Personal Reflection, Running

Ten Miles

This morning I ran the Lumberjack & Jill 10 Miler in Oshkosh. In the first week of January, I picked several 5k and 10k races to run from March to October. The plan was to build up to this 10 mile race for the longest run I’ve ever done. And then… 2020 got rolling. Every race I’d put on my calendar was either canceled or made entirely virtual… except the ten mile race. I fully expected it to follow suit with the others. Add to that the turmoil of this year, and training for that distance was simply not a priority. Then three weeks ago I decided to try. I decided to see what I could accomplish by race day.

I hadn’t run more than 3.5 miles at a time all year. Often it was less than that. I had given a lot of focus to strength workouts and yoga, which turned out to be game changers. At the start of the three weeks, I ran five miles. End of week one, I ran seven. End of week two, I ran eight. And today, I ran ten. I’d only worked on endurance during my short training weeks and didn’t set a goal for my pace. Endure. That was the only goal. And endure, I did. I ran ten miles. I feel proud and surprised.

I fought tears through the first mile. The six week mark since losing Cheryl weighed on my mind. Sometimes the grief refuses to be put off but I knew I had to keep my energy for the run. I slowed my breaths and focused on everything around me. That brought a new wave of emotion as I watched happy runners finally enjoying a race together. It was wonderful.

I felt strong, which I feel less often in recent months compared to my usual self. On a run is one of the only times I consistently feel like my strength will rebound and I won’t always feel overwhelmed like I am lately.

The first 6 miles were simple and steady. Families cheered in their driveways. The police officers blocking traffic clapped for us and called out encouragemt. I think we’ve all missed the physical aspect of community mode than we even realize. At the very least, I have. I’ve never smiled so many times in the course of a run.

The course was fantastic. Fall colors, bridges, wildflowers, stretches of both paved and dirt trails, much of it along the river. I already know I’ll sign up for the 2021 race.

The 7th mile was challenging, then I caught a second wind at the end of it that carried me through mile 9. The entire last mile was arduous. My calves were threatening cramps and my quads felt like jello. I’d already passed the runners I’d pegged as my “I’ll pass you before the finish” people. The final half mile was nothing but a slow jog.

Crossing the finish line was a relief and a few tears of pride came in the seconds afterward. As I stretched, the song “My Way Home” came into my head and my smile returned. My legs may not love me this evening, but I love them for what they accomplished today.

Faith, Family, Personal Reflection

Writing It Out

I will write today. I’ve been telling myself this all day. I will write. Whether merely some thoughts extracted from brain to page, or a post to share, or a little story – it doesn’t matter. I only care if I write.

There are parts of me that feel incapable of engaging with the world. They are inclined to hibernate while my efforts and attention are needed where the wounds need healing. I understand the nature of that need well enough to give those parts of me some grace. I’m complacent over the bowing out to backstage for now. Except with this. Writing can’t go.

Today marks two weeks since my sister died.

It took me ten minutes of staring at the space around me before I could write that sentence. I’m not sure how, but it makes it more real than before I wrote it down there. It doesn’t need to feel any more real.

Knowing it’s coming, barring a genuine hand-of-God miracle, did not leave me prepared for the loss. The expectancy only took away the element of surprise, not any of the pain. It felt… feels… far worse than I’d even told myself it would.

*The message from my brother, minutes afterward, letting me know she’d passed.

*Crying into the phone while my husband drove home, then crying in his arms.

*Telling my children and holding them through tears. Watching them watch me in concern.

*The surreal phone calls, emails, and texts about funeral details.

*The changes in my prayers, from begging for Cheryl’s healing to requesting strength and comfort for the rest of us.

*That first hug from a sibling two days later.

*Gathering with my sisters to arrange photo displays. Looking into Cheryl’s face through the years and milestones of the past.

*Writing a eulogy and sobbing through a different part each time I practiced aloud.

*The visitation, with its combined acceptance and avoidance of whichever moment will be the last of looking upon my sister face to face.

*The funeral, which managed an almost equal balance of sadness and beauty.

*The burial, which shook me and stripped away any lingering surreality.

Each was a brick to solidify the reality of Cheryl being gone.

On Tuesday the 18th, Cheryl told her doctor and her husband that she was finished with treatment. She signed the papers for hospice care in her home.

On Wednesday, my family visited her. We sat beside her bed, hugged her, held her hand, and conversed as much as we could. Sentences formed slowly as her eyes drifted shut between words, but we talked. I wish I could package up that visit in a vacuum to preserve without any faded or forgotten bits.

On Friday the 21st, with family gathered around her bed, she released her last breath and went to Jesus.

Tuesday evening, after receiving the update that she’d begun hospice care, I went for a run through my town. The sunset that evening was beautiful. Soft, pink sky with orange-streaked wisps of clouds. I remember feeling so angry about it. I was angry that, with all the awfulness of that day, the world dared to be beautiful. I was angry with myself for still noticing that beauty. It did not seem right. It took until near the end of my run, when I stopped beside the river in town to reconsider things. I leaned against a tree, cried, and realized how right it was after all.

Cheryl never stopped seeing God’s hand in this world. She saw reasons for joy and gratitude. His love, generosity, and care remained true and detectable to her. Even in the lowest times, when she felt distance between her and God, the awareness of his presence in this world did not leave her.

Right now, I’m most aware of pain. I see it in people’s faces. I wince at casual harshness from one to another. I wonder what this or that person is keeping to themselves behind an unaffected expression and ordinary words. I read between the lines of guarded social media posts. Then there are the unguarded ones, exposing their wounds and admitting their pain, and I’m reduced to tears once again.

For several months now, I’ve had a terribly hard time singing along to any songs. It doesn’t seem to matter what the song may be. There is something about the enlivening that comes from singing aloud. It cracks through my precarious grip every single time. A week before Cheryl died, I heard one I hadn’t heard before: MercyMe’s “Even If.”

God, when you choose to leave mountains unmovable, oh give me the strength to be able to sing, ‘It is well with my soul.’

MercyMe, “Even If”

This song has stayed with me through these days. I plan to sing along sometime soon.

Uncategorized

Walk

WALK.

The white letters flashed but Hazel did not step off the curb. Her feet held fast. She lifted her mug of coffee to her lips, staring at the sign.

WALK.

Other pedestrians did. They hustled over the white paint of the crosswalk. One caught Hazel’s elbow with his swinging arm, then threw an apology over his shoulder. The contact sent a shot of hot coffee through the cup’s lid, nipping like a flame against the roof of her mouth. The pain jostled Hazel out of her trance.

She stepped to her left, exiting the stream of on-foot commuters. The sign was already flashing it’s contrary orange message and Hazel swung her gaze away. She narrowed her eyes, locking in on the glass door of the building across the road. Her destination. They faced off – Hazel and that door – while cars passed between and pedestrians refilled the sidewalk squares beside her.

Hazel knew who would win. She’d been in this battle before, more than once. The door always won.

WALK.

Hazel saw the word in her peripheral. She ceded the stare down but did not obey the sign. This time, she closed her eyes.

With the darkness came amplified noise. Footsteps, conversations, tires against pavement, and the rattles and squeaks of vehicles. She searched for one sound, just one that could take her elsewhere and summon light into the dark. It was a technique she learned last year, when the panic was at its peak. She tried to remember the last time she’d needed to use it. A month? Two months? The question was a distraction, so Hazel returned to the sounds.

She found it. A swishing, as soft as a cotton dress moved by a breeze. The blank darkness of her vision began to break. Like a photo developing, the image spread. The sound became part of the whole.

Hazel stood, not on a city curb, but in a field. The wild grass reached her thighs. She stretched her fingers out to brush them across the tips of the grass. The space continued to fill. Cornflowers dotted the field, brilliant blue under golden light.

An ache crept into her bones. Hazel found it both painful and comforting. She longed to pick a handful of the flowers, to touch and hold them with more than her imagination. She’d clutch them as she skipped home. Mama would accept them with the grace of a queen receiving precious jewels.

“Thank you, my little Hazelnut. They are as beautiful as you.”

How many times had it gone that way?

The field began to fade. The sounds of morning in the city rose with a crescendo. Before it was fully gone, while the blue flowers still speckled her vision, Hazel breathed in the air of that field – of home, and twilight, and security. It filled her up.

She opened her eyes.

WALK.

And she did.

Faith, Family, Hope, Personal Reflection

Power Lines and Parabola Trees

Up the road from my childhood home are Parabola Trees. That isn’t their proper name, of course. My siblings and I dubbed them as such when I was in junior high or younger. They used to be quite ordinary, common trees, on the edge of an ordinary front yard along an ordinary country road.

Then it was noticed that the trees were growing beneath the power lines. In fact, the leaves at the top of the trees might have touched the lines if they stood on their tip toes. Something had to be done. Instead of trimming the whole top of each tree though, the powers-that-be decided to cut out the branches most directly beneath the power lines. The result was a deep and vacant U in the center of the tree. An upturned tunnel. Thus the name, Parabola Trees. It proved a lasting solution, as that empty space has never filled back up with new growth.

It feels a bit like my sister’s cancer is sawing into our family like they did to those trees. Core branches being cut out. The threat of creating an empty space that cannot regrow.

A daughter, a sister, an aunt, a grandmother. A friend. A giver. Core branches.

It also feels as if our prayers for a miracle are like begging the city workers to stop sawing and then petitioning them to move the power line rather than trim the tree. It’s a petition that’s difficult to expect to succeed, rendered even more unlikely if the workers were already as far along as the cancer in the cutting.

We petition anyway. We ask, and we believe in our cause. Reaching out to everyone we know, we encourage them to take up the same petition. We are certain there is power in the numbers dedicated to the cause. We keep asking, and we keep believing because, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

We know that if He chooses, He can move the power line and leave the tree intact.

It’s Cheryl’s 54th birthday today. I enjoyed some time with her and others in my family for the first time in months. Celebrating with her today, praising God that she reached this birthday, leaves me longing for certainty that she will reach the next one and the next and more.

I’ll wrap up these thoughts by sharing what I wrote in Cheryl’s card today, repeating to myself again that we do believe.

Happy birthday, Cheryl. You are a warrior in the truest sense, fighting relentlessly with faith in your battle and hope in the success of it. We love you and we believe in what the Lord can do.

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Family, Hope, Personal Reflection

Teatime

Sometimes you have to sit down with a cup of tea and lemon cookies, pretending the table that stands in your kitchen was still in its former home. You have to see your grandmother sitting across from you at that table, her table. Her hand is holding yours besides the lazy susan that always stood on that tabletop, filled with jams and butter and spoons and honey. Sometimes you have to hear her ask if you’re ok. Sometimes you have to admit you’re not, as her warm, wrinkled fingers squeeze yours.

I’m doing some self-caring this afternoon. It’s been an angry-sad, sad-angry day. One of those where it’s hard to tell which is the stronger emotion. The yoga mat is coming out as soon as I’m done working. I’m promising myself I will sit down to relax with my husband after the kids are in bed, no matter how many dirty dishes need washing.

I think the best thing my husband has done for me in this hills-and-valleys journey through my sister’s cancer battle is encourage me to feel whatever I’m feeling. No pretending it’s better than it is, or pushing to change those feelings.

I’m feeling them. The feelings lead to thoughts. Before I started typing this, I was thinking about lilacs. Lilacs are the flower and the scent most intimately linked in my mind with the women in my family, including my grandmother. And my sister Cheryl. Then I thought about how another association they both share in my mind is birds. Birds outside kitchen windows, in feeders and houses and garden baths.

My thoughts are rambling now and so am I.

Those hallmarks in my memory are set for life, I believe. I also believe they were lovingly picked by God to be The Beautiful in amongst The Difficult when I think of these dear women.

My hope is to call to mind the former more often than the latter.

Faith, Family, Hope, Personal Reflection, Prayer

We Don’t Know

I don’t want to write this post. I don’t feel like writing it.

I thought about writing it immediately after reading my sister’s message Friday night. I thought about writing it first thing Saturday morning, when I saw other family members’ social media posts. I wrote it in my head while I made breakfast for my kids. Still, I avoided sitting down at my computer and typing it out. Instead, I scrawled out some notes I didn’t want to lose, and went for a run.

I ran and I thought.

I thought about what I’ll feel toward God if the cancer takes my sister in the end. I thought about the anger I’ll experience. Would I feel it toward Him? Toward everything? Or maybe toward nothing, a fiery arrow of anger with no target for release?

I thought about timing, wishing pointlessly that I could tell God my preferences and they’d be taken into account with weight equal to His wisdom. Timing. If the cancer has returned, if her remission is slipping away, why is it happening during a pandemic? When we can’t be with each other? When hospital stays are endured alone, with no visitors? Timing. Her second grandchild is on the way. Growing, developing, taking shape in her daughter’s womb. A gift. A rainbow baby. I have some things to say to Him about timing.

This post sat in my head the remainder of yesterday but I knew I needed to write it this morning. Sunday morning, barren of congregations gathered to worship and pray as one. This is exactly when I should write it.

The reason to write is simple: to ask all of you to pray for my sister’s healing from lymphoma. Simple, and something I’ve done several times already. Why the avoidance, then?

I didn’t want to write it because it feels too much like admitting defeat. Feelings can lie though. They’re masters at it. Asking for prayers is not admitting defeat. It’s admitting faith.

Due to 35 days straight of low grade fevers, and being bedridden for much of that time, they have tested Cheryl for any possible explanation for her symptoms. The only one reasonably left is that the cancer is relapsing. The doctors have admitted this to be the case and she will undergo new scans and biopsies to check the truth of it.

We don’t know yet if the cancer is growing again.

We don’t know yet if God has a miracle for Cheryl.

I’m going to stop getting ahead of myself and admit that just as much as I don’t know the former, I don’t know the latter either. So, I ask you to pray. I ask you to believe in your prayers. I’ll do the same.

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Cheryl and her husband Tom, March 2020

Fiction, Flash Fiction, Hope

A Phoenix in the Garden

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We met on the track I was wearing in the hallway carpet. Pacing. Stretching my legs, ostensibly, but pacing, in truth. My brother was on the fourth hour of his third round of chemo. I was on the fourth hour of sitting by his side in one of the cancer center’s treatment rooms.

“What’s the matter with you?”

The question came from an individual I nearly tripped over as I rounded the end of my route again. It was a boy, a young man maybe, and his inquiry sounded genuine enough. Age was difficult to guess in this place. The undereye gray shadows and translucent skin beneath a knit hat could be a misleading combination. He may have been fourteen or he may have been twenty.

“With me?” I fumbled my reply, “No, nothing. Needed to stretch my legs.”

I tried a smile but my lips would neither part nor curve upward. His white-blonde eyebrows rose toward his shaved scalp, visible along the edge of the hat. He was as convinced as my smile was convincing. That is, not at all.

“Stretch your legs?”

“Stretch my legs.”

My perfectly good, functional, strong legs, I added to myself and continued walking. My mind summoned the image of my big brother, his limbs withered and wrapped in two blankets while lifesaving, toxic chemicals were pumped into his body. I walked faster.

“What you need is air.”

I slowed my feet, realizing he’d followed me.

“You know the way to the garden?” he asked.

I shook my head. The hallway suddenly felt stifling.

“There’s a garden?” I pushed the words past the stone in my throat.

He moved to the front, lifting one bony shoulder to indicate I should follow.

It wasn’t that the building was so awful. The walls and furniture were awash with soothing colors. The architecture was effectively welcoming, not to mention it was stocked with a staff deserving of an Olympic gold medal in warmth. Nonetheless, there was no way for it to be anything but a building you wished to leave.

It was also a building with a garden. My companion led me down new hallways, around new corners, and through a set of automatic doors. The doors opened on a small park of groomed grass and flower beds. Brightly painted wooden benches filled the in-between spaces and a swing set stood at the opposite edge with three rubber seats suspended on sturdy chains.

My guide sat down on the first bench we reached, which faced a fountain. In the center of the fountain was a bird that I recognized as a phoenix. The creature was painted blood red, a startling hue against the gray stone structure. Water flowed and fell from the carved pile of ashes from which the bird rose. Its wings were half-spread and its chest and head stretched toward the sky. Ready for flight.

Just us and the stone bird, still and silent we sat. I don’t know for how long. The young man’s breaths had an almost inaudible rasp. When a girl emerged through the doors, running to the swings with a woman calling caution after her, I spoke.

“Thank you for bringing me out here.” I glanced sideways and added, “I’m June.”

“Perry.”

“I’m here with my brother.”

His eyes remained fixed on the fountain. Their shade of brown was likely quite ordinary but set above those gray shadows they were bright and bold.

“Are you cold?” I asked.

“Not yet.”

The sun warmed me through my jeans and black t-shirt, but I’d witnessed how the disease robbed a person of his internal heat. My brother was invariably cold.

Perry and I returned to silence. The hushed rasp of his breaths, the squeak of a swing set chain, and the water moving beneath the phoenix accompanied my thoughts. None of those thoughts connected. They collided and stacked on top of each other. In between grocery lists, dentist appointments, and messages I’d been meaning to answer came the repeated question: Will my brother survive? Each time that one rose to the top, I scrambled for my next thought, for one that I could answer.

God could answer the other one. Only Him. This fact was both a source of pain and a balm to the pain. Was that truth really any different for the rest of us though? Cancer or no cancer, I knew as little about my own chances of survival as my brother’s.

True enough, I conceded, but our experience of that truth is anything but the same.

Perry cleared his throat. “I’m going to get a tattoo of that bird when I’m done here. When I’m in remission, I mean. I look at the thing every day. I don’t know, but I think I’ll need to take it with me.”

He turned my way and this time I had a real smile for him, lips curved up and everything.

“It will make an excellent tattoo,” I said.

A cloud obscured the sun and my smile fell away. Perry shivered. I looked at the phoenix once more.

“I should go back to my brother. Do you know the time?”

Perry shrugged. “I don’t pay attention to time anymore, not more than if it’s day or if it’s night. When I did pay attention, I was only counting down. I got tired of counting down.”

He leaned heavily on the arm of the bench and stood. His movements and his tone that followed were suited to a man of a more advanced age.

“Come on. You’ll never find your way back on your own.”

Perry left me at my brother’s door. I walked inside and asked, “Have you seen the garden yet? It has the most beautiful fountain.”

*”A Phoenix in the Garden” was originally published in Ever Eden Literary Journal, Spring 2020 issue.