Monday, December 23, 2013

Marking Four Years

Today, December 23, 2013, marks year four since Dana’s passing from here to There.
The moments of December 23, 2009 are still so very vivid. It’s hard to believe that we’ve already spanned the length of a high school career, or the duration of an Olympiad, or the length of a U.S. presidential term.
Last year on this date I wrote of a haunting game you play when battling a terminal disease­it’s the game of picturing future scenes without you. This hit hard with Dane one particular Christmas—at every family gathering she would picture that same gathering without her. In her mind she pictured everyone cruising along in life, not noticing that she was gone, sort of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in reverse.  

This little thought game was in stark contrast to her inspiringly brave fight and hopeful thoughts of heaven. It’s occurred to me recently that this game is likely driven by a lurking anxiety that we all have, no matter how hopeful and brave we are: we want to be remembered after we’re gone.

For those of us left behind, we know that it’s impossible to not remember Dana in any gathering that she would have been a part of. Her laughs, her smiles, her love of the moment, her cut-to-the-chase sense that took conversations to meaningful levels. But I guess at year four I do begin to think about Dana’s lasting legacy more than I have before.  So, maybe sometime today, or sometime soon, take a moment to pause, think, reflect, remember.

Now to my second thought.

But first, a side note that is either random coincidence or something more divine. Here I am writing this post and using the 4-year high school career to describe a time period while also writing about the act of remembering. As I type, there is a TV show on in the background, The Sing-Off, an a cappella group singing competition. A group just gave a butt-kicking rendition of the song “Don’t You Forget About Me,” which comes from the high-school based movie, “The Breakfast Club.” Really?? I’m going with something more divine. I can’t make this stuff up!

Now to my second thought, for real.

 When I posted my last blog entry (Elk Envy), I had a funny sense that folks could be thinking, “Why, after finding new love and being happily married, is Barry still writing about something painful and sad?” Frankly, I have even found myself thinking the same thing. It’s a logical, natural question.

Here’s my answer (so far): While I was journeying through the epicenter of pain and sadness I experienced things I would not have otherwise experienced. I saw God in ways I would not have otherwise seen. And I feel that I am in a unique position to say, despite the pain and sadness, that God is still good. While in my darkest, fear-filled hours, God mercifully made His presence known. He didn’t have to do that. He could have let me rely on belief and trust and faith. God has shown us in His Word that He is with us no matter what. God could have said, “Well, you’ve’ been telling people to know and trust God’s Word, let’s see how you do.” But He didn’t stay quiet. God poked His finger through the thin veil between here and There. He did it many times. I feel a bit of a psalmist’s calling in that I have experienced God’s tender mercies and I want, even need, to tell about it.

These pokes through the thin veil, or “God stamps” as we’ve come to call them, at times came fast and furious. Some, like the elk story of the previous post, have taken a few months, or years, to come to full fruition. But they need to be shared. I definitely have not been the best steward of this testimony, a point at which I feel fairly convicted.

Thank you for observing this journey with me—for your encouragement, for your prayers, for your support. Thank you for your patience as I figure out the best way to share of God’s tender mercies from past loss, as I also grow in deep, new love with Jessica (which is a merciful journey in itself!).

The veil is thin. God is near. His mercies are generous.

Thank you!


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Elk Envy

I will try to be brief. But this story—or “God stamp” actually—was a long time in the making.

It started shortly after Dana and I began the fight against her recurrent breast cancer which was diagnosed in August 2006. The story became an official “God stamp” just this past fall, six years later.  (For backstory on "God stamps," you may want to click to this post, or search for "deer" or "rainbow" on this blog.)

In the second year of battling recurrence, it became clear that this round of breast cancer was not going away easily, if at all. As we settled into the slog, Dana began reading a book by John Eldredge with her good friend Kay. Eldredge is a writer, teacher, counselor who touches a great deal on what some might call the “chick-if-i-cation” of the church—asking men, who are of the hunter/gatherer nature, to share emotions and sing, etc., things guys are not inclined to do, unless they are talking about football or cheering with 50,000 other fans.

In this particular book (I am still searching for the exact book, Eldredge, a prolific writer, has written many) Eldredge told a story about taking his son elk hunting. In recounting the story, he told of what a great father/son bonding time he had envisioned for this particular experience. But as the hunting excursion wore on, they hadn’t seen one elk. So Eldridge began to pray. He prayed that they might run across an elk, justifying the request by reminding God of the terrific bonding experience it would be. And, lo and behold, near the end of the hunting day, an elk sauntered across their path. Boom. His son got his elk. Eldridge, then, went on to use that story as an illustration for prayer.

This caused Dana to respond in an email to Kay: Oh that’s just great. I am praying against cancer, in hopes of living, and I am getting nothing. He prays for an elk, in hopes to kill it, and God comes through for him.

To which Kay responded, in her usual poignant way: Dana, you have elk envy. Don’t have elk envy. Just because God answers prayer one way doesn’t mean He is going to answer your prayer the same way.

Which is true. Very true. Undeniably, biblically, and theologically true.

So, “no elk envy” became one of our bumper sticker phrases (Kay actually needle-pointed the phrase, and a facsimile of an elk, into a pillow case) throughout the cancer fight, and as best we could, we made it the framework for our praying.

In the fall of 2009 the battle took a hard turn. The cancer spread in a way that affected Dana’s cognitive and motor capabilities. So, not only did she transition into a bedridden condition, but in what was probably the cruelest turn in the fight, Dana lost her ability to communicate, or more specifically, to express. Her communication was simply “yes” or “no” responses to questions and occasionally she phrased a sentence or two.

Here’s why it was cruel. Our ability to communicate and express is what attracted us to each other in the first place, and it’s what eventually placed us into what we called “one of the top five loves of all time.” We loved making each other laugh. We loved sharing and processing together. Dana was invigorated by the art of writing and expressing. It was in the DNA of her personality. And now, as we were moving into the most challenging era of our marriage, we were doing it with one-word answers to life’s most difficult questions and high-stakes dilemmas.    

While we were in, what I’ve labeled, “hospice mode,” Dana and I would touch on the subject of heaven, but she was not comfortable in making that a topic of conversation. We had long said that if one of us got to heaven before the other, then heaven was not going to be all it was cracked up to be. And we’d both said, in our more expressive moments, that neither of us will give the other permission to “go.” We would both be hanging onto the leg of the other.

Knowing Dana was not comfortable with the subject of heaven, I concluded, whether rightly or wrongly, that talking about heaven might create more fear and anxiety than comfort and assurance—pulling together info from our conversations from our expressive days and mixing that with Dana’s one-word answers to my questions about the subject. Yet, here we are, approaching our ultimate goodbye and Dana’s big hello, with scant ability to communicate.

And so, you plow through on your own, navigating the high-wire balancing act that care-giving forces upon you: protection vs. reality; the presence of hospice and palliative care vs. the appearance of throwing in the towel; the desire, and need, to enter into end of life conversation vs. creating fear.

It’s an impossible balance, and you do the best you can.

During hospice mode those were the tensions occupying my mind which was in a constant state of whirring and spinning, like the whirring and spinning you hear in your computer from time to time. Only my whirring and spinning never wound down. There was no CTL+ALT+DEL keyboard sequence.

That November our friends Randy and Kay came to visit from Montana. Yes, the Kay with whom Dana shared the John Eldredge book, which by now had been two years prior. Dana knew they were coming. As soon as they walked through the door, before anything else was said, Dana piped up, “No elk envy.”

I am not sure there has ever been a better placed, better prepared phrase in all of history. If you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, it was a “timshel” moment. For in that phrase, Dana told all of us that she knew the seriousness of the situation. And perhaps most importantly, she told us all, especially me, that she was okay with that.

In that phrase she showed humor, expression, connection. I laughed. I cried. But mostly, I sighed heavily—a deep-body sigh. It’s not that it made anything easier, but I was able to feel, ever so slightly, that we were in this thing together. It was a boost I needed as we navigated the final days, which, it turned out, would be just around the corner from Randy and Kay’s visit.

But here is where the story takes a turn toward God-stamp status. Last November, Randy took their 12-year old son Ben elk hunting for the first time on the ranch where they live in Montana. I know. Elk hunting. Father and son. It was the first season that Ben was age eligible to hunt elk. They saw a few elk throughout the day but never had a clear shot. Then, by late afternoon they tried one more area. Three elk finally walked out into the open. Ben set up and took one shot. Boom. Ben got his elk. Randy would later note, being a fittingly proud dad, it was a “perfect lung shot.”

And we all knew this was more than Ben’s first elk.

It was a near-perfect repeat of the scenario that generated our prayer chant “no elk envy”—a father-son elk hunting excursion. Extraordinarily, Ben saw and killed an elk at pretty much the earliest possible moment—the first shot he took on the first day he hunted of the first year he was eligible to hunt.

I don’t know if there’s much theological backing for this (and it’s not the first time I’ve pushed through the limits of theology in this whole journey), but I have taken this as a divine imprimatur—a God stamp—on a couple levels: number one, that yes, indeed, Dana’s declaration of “no elk envy” on Randy and Kay’s visit stands as a window into her thinking that she knew how bad things were, and she was okay with that. Secondly, and more importantly, our prayers are to have the flavor of “no elk envy.”

That’s huge. And it goes against our nature.

Just because God does not move or answer prayers the way we want or hope or expect doesn’t mean that God is any less good than when He does answer prayers the way we want or hope or expect. This, though, is a tough nut to crack. Just look at the prayer request lists of any church. First, our requests take on the flavor of a Christmas list, stating things that we want. Then, when things do turn out the way we want, we heap on the praise (“God is good!” we will say). When they don’t, the flavor is a little different (“Keep praying!” we will say).

Why is this? Do we oversell how God will intervene in our lives thus creating an expectation God never expected us to have? The only fail-safe promise we have from God is that He will be with us. But, because of expectations we’ve created, we’ve worked ourselves into a corner where God’s presence doesn’t really matter—we would rather have our way than His presence.

When I look at how Jesus taught us to pray (Matthew 6 and Luke 11), I can only find two personal items we can expect from God based on our requests: 1.) our daily sustenance; 2.) to be lead away from temptation.

So how is it that we are brazenly disappointed when things don’t go our way? Maybe it’s because we see in the gospels people asking for healing and Jesus heals them, so we think we should get the same treatment. But isn’t this classic “elk envy”? To quote our friend Kay: Just because Jesus answered one prayer one way doesn’t mean He will answer our prayers the same way.

Curiously, when I started writing this blog post—a post on the subject of our desires versus God’s ways—while in California with Jessica and her family, I received news that my mom was rushed to the hospital with chest pains—a first for her. Of course, I prayed like crazy for my own desires and wishes—that everything would be okay—and gave a patronizing nod to “God’s ways.”

Nice test, God.

Isn’t that just like Him? I knew that writing about prayer was likely to bring on a test, but I didn’t think it would come so quickly. For the record, mom did not appear to have a heart attack (God is good!) and will undergo some follow up tests this week (Please keep praying!).

The timing of Mom’s hospital run feels like a gentle nudge from God that says: Make sure you’re not giving the impression to not pray like crazy for desires and wishes (especially since we see a fair amount of Scripture telling us to do just that). I guess though, that the point where we get off track is the expectation we place on the results. Scripture does tell us to bring our desires and requests to God, but the healthy attitude seems to ask that we not base our opinion of God on how He honors our desires and requests. If things do not go as we hoped, we will naturally be mad, sad, hurt, disappointed and myriad other emotions. I think this is healthy. Where it gets less healthy, or even unhealthy, is when these emotions morph into mindsets of bitterness or skepticism or into a thinking that God is not on our side, which, candidly, is what Dana and I were thinking throughout much of the recurrence battle. By reminding ourselves of “no elk envy” we stayed out of a dangerous hole.

From my perspective, the less God’s people freak out over things not going our way, the more we show an observing world that we trust God’s ways. The issue of suffering is a big sticking point for those who are testing the waters of Christianity but have yet to jump in. Our reaction to suffering, or more poignantly, our reaction to things not going our way, displays whether or not we believe what Scripture says about suffering, chiefly, that we will experience it. And it displays whether or not we believe, and even appreciate, God’s fail-safe promise that He will be with us in the suffering.

To train myself to think and pray this way, I may adopt a new phrase for the close of my prayers, “No elk envy.” It may not be as poetic as “Amen,” but it forces me to think “Your will be done” and actually mean it.

Thank you for observing this journey with me.


Follow-Up Note: My mom’s follow-up tests all went well and things seem to be okay with her heart. Also, I received a note from Randy and Kay saying that Ben’s first elk hunting excursion this season was unproductive, adding a little more credence to last season’s divinely-timed, God-stamped elk.

Bible Follow-Up: In taking the observations of this journey to a next level, I've created a bare-bones Bible experience to accompany this post. It's an opportunity to explore, and even evaluate, some of my biblical assertions. You can get it here. (By the way, we need a new word for "devotional" or "Bible study." Right now "experience" is all I got, but I know we can do better.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Walking Wounded

"Fountain of Tears" in Granada, Spain
I have something strange going on.

This “something strange” has happened a few times recently, two instances I can remember with some detail.

It goes something like this: I’ll be clicking through my day, minding my own business, thinking my usual random thoughts (“Concrete was a great invention.”). I’ll be in a public place like a big box store and my path will cross, for a fleeting moment, with someone who has apparently spent his or her entire life overcoming a major physical challenge. They’re on their own at the moment in this busy arena, and seem to be doing fine.

It brings me to immediate tears.

The first instance that I noticed this becoming a trend was a few months ago while riding on an airport tram. I was probably doing some internal kvetching about airport life. I had noticed a man a little younger than I carrying an equal amount of travel bags—an over-stuffed roller bag and a heavy-laden back pack over a shoulder. (This probably sparked the random thought, “I wonder if the 50-pound baggage limit was set by the chiropractor lobby.”) The tram made a stop. The doors opened, my fellow traveler stood from his seat, gathered his bags, and with considerable effort, drug his barely functioning leg with his maximum-stuffed roller bag through the tram door onto his next destination. He exited as if he’d done it hundreds of times, maybe thousands.
I stayed on the tram, awaiting my next stop. With tears streaming down my cheeks.

The most recent instance of this “something strange” was at one of Jessica’s concerts in Miami, Fla. She was singing Maria in excerpts from "West Side Story" with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, a world-renown conductor who actually worked with Leonard Bernstein, composer of "West Side Story."

When I arrived at my row before the concert began I had to ask a patron seated on the end to stand in order for me to get to my seat. She was seated by herself and politely, even enthusiastically, obliged. Her movements were noticeably labored, but confident. I could sense she had a challenge of some sort. But it wasn’t until the end of the concert, when she applauded with her wrists, that I could see the extent of her challenge, perhaps a type of palsy.

Applauding. With her wrists. With a huge smile. And then, before the applause was over, she turned to walk with a limp up the aisle to exit, no doubt to beat the crowd—something she had done hundreds of times. Maybe thousands.

I kept clapping. With tears streaming down my cheeks.

At that moment my applause took on more meaning than celebration of the transcendent moments I had experienced through the music, but I began to feel myself as a cheerleader. First I was cheering how anyone, no matter their situation of life, can enjoy beautiful music. I was also cheering how my wife Jessica was able to, with her gifted voice, reach into the spirit of my applauding neighbor. And of course, I was cheering how my neighbor, despite her challenges, or maybe even because of her challenges, was able to enjoy beautiful music.

Later that day, after the concert, Jessica and I were walking down Lincoln Road, a famous pedestrian mall in South Beach. We happened upon my seat mate from the concert, sitting at an outdoor table enjoying a nice dish of frozen yogurt. I introduced myself by saying “I enjoyed listening to that beautiful concert with you!” After a couple of confused seconds she said, “You changed your clothes!” Which I had, going from diva-spouse afternoon concert attire to shorts and a t-shirt. And then she said, “That was so beautiful.” I introduced Jessica as one of the singers. Our friend asked “Which one?” to which we replied “Maria.” You could see gratitude come over our friend as she seemed privileged to share how beautiful the experience was to her.

As we walked away, I cried again. Now I had to explain my tears. “She touched me,” I said to Jessica, whose gift of tenderness may actually surpass her gift of music. She always lets me cry, and enters into the cry with me.

I have been around folks with physical challenges my entire life, whether challenges since birth or brought on through accident or disease. I’ve done my best to help when I can, to empathize as best I can, and mostly to not let the challenge define the person.

But something is now different. This is a new look for me, this immediate, spontaneous crying thing.

I want to pay attention to it.

It seems that in one instantaneous moment the journeys of these folks, with all the dynamic moments on journeys like these, wash over my heart like a rogue wave.

Those moments when they realized their condition, whether gradually from a birth abnormality or all at once through an accident or disease (Was it shock? Was it surprise?); the struggle behind the acceptance of the fact that they don’t have it as easy as others; the whipsaw moments of weakness with every intention to throw in the towel, followed by moments of sheer resolve and determination, and then the cruel reverse of that sequence. But here they are: functioning in mass public—a busy airport, a packed concert hall—with aplomb.

I’ve been trying to assess the crying. Why the immediate well-up of tears? Later that evening in Miami I dropped Jessica off at the hall to practice for her next gig and I made the 25 minute walk back to the apartment where we were staying. I tried to get a handle on this. I’m sure it’s related to the journey of loss, the experience of a broken heart. But could it be something more specific? And then I was prompted by a memory.

Dana had been on chemo for about a year with her recurrent breast cancer (BC round 2, as we would call it) when we were driving on Breiel Blvd. in Middletown and happened upon a fender bender. But it wasn’t two cars. It was a car and a deer. The deer was badly wounded but was still alive and trying to pull itself off the road into the safety of the nearby woods. Dana immediately began to cry , and she couldn't stop crying. This was more than her usual soft spot for all things animal and “all the kitties in the world.” As we drove she expressed that she was identifying with the deer. She and the deer were both wounded. They were both fighting to survive. They were both longing for safety and the familiarity of normal. That event stuck with us for days.

And it came flooding into my mind and heart on that walk in Miami.
I am wounded.

I can identify with the challenges of these folks whose paths I’m crossing. I can empathize with the rapid-fire whipsaw of resolve vs. despair, denial vs. acceptance. I know what it’s like to walk with a crippling hole of hurt and loss, laboring to function in a world that caters to normal.

But here’s the thing: We’re all wounded.

We all carry something.

And I think that’s what my visceral reactions to the walking wounded around me are tapping into. My journey of loss has reworked my emotional DNA and I’m just now beginning to realize to what degree this has occurred. Yes, my heart is more generally moved these days (I tear up at some point during every episode of “Blue Bloods,” a new series on ABC that Jessica and I have locked into; and I don’t think it’s simply sleep deprivation), but connecting with those who have visibly pressed through insurmountable obstacles provides a window into just how re-worked my emotional DNA is.

The phrase “world of hurt” comes to mind, with new meaning. We’re all carrying something. We’re all asked to overcome something. To borrow the words of a new friend, Leneita Fix, who does urban youth ministry near New York City, “All teens are urban. It doesn’t matter where they live or what their circumstances are; given today’s teen predicament, they’re all trying to survive something.” (As a side, you may want to check out Leneita’s book, “Everybody’s Urban.”) The same is true for all of us. In some cases the striving to survive is visible: exiting a tram with a debilitated leg, applauding beautiful music with wrists. In other cases the striving to survive lurks behind the masks of our stoic faces as we navigate our daily routines of waiting in lines, paying bills, meeting deadlines.

I’m reminded of something written in 2 Corinthians 1:4, that “[God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

That’s pretty cool, and I think it describes why I’m having such a strong reaction to “those in any trouble.” This verse, perhaps more than any other, paints the picture of redemption that can emerge from “our troubles.” We are naturally and organically drawn to the wounds of others. And it’s good to react.

For now, I’m reacting with tears. I’m going to keep paying attention to this reaction, grabbing tightly to this thread, watching hopefully to see what fabric of redemption God might be weaving together. I’ve felt compelled to share this point in the journey. While it’s certainly a work in progress, I’m sensing there are more of us who have hidden wounds needing to heal, or healed wounds needing to be shared with others.
Maybe we can all cheer and applaud for each other—with our hearts, with our hands, and even with our wrists.