Posted January 10, 2017on:
When I wrote my first blog post about being diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time my family was moving to London so that I could serve as the Senior Minister of the American International Church, I quoted a phrase learned from my mentor, the late Rev. Carl Schultz: Faith Faces Forward. That has been my mantra along this whole journey so far. It’s been a relentless season, with each day packed with new things to learn and do about cancer, ministry and life in the London.
In all the facing forward (and the weakness/fatigue of chemo), my writing has been neglected. I’m feeling its absence as a pile of unresolved emotions and untold stories, all of which need expression. As important as it is to face forward in faith and hope, I need some time to look backward, too. So much has happened in my outward life, my inward life has not yet had a chance to catch up. My body has changed during chemo, and it is about to change even more dramatically with surgery in two days. My ministry has changed, as I learn what kind of preacher, pastor and leader this new congregation requires. My home has changed, as that slow shift has taken place after the move to settle in to our new dwellings. My identity has changed, as I understand what it is to be an immigrant and an American in London. My home country has changed, as the election and its aftermath seem to have already brought about dramatic and harsh changes in the country we left behind.
I’ve been facing forward into all those many changes, like standing in the surf reacting to wave after wave–sometimes jumping, sometimes diving, sometimes crashing, always having just a moment to come up for air before another wave hits. We’ve made it through major church events and seasons, six rounds of chemo and many more tests and doctors visits and a hospital stay, transitioning my son into his new school, unpacking all but a few remaining boxes, and more. Every day I get up, look at what waves this day or week holds, and just keep going. Forward, forward, forward.
I need some time and space to look backward. Those emotions and stories wait for me, and my healing will not be complete until they are felt and told. In recent weeks, I’ve been feeling very down, and I know it is because the feelings and stories are building up without release. I told myself that I needed to make writing a priority, for my own mental health, but the waves kept coming. My family deserved my attention at the holidays, and I wanted us to celebrate well after such a hard year. My hands still get achy and stiff from the treatment, making typing or writing difficult and painful sometimes. Sunday’s always coming, pushing this work out of my mind to focus on the scripture and sermon for the week. Forward, forward, forward.
In two days, I’m having surgery. This will be a proper cancer surgery to remove the remaining tumor and hopefully get clear margins showing no more cancer cells in the area. Recent tests show that there is still no evidence it has moved to the lymph nodes, which is good news. Because of my size, it will be combined with a breast reduction surgery on that side. (A second surgery will follow this summer on the other side, to make me symmetrical again.) Again, the feelings are big–relief and accomplishment at reaching this important milestone and getting the tumor out at last, along with fear and sadness and confusion at realizing my body will be forever changed, even mutilated by this cancer journey. Y’all remember how much I had to write to talk about losing my hair? That was a temporary change. This is a permanent one. But I don’t have time or energy to write that post or work through all those feelings right now. Forward, forward, forward.
I’ve been planning for months for the recovery, making sure I’ve got church and life covered during the healing time, anticipating two weeks completely off before returning to any responsibilities. Last week, the nurse informed me that is likely not nearly enough time, so I’ve been scrambling to get extra coverage, cancel commitments I made thinking I’d be ready, and feeling anxious about just how difficult the physical healing will be. Forward, forward, forward.
If I’m honest, though, it’s not the physical pain ahead that gives me the most anxiety right now. It’s that big pile of feelings and stories awaiting. When I stop moving forward, forward, forward and just rest, rest, rest after surgery, I fear they will overwhelm me. In optimistic moments, I can imagine having time, energy and focus to write about it all, one story at a time, processing the emotions and beginning to heal. In pessimistic ones, I imagine lying in bed, too physically weak to write or talk or even reach out to friends, but with waves of feelings so big I might just drown. I’ve been in that lonely place a few times already during chemo (those moments are among the stories and feelings that need to be told), but the need to go forward, forward, forward always pulled me out. What happens when I stop moving?
Psalm 139 comes to my aid. The whole thing speaks to my heart, but especially this section:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
There is much in me that seeks to flee, from God and from those who love me, and just let the waves crash over. Sometimes I wish for the darkness to cover me, or at least to take to my bed and let the covers plunge me into darkness for days on end. But there is no escape from God, no escape from love. The love is there with us, whether we want it or not.
I know that because of you all, dear friends and readers and church folks old and new. I’ve tried running away, but it doesn’t work. Over the last two months, I have tried several times to disappear from social media, to check out and slip into silence, to isolate myself from everyone. Living in a whole other country, it’s my only connection to most of you, so I was hoping to just escape unnoticed and be forgotten. But you didn’t let me. You keep sending me messages, comments, e-mails, even cards and packages. You reached out when I went silent too long. You told me you were praying. You remembered important events in my life and treatment. Even if I ignored you, or just didn’t have the energy and stamina to reply, you stuck around. You wouldn’t let me go.
You, my beloveds, are more relentless than the waves trying to knock me down. And God, I trust, is more relentless still.
This is me not running away from the big pile of stories and feelings. This is me looking backward just enough to name the truth of how overwhelming those stories and feelings are, in hopes that will help me keep going forward until I can return to give them the attention they need and deserve. This is me trying not to reach for the darkness to cover me, but reach for the light of love. This is me saying thank you to all of you, because you are the ones pulling me forward, forward, forward by your love, encouragement and prayers, which won’t let go even when I try to fight them off. This is me giving thanks to God, because whether I ascend to heaven or make my bed in hell, She is still there, with me.
This is me feeling much better for having shared this one tiny part of the stories and feelings.
Bring on the next wave. I’ll jump, dive, crash and come up for air one more time, trusting in love to keep me afloat. Surgery in 48 hours.