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.

 

Advent, Christmas, Faith, Family, Hope, Personal Reflection, Prayer

God Does Not Sleep

Christmas doesn’t always bring a person home to a warm hearth and an idyllic pause in the strife of our days.

I typically post only on Facebook about my sister Cheryl’s battle with aggressive, advanced lymphoma. Periodically, I have asked for prayers and support from family and friends while sharing the current status of the fight. The nature of the battle now brings me here, to a broader collection of family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

Cheryl will spend Christmas at the Mayo Clinic hospital in Rochester, MN. Under the superb care of their doctors and nurses, she and her beloved husband Tom are awaiting the delivery of her genetically modified T Cells to be transplanted back into her ailing body. These cells, with newly gained superpowers, will try their hardest to attack the cancer cells that have spread and grown in recent months. She has literally been sustained this month by chemotherapy and steroid treatments, biding her time until the T Cells are ready.

As Christmas, that must joyous of celebrations, approaches, the only gift my faithful sister hopes for is life.

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Cheryl, her husband Tom, and their children Catrina and Ryan, 12/14/19

I can’t write that without tears streaming down my face. At least once a day, I let the tears fall and plead with God to restore Cheryl to health and vitality. I release the valve for a few moments and allow the sadness, anger, and feeble hope to rise to the surface. Cheryl’s warrior spirit has taught every member of my family the astounding depth of true faith and strength that come from a divine source.

From-the-heart honesty: I don’t want any more lessons. I want healing. I want Cheryl to land on the right side of the statistics and odds. The only thing I want us to learn in the weeks to come is that miracles do happen.

Please add your prayers to mine. I rest in this: God does not sleep. He does not look away. He does not set us down from our place in His hands.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

 

He will not let your foot be moved,
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

 

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade
on your right hand.
The sun shall not smite you by day,
nor the moon by night.

 

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and for evermore.

Psalm 121

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Cheryl, me, and my children Annabelle and Timothy, 11/24/19
Faith, Family, Hope, Personal Reflection, Prayer

Run Harder

I ran this one for Cheryl. On my drive to the 10k trail race I ran this morning, I made up my mind to dedicate the run to my sister.

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Let me tell you about Cheryl.

Cheryl is my oldest sister. She is a beautiful, generous, resilient rock star of a woman. She is a bottomless well of faith. Three times, Cheryl has come out victorious against cancer. Today, she is a patient at Mayo Clinic in her fourth battle. Her hardest battle. I’ve witnessed the physical misery, the sadness, and the loneliness for home as she spends more strings of days in a hospital than outside it. I’ve watched the decisions to fight, to believe, and to hope. I have seen real faith.

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So, this morning, I set the purpose in my heart to run for Cheryl. I kept her in my thoughts as I waited at the starting line with 110 other people about to run 6.2 miles through the woods. As we all headed up the first hill, a steep one right after the start, I said a prayer for her. When I ran through easier stretches along meadows, enjoying the sun-soaked fall colors, I prayed for her to have easier days. While I trudged up the frequent hills on the trail, breathing hard and wanting to walk, I thought of my warrior sister fighting for her life and I said to myself, “Run harder.”

Eventually, I crossed the finish line. I felt strong, much stronger than when I ran the same race last year. My body surged with energy and I smiled as I reached the bottom of the last hill with the finish line only yards away. When I crossed that finish line though, I nearly broke down. I felt the tears pressing against my eyes, trying to escape. I felt my breathless lungs become even more constricted as a sob rose up in my throat. Then I saw a coworker standing with other finishers, drinking their water and eating their bananas, as we all do at the end of a race. I stepped over to where she was and exchanged a high-five with a smile and a compliment to her race. And I was ok. The very brief conversation made that sob dissolve and those tears retreat. I was relieved to save my crying for later, when I was alone with my thoughts.

Today, I wore the Warrior shirt designed by friends of Cheryl to support her and her family, and there were a handful of times that I glanced down at the word across my front and thought, “Run harder.” Run like Cheryl fights. Run like Cheryl believes and hopes. Run harder.

“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”

Isaiah 40:31, RSV

Faith, Family, Hope, Jesus, Personal Reflection, Prayer

Sunbeams and Prayer Time

There’s a quote from Flannery O’Connor that resonates with me as a writer: “I write to discover what I know.” Within the act of writing out my thoughts on a matter, there is often a sorting-out that occurs. Clarity arises. In writing a fiction story as well, certain ideas give me pause, making me question where the words came from within me. Writing teaches me a lot about myself.

This morning, that quote came to mind after I spent a bit of time in prayer. I thought how appropriate it’d be to say instead, “I pray to discover what I know.” Because sometimes – not all the time, but sometimes – at the close of your prayer, you are left with nothing more than what you know, and that is enough.

I had dropped the kids off at the sitter a few minutes ahead of schedule and was on my way to my office. I’d only driven a quarter mile though before I pulled over. I stepped out of my car, sat down on a curbside bench on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan, and stared at this:

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I stared at the sunbeams. I stared at the clouds. I stared at the barely-there waves lapping the beach. Then, I prayed.

My family was exchanging text messages for the past hour or more as my oldest sister Cheryl prepared for her latest doctor appointment in Milwaukee. Today she’ll have a biopsy of one of the growths they’ve found, then she’ll wait approximately a week while it is analyzed to determine the exact type and stage of the cancer that has spread throughout her body.

Sitting on that bench, I thought of the specific things for which Cheryl had requested we pray. Then my mind went blank, wiped by the emotions that cluster into my throat and chest each time I pray for my sister. My own words disappeared and I resorted to what I know:

“Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son…”

I whispered the words, as secure and comforting as home, and I discovered what I know:

I know that God is our father. Our perfect father who has us in his care at all times even as he allows our free will and the natural world to run their course.

I know that God provides our daily bread. He places in our path the people and resources and situations to meet our souls’ and bodies’ needs.

I know that Jesus listens to the prayers of his family, and that like any Queen Mother who has the ear of her son, the King, we have Mary praying for us at Jesus’ side.

I know that God – the Holy Trinity – is worthy of all glory and praise. I know that he is unchanging, all-powerful, infinitely wise, and good without exception.

I don’t know what answer God will give to our family’s prayers, but I do know He’ll answer. Sometimes it only takes three minutes of prayer time and some stunning sunbeams to help us discover what we know.