The last time I wrote here was over a month ago, as I grieved the brokenness of this world with my sweet Bethy, my dear friend from college. Before that I was cautiously reveling in the news of continued remission. Thirteen long months of remission. It has been gift. I’ve been quiet lately, processing my own struggles and walking with friends in the darkness of theirs.
Then last week happened.
For those of you who don’t know, we received news that the cancer is no longer in remission and is active in my body again. My tumor markers are rising (tumor markers are an indicator in my blood of cancer activity.) Again we walk this life in what feels like an unbearable weight. Some of you have asked how we are, what the next step is, what can you do to help.
As for how we are, sad seems like such a small word, but it carries heavy weight. We are so, so sad.
Yesterday, I watched my boy climb off his team bus after a day long track meet hours away. I watched friends jostling and laughing with him, then watched him casually wave at them, then turn and casually wave at me, waiting in the car as he walked my way. He oozed a weary happiness as he settled in the seat beside me. We talked about the meet, about his day, about his tribe of friends. We laughed at stories and shook our heads at antics as we drove home. Turning in his seat, he asked, “How are you feeling, Mom? Was it a good day?” He always, always asks. He’s told me how he thinks about me at school. How every day his thoughts turn to me and he wonders how I am doing. I’ve pushed his arm playfully and said, “Oh, son, you’re so busy at school…” He interrupted with, “No, Mom,” those soulful brown eyes boring into mine, “Every day, I think about you.” He bears the weight quietly, but his head seems to bow lower these days.
“Mom? Can we talk?” I look at the clock, time inching past ten. It is late already for me to be up, but he settles next to me as I pat the cushion beside me. I will never, ever refuse that question. He shares struggles and questions and what ifs and what about and how do I?… And we talk of the hard of this life and I point him to truth and open my heart and arms to a boy whose melancholy heart is full of a deep sadness. His brother sits near and listens, taking it all in, ready to be a confidante when I cannot. “I’m here,” we both tell him, “Whenever you need us…” Days later he is filling our halls with laughter, yelling up the steps, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy! I love you, love you, love you!” when he arrives home from school. He is not quiet about my cancer. He asks friends to pray, he tells coaches, he shares with teachers. This is his life. He accepts it, but he grieves it.
And our sparkle girl still sparkles. She does. She oozes kindness and joy in her classroom, on the track and gymnastics mat, in the kitchen as she whips up a batch of cupcakes, outside as she finds our neighbor to show her fairy gardens. I often listen to her in her room, singing quietly as she works at her desk hidden behind lace curtains busy with crafts. She is her father’s daughter, loving life with zest. She is a mix of sunshine and storm clouds these days. Not angry storms. Unlike the redhead stereotype, I can honestly only recall a handful of times I’ve seen her show anger. It’s the storm of tears, of “I’m just feeling really sad these days and need to cry.” And we cry and then she is moving onto the next beautiful thing with which she can fill our lives, fully of fairy dreams and flowers and music and books and friends. She has had the flu this week, and her neediness has struck a chord with me. She wants me by her side constantly, needing a mama’s love. Y’all, you know where the what ifs take me in this… and I cannot go there. I will not. I need not.
My Brian, like my Ash, bears the weight of this quietly. He does what needs to be done and then some, checking in to see what I need before he moves onto projects or the ski slopes or a concert with a friend, outlets in the hard. Days after our news, he sat down wearily next to me, “I just feel down today.” he sighed. “Oh, baby…” the words from my lips, “Of course you do.” It comes out as a whisper. Three days before we had locked hands at the funeral of our forty-year-old friend, ravaged by this disease. We had sung truth through tears, that whatever our lots, it is well with our souls. This time it was our eyes that locked and no more words needed to be said as quarrels of the day before disappeared in the understanding of what this could all mean. And how the heck do we do. this. again? Y’all, I watch him as he works these days, and the lightness in his step isn’t there, and I think that is the thing that makes me saddest of all.
As for me? I walk in a fog. Honestly, that’s the best way to describe it. Y’all, last week it took me three tries to put my shoes on the right feet. Three! I only have two feet! I was slicing cheese for crackers for my Bella girl, and the cheese kept crumbling and not slicing. I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on until I finally realize I was using the knife upside down. Yep, sharp blade edge up. Every day I wake a few minutes before the alarm, and in the darkness of the morning, my first thought is, “Yes. You still have cancer.” And I have to accept it over and over and over again. I am scared of what the future holds. I know the hope of eternity. But the physical pain that I know I will have to endure terrifies me. Cancer is a painful disease, and I don’t mean the chemotherapy. I mean the actual cancer.
It’s not just us reeling. My parents, oh, y’all, my dear parents. We touch base every day, even if it’s just to be sure of each other. Bri’s parents, our siblings, my brother’s voicemail that I just. can’t. delete. from my phone, my Uncle Sammy’s texts that make me both laugh and cry.
I recently read a quote by John Piper on Psalm 63:8 where the psalmist says, “My soul clings to you.” (Incidentally, Psalm 63 has been my favorite psalm since I was a teenager.) Piper said, “The soul has desperate hands.” I’ve used the analogy of a roller coaster many times for our up and down life. We’ve done it before, hanging on for dear life. But, thank God, we hang onto the One Who operates this coaster. We are living in a quiet grief these days and our souls have desperate hands, clinging to the One Who holds us fast.
On Thursday I will have a PET scan. My tumor markers have more than doubled, but they are still lower than they’ve been in the past. She did say we still might not see growth on the scan, or if we do it will be minimal. However, this gives us a baseline. April 5 my oncologist will meet with us to discuss where we go from here. There are options. Because she has been so vigilant with me, she has caught this early. Treatment will change, but I don’t know how at this point. What I do know is that the cancer is growing and we need to stop it! I am upping my diet, making even more changes. Adding new things in, taking other things out. I am filling my home (even in the midst of this seemingly never-ending renovation–that’s not a dig at Brian, by the way… he feels that way, too) with flowers, reading poetry, beautiful things to brighten my days, because I need beauty. I am understanding more and more how I am wired that way, and it brings healing.
And what we need? Oh friends. The fact that so many ask is a gift. A friend visited me on Friday, bringing muffins for my flu-girl, a flower for me and some delicious organic mangoes. We sat with cups of tea and she listened as I grieved and vented and shared. “Angie,” she told me, “So many of us love you and want to fix you, but we can’t. We can’t make the cancer go away, but we can make life easier for you. What can we fix?” And her delicious laughter filled my living room. I loved her way of explaining this need–how our friends have to. do. something.
Yesterday, piles of people from our church arrived, part of biannual Service Saturday where folks serve in various places. Ours was a “place.” And y’all, as I stepped outside I swear I heard the groaning creation of our yard breathe a sigh of relief. Weeds pulled, mulch placed, porch washed… some of the many things I’ve back-burnered to focus on the more important things that take my energy. I miss it. The feel of dirt sifting between my hands. I’ve dubbed one plot of dirt my space. A small corner where I can plant and grow and see beauty from my window… but I digress.
It’s not just our home church friends that look for ways to help… we are so rich with friendships that cover years of life in various places. Over the past six months, we’ve been unable to attend our church because of an issue with mold. I have been unable to be in the building without getting sick. Over those months we have been welcomed into various churches each Sunday and sat with life-long friends and met news ones over and over and over. (And our children have groaned that we know someone every.where. and are still always the last to leave!). What a gift, y’all! To know people in so many places where we can worship God together. To be covered in such love. A couple of places truly became homes away from home as we are waiting. A friend from one of those places wrote in a letter to me, “We prayed for you in church… and it was so clear that the whole church body was yearning and reaching out to God earnestly hoping and praying for your perfect healing…”
And our far-away friends. The phone calls, the tears, the ache to be together. Y’all, I have a friend driving four and a half hours tomorrow because she just needs to sit with me, and I with her. My Bri has a tribe of middle school friends (and some even since pre-school) that keep up with us, that ache for us, that care. Oh, y’all, we. are. so. rich.
Again, I digress. Our needs…
I’m really not very helpful in the way of what our needs are. Because of that fog I mentioned above, I really don’t know what our needs are. When something comes up, I might think, “Oh, I could get help with this.” But then the fog sets in and I don’t even know how to make it happen. Even something as simple as a text to our care coordinator can feel like a monumental task. It is the way of suffering. My friend, Zoe, came the night we heard the news. She sat on my couch with me and we grieved together. Twenty years of friendship. She is scared with me. As I talked about the overwhelmingness of it all, she asked questions, “What overwhelms you? How can we take this off your plate?” She enters into the grief, and because she does, her pragmatism is a gift not a burden. In fact, she took a burden off me that night, showed up the next week and spent hours shopping for me and dicing up onions and peppers so they’d be easy for me to access and cut the prep-work out of meals for me.
I have a friend from church who is helping coordinate care for us. During my remission, we’ve not needed as much, but we know our needs will increase as we ramp up this battle again. She and I will be in touch. She will communicate needs. (Please let me know if you want to be on “the list” and I’ll let her know.)
We. are. rich.
In the midst of this, we are still happy. Not always. But we laugh a lot together. I drive a carpool of seven kids once a week after track, and I revel in those voices, their chatter and noise (although I am thankful it’s windows-down weather!). We still live life as we are able. We have sleep overs and movie nights. As I write, my boys are playing Battleship on the floor at my feet, and I’m yelling “You sunk my battleship!” as often as I can to drive them crazy. Coop follows us everywhere we go, nudging us relentlessly for love and being his goofy, furry self (and scaring me half to death with a couple seizures this week–but he’s going to be okay). Ash and I watch basketball and yell at the TV and compare our brackets (which are both pretty busted). We celebrated Bri’s birthday last week, and Bella wrapped his gift entirely in duct tape just to make daddy laugh because we all love his laugh. We do. It’s contagious.
I make lists and we do chores and pack lunches and put laundry away. I love perusing pictures on Facebook and reading of all the goings-on in friends’ lives. I want to know how to pray for others. I love watching my former youth and college students… every day there is a tear. (How does a heart hold so much love for so many people?!) I really do love it. When I hit like or love or comment, I mean it. (I ignore all the other stuff, because I cannot. deal. with all the constant controversy. I just can’t.) We get together with friends even if the getting together means three of us sleeping on couches while Bri watches the end of the race (I STILL do not understand why you want to watch cars drive around a track over and over and over) and our children hang out in rooms beside us. We go to our home group and the boys go to their youth group and Bible studies. I have quiet days where I curl up with tantalizing books and read essays and listen to sermons and drink deeply of truth, knowing how I must continue to saturate in it, lest I push it away.
So. I guess that’s where we are.
Still living life.
Abiding in Jesus.
And thankful for what He’s given.
Even in the hard.
Because it’s all gift.
This we know to be true.
“I want to abide in this day, to make my home in it; I must only tear my eyes from tomorrow and look around. For there is a wholeness to this day that I do not want to miss.” (~Christie Purifoy)
(P.S. And after I read this to my family, my Bear says, “Amen!” Oh, y’all… the heartbeats of love only grow stronger.)