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.






Random Thoughts on Mortality

For some reason I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe it’s the constant reminders around me that people die each day. It seems that when I attend funerals, they come in clumps. Sometimes I think I just can’t handle going to one more visitation, hugging the family members of the deceased, sitting through another memorial service.

But I go anyway. It’s my way of honoring the person who died, or if I didn’t know the person, of showing my concern for a friend. I often learn things about the person who died and wish I’d known him or her better.

Long ago I was faced with the possibility of my own demise. At age 30, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. At the time, I felt fear wash over me. I stayed awake nights wondering what would become of my 18-month-old son and my sweet husband. I had a minor faith crisis, asking God why he would let something like this happen to me. Then I thought about all the innocent people killed by war and other circumstances, and the thought “Why not?” occurred to me. My pastor introduced me to a young woman about my age who needed a heart and lung transplant. We chatted a bit at a church picnic. Our discussion was mainly commiseration over circumstances we could not control, but it ended on a hopeful note. She died not long afterward.

Two Sundays ago as our choir was returning to the choir room following the worship service, I commented to someone, “I want that hymn at my funeral.” I was referring to “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath.” My comment was met with a strange look, but people have become accustomed to my random thinking, so they probably didn’t give it a second thought.

The next day I sat down and planned the hymns I want at my funeral.

“I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath”–I like this hymn because of its text (naturally) and its glorious tune.

“I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath, and when my soul is lost in death, praise shall employ my nobler powers.
My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
while life, and thought, and being last,
or immortality endures.”

I haven’t been Methodist long enough to remember the rest of the text, only that I resonate with its words (Isaac Watts, 1737; altered by John Wesley, can’t remember the year, though I just checked…John, how dare you edit Isaac? :D).

“I Stand Amazed in the Presence” … of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how he could love me, a sinner condemned, unclean. How marvelous, how wonderful, and my song shall ever be, How marvelous, how wonderful is my Savior’s love to me! (st. 4) When with the ransomed in glory his face I at last shall see, ‘Twill be my joy through the ages to sing of his love for me. How marvelous….” (Charles H. Gabriel, 1956-1932)

Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine, heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long! This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. (Fanny J. Crosby, 1820-1915)

If a choir is available, I want one (preferably the choir from Belmont UMC, with a few of my Baptist friends thrown in just to make things interesting) to sing at my funeral. Just because I’ve spent so many years warbling (I do mean warbling…my voice is getting weaker and lower the older I get, but I still love to try to sing my love and praise to God.) Some of my favorite choral anthems:

“The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” by Tom Fettke–This ethereal song captured my imagination the first time I first heard it, and it leads me into worship every time I hear or sing it.

Some Latin arrangement, though I can’t remember one at the moment. I’ve come to appreciate Latin after struggling with it for a while when I first joined our choir. “Jubilate Deo” or “Adoramus Te”…probably the latter. Can’t remember the title, but Gayle Sullivan will know, if she’s still around when I die. She has the discretion to know which alto parts are the most fun to sing.

“Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”–Joseph Martin arrangement

Back to other hymns I’d like sung at my funeral:

“Be Thou My Vision, O Lord of my heart, naught be all else to me save that thou art, thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, thy presence my light. … Riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise, thou mine inheritance now and always, thou and thou only, first in my heart, high King of heaven, my treasure thou art.” (Words: Ancient Irish, translated by Mary E. Byrne, 1880-1931; “versified” by Eleanor H. Hull, 1960-1935)

And we need to work a little Ralph Vaughan Williams in there…“For All the Saints who from their labors rest…”

And while I’m being rolled out the door (wait, I plan to be cremated), I’d want the hymn “God Will Take Care of You” either played or sung. This is a tribute to my grandfather, who sang that hymn over and over…and to my Baptist heritage (words by Civilla D. Martin, 1969-1948; music: W. Stillman Martin, 1862-1935):

Be not dismayed what’er betide, God will take care of you, beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you. God will take care of you through all your days, o’er all your ways, [words altered by moi] God will take care of you, God will take care of you.

What uplifting thoughts for a Monday morning! Now I must go and do a good day’s work.