Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Return to the Fire

Through a quirky chain of events, I returned to the scene of the fire last Friday.

If you’re new to this blog, a quick recap of what I mean by “fire.” It’s the pain and fear that come from losing the person on this earth who has been the closest to you, the person with whom you have shared what you both called “one of the top five loves of all time.” My recovery modus operandi in my journey of losing Dana has been to adopt the military strategy of running toward enemy fire; when soldiers see or hear enemy fire they run toward it. My MO has been to run toward the pain and not run away from it. (You may want to check out this blog post for more detail.) Last week I had the chance to see how the philosophy of running toward the fire was working out for me.

And here’s what I mean by quirky chain of events: This past summer I added to my plate the task of serving as interim pastor at Breiel Blvd. Church of God in Middletown, the church that brought me to Middletown in the first place as youth pastor many years ago. “Interim” means I serve until a new pastor is in place.

Serving part-time, my primary responsibilities with the church are teaching/speaking on Sunday and meeting with the staff (a blessed, great staff I might add) through the week. I’ve had on my radar the possibility of helping with the pastoral care component, including hospital visits, if the need were to arise and if I had the time. Last Friday, the need arose. I’m not sure I had the time, but I was compelled to make the time.

It’s ironic that I would voluntarily make the time because it hasn’t always been that way.

When I first came to Middletown to serve as youth pastor at Breiel Church one of my duties as a member of the pastoral staff was to help with hospital visits two days a week, Wednesdays and Fridays. I confess that as I navigated the calendar-packed, high-energy nature of youth ministry, hospital rounds did not factor as a favorite “to do.” And inevitably, the Wednesday I was launching a new series in our youth programming (our big night was Wednesday night, and series launches meant more detail to tend to than usual) was the day I’d not only have several people to visit in the Middletown hospital, but also someone in Dayton (north of Middletown) and Cincinnati (south of Middletown). Before I sound too gripey, I need to say that the moment I would arrive at the hospital room, I embraced that time. I certainly understood that this was some of the purest, most consistent ministry I would be doing every week. I enjoyed talking and praying with the folks and they seemed to be encouraged by my visits. But that didn’t keep me from grousing a bit on my drives to and fro.

I left that youth pastor position having never resolved the experience of blending hospital/pastoral care with youth ministry. I was compliant to the duty and respectful of the task, but I probably didn’t full on embrace the experience.

It was during Dana’s cancer fight years later, when I lived in a hospital room for a month as a caregiver, that I revisited that unresolved experience. As you might expect, my recent journey has left me heartbroken for what takes place in a hospital room. But I hadn’t really had a chance to act on that heartbreak and was even beginning to wonder if it was real.

This is why I felt compelled to make the time for the hospital rounds this past Friday. I needed to take the heartbreak for a test drive. But in doing this, I knew that meant running to the fire. I knew I would be walking through a particular set of doors. The last time I walked through these doors was when I was walking out of them and into an ambulette for the 4 mile ride home to hospice care. So when I said, “I’ll visit the hospital this Friday,” I was saying it through the nervous lump in my throat: What if the flood of memories, which were bound to be filled with details I had forgotten, would render me useless? What if I were to walk boldly through those front doors, get a whiff of hospital and hear myself say “nope,” u-turning to walk just as boldly out of those front doors, not even giving myself a chance to tap into the heartbreak? There were some unnerving unknowns. Of course, they were familiar unknowns. They’re the kind of questions you face every time you run toward the fire.

What I underestimated was how God could use the flood of memories, the “fire” you might say, to massage the heartbreak.

I should have known that God was up to something because the visit started rather ominously.

Wouldn’t you know that on this my first visit back to the hospital where Dana’s final spiral began there would be a parishioner to visit on “Fourth Floor North,” the floor where Dana and I spent a month treating her cancer’s final play, the floor where I learned how to define progress as three steps backwards and only two steps forward, the floor where I learned to squeeze as much hope as I could from the smallest morsels the fight would offer up. And just to be sure I didn’t miss a trickle of the flood that was to wash over me, fate would have it that when I walked past the nurse’s station to say hello to a friend, I ended up standing in front of the very room where it all took place.

Walking into the hospital wasn’t as difficult as I thought. It was as I stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor when I was surprised at the first thing that started the flood of memories: the tile patterns in the floor. As a caregiver during a lengthy hospital stay you have many opportunities to stare at the floor. For me, it was usually when I was talking with family and friends on the phone. I would step out of the room to find a place where I could talk (and maybe cry) without waking up Dana (or alarming her), where I wouldn’t be bothering hospital staff at the nurse’s station or other caregivers in waiting areas (even though I was anxious and nervous, I was still loud).  My “step out” would usually take me to the elevator landing area: it had a big window with a spacious view and if anyone came by they were always passing through, never congregating. It was this area that I would talk and pace while on the phone. As I shared bad news, good news, and bad news with spin, the back channel of my mind would study the tile patterns in the floor: I like how they put a curve here; but it made for a tough cut of that tile piece; it was a good idea to change color tile at this break in the pattern; those are nice, warm colors; when I place the tip of my shoe in the corner of that tile it looks like a parabola from my geometry days; I wonder how Mrs. Hypes is doing; and now it’s an asymptote—the shoe line and tile line will never meet if you follow them to infinity. And on it goes.

I think it’s something your mind does (or at least my mind) to keep you grounded. It notices inane, ordinary things, things that have nothing to do with the fears you’re facing. It’s probably a bit of an escape mechanism, as in, wouldn’t it be nice if this was all you had to worry about? Seeing this forgotten but familiar tile pattern reminded me of the intensity of those days, the relentless monitoring of symptoms, the draining interplay of hope and reality, the constant nagging of the haunting question, “What if this is it?” Your mind will relish the smallest things for a break, including a cup of coffee. Every sip of coffee in that hospital stay provided me a two to three second mental break. It was a moment when I didn’t have to make a decision, or worry about an outcome, and I knew what I was doing when I took that sip. It was a moment that was the complete opposite of every other moment during the stay.

The folks I visited last Friday were dear friends from my time as youth pastor at Breiel Church. The visits were rich and full of good conversation, much of which centered around questions and comments like “Where’s your wife Jessica? I can’t wait to meet her!” Jessica, of course, is a favorite. These comments then led to the redemptive work that God is doing in all the experiences of our lives. And yes, it was impossible to be in any of these hospital rooms without my eyes doing a scan of the surroundings: the whiteboard with the day’s date, the futon that made into a more comfortable bed than you would expect (thankfully), the patient wristbands that increase in number as the stay lengthens in days (allergies, “fall risk,” DNR).

As I left the building I was also reminded of the first time I was in Middletown's new hospital, Atrium Medical Center, even before it opened. Every three years the hospital’s foundation hosts a gala. I wrote about the one I attended shortly after Dana passed…a gala she helped plan.(I posted about that here.) The gala preceding that was in 2007 and Dana and I attended. It also was the celebration of the opening of Atrium Medical Center and included a dessert reception inside the hospital at the close of the gala, which was held outdoors under a beautifully decorated giant white tent. Dana and I were one year into the cancer recurrence battle at the time. I remember standing in the atrium of Atrium and thinking, “This place is fresh and new, there has been no bad news shared with anyone yet, there have been no deaths in here yet. It’s a clean slate.” I think it was the slog of battling cancer that took my mind down the negative trail. Because you can also go down the positive trail, which my mind eventually did, as I thought, “This will also be a place where good news is shared: the surgery was successful; the scan is clear; it’s a boy (or a girl).”

I’ve learned that life happens somewhere between those two trails, a truth that might have been part of my compulsion last Friday as to why I wanted to MAKE time for the hospital rounds. The Bible tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12). There aren’t too many physical places in this world that actually provide opportunity for both: rejoicing and mourning. A hospital is certainly one of them.

One more thought. The picture below is the floor of the elevator. When I realized the significant role the tile floor played in my hospital experience, I snapped this to document the tile formations that I had studied while riding the elevator several times a day during that September in 2009, wishfully overhearing hopeful conversations of short hospital stays and “heading home to recover.” The framing of the picture was completely random; I simply pointed my phone down and snapped. It was while studying the picture more closely that I noticed what I captured—a cross.  In all my trips up and down that elevator in the month of living at the hospital, I don’t think I noticed the cross formation. It was simply a tile pattern, a pattern I studied as a mental break on an elevator ride. But the cross was there the entire time, whether I noticed it or not.

This is when God began to do a number on me, when He used my experience in the “fire” to massage my heartbreak to help others in their own fireshowing me that the heartbreak is real and giving me clarity on how to use it. I think that the tile on the elevator floor depicts our role with each other: reminding each other that the cross is there whether we see it or not. Whether it’s good news or bad news; whether it’s a short hospital stay that leads to recovery or a long hospital stay that ends in death; the cross, a symbol of victory over suffering and triumph over death, is always there.
Whether I knew it or not as a youth pastor years ago making my obligatory hospital “rounds,” I was reminding people that the cross was there whether they knew it or not. It may not have been anything I said or did, but just the fact that I came as a representative of the gospel—the gospel that delivers peace and comfort and eternal hope.

So the next time I have an opportunity to visit the hospital, I will make the time. There’s one other thing about fire that we all know: it refines. Maybe that’s what running toward the fire is all about, or at least a big part of what it’s all about. The fire does more than massage the heartrbreak, it refines the heartbreak and helps clarify the path of redemption that emerges from the pain.

I’ll keep working on that.
Meanwhile thank you for your patience, not only for the length of this post, but for the length of time since the last post. I apologize for the dry spell. More soon!