Archive for November 2016
This post is a look backward, as I am today set to receive my final chemo infusion. However, it’s been on my heart for the last six weeks, and I can’t talk about where I am now without talking about where I’ve been. I’m trying to catch up–not just for you, dear friends and family and readers, but for me. This has been a hard season, and writing helps me process all that I have been thinking and feeling. Sharing with you all makes me feel strong in claiming my story. Beware going in, this post is less chipper than my previous ones. This is a space to tell the truth of the good times and the hard ones. Keep reading, though, as I hope to write two more posts in short order that catch up to today.
I thought reaching the halfway point in my chemotherapy would feel better than this. I expected to feel like I hit a milestone. Since I weathered the first half fairly well and with good cheer, I expected to find myself encouraged that, like meeting the winter solstice, I could begin moving toward the light instead of the darkness.
Instead, reaching the halfway point of chemo in good cheer freed my mind and heart to ask the hard questions about all the treatment and uncertainty yet to come. The sense of accomplishment gave me room to deal with some of the spiritual, mental and emotional issues that I have not had time or energy to approach since my diagnosis. The blur of moving to London, first surgery, new job and chemo in the last three months made it so all I could do was keep going and push through. That was a gift, much like the numbness and denial of early grief. When that numbness subsides and the feelings break through, the pain floods in heavy and deep. Healing requires diving into the deep waters and learning to swim, surf, float through it. Halfway through chemo the dam of numbness gave way, and the flood took over with a host of questions and feelings.
The fear about side effects returned, as the second half of treatment contained a different set of drugs than the first. I entered the clinic as anxious about the fourth treatment as I was about the first one. (Those fears proved not unfounded, but that’s a story for the next post.) Unlike previous cycles, when I enjoyed the “feel-good” days leading up to treatment, I found myself filling with dread and fear about the new and unpredictable set of pains and side effects, likely harder than the first three rounds.
A new set of questions haunted me. Is the chemo working? What happens if it doesn’t? There’s no way to know until they go in for surgery and get a new pathology report. What will surgery be like? What kind of surgery will I need? When will it happen? How rough will the recovery be? Then comes radiation. How long will that last? I’m already so fatigued, and that is supposed to be as tiring (or more) than chemo, because it’s every day. How much work time will I miss? How will I keep up? Again, when will I know if this is working? (Just to be clear, the doctors have given me no cause to down the effectiveness of treatment, and I am holding on to that truth and trust–but it is natural to await proof that my cancer is responding as expected to the treatments.)
On top of all that, I am just getting tired of it. Halfway meant I had lost nine weeks already, and had another whole nine weeks to go. As a child, that was the length of an entire grading period in school. Half a school year in total, which always felt like an eternity. And that’s just chemo. Halfway through chemo isn’t halfway at all, with two surgeries and radiation ahead. Instead of feeling like I was headed into the light, it felt like a carnival ride that was lasting way too long.
If you know me at all in real life, you know that descriptions like “high-energy, hard-working, creative, cheerful, always upbeat” fit my usual self. Not my usual self during chemo. I wrote in my last post, many weeks ago, about my small world being enough. It stopped being satisfying about the time the halfway treatment arrived. I am tired of sleeping 12 hours a day, when I’m used to sleeping six or eight, and still being tired in the short hours I’m awake. I’m tired of “chemo brain” that makes it hard to concentrate, difficult to write (especially sermons), nearly impossible to read a book or some days even follow a television show. I’m tired of not going anywhere, except when work or family obligations demand it–and then planning days of rest on either side to make sure I can have the energy to go and the time to recover.
So halfway through chemo, instead of feeling like a triumph, felt like a realization that there is a long way there is yet to go. Chemo is cumulative, so each round leaves me weaker and more fatigued. The halfway point brought that truth home, as I am not bouncing back like I did in the earlier rounds.
Halfway marked the first time sadness and self-pity set in. Suddenly, instead of laying in bed longing to be well and get out, I found myself on good days still longing to crawl back in bed, away from the world and away from people and away from cancer. I felt grumpy, cranky and mopey. I barely shed any tears over cancer from the diagnosis through the beginning of chemo. At halfway, I began crying in the shower every morning. After eating good and healthy foods, and having little appetite for the first three rounds, the new drug has made me ravenous, and I’ve turned to my oldest emotional crutch: way too much junk food. I don’t feel guilty over it, but it’s a sign to me that I need to pay attention to my feelings.
Halfway was now six weeks ago, and today I go for my last infusion. I wish I could write that I was better now, that the cloud had lifted and my cheer restored. That wouldn’t be true, though. I still feel heavy these days, not just in fatigue of the body, but of the mind and spirit as well. The news isn’t chipper, but it is still good: I’ve been here before. I’ve known seasons of grief and hardship, and I know they don’t last forever. I have learned what I need to heal–space, time, a warm bed, comfy clothes, a good sappy movie, a deep escape into a good novel, conversation with friends, conversation with God, space to journal, time to weep and let all the feelings surface, time to remember who I am, time to take stock of what has changed, what is lost, what is gained. And, yes, probably all of these moments involve junk food, too.
Chemo is relentless, which means much of that deeper healing work will have to wait. In the meantime, trust that I do not despair. I persevere–surviving more than thriving, but that is all I need to do right now.
Plenty of good moments remain, which give me hope that more will follow. When things get low, I list them to myself. I love my work, and my new church has offered some beautiful, wonderful, glorious days in this time–the gift of many newcomers ready to engage, a Thanksgiving luncheon, the chance to help lead the Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, deeper relationships with people in the congregation, and a fun day decorating for Christmas, with our children delighted to take the lead. My husband and son are wonderful, and they know how to take care of me–which is not easy for someone who doesn’t like to need care from anybody. My extended family, my parents and I have grown closer and more intimate through this process. A core group of friends receives all my complaints, need for prayer, TMI medical details, related inappropriate humor and curse words. They respond with instant encouragement, laughter and grace, as the situation demands. A wider group of friends send gifts and cards, weekly messages of encouragement, scripture and humor, and reminders of their prayers. My current church lets me work, and they also let me not work, as the day demands. They too offer prayers, soup, patience, flexibility and understanding. My former congregation has sent gifts, prayers and love in the kindest, most meaningful ways. All of you who read and respond here and on Facebook offer me much encouragement as well. I need people to listen–and by reading this, you do.
This week marked the beginning of Advent in the church. Yesterday, we lit the first candle of the Advent wreath, the candle for hope. This has always been a powerful moment for me, especially this year. Against the darkness and all alone, this first candle shines in the darkness, a tiny, fragile flicker of light. That’s where I am right now. Not shiny and bright, not basking in sunshine or under the bright stage lights, but holding on to hope, fragile and flickering against the darkness.
More to come soon, I hope, about the pathway between halfway and today’s last treatment. Thank you for listening, for praying, for supporting me along this journey.
rsSeveral folks have asked me to share my meditation from today’s service, which featured a performance of John Rutter’s Requiem in honor of Remembrance Day. So, here you go.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.
The Requiem invites us into the depths—to enter the depths of our soul and cry out to God in music and prayer. We echo the Psalmist: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
Some of us show up to worship today feeling like we’ve been sent into the depths.
Others may feel like the week has finally lifted us out of the depths.
And I don’t just mean the U.S. election which has dominated so much news and many of our thoughts this week.
The tragic train crash in Croydon that took seven lives. The anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Paris. A bomb blast in Pakistan that killed dozens. The difficult peace accord between Colombia and FARC. Rising unrest in the Philippines. The ongoing battles and civilian casualties in Mosul and Aleppo.
And there were millions of personal depths as well—a bad diagnosis, a job loss, a family fallout, the death of a loved one, and so much more.
Living and loving in this world means coming to know the depths from time to time.
That’s why this Psalm is one of the most familiar and often-read, because it speaks to that human experience of the depths.
So what does it say?
First, the Psalmist points us to hope in God.
Like the Requiem, the Psalm tells the gospel story of darkness turning to light.
We are invited to wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning—through the night, trusting that the sun will rise again.
Second, the Psalmist confronts us with the truth—that sometimes our grief is caused by our own actions, our own sins. “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” Many of the depths we find ourselves in have human causes, and require human repentance to find solution and resolution.
Third, the Psalmist speaks of redemption—which is the place where God’s hope and our sinfulness intersect. Yes, human wrongdoing has caused and causes much suffering—but that does not stop God’s work of hope. “In you there is forgiveness,” the Psalmist sings, “so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” Our hope is not in our ability to get it right, but in God’s ability to forgive us and use us even when we get it wrong.
That’s why this Psalm about the depths speaks to the depths—because it offers no shallow, unrepentant comfort—but truth about the depth of our sin AND the truth about the depth of God’s forgiveness. Therein we find hope.
Remembrance Day is the embodiment of this Psalm and its meaning.
The great casualties and costs of war remind us of the damage we humans can do to one another, to life. They confront us with the catastrophic cost of human sin in suffering.
Yet, at the very same time, we remember the courage and sacrifice of those who served with bravery and honor, those who gave up their very lives for others—the work of hope and love.
Both of my grandfathers were veterans of the Second World War, and both went on to long careers in the military, one in the army and the other in the navy. When I grew old enough to become curious, I went to them to ask about their experiences in the war. They both refused to offer up the stories I sought. Instead, they gave a short, abrupt answer that was basically the same, delivered with an unwavering stare into my eyes. “War is terrible. I served because I hope and pray that you—and all my children and grandchildren—never have to.”
My friends, that is the message of the Psalm, the message of the Requiem, the message of Remembrance Day. From the depths, we know how quickly and easily we humans can slip into cruelty and callousness toward one another, which, before we know it, becomes violence and war. Yet we also know that God’s redemption is ever working hope in our midst.
To honor those who have sacrificed their lives in service is to work for a world in which our children and grandchildren never have to know the horrors of war. That begins here and now, as we commit ourselves to overcoming our prejudices, working toward justice, listening with compassion to those who disagree with us, standing against all who would foster hatred or violence, and intentionally seeking God’s grace and forgiveness for ourselves and for one another, knowing that we are likely to fail again and again. The depths will find us again, but so will hope and redemption.
In Remembrance, may we go out from this place with reverence, to serve God.
In Remembrance, may we honor the dead by working toward peace and justice for the living.
In Remembrance, may we put our hope in the Lord, for with God is unfailing love. Amen.