Monthly Archives: April 2007

Countdown Party Favors

MONDAY April 23

chemocert.jpgI got it. Today I was given one of those purplish certificates from the cancer clinic staff congratulating me on the completion of chemotherapy: infusion number 78 of 78, month 24 of 24.

Only four more weeks to go.

What a ride.

I called a friend of mine today who’s celebrating his thirty-third birthday. He’s also in the midst of putting his life and insides back together in the wake of several bad decisions. He said, “This is the year, man… this is the year we’re both done being sick.”

Yes. Bring it, brother.

Just over a week ago I had to cancel plans again. I was too sick, again. I hurt too much, and was too tired. Again.

I’m tired, too, of being the broken record.

Living like one. Writing like one. Feeling like one.

Just when it sounds like the song is about to break into its climax – into something new and powerful – it skips back to the beginning. The boring part. The part you’ve heard at least a hundred times already. The part you know so well. Too well.

Sometime last week, though, springtime got into my blood. It was like something budded inside me. Again, I had the sensation of a new season. And it was more than just the sunshine.

But the sunshine helped. I got out of the house several days in a row. Went for a few walks by the lakes. Found a new coffee-haunt or two. Used my YMCA ID. Got really wet and came home smelling like chlorine. Four days in a row.

I still felt fatigued when came the weekend. Artificially sustained by buckets of caffeine, rising Sunday morning took me an hour and a half, just to get out of bed. And this was a day I was genuinely excited to get to where I was going. It wasn’t lethargy or reluctance that made waking difficult. It was utter fatigue.

But again, this seems like a new season. Or at least the eve before one.

Like the countdown before lift-off: “T-minus 10, 9, 8, 7…” Much prep goes into that moment, and in the miles immediately following, there is gravity to fight and much fuel spent in the fighting. It is a rather violent segue between earth and space. The separation is not tranquil. But it is the necessary effort to bring the ship and its crew to higher places.

The countdown is steady in my head now. 28 days. One week of prednisone. Three more weeks of chemo pills. One CT scan (I don’t like those – I made a mess of the machine the last time they loaded my veins up with intravenous contrast).

Then I’ll wake up one morning without another chemo treatment looming near. Then I may actually have the juice to do what I need to rebuild my body.

landmarksky.jpgJen and I took a few hours following my infusion to walk around downtown St. Paul in springtimey sunshine. There’d been a few moist eyes at the clinic earlier, but we had stopped crying well before we were strolling the cobblestone sidewalks on Wabasha and West Seventh. So I’m not sure what our excuse could be (I’d say chemo-brain, but that only works for me) but we were in the middle of a crosswalk when we weren’t supposed to be. Suddenly we had to scuffle off the street to avoid being hit by a Volvo, and while scuffling, I pulled a muscle in my butt.

Right cheek, actually.

I’m still limping.

Get that: I pulled a muscle in my butt while scuffling across a street.

At the clinic today, I weighed 132 pounds. Almost my normal weight. My nurse for the past two years rightly quipped, “I’ve never seen those numbers before.”

driving.jpgSo I look good. Good grief, do I look good (please notice the hair on my chin and the tongue in my cheek), but despite all evidences to the contrary (here’s that broken record thing, again), I’m not in great shape. I strain muscles in my back and neck when I sneeze – for crying (or sneezing) out loud. Sitting on lake Calhoun last week, I kicked off my shoes and put bare feet on sun-warmed bricks. A runner jogged by, clomping his tennies on those same bricks. I imagined doing the same and my ankles began to unconsciously, instinctively twitch with the expected pain.

It will be so much fun to be able to do stuff again. And I’m so glad I get to. I’ve been itching to get out. To see things. To do things. To explore with my boys. To romance with my bride. To enjoy common hobbies with my friends.

And for a few days last week, and a few hours this afternoon, I got to.

Those of you who’ve been following my story know why I hesitate to say this:

Life is looking up.

I was intending last week to write this hoorah. Right in the middle of my happy days.

Then the shootings at VT happened. And I learned of Walt Wangerin’s cancer. Closer to home, friends M & S found out that S was going to deliver a stillborn in the sixth month – their second miscarriage. And friends J & A discovered the adoption they thought was a done deal (little J had been living with them for well over a year already) was suddenly very likely to come undone.

Bad Days & Better Days

I wondered how I could pass out party favors to celebrate better days when my better days were happening at the same time as someone else’s very bad days. Would it be irreverent, disrespectful, frivolous, or insensitive for me to say just how good my good days were?

How was I to reconcile the sheer pleasure I intended to describe in an afternoon of sunshine on Lake Calhoun with the simultaneous pain and uncertainty in the lives of some of my closest friends? More broadly, how should we feel when pleasures like frozen custard and Oregon Chai, bike-rides and swimming-pools sit side-by-side (on the globe, anyway) with famine, contaminated water, genocide, and disease?

One time I hurt so badly I couldn’t recall the good times I’d had prior to the pain. The collective cry of suffering in this world at that moment undid me. In July of 2005, my own hurt amplified the hurts of humanity and the darkness invited me to despair. Though the good times eluded my memory, at least I had good times to recall when I could.

If all were pain, sorrow, and frustration all the time, I am convinced humanity would collapse upon itself. When I was sick, others were well. I couldn’t remember my own good times, but I saw others having theirs.

When one grieves, another is laughing. Weddings and funerals, baptisms and bloodbaths happen on the same planet, on the same day.

And while this incongruence often agitates our sense of justice (which it should), I’ve come to see it also as a grace. Good and bad coexist here. It is a grace. The two are juxtaposed, and we always know how bad bad is and how good good can be. And we know the difference. The contrast is necessary.

Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can to alleviate the pain that is. While the good times (whether ours once or theirs now) give us something to hope for or remember when we hurt (it is so true that in the midst of grief we can forget what life is like without grief), the pains of others serve as another kind of reminder in our peace. And they provide us with an opportunity to make their hurts (and ours collectively) easier to bear.

How good it is we’re not all grieving at the same time! If we all hurt all the time what comfort would there be? What life could we look at and say, “That is right and this is wrong; I want that back. I know that this is so bad because that is so good”? What’s more, who would there be to console us? Who would there be to give – were we all so bent up so as to be incapable of the selfless offering needed to bring healing? Who would there be to serve as the tangible flesh and blood bringers of God’s kindness?

Our exposure to the hurts of others (the shared grief of our planet) keeps those of us who are well from living frivolously. From thoughtlessly embracing pleasure. Now if we enjoy anything, we thoughtfully enjoy it as a gift. And if we prefer triviality to reality, ignoring the suffering in this world (neglecting to do what we can to help) we are all the guiltier of our indifference.

Finally, may the hurt here help us to know not only how badly we need each other, but ultimately how deeply we need God. The brokenness of suffering in life is the evidence of a broken relationship with the Giver and Sustainer of life. We really do need to meet our Maker.

adecloseup.jpgMay the Church remember and reclaim, in each generation, her calling to be the tangible representation of this Lord who brought salvation in so many ways: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, forgiving the sinners, and giving power and purpose to the lives of very ordinary people like you and like me.

Consider this the party favor and the invitation to celebrate with me.

We live still.




PS. New downloadable tune posted sometime this week!

Categories: Cancer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lament Intent and Bouncy Balls

How hard it is to look good and not feel good.

How often I’ve wanted my bald head back. Or a band-aid on my forehead. In grade school, a band-aid invoked sympathy. Invited attention. “What happened? Are you okay?” I remember one sunny, wet, spring day in elementary school gym class when we were running around the playground near a chain-link fence. I was goofing off and intentionally stumbled into the fence, getting my foot caught beneath the bottom pokies and the ground.

My foot got snagged and I tripped. It tore a hole in my tenny. We laughed, I got up, and we finished our run. My foot hurt, so I said so. Yet in spite of the hole in my shoe, nobody believed me.

adefence.jpgAs we lined back up in front of the teacher to do stretches and jumping jacks, I knelt to remove my shoe. I needed to take a peek at my foot. The other kids were laughing. Even the teacher was walking down the row to order me back up. I was trying to explain how my foot hurt; that I was removing my shoe to see what was wrong. Everyone thought I was exaggerating or being a baby.

Until I pulled my shoe off, exposing my bloody sock. Then everyone got really quiet.

Mrs. Glassman removed my bloody sock, and there was my pinky toe, barely hanging on by a messy piece of flesh, the blood oozing from the place where it was supposed to be attached to my foot. Gym class took a break on account of me that day. Mrs. Glassman walked me to the nurse’s office where my aunt Karen came and picked me up, and drove me to the hospital where I got a shot and seven stitches. And the rest of the day off from school.

eliball.jpgThe trouble with looking good and feeling so rotten, is people expect you to be feeling as well as you look, and if you’re not, you either have to accept that misinterpretation of your well-being and get over it, or justify your inactivity and irritability at every juncture, engaging in explanation time and time again. An exhausting activity, as it tends to be quite self-centered, and disagreeably so. Sometimes it’s just easier to stay in bed. To keep to your cave. It’s almost like a Jekyll and Hyde routine, except the good doctor locks himself up every evening so as to keep the monster from hurting anyone when he’s out.

Unrelenting pain can so easily make a person cantankerous. Pain nags until the person does.

And these days I hurt. I have been in more pain this week than I have been in a good while. Perhaps it is in relation to prednisone-withdrawal, or a consequence of the inactivity of these winter months, and the ensuing atrophy. Perhaps it is another bug.

In any case, the pain often takes my breath away. On my back or up on my feet, I am stiff and rigid, needing to command my exhale. Without intentionally doing so, I nearly cease to breathe – stuck in the breathlessness of a constant ache. The ache in my back, in my neck, in my jaw, and my legs.

My wrists give out with a turn of the steering wheel, or a push of a button on my keyboard, the pouring of milk into my chai. My head is heavy with hurt. My wrists weak with pain. My calves are rigid – hard as bone, my wife says. I am regaining weight, reclaiming muscle mass, but every fiber of those muscles is fired-up to the max. Flexed as flexed can be. My tendons are taut. My softer muscles twitch and threaten to go hard like the rest. My bones creak under the pressure. I walk again like an old man. Bent. Mechanical. Slow. Grimacing.

My gut is slowed by the pain meds necessary to keep me moving – the pain meds that further diminish my energy and capacity for productive thought, making me sleepy, putting me back in bed.

I am in worse shape now than I was at this time one year ago. A glance wouldn’t tell you this. I look better. I have more hair, better color, and a beard. But I hurt more now than I have in many months. I am more fatigued. I’m supposed to be on my way up and out. Then why does this feel more like deeper down and further in?

What is this? Why is this? Aren’t I almost done? Shouldn’t I be getting better now?

It’s been nearly two years. Two years is enough. A month and a half from now I will swallow my last dose of chemo pills. I can understand why some folks opt out of chemotherapy when they relapse. It is hard enough the first time. Even the easy stuff has proven hard for me. At best, imagine being sick with an intense head and chest cold – or the flu – the kind that puts you on your back in bed – for three to four days a week, every week. For two years.

bouncyguy.jpgImagine bouncing back every week. But a little less every week. Eventually you wouldn’t be bouncing back at all. Drop one of those dime-store bouncy balls and watch it until it stops moving and you’ll get what I’m talking about. Eventually, you would stop bouncing altogether, rolling into a hole or a rut in the ground, stopping. You’d just sit there. Unless someone bigger than you came and picked you up.

This is what it has been like for me. It just gets harder and harder to get back up. This past week, rather than feeling a little bit better every day, I felt a little bit worse. Ahhh, and it feels no good to complain. It doesn’t make things better. Especially when there is so much good that goes unheralded (though not unnoticed) in my grief.

Perhaps there are some unaddressed psychological reasons I feel the need to give voice to my pain. There are a few that come to mind. Yet, in spite of this, there is a simpler reason why I write paragraph after paragraph of what Job calls, “speaking from the bitterness of my heart.”

When either of my boys gets hurt, they cry. Even when their hurts are being mended, if the hurt still hurts, they join the primal chorus of lament. Infants, toddlers, and big people, too, have been lending their voices to this work for thousands of years. It is what we do when we hurt. It may grow in complexity as we age – may find more syllables, interesting syntax, less volume, clever wit – but it is still the primal cry of pain. Very often, these posts have been little more than this.

Because of that, it is a wonder to me that so many of you continue logging on to hear me cry. When my boys cry, it raises my blood pressure. I want to do something, and if I can’t, it bothers me. And I realize that this is most often the situation most of you reading this find yourselves in with me. You hear me hurt, but what can you do?

jeremyhats1.jpgTo the many of you who continue praying, thank you, thank you, thank you. To those of you who send kind words, thank you. It is an amazing thing that there are people who weather these sorts of storms alone. I have not had to do that. Because of you. And I cannot say thank you enough.

But the cry is necessary. It is a reflex. It is instinct. It tells us, and the world, that we are still alive. And it screams that something is not right. The Lament is a witness to the brokenness of this world. It demonstrates that something is not how it should be, and we know it. And it communicates our desire for someone somewhere to know this brokenness with us.

And for so many of us, myself first and foremost, if the hurt is not ours, we so rarely let it interrupt or intrude upon our lives. If we know about it, we are near enough.

This is what makes Jesus so amazing. This is what most attracts me to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is what draws me in and keeps me at His side:

God stepped into the pain.

He entered into it, and entering into it, He began and secured the eventual healing. But He felt it first. He knew it. He knew it like we know it.

He didn’t have to do that. If anybody didn’t deserve it, it was Him.

This is the best story that has ever been told. And I get to be a part of it. It is simply amazing.

bouncies&car.jpgBack to the bouncy ball again. When the ball has stopped bouncing, stopped rolling, stopped moving altogether, the ball must become the object. There must be a Subject bigger than the ball that moves the ball. The ball can’t do the moving, it must be moved. The verb must happen to it.

This is something we don’t understand in our strength. This is something that is hard to get: sometimes we just can’t go on. These days have often been to me like traveling through the Dakotas on an almost empty gas tank. The little gas light is on, and I may run out any minute. And there’s no gas station for miles.

But God isn’t fuel. God is framework. God is transportation. I am not the vehicle that needs God like fuel. I am the passenger that needs God like a ride. A real pick-me-upper.

Anybody can bounce… for a while. But to go higher than you were before – that takes becoming the object – that requires a Subject other than the self to do the action. We need to be acted upon, to be propelled.

Lance Armstrong can bounce. Humans bounce. We were made to be bouncy. Some theologians call it common grace. With the right resiliency (and a little God-given propensity for internal exertion, i.e. survival) some can bounce higher than the height from which they’ve fallen.

ballhouses.jpgBut we are all still bouncing balls and not birds. To truly soar, we need to be transformed. To become what we are not. And to be transformed, we need to be acted upon. The verb needs to happen to us. We need another outside ourselves to initiate and complete the action of transforming.

This is the promise of Christ’s resurrection. Christ purchased redemption. He promised resurrection. Remission isn’t resurrection. Remission is redemption. Lazarus was dead and then wasn’t dead, but even his resurrection at that time was redemption. Or remission, as it were. His body died again.

But final resurrection is promised. It will one day be his, like it will one day be mine. Brand new bodies. Not the old body brought to life again, but the old body changed. A new body. Ahhh, how we were made to want this. The Longing (like the Lament) testifies to the brokenness of this world, to God’s intent to make things right, to His commitment to make things right, and to the fullness of things made right in Christ. He did it. It’s done. And it will be mine.

That is one reason why today, I celebrate sincerely.

He is risen, indeed.

And though I fall down, I’m gonna get up.

Can I get an Amen?

His because of Him,


PS. Click on any of the bouncy ball images in this post for a link to an incredible video.

adejammyhat.jpgPPS. Jen and boys are doing well. Eli is emerging a musician. He sings intervals better than I do. And Ade is an athletic little artist. He throws strikes consistently (across the living room, at least), and loves to paint. And Jen, well, she’s Jen. And I love her. Thanks to Ben, Dre, and Tom for seeing me through a difficult weekend without them.

Categories: Cancer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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