The Other Side
On my way into the Cancer Care Center yesterday morning, walking from the parking ramp to the check-in desk, I met another patient on her way out. It was Catherine. She had hair. When I first met her, she was as hairless as I was at the time. She wore bandannas, I think. I wore Old Navy beanies.
We’d sit across the room from each other in the infusion-room. She in her chair, plugged into her IV pole, me in mine. Once I overheard her telling another patient about a smoky potato soup she makes often. I’m into soups. So I asked her about it, and she wrote me the recipe.
So yesterday when I saw her waiting by the front doors for her ride, I smiled (she did too when she saw me) and I asked if she was done. Our monthly chemo-infusions had been scheduled on the same day for several months. And at roughly the same time, too. I was merely assuming she had come in earlier than me, and that she was “done” for the day.
She was done with much more than that. Her smile widened at my question, and she opened her bag to pull out a pink certificate signed by all the infusion nurses congratulating her on the completion of her course of chemotherapy. I gave her a good handshake and said, “well done.”
Her gladness dimmed just a little as she told me she expected to return someday. Relapse loomed as certain in her imagination as dusk does every dawn. But whereas the weather page of any local newspaper can tell you when the sun is going to set each day, she didn’t know when the next occurrence of cancer might be for her. She just had a hunch (and a statistically-informed one at that) that her cancer would relapse.
Nevertheless, for now, on this day, she was happy. And I shared her joy. For as she was walking away from her last administration of chemo, I was sitting down for my third-to-last: number 76 of 78. One year ago, as I headed into the final phase of my treatment, I wrote that the light at the end of this tunnel was so bright I was squinting. As it turns out, if I’d held my eyes open long enough, I may’ve seen the light to be the front of the oncoming train that it was, rather than the final release into wide-open spaces for which I was hoping.
Somebody at church last Sunday asked me if I had been rehabbing. I had gone to the Y a few days earlier for a swim (which for me means aquatic stretching in the therapy pool), and so I was tempted to push out my chin and my chest and say, “Yup. Don’t it show?”
But the perpetual reality has been otherwise. If I may make another football analogy (sorry, Jesse):
When I was in junior high, I was a big kid. I mean, I had my growth spurt a year or two before nearly everyone else, and so I was five-foot-six, one hundred and thirty pounds in seventh grade. As such, I was one of the bigger kids in my class. I played football for two years. Football was fun for those two years. But when I showed up for conditioning in grade nine, every other ninth grader had gotten bigger over the summer months, and football wasn’t as much fun any more.
This was when I more or less decided to give my time to music rather than sports. I thought it’d be safer.
One great thing I remember learning in football was that, if you wanted to take down the guy with the ball, hit him low. It didn’t pay to jump on his back, especially if he was bigger than you – he might just keep on running. Nope, take him out at the knees and he’ll go down fast, and he’ll go down hard.
Trying to rehab this year – to build back strength and stamina – has been like running downfield with no offensive protection. The other team has twenty-one guys rather than eleven, and I am my team. What’s worse, the referee has a broken whistle. So when I start rising to my feet after a good tackle (as the tacklee, not the tackler) the other team hits me again – takes me out at the knees – rather than gaining ground, I’m losing yardage every time I try to get back up.
Weekly and monthly chemo (as well as this accursed week of prednisone) takes me out at the knees on a regular, almost predictable basis. I typically have two bad weeks a month (utter mental, emotional, and physical fatigue), and two good weeks (just the physical fatigue – and I can sometimes overcome this with Chai tea and Pepsi). If these two good weeks happen to be the two weeks I get sick with some sort of bug (like the head and chest cold I’ve been fighting these past two weeks), then these two good weeks are just “not-so-bad” weeks. But regardless of the adjectives I end up using to describe my two better weeks, once they’ve passed, I take the prescribed drugs that drag me into the bad weeks once again.
This cycle, however, will soon be coming to an end. After yesterday, only two more chemo-infusions mark my calendar. Come mid-May, I will wait for my ride at the front door of the Cancer Care Center holding my certificate of completion (I do hope it’s a color other than pink), walking away from infusion #78, and into the first phase of this new life.
And while that day will hardly be an instantaneous resurgence of health and vitality, it will signal a stopping of the clock, in a sense. Time to get up and regroup. Time to fuel up and taxi round for another good run down the runway – perhaps this time, finally up off the ground and into higher places.
But for the time being, I have a few more dark places to explore. This week and the coming weekend are one of them. I have taken my first dose of five of prednisone, and will venture through the haze of withdrawal once again come Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Please be praying for Jen and me this week… that we would know what kinds of preparations to make so as to render these days easier to manage… and for the right help to make that happen. The experience a few weeks back detailed in my last post has us a bit wary.
And my body hurts so badly. I swim and it feels good when I’m wet. Then the next day, I’m sick and achy and fatigued. Almost thoroughly unable to move. I remember those days in ninth-grade, conditioning for football: each day’s workout caused aches and pains greater than the day before, but each workout developed an otherwise unknown and unrecognized strength. Endurance. I need this still. And I’m eager to be able to work in such a way that I do nurture endurance, rather than this destructive atrophy (and consequential apathy) that seems to greet me on the far side of whatever efforts I muster.
It’s a humiliating thing for humans to know real weakness – when you just can’t make things better – but it is eventually as much a part of our lives as dusk is a part of every day. Unless the Lord returns first, we will all die. And there is both greater courage and fuller joy living in the recognition of that fact, than there is in pretending it’s not the case.
This morning, Catherine demonstrated to me that she gets something not all of us do: she lives in hope and momentum in spite of the anticipated end. Some people spend their lives frantically swimming against the tide, denying at the same time that the tide exists. But the swell is taking us in, either way.
When in the surf, one rises to the surface with much less effort when willing to agree with the water. It is both humbling and wise to recognize mortals cannot compete with the swirling waters of mortality. To live well, we must acknowledge that living life each day brings us one day closer to death. To surf well, one must know which way the wave is going. Point your board in the right direction and the wave will pick you up and give you a view like no other. And you can do tricks. The guy fighting the current just gets water in his face.
So I pray I will surf into this new and (if the Lord wills) stronger season of my life with the awareness that I will yet someday die (again, unless the Lord returns). And I will trust that this awareness will cause me to receive the Love of Christ and His Call all the more, in the hope that His fortitude will bring life to and through my fragility, until at last I journey through one last valley, and land safely on heaven’s bright shore.
It’d be fun to unpack this more specifically, and maybe I will someday, but for now these metaphors will have to do. The writing I’ve done already has taxed my wrists more than what makes me stronger. And I haven’t yet written about much of what I intended to.
The last few weeks have been more the “not-so-bad” weeks rather than the flat-out good, but there have been a few things in the midst of them worth mentioning that were flat-out great.
I spent the good part of these weeks preparing two different messages for two different occasions. I’m coming to enjoy the entirety of this process more and more. One was for a Valentines Banquet hosted by Living Hope Church in St. Michael. Jen and I were invited to do the program, so I spoke and we sang. A recording of much of it can be downloaded or listened to at the Living Hope Website. We closed the program singing “Love Real” from To Entertain. I played guitar. It was so good to do this again. But it was just as disappointing to be reminded of how much my wrists hurt in the days that follow. Ten minutes of guitar. Ten days of tender wrists.
The second message was for the Ash Wednesday service at Emmaus. This ended up being one of the most necessary messages I’ve ever prepared (for me and for others, too, it seems), and I’m excited about it. I will end up posting it for download on this site eventually, but for now, I’ve posted a rough transcript as a post on the musings blog of this site. It’s called “Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” and it’s a narrative meditation on Psalm 23. Read it while listening to Ginny Owen’s “If You Want Me To,” and you might even cry like I did when I gave it.
The last web thing I’ll make note of is a new downloadable mp3 we posted last week of a studio track that never made it to an album. It’s a recording of Psalm 142 that Ben Monseth and I did a few years back. Piano, cello, and vocals. There’s a link to it from my homepage and the music page. I figured it was fitting to give it away in light of some of the experiences I’ve shared from this last month.
Finally, along with a reminder to pray for us this coming weekend, I’d like some of you to know that I’ll be speaking at a FLY District Day Retreat at the YMCA up in Fergus Falls on March 11th. The theme is a common one for me: “In Uz With Abba: Trusting God Works All Things For Our Good,” and the content I’ve presented at least twice before – once in five sessions and once in three. This time I’ll be doing it in two. Please pray as I prepare. I know I’ve said it before, but I really like doing this. Nevertheless, there are certain days when even the appealing nature of this task isn’t enough to call forth the strength to do it. I need more.
Your comments on past posts have been very helpful in encouraging me to this end. Thanks each of you for taking the time to read and respond. I pray you are blessed.
Still His (and hanging ten),
PS. Thanks to the Wiley’s, the Barlands, and Ed for digging us out of the snow this weekend!