Tag Archives: letting go

At the table: I’ll have a double handful right now, please

My dear son Kai returned to Montreal Sunday. I am so grateful he had a chance to spend two and a half days in Atlanta with me, a whirlwind of three doctors at two different Emory campuses. I made macaroni and cheese while he was here, (added bacon and subbed a little soy milk), and because the avocados were so pretty, I picked some up too. Thanks to the inspired presence of Michael and Kai, the guacamole got chopped bacon added as well.*

A friend took me to the grocery store Friday morning. There’s a sentiment too often inscribed on wine glasses and aprons these days, but during WWII, steely-eyed Londoners reminded each other to “keep calm and carry on.” I suspect it’s a cultural thing, perhaps a gender thing, but “carrying on” has always led me straight to thoughts of my belly. No matter what happens, we all have to eat, right? So, although I could not rationalize it one single bit, it felt okay for me to be in the grocery store Friday morning with my life in slo-mo shatter all around me.

I found the okra but they had black spots. “Do you have any fresh?” My friend who carried me to the market is a mind-reader. The produce manager smiled at her and returned in short order with a bin of okra pods, green as God intended. As I sorted, I remembered to breathe. I was looking for the short, tender pieces. The new ones, more fuzzy than spiny. I focused, sorted, breathed. I began to see how I might carry on.

I had my 90-day check-up last week, and here’s the bad news:  five new lesions on both lobes of my poor old liver. Here’s the good news: I’ll be starting hormone shots soon, and these may shrink or slow the tumor growth, alleviate some of the nasty GI symptoms, and also act as markers for targeted radiation therapy

I remembered all the times I’ve picked okra. My daddy used to grow a little bit in the backyard, when I was little and we lived in Kansas. He showed me how to pick the tender pods before the spines got mean. He taught me how to make snapdragons yawn and he teased my mom about her fierce loyalty to Jiffy corn bread mix for breading okra. But he kept a box of Jiffy mix in his cabinet for the rest of his life.

This put a smile on my face: remembering all the many, many times I have splashed that sunny yellow Jiffy mix, oil and beaten eggs across all the many stoves I’ve owned. The innumerable skillets full of the most delicious, tender, crispy, sweet, salty sliced joy from the garden that I have proudly presented to a tableful of guests, guarded at the kitchen counter, jealously hoarded for a latecomer. The buckets of sweat that have poured down my face while ceiling fans and floor fans roared and percolated the sultry Alabama air.

“Look.” My friend had found the discount rack. “This is the best risotto ever and it’s only a dollar.”

I wouldn’t bite. “It’s out of date.” I went back to fondling fuzzy baby okra pods.

“No, it’s not. Have you ever had homemade risotto?” Well, no, I haven’t. Or rather, I hadn’t up until then. She convinced me. I bought it. A pound of fat, unsullied white mushrooms, selected slow. And a pair of strawberry cartons on the fly on the way out the door.

I wanted to cook the risotto first, since I’d never tried it before. You have to stir the stuff nonstop. Thankfully I had enough clout to press Kai and Michael into service. It was good. But the okra? It was heavenly. It was love-on-a-fork. It sang to me of my mother, my children, my past. I was tired and didn’t make it as carefully as I might have but Kai knows his part.

“Best okra ever.”

We finished up the odd meal with lots and lots of strawberries and canned whipped cream and those perpetually stale dessert cups. Nectar of the gods, I tell you.

This thing we humans do, this preparing and sharing of food. It has such power in it. My friend Ellen Beaumont Ballard, my friend Margery Thomson, my friends Phyllis and Anne and Melanie, Bridget and Carole and Tommy, all my parish family who have scraped little bits of orange cheese on celery sticks, dumped a box of crackers on a plate, put another pot of coffee on. We know that power. My entire life, the go-to response to strong emotion is food.

I was at a memorial service recently, for a man deeply loved by his colleagues, students, and family. We spent the weekend together at Bald Rock Lodge on Cheaha Mountain. An army of people, from age ten to ninety, kept food and coffee and sodas and snacks piled high on tables stretching the length of the room. Waves of people came in and out, migrated to the patio, down to the motel pool, out to the lawn. They laughed and loved and remembered their friend. I watched, mostly. And although I didn’t know Dr. Olander or his family, I was nourished. In fact, when we left, I was flourishing. Renewed and reinvigorated.

Lucky me, I got to go to a wedding in early June, too. We sat under the summer trees near the Platte River, long rows of picnic tables, and ate pie and danced, celebrated love and family ties, and those tables, too, were overflowing with something, some power greater than mere calories, physical sustenance. All these long, laden tables I have been invited to, stumbled over, contributed to the bounty or not, they sustain me now.

I had my 90-day cancer check-up last week, and here’s the bad news: CT scans show five new lesions on both lobes of my poor old liver. Too much for surgery. Here’s the good news: I’ll be starting hormone shots soon, and these may shrink or slow the tumor growth, alleviate some of the nasty GI symptoms, and they’ll also act as markers for targeted radiation therapy if that becomes an option. My original prognosis, a 20% chance of surviving five or more years, hasn’t changed. I like my Emory docs; from what I can tell from my research they’re near the top in treatment of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer.

If you know me well, you know I’m the most gullible person alive. I believed in jackelopes till I was thirty (what, my dad would mislead me on that??). I’ll spot fairies and djinn and angels at the drop of a pin. I prefer this world with a dusting of magic. Perhaps because I want to see it, I do. Even so, I have company in my capacity to believe. Any number of my cousins would swear to the presence of the Holy Spirit at sweet Olivia’s wedding in Omaha. Great clouds of angelic white moths swarmed the memorial celebration at Cheaha. Discouraged, aching hearts are renewed and encouraged and restored over and over, and simple kindness blooms underfoot in all directions. Beautiful things that should not happen, do.

Maybe it was just luck that allowed Kai’s schedule to fit in a trip to Atlanta. I think my Higher Power knew I needed my son to be with me and Michael when we got that news, and then to meet my great psychiatrist at the Winship Cancer Center, and my incredibly compassionate pain management doctor. I’m so very glad I could fry okra for Kai, and spread a tableful of love, nevermind that we ate off plates in our laps in front of the tv.

As a Christian, the Table with the deepest significance for me is the altar where I gather with my brothers and sisters to feast on Christ’s sacrificial love. One of my favorite preachers described that table once as extending, somehow, from my beloved parish home Saint Andrews, to heaven, through time and space, filled end-to-end with all whom we have ever loved and lost and all those who are to come.

That Table, now. It is in my heart. And so, dear friends, are you. I often don’t feel like eating at all these days, but whatever you’re serving up that can’t be tasted or seen yet warms the heart? I’ll have a double handful, please. Right now.

Will you tell me about a time when you’ve found more than food at a table full of folks? Or if you don’t feel like writing it down, just take a moment and remember what it feels like. We’ll make the world a little more beautiful, one thought at a time.

*My most recent favorite t-shirt slogan: “Because of bacon, I know Jesus loves me.”

 

What’s a good read worth?                 

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

what price, facing the wreckage of my past…

After becoming a mother in my late twenties, I zealously guarded my sleep privileges. When my children were older, I heard several variations of this thought: why waste time sleeping when there was so much living to get to? I was deeply offended. Sleeping late, long, luxuriously, was my reward for hard work and stress and parenting.

Several years before my cancer diagnosis (although the cancer was already hard at work in its own indolent way), I began having terrifying episodes of insomnia. They seemed to be connected to the heart trouble I developed in 2006. I would wake up in the wee hours with immobilizing chest pains. I slept alone; Doug and I were separated for years before he actually moved out of the house. So the pain would wake me and I would begin a vigil of fear and shame.

These days, I can’t always sleep. I meditate and pray. I putter, trying to shave a few seconds off my Freecell time, noodling around on the internet, flitting through Facebook. I read, a lot. I ruminate more than I should.

The fear was that I was actually dying of a heart attack. I have a very mild case of congestive heart failure and a very active imagination. The pain was transfixing – literally pinning me into the bed while I struggled to breathe and slow my heart rate. The shame remains more difficult to speak about. But isn’t that the bondage of shame, anyway? The inability to speak it aloud?

I was ashamed that I would be found out as a fraud. That I was not really sick, that I had somehow manufactured the experience of pain. I was deeply ashamed that somehow, my mind had tricked my body into feeling symptoms. I felt shame that I might be, however inadvertently, taking more than my fair share of attention, of medical care, of health insurance benefits. I felt such deep shame I even made up a little rule for myself: no more than one ER visit per year for chest pain.

Seeing my marvelous cardiologist every 9-12 months, as she recommended, we spent a lot of time talking about those chest pains and my fears. She ordered tests, changed up my meds. But the chest pains kept recurring, and I kept spending those wee hours of the morning, two or three times a month, in a fug of shame and pain. Insomnia plus a crippling fear of impending death plus shame is a potent and no doubt toxic mix.

Along with the initial cancer diagnosis in August 2017, I was told I have ulcers. In the flurry of consternation about pancreatic cancer, somebody prescribed me the generic equivalent of the little purple pill, and I’m happy to report I have had not a single episode of that particular insomnia since. I also learned that if you think you’re having a heart attack, you can get up and move around. If the pain lessens or changes, it’s probably not your heart.

Since the diagnosis of metastatic neuroendocrine cancer was confirmed in January, I have been experiencing several new kinds of insomnia. Unfortunately, most of them are related to pain. There’s the snakes in my belly that were the early harbinger of the cancer. There’s a pain in my upper back that I really think is my poor old liver quivering from repeated insult.

There’s an ache in my heart that sometimes flips into rage when my powerlessness crosses the threshold of my awareness. The post-surgical hernia, despite my best efforts, has grown as big as my left tit and is quite a bit more firm. It hurts if I do too much. These past few weeks I’ve had a constant headache and feel like throwing up most of the time, and all of these aches and pains are amplified after midnight.

So I can’t always sleep. I meditate and pray. I putter, trying to shave a few seconds off my Freecell time, noodling around on the internet, flitting through Facebook. I read, a lot. I ruminate more than I should. But the idea that sleep is something I’m entitled to doesn’t hold water anymore. I’ve had an important revelation:

I really was sick, all those nights I thought I was dying. In spite of my first-class health insurance, in spite of my faithful adherence to Western medicine, its skewed values and narrow perspectives, in spite of a fine education and my white skin and my privilege and my clenched-teeth determination to wrest what I want out of life, that system missed a simple case of ulcers, then misdiagnosed cancer as an emotional problem. Complicated my recovery with poor post-surgical care and then, again, misdirected my pain and channelled my shame to work against me.

My pain is real and my shame is unnecessary. In fact, millions of women just like me, throughout history, suppress their pain, or report their pain and are ignored, minimized, shamed for listening to their bodies and reaching out for help and health. So it’s okay to stay awake during these wee hours. Maybe even necessary. Because there is somebody else out there, struggling with pain and shame and fear. I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Tonight, I’m with you.

Update

I know my cancer diagnosis has bumfoozled the heck out of me. One of the things that’s been so confusing is figuring out the connection between the fairly crappy survival rate (20-25% for five years) and the actual cause of death for patients with my diagnosis. Because the cancer grows slowly, and I will have CT scans every 90 days for a year or so, it’s unlikely that the neuroendocrine cancer itself will kill me. It’s likely to be liver failure, a blood clot, or something else. But regardless, I keep asking the docs if it’s really gonna be just five years, and the answer is yes, over and over. Damn.

If the docs who did the first cancer surgery had known more about NET cancer, or pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, they would have tested the tumor cells to see which endocrines are being produced by my cancer; it’s frequently complications with the overproduction of these chemicals that is the cause of death for patients like me. But the docs didn’t check, and I won’t be able to find out until I grow another tumor. This story is about a woman whose neuroendocrine cancer involved the overproduction of serotonin: http://walkingwithjane.org/…/…/25/net-cancer-what-kills-you/

I hope to spend a little more time with my oncologist in June. I have never yet had a doctor sit down with me and explain the type of cancer I have. I have had several doctors scold me for looking up information on the internet, though. Go figure. My pain management doc recently explained to me that oncologists sometimes limit the information they give to newly-diagnosed patients so the patients don’t get overwhelmed. hmm.

I have been begging for information for months, after years of begging for help. I’m discovering that many, many women are going through this too.

Cancer sucks. Our healthcare system kinda sucks too.

An unanswered NET cancer question I’ve been writing about NET cancer for nearly 25 months. But yesterday someone asked in a search that brought them here, “How does neuroendocrine cance…
WALKINGWITHJANE.ORG

Stinky and the Pain

“What’re we going to do tonight, Brain?”

“Same thing we always do, Pinky…try and take over the world!”

–Two lab rats from Warner Brothers’ “Animaniacs” circa 1995

When the cancer first began to make itself evident, I called it the “snakes in my belly.” At random, my gut would begin to rumble and roar, and I imagined I could feel the coils of my intestines slowly turn and twist. It was not painful, just kind of amusing, once I figured out the snakes weren’t usually followed by any other, more rude gastric events. The snakes are still with me, loud enough to be heard over a movie soundtrack in a surround-sound theatre, just today. But I kind of like snakes. They exude calm and warmth and an unmistakable physical presence.

The most obvious symptom of my pancreatic cancer (a rare type, slower-growing than its more notorious, ductal-type kin) was awful diarrhea. The uncontrollable kind, the kind of problem babies and old folks have. And I was lucky to have it. Yes, that’s right. Luckily, when the cancer cells left my pancreas, they drifted over to my liver, not my lungs or my brain or anywhere else. This type of pancreatic cancer is rarely found out in time for surgery or other treatment unless it goes to the liver and causes diarrhea and pain first. Thank you, Jesus? That verdict is still out.

Occasional sessions of raging, cramping, running-down-my-leg nastiness started coming weekly, then daily, leaving me weak and trembling and in tears. The worst spells were predictable, coming at four am like clockwork and often lasting for hours. During the day, more and more frequently over this two year stretch before my diagnosis, I would have unexpected attacks of diarrhea and I started feeling like I always, somehow, smelled like shit.

I started wearing diapers, a huge concession. It’s ridiculous, how much I let that crush my spirits. I imagined everyone could hear the sound of the paper diaper rustling and it got harder and harder to leave the house. I didn’t ignore my body while all this was going on. I went to my primary care doc-in-the-box, who referred me to a GI guy. I’d had my 50-year inaugural colonoscopy a year before and I scheduled another one, did the prep, showed up on time, followed the directions, listened to the doctor.

“Irritable bowel syndrome,” was the verdict. The GI guy had a most irritating habit of not looking me in the eye. Nothing inappropriate, I think he kept his eyes on his fingers or something. I can’t imagine a career of looking at people’s assholes. Maybe it’s hard to meet people’s eyes when their ass seems the better part. There’s really nothing to do about it, he told his hands. You just need to manage your anxiety.

I glibly assured him there is most certainly something I can do about it. I could, and would, double my daily meditation time. And I did. It probably saved my life. But it didn’t help the diarrhea. I did a couple of exclusion-type diets, to determine if I was inadvertently poisoning myself with Taco Bell or glutens or something. I tried more exercise, I took immodium, I yo-yo’d between diarrhea attacks and wicked constipation. I tried vegan eating. I ignored it. I binged on spinach; fried chicken; broth.

I was falling in love, and is there anything less conducive to love than liquid poo? I think not. Yet my love carried a diaper in his purse for me, bought me distractions, brought me warm rags, cold rags, expensive scented butt wipes. Endlessly assuring me of my beauty, my desirability, my not-stinkiness. Then and now, I sometimes lie awake at night and look at our hair, mingled on the pillow. Long dark ringlets streaked with silver, careless waves of gold and silver. It’s alchemy of the purest sort, this tangling of ours.

I got so good at ignoring that symptom – the diarrhea – that I also totally overlooked the next symptom to come along. The snakes began to bite. It started small, it must have, because I don’t really remember a particular onset. It’s like I woke up one day, about a year ago, and realized I’d been in pain for days without really registering it. It’s a low-level pain, about a one or a two on scale of one-to-ten. It’s kind of like period cramps, or the very beginning stages of labor, or early in an appendicitis attack. Sort of like a mighty hand taking all those snakes and giving a gentle squeeze. But of course after a couple of hours of that, the snakes start stirring. They don’t like being squeezed. So they start biting.

There were clues all along, of course. I can see it clear as day, now. One confounding characteristic of all my problems was a strict 12-hour clock. Moving from Atlanta to Birmingham as often as I do, I’m never really sure what time it is. But just as the diarrhea appeared at 4 am on the dime, the snakes start biting at 4 pm precisely. My current opioid habit* stifles the diarrhea nicely these days, but my eyes pop open in the pre-dawn five mornings out of seven, and my snakes are there, lazily roiling. If my internal clockwork is on Central Standard Time, the clock might say five am, but my gut knows better. It’s Snake Time. That kind of regularity must surely be a red flag.

I see in hindsight too that my eating and cooking habits took a crazy left turn two years ago. I used to love to cook and feed my friends and family. But I stopped enjoying cooking. Everything I cooked tasted a little off. Preparing a big meal left me too nauseated and tired to enjoy eating it. Raw vegetables sent me scurrying off to the bathroom almost instantly, and I had to be close to home after I ate just in case something struck me funny. I couldn’t tolerate funky or foreign smells and tastes anymore, and I mourn the loss of my iron stomach. I used to be able to tolerate Lucky Dogs from a street vendor, for God’s sake. Now I can’t look at the mold on cheese without sicking up a little.

I really was spending a decent chunk of my day in meditation and prayer by this time. My mom was recovering from a miraculous but grueling near-death experience, and I was charging headlong into a long-distance love affair. If the circumstances of my life were causing me to experience some mild discomfort (diarrhea and snakes), maybe that was just the price I had to pay? Maybe, whispered an insidious little voice, maybe we have to trade a little pain and anguish for all that sloppy, giggly fun, eh?

Thank you, Jesus, unequivocally: my love and my friends (my higher power with skin on), quickly come to reassure me that that is never so. My Higher Power does not extract a pound of pain as payment for every ounce of joy. Joy is mine, free for the taking, by the double-handful if I want. Suffering is not part of my Higher Power’s plan for me.

It was about a year ago that I began to look beyond the diagnosis of IBS-D (irritable bowel syndrome -diarrhea). I tried acupuncture; I finally went back to the GI doc, and saw his nurse practitioner. I liked her. She looked me in the eyes while I described my problems and told her I’d tried an illegal, herbal treatment for diarrhea that seemed to help a little. She looked away as she told me, reluctantly, that this doctor would never consider treating my problems with any kind of CBC oil, even if it were legal in my state. She ordered blood tests and wished me well.

Now the snakes were getting a little more fierce. It dawned on me, slowly, that they’d been eating into my sex life without my noticing. There’s just not a lot of room down there for extracurricular activity. And that’s a damn shame, because old people sex is just grand.

It was July when I had an attack of the shingles, simmering and basting slowly in the Birmingham heat, uncomfortable in the skin of my body and the confines of my mind.

Sometimes when I hate being myself, I use this little trick to slip my skin: I do something I absolutely do not want to do. It’s just to prove to myself that I can overcome myself. Overcome my self will. So I slid my fingers over the buttons of my landline and checked the voicemail for the first time in four months. I know that sounds awful. But the landline has been in my name for thirty years, and it’s got old voicemails from my kids, their high school friends. It’s the number the exterminator calls, the dentist still trying to track down my ex.

It’s a number I haven’t given out as my own for four years. I only keep the line to call my mother on it. Cell reception at my house, at the base of the hill where the cell towers live, sucks. It’s also the only telephone number my GI doctor’s office thought to call, when those blood tests came back. They may have had my cell number on my chart, but it was the landline they called when they discovered my pancreas wasn’t working right. They called it twice in May and that’s all.

I had a funny feeling when I heard the second message, listening in late July with a slash of shingles still livid across my side. It was the nurse practitioner. “You really need to schedule a cat scan,” she said. “There’s something wrong with your pancreas.” I didn’t skip a beat. I dialed that number right back and within a couple hours she called me back. On my cell. “Why did you wait so long to schedule the cat scan?” she wanted to know.

“You called the wrong telephone number with the test results,” I told her. “How soon can I have that CT scan?”

Now, I’m four months post-surgery. They removed two lesions (tumors?) from my pancreas, and the lymph node and a lesion on top of my pancreas. They took three more tumors off my liver and the surgeon confidently declared me cancer-free.

I still have the snakes, and they still bite. I still have diarrhea, and nausea, and now I vomit two to six times a week, probably because my poor pancreas was insulted and needs to heal. I have other pain, too, that I associate with my liver, on my right side and my right middle back.

Nobody tells me anymore that I’m not having any pain or that I’m not supposed to have any pain. I have opioids, in pretty small doses, that distract me from the pain. The side effects of fuzzy thinking and constipation are almost more trouble than the distraction warrants, but emotionally, I’m hugely dependent on those meds.

I’ve found CBD oil to be my most reliable friend in pain: it stimulates my appetite, destroys the nausea, lifts my mood, actually removes the pain (not just masking it like the oxycontin). I have other pain relief strategies: t’ai chi, meditation, prayer, conversation, stupid tv, challenging tv, board games, music, hot showers, meetings. I am back on my bike! My pain is of two kinds: the kind that chemicals can change, and the kind of heart-pain that comes with change. I am working on each kind of pain, the best way I can given my current state.

That heart-pain from change has two components: my own, and the pain I feel when I think about the pain my loved ones are experiencing. I can’t do much about either, but I’m at least trying to stop taking responsibility for the pain other people feel.

Both kinds of pain are real; do I have the courage, the wisdom, the desire to transmute it into something of value? What might that be?

When I took my CT scans to Emory in January, their radiologists spotted something the UAB docs did not. We’ve repeated those scans, and I’ll find out Thursday if the cancer has cropped up again or if the initial surgery missed something. I will update you as I am able.

*It’s a legal habit, thank God. I’m almost afraid to take them for fear of becoming addicted. I hear our president has proposed the death penalty as a cure for the opioid crisis. I wonder how that works?

This is me, asking for help.

Hey, is this your image? Artist unknown but appreciated. Stencil on concrete, circa 2013 From my camera.

Hello, my friends. It’s been confirmed. I have fourth stage pancreatic cancer, a type of rare and relatively slow-growing neuroendocrine tumor. The five-year survival rate is 20-25%. I’m getting care at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Center in Atlanta; they have a specialty clinic for this type of pancreatic cancer. I am praying and scheming to make my personal 5-year survival rate 100% and you are already drafted as a co-conspirator.

I’m so very fortunate in so many ways! I’m frequently staying with Michael. His new place in Atlanta’s Westside is comfortable, convenient and cat-equipped. I have a decent chunk of life insurance and short-term disability resources, due to my early adventures in advertising (I sold myself on the idea while creating the advertising for it, an occupational hazard). But these benefits take time to line up.

For a year now work has been difficult and symptoms like pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting have made writing to deadline stressful. Since my surgery in October, narcotic painkillers keep some pain at a distance, but with the unfortunate side effect of distancing myself from my brain as well. These same issues, plus geographic distance, are complicating my ability to earn from my other business, hosting international medical students for 3-6 month stays.

So I’m asking for that kind of help, too. Financial. If you can kick in a few bucks, I would really appreciate it. I’ve been shitty my whole life about writing thank you notes, but I will post a thank you note of at least 1,000 words for every $350 raised. I love you.




Love Wins

DSCN1271
Michael and me at Dragon*Con in September.

Every year, my parish family compiles a book of Lenten Meditations. We’re each asked to read and reflect on the day’s assigned scriptures from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospel. This year, I chose to write about the epistle: 1 Cor. 13:1-13. Here’s what I wrote:

Choosing between the readings assigned this year was tough. I want to share with you that the voice of God from the burning bush was actually the voice of Charlton Heston, Moses’ own voice, as portrayed in the classic “The Ten Commandments.” I’d like to talk about how I struggle with belief, like the boy’s father from the Gospel reading, and how his cry “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!” resonates for me. But that would be too easy.

Instead, here’s a confession: every time I hear those verses from Corinthians, for almost thirty years now, I gnash my teeth or cringe or crumble a little around the edges. I can’t love people like that. I can’t be always kind or eternally patient; I get angry without cause. I hold grudges. This winter, by God’s grace, I keep reading. I’ve spent so long being angry at St. Paul for pegging me as less than perfect, I’ve missed the rest of the story.

Every time I hear those verses from Corinthians, I crumble a little around the edges. I can’t love people like that.

What has come to me, softly, gently, is that God is describing Her feelings for me. God is telling me I can know everything, endure all hardship, even move mountains, but it means nothing until I know in my heart and my head just how perfectly I am loved. Love is the key.

A friend of mine was photographed last year holding a sign saying simply “Love Wins.” When I saw those words, my heart expanded three sizes or more, just like the Grinch. (I’ve already confessed my commonalities with that mad, sad green creature.) Forgive me, deep thinkers and theologians. That’s my spiritual core in two words: Love wins.

If it’s human love, it will be flawed. No matter how desperately I might strive for it, I can never be anything other than human in this life. I hurt people; people hurt me. I can work to love myself better, I can try to be a more loving sister, daughter, friend, mother, but I will fail, at times spectacularly, just like everyone else.

But leaning into God’s love, I’m discovering a love that never fails. One which “…always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” At precisely the right time in my life, in the winter of 2016, I have shed a little more resentment, looked deeper into my fears, glimpsed, dimly, that which I have yearned for all my life. I am fully known, and perfectly loved. Love wins.

God’s Grace In Neon Letters

Clear Creek in God's Back Yard
Clear Creek in God’s Back Yard

by Anonymous

with Karyn Zweifel

From Recovery Campus Magazine, Summer, 2015

I am no stranger to the disease of alcoholism. I have two aunts with many years in recovery and a brother still struggling. So when my husband and I visited our oldest son, Andrew, during his first semester of college out of state, I was very concerned about his behavior.

“…now I understand how the stigma of addiction and mental illness causes so much pain. Parents need to be more open, be willing to say ‘I’m really struggling,’ and get help for themselves and their children.”

He’d joined a fraternity, and during our visit, my mother’s intuition kicked in. I could tell it wasn’t just the normal college drinking experience. Andrew was secretive, and what we saw at the fraternity house was alarming. Andrew did not do well academically that first semester but convinced his dad to give him a second chance.

Continue reading God’s Grace In Neon Letters

Redemption Takes Wing

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Kai, Corey and KJ visited Zion Cemetery in June 2015 and left just the right gifts for Papa C’Mere. RIP!

2/18/15

My sister and I buried my father’s ashes on a cold gray day last spring. We were at Zion Cemetery in Blaine County, Oklahoma, not too far from the farm my family settled illegally and then claimed in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. You can see two sets of grain elevators from the graves of my grandmother, great-grandmother, great-aunts and now my dad. There’s not much else to see other than the ever-changing sky, a tiny abandoned church and an honest-to-God outhouse with a crescent moon carved into the rough wooden door.

It was really cold. Two days before, I had stared in amazement as snowflakes spiraled down outside the window. I had planned to camp out; it was the second week in April and who would expect snow right before Easter? On Palm Sunday, I sat in church and felt the earth tremble; an earthquake, my aunt told me brightly, a common occurrence in Oklahoma these days. A few hours later, the tornado sirens howled; a twister was tearing up the plains somewhere south of town. Oklahoma felt apocalyptic last April.

We scraped some dirt over the urn. A prayer would have felt pretentious. I’m not sure my dad even believed in God when he died. My sister and I held hands and sang a chorus of “Amazing Grace,” the wind snatching the notes off our lips.

It was too cold and I was out of kilter. We poked our heads inside the abandoned church; the windows were long gone, leaving only four walls of rough whitewashed brick and a rusty tin roof. Animal droppings littered the empty structure, huge, bigger than my thumb. The thought of an animal that size was frightening.

Two days later it was Good Friday, bright and warm. I was facing a sixteen-hour trip south, but Zion Cemetery called, and I obeyed my instincts.

On my way out of town, I heard bells. It was noon. My lovely little church in Birmingham has a most solemn Good Friday Service at noon; it begins with the church stripped bare of all its banners and fancy drapery and the clergy lying full-out face down on the floor around the altar.

Again an inner voice whispered, just as I passed a church. I pulled into the parking lot and crept inside, late for the noon service. They were reading the Passion Gospel and a lady in the back smiled at me when she handed me a bulletin. As we read the familiar story of Christ’s trial, persecution and crucifixion, my world and my heart began to settle into a rhythm: powerful, soothing and good.

My spirit was almost light as I left the church, and I stopped at a store to assemble a funeral feast. I got two pieces of cake, some bright ripe fruit, a little cheese, a styrofoam cup of macaroni and cheese. On an impulse I grabbed a handful of chunky, beaming sunflowers.

It took an hour to drive north of town, west down the highway past the grain elevators, then bump down the dirt road to the cemetery bounded by a rusty, sagging fence. It looked vastly different, which makes perfect sense: when the sky is nine-tenths of the display, a vivid blue infinity is a remarkable transformation from a lowering blustery gray.

I had a book with me, a funny one, by Terry Pratchett. I spread out a blanket under a splintery old cedar and read my book and laughed out loud. It felt good to laugh. My dad has a wicked sense of humor and he loved to read. I slowly ate half a piece of cake, savoring the joy of my dad’s sweet tooth and a family tradition of “dessert-first day.” I breathed, deeply: cedar, dirt, sky.

Now my heart was so light I was almost skipping. I scattered a few crumbs of cake a few feet away from the tree and invited the ants to my banquet. I laid the sunflowers in a row on the family graves and they smiled back at me: great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt, aunt, father.

I remembered I had a kite tucked away in my camping gear, and that endless sky cried out for a kite. I couldn’t get it up in the air; I have no talent for aerodynamics. But I tethered the string to the gravestone and it kicked around on the ground, yearning for the wild blue yonder. I sang a song from my favorite movie; it felt so good I sang another song, a Bible-thumping camp song from my father’s youth. I remembered his eyes match the Oklahoma sky on a bright spring day.

I thought, for no particular reason, of things that frightened me and decided to look inside the old church one more time.

I remembered the warmth leaving my father’s hands as I wept and let him go.

I leaned into the empty window frame of the old Zion Methodist Church and heard a storm of wings and wind and watched, transfixed, as a Great White Owl burst from the rafters, paused, as if posing for a snapshot, and whirled out the opposite window, an angel of a different kind.

I laid my daddy’s ashes to rest on Good Friday last year. Today, as Lent begins, I wonder where my journey leads me now.