Tuesday, June 19, 2007

"I'm Not Dead Yet!"

LODGED by Robert Frost

The rain to the wind said,
'You push and I'll pelt.'
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged--though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.

Have you ever felt "lodged?" Have your circumstances in life ever made you feel as though you just can't take any more stress? Do you know how those flowers felt? I do. I have just been through the most stressful year, so far, of my life. During it we have sold almost all our possessions, moved from North Carolina, traveled and visited family for a month and a half, attended an intense seven-week training, said goodbye to family (thinking it was for three years,) moved overseas, began learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture, lived in a very difficult place, discovered a tumor on my son's neck, packed everything and moved back to the U.S., and endured nearly three months of chemo with an eight-year-old. Now we are in the follow-up stage, with no certainty of our future plans. Then over the last two days my father has had a couple of heart attacks, and had to have a blockage fixed in a coronary artery.

I took three different "stress analysis" tests online, and scored in the "HIGH STRESS" category on all three. Of course, two of those tests turned out to be very slickly designed ads--one for anti-depression medication, the other for time-management tools--but the third was at a health/medical website that didn't seem to have any agenda. I already know I'm stressed. But here's the thing: what do I do about it? Should I sit around worrying and fretting? I like Frost's poem because the flowers are lying there lodged, but NOT DEAD. They have not given up. It reminds me of the scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" where they are loading all the dead bodies (of plague vicitms) on a cart so they can haul them away and burn them, and one old man says "I'm not dead yet!...in fact, I think I'd like to go for a walk!" In the movie one of the body-haulers beans him over the head with a board, and they carry him away. Pardon my morbid sense of humor, but I always think that's funny. Likewise, in "The Princess Bride" Westley spends a whole day "mostly dead" and is brought back to life by the power of his true love for Buttercup. He never gives up! Even when he is mostly paralyzed, he perseveres.

Now, I know movie illustrations are only good if you've seen the movie, so I'll desist from using any more of them. What, then, is the true love that brings us all back from the dead, or "mostly dead?" What keeps us going when life is pushing and pelting us? Are we wallowing in self-pity or learning from our suffering? Are we giving up or persevering? A passage of Scripture that has taken on deeper meaning for me is 2 Corinthians 4:1-12:
4:1 Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
This encourages me because what it tells me is this: we have been called to share the gospel with others. Somehow all of our trials and stress will show that all the glory, honor, and power are God's and not ours. And along the way, we are sharing in Christ's sufferings, learning to walk more closely with Him, feeling just a tiny bit of what He went through here on earth, so that we can later share in His eternal life. How amazing is our great God!
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, ifwe do not give up. Galatians 6:9
So, I'm not dead yet. In fact, I think I'd like to go for a walk...

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Rudeness, Anyone?

I have gotten used to seeing all the cutesy words on t-shirts that teenage girls wear these days: "angel," "hottie," "princess," "look but don't touch," and so on, ad nauseam. I've even gotten used to certain "attitudinal" t-shirts that seem to be worn most frequently by 12-14-year-old boys: "will trade sister for video game," "runs with scissors," etc. And I know that there are plenty of t-shirts that have all sorts of foul things printed on them. But today I saw one that really bothered me. I'm not sure why--it didn't affect me directly. It just bugged me. It said:

It was being worn by a mom who was shopping in Wal*Mart with her three kids. I didn't stalk her through the store to see if her choice of t-shirt had anything to do with her actual personality or modus operandi. I just read her t-shirt and kept walking. And then I realized how much the message on the shirt bothered me. It is so dismissive and rude, and instantly squelches any attempts anyone might make at befriending the wearer. Who knows, maybe that was her point. I don't know her or her circumstances, so I won't make any snap judgements. What really bothers me is the attitude behind what was printed on that shirt--and the fact that so many people walk around with that attitude, even if they are not wearing a shirt proclaiming it. Rudeness has become tacitly approved in our society, and even applauded in some arenas. I tried to do some on-line research on rude t-shirts, and pretty much every site I tried to look at I had to immediately close down because of the obscene nature of the material on them. As a society we have lost our sense of decency, and it seems that almost anything goes. The shirt I saw today was not the most obscene I've ever seen in Wal*Mart, but it was one of the rudest. When wit crosses the line from humor to mean sarcasm, I've had enough of it.

I pray that my attitude will never display to those around me as "please don't interrupt me...." but rather that I will be known by my love and concern for others and openness to talking to them and getting to know them. I seem to recall the Bible saying something about Christians being known by their love. AMEN!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Last Saturday the girls and I attended a cancer survivors celebration at Bobby's hospital. Bobby was worn out from our family outing on Friday (movie, mall, and dinner) so he and Eric stayed home. I had been asked to speak at the celebration along with one of Bobby's doctors, a cancer dietician, and two cancer survivors. It turns out that Dr. Frankel is also a cancer survivor--kidney cancer 10 years ago! It was a nice time--many breast cancer survivors as well as lymphoma, leukemia, and other types. Here is the full text of what I spoke on--now, I used an outline on notecards, so this is not word-for-word, exactly what I said. But I came pretty close :)

"Eric and I had often discussed cancer before this year, but always in terms of ourselves, not our children. My husband has quite a family history of prostate cancer--both grandfathers, his dad, and three uncles, and my mom has had breast cancer. So we have often talked about cancer as it relates to us. But it hadn't touched our immediate family. February 13th was a day that changed my family’s life forever. We were living overseas, and I was in the middle of a language lesson when my eight-year-old son Bobby walked into the room and sat down at the table next to me. I turned to look at him, and noticed that his neck seemed bulged out strangely on the left hand side. I didn’t know it then, but that little lump would change everything.

The story sounds familiar, I’m sure. A routine diagnostic test that shows something suspicious; a lump where there shouldn’t be one; a strange patch of discoloration on the skin; pain that remains unexplained until….Until you get that diagnosis…CANCER! For Bobby, that meant diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, and it was aggressively growing in his body as two tumors, one on the side of his neck and one in his throat. We couldn’t believe it. Our jolly, funny, smart little boy had CANCER!!! All of you who have gotten that diagnosis know that sick feeling that you get in the pit of your stomach, and the sense of unreality that envelops your life for a few days, until the reality sinks in and you have to go into pro-active "survival" mode.

We returned to the US within two weeks, and sought treatment here at Backus Children’s Hospital under the care of Drs. Frankel and Gonzalez and the outstanding staff at the Outpatient Clinic and on the Hematology/Oncology Unit in the hospital itself. After five week-long inpatient rounds of chemo in just two and a half months, Bobby had a clear PET scan on May 30th. He is currently cancer-free and we are in the follow-up phase.

Now, you all know that that was the very short version of what has been a long, life-changing experience which will continue to affect our lives for years, particularly my son’s life. But what I really want to speak to you about today in terms of Celebrating Survival and Mind, Body, and Spirit, is what is getting us through this experience: our hope and trust in a loving God who is in control of our lives, and does all things according to His purpose. My husband and I are Bible-believing Christians, by which I mean that we believe that people can be saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, and live a full, abundant life through a restored relationship with the God of the Universe. Throughout the course of our lives we have had to learn to trust God, with the knowledge that He is good and loving, and that He is in control. This faith has proven to be the mainstay that has given us peace during each difficult phase of Bobby’s cancer so far.

One of the first things we realized when Bobby started his chemo treatments is that we had very little control over what was happening to his body. We could not control the cancer, we could not control the chemo treatments—the “roadmap” was laid out for us, and we had little control over the side effects. Although let me say that I’m amazed at the advances that have been made in side-effect control, and thank God for Zofran! Loss of appetite, mouth sores, fatigue—these are all hard for an eight-year-old boy, and he had to learn quickly that they were beyond Dad and Mom’s control. So what could we do? We could trust. We simply had to trust the doctors to be using the best treatments they know for our son. We had to trust the nurses and techs to give him the best possible care day-to-day. We entrusted Bobby to them, and these professionals did not disappoint us. We trusted God to be in control of every aspect of Bobby’s care, and He did not disappoint us.

We do not understand why some people get cancer and others don’t. We, like you, have many unanswered questions about the whys and wherefores of human suffering. Interestingly enough, my husband and I had begun to study the concept of suffering while we were overseas, seeing a lot of human suffering first-hand. My husband even preached on the topic back in January. Then Bobby was given a preliminary diagnosis of lymphoma. It’s a little different when you are the one doing the suffering. While we were still overseas, one of our friends there read us this verse from the Old Testament, found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 41, verse 10: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not look anxiously about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” We also looked to the words of Christ in the gospel of John chapter 14, verse 27: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” These verses gave us hope and faith so that no matter what the outcome, we would trust God

So how do we handle this on a practical level? I’ve already discussed Bobby’s body and what little control we had over what happened to it. But I also believe that physical well-being is intrinsically linked to mental and spiritual well-being. What about his Mind? With the help of the Child Life specialists we were able to keep him occupied and entertained—reading aloud to him for hours, playing video games, and watching the History Channel. That part was easy. Keeping his spirits up was a little harder. Our family has always liked to laugh and joke, and during cancer treatment keeping your sense of humor is paramount. But there were times when our attempts at humor fell flat, and all that would sustain Bobby’s spirits was comfort and love, and a lot of patience. One huge factor in keeping our spirits up has been the love and support of our friends and family. We have been continually blessed: phone calls, cards, meals, e-mails, gifts for Bobby and the girls, and lots of prayer. Our support network is phenomenal, and I don’t know how anyone goes through something like this without such support.

With a lot of laughter, some dogged perseverance, support of family and friends, and faith in God, we have come through this trial and out the other side. Bobby is regaining physical strength that he lost, and slowly returning to his previous cheerful self after several months of high stress and, quite frankly, some major spoiling by many friends and family. Our family is enjoying our time together, treasuring it like never before.

I celebrate survival today with all of you, whether you have reached a point where doctors are using the word “cure” or whether you are still in chemo treatments. Cancer does not have to rule us, cancer does not have to define us, but we should not waste this experience; we should learn from it and be stronger because of it. We should be determined to help others who are going through the same thing, and we should all be willing to help raise funds for cancer research! One of the most important outcomes for our family is that it has strengthened our faith in our loving God, and brought us closer to Him, and I praise Him for that. I pray God’s blessings on each of you as we celebrate survival."

My talk seemed to be pretty well-received, except by one couple who rolled their eyes at my first mention of God, and pretty much tuned me out after that. How do I know? Well, the fact that they talked to each other out loud across their table kind of clued me in...

Several people there who are Christians came up and thanked me for being so vocal about it. Several others came up and thanked me for my "spiritual" discussion and said they were glad my "faith" had seen me through. I told them that it was faith in God that saw me through, not just faith. It was a great opportunity to witness and share with others. If even just one person is brought a step closer to the Lord through all of this it will be worth it. I'm praying that we'll have many more such opportunities in the next few months.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Mad Mom and Mad Science

Yesterday morning I sort-of blew up at my children. Not really. I didn't yell or holler, I just really lectured them about certain bad behaviors. I was interrupted for the umpteenth time, and I had just had it. Caroline bore the major brunt of my (righteous) wrath, but Mary and Bobby each got a dose of talking-to also. They were remorseful and asked forgiveness, which I freely gave. We all agreed that there are several things we need to work on in our family: interrupting, complaining, arguing, and general unpleasantness to name a few. (I'm sure there are other families dealing with these issues, too.) Eric and I try to keep the bar high as far as behavioral expectations go, and we both have felt with the stress of the past few months that the standards have slipped some.

After our "fun" disciplinary moments, the kids and I were off to a "Mad Science" demonstration at a local public library (we love the "summer reading program" stuff!)
It was there that I realized what great kids I actually have. Watching many of the other children stand when told to sit, talk when told to be quiet, poke and annoy those around them, call out smarty answers, sigh with "boredom" and roll their eyes, and generally be total brats made me realize that my children are really pretty well-behaved kids. It was encouraging to me to see them sitting politely, being interested (and it really was a COOL presentation by the "Mad Science" ladies,) and treating others with respect. My friend Chandra was there with me, with three of her children, and they behaved wonderfully, too.

As we drove away from the library I thanked my children for behaving so well, and told them that they not only pleased me with their behavior but also honored the Lord. I was so thankful for their witness through their behavior. I guess what I can learn from this is the value of keeping the bar high, and the necessity of consistent discipline. It also has great bearing on my own life as the Lord molds and shapes me, disciplining me consistently, too. Sometimes it's painful, but I know He is working to make me more like Him.