Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow

Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow

My original blog title was How Do You Sum Up a Year? Rather an impossible task for me right now. I haven’t blogged since May. This has been kind of a crazy year. (I’m not going to go into details. It’s enough to know one thing that’s happened during the past two months.)

I am reveling in having time off from work during the holidays. I planned my whole year around work, something I’m not sure my colleagues do.  I needed vacation a couple of times but didn’t take it due to deadlines at work. Deadlines. We live and die by deadlines in my business. Sometimes I feel depleted as I edit one more catalog, rewrite copy for one more book, write back cover copy for books that are going to Production (months after I have written trade copy, consumer copy, designed author media kits, etc.). It’s almost like starting all over to write back cover copy. Enough about work. I am trying to distance myself from it mentally so I can go back refreshed in the New Year.

A huge change occurred in our lives a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. One morning, out of the blue, I got a phone call from sister-in-law, with whom I hadn’t spoken or been in contact with (though I tried) since 2007. “Anne, it’s Bonnie.” At first I thought it was a Bonnie from our church choir, but the voice didn’t sound like hers. Then, incredulously, I said, “Bonnie?”

And my dear sister-in-law said, “Yes, it’s me.” In her typical matter-of-fact approach to life, she told me that she was seriously ill, that she was worried about her husband (my husband’s brother),  and she hoped that we would be able to support him during her illness and beyond. We talked for quite a while, and I found myself relaxing and reconnecting with her after so long. We used to be close like sisters. Then something happenedbetween my husband and hers. Since she and my brother-in-law lived states away, it was easy to just cut off the relationship.

I don’t know how many times I have prayed about this situation, hoping that the estranged brothers would work through their differences and maybe have a workable adult relationship for the first time in their lives. Sometimes God answers prayers in ways you wouldn’t expect, and I didn’t particularly like the way that God answered my prayers. “Not fair!” I fumed to God, after discovering the my sister-in-law is very sick indeed and probably won’t survive a year. She had cancer wrapped around her colon, for which she had surgery sometime around Thanksgiving. The news was not good. She knew that she was in bad shape, having lost 30 pounds since January. She was small framed to begin with and has never weighed over 115-120 pounds. The surgeon reported that she has a mass around her aorta and another around her kidney. He removed the mass around her intestines.

Well, I got a little ahead of myself here. I was talking about Bonnie’s phone call, and then i skipped to her surgery. In the meantime we had several phone conversations. The most awkward ones were with her husband, but I appreciated that Bonnie had the courage to reach out to me and let me know about her health situation before she dies. She told me in that first phone call that she didn’t think she would opt to undergo chemotherapy. She was concerned that her husband would try to talk her into trying chemo. John and I began visiting her at the hospital after she had her surgery. (John sat with his brother while she was in surgery, and the first time I met him face-to-face after 10 years, he invited me to go back to recovery with him as soon as he was able to see Bonnie. That felt a little weird, and I knew Bonnie wouldn’t remember my being there, but I went anyway. She was groggy, of course, from anesthesia and didn’t want to wake up. She was also obviously in pain. The nurse in the recovery room was trying to get her to press her button to release pain meds, and I thought, “You are nuts if you think she is going to be cognizant enough to press this button tonight.” I didn’t say anything, though. Rudy and I left after about maybe 5 minutes back in recovery. He was exhausted from a long day of waiting and just wanted to get home and go to sleep.

So our holidays have been full of hospital visits. Bonnie and I have enjoyed catching up with each other. She has been so alert most of the time. The Sunday after her surgery on Wednesday, she slept all day and did not wake when Julie, my daughter, and I went to see her. Rudy had just left; he had been with her most of the day, and he said she had slept all day. (We ran into him as he was going to his car and we were headed to the parking garage.)

I have been reticent about stepping back too quickly into Rudy’s life. We have sat around Bonnie’s bedside (she was in the hospital for 5 weeks, nearly 6) and chatted a little. I took food by the house where they are staying in Nashville (and have been since Hurricane Irma) … didn’t think to take Thanksgiving dinner leftovers, but I cooked one of my favorite go-to casseroles, a hot chicken salad, the week after Thanksgiving. Yesterday, Christmas Day, I packed up some leftovers from our meal (spiral-sliced ham, ambrosia, macaroni casserole, and a strawberry/cream cheese/pretzel dessert. John and I went to see Bonnie first at the rehab where she is recuperating and trying to rebuild her strength. She is quite weak after so much time in the hospital bed and is taking physical and occupational therapy to try to get stronger. She has made progress and is able to walk short distances (around her room, down the hall, and this weekend, around her house). Rudy brought her home on Christmas Eve for part of the day. She was so homesick to see their two Maine Coon cats, Hans and Katerina. She got some good loving time with them. And then she went back to the health care center overnight, and Rudy brought her back home for Christmas Day).

After going to Bonnie’s room at the health care center and finding she wasn’t there, we figured she was at home, so we drove to their house, about 2 miles from the health care center. Their minivan was running, and I thought, “Well, I guess I should’ve called and seen what their plans were,” but we have found it easier to just show up. Rudy was warming up the van so it wouldn’t chill Bonnie (she’s down to 85 pounds) upon their return to rehab. Meanwhile we arrived with the food. I was just going to put it in the fridge, and John and I would leave, but Bonnie had other plans. I didn’t even think about offering her food because she typically doesn’t have much appetite. On Dec. 23, she ate maybe 3 bites of her dinner while we and Rudy were there, even though he tried to encourage her to eat more. Last night she was interested in the ham, so I put a small piece and a spoonful of macaroni casserole on a paper plate and microwaved it. She actually ate most of what was on her plate. She had also eaten well at the health care center…at least the red velvet cake was gone, and she’d had some ham there too.

Visiting Bonnie reminded me of spending time at the hospital two years in a row before my mom died back in 1991. The hospital and nursing home can be depressing places to be during the holidays. However, it has not felt depressing this time, even though the health situation and outlook are not hopeful.

Bonnie has made her peace with her disease. She told me in that first phone call that she had accepted her situation, but Rudy wasn’t there yet. He is grieving, as any loving spouse would, knowing that death is imminent. It’s not been a bed of roses for him or Bonnie…she has moments of panic, which are quite normal. Oh, I haven’t mentioned that she is a mental health professional. Therapists struggle with the same situations as everyone else. She knows in her head what she is going through. I found myself saying, “Hey, be gentle with yourself. You are venturing through territory you haven’t been through before. This is scary stuff and a daunting journey.” We have shared sweet moments together, and I find myself grieving in advance for losing her. Sometimes life just isn’t fair. You reconnect with a loved one only to find that there’s not much time left. However, there is grace in our circumstances. I’m so glad Bonnie had the courage to pick up the phone and reach out to me that day back in November.

God is good…all the time. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me” (Psalm 23). Even when we can’t feel the divine presence, God is there. He gives strength to the weak, and he comforts those who are struggling. Bonnie has found peace in the book Jesus Calling by Sarah Bessey. I occasionally send her texts with messages of encouragement and hope from what I read in The Upper Room daily devotional guide and other sources. Her soul is in a good place, and I am privileged to share this final journey with her.






Song of Peace

Song of Peace

Fireworks behind statue of liberty

“This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.”
–Lloyd Stone, 1912-1992/3, written in the interval between WWI and WWII when he was only 22

This song is one that our choir has sung several times around the 4th of July. I love it because it reminds me that just as we in the USA feel strongly about our country, its beauty, and our patriotism, so do people of other countries love their land, its beauty, and they are patriots too.

Over the years I have come to appreciate the freedoms we so often take for granted in the United States. I love my country, despite many things I see that make me recoil. A few things that come to mind are racial prejudice, the rich lording it over the rest of us, crooked politicians, a callous attitude toward those who are less fortunate than we, an air of superiority, and insistence that one point of view is right while everyone else’s is wrong. But though there are a lot of things that are wrong with our country, there are also many things that are right with it.

Traveling outside the U.S. has a way of making you see our country differently. When my husband and I visited Spain for a couple of weeks in March, I thought it was interesting to watch the news. There wasn’t much about the United States on their news. Oh, my…does that mean America is not the center of the universe, as we sometimes think we are?

This was our second trip to Europe; the first was 30 years ago. When we got home after that trip, I was so thankful for many things I’d taken for granted: air conditioning, ice in drinks, clean public restrooms without having to pay an attendant, being able to communicate in a common language. After our trip to Spain, I realized my perspective has shifted. We Americans are often spoiled. We visit other countries and expect things to be the way they are here. Well, they’re not.

I enjoyed our trip to Spain. We found the people friendly and helpful. Of course, it helped that I was able to communicate in Spanish. Not fluently, but my conversational Spanish was passable and I understood most of what I heard.

I’ve often heard it said that people are reflections of the way you treat them. If they treat you kindly, perhaps it’s because you send out vibes of kindness. If they are nasty toward you, maybe it’s because they sense some ugliness in you. Or maybe they’re just kind or nasty on their own…I don’t know.

On this trip, rather than thinking about what I missed about home, I started thinking about the advantages of being in another culture. It’s good to experience a slower pace of life, to linger over a meal for a while, to be anonymous in a crowd, to not feel like everyone owes me something (I don’t think I have that attitude as an American, but perhaps some of it is engrained in me).

I did come to appreciate the virtues of toilet tissue and having a commode seat (we ate in a few restaurants in Sevilla where these “amenities” were not available). I was also glad I took along a purse-size package of Kleenex.

Well, I am getting distracted now because my family is in the kitchen, so I will close. No really deep thoughts here, just appreciation for our country and its freedoms and the right to express my opinion and the right for others to disagree with me and the prayer that we will learn to appreciate the differences of others and embrace diversity and learn to practice compassion, listen more and talk less, and be a little more tolerant and forgiving of those who “push our buttons.” That is all.

Two Storms That Shook My Faith

Two Storms That Shook My Faith

This morning as I was reading Openings: A Daybook of Saints, Psalms, and Prayer by Larry James Peacock, I decided to follow the suggestion “write about some storm you have experienced.” It could be an actual storm or an inner storm that shook my faith, a time of doubt or despair, a time I needed the power and strength of God. Here’s what I wrote:

O God, probably the biggest storm that shook my faith
was when my mom became ill with Parkinson’s disease and developed dementia (among other unpleasant symptoms)
My dad was her caregiver,
and I lived 300 miles away.
I felt so guilty not being there,
yet how could I be in two places at once?

At the beginning of the storm, it was 1986 when my mom was diagnosed. I was 26 years old.
Then as the storm raged and she grew worse, I was 27 and pregnant with my first child.
Our son, Daniel, was born, and John and I faithfully traveled to Kingsport
every six weeks or so to see my parents,
who could not travel by that time due to my mom’s condition.
Those years are a blur in my memory.

Another storm occurred when I was 30:
I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder,
though at the time I was told it was liver disease.
Suddenly I was faced with the prospect of my own mortality.
I was so afraid. John was afraid.
Our pastor came to see me at the hospital
and told me that this was one of the speed bumps on the road of life.
Somehow that remark calmed me and gave me a little perspective.
John and I desperately wanted another child,
and we asked the doctor about my life expectancy
and the advisability of having more children.
After all, I wanted to be around to help raise them.
My doctor consulted with experts in my disease (primary biliary cirrhosis)
and was told this condition usually occurs in middle-aged to older women.
Still, the experts thought that I would have a normal life span
and so we could proceed with our plans to have another child.
In 1990, when Daniel was 3 years, 8 months, our daughter,
Julie, was born. What a blessing! What a bundle of joy! How tired Mom was,
but oh, so joyful.

Back to storm #1. In 1991, Daniel was 4 and Julie was 6 months old.
I received a phone call on February 10 from my dad,
informing me that my mom had just died.
We had been expecting this news for a couple of months,
as my mother was hospitalized since December
and had spiked many high fevers,
and I had said good-bye to her when we left Kingsport after Christmas.
I knew. I knew I would never see my mother again this side
of heaven. It was hard. Oh, so hard.
She could barely speak (and then only incoherent thoughts),
but we held hands and I told her I loved her
and I knew that we would be together again someday with Jesus.

God, I was so afraid. Yet you were there with me then, Lord.
You kindly listened to all my frustrated ramblings, anxious thoughts,
depressed feelings,
And you were there when the worst thing imaginable for me finally happened:
my mother died.

Those days after her death were a blur: so many decisions to be made.
I remember my cousin Sue’s kindness:
She washed a couple of blouses and hung up two suits on the door
of my mother’s closet,
narrowing the choices for me as I decided what my mom — my cheerleader and encourager and beginning-to-be best friend —
would be buried in.

I recall shopping for caskets in the big, hidden room at the funeral home —
it struck me as a strange and ludicrous task —
and I was trying to be mindful of my dad’s budget (not knowing exactly what it was)
and the expectations of my family.
I finally selected a silvery rose-colored casket with roses sculpted on the corner.
My mom loved flowers, and I figured those would please her.

I remember the flood of people who came to the funeral home visitation
and the minister who said, “It was God’s will,” meaning that my mom’s time had come.
Something inside me raged, “No! It was NOT God’s will.” I wanted to shout at him, “No! It was not God’s will that my mother,
a kind, dedicated, loving, Christian woman
should be struck down in what was supposed to be the chapter of life where she slowed down a bit, relaxed, and enjoyed traveling with my dad — something my parents had always planned to do during retirement
but never had a chance, thanks to that old Parkinson’s disease.
My mom was supposed to enjoy her grandchildren
and be there to guide me as I learned how to be a mother myself.
No, it was not God’s will that she have this awful disease
that robbed her mind as it ravaged her body, making it rigid and trembling
and causing her face to freeze in an expressionless stare.”

God, somehow I knew, I knew
that you wanted the best for my mom,
my dad, my family,
and me.
And so with your help I got through those painful days.
You sent friends just when I needed them
and just in the way I needed them to minister to me.
One work friend called on the day of Mommy’s funeral
Just to check in and offer support and listen to me
and remind me that I had people in Nashville who loved me
and would be ready to receive me with love and wrap their arms around
me when we returned home.

The flowers we got at the funeral home comforted me,
reminding me of how much my mother loved flowers
and visible tokens of how much she and my dad and I were loved.
In my opinion, it’s not a waste to send flowers to a family (even if they specify “in lieu of flowers,” which we did in the obituary).
You need a few cheerful, bright, hopeful things
to focus on amid the shadows, gloom, and darkness of sorrow and grief.

My college friends who came to the visitation —
oh, how sweet were their faces
and how welcome among the many faces I didn’t know,
all the distant cousins my dad kept introducing me to
who came out of the hollows and, seemingly, the woodwork.

Yes, you were there, dear Lord and sweet brother, Jesus,
You held my hand and had my back.
You listened to me cry and fumble for words when there were no words.
Thank you, Lord, thank you.
And you are still with me to this day.

All my heart can say is,”I love you, Lord
and I lift my voice to worship you,
O my soul, rejoice…”

Dear God, loving Lord, and comforting Holy Spirit,
thank you for seeing me through those dark days
and for your promise that you will never leave me alone.
My heart and soul are blessed.

Blessed be the name of the Lord,
in whom I hope and trust.

In Gratitude for Body Parts That Work Like They’re Supposed to

Today I am especially grateful that my left elbow, which got infected on December 14, is regaining mobility and function. It’s amazing what we take for granted when all is going well. Then when we injure some part of our body, or something goes wrong, we are reminded how much we rely on that previously ignored body part.

I have an autoimmune disorder that was diagnosed in 1989. Since then I’ve had many opportunities to appreciate a properly functioning body, as little surprises crop up when I least expect them. The latest episode took place when some calcium deposits in my elbow became inflamed, then infected. I went to the doctor two days later, and she put me on a strong antibiotic and asked me to return two days later so she could assess my progress. She mentioned that I might have to be hospitalized for IV infusion of antibiotics.

That evening I started running a fever, and it went up to 102.1 (pretty high for me, since my body temperature normally is about 97.6). John called the doctor that night, and she asked me to come in first thing the next morning. Fortunately, the antibiotic started working so I didn’t have to be hospitalized. But my arm was swollen from the wrist almost to my shoulder, and I couldn’t bend my elbow enough to be able to put on earrings or roll my hair. John helped me out with those tasks for a couple of days, as well as assisting me with showers. Wouldn’t you know the infection/inflammation was in full force on the day of our church choir’s annual Feast of Lights (our big Christmas music worship service). I managed to hold my folder with my right hand and turn pages with my left.

So I’ve been thinking about the lessons I learned during this time I was physically impaired. Probably the biggest challenge was patience, as it took me nearly twice as long to get dressed each day, plus my elbow just plain hurt.

I thought about people who suffer each day from chronic pain, and I felt empathy for them. It’s hard to be pleasant to others when you’re in pain. I hope I will remember this when I encounter someone who snaps at me. You never know what someone may be going through; all we see are snapshots of people’s lives.

I felt grateful for John’s willingness to pick up some extra work, like loading the dishwasher and cooking and assisting with all sorts of tasks. He did it gladly, and he made me feel loved. My dad, who is living with us right now while going through treatment for leukemia, also was eager to help. He folded laundry and was a comforting presence.

I kept thinking of the passage from 1 Corinthians 12 where the apostle Paul writes about how the parts of the body are like individuals (and each person’s unique gifts) in the church:

12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. 14 Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. 15 If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 16 If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. 19 If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? 20 But as it is, there are many parts but one body. 21 So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” 22 Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary. 23 The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most. The private parts of our body that aren’t presentable are the ones that are given the most dignity. 24 The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor 25 so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other.”

I think this is one of my favorite scripture passages. It reminds me of the wonderful diversity of people and how God designed us all to be different with unique gifts. My hope is that someday Christians will unite in demonstrating “mutual concern” and love for each person regardless of their differences, whether in religious views, gender, political persuasions, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or whatever.

I Haven’t Dropped Off the Face of the Earth

I’ve just been a little absorbed since June with traveling for work (once a month from June through October), vacation and a family wedding in September, changes in my job (good ones) and learning to deal with new technological challenges, and last but not least, my dad and his physical decline.

This month I have driven to North Carolina two weekends in a row to arrange home health care, look for assisted living, go to doctor appointment, and cook for him. Prayers have been answered in the facts that my dad has accepted that it is no longer safe for him to live by himself, and he’s planning to move to Nashville for at least a while as he undergoes treatment.

Now that we have a diagnosis (he has a form of leukemia common in elderly people), the next step is to consult with an oncologist in Nashville. In all of this experience I am grateful for:

  • my sweet husband, who has shopped for groceries, cooked, made many phone calls to arrange doctor visits for my dad here, and just generally been a rock for me
  • friends and coworkers who are praying for me
  • good books to read (and divert my attention)
  • funny comments on Facebook and Twitter
  • yoga and my walking buddies
  • the gift of prayer and the assurance that God will be my strength
  • my crazy kitty, Lily, who warms my lap each night
  • crisp fall weather (even when it’s damp and cold)
  • the beauty of nature
  • art and music to enjoy
  • writing, poetry, and the right words spoken when I need them

I am a little weary but holding up okay. One day at a time. One foot in front of the other.