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.
As 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.
The 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.
Imagine 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?
To 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.
Back 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.
But 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.
PPS. 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.