My husband’s bird feeders are covered with hungry birds that have endured the misery of an icy night and are now looking for something to sustain them for the cold day ahead.
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.”
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!”
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
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."
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!
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).
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.