Thursday, August 20, 2015

Three years

On this day in 2012, Jonah was diagnosed with cancer.

A month earlier, after our annual family reunion, our boys had returned home tan and tired from four days of swimming and playing and staying up late with the cousins they see once a year. The other boys quickly slept off the fatigue, but Jonah’s exhaustion seemed to linger.

At first we thought he was simply in a blue mood, missing his cousins. Or perhaps he was nothing more than bored after coming home to our quiet routine after a week of constant activity. We gave him extra chores to do. I handed him a shovel and set him to work digging out roots of a shrub we had cut down in the front yard. He did the work sluggishly and with limp arms. We gave him pep talks. He yawned his way through them. We tried to keep him busy. He lay down on the couch, the bed, the floor at every opportunity. And then he came down with a fever. After testing positive for strep, he stayed in bed for most of a week and completed a ten-day round of antibiotics. But afterward he looked more pale and sickly than he had before.

We shuttled him to lacrosse practice, where he wheezed his way down the field. Our highly active, athletically competitive boy merely walked up the field, loosely holding his stick, while his teammates rushed and spun past him toward the goal. That’s when I began to feel uneasy.

Then Jonah’s fever came back. His face and lips by now were almost yellow, and he complained of constant dull pain in his arm. His swollen tonsils and intensely sore throat returned. He would not get out of bed, and his room gradually took on the stale smell of fevered breath.

We brought him back to the doctor, but this time Jonah did not test positive for strep. His spleen was enlarged and his energy low, so the doctor suspected a textbook case of mono—textbook except for his age. That was unusual. He told Jonah to rest up and come back for a follow-up visit if he wasn’t feeling better soon.

Within days, Jonah’s health rapidly deteriorated. On the morning of his follow-up appointment, he could not walk. His breath was shallow. He cried when we asked him to stand. We had to carry his weak, pale body to the car. He could not even sit up in the back seat. After one brief visit with Jonah, and a negative test for both strep and mono, the doctor sent him straight to the hospital for bloodwork.

Jayson had to carry Jonah through the doors and push him down the polished hospital hallways in a wheelchair to the lab. After the blood draw, Jayson started back with Jonah toward the automatic sliding doors when the lab technician came running after him, calling, “Wait! Don’t go anywhere. Jonah’s blood counts are at critical levels, and the doctor needs you to stay.”

That was at dinner time. At home, I was halfway through preparing a meal for my cousin who had recently given birth to a baby girl. Waiting apprehensively for news on Jonah, and grateful to have my mind and hands occupied, I rolled out dough and washed lettuce. Then Jayson walked through the back door and delivered the heavy news. My joints seemed to turn to liquid.

By bedtime that night, Jonah was in a hospital bed ninety miles away in Spokane, with an IV in his arm and chemo dripping into his veins.

•  •  •  •  •

That was August 20, 2012. If you’ve followed my blog or social media posts (hashtag "prayforjonah") through Jonah’s treatment, you know about a lot of his story since then. We have slogged through dark swamps of distress and sailed on deep swells of blessings. This cancer has laid Jonah flat on his back—on hospital beds and on Hawaiian beaches. We are not finished with this extended season of testing, and we, like all of you, don’t know what new trials may come. But we are grateful now to be nearer to the completion of Jonah’s treatment for A.L.L. leukemia—a three-and-a-half-year adventure that is leaving us all with a bigger vocabulary and a deeper faith and a greater understanding of the strength and joy that God brings through suffering.

Jonah’s final spinal tap—his 25th—is scheduled for early November. And Jonah’s final dose of chemo—after 3 1/2 years of taking it every single day—is slated for December 3. You can imagine what a delightful Christmastime this year’s is shaping up to be!

So thank you, yet again, all for your ongoing, faithful prayers and gifts and words of encouragement. The light at the end of this long, narrow tunnel is burning steadily brighter. Jonah will not be considered cured until August of 2017—five years from his diagnosis. In the meantime, he will continue to return to Spokane for monthly checkups at the hospital, and, as some of the side effects may not appear until further into his life, we ask for your continued prayers for his full and complete healing, and peace for us, his parents, especially after his treatments end. I'm told that the "watch and wait" phase can be as great a test of faith and patience as any of the intensive phases of treatment.

For now, however, we are grateful to have come this far, and Jonah is looking forward to December 3 with great anticipation. To be done with chemo is a tremendous milestone, and December 3 sounds like a perfect day to throw a big, joyful party. I hope that, wherever you are on that day, you will celebrate with us.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

No Place at the Table

Yesterday morning, I was reading a thoughtful essay on the history of American race relations that our friend Brendan wrote for the Theopolis Institute, and his words, combined with the news of Harper Lee's upcoming sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, reminded me of a brief conversation I once had with my grandmother. She told me a little story about a woman who came to live with her family in the 1930's. This seemed like as good a day as any to share it:

• • • • •

My Grandma Fran in high school at her home in Marissa, IL
About six months before my grandmother died, I was sitting next to her on the floral sofa in her sunny basement apartment at my parents' house, looking through a dusty shoebox full of old photos. As the brittle and faded images emerged from the box, they brought with them dozens of stories of small-town life in southern Illinois: high school dances, grade school plays, baseball games, and Sunday afternoons on the porch with fresh-squeezed lemonade and homemade ice cream.

But the one photo that I remember most clearly was a black-and-white image on a penny postcard—a solemn full-length portrait of a slender middle-aged black woman in a ruffled satin dress. I turned the card over to check for a name, but the back side, apart from the printed address of a St. Louis portrait studio, was blank.

This was the only photo of a black person that I had pulled from the entire shoebox, and I wanted to know more. Who was she?

Grandma took the photo in her arthritic fingers. She considered the photo quietly for a moment, the sound of a clock quietly tsk-tsking on the side table. I could smell her faint perfume mingled with the Bengay she rubbed daily onto her aching joints. Then she cracked a thin smile and began her story.

The woman's last name was Smith (that's all I can remember now), and she had been a friend of Grandma's mother, my great-grandmother. Miss Smith had grown close with the family—working for them as household help—back in Missouri when both my Great-Grandma McCreight and Miss Smith were young women. After my great-grandmother married, Miss Smith remained single and continued to live and work in St. Louis, but she corresponded regularly with my great-grandma for many years.

Eventually—close to twenty years later, I would guess, when my grandmother was in high school—the letters from St. Louis stopped coming. My great-grandmother was concerned by the silence and wrote Miss Smith to find out if something was the matter. Miss Smith, it turned out, had fallen very ill and was now facing a long, slow recovery during which she was unable to earn enough money to live on. "Well, of course Mother asked her to come and live with us," my grandma told me. But Miss Smith resisted the invitation for weeks, maybe months, until at last she was no longer able to put food on her own table. Then she moved to Marissa, Illinois, to live with my grandmother's family.

"We just loved her," my grandma said. "We really did!"

"We really did!" She said it with emphasis, as though it might come as a shock to me. And it probably was a shock to the people that lived around her childhood home. As you can imagine, in a southern town in the mid-1930s, not every citizen did "just love her." Grandma's father was well respected in the community. He served as the postmaster, appointed by President Calvin Coolidge himself, and just about everybody knew him. His family, with its collection of freckled redheads, was a fixture in town. People liked them. But the town ordinances specifically forbade black people from taking up residence within city limits—even, apparently, as house guests. Some of the neighbors must have complained because my great-grandfather had to go before the city council to obtain a special provision that would allow Miss Smith to live with their family.

Grandma said that over time "everyone" fell in love with Miss Smith, once they got to know her. Perhaps it was true. Perhaps. I hope so. But the fact remained that she was the only legal black resident of Marissa, Illinois, at that moment in history. The only one. And only on account of a special legal exclusion granted to my grandfather.

Honestly, it's hard to believe that everyone "fell in love" with Miss Smith the way my grandma remembered it. My grandmother was hardly more than a child at the time, and both the region and the era suggest that not everyone would have tried to get to know Miss Smith, let alone welcome her with open arms. And who knows what head shaking and finger pointing took place behind the family's backs?

Miss Smith lived in the McCreight family home for an extended period—for well over a year. All six kids, my grandma said, adored her. My great-grandparents loved her. She was a tremendous help and comfort to my great-grandmother who suffered from debilitating asthma attacks. She was an old and dear family friend. And yet… She lived upstairs in the hot, drafty attic by herself. Grandma said they tried to give her a better room in the house, but she wouldn't take it. And at family meals, Miss Smith could not be convinced to sit with them. Only on special occasions would she join the family at the table.

Sometimes, my grandma recalled, Miss Smith would sit on the floor when there weren't enough chairs. "I just couldn't understand why she would do that!" Grandma said with a chuckle. “Dad would offer her his chair. We always told her to come have a seat with us! But every time, she'd say, ‘Oh, no. I know my place. I know my place.'"

That phrase, “I know my place," was, for me, the hardest part of the story to hear. My grandmother shook her head at it, unable to understand, all those decades later, why this house guest of theirs would choose to say such a thing. To her it seemed a little funny—a personality quirk, perhaps. But it made me wonder why my grandmother's family, for all their kindness, did not insist that Miss Smith sit with them at the table. Why did they not downright forbid a clearly unhealthy woman from inhabiting the most miserable room in the house? Why, if they truly loved her, did they not take her by the hand and lift her off of that floor and give her that chair and refuse to take no for an answer?

Miss Smith said she knew her place, and my great-grandparents did not—or could not—help her to un-know it. Everybody "just loved her," but she still had no seat at the family table.

A year or two later, after her long recovery, Miss Smith returned to St. Louis and continued to write letters for a while, but she eventually lost touch with the family. Grandma never heard what became of her. But I wish I knew. Did she eventually marry? Did she have any children of her own? Are some of her grandchildren or family members still living right there in Missouri? Living, perhaps, in Ferguson at this moment? What small part, for good or ill, might my grandma's family story have played in the greater narrative of the events that happened there this year? And what small part will the words and actions of my own family play in events yet to come?

My grandma's family was, I realize, more welcoming than many white families would have been at that time and in that place. But their love, it seemed, was incomplete. At the end of the day, Miss Smith still knew, or believed she knew, that she was not truly welcome. Not really at home. Not fully party of the family or the community. That phrase, "I know my place," remains a painful echo from my own family history—a history that is not, after all, quite as distant as I might wish it to be.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Comfort, comfort ye my people

Today is the fourth day of Christmas. Today we continue to welcome the arrival of the incarnate King—the Word made flesh. Today we continue to give gifts to our children and to sing of the birth of the Second Adam. Today we again raise our glasses and our voices in celebration of the event that marked the beginning of a new humanity—the beginning of all things made new. Today our spirits rejoice in God our Savior who has visited us in our low estate.

Today is also the Feast of the Holy Innocents—a day that, according to the church calendar, commemorates the massacre of the infants by king Herod following the visit of the magi. Today, many churches around the globe remember that loud lamentation—the voice of Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more.

Today is the collision of two feast days, one of joy and the other of mourning. And today, I feel both the weight of that glory and the weight of that grief.

• • • • • •

Last night, as I lay awake next to the low hum of the humidifier, trying to relieve the pressure from a splitting sinus headache, I received a Facebook notification on my phone—a friend asking for prayer for her son and husband who were lost in the dark and snow on a mountainside in central Idaho with a search and rescue team sent out to find them.

My heart raced. Jayson and I had just spent the afternoon driving slowly home from Spokane and knew how icy and treacherous the highways were. We ourselves had slid on the road and seen cars being towed from snowy ditches, and I could only imagine how much more dangerous the driving conditions must be on a winding mountain road. We prayed for the safe return of these two men and for peace for my friend as she sat up during the long, dark hours waiting for news.

Still unable to sleep, I read another prayer request sent out by yet another friend. This time, my heart fell into the pit of my stomach. Earlier in the day another friend of mine and her husband had left home with their daughter, a former classmate of Jonah’s, to drive her to Montana for a visit with friends. As they drove on those same icy, snow-covered roads, they were involved in a collision that injured my friend, but that killed their daughter instantly.

I spent a good part of the night with an aching head and a breaking heart, praying and praying again for these dear families—and particularly for these mothers. Both of these families have already suffered through tremendous trials, long periods of uncertainty, and pain of body and spirit. And yet both of these families, in the middle of their various struggles, have shown all of us what it looks like to have joy in the midst of trouble. These mothers in particular have been an ongoing example to me of selfless love, steadfast patience and joyful encouragement—women who pour themselves out to bless those around them.

As I prayed, I wondered, not for the first time, at the sudden and severe providences of God.

• • • • • •

I know that at times like this, Reformed Christians like me tend to toss Romans 8:28 around like some kind of magical band-aid: God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, so turn that frown upside down! But trusting in God’s mercy and kindness, believing that He is doing good in the direst circumstances, is not always an instant cure for a broken body or a breaking heart.

Does the reality of pain and death undo the truth of that verse? No. But I also cannot pretend to know exactly how God is working all things for our good. Why must these families, of all people, be given this additional weight to bear? Why this? And why them? I don't know the answer. But I remind myself that God is working for the good not only of those who suffer but also for the good of those who are witnesses to their suffering.

Knowing how these women, these friends of mine, have repeatedly expressed their deep trust in the goodness of God while facing life-altering trials is something that has certainly worked for good in my own life. In many ways, it's through seeing the example of other suffering saints that I found courage to face smaller trials in my own life—and that prepared me for facing some of the hardest days of Jonah's cancer treatment. For that I am grateful. But knowing that God is doing good through these hard moments does not mean that the moments cease to be hard.

How many times have I have bitten my nails in fear or felt tears welling up with sadness during the most harrowing moments of a good story—a story that I already knew would have happy ending? Knowing the end—knowing the good to come—does not take away the tension or the tears. How much more so when the story is the one lived out before our eyes in real time? If even Jesus, who knew that Lazarus would soon step out of his tomb alive, wept at the death of his friend, we might weep as well.

The valley of the shadow of death is a place none of us hope to find ourselves. And yet all of us will walk through it sooner or later. As I lay awake last night, I ached for my friends who were walking there at that very moment. God does promise to be with us in that dark place, but He does not promise to swoop in and remove us from it. He may not take us out of the presence of our enemies. But He does prepare a table before us there—even in the presence of the last enemy.

God is working all things for good. Can it be true? Even this? Even cancer? Even loved ones lost on an icy mountainside at night? Even (I can hardly type the words) the death of a child? All things working together for good? All things?

I still believe it. It is peace and comfort. It is a hope that, in these dark hours, keeps us from despair. But it is not an anesthetic that can be clinically injected into our troubled souls to immediately take away the pain. 

• • • • •

It is Christmas. During this season, we remember with joy that the Light has come into the world. But this day also reminds me that the story does not end there. Light did come, but the world did not comprehend it. The Lord of Glory was born into a dark world that would spill the blood of the innocent—and that would, in the end, spill the innocent blood of the Son of God Himself. The sky would go dark. The earth would shake. And through those hours of deepest darkness, when the Light of the World seemed to be extinguished forever, God would, definitively and perfectly, unexpectedly and gloriously, work all things—yes, all things—for our good.

This morning, I woke to bright sun shining through snowy branches and sat up, hoping for news from my friend whose husband and son were lost. I checked my news feed and read her update with the report of their late-night rescue with such relief that I cried. I was overwhelmed with grateful joy. And as I thanked God I remembered my other friend whose daughter is no more. And I wept again, overwhelmed by the terrible loss. I was still wiping away tears when my youngest son ran into my room and bounced on my bed declaring, “It’s Christmas again!” And so it is. Oh, tidings of comfort—and joy.

The sunrise from on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. —Luke 1:78-79

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Here we are, already at the end of another year full of reasons to be grateful. I'd love to have written a nice, newsy Christmas update to include with all the greeting cards we would have sent out to friends and family this month. Maybe the news update will still happen, but having only just gotten my computer back after two and a half weeks in the shop, I now find myself busily catching up on all the computer work I should have gotten done during that time. So the Christmas card mailing is not happening this year. It's honestly a bit of a relief to put off all the printing and labeling and mailing  until next year, but I'm sorry not to send you all something festive to hang on the refrigerator. 

Here, however—in digital form—is this year's card, arriving not in your mailbox but in your news feed. Feel free to print it out, stick it on your fridge, and pretend it came with a stamp!

Many blessings to you and your families this Christmas! 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Taste Not

Nakuru, Kenya. 1991.

The girls from my Form Two class at the international school had collected in the white-walled lunch hall where bright, equatorial sunlight lay in blinding streaks across the heavy wooden tables and the polished concrete floor. The double doors on either side of the room were open to the breeze—a long breath of eucalyptus and red earth and damp grass, fresh and warm after the drenching Kenyan rains.

I was attending the boarding school as a day student—the only non-boarder, the only American, and the only white student in my class—during the five months that my father taught journalism at the nearby university. Having arrived halfway through my eighth grade year, I was only just beginning to understand the manners and customs that shaped life at the school, and no hour of the day presented a steeper learning curve than the lunch hour. I had learned to wait to sit until our teacher sat, to always eat with my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right, and to never call "pudding" dessert as I would at home. I had also learned that food choices here were determined by more than a simple matter of preference.

Mlle. Dubois from Nice, who taught us French, presided over the table that day. She stood alone at our head, beautiful with her sun-freckled cheeks and long brown curls, hardly looking older than us thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls. She bowed her head slightly and led us in a hastily mumbled, "Bless us and these thy gifts, which we receive from thy bountiful goodness." A prayer generic enough to offend few and to please none.

She sat abruptly and stiffly. We sat loudly and awkwardly, all creaking chair legs and gesticulating arms and angular teenaged knees beneath our green uniform skirts.

We poured glasses of iced lemonade from a plastic pitcher, and our conversation trickled lazily around the table, changing accents as it flowed from girl to girl, while we waited for the food to arrive. A hadada ibis landed heavily in the tree outside, bouncing its weight on a thin branch, and began hollering its name, over and over, to the iridescent starlings that pecked for their lunch on the trim lawn below. “Hadada!” he hollered, “Hadada!” As if hungry for acknowledgment from any listener—even the lowliest of birds. As if he were afraid the world might forget his identity. As if he hoped his nervous bravado might be taken for confident laughter. “Hadada!”

A pair of best friends from India, Pooja and Sejal, sat on either side of me and leaned forward to speak in shrill, hurried whispers over me. From time to time they would include me in their banter, but they often interspersed their musical English with Hindi slang that I could not decipher, and now their stifled giggles formed an unseen barrier that I could not cross. Mlle. Dubois raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow their direction but said nothing.

The door to the kitchen squeaked open, and a row of servers walked into the lunch room carrying large beige plastic trays and the smells of fresh bread and oniony gravies. My belly rolled thunder, and I clutched my side, hoping no one had heard. At each table, a member of the kitchen staff in a wrinkled white apron placed a dish of overcooked mixed vegetables. The kitchen door swung open, shut, open shut. Then followed a basin of steamed pudding with a pitcher of warm vanilla custard to pour over it—something sweet to entice us to finish those limp vegetables.

We girls, with all of our varied religions and languages and nationalities and shades of ebony and mahogany and copper and pink, might have formed some kind of heartwarming, we-are-the-world postcard of global peace, gathered as we were around that under-salted bowl of vegetables. Green beans and lemonade. A bloodless communion. We took and ate—Catholics, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and we assorted flavors of protestants all serving ourselves from the same dish. Warm bread arrived next in towel-lined bowls, and we ate from the same loaf. Conversation began to build, and chatter about boys and maths and field hockey filled the air: “So, which house is going to win the tournament?” “Ha! You really think he’s cute?” “You got an A? Oh, shut it. That exam killed me!”

Then came the platters of meat.

I looked toward the Form Three table across from ours and made eye contact with my friend Angela Wahome. She smiled warmly. Her teeth had been recently repaired in Nairobi after a collision with a field hockey stick during one of our P.E. matches. They shone against her dark, even skin, and I admired their new, artificial whiteness, even as I wore my own whiteness like an outdated shirt. Not long after I had arrived at this school, Angela had sought me out, in her quiet and unassuming way, and had introduced herself to me. That I was the only white student in my class had made me uncertain of where I might fit in. That my class was an unfamiliar crowd of teenagers claiming a half dozen different religions made my own faith seem less comfortably certain. But Angela was a Christian. I was a Christian. To me that seemed bond enough. We were sisters, and she had become an anchor to my unmoored soul. I smiled back.

One of the kitchen staff rounded the corner and laid a covered dish on the table. He lifted the lid, saying, simply and softly, "Pork,” before moving on to the next table. The well browned roast, sliced thick and smothered in gravy, smelled of Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s house. Comfort food. I usually gave little thought to what sort of animal had given its life for my lunch, but here in this room full of girls from every tribe and tongue and nation, the question could not go unanswered. We might break bread, but I could not break beef with the girl to my right or to my left. Every imaginable religious dietary restriction seemed to be represented in that room, and every restriction had to be honored. We were cut off from one another by a carving knife.

I picked up the platter of steaming pork, took a slice, spooned on a little gravy, and passed it to Pooja, a Hindu, who, still giggling, took a couple slices and passed it down the table. Some girls took and some passed it on without allowing so much as a finger to touch the meat. Today it was surprisingly good—tender, well salted, and more peppery than usual. On days like this I thought of the Sikh boy in my class, a vegetarian, and pitied him for what he must not taste, must not handle, must not touch.

Minutes later, the kitchen door swung open again, and a few more servers in aprons carried new platters of meat through the little lunch room, calling, "Beef! Beef!" A dozen or so Muslim hands shot up, and the servers worked their way along the tables, ladling cubed beef onto the plates of those with their hands in the air. Sometimes if the pork looked nasty, I'd opt for the beef along with the Muslims, but most of the time I ate the meat of the day without comment.

My Pakistani friend Shabnum sat across the table from me and was eating and talking in her animated way with another girl, gesturing with her fork as she spoke between bites. When the server neared our table and again called, "Beef!" Shabnum froze. She pulled her hands back from the table and dropped her fork and knife with such a sudden recoiling, as if they had transformed into a pair of serpents. She stared at her plate. She turned and stared at the server. She looked back to her plate again with wide-eyed horror. “What— What—“ She struggled for speech. “What is this? What are we eating?” Her dark eyes moved from face to face along our table, searching for reassurance.

“It’s pork,” Mlle. Dubois said bluntly.

In the bustle of the noisy lunchroom and in the excitement of sharing gossip, Shabnum had not heard the word "pork" when the server had placed the platter on the table. The meat was dark like beef, and none of the girls around her were used to paying attention to food concerns other than their own. Nobody had noticed Shabnum's mistake.

“Oh my god. Oh my god. Ohmygodohmygod. Oh my GOD!” Shabnum’s chest rose in quick, shallow breaths. “Oh no. Oh hell. Hell! Oh God,” she continued in a hoarse whisper, pushing her chair from the table with a screech against the smooth floor. She held her hand to her heart and ran out the open door and down the slope toward the hockey fields, whispering panicked curses as she went.

Mlle. Dubois set down her fork without a sound. The room had gone nearly silent, and she looked down the table at our bewildered faces. I could hear the sound of my own chewing, and the noise of my teeth working seemed strangely offensive. I stopped and held the wad of half-chewed pork inside my cheek. We had several Muslim boys in my class, but Shabnum was the only Muslim girl. None of us knew what to do. Or to say. Or even to think. We looked to our teacher whose face showed that she was clearly as uncertain as we were. At last she said softly, “Pooja. Hannah. Sejal. Go after her and see if you can cheer her up.”

We glanced at each other nervously but stood. Cheer her up? How? Here we were, an American Presbyterian and a pair of Hindu girl friends, sent to bring good cheer to a young woman suffering from some kind of unspeakable turmoil of soul over a piece of pot roast. What were we supposed to do? Tell jokes? Sooo, two Hindus and a Presbyterian walk into a bar…?

We stepped carefully down the damp grass and whispered to each other. “Did you see what happened? Was it just the pork?” “Yeah, she ate it on accident.” “She thought it was beef.” “That was kinda scary.” “Completely. You think she’s OK?” “I don’t know. What do Muslims believe about sinning on accident?” “I have no idea.” “Where did she go?”

We wandered across the lawn until we turned the corner of the pool house, where we found her in the shadows, pressing her back against the cool cinder block wall and staring at the fast-moving clouds overhead. She did not look toward us, but we could see wet streaks marking both cheeks. Her arms were folded tightly around her tall, thin body. “Shabnum?” Pooja said. No answer. “Um, I’m really sorry. Um. Are you OK?”

Shabnum uncrossed her arms and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. “No,” she said.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Sejal said brightly. Shabnum did not uncover her eyes. Sejal looked at me and shrugged with a forced smile still on her face.

“Yeah,” I added. “It was an accident, right? God will forgive you, right?” I felt a shudder go through me. Do Muslims believe that Allah forgives? What about understandable mistakes? I wondered. I didn't know what I was saying.

“No!” Shabnum flung her arms down. She turned her red, watering eyes toward me, and I felt my own begin to burn. “You don’t understand!”

Pooja and Sejal both stepped toward her to put a hand on her shoulder. I stayed back, uncomfortable in both my skin and in my soul. The air was growing warm, and the humidity felt like weight. Shabnum shrank away from their reach, but Pooja tried again, “Shabum, I’m sure there are millions of people who do stuff like this—who eat the wrong thing or do the wrong thing on accident. It’s totally understandable.”

“I mean, it was a complete accident, yeah?” Sejal said, “'Cause you thought it was beef. Allah knows that, yeah? He knows you thought it was beef, so it wasn’t, um, a sin or whatever.” Sejal looked back at me and shrugged again. We were foolish girls wading into waters blacker and deeper than we could tread. My neck itched, and the air grew heavier.

“Oh God!” Shabnum shouted at the grass. “You don’t understand!” We three would-be comforters looked at each other in confusion. “Oh hell!” Shabnum shouted again. “ I might be going to hell!” The last word cracked in her throat. She slid her back down the rough wall, sat on the damp earth, clutched her knees, leaned her head back, and sobbed.

A bell rang. Students from the lunch room began to fan out across the lawn toward the various classroom buildings. Several girls looked down the hill toward us with curiosity. Angela stopped walking and looked at me with concerned, questioning eyes. I stuck out my lower lip and shook my head. She grimaced and walked on. 

“Oh God!” Shabnum wailed again, seemingly unaware of how her voice carried across the school grounds.

“Allah won’t send you to hell for eating pork by mistake!” Pooja said with a kind of vehement certainty that surprised me. “He wouldn’t do that!” She sounded almost offended.

Shabnum's tears fell on her white blouse and formed an uneven pattern of translucent dots where they landed. “You don’t understand.” Shabnum repeated. “You don’t understand. You don’t understand.” And I didn't.

How could I understand? I could not understand what it was to feel the crippling fear of damnation. I could not understand how anyone could find hope of relief from a god who, it seemed, might send a repentant teenaged girl to hell for a cafeteria mix up.

I wanted to tell her something about guilt and forgiveness, about freedom from shame, but I found no words. In my remaining months at the school with Shabnum, we would never again speak of this incident. We would proceed as if nothing had happened. Shabnum would laugh, and I would laugh with her, and we would pass the plates of meat around the table as we had done before. But the memory of those moments would trouble me for many weeks and months. Even now, decades later, when I push my grocery cart through the checkout and see the headlines on women's magazines that say "Eat without Guilt!" I sometimes picture Shabnum's thin form shuddering with guilt and fear next to the pool house. And I wonder what more I might have said.

Mlle. Dubois appeared at the top of the hill. “Time for class,” she called to us. “Are you ready?” We looked at each other, unsure of what further good we could possibly do, and unsure of whether to leave Shabnum alone in her misery. Mlle. Dubois sighed. “No? O.K. Ten more minutes. Then come to class.”

We nodded and turned back toward Shabnum’s crumpled figure. She was biting the side of her hand as she wept, and the three of us stood in silence and listened to her muffled sobs. We watched her shaking shoulders and felt the humid air rustle our polyester skirts. “Hadada!” hollered the bird in the tree. “Hadada!” another laughed in return. “Hadada! Hadada! Hadada!” The joke seemed mutual now. The starlings pecking the grass did not look up.

“Shabnum?” I said quietly when her weeping had calmed to sniffs and sighs.

“Please go,” she whispered. “Please go away. You don’t understand.”

“Hadada!” In the branches overhead, an ibis continued to laugh.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Jonah's Wish Trip to Oahu

After nearly two years of battling leukemia, Jonah was granted his wish to swim with dolphins in Hawaii. Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the whole family flew to Oahu and stayed for six days, in a beautiful suite overlooking the Pacific (complete with wild sea turtles!), at the Sheraton Waikiki.

During Jonah's trip, we visited Pearl Harbor, met Kaleo the dolphin at Sea Life Park, enjoyed local food and entertainment at a luau, tried surfing for the first time, went snorkeling, swam, swam, swam, built sand castles, soaked up the tropical sunshine, toured the Dole Pineapple Plantation, checked out the food trucks and shave ice on the North Shore, spotted wild dolphins during a sailing excursion on a catamaran, enjoyed beautiful scenery–including daily rainbows, saw some old friends, and met several other Make-A-Wish families. We were treated like royalty, and will carry happy memories from this trip for the rest of our lives. THANK YOU, MAKE-A-WISH, for giving Jonah the vacation of a lifetime!

Here's a video slideshow of our trip. Or, if you prefer, click here for an online gallery where you can see the photos individually.

Jonah's Make-A-Wish Trip to Hawaii from Hannah G on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Reflections on a Year with Cancer

You know those stories that people tell where somebody is described as “going weak in the knees,” or when there’s news that people have to “take sitting down?” Those had always seemed like exaggerated figures of speech to me. I mean, who really goes all noodle-legged in the face of bad news, after all? Certainly not I. 

I have never needed one of those Victorian fainting couches to catch my swooning form. I have no smelling salts in my medicine cabinet. And if you see tears welling up in my eyes, you can pretty rightly assume it’s from hay fever.  

My seemingly stoical DNA, you see, derives from a rather chilly blend of tight-lipped Englishmen, hard-headed Germans, windblown Scots, and the kind of  rugged, sunshine-is-for-sissies northern Europeans who chiseled out a living from the frozen fjords. Stout hearts and dry eyes—that’s us. As one author put it, “If I were commissioned to design the official crest for the descendents of emotionally muzzled Vikings everywhere, I would begin by looking up the Latin phrase for ‘No thanks, I’m fine.’” Exactly.

But on the evening of August 20, 2012, when my husband carried home the heavy news that our ten-year-old son, Jonah, had been diagnosed with leukemia, I crumpled onto the bottom step of our family’s stairway and sobbed.
All through that evening and for many of the days that followed I learned what it was to go weak in the knees in the most literal sense—no metaphor about it. Each time a doctor would bring new information, I had to take it sitting down. Every time the phone demanded to be answered, my chest felt squeezed in a vice that gripped tighter with every ring.
My child may die. My precious firstborn son may be taken from us. Everywhere I went, I seemed to feel an unbearable weight pressing down on my shoulders—a weight that I could not carry. We were given hefty stacks of informational books and brochures, but I could not open them. I could not allow my eyes to rest on phrases like “mortality rate” and “likelihood of relapse.” These were words too heavy for me to lift from the page.
My child may die. It continues to be a weight that I cannot carry. But I have learned that it is also a weight that I need not carry. That I do not carry. That is not mine to carry at all.

Words Made Alive

Two years ago, our church started a Sunday School class to teach the Heidelberg Catechism to the children. Week after week my kids would recite from memory the answer to that week’s question and would review the answers to the questions that preceded it. This means that week after week, the question would come back: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”

Then a chorus of sing-song treble voices would reply:
“That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

In the frightening days that followed Jonah’s diagnosis, those familiar lines that had rattled around in my own head for so many years and that had echoed around the walls of the Sunday school classroom for so many weeks sputtered to life. That dusty paragraph began lighting up like the county fair at nightfall. I had seen those antique words before and believed them, but never quite so fully. Never quite so desperately. Never in such bright, neon colors.

Each night as I pleaded with God for Jonah, I pulled those words, like a lifeline, into my prayers: “Jonah is not his own. He is not my own. God Almighty, he is your child. And nothing can happen to a hair on his head or to a blood cell in his body apart from Your will.” And even in the praying of those words, that suffocating, crippling weight began to lift. Jonah belongs to his faithful savior. Body and soul. In life. And, yes, even in death.

Psalms, too, and hymns that I had sung for years and committed to memory—sometimes without much thought—were now surfacing in my head and heart and proving to be both priceless and indispensable. All those pictures of God as a refuge, as a fortress, as a rock, as a tower, as a physician, as a lover, as a friend now meant something far more concrete. Here was comfort beyond imagining. Here was peace beyond understanding.

It was as if I, when I was feeling particularly wealthy, had stuffed a large roll of high-denomination dollar bills into my pockets without thinking and then forgot about them. But then, when hard times fell and I thought I was going broke, I put a hand into my pocket and discovered that I was still rich after all—and that I not only had all that I needed, but that what I did have had appreciated in value.

Here were these words, that had seemed at times—especially when I was young and tired of memorizing—to be so much gravel, tossed into my empty little head and tumbled around over the years. But now, here they were again, pouring back out all shining and precious and polished smooth—not gravel at all but rubies.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:1-2). I remembered those lines as a little ditty set to a tune for teenage voices and a solo guitar. But thanks to that melody, simple as it was, those words were epoxy-glued into the back pages of my mind such that I never lost them. But I had also never really deeply considered them.

It’s not that I had ever doubted the truth of those words, but I believed them, more or less, in the abstract. They existed somewhere in the clouds. Now, however, in the middle of my trouble, with my comfortable little world falling into the sea, those true words came down out of the ether and touched the very solid ground beneath my feet. God is a refuge—from fear and death. He is strength—when my knees buckle and I cannot stand. He is a very present help—a right-here-right-now help; a help mediated through comforting words and free babysitting and hot meals and carpool rides and peaceful sleep. He is a help in trouble—in cancer and confusion and grief. Therefore we will not fear. We will not be afraid of this. Not even if the world crumbles around us and cancer does its worst.

Mongering Fear

The more I’ve read about cancer, the more it seems that health publications (both mainstream and alternative) want everyone to be very afraid of cancer. Scroll through a hundred health blogs, and flip through a teetering stack of health magazines, and it seems that this is the endlessly repeated headline: “5 Foods that Fight Cancer.” “12 Secret Weapons Against Cancer.” “17 Strategies for Staying Cancer-Free.” Without the fear of cancer, I imagine that readership would plummet.

Believe me, I fully understand the desire to learn more about what causes cancer and what cures it. I had a cancer scare of my own not long ago, and I (like most people I know) have had friends and relatives who have died of various forms of cancer. It's a disease that touches the lives of just about everybody, so it's no surprise that we fear it. But it's also no surprise that there are people out there who are eager to prey on people's fears. 

I once read a post, shared by a well-meaning Facebook friend, that said, "Finally! Johns Hopkins Medical School reveals the truth about cancer!" The link offered a numbered list of generic tips (Stop eating sugar!) but also endorsed a number of health products—by brand name—that we should buy. This seemed more than a little fishy, so I checked the sources. It turned out to be a hoax; Johns Hopkins had shared no such thing and had devoted a whole page of its web site to dispelling the misinformation and outright lies. But by that time, the link had already been shared on Facebook upwards of 20,000 times.

The reason I think we are so eager to read all those cancer articles and to believe sketchy posts like the one I mentioned is that it can make us feel like we have the tools to get back in control of our lives. Cancer is scarier than most diseases because it is still, in spite of all that up-to-date information (and misinformation), shrouded in mystery. 

Why does one of our children get leukemia while the rest remain perfectly healthy? Why did one of my mom's siblings get cancer while none of the other 8 have? How is possible that a man who smoked his entire life never gets lung cancer, while a woman who never even touched a cigarette dies of the disease? The answer, from what I can tell, is: We don't know. Cancer is a bogy that seems to lurk around every corner, and we feel helpless against it.

A sense of helplessness, however, can give us a glimpse of something like Truth. And that kind of Truth can be terrifying. Our days are numbered, and not—contrary to to our hopes and wishes—by us. So it’s easy, even for Christians like us who should know better, to want to panic in the face of our helplessness and to grasp at some semblance of control. We could easily spend countless hours trying to keep up with the latest health advice—even when we know that latest health advice keeps changing on us again and again and again.

First we're told to hide from the sun to avoid cancer. And then we find out that our sun boycott is causing Vitamin D deficiency, which can cause cancer. So we start chugging fish oil for the Vitamin D. But then we are told that the fish oil can be tainted with mercury, which is linked to cancer. We work hard to provide our families with good nutrition that will fight cancer. But then it turns out that kids who have better nutrition are also more likely to be tall, which puts them at greater risk for cancer. And then when we finally do get cancer, we fight it with radiation and toxic drugs that can cause cancer. Cancer, like Shakespeare’s fool Touchstone, chases us around the world-stage, shouting, “I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways!” 

I don't think it’s simply a fool's errand to try to steer clear of this threat to our health. Especially not after all that we've been through with Jonah. But at the same time, I think we have to be careful. There does come a point when concern for health becomes obsession with health—when prudence crosses the line into panic and we lose sight of God's promises and providence. 

Whence Comes My Help?

Sitting by Jonah’s sickbed for countless hours has provided me with plenty of time to meditate on our own helplessness—on our own lack of control over so many of the details of our lives. And what’s odd is that our helplessness, while it might seem frightening to some, has actually provided a very real sense comfort because we know that “our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” 

Who is more helpless than a small child? And yet who in the world is more carefree? That is because a young child is not burdened with a sense of self-sufficiency or a compulsion to pull himself up by his own bootie straps. He is free to rest and play because he knows that somebody else takes care of his needs.

If our lives are ultimately in our own hands, however, then we can never rest, never turn our backs, never loosen our white-knuckle grip for a moment. But if our lives are ultimately in God’s hands, then we are free, like that child, to keep our own hands open—both to give and to receive a thousand other joys. 

As we have dealt with Jonah’s cancer, our helplessness has deepened our dependence on God. And dependence on God, paradoxically, has brought independence—a sweet freedom from all the other cares and worries that can so easily take over.

Even as a Christian, it’s easy to be swayed by the messages of every health article under the sun. But as I’ve read the Bible this year, I’ve noticed that there are an astonishing number of promises from God (you know—the One who made our bodies in the first place?) that have to do with health and strength and long life. And yet I haven’t come across a single one of those promises that hinges on nutrition or exercise or any of the usual concerns. 
I still believe that those concerns are means that God routinely uses to sustain our lives. But if I were trying to compile a list of “Biblical Tips for Better Health,” I think it would have a whole lot less to do with consuming organic produce and joining the gym, and a whole lot more to do with fearing God, honoring parents, befriending Lady Wisdom, and seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.

Not a hair can fall from our heads—or a cancer cell form in our bodies—without the will of our Father in heaven. He knows what we need before we ask, which means I don't have to keep tying myself into awkward knots in attempt to keep up with all the latest cancer-dodging advice. Resting in God's care allows me to take a step back from the fears of the moment and to gain some perspective on this salutary game of Twister—and to laugh a little. And a merry heart, after all, "doeth good like a medicine."  

Ultimately, our lives are not in our hands. And that truth, instead of scaring us, should allow us to  loosen our kung-fu death grip on health, to step away from all those hot-off-the-presses articles about the latest cancer scare, and to quit worrying. Seriously. Quit. Worrying is bad for our health. And which of us by worrying can add a single day to his life? Rather, “Fear the Lord and depart from evil. It will be health to your flesh and marrow to your bones” (Proverbs 3:7b-8). 

That right there is a ruby to keep in your pocket.

The Belly of the Whale

Just last week my husband took all the kids to a local nursing home to bring a little joy to the lonely and afflicted. And the next day Asaph, who is five years old, said to me, “Mom? You know that place where people go to live until they die? I saw an old lady there who was sitting in a wheelchair. And her teeth were out, so she pushed them back into her mouth. I said hi to her, but she didn’t hear me.”

It’s shocking, isn’t it, son? It’s shocking that we crumble until our legs cannot hold us. Until our teeth fall out of our mouths. Until our ears grow numb to the voices of children yelling “Hi!” six inches from our heads. But what’s more shocking is that we forget this about ourselves. Here in this university town of ours, where the beautiful and the invincible spill out of every coffee shop and swarm the halls of the shopping malls, we find that the fresh supply of youth never dries up. We spend our days in the house of feasting, toasting each other’s health, and checking each other’s sexy curves. Meanwhile, life’s epilogue is lived out behind closed doors, along sterile hallways under fluorescent lights, so that the rest of us can forget the final pages of our story.

But not my children. My own Jonah has slept within the black innards of the whale. He has looked death straight in the mouth and smelled its foul breath. My own little blue-eyed five-year-old has navigated through those urine-scented hallways in the house of mourning and learned some wisdom. He has seen our latter end. 

The truth is that we are all in that place where we will live until we die. But while I will try to push that final day back as long as I can, I never want to spend so much time simply staying alive that I forget to live. As one author friend put it, “Life is meant to be spent.” And not just, I might add, on ourselves. 

Long life can be a great blessing, but what good is a long shelf life if our contents are never used up before we reach our expiration date? Better to be a cheap plastic jug of grape juice cocktail—or a boring old cup of cold water, for that matter—that is poured out to quench someone's thirst, than to be a bottle of the finest Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape that is kept safely corked on a shelf for decades until its contents turn to vinegar. 

My grandfather (who died of cancer) did not live as long as many of his peers, but he also lived more within those years than many of his peers. He learned to speak English, served in a war, raised nine children, was faithful to his wife, ran a dairy farm, felled trees (as well as a few of his fingers), worked in the church, owned a retirement home, excelled at bowling, and poured love on his dozens of grandchildren. 

When I was about Asaph’s age, my grandfather used to do a trick in which he brushed his teeth and whistled at the same time. I thought it was hilarious—him holding his dentures and toothbrush in his mangled fingers, while a merry tune played on his wrinkled lips. 

When my own teeth fall out, I hope it will make my little grandchildren laugh. And I hope to be laughing with them. 

Manna in the Wilderness

In the early days of Jonah's treatment, I parked in the Children's hospital garage next to an SUV that had the words "CHILDHOOD CANCER SUCKS!" scrawled in gold paint across the back windows. And I don't disagree. 

I have watched my son vomiting for hours, writhing in pain while his hair falls out and his wide eyes plead for a relief that is far from coming. But for the record, you need to know that cancer is not the worst thing that can happen to you. In fact, we have gained so much from this experience already that we may one day look back and see that cancer was the actually one of the best things that ever happened to us. And even in the hardest stages of his treatment, Jonah has discovered that a life-threatening illness is not without its perks.

Just last weekend, Jonah was invited to throw the first pitch at a Spokane Indians baseball game, escorted onto the field by Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien. Jonah has been in the dugout and on the field to shake hands with Seattle Mariners. He’s had a movie star come to visit him. He has heaps of books and toys and crafts and cards and even an iPad thanks to the kindness of those who heard of his plight. And now, through the Make-A-Wish foundation, he’s in the process of planning a dream vacation to Hawaii—something we could never afford to do with him otherwise. So much love, joy, peace, and just plain fun have come his way on account of his cancer that one of our other boys once said, “Aw, man! I wish I had cancer.” 

The Children’s Hospital has also done such a great job of creating a welcoming environment for these sick kids that all our boys clamor for the chance to go along with Jonah for his appointments. Jonah himself sometimes laments that his days of staying overnight at the hospital are over. He loves all the nurses and the one-on-one attention from parents and grandparents. His memories of cancer have been so well seasoned with blessings that he has more than once told us he wishes he could start his treatment all over again. And he is no masochist. This was simply the best-worst year of his life. 

Power Made Perfect in Weakness

This has, without question, been the most difficult year of our lives. My son has life-threatening disease. But do I wish this had never happened? Do I wish I could erase the last twelve months and start them fresh and clean and cancer-free? I hesitate. But strange as it sounds, I don't.

I have had people tell me that they just don’t think they could do what we’ve done; that they couldn’t handle facing childhood cancer; that it would simply be too hard. And I suppose the expected reply would be, "Oh, no, of course you could! You're a strong person. You could handle it if you had to." Well, maybe it's that stiff-upper-lip DNA of mine, but I'm not always a good cheerleader. In fact, what I generally say is, “Yeah you’re right. It is too hard. You couldn’t do it.” 

The reason I say that, however, is that I can’t do it either. I can’t handle it. Not me. Not our family carrying all this trouble on our own strength. We didn’t do it. We didn’t handle it—at least not in some kind of stoical, self-sufficient, inner-strength, “No thanks, I’m fine” kind of way. 

Rather, we were helpless. We were weak in the knees. We had to take it sitting down. But God was our strength. We were neck-deep in trouble. But He is a very present help in trouble. We were faced with the fear of death. But our comfort is that we belong, even in death, to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ. This year was God’s work. This year was also—through all that our friends and family and churches did to carry our burden—your work. And having seen with my own eyes the unfailing mercy and goodness of God, I am no longer afraid.

It’s been one year since Jonah's diagnosis—when the battle for his life began—and we have seen our prayers answered again and again. After a summer full of baseball and swimming and bike riding and lacrosse, he started school with his class last week, and he visits the hospital only once a month. His hair, his color, and his laughter are back. But the fight for his life is not over; we are facing the Last Enemy, even now. My child may die. Even after a year, I still can hardly bring myself to say those words aloud, and my throat aches if I try. 

This has been a year of testing, but this has also been a year in which all those abstract truths that we have always believed truly put on flesh. God's power is made perfect in our weakness. God is our refuge and strength. This is why my knees are steady. This is why that terrible weight is gone.

You have dealt well with your servant,
    O Lord, according to your word.
Teach me good judgment and knowledge,
    for I believe in your commandments.
 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
    but now I keep your word.
You are good and do good;
    teach me your statutes. (Ps 119:65-68)

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