Ode To Joy

“I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I read this quote the other day a smile broadened across my face and my across my heart.  The first person I thought about was my mom’s best friend, Joy.  She and my mom met back when they were both the moms of busy young families.  They spent a lot of time shuttling kids to the same school games and church youth group events, and shared a camaraderie when their husbands both worked a similar rotating shift schedule that left them with out their spouses on so many evenings.  Riding the waves of life, they supported each other through the highs and lows of marriage and raising a family.  As their children went off to college, married, and had families of their own, the twosome became closer than ever.  It was that type of family friendship where the wives were friends and soon the husbands were friends, the daughters were friends and the sons were friends.   Their family are the kind of family friends that when you say something like, “Remember the ‘Great Clam Chowder Disaster of 1986’?” everyone laughs and the story telling begins.

During the time that my mom was sick there was a steady stream of visitors that came to her bedside.  Family from near and far, friends old and new, people from church and work, old neighbors and new neighbors, there was almost never a time that there wasn’t a visitor.  She had so many visitors at the hospital that the nurses soon made sure she got the “big” room, complete with sofa and picture window.  It was a comfort to know that so many people were supporting her and supporting the ones she loved.  Many, many of those treasured family and friends ministered to her by sitting at her bedside, preparing meals for her husband, and babysitting her grandchildren so her own children could take some precious and few moments alone with her.  My mom had amazing friends and family who showed their love for her by stepping up to help when we needed them most.  It was a deep comfort to know we were all so cared for.  I am humbled by the love shown to our family when we needed it so much.  It was ministry at its most beautiful.

Before mom’s diagnosis I had no idea how draining caring for a patient could be.   At a time when I was being pushed past any preconceived ideas of my own emotional limits, I was also feeling inadequate about caring for her in a very practical way.   Early on it became evident it would take a monumental effort to remember all the many details of her care!   With every hospital stay there seemed to be another name to add to the ever-expanding list of care providers.  There was an endless revolving list of her current medications and another list nearly as long of ones she had reactions to.  It seemed redundant to maintain a list of the specific procedures and tests she had undergone at the hospital where she was a patient, but often times nurses and doctors were not aware of recent changes from one shift to another and important pieces of information would get left out.   I began compiling a notebook that functioned as a running document of her care.  I felt like it was the one thing I could do.  Organization was a skill my mom prided herself in and it felt like a way I could help her maintain her dignity at a time that her dignity was being stripped away.  It was nice to see the flash of pride appear on her face when the paramedic came to the house or the nurse at the hospital was admitting her and we would present them with precise notes about her condition.  “The Notebook” as we referred to it, was a love letter of sorts to this meticulously organized woman began by me, her not so organized daughter.

Physically, she was becoming increasingly fragile, and her stamina was very low even when she was having a “good” day.  Her diminished physical capacity made it absolutely necessary to help her with everything from the mundane to the most private tasks.  Soon her house was fitted with an arsenal of equipment for helping her do everything from walking to bathing.   New devices appeared in the kitchen for feeding her and in the bathroom for caring for her Jejunostomy.  All of these changes were happening rapidly and with every new piece of gear it felt like a stronghold lost.  A walker, a shower chair, an IV pole, a bag for her waste… every few days a new introduction and each introduction meant another casualty of capability.  The home makeover was another step in the march toward the inevitable, but with each step we were blessed with the unwavering presence of Joy.

I do not recall anyone ever asking Joy to be so involved in caring for my mother.  I don’t think it was even necessary.  She was just being Joy, my mom’s best friend.  Joy knew the details of The Notebook as well as, if not better, than the rest of us. No one had to point out the subtleties of the placement of a pain patch or tell her which pillow configuration mom preferred on that particular day.   As each new change came and each new apparatus appeared in the house, Joy learned to master it.  If there were a need for a meal to be delivered, or an appointment to be accompanied, or a craving to be satisfied, Joy would find a way to satisfy the need.  Joy was my mom’s hospital advocate on countless nights, while I took the evening to take care of my young family and get some much-needed sleep.  When there was a new turn for the worse, Joy would lovingly sit me down and tell me about it.  Together we took the painful step forward.  Joy was my partner in the awkward three-legged-race called ‘loss’.   Without her constancy and love, the suffering of our entire family would have been so much greater.

Her presence in the midst of my personal grief is a gift for which I can never adequately express my gratitude, and that is where the real beauty in what Joy did is.   All those late nights spent next to my mom’s bed so that my dad could take a shift at work.   All the nights the phone rang after midnight, followed by a hurried rush to the hospital when Joy still had to be at work in the morning.  All the times she was the one in the bathroom helping to change the Jejunostomy bag because I could not bring myself to do it.   All the times she met me in the hallway of the hospital to be the one to break the bad news so my mom or dad would not have to.  She wasn’t there for her moment of recognition.  She was there for love.

So again I think about the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.”
 and my thoughts turn to Joy, and I offer up a prayer of thanks.

Love you Joy!  Happy Thanksgiving!  Have a blessed day!

Love, Vicki

Coming Undone

“Honey, what do you think I should do?”  The beautiful blue eyes that I had looked to thousands of times for support were now turned to me.  She was asking me to answer the impossible and I felt like I was failing her.  I sat quietly for a moment, my insides shivering as if I were outside in the chill of that November Monday morning just outside the hospital doors.  I was so weary.  Cancer.  Cancer, Cancer, Cancer!  A merciless and cruel killer it is.  Already pushed to a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, I could not imagine why anyone would voluntarily draw out this torture?  Watching her die so painfully, it seemed senseless to want to prolong the inevitable, and yet that was exactly what she was proposing.

Earlier that morning her doctor came to her room with a new plan.  Chemotherapy turned out to be an absolute catastrophe, resulting in the complete shut down of my mom’s colon.  This meant that everything that made it past her lips and into her stomach now had nowhere to go.  Because of this massive shut down, she was unable to eat or drink anything.   A tube attached to a pump had been fed up her nose and then down to her stomach in an attempt to keep her gut vacuumed out.   Maintaining pain was a nearly futile effort even though narcotic pain patches covered her back like a quilt.  Her body was failing quickly and prior to this meeting with her doctor we had been prepared by other hospital staff that we would be taking her home to die.  Hospice had been contacted, and it was evident that they did not expect her to live beyond the week.

I had arrived to the hospital that morning with my ‘game-face’ on and was ready.  Well, as ready as one can be…  Hearing the doctor propose a new course of action was completely unexpected.  The suggestion was for my mom to undergo a surgical procedure called a Jejunostomy.   Please pardon my very inadequate description, but essentially a Jejunostomy is when an opening is made and a bag is surgically placed at the place at the end of the stomach and before the colon so that when food or drink enters the body, it can only go as far as the stomach before it exits into the bag.  The function of food would now mostly be for pleasure since it would not enter the colon anymore and not be delivering any significant nutrition.  To solve the problem of not receiving enough nutrition, my mom would be administered a 12 hour round of TPN once every 24 hours.  TPN, which stands for Total Parenteral Nutrition, is basically a specialized liquid concoction of everything a person needs nutritionally that can be ‘fed’ to that person intravenously.   The TPN I.V. bag is inserted into a dispensing machine that is small enough to fit into a backpack.  Cancer is a little bit like that game on the midway at the fair called “Wack-A-Mole.”   As soon as you hit one of the moles, another pesky mole is popping up across the field!

This proposal fanned a flicker of hope in my mom that had been all but extinguished over the previous weekend.  She really hated that she was dying during the holidays and longed to be able to spend one last Christmas with her family.  While the doctor laid out the plan, which included the prospect of living for “many months” with the treatment that was no more inconvenient than “carrying a small backpack with you 12 hours on and 12 hours off” the room fell silent.  I could see there were visions dancing in my mom’s head and the cynic in me wasn’t buying it.  Not even for a minute.  I could feel the shaking inside me intensify as this doctor continued to pitch her proposal.  I looked to my dad and could see that he was buying the hope this doctor was selling.  As I looked around the room at the faces of her loved ones, I felt alone in my pessimism.

I felt guilty for not buying in to this doctor’s latest plan, and I tried to avoid looking at my mother’s hopeful face.  To my relief, she turned to my dad, “Sweetheart, what do you think?” she asked quietly.  My dad nodded his head with a supportive, “Yes.”

That is when her gaze came to rest upon me. “Honey, what do you think I should do?”

To say I cracked is an understatement.  I completely came undone! Weeks of raw emotion were so close to the surface my own breath was all that was covering them. Out of the pain of watching the vicious beast ravage her body, out of the turmoil of knowing she was leaving, out of the pure agony of it being powerless to stop it, I spoke.

“Why?”  I said in a not so subtle tone and immediately stared at the floor.   My heart felt as hard as the tile floor.  “Why do you want to prolong this?”  My breaking voice was nearing a hiss.  It was difficult to contain the pain and anger shuddering through me.  Would she understand I was saying this out of love for her?  Her merciless suffering!  As much as I tried, I could not soften my voice as I spoke.  I continued to shudder and felt my adrenaline pulsing through me.  I could not look up for fear that in the moment that I looked at her, watching her live would be worse than watching her die.  I knew my reaction was a brutal blow.  Desperately trying to escape the pain, I ran from her hospital room.

How could I?  What kind of worthless daughter was I?  How could I say that to my dying mother?  I could hardly stand to be in my own skin!  My mental state was deteriorating quickly.  I was on the verge of a total breakdown.  In my emotionally impaired state I could only think of one thing that would repair it.   As I climbed into the driver’s seat of my minivan, I knew I had to escape.  With an irrational plan to walk up to the ticket counter at the nearest airport, credit card in hand, to buy a ticket to get me as far away from ‘real’ life as possible, I started the engine of the car.  If she was going to prolong the agony I wasn’t going to stick around to watch.  Turning to look for traffic behind me as I prepared to back out of my parking space, I saw the little navy blue base to my infant son’s car seat, and knew I needed help.

For a split second the chaos inside me relented.  Somewhere deep inside me I knew.  It was what that little navy blue car seat base was telling me.  I could no sooner leave my little newborn son or my two daughters behind and run from the pain of grief than my mom could leave me behind and run from the pain of cancer.  That was why she was willing to prolong the agony!  That was why when given the opportunity to live for even a few more weeks she was willing to do it.  She would do it for me, for her child and for the others she so intensely loved.  I pulled back into the parking space and turned the engine off.  My shaking hand searched the inside of my purse for the cell phone that was the lifeline to my husband.

I wish I could say that with that revelation I jumped out of the car and ran back to her room and buried my sorry face in her lap.  I guess I am a lot harder headed than that.  It took me a while to really be able to articulate that moment in the car and in the meantime I continued to act out in my anguish.  By the days end, it was my patient and loving husband who put it to me this way, “Honey, one of us needs an antidepressant.  So, if you aren’t going to take one, I am.”

The next day I went to her, to my momma, who had always loved me no matter what.  I did bury my head in her lap.  She stroked my hair with the same hand that had comforted, guided, disciplined, and loved me for my whole life.  In that most intimate unspoken language between a mother and her child I told her how I loved her and begged her forgiveness through my tears, and she forgave me and said, “I love you, too.”

My mom with me, her first born.

The Rain Came Down…

Have you ever been angry with God?  I’m talking about that really gritty, dirty, I am so pissed off at you and the only thing that is going to make me feel better is to chew you up and spit you out kind of angry!?  Have you ever been cognizant of that kind of anger toward God?  I have.

I was mad like that on a Sunday morning in November of 2004.  The numbness following my mom’s Cancer diagnosis was rapidly wearing off.   I was drowning in the wound it left in its wake.  More than once that week I found myself literally shaking my fist at God.  The rain was coming down.

Why her?  Why her when there was so much to live for?  Why her when she was so good?  She and my dad were on the verge of celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.  My dad was just over a year from retirement.  My mom, who never knew her own grandparents and *could*not*wait* to become a grandparent herself so that she could experience that kind relationship, now had 9 grandkids.  The cruel irony was that the oldest was only 9 and the rest ranged from age 3 months to 7 years.  Most of them would never remember her.   My sister was not married and had never had any children.  The list was long, there was just so much that she would miss!

Oh, I was angry! My straight-laced, “I don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with boys that do,” church going, God following mother was dying, painfully, of Cancer?  In the 1960s when many of her peers were listening to Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and The Doors while becoming full- fledged hippies, she was asking the neighbor lady for rides to church.  Wasn’t this the same gal whose sister teased her by calling her the ‘polyester sister’?  She didn’t even own a pair of blue jeans until she met my dad in 1979.  She was that straight-laced!

On top of all of this I was really struggling to find a church that felt like “home” for me.  I had grown up in church and had attended the same church for most of my childhood, but no longer felt it was the right fit for me.  Feeling comfortable in a new denomination was challenging.  My husband and my children were feeling at home in our new church but I was at odds with the main thing that made this new home feel different:  The Liturgy.

Growing up in a church that was much less formal, this “Liturgy” thing sometimes seemed stiff and insincere.   Why did they have a pre-planned calendar, why didn’t the pastor just preach on what he felt God inspired to preach about?  While sermons at the church I grew up in were prepared in advance, prayers were freer flowing in nature.  Every moment of the service wasn’t preplanned. The idea that the service could go ‘where the spirit led’ was not out of the ordinary.  Even though it didn’t often happen, if a pastor felt the direction of the service needed to change that could easily happen.   It was orderly, but not overly so, but to call it simple would not be accurate.   There was no elaborate scripting, or what our new church called “Liturgy”.   The spoken words were characteristically extemporaneous.  In my mind the hurdle was Extemporaneous = sincere and somehow more inspired by God = Good, and Liturgical = insincere, stale, uninspired and untimely = Bad.

Entering this church on this particular day I’d had it and my anger was flaring to new heights.  Not only was God not fair, God was insincere.  What sort of “prepackaged” BS did this “Loving Father” have for me today?  I was thankful for the lectionary script.  It made it easier to fake it.  I could participate without feeling and the barricade around my brokenness could remain intact.  I took comfort and a certain amount of pleasure in knowing that the prepackaged lectionary was nearing the end of a 3 year Lectionary cycle.   Nothing new here today, nothing that hadn’t been sitting on that preacher’s shelf for at least the last 3 long years.

Sitting there in the pew wallowing in my cynicism I was hardly listening as the Gospel Scripture from Matthew 5:43-48 was read.  Blah, Blah, Blah, “…for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  The words hit me hard.  I didn’t hear much after that.  Like a stubborn child in the toy department who has just been told no, I was kicking and screaming.  Like the loving parent who has just said no, God picked me up and with a gentle force, carried me away from what I so desperately wanted while I was throwing my tantrum.  It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.

The floods came up.   My hands balled to fists.  My heart raced.  I wanted to hang on to my anger.  All of the scriptures and songs of promise that had been ingrained in me since birth like,  “I will never leave you or forsake you,” (Hebrews 13:5) and,  “Nothing can separate you from the love of God,” (Romans 8:35-39).  They washed over me like a tidal wave.  Grief came flooding out of me as I sat there in my seat.   None of those familiar verses claimed fairness; instead all of them claimed faithfulness.  The God of the universe, who is faithful and loves me entered my pain and reminded me that God wasn’t going anywhere.  And all that from a moment in the lectionary… huh?  Talk about rockin’ my world!   After that day I was still angry, still bitter, still in such anguish, but I wasn’t alone and I knew this was not a punitive act on God’s part.  It wasn’t a punishment.

I take comfort in knowing even Jesus grappled with these very human emotions.  Fully God and yet fully man.  I can’t even really wrap my brain around that.  Jesus understood why I begged for this to not happen, why I was so very angry.  Knowing He would be betrayed and brutally executed, my Bible says Jesus “fell on His face and prayed.”  That seems to be on the level of pure desperation.   Jesus begged, “Let this cup pass from me…” (Matthew 26:39) When Jesus was dying His extremely painful and brutal death perhaps He was angry or felt betrayed when He cried out in a loud voice,  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”(Matthey 27:46)

Sometimes on a particularly tough day I still catch myself in a little wave of anger about what feels like the injustice of it all.  When I see someone abuse their body over and over and live to enjoy another day, or I hear of a grandparent who basically ignores their grandchild, or I call my dad and he’s heating up a TV dinner and sitting in front of a Basketball game for the 3rd or 4th time that week I want to recoil and strike out at God.  Yeah, those are the times I have to take a deep breath and remember that day in November 2004.  The rain came down, the floods came up, and wise woman, who built her house on the Rock?  Her house is still standing still.