Joy in the Midst

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month … my memories from the day I lost my hair due to chemo.

I woke up that morning, and my scalp hurt. It was a strange, exquisite kind of tenderness, a bit like the feeling when you let down a high ponytail you’ve been wearing all day. As the hair falls, after being tightly pulled in the up direction, you can feel it throb into the follicles.

I reached my hands up and gently pulled on the hair, trying to relieve that bizarre ache, and it came away in my hands. I sat up, and looking at the clump in my hand I felt no emotion at all – – only wonderment at the knowledge that I alone held in that moment: today was the day I would lose my hair.

I didn’t want this to freak out my children. I wanted it to be funny for them, a joke. I wanted them to laugh. So, we went outside. It was a breezy, beautiful spring day. Scan 49I said, “Look what Mommy can do,” as I pulled handfuls of hair out and let the blond strands go on the wind, floating out of the yard, over the fence, down the street. I said, “We can check birds’ nests this summer, and see how many have Mommy’s hair in them.” My two-year-old ran around, giggling. My eight-year-old, quiet and absorbed, was harder to read, but even she couldn’t help but catch some of the hilarity of it. I, too, laughed.

As the day progressed, the pain became intense. When my husband came home that night, I told him I couldn’t bear it and asked him to shave my head. He buzz cut the longer hair off, then used a razor to shave to the skin. The relief was immediate, as the hair was no longer there to irritate the scalp. I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror and thought, “This is me.”

This is me.

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Change is in the Heart of the Beholder

Today, I cleaned out a couple of purses, in an ongoing project happening in the master bedroom (purses I hadn’t used in months, so, what I’m saying is — this should have happened a long time ago). I found so many interesting things, such as:

1. about 2 dozen stamps (yes, stamps, to mail those old-fashioned things called letters);

2. about 100 pens and pencils (okay, yes, I’m exaggerating, but the empty pen cup is now full to overflowing);

DP207:31:15

3. about 1,000 receipts (okay, again an exaggeration, but sheesh! I had a problem, which no longer exists — I don’t hold onto receipts anymore and that, my friends, is progress); and

4. this card.
DP07:31:15The card is interesting, in this journey toward simplicity. It is telling, because it shows how I used to approach this huge project of organizing my house and my life. I approached it by not treating it as a project at all, but as a series of little things. If I do this little thing, followed by this little thing, eventually I’ll have what I want. But it didn’t really work that way. I never actually got where I wanted to be. I never gained ground. Instead, I felt like a giant bulldozer moving stuff from here ——-> to here, but the only thing accomplished was that it was moved. It wasn’t any better than before.

The card ultimately served to encourage me today. The first two little things on my short list were accomplished. The shredder is in the kitchen, which certainly helps me keep on top of the mail. And the litter boxes are in the laundry room, which was thoroughly sorted, cleaned, and put back in a functional manner. The most visible evidence of that functionality is that games and puzzles, which used to live in three different closets in the house, now all hang out in the same place. They are happy (if stuff could really be happy) and we are happy. DP307:31:15

It is the third thing, however, which truly opened my eyes to how I’ve changed. “CYLC – re-start.” CYLC stand for “Change Your Life Challenge,” one of many systems I tried (unsuccessfully, I might add) to implement to help me stay organized and tidy. I would start … and stop. Try … and fail. Get up and try again … and fail. Get up and try a third time … and fail.

But that is the past. I’m no longer failing. I’m seeing progress. I’m happier in my home … and the question is Why? The answer is quite simply that I quit trying so hard to change my environment and instead, I changed … me. God gave me this inspiration, a vision (so to speak) in my imagination. I visualized a beaver dam, with an beaver pond created behind it, and only a trickle of water flowing out of it downstream. I understood that this represented my life. I had created a dam (by the way I was living), and all that water was blessing. I was blocking it from flowing. For example (one of many, many examples)…  I had this short-sleeved green shirt that was, quite honestly, ugly on me. Yet because of my attitude (something I had internalized, I’m not quite sure what, but I’ll call it poverty mentality), I wouldn’t get rid of it. It was functional. It fit. So even though I really, truly did not like it, I continued to wear it.

I didn’t want the  beaver pond, though. What I wanted was a rushing stream, where the blessing not only flowed to me, but through me and on to others. I started going through a small ritual when I would sort through things where I would open up my hand and say, “My hand is open to share. My had is open to bless others.” So, that green shirt? It’s been given to a charity, where I hope someone has picked it up who feels amazing in it.

To close for today, dear reader, I want to share the titles of three books I’ve read this past year that have helped me change my perspective, my relationship with my stuff, and my sense of walking in blessing instead of lack.

Organizing from the Heart: Change Your Mindset, Conquer Your Challenges by Stephanie Baker, Beth Beutler, & Karina Whisnant — If you use this book, make sure to do the work (the meditations and reflections). The journaling I did with this book changed me.

the life-changing magic of tidying up by marie kondo — Marie is (the tiniest bit) obsessive, but I loved this book nonetheless. She got me asking the question, “Does this spark joy?”

One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp — This book is lyrical, and encouraging. It helped me focus on releasing my discontent and frustration, and instead facing each moment looking for blessing and expressing gratitude.

Until next time… May the blessing of God overtake you.

Unafraid

Last night at the witching hour, I lay in bed sleeping. Something woke me, and I opened my eyes just in time to see a leprechaun-like man racing toward me from my walk-in closet. I sat up, threw my hand up in front of me, and said, “Stop in Jesus Christ!” (A pentecostal girl knows the Power in the Name, even when she’s dead asleep). He immediately evaporated into smoke, and I lay back down with my heart pounding in my throat. I stared up at the ceiling for a full two minutes before I was able to recognize that what had just happened probably had not *really* happened.

I have nighttime hallucinations, and have as long as I can remember. While they are happening, I am completely unable to discern reality from unreality. Until my mid-twenties, these experiences were always, 100% of the time, wrought with complete terror. I called them “wakemares”  because I was wide awake – the next morning I could remember everything I said, and everything that happened with absolute clarity – yet they were crazy, fright-filled, unreal, chaotic. I would wake, screaming bloody murder, giving family members near heart failure; and when they would try to reason with me, I would yell at them in frenzied panic, trying desperately to get them to understand what was happening. In those moments, I felt I was the only sane person in the room, and everyone else was obtuse, totally blind. The worst part of it was the palpable fear that would grip me, its fingers tightening until I couldn’t breathe, until my heart was pounding so hard I couldn’t hear for the roar of my pulse in my head. When they were over, I would lie on the bed, the horror thick and pushing down on me, unable to sleep and afraid to shut my eyes. Eventually, exhaustion would overtake me and I would sleep. The next morning, as I awoke, the memories of the night would rush into my head, and I would think, “Oh, my…” I would then proceed to apologize to everyone involved, for scaring the life out of them, and for being irrational.

I used to pray that God would take these hallucinations away, but He never did. He did something better.

One day, in 1996, I was reading in Proverbs and I came across this and I had an epiphany:

“When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden fear, nor of the onslaught of the wicked when it comes; for the Lord will be your confidence, and will keep your foot from being caught.” Proverbs 3:24-26

My eyes were opened, and I knew that God might never take away theses nighttime episodes; but what he was ready, and willing, and wanting to take away was the fear. I had a promise. “I will not be afraid. My sleep will be sweet.” I wrote the verses into my prayer journal, along with the words, “I receive this promise,” I signed my name, and I dated it. And then the terror that stalks by night returned.

I was lying asleep next to my husband, when something woke me and I saw a giant dark shape looming up at the foot of my bed. The terror gripped me. I frantically grabbed my journal, held it up in front of me like a shield, and barely able to form the words I whispered, “I have a promise.” And it was gone. Instantly. The hallucination ended, but more than that, the spirit of fear left me, in an instantaneous, sudden rush. It was like snow melting away and me seeing, with absolute clarity, the hard, solid granite underneath. Although the hallucinations continue, I have never again felt the fear, not once. It was gone, and forever, and not just at night, but in every nook and cranny of my life. When I had cancer and literally fought for my life through treatment and two horrible infections, people would say, “LaRae, you’re so strong.” And I would think, “I’m not strong. I’m not. I am unafraid.”

This is why I love Christmas; not the man-made tradition (although I enjoy that, too) but Christmas itself — the coming of the Christ Child. Everything I do during this season, from preparing gifts, to decorating, to baking and cooking for my family, all of it brings home with exquisite tenderness the amazing love of God in giving Jesus. It is because that baby was born, and eventually shed His blood, that I have access to the Father. Because of Jesus, I can run boldly into the throne room of grace and say, “Help me, help me, O God, help me.” The miracle of all miracles is that He does. He helps me, and I am overcome.

So to you, dear reader, I wish a very merry Christmas. My God pour blessing on your head.DCP_4145

When Life is Unraveling … Tie a Knot

I’ve been sick for about two months, and I’m surrounded by little manifestations of the unraveling of my daily life. Today, taking my kiddo to school, the fuel light in the truck came on for the second time in about three weeks. In my real life, I never let the tank get that low. Our mortgage automatically debited out of our account on Saturday, and that morning I awoke about 6:20 with the horrible, panicky realization that I’d forgotten to make a necessary deposit. I’ve been late on so many bills I’ve lost count. In fact, the dairy left a note in our box saying delivery would stop until I caught up our account, which (shockingly) I hadn’t paid in two months!?! The truth is, life has become such a fight that I’ve quit paying attention to the details.

However, God’s grace has shown through, too. With the truck, I never ran out of gas and the one emergency stop I made to put in about one gallon (yes, I did that – slightly humiliating) happened on the one morning all year that we left the house with enough time to spare. Then the bank – the lovely bank – held my debit as “pending” until I could make the deposit; no fees for non-sufficient funds, no interruption of our automatic withdrawals … nothing. The other bills all got paid in time that no services were interrupted. In fact, there have been no adverse effects from my disorganization at all.

I tend to make light of things, to always accentuate the good. But I want the journaling I do here to be authentic. This is a safe place because, although it’s public, from my perspective I’m just sending my words out into the ether, into this great void. They are caught on the wind, swept away, swallowed, and releasing them in this way is cathartic for me. Yet in spite of this, I know some of my readers and I don’t want people to worry about me. So instead of speaking the truth, I’ve been mostly silent. The truth right now is painful. The truth goes something like this:

Life is hard. I struggle each day to find my joy. I want to be happy, but all I feel is sorrow. I don’t want to get up in the morning. Every day, I hit a point where I feel I can’t keep going, where I feel the tears prick behind my eyes and I fight to hold it together so my family doesn’t see me broken.

Added on to these things is the idea that as a Christian, I shouldn’t be feeling any of this. As a Christian, I should find my joy in Christ regardless of what’s happening in my life. As a Christian, I should claim victory in Jesus. I should be bold and strong because the Lord my God is with me. I should be fearless, at peace. I should be experiencing abundant life. Well …. I’m not — at least not right now.

I’ve experienced two things walking through these weeks of illness. First, my eyes have been opened to the daily battle of those who feel this way every day. My love and compassion for them has grown. My prayers are far more specific. The second is this: sometimes when you are in the midst of hardship, be it grief, despair, depression or something else –  God will give you a gift, a sparkling gem that lights up the darkness. This may be His peace, which passes all understanding. Or it may be the sweet, perfect words of encouragement coming from a friend. Or it may be some snippet of Scripture – words of truth – that pierce your spirit and renew your hope. But sometimes, God allows us to be in darkness. I think of fall bulbs that need both darkness and cold in order to bloom in breathtaking beauty in the spring. I know, with my whole heart, that God will bring me out of these shadows into a place of light. I know, with my whole heart, that God’s promises are true. I have the strength to wait in the darkness.

You see, in darkness, for those who ask, there is always an extremely precious gift available. It is the gift of God’s grace. We have this promise: “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:16  So that is what I do — I draw near to God through meditation, prayer, and worship; and my prayer becomes, “God, pour out your grace in my life. Wash over me with Your free, unmerited favor. You offer it, and I, through faith in Your Son – receive it.” I am an image-bearer of God. When people look on me, my hope and prayer is that they see the grace of God flowing through my life. In spite of my sadness and struggle, that is what I want others to see. In my life, my strongest desire is that they catch a glimpse of the face of God – love, grace, mercy … redemption.

One Foot in Front of the Other

Before cancer, I never went to the doctor. In the past four months, I’ve been there 10 times plus 3 tests at the hospital because of a coronary issue that has developed, presumably from my cancer treatment. I deserve a frequent-user punch card. But my body, which is betraying me, decided that wasn’t enough. An auto-immune disease I struggle with flared 3 weeks ago. I’ve been in denial, refusing to call my doctor because I’m thoroughly sick of being poked, prodded and medicated. However, this weekend the pain level hit an extreme point and my husband and father “encouraged” me to be wise and let my doctor know.

So today, I called. It felt like such an admission of defeat. I’m trying to keep my chin up, but all I can manage to do is cry. The voice inside my head says, “Quit being such a baby!” but I’m just amazingly beaten down. I’m not in a good place. So, here with you, Dear Reader, I’m going to make a massive effort to find my joy, buck up, and walk the path set before me with grace and dignity.

These things I can be thankful for:

1. I have an amazing husband, family and friends who support me, encourage me, pray for me, love me, help me and gently pat my back in sympathy when all I can do is blubber.

2. Physical suffering has bred within me a fierce compassion for those whose struggle is a daily one and who need my love and prayers. Because of God’s love for me and involvement in my life, my heart has become more tender instead of becoming hardened with bitterness.

3. My children see the effort I’m making to keep up with all my “Mommy Duties” and express genuine caring and concern for me. I’ve been blessed with two tender-hearted, creative, loving daughters.

4. God speaks to me in quiet, simple ways, and because of that I can fully believe that He has a good and loving purpose in this. I am assured that I will get to the other side of this struggle and when I do, it will be amazing. I will have a testimony that will reach down to those who are broken and lift them up.

5. Amidst it all, I can still smile.

Amazing Grace

A few weeks ago, my husband noticed a skinny little feline coming around. We actually have lots of cats in the neighborhood and I know several by name (Diego, Cleo, Purry, …), but the look of this guy said stray. He was skin and bones and he would sit at our french doors and gaze through the glass with longing. (Well, that’s how I interpreted it anyway). We have two cats ourselves. We are cat people. So, it came as little surprise when my husband said we should feed him.

Building Trust

What he really meant, of course, was, “Let’s adopt him,” because I knew that feeding a hungry stray meant committing to the possibility of a long-term relationship. Then my husband named him – Enkidu (a character from ancient mythology), and I knew it was already a done deal. So, we fed him. Soon it was twice a day. At first, he ran off the deck when I opened the door to come out, crouching on the ground, watching me guardedly. He would only come up to the dish after I went back inside, and then he’d devour it. He was so hungry, poor thing. Now, he rubs my ankles when I come out, mewing and letting me pet him, but he still just eats and runs.

Enkidu

I asked my husband if he was sure he was good with the fact that we were spending money to feed this cat, and we were basically getting nothing from the arrangement. He said, “Absolutely.” For him, Enkidu is a daily picture of Grace. This is how we come to God – somewhat bedraggled, needy, unwilling to trust. Frequently, we only come because we want something. Yet God is there, offering what we need and so much more, patiently waiting for us to realize that we can have a relationship with Him. Yet He lets us take it at our own pace. He never forces anything. And then one day we recognize that He’s absolutely trustworthy. We crawl into His lap. We cease scrabbling through life, distrusting everyone and struggling to survive. Instead, we connect with the One who loves us.

This is the illustration God has given us in Enkidu. So now, when his little face shows up at the french door, I take his food out like always. But I’ve added the whispered prayer, “Thank you God, for Your amazing grace.”

Echos ~ Scars ~ Tracks in New-fallen Snow

My right shoulder muscles have been abused by the circumstances of life. I had breast cancer on the right side, resulting in the removal of thirteen axillary lymph nodes. This caused scar tissue and tightness under my right arm. Then radiation therapy (don’t gross out here) melted the underside of my skin, causing it to fuse to the bone where it is permanently stuck. This causes some tightness across my chest. Then, I had reconstructive surgery where a large portion of muscle in my back was dissected and tunneled forward under my arm to my chest. In fact, the procedure is called an LD Flap – LD for latissimus dorsi and it’s a flap because the section of muscle is left attached to its blood supply. This means that if you press in the exact right spot on my back, I feel it in front. It also means that when everything comes together wrong and I have pain, it’s a shooting pain across my chest and an agonizing ache around my shoulder blade. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I can barely function.

This is where I was last night. As my husband massaged the shoulder to try and relieve some of the tension so I could sleep, I reminded him that four years ago I was in the hospital. Four years ago, on July 2nd, I spent six hours on the operating table having a bilateral LD-Flap. We talked briefly about everything that led up to that point, and then everything that has resulted from it, and I found tears pricking my eyes as I said, “Stupid, stupid cancer.” But then I told my husband that it is what it is and there’s no point in feeling sorry for myself, that it serves no purpose. I need to buck up and get over it. But my husband, very gently, said, “LaRae – I don’t think you’re feeling sorry for yourself. I think you’re feeling human.”

We turned out the light and I lay there thinking about those tears. Was it “human” to cry four years after the fact or was there something wrong with me? I thought about my story, the one I didn’t write but was faced with living.

I thought about the fact that I had immediate reconstruction after my mastectomies. I had tissue expanders put in that were meant to gradually stretch the skin, eventually being replaced with silicone implants. As far as I got with that procedure, I remember being very happy with how I looked and how I felt. But then I developed a life-threatening staph infection. By the time I was admitted to the hospital I was feverish, my skin was so sensitive I felt like I was being pricked all over by a million needles, my joints ached, I was nauseated and I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow. I was becoming septic. One expander had become infected and the other was surrounded by fluid that was likely to become infected, so they had to come out. It was only after the fact that my nurse told me I had scared the living daylights out of everyone. But the real blow came when I thought the hard part was behind me. My surgeon informed me that the antibiotic hadn’t really “killed” the staph. The staph had colonized right above my heart and for the rest of my life my immune system would engage in a freakish dance with the bacteria, maintaining a delicate balance of health in my body. But we could do absolutely nothing to disrupt that balance. It meant he wouldn’t reopen the wound. It meant that I couldn’t try expanders again. That ship had sailed. I had done my research beforehand, so I knew my only other options for reconstruction involved cutting muscles in my belly or my back, both of which seemed utterly barbaric. I was devastated.

I thought about the day 14 months later when I finally went in for the LD-Flap, and the ambivalence I felt. I didn’t want the surgery. I was dreading it. But I didn’t want to continue living as I had for the past year, either. The two times I attempted clothes shopping had ended with me crying in the fitting room because nothing fit right. I had an abrasion, a permanent bruise really, from the seatbelt in my car constantly rubbing across my sternum. I had to wear a T-shirt over my swimsuit to go to the pool with my girls because my suit gaped in a shocking fashion. And one time my little one, two years old at the time, walked in on me as I dressed after a shower. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of my scarred chest and she said, “Oh, Mommy. How did that happen?” I had no answer. All I could think is, “How, indeed?”

I thought about waking up in the operating room, with everyone frantically running around, hearing words like “pooling blood” and “venous congestion.” I heard the anesthesiologist ask, “Should I re-intubate her?” as I was jerked around and bandages were ripped off. I grabbed the hand of the O.R. nurse and asked what was wrong. I remember his classic deer-in-the-headlights look as he realized I was awake and talking when they weren’t finished yet.

I thought about that first night in the hospital. The pain was tremendous, and something I learned much later is that I metabolize drugs extremely quickly. This is why with five surgeries requiring general anesthesia, I woke up clear-headed and completely aware while still in the O.R. three times. This hyper-metabolism impacts the way my body responds to narcotic pain meds. So, although I had dilaudid in a pain pump, it was having virtually no effect. My nurse that night was a heavily-muscled, dark-skinned, bald-headed man named Kendall, who looked more like a bouncer than a nurse. He didn’t smile at me one time. But he was God’s angel to me that night. He knew pain and he knew I wasn’t faking it. He gave me six “rescue doses” during the night while he tracked down a physician who would change my orders, ultimately doubling the amount of dilaudid in each dose. When I got that first doubled dose, I felt the blessed, merciful effects as the medicine hit my bloodstream. I smiled at Kendall and said, “It’s finally working.” He told me he’d given me enough medicine to knock a man twice my size flat. He said that people receiving a normal dose of dilaudid hallucinate and try to climb out the window – yet, I wasn’t even slurring my words. All I could do was thank him for advocating for me, then thank God for giving me the bouncer-nurse instead of some shrinking violet who wouldn’t have fought for what I needed.

I thought about coming home, and how I cried multiple times every day for two weeks. I think my husband actually began to worry that I was having some kind of breakdown. The sanitized literature they gave me describing the surgery said, “Most mastectomy patients find deep emotional satisfaction from their reconstruction.” But I felt one emotion and one emotion only ~ regret. The pain was out of this world; I couldn’t lift my arms over my head; I had to sleep propped up; I couldn’t dress myself; I couldn’t wash my hair. I absolutely hated how everything looked. I thought I might never feel like my joyful, even-keeled self again.

But last night I wasn’t crying over any of these things. It took three more surgeries but I did achieve results I can live with. And all these events, difficult though they were, were simply moments in time and they have passed. It’s over. They’re just distant memories. No, my tears were caused by something real that still lives in my heart. It’s like an echo. It’s like a scarred-over wound that still occasionally feels tender and gives pain. It’s like tracks through new-fallen snow – the landscape is marred; it will never be the same. As a Christ-follower, I have had some very well meaning Christians tell me, “Give it all to Jesus. Just lay it at His feet.” But I don’t know how to do this. Seriously, how do I unburden myself when my very being is inextricably tangled up in the whole mess? I don’t know how to give it away. So instead, I seek to trust Him. I look to Him and His Word for strength. I strive to live in my joy. And I keep my perspective.

You see, I could fill an entire page (maybe the back, too) with problems and challenges I still face because of my cancer. Yet, put on a great balance, all these things will never outweigh what is on the other side of the scale. I am alive. Sometimes my days flow easily. And sometimes I struggle to live the life I want to live, to be the mom, wife and friend I think I should be. Some days it’s hard to joyfully face life with these echoes reverberating, sometimes manifesting as physical pain. But each and every day, I am thankful for the opportunity to try.