MONDAY April 23
I 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.
Jen 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.”
So 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.
May 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!