Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Laughing in the Wind

When Brooks and I were at Monet’s house in France, I bought a little rug embellished by a French saying which now graces our lake house. It depicts a gust of wind scuttling a small sailboat across a lake. I wish my memory were better so that I could quote the saying exactly. It starts, “Le vent souvent souffle ton bateau...” Anyway, the gist of it is something about laughing in the wind...like making lemonade when life gives you lemons.

In the midst of many tears of sorrow, many dull aching heart wounds, many moments of outright despair, we’ve still been laughing in the wind. People around here probably think we’re lunatics. Our family has always had a problem with Church Laughs. Actually, it began with my husband’s family. He and his little sister would find something wildly hysterical at an extremely inappropriate moment, such as when the fat lady sang or at a funeral. The laughter would build up inside of them until tears would be running down their cheeks from the effort of trying to hold it in. It would usually erupt as a really embarrassingly loud snort laugh, which would result in the dreaded Church Pinch. This trait has rubbed off on me (or maybe intensified...I already had the predisposition) and been passed down to our children. Particularly one of them. She laughed so hard and so long when a poor gentleman let one slip out at the movie theater that I had to leave. That was after three Church Pinches had been ineffective.

So even here, even now, we will sometimes find ourselves laughing so loudly that we fear eviction. Especially if that middle child is around regaling us with stories from her crazy life. Or when Kat’s Samford friend Ann Bradford makes me do the Russian dance in the hospital room. Or when James sees the enlarged picture of himself on the wall of Katherine’s room and starts whole-body shaking with excitement. It’s especially wonderful when Katherine makes us laugh. Even with a half-paralyzed face, she can still manage to make such a funny one that we just die laughing. Sometimes through the tears.

We still celebrate, too. If you wait until life is perfect to do so, you’ll never get around to it. There’s always something to be stressed or sad about. But there’s usually something to celebrate as well. Since this trip began, we’ve celebrated several graduations and pregnancies, a first Mother's Day, first Father’s Day, and a birthday. Sometimes we’ve just celebrated life, in all of its crazy mixed-up manifestations. I celebrate the California weather almost daily, even if I only get to experience it for a couple of minutes. I celebrate the fact that every time my grandson sees me, he laughs.

It is a vail of sorrows down here for sure. But there are enough hints and glimpses of how it was and how it will be that we can start the party now, in between and in the midst of the crises. We’ll still find something to laugh about, even in these gale-force winds.

...the Son of Man came enjoying life...

***************

“...And the beggars and saints
Will embrace and dive into
Sweet communion
And the Father will laugh
Laugh till he cries
Home at last
Goodbye false notions
Of independence
Welcome me security...”

from “All Fall Down,” Sarah Masen

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Hospital Tired

There is no tired like hospital tired.

It’s as if they pipe poppy juice in through the air conditioning vents.

There’s not a comfortable chair or bench in the place. But you don’t have much time to sit on them anyway, as you are constantly bending over the bed of your loved one at awkward angles. Your whole body aches in a hospital. Aches and aches and aches. At the end of the day, you feel beaten to a pulp. Time stands still, or progresses at a strangely warped pace.

And who the heck decorates these places??? Edvard Munch??? Endless halls of nihilistic nothingness, sordid sameness.

Against such bland backgrounds, violent vignettes of family drama play out. The unexpected crisis makes everything rise to the surface...unresolved anger, dysfunctional power plays, unreasonable expectations become sad factors in life-or-death decision-making. Those of us who’ve lived here for a while politely avert our eyes and pretend we don’t hear the screaming in various languages. But cell phones have made privacy nonexistent. A lady in the stall next to you berates a relative in graphic detail. I don’t want to know. The ugliness wears off on you. The fear is transferable.

As my physician father used to say, “A hospital is no place for a sick person.” Since keeping well is a full time job for me, it’s literally toxic.

Right now, it’s particularly so. In an effort the Russians would refer to as “Potemkinizing,”* the halls of the rehab unit are being repainted. (*A fa├žade meant to fool the public.) We are all sick from the fumes. Everyone else at UCLA Med Center will be moving to the new structure (Ronald Reagan)on June 29, but we few sad souls in the neurology rehab unit will remain here in this archaic structure. It will probably feel like “Planet of the Apes” after the destruction of America. We will walk down miles of deserted halls until we finally arrive at our own Neverland, where we wave our hands and the doors magically open to a strange private universe.

Please don’t forget us then. It will be when we need you most.

We are so very wickedly tired.

Thank you for loving unconditionally and not judging. Please pray for true rest and renewal...and fresh fire.

***************

(p.s. Things really aren’t that bad...I just get like this when I’m worn out. Remember the ‘venting’ comment in “About Me”...those well-accustomed to my clay feet know I just have to get it all out sometimes . Oh, and the people here are so wonderful that we don’t usually even notice the hospital setting at all...unless we're TIRED!!! We are extremely blessed to be here.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Roller Coaster Ride

This first week back has been an absolute roller coaster ride. I never did like those things growing up. To be hurdling down towards certain destruction one minute, whiplashed hard to the left, and then to start up another arduous and dangerous climb just isn’t my idea of fun. Why the heck do people pay money for that?

In the past seven days I have cried, I have gotten mad, I have laughed hysterically, I have collapsed in deep exhaustion. I have been renewed, I have dissolved, I have prayed, I have sinned. I’ve been forgiven. Every day has seemed like a week.

But my week has been a very pale shadow of Katherine’s.

She decided it was time to pack up and leave. During a millisecond of time when no one was in the room, she tried to get out of bed. Her friend returned from the ladies’ room to find her collapsed on the hard floor.

She spent the next two days having CT scans, x-rays, and a whole body bone scan. I’m not sure whether or not it was worth it for that brief freedom flight. But she still rolls her eyes and gives us a lop-sided grin when anyone mentions it. When asked where she thought she was going, she mouthed the word “Cabo.” I interpret that as, “Anywhere but here.”

I really can’t say that I blame her. I’ve pictured Gulliver many times during this strange odyssey. One minute she was cooking casseroles; the next, she found herself bound and gagged by Lilliputian ropes. When she was having a little drippy time one day, I shared that analogy with her. She nodded vigorously. Thinking outloud, I said, “Wasn’t it little rats that chewed the ropes off for him?” (We think it was, but we could be mixing up two different stories.) Anyway, the analogy works: I told her that the rats could be things like Physical Therapy, the trach, CT scans, suctions...unpleasant things that just seem to crawl all over you and drive you crazy. But those things which seem like annoying enemies are actually allies, working in concert to set her free from the ropes that bind her to her bed. Romans 8:28 doesn’t state that ALL THINGS are good, but that God WORKS all things for good as part of His providential plan. He might even incorporate a rat or two. She nodded assent to this and agreed--with a little eye-rolling--that she would try to resist the urge to burst out of those Lilliputian ropes so violently and prematurely that she might injure herself.

But it’s really hard to be patient when you’re in pain. You might be full of faith and holding fast one minute, and then thrashing around wildly the next. You might be submitting with joy one second, and wrestling with demons the next. I believe Faith is like that for many of us. One minute we’re standing strong, the next we’re cashing in the chips and trying to run away to Cabo. Held up by the arms of our friends, we take a baby step on the parallel bars...then we fall in a heap.

It’s not fun to fall, but it’s not the end of the world either. Two of my all-time favorite Christian writers addressed this in different ways across the centuries. The 13th century mystic Dame Julian of Norwich asserts that not only is it inevitable that we should sometimes fall, but that is it actually necessary. She states, “...For it is necessary for us to fall, and it is necessary for us to see the fall. If we did not fall, we would not know how wretched and feeble we are of ourselves, nor should we know the love of our Maker....And by the test of this failure, we shall have a noble and marvelous experience of love without end in God, for that love is hardy and wonderful. It cannot and will not be broken on account of trespass.” (from the 14th showing.) The love of God is so much greater than our sin! Writing 800 years later, C.S. Lewis concurred: “No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we get home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels are put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of His presence.” (Letters to Malcolm)

I am reminded of the refrain of a pub song from the 90’s, which I shall take wildly out of context: “We get knocked down, but we get up again.” To me, that’s a description of the Christian walk. Not attaining a level of consistent perfection by our own efforts, but a process of learning from our inevitable falls, allowing ourselves to be picked back up by strong arms of love, and starting back up the (sometimes rocky) path again.

For some of us, it’s like a roller coaster ride....up and down, up and down. But I learned something last night. We were celebrating a college graduation with some friends at a seafood restaurant overlooking Santa Monica Pier. (The one from the movie “Big” with Tom Hanks.) Someone brought the blogs up, and I told them I had started one called “Roller Coaster Ride.” From where we were sitting, we could see the roller coaster on the Pier all lit up with yellow lights. Katherine’s college roommate’s mother, Cathleen, was sitting next to me. Cathleen is someone whom I respect greatly: she has a PhD in suffering with dignity and joy. Her face lit up when we pointed out the roller coaster, and she grabbed my wrist. “We are going to ride that thing after dinner!”

And we did. Two 50-something ladies with bad back and hip problems got in those little cars with the 20-somethings and we whooped our way up to the moon and back down again, swooping low over the star-lit waves. Then we lifted our arms to the sky and Cathleen yelled, “For Katty!!!”as we did it one more time.

I’m not afraid of roller coasters anymore.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Providential Meeting

Tuesday, June 10, 2008 6:30 a.m.- Wednesday, June 11 3:45

There was no supernatural help packing yesterday. Just me, up to my old travel tricks...running around scattered and hysterical trying to cram one more unnecessary, extraneous object into the seam-busted suitcase. I left out the only truly critical items, so they will have to be overnighted. Guess I shouldn’t get cocky about being so coolly bi-coastal.

My dear friend Betty had gamely volunteered to attempt the airport run. Off we sped, 30 or 40 minutes past alleged departure time, my husband urging haste and concentration as we laughed and started gabbing away to make up for lost time. When we hit Loganville, Betty asked if Conyers was on down the road a bit. We had blabbed our way right past the turn-off to 1-20. Thelma and Louise had a blast following “Mrs. Garmin’s” directions through rural Georgia...“Turn left in 0.6 miles at Hog Wallow Road onto Skunk Creek Trail.” We commented about how charming the scenery was, and noted that we’d have missed it if we hadn’t detoured. I was thinking about how I’d wile the time away at the airport waiting for the evening flight, when it finally looked like God was doing one of his time-warp things and we’d make it. But, Hartsfield within tantalizing sight, we were stopped in our tracks by a farm tractor slowly moving construction debris out of the lane to the North Terminal. Betty and I looked at each other. She doesn’t get as hysterical as I do. I remembered some of our Three Stooges road trips to Mississippi. Suddenly, I didn’t care if I missed the flight or not....we’ve had first-hand experience that everything always works out in the end. It is true that God takes care of drunks and fools.

Against all (human) odds, I made it to the gate a little before departure time. Although there was a long line waiting to confer with the airline representatives, I decided to take my husband’s advice and try to upgrade. Seconds before boarding time, I made it almost to the front of the line, just to hear the rep tell the man in front of me that there was one upgrade left on the plane. When she told him the price, he hesitated. I prayed. He said, “Never mind” and stomped off. I flashed that Visa out in about 2 seconds flat.

Now I need to tell you that I love to change locations, but I despise the process. Traveling stinks. I hate airports, airplanes, 2 oz. fluids in Ziplocs, strip searches, crowds, and germs. I get nauseated taking off and landing. My ears pop, my head hurts, my neck hurts, my back hurts. I am not a fun traveling companion. And I really don’t like to talk to whatever unlucky soul happens to get the seat next to me.

In the days prior to leaving for California, I had been fighting off all thoughts about what it would be like when I got here. I’m better than Katie Scarlett in thinking about unpleasant realities ‘tomorrow’.... I can sometimes postpone it indefinitely. I had made a date with myself to think about it on the trip, since I’d probably be miserable anyway. I was relieved to find a serious-looking Asian man working on his laptop in the seat next to mine. Probably working on a presentation for some million-dollar meeting, I thought. This was confirmed in my mind when we later exchanged initial pleasantries and he told me he was flying to LA from Raleigh for a two-hour meeting, and then flying back again. Then he started asking about me. When I gave him an abbreviated version of why I was flying to LA, he looked deeply concerned. “Do you mind if I pray for you?” he asked. (Do I mind???) Then we finally introduced ourselves, and he handed me his card. It said: GRACE MISSION MINISTRIES, Rev. Joshua Moon. I think it must have shocked him a little when I started laughing. (I’m sorry, but anyone who doesn’t think God has a sense of humor must not know him that well.)

Josh asked me many questions about Katherine’s situation. He asked me about how the other family members were being affected. He wanted details about the AVM rupture. He wrote down her caringbridge site. He took notes. He explained that praying is his gift. He told me that it is not uncommon for Korean churches to have prayer groups that meet at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. They take it that seriously. He would get the word out to pray immediately. You see, the meeting he was going to was not a powerhouse of slick business executives, but a convergence of 15 Asian pastors from all over the country who are board members of a mission in Mongolia. He told me they would begin their meeting with intercessory prayers for Katherine, and then these pastors would fly home to their own congregations and pass it on...and on and on. All around the world! I believe him. This man’s got credentials when it comes to persevering in prayer: He and his wife prayed for children for fourteen years....and God gave them triplets at age forty! Their pictures were adorable.

He asked if I had a picture of Katherine. I rarely carry pictures in my purse, but I’d thrown a stack in that morning in an effort to clean off the mantel. I gave him one, which he clipped to his notes. Something came up about the blogs. He said he would like to read them. The first time I have ever printed any out was that morning. (I wanted to read one to Katherine without taking the whole laptop in.) I gave him those as well. He read them then and there and asked if he could keep them to share with others. Then my new brother and I held hands in that First Class cabin and prayed. We kept right on praying as the flight attendant delivered my Cape Cod. We prayed over the loudspeaker and the loud passengers, oblivious to the looks that must have been shooting our way. When we finished, Rev. Moon told me that he wasn’t even supposed to be sitting in that seat. He had upgraded just before I did because of a disk problem, too.

Obviously, I am finishing this the day after I started it. When I went into Katherine’s room yesterday afternoon, she was very sad. I told her this story to cheer her up, and then showed her Rev. Moon’s card. I read the scriptures printed on the back. The second one was 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” I told her that was what she was going to do.

She lifted her arm up into the air and made a strong fist.

***************

Providence: a:divine guidance or care b:God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny. (Webster’s)

Providence: literally foresight, but is generally used to denote God's preserving and governing all things by means of second causes. (Easton’s)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Gratitude

June 6, 2008

“Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” - Karl Barth

I am lying in (my own!) bed this morning with tears of joy trickling into the coffee. I have never been so grateful--simply, truly, humbly grateful--for anything as much as I am for the river of love that just keeps on flowing over my family and me. I’ve been out of the flow for a little bit, and it stunned me this morning to read all the emails, messages, and cards that have accumulated. In a world unfortunately full of tragedy, ugliness, anger, and self-serving, receiving such gifts of compassionate selflessness is like opening the best present on the best Christmas morning. My hope is renewed....my heart unshrivels.

The weight of our reality is already so heavy that the smallest thing added to it can plunge me 20,000 leagues under the sea. But just as I’m about to drown in the dark, ugly waters, I receive a tank full of life-restoring oxygen from letters such as the one I just opened from someone I don’t think I’ve even met. Her daughter was a sorority sister of Katherine’s at Samford. She writes, “...I have cried with you many times. The body of Christ is truly that--when the finger hurts, the whole body feels the pain. The pain we feels draws us to our knees--both day and night--lifting each of you in prayer.” Someone I don’t even know is down on her knees for me!

Friends, the world just doesn’t get this. If we’re honest, I think we’ll acknowledge that the fleshly inner reaction is more like, “Well, that’s sad, but I’m just glad it wasn’t my child.” But I have received such an outpouring of empathy that it almost feels as if Katherine has a thousand mothers instead of just measly old me. My love and concern for her are being infinitely multiplied and magnified. My prayers for her are carried straight to the Father's throne on the wings of the prayers of countless other compassionate mothers.

I am profoundly grateful for this. I am grateful for your love, your concern, your support. I am grateful for your notes, messages, books, gifts, food, and flowers. I am grateful for your faithfulness. I am grateful for your shoulders. I am grateful for your tears. But most of all, I am grateful for your prayers.

“Thank you” just doesn’t cut it. We’ll have to come up with a new word.

In the meantime..... thank you.

*************************

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.


John Donne, from Meditation XVII

Sophie's Choice

I feel a little like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice.

(If you’re a mother and that doesn’t conjure up a mental heartwrench for you, read the book by Styron.)

When I was pregnant for the second time, I felt a strange compassion for that unknown child. Katherine was so exceptionally stellar in every way, how could anyone survive following in those formidable firstborn footsteps? But as soon as the brave little intruder and I connected on the delivery table, I got it. “He loves each of us as if there were only one of us...”

And so we love our children, unless we are impaired beyond repair.

But unlike the perfect parent, I cannot be in more than one place at a time. Now I am in a tropical paradise celebrating a milestone with one child, while another child faces tremendous suffering without her mother’s care. How can this be reconciled?

I have to come back to that point where I recognize, definitively, that ‘my’ children really aren’t even mine. I remind myself that I am just their temporarily appointed guardian. I have many limitations and failures in that role, but it does no one any good for me to beat myself up about it. We can do absolutely everything right and still end up with damaged kids. We can do everything wrong, and end up with well-adjusted over-achievers...because, like everything else in life, it’s not all up to us. We do the best that we can, one day at a time, operating out of our own inadequacies and the baggage that’s been handed down to us. (And we’ve all got STUFF as a pastor friend liked to remind his congregation.) Imperfect people give birth to imperfect people who give birth to imperfect people...

So we cannot love perfectly. We cannot protect our children from every harm. Sometimes, we can’t even protect them from ourselves.

But we can start learning to let go.

We can try to trust the one who made them for Himself, who knew them before we did.

I am going to start trying now.

(...He'll have to help me.)