression of one of those old table-top oscillating fans, and watching the skirt of my dress as it softly twirled. “Be still,” my aunt would say, “or these pins are going to stick you!”  “Be still” so I can get the hem straight.  “Be still” so I can pin in the sides a little bit.  No matter how many times I heard “be still” I could not stand still. And, yes, those pins did sometimes stick me but they were no deterrent for a young girl with the wiggles and a new dress!

 

I still have the “wiggles.” When I am sitting, I unconsciously cross my legs and before I know it, the leg on top starts swinging back and forth. I have made many conscious efforts to not cross my legs, to keep still, but the minute my mind focuses on something else, there goes my leg! Being still remains a continuous struggle for me.

 

I am now taking radiation treatments which require me to BE STILL!  For those unfamiliar with this process, I am laid bare on a hard, cold table with my left arm stretched over my head fitted into a mold that was tailor-made for me. Getting lined up for each treatment is vitally important as you want the proper area treated and you do not want to treat the wrong area. This requires me to BE STILL. I have never itched so much in my life as when the technicians get me all lined up and remind me to BE STILL! First it’s my face, then my eye, then my head that needs to be scratched! Just telling me not to move makes me want to move even more! Right before the beam comes on, I am required to take a deep breath and hold it for 20 seconds while the beam does its work. Don’t move, take in a deep breath and hold it until your eyes are about to pop out of your head! Breathe, but don’t move. We repeat this process five times each treatment. So far, I have not messed up, but I fear failure is just around the corner.

 

I admit I’ve been on a roller coaster of emotions these past ten months. Both of my parents have gone to heaven. My cancer treatments have taken a toll on my body. Being physically tired leads to emotional fatigue. Little things that before I could have totally ignored now occupy large amounts of my energy. In the midst of it all, God reminds me that God is my refuge and strength. I need nothing more.  “Be still,” God says, and “know who I am. I can do anything. I can form mountains. I make the seas foam and roar.  I am always present in the time of trouble. So be still and allow me to show you my glory.”  Psalm 46 reminds me of the beauty of being still in God’s holy presence. And when I am still, God speaks, offering a word of comfort, bringing joy out of sadness, turning chaos into peace and bringing healing to my broken body.

 

“Be still, and know that I am God;

    I will be exalted among the nations,

    I will be exalted in the earth.”

                                                Psalm 46:10

Marked

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I remember the first time I caught our son drawing on the wall. To use the term “drawing” might be a stretch as his “art work” was more a conglomeration of crayon marks in different directions – the handiwork of a two-year old who has discovered the wonder of a blank wall and a box of crayons. Why would anyone opt for a small piece of paper when an entire wall was easily within reach? I tried my best to remove the crayon marks but even with my most intense scrubbing, the lines refused to completely disappear. Years later, I could still see the marks, reminders of the tender days of toddlerhood. Those marks, so annoying at first, became blessed memories of innocence; memories of watching my little one discover the world.

 

Undergoing cancer treatment has rendered me a “marked” woman. I have five scars in different directions. Although they have started to fade, just like my toddler’s crayon art, the scars are still visible. No amount of fade cream will totally erase them. My scars are a daily reminder that my body has been invaded by an uninvited alien that has threatened my very existence and tried me to my core. Last Friday, I received a new set of marks – tattoos to be exact. In addition to the roadmap of scars I now have blue dots!  These tattoos will enable the radiation team to properly align me for my treatments. On one hand, my scars and tattoos are unwelcome souvenirs of the hurdles one has to cross when undergoing cancer treatments. On the other hand, these marks are beautiful reminders of the ways in which God is at work in me to bring about healing. And just like my toddler’s primitive art work, I can choose how I see the marks on my body. Beauty or tragedy – it’s up to me.

 

In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul describes the “marks” of a Christian: love, hope, patience, harmony, generosity, peace, service and zeal. These attributes set us apart from the world as they are the marks of new creation – marks that indicate that God is at work in us. These are the scars and tattoos that we wear on our bodies when Christ comes into our lives and changes us.

 

The marks of healing on my body are not meant to be visible; in fact, they are fading as time goes by. But the marks that I wear as a Christian are meant to be visible at all times. I pray they are growing brighter so that others may come to see Christ. I am indeed, and gladly, a “marked woman!”

New Growth

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The early spring that we experienced this year caused an inopportune budding of my hydrangea …my favorite flowering shrub…the one with the puffy blue blooms that reminds me of my grandmother’s hydrangea. Her bush was three times the size of mine and was always covered with the biggest blossoms I’ve ever seen. It was planted at the end of her front porch, right behind the porch swing. In the summer, one must be careful not to swing too high for fear of damaging the precious blooms. On Sundays, the cousins would gather in the side yard for a game of roll-a-bat and there were constant reminders not to hit the bush. Not that you wanted to hit it and knock off a few blooms but, sometimes things happen when you’ve got anywhere from 4 to 8 cousins competing at one time! Whenever I look at my own hydrangea, I get a warm sentimental feeling that brings back memories of lazy summer Sunday afternoons in the porch swing or playing a lively game with my cousins. It is a reminder of sweet days gone by, of growing up on the farm, and memories that bind us together as a family. With my dad passing away last week, those memories are even more cherished now. So naturally, anything that threatens my hydrangea is a punch in gut of my memory bank. But one morning I arose to find that the early spring had indeed disappeared right into the clutches of a night of below freezing temperatures and my beloved hydrangea had become its prey. The beautiful green leaves, so tender and delicate, were BROWN and hanging like a dead man on the gallows. As I left for work, I spent a few moments with my head bowed in silence as a flood of memories welled up inside of me.

 

My husband reassured me that it would put out again.  “Give it time,” he encouraged me as I mourned for what had been and might never be again. I’ve seen the wreckage of an early freeze on fruit trees…no peaches or cherries for an entire season. Day after day, I passed by its gray lifeless branches with their toasted brown leaves refusing to give up the fight. Then, when hope had all but faded, one morning I came outside to find little buds resembling tiny green mouse ears dotting the branches right beside where the first leaves had once so proudly stood. “New growth,” I exclaimed, excitedly to myself. I quickly searched my purse for my phone so that I could take a picture. I wasn’t sure why I needed a picture but nonetheless; I snapped one, maybe as a precaution against another evil freeze or perhaps as a reminder that out of the ashes of a deep freeze, new life appears. My hydrangea, along with my memories, would live once again.

 

When I lost my hair due to chemotherapy, deep down inside, I experienced feelings of loss. I felt like my hydrangea looked. My oncologist reassured me my hair would start to sprout about eight weeks after I finished the first two chemo drugs.  Somewhere during the treatment with the third drug, my head would bring forth hair. “Give it time,” he encouraged me. Week after week, as part of the routine questioning, the staff would ask, “Any hair yet?” And week after week, I would sadly report, “No.” Then, when I least expected it, one morning I awoke to find “peach fuzz” all over my scalp. I couldn’t see any hair but I could feel it. I squealed with delight! My hope was renewed! In about a week, my new hair was visible. And now it is starting to cover my head!! Out of the ashes new life appears!

 

My hydrangea didn’t bloom this summer. It spent all of its time recovering from the freeze, growing new leaves and storing energy it will use to bloom another year. In some ways, I haven’t bloomed this summer either. I have spent my time recovering from surgery and enduring chemo. Some things have been hard this year but, neither my hydrangea nor my body has succumbed to these threats. We have endured the hardships and are survivors. New growth has taken place!

 

Some things, like growing new leaves and hair, takes time. While we can’t always see it from the outside, inside God is at work, bringing newness out of difficulty. New growth, of all kinds, is a work in progress – a work that only God can do in us – in God’s time.

 

“In his time, in his time, he makes all things beautiful, in his time.

Lord please show me every day, as you're teaching me your way, that you do just what you say in your time.”    Diane Ball

Chemo Brain

I messed up leading in worship today. I knew exactly what I wanted to say but the words didn’t come out the way I wanted them to. It was quite obvious and for me, somewhat upsetting. My grandmother would have laughed it off saying “My tongue got wrapped around my eye tooth and I couldn’t see what I was saying!” Well, grandmother, this is happening a lot these days and I am not always laughing about it. Now don’t get me wrong. I am usually good at laughing at myself. But this is different. Since I started chemo in April, I’ve been dreading the day that chemo brain would set in and quite frankly, I’ve been praying that it would leave me alone. Isn’t it enough that I have to endure the side effects of GI upsets and fatigue? Now it feels like my brain is short circuiting at the most inopportune times.

 

Last week it happened while I was driving. I needed to pick up something to send to my son who is in the Peace Corps. I’ve driven this route many times before so there was no need for me to put the destination in my GPS. But…about halfway there…it happens. I can’t think of where I need to turn. Is it at the next light or the one after it? Do I turn right or left? What is happening to me? I feel a mild case of panic sweep over me as I search my brain for the answer. Little beads of sweat pop out on my forehead. My stomach starts to get that feeling like when your teacher called on you and you didn’t know the answer because you hadn’t done your homework. Then I see a recognizable landmark and suddenly I know where to turn. Thank you, brain, for this favor.  Next time, let’s kick in a bit sooner!

 

For those undergoing chemotherapy, chemo brain is a real phenomenon. The symptoms include mental fogginess and difficulty concentrating. It stems from changes in the brain’s metabolism occurring in regions of the brain involved in long-term memory, mental agility, decision making, and problem solving. There are times when I can’t seem to get my brain going. Other times my brain gets stuck and will not shut off…especially at bedtime. There have been many nights I have stayed awake because my brain was so busy wandering all over the place! There are also times when I can’t recall a person’s name, even someone I’ve known for a long time. Other times I feel like I am searching through a stack of dictionaries three feet deep looking for the words to complete a sentence. And then there are times, like today in worship, when my words get mixed up. But, in the midst of this miserable experience, there is good news: chemo brain almost always goes away once chemotherapy is finished. I only have four more treatments to go! There is light at the end of this tunnel!

 

Going through chemotherapy is like running a marathon. It requires endurance which is obtained through proper training. But sometimes, no matter how hard you have trained, you get a cramp when running. Right now my brain is cramping making it harder for me to run but I am still on the course. I will not drop out of this race. Why? Because the God who began a good work in me has not left me to suffer alone. Whatever God has in store for me, God will complete it. I am most confident of this. How is God sustaining you today?

 

"I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ." 

Philippians 1:6

Enduring fatigue...being blessed

Napoleon once said “The first virtue in a soldier is the endurance of fatigue; courage is only the second virtue.” There are many things of which I differ with Napoleon; however, the more I think about this quote, in this, Napoleon was spot on. Right now I am a soldier in an intense fight as my body is undergoing a tremendous assault. The side effects of my chemotherapy include fatigue. Each week, as the cumulative effects of the drug compound, I find that my energy drains a little earlier in the day than the previous week. Now that I am in week fourteen of my treatment, I require an afternoon rest break, something that I haven’t had the time for, or the pleasure of, since my preschool days (unless, of course, you count those few Sunday afternoons that I dozed in front of the TV)! As much as I want to endure the fatigue and carry on, this soldier retreats to the comfort of her sofa each afternoon to allow her body a momentary reprieve from the fatigue that creeps up like a cat stalking its prey and then suddenly pouncing, coming out of nowhere, overpowering its victim, and rendering it lifeless.

As a child, I remember walking through the woods from our house to my grandmother’s several times a day, popping in just to see what she was doing. Every afternoon, I would find my grandmother parked in her plush rocking chair in front of the TV “to allow her eyes to rest.” That was always her line; she was never taking a nap!  Her dinner dishes (back then we called the midday meal dinner) were neatly stacked in the kitchen sink, waiting to be washed later in the afternoon. Nothing got in the way of grandmother’s afternoon “eye resting”, not even an eager child with nothing better to do than to pop in unannounced, climb up in the adjacent chair and start chatting away!  These days as I find myself forced into my own time of “resting my eyes,” I think of my grandmother’s example of allowing her body to dictate her level of activity. She knew something that I am now learning: there are times when the body needs a pause and it is wise to heed the body’s advice. But I think my grandmother also understood there was more to a daily period of rest than “meets the eye!”

In the midst of my daily rest I am being blessed and my spirit renewed.  I have found that lazy, late summer afternoons bring particular joys: the beauty of the sun as it cradles everything in its path with a golden glow that has yet to be captured by Crayola; emerald green humming birds that visit our flower boxes and hover over each tiny blossom; yellow butterflies that flit and flutter in our garden; cardinals and goldfinches that take turns on the feeder as if they had read the entire Emily Post etiquette manual. Nature’s lullabies – tree frogs, cicadas, birds – remind me that all of creation sings of God’s majesty. As I sit in my swing I find much time for prayer and contemplation. For a few hours each day, time slows down and I am drawn into nature’s sanctuary.

Cancer is not a blessing, but through it, I am being blessed and my soul is being renewed. Through the beauty of nature, I see a glimpse of God’s majesty and goodness. What an awesome God we serve!

Mortality...

Soon after I announced that I had stage III breast cancer, I was asked the question everyone wants to ask but few will dare to. “Are you going to die?” was the question that fell off the tongue of the well-meaning friend who ventured into the unknown. I could tell my friend wasn’t prepared for the conversation that would naturally ensue when one asks a preacher a question about life and death. I saw that she was embarrassed that the question had slipped out. And I must admit, I wasn’t exactly prepared to answer this question. Not that I hadn’t thought about it. I had. In fact, I had thought about and prayed about this very question a lot over the two months that it took to arrive at my diagnosis. Everyone who has cancer considers this question at some point in their journey.

In May of 2016, my mother received a diagnosis of leukemia. It was a rare form that is difficult to treat. Her first question was “am I going to die?” Her doctor told her if the chemo didn’t work, she would die within six weeks. None of us were prepared for that revelation; however, when week number six arrived, mom was responding to the chemo. I remember her telling me “I was prepared to die; now I have to learn how to live again.” Living again was somewhat difficult for my mother to embrace as she had literally written herself off.  For six weeks, she had been living in the “shadow of the valley of death.” Thankfully she learned to embrace living again and had several good months before her kidneys failed.

In December when the doctors told my mother that her kidneys were failing and would not tolerate any more chemo, her first question this time was “how long will I live?”  The pronouncement was “about two weeks” and this timeline consumed her thoughts. When the two week deadline came and went and Mom didn’t go to heaven, she was confused and a little angry. Once again, emotionally and mentally, she had prepared to die so when it didn’t happen, she didn’t know how to respond. The process of dying had been difficult for mom, particularly the emotional stress. Spiritually, she was “ready to go;” emotionally, she just wanted the journey to be quick. We don’t always get what we want.

“We are all going to die someday” I replied to my friend’s question as to the state of my mortality. I could tell she wasn’t satisfied but the truth of the matter is that I don’t know if I am going to die from this disease. That’s not in my job description; that knowledge belongs to God. What I do have is a choice as to how I will live out my time on this earth. I have chosen to live each day to its fullest; to embrace the opportunities God places before me to serve; to cherish each day’s blessings; to look forward to the future. Every day I live with an attitude of hope. It is hope that keeps me focused on the present – working, loving, serving and eating chocolate when my tummy allows it! I don’t know why I got sick; I don’t know what the outcome will be. But I do know that God is sustaining me, working in me and through me, shaping me for my future. Even in the midst of illness I live in hope because “hope is a sure and fast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19a).

The Nose Knows

Studies show that our sense of smell plays a major role in how we feel, in our memories, and in our day-to-day decisions.  Our ability to smell is the sense closest linked to memory.  In fact, studies show that we can remember a scent with 65% accuracy after one year.  It’s been more than a year for sure but I can still remember the incredible sweet fragrance of the delicate lavender flowers on my mother’s lilac bush, even though that bush died long ago. I also remember the scolding I received from plucking all of the blooms off that bush when I was around six! One of the best scents I remember was that of laundry after being dried outside. The clothes had such a clean scent, baked and sanitized by the sun and softened by the wind. No amount of laundry detergent or dryer sheets can duplicate that scent. I also remember the wonderful aroma coming from our kitchen when my mother made homemade jam. Grape jam was my favorite and our whole house would smell like a biscuit smothered in grape jam for days after jam-making. In the fall, the aroma of curing tobacco permeated our entire farm. It was a sweet earthy smell that connected me to the land and my family. I can still walk in those old barns and recall the scent clinging to the rafters as if it were yesterday. Scents are a part of who we are.

But not all scents produce pleasant memories. After loving many cats over the years, I thought that I had mastered the art of unpleasant smells! I’ll spare you the details. But nothing, not even those not-so-sweet kitty smells, can compare to the smells associated with chemo. And it’s not just the scents; the smells also are paired with unpleasant tastes. Accessing my port for each treatment requires that the area be prepped with an antimicrobial that smells like a cross between fingernail polish remover and fingernail polish.  The odor takes your breath not only because of its veracity but because of the proximity to my nose.  As soon as my port is accessed, there is this overwhelming salty bitter taste from the saline that is now coursing through my body. The smell of the antimicrobial combined with the saline taste makes me feel sick before I even get the chemo drugs. Now it is almost impossible for me to paint my nails because of the association of the aromas.

The odor-taste association carries over as the chemo is given. The chemo drugs cause an unpleasant taste sensation that I really cannot describe other than bitter to the point that I actually shiver from the taste. No amount of lemon drop candy gets rid of the taste. The Adriamycin was given IV push so every time the nurse pushed the drug I received another bolus of bitter taste. My new drug, Taxol, does not produce quite as intense of a sensation but my body still “remembers” the smell-taste sensation from the first drug. It is hard to get rid of such unpleasantness.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this whole ordeal is the “sixth sense” that I’ve developed. I can actually determine just by the sight, thought, or aroma of a food whether or not I will be able to tolerate it. Sometimes the smell alone is enough to give me a problem. Other times, I can just think about a food and my body will vote either yes or no. And, what I can tolerate changes from one day to another. Crazy, I know! There is no logic to this, only the nose knows!

Contemplating the role of scent in our memory processes, I am reminded of Psalm 141:2. David Haas sets this verse to music: 

Lord, may our prayer rise like incense in your sight, may this place be filled with the fragrance of Christ.

Chemo, with all its assorted scents, is bringing healing to my body. As I pray, I imagine my prayers rising upward to heaven, slowly swirling and circling with a beauty that can only be “smelled” as they reach the heavenly throne.  Your prayers, your cards, your gifts of flowers, lemonade, and food are a sweet fragrance of Christ that drowns out much of the unpleasantness and keeps me going. For all of your sweet heavenly “fragrances” I am most humbled and thankful.

On Being Blonde...

Pastor Debra at age 1

Pastor Debra at age 1

I was born a blonde. Actually, I was born without any hair so essentially, I am now back to my roots!  My baby picture proves my mother’s story that when I did get hair I started as a blonde!  Then the DNA pool took over and by the time I was four, my hair had turned as dark as midnight! But there is a precedent for my being a blonde, even if it was only for a few short years!!

Now, for an interim at least, I have returned to my blonde roots.  Before I started chemo, I was urged during my chemo class to go and get a wig before my hair fell out so I could match my current hair color. As you know, I was gray, so I thought that would be the natural choice for my wig color. Besides, I had been in some sort of graying process since my late 30s so I never considered another color. Being gray was part of my identity. I found my first gray hair when I was 32 and pregnant with my second baby. I still remember the morning I woke to find that stubborn gray hair sticking straight out of the front of my hairline!!  I contemplated pulling it but then I remembered those old wives’ tales that if you pull a gray hair, two will come back so I did my best to tame it!  Now I know the truth; more gray hairs will keep coming regardless of whether you pull them or leave them alone.  They have friends!  But enough about my graying process and back to the wig.

Getting a wig is not an easy process nor is it without emotional turmoil. I was skeptical of the ins and outs of wearing a wig because of my mother’s experience wearing one after her hair thinned.  She always felt it was too tight. Perhaps that was her excuse because one of the first times she wore it in public she was ridiculed so she never had the confidence to wear it much after that. I was worried that it might be too loose and fall off and expose my baldness. I worried that the wig would look, well, bad. But those worries were unfounded. The worse that has happened is that when my head itches, there is not a good way to scratch. On the top, the “cap” is woven in a way that I can’t stick my finger through. The sides and back are woven differently and I can actually get a finger in several places for scratching. And after a good scratch, I must readjust the wig to keep it in the right place! But that is really all the issues thus far. 

 In keeping with the advice I had been given, I told my consultant that I wanted a gray wig. She immediately made a face and that should have been my clue that gray might not be the best color. But I was in such a state I missed that clue. After telling her I wanted straight hair (it would be the only time in my life my hair would ever be straight so I thought I might as well get some mileage out of this situation) she set out to find the perfect combination of gray and straight hair. Note: there are limited selections in that genre – most gray wigs are short and layered.  When she put the gray wig on me, all I could see was someone who looked like a very old and sick mouse! Seriously! I sat there motionless and silent.  When the stylist asked me if I liked the wig I gave her a resounding no!  “Thank goodness,” she said, and then she went right to work, coming out with several straight, blonde styles.

Never in my life had I thought of myself as a blonde. But when she put the blonde wig on, I smiled. It was as if a weight had been lifted from my spirit. I could see myself as healthy and vibrant…all the things this cancer was trying to steal from me. The blonde wig allowed me to see myself differently. Suddenly I was alive again. And I looked younger. Double bonus.

How we view ourselves has a powerful effect on how we live. Sometimes negative circumstances can leave us without a sense of hope. An overly developed sense of ourselves can have the opposite effect. All of us, whether we admit it or not, have struggled with our sense of identity. We’ve all had thoughts about what others might say about us. We’ve all had situations that threatened our sense of who we are. But that’s the world talking. As Christians, we know who and whose we are – we are a child of God.  We’ve been adopted into God’s family. There’s no better identity than that…not even being blonde.

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” 

John 1:12-13

Fragile: Handle With Care

Thirty three years ago, we brought home our firstborn. Confident in my ability to care for an infant, after all, I was a nurse with some experience in the newborn nursery; I went about my motherly duties as if I were a pro. I mastered the “football hold” of sticking my little one’s head under running water for a daily shampoo without getting water in his ears.  Instead of disposable diapers I opted for the diaper service and quickly learned to change diapers with the speed and precision of a Nascar pit crew! Two weeks into motherhood, my confidence was shaken when my precious little one contracted a cold. How could this be? I had done everything right and kept him at home, even limiting visitors to keep down the possibility of infections in the first tender month of life. As I remember it, my husband came home with a cold and, well, you know the rest of the story. Arriving at the pediatrician’s office, the first thing I remember him saying as he entered the exam room was “Well, it didn’t take you long to make him sick!” Not exactly what to say to a new mother as I burst into tears explaining how my perfect mothering skills had been thwarted by my husband’s cold.

Six weeks into chemo, my skills have once again been thwarted by a nasty cold. It certainly didn’t take me very long to get sick! How could this be?  I had taken every precaution. I washed my hands at least a hundred times a day. I stopped shaking hands and giving hugs at church to minimize the possibility of contracting something. I washed raw food with soap and water before eating it. I kept my distance from everyone. I wore disposable gloves to pump gas and kept hand sanitizer in my purse. Still, even with my best efforts, somehow I contracted a cold. What I wasn’t prepared for was how severe a cold is for someone on chemo. I should have the words “Fragile: Handle With Care” stamped on my forehead!  Because chemo suppresses the body’s defense mechanisms, my body is in a constant state of fragility. Something that I could previously have endured with little more than a runny nose and maybe a few sneezes suddenly is a major event, relegating me to bed for days unable to do anything due to weakness. My body now takes longer to begin healing and healing is slower than I have ever experienced. 

Sometimes, even with our best efforts, things happen. Even with my best mothering skills, my infant got sick. And, despite my best efforts at keeping germs and viruses at bay, one slipped in. My body is fragile right now because of chemotherapy but my spirit remains strong. Even in my moments of weakness, when I wondered how much more my body could endure, there was a deep assurance that God had not abandoned me. 

Faith is trusting in God regardless of what God is allowing to happen in our lives. The Apostle Paul knew this well. He learned to trust God even in the midst of hardship. He was content with whatever came his way. He endured a “thorn in his side” that God did not remove. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes it clear that our weaknesses are to be used for God’s glory: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness…for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  I am fragile but God is handling me with great care!

Shedding

Velvet

Velvet

Over the years, Gary and I have shared our home with many cats so I feel like I am an expert on the subject of shedding…especially when it comes to cat hair!  One of our kitties, Velvet, was a prolific shedder! Velvet was everything her name implied. She was jet black with a tiny white spot on her tummy. Her fur was as soft as velvet and shiny as a new penny. But lurking under that fabulous top coat was an undercoat, softer than down, which, was always shedding in what seemed like giant clumps! These furry balls seemed to have supernatural powers which enabled them to cling to every surface. I know what you are thinking – why not just comb this cat to dislodge the undercoat and problem solved?  Not so fast my friends!  Combing was helpful but, the very next day, more furry patches would appear on the carpet, sofa, bed, and everywhere else Velvet decided to lie during her 22 hours of sleep each day! Velvet has since gone to kitty heaven which I thought would solve my war on shedding. Think again.

Once again, I have become an expert on shedding, only this time, it is my hair that can be found on every surface around the house. Some chemo medications cause you to lose your hair. In my case, Adriamycin and Cytoxan are the culprits. In preparation for this, I asked my beautician to cut my hair super short. Then my chemo schedule had to be pushed forward so my hair grew before my first chemo. After my second chemo treatment, my scalp became extremely sore; too sore to touch. Once the soreness set in, my hair started falling out; first in single hairs, then in huge clumps. Sleeping became difficult because it hurt to lie down. But the worst part is the loose hairs, everywhere and in everything. I’ve tried to keep them contained under my little snood (this is the name for those slouchy hats chemo patients wear) but they just keep finding a way to get loose! I thought about having my hair buzzed off but my scalp has just been too sore. So morning and evening, I grit my teeth and run my fingers through my hair to dislodge as many as possible and contain them in the trash.

The physical pain of hair loss is very real. But, the psychological pain has been, at times, almost suffocating. I know it sounds vain, but my hair has always been a part of my identity as a woman. I was able to accept turning prematurely gray; in fact, I flaunted it! But losing one’s hair is in a different league than having a headful of gray ones. The first time I mustered up the nerve to face myself in the mirror after most of my hair had fallen out I experienced a visceral, gut reaction. I didn’t recognize the woman staring back at me. Suddenly I felt very different, as if my exterior had been subverted overnight. I tried to hide my bald head from my husband because I felt so unattractive. Deep in my innermost being I have always known that hair, like clothes, is nothing more than window dressing. But when you lose the window dressing, it tests you. There is a voice that tries its best to tell you that you are broken, defeated.  My faith says otherwise.

My hair is a part of me but it doesn’t define who I am. The real me is inside. Under the surface I am the same person I was before cancer. God says I am beautiful, just as I am.  I am far more than the sum of my exterior. My true identity is that of God’s beloved child, hair or no hair. I am strong, beautiful, and whole because God has created me in God’s image. I am not broken. And nothing, not even cancer, can steal that promise from me.

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful,  I know that full well.”  Psalm 139:14

Daily Bread

Growing up on a farm, I’ve had a lot of experience with waiting. Farming is as much about timing and patience as it is about planting and harvesting. On the farm there are four seasons: planting, growing, harvesting and waiting. I am sure you are familiar with the first three seasons; however, the season of waiting is not as well defined as it intermingles itself in and around the other seasons.  It is a time mixed with anticipation, wonder, watchfulness, and dormancy.  After we plant the seeds we then must wait for them to burst open the doors of their prisons, their tiny heads fixated toward the sunlight. Each type of seed has a different waiting period before it bursts forth and you must be patient not to scratch the ground too soon looking for that first little escapee; otherwise, you will disturb its delicate root system sending the seedling to an early grave. Waiting for harvesting is particularly frustrating. I can hardly wait to pull that first tomato. As soon as there is an inkling of pink, I circle like a hawk waiting for the kill, my mouth drooling in anticipation as the pink color creeps over the first side, then the next, until it finally engulfs the entire sphere and its color changing from pink to bright red. Pulling the tomato too soon results in a half ripe tomato which then must be ripened in the window sill, forever changing the taste. Everyone knows the best flavor comes when the tomato is allowed to ripen on the vine. But…to get that glorious taste…we must wait.

Life with cancer is filled with seasons of waiting. Even before any treatment can begin, one must wait what seems like an eternity for appointments with specialists: surgeon, radiologist, oncologist, geneticist and so forth. Pathology reports take at least a week to arrive in your surgeon’s inbox while your mind rehearses every possibility that you’ve been able to ascertain from the internet. Every week you nervously wait on lab reports that determine if you can have another chemo treatment, risk eating a salad, go out in public, or if you’re confined at home on lockdown. After a chemo treatment, you wait for the dreaded side effects to set in: gastrointestinal ailments of all kinds, joint pain, weakness, low blood counts, headache or other insults to your body that you’ve read about, been warned about, and now wait to see if they will happen. There is the waiting for your hair to fall out but that’s another story. On a much larger scale, there is the waiting to see if the cancer will return. This is my second cancer journey. Five years ago I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Still waiting.

All of life is filled with waiting. I think that’s why Jesus taught us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.”  We are to depend on God for just what we need for one day. Nothing more. We are to pray for our needs for this day, trusting that God will provide all that is required to navigate the day’s challenges. In our praying, waiting is no longer the enemy but a vehicle through which God speaks.  As we wait, seeds sprout, tomatoes ripen, and God sustains us in ways beyond our capacity to understand. It all begins with “our daily bread.”

Lemonade

I love lemonade. My favorite is the diet lemonade at Chick-fil-a. Several years ago I got hooked on it and since then it has been a special delight. The only problem is that the lines at Chick-fil-a are so long that I usually just skip going there altogether. So…I’ve learned that other lemonades are a close second, especially Crystal Light, and I can make that at home and carry it with me to work, thus eliminating the waiting in line at Chick-fil-a. Sometimes you just have to make the best of a situation, even if it’s not exactly what you want.

For the past five months, there have been a lot of lemons in my life. To begin with, my mother died in December from leukemia. She fought a good fight for eight long months; at one point, we thought she had achieved remission but it was only a temporary stay of five short weeks. When her leukemia came back, it came back with a vengeance as most cancers do when they recur, and none of the chemotherapeutic agents would touch it. I miss her. Grieving over the death of a loved one comes in waves, especially over the course of the first year. Some of the big waves you expect and you survive them; others come when you least expect them. Some of the waves knock you down; others gently wash over you, but all are filled with memories and a sense of loss. I am in my “year of firsts” as I experience all of life’s milestones for the first time without my mother. My birthday was especially hard as it was the first time in my life that I didn’t get a card from mom. And Mother’s Day is right around the corner. I am already bracing myself for this big wave.

Before I could even find time to grieve for mom, I found the lump in my breast – in mid-January to be exact.  More lemons.  It felt like being hit over and over with a hard ball as I’ve endured one test after the other, two surgeries, and the suffocating news of the final diagnosis. For once, I am glad that my mother isn’t here because my illness would have worried her too much.

Last week, my father was placed in Hospice care. Right now, he’s still at home with multiple caregivers. I’ve known this was coming for some time as dad has been slowly “melting away,” much like a snowman does as the temperature rises above freezing. First the carrot nose falls off, followed by the rocks that have been carefully placed to form eyes, mouth, and, of course, the buttons. Then the perfectly round shapes that form the body become uneven as the temperature continues to rise.  Bit by bit, dad’s functioning and cognitive abilities are leaving. I’ve not been able to spend much time with him recently due to my surgeries; then he caught a cold and developed an infection both necessitating that I stay away. Now, he doesn’t know me any longer. More lemons.

Last week I passed two little girls with a lemonade stand in their front yard. It was spring break and they were excited to get an early start on their summer project. Of course I stopped and purchased a cup. They used the good stuff – Crystal Light. Drinking my lemonade, I was reminded of whose I am. I belong to God. Cancer does not define who I am. I am a beloved child of The Almighty!

Cancer wants all of your time. It demands your attention with the doctor visits, the chemo treatments, the entire pharmacy of medications that you have to take to keep the side effects at bay. Every time I look in the mirror I am reminded that I have cancer. More lemons. If you let it, cancer will consume you. So what do we do when life gives us lemons?  Make lemonade, of course!

Pastor Debra's Journey through Breast Cancer

When I was six years old, our family moved into a new house. It was absolutely the most exhilarating thing that had happened in my six short years! For weeks prior to the move, I was giddy with excitement, imagining the wonders of my new pink bedroom decked out with new furniture. No one else in the family was getting new furniture – just me – so you can understand the complete ecstasy that had overtaken my childlike senses! My new room was at the end of the hall, a graduation of sorts, as I was now old enough to be away from the constant watchful eye of my parents. There was just one small glitch in the plan: my twelve year old brother’s room was beside mine and I could, on occasion, hear what he was up to in his room. “Boy noises” I liked to call them. Nonetheless, my new room proved to be everything I had imagined until one night I heard a bump… followed by another bump. Not just a little bump but a GREAT BIG BUMP; the kind of noise that makes a six year old certain that someone or something is creeping down the hall with nefarious intentions. For weeks, every time I went to bed, I heard the bumps until finally, I could no longer contain my fright and I began screaming for help. Of course, as soon as my mother started down the hall to see what on earth the matter was, the bumps ceased. This was repeated over and over. Pretty soon, Debra was in a heap of trouble, that is, until my mother, in her wisdom, figured out that my brother was responsible for the mysterious “bumps in the night!” For years to come, every time I heard any sort of bump in the night, my heart would begin to race as my mind took me back to the terror of my sixth year.

Earlier this year, the bump in the night returned; but this time, it appeared as two small dimples and a lump in the side of my breast. Once again, my heart began to race and I was immediately transported back to my childhood memories of a threat slowly but methodically making its way toward me. This time, however, it wasn’t a brotherly joke. This time it was a cruel twist of fate.  I had done everything a woman should do to prevent breast cancer. In my mind I rehearsed all the ways I had taken proper care of myself: regular checkups, weight under control,  exercise,  breast feeding my babies.  After a host of testing, surgery to remove the tumor and a lymph node biopsy, my husband and I are sitting in the oncologist office hearing that I have stage III metastatic breast cancer.  My heart raced. I wanted to throw up. I had to tell myself to breathe. Numbness set in. This was bigger than any bump in the night.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Cancer makes you vulnerable both physically and emotionally. Your body has been invaded. Your life is turned upside down and inside out. Suddenly you are weaker than you ever thought possible. But in the midst of weakness and vulnerability, in the terror of bumps in the night, I have found peace. It is the grace that Christ gives. I am surrounded by people who are supporting me and praying daily for my healing. Beloved friends in Christ have shaved their heads in solidarity. Whatever my needs are for the day, Christ has exceeded them. In my vulnerability, Christ’s power has been made visibly plain for others to see. “Therefore I am content with weakness; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Glory to God!

 

    From goulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties
    And things that go bump in the night
    Good Lord, deliver us!

This was recorded in The Cornish and West Country Litany, 1926