Monday, December 31, 2012

Many, Many, Many Thanks

Now that this year has drawn to a close, I realize that I don't really want to write the typical end-of-year letter summarizing all the various activities and interests of each member of our family. I would almost have to write two letters—one describing the cheery pre-cancer first half of our year and one describing the crazier post-cancer second half of 2012. But if you've been reading this blog, you already know most of what I would tell you, and you certainly know that Jonah's battle with leukemia has been the headline story that has nearly eclipsed everything else. In the midst of that struggle, however, we have seen more clearly that the goodness of God extends to even the smallest details of our lives.

A couple of months ago, for example, I asked our friends and family to pray for a mild winter this year because of all the driving we would be doing between here and Spokane. It seemed like a big request, and it's the kind of prayer that, I think, many of us fully expect God to ignore. But three days later I laid open the front page of the local newspaper to discover this headline: "Crews anticipate mild winter." "Mild winter"—that's the very phrase I had used. Well, I thought, that was a quick answer. Then, a few days before Christmas, as Jayson and Jonah made their way home from the hospital along dry roads and between muddy fields, and imagining a wet, green Christmas, they prayed for snow. The next evening, Jayson opened the curtains, noticing that it was unusually light outside, and started to laugh. Lo and behold, snow was falling in fat, graceful, grace-full clusters of flakes, perfect for fort building and snowmen.

Was all this sent for us, just because we asked? Is it arrogant to think so? It's not unusual for snow to fall this time of year, after all. Mild winters come and go, certainly. And yet "Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years." (James 5:17) Stranger things, you see, have happened. Bigger prayers than ours have been answered. And Jonah is now at a class sledding party, making full use of that chilly answer to prayer—and of an accidental scheduling error that kept him from going to the hospital today. Grace upon grace.

Numerous people have told us they prayed that Jonah could be home for Christmas, and we are extremely grateful to report that he was able to spend all of the past week and a half at home and has enjoyed a relatively easy phase of treatment during the month of December, with only a few bad days of nausea. Jonah has even begun to look forward to his hospital visits lately, since he has started to develop friendships with some of the patients and has felt well enough to take advantage of the crafts and other activities available to the kids there.

This less intense phase of treatment will continue until late January, when he is scheduled to begin "delayed intensification." For that stage of his treatment, Jonah will again be required to spend most of his time close to the hospital. We are extremely thankful for the generosity of some friends of my aunt and uncle who, without ever having met us, offered their condo as a place for him to stay during those two months while they spend the winter in the Arizona sunshine. We are, once again, overwhelmed by the kindness not only of friends and family, but of complete strangers. You all have been the answer to many, many of our prayers.

This brings me again to the main point of this post: gratitude. One thing that I have failed to adequately express to all of you is how tremendously grateful we are for the help and prayers and support that we have received during the last four months. You may be familiar with the phrase, "To whom much is given, much is required." It's true. But we have found that the inverse has been true as well: To whom much is required, much is given. We have been given far more than I can possibly list here.

We tried feebly at first to keep up with the thank-you notes, but within weeks it became clear that the task was beyond us. In spite of our good intentions, the acts of kindness poured in at a rate that exceeded our card-writing capabilities. So please forgive our lack of written response to your outpouring of love and generosity. Dozens of you chose to remain anonymous, and dozens more sent sweet, hand-written notes and generous checks and encouraging cards letting us know that you've been thinking of us and praying for us. But whether we know you by name or have no idea who you are, I want you to be aware of how grateful we are to you for carrying us through this tremendous trial. We could not possibly have done this on our own. So I apologize if the rest of this post reads more like an acceptance speech at the Oscars than a Christmas letter, but a long list of acknowlegements is in order.

First, the care packages for Jonah have been a great encouragement to him during difficult days. The gifts themselves were delightful and often provided a welcome distraction from his loneliness and discomfort. But he also was cheered by the knowledge that so many people continue to remember and care about him during this long illness. The piles of get-well cards have been and continue to be a boost to Jonah's morale. Thank you.

The little gifts for the rest of the boys have also helped them to feel loved while everyone's attention is focused on Jonah. The surprise toys and treats for the siblings have been especially wonderful during those long weeks when our family has had to be apart. Our four younger boys have had to suffer an upheaval in their lives as well, so thank you for remembering them.

Likewise, the gift cards and monetary gifts for our family have blessed us enormously as we have had to cover the expenses of traveling, eating on the road, setting up house in a new location, buying expensive medications, and much more. It is such a blessing to know that when each new expense arises we have the means to pay for it. Thank you.

To our church we owe a huge debt of gratitude for covering the biggest expenses we have incurred. It was through our church that we were able to get a second car—something we simply could not manage without during this stage of our lives. It was because of our church friends that we had a beautiful home away from home to live in on lake Coeur d'Alene during the first few months of Jonah's treatment. And it has been through our church that our most daunting medical bills have been paid for. Whenever I think of the ways that our church has helped us, it brings tears to my eyes. You, our church family, have loved us as true brothers and sisters. Thank you.

In addition, our local church community has taken on the massive task of providing meals and treats for our family during our months of topsy-turvy schedule. In the past, we have had a taste of your culinary skills here and there, but I think we have now sampled something from more of your kitchens than perhaps anybody else has. And we have not been disappointed. You are an astoundingly talented bunch of cooks. Thank you for sharing your culinary skills with us.

I cannot possibly list the names of all the people who have gone out of their way to serve our family in our hour of need, but I would be horribly remiss if I didn't mention at least these two by name: my dear friend Annie, and my mother-in-law, Marilynn. As soon as they heard the news of Jonah's diagnosis both these women immediately went into action to provide us with help.

Annie suddenly became my personal secretary and activities coordinator, organizing all those meals and rides and school lunches and house cleanings, and much more. I hate to think what we would have done without her. She has been the truest and most loyal of friends. She has blessed us all more than words can express, and I love her like a sister.

And Marilynn. I cannot sing her praises highly enough. She is currently enjoying a well-deserved break back in Arizona during these easier weeks of Jonah's treatment. But she got on a plane almost as soon as she learned of Jonah's cancer, and she plans to come back again to help us through the harder months ahead. Throughout these difficult times, she has been like a ministering angel to us, changing diapers, taking library trips, washing mountains of laundry, playing games, mopping floors, and providing love and constancy for us all when we needed it most. She seems to have infinite reserves of patience, and she has kept this household running smoothly while Jayson and I have been living out of suitcases and taking turns sleeping in hospital rooms. And, because we have no guest room, she has done all this while sharing Jude's bunk bed in Jonah's absence and sleeping on the couch when Jonah's been home. My mother-in-law is truly a saint and I love her dearly. The debt of gratitude we owe her can never be repaid.

Lastly, we are, of course, thankful to God, who has provided us so richly with all that we have needed and far, far more. He has been our rock, our fortress, and our deliverer. He is our strength and our song. And His grace continues to fill our lives, flowing into every corner, and falling on us daily, as pure and as lovely as Christmas snow.

There. That is what most needed to be said as this year winds down to a close. We are overwhelmingly grateful. Thank you all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks for the Fleas

Three whole weeks somehow managed to slide quietly past without my producing so much as a howdy on this blog. So I suppose it's time to make an appearance and assure you that we are all, in fact, still alive. And that, in case it sounds like a small thing, is truly a remarkable gift.

In fact, if you stop long enough to think about it, there really are no "small" things. Even the mundane becomes marvelous when seen in the right light. Every square inch of creation should make your jaw drop simply for the mere fact that it is. And, as if merely being isn't enough to stagger the mind, then think about what it is. From wet grass to whirling galaxies, from subatomic particles to glowing supergiants, we are completely surrounded with reasons to go positively weak-kneed with gratitude. I forget it sometimes. And when circumstances get difficult, it can be easy to lose sight of even the most obvious blessings. But when I'm tempted to start griping, the best—and perhaps the only—way to keep from slowly transforming into a bipedal Eeyore is to start looking franticly around for reasons to be thankful. It always sounds impossible at first. But once I start, I never have to look very hard or very long. One glance at the five fingers on my hand or the solid roof over my head, and I'm off to a good start.

And on several occasions when my situation has seemed particularly devoid of reasons to be grateful, this passage from a book called The Hiding Place creeps into my consciousness and smacks me right between the eyebrows. In it two young Dutch sisters, Corrie (the author) and Betsie, are imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and  wondering what the best answer is to their latest difficulty—an infestation of fleas in their bunk house:
"That's it, Corrie! That's [God's] answer. 'Give thanks in all circumstances!' That's what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!" I stared at her; then around me at the dark, foul-aired room.

"Such as?" I said.

"Such as being assigned here together."

I bit my lip. "Oh yes, Lord Jesus!"
"Such as what you're holding in your hands." I looked down at the Bible.

"Yes! Thank You, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank You for all these women, here in this room, who will meet You in these pages."

"Yes," said Betsie, "Thank You for the very crowding here. Since we're packed so close, that many more will hear!" She looked at me expectantly. "Corrie!" she prodded.

"Oh, all right. Thank You for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed suffocating crowds."

"Thank You," Betsie went on serenely, "for the fleas and for—"
The fleas! This was too much. "Betsie, there's no way even God can make me grateful for a flea."

"Give thanks in all circumstances," she quoted. "It doesn't say, 'in pleasant circumstances.' Fleas are part of this place where God has put us."

And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.
Seriously? There they are—starved, miserable, and trapped in some of the worst living conditions imaginable—and yet they start giving thanks? For the fleas? Now that, folks, is just plain Bible-weirdo crazy. Sometimes Betsie is the kind of pious church girl that might drive any normal person nuts. She certainly drove her sister Corrie nuts at times. And in all honesty, I'm not entirely sure whether the Bible passage they were reading means that we must give thanks for the fleas or to give thanks in the midst of the fleas—or even in spite of the fleas. But in any case, they give thanks for the fleas. And, as it turns out, they later learn that the only reason they had been left alone and been allowed to talk openly with the other women in their barracks was because their merciless guards refused to enter their flea-infested quarters. The fleas had been the reason for their only moments of freedom to develop friendships and practice their faith.

So, well, thank God for the fleas. We've all got 'em, in some form or other.

• • • • • •

With Thanksgiving just a few hours over the horizon, it's a perfect time to remember that even in our direst circumstances, even when you're a ten-year-old with cancer, there is always something to be thankful for. Always. Betsie understood that. And she and Corrie learned that sometimes the dire circumstances themselves turn into unexpected blessings—not just in the distant future or in the hereafter, but in the here and now. It's a hard lesson, but even we, stiff-necked and thick-headed as we sometimes are, are beginning to learn it, too.

For example, Jonah was scheduled to spend Monday through Wednesday or Thursday of this week in the hospital, beginning the next two-month phase of his treatment for leukemia. But on Monday morning his white blood cell counts were still too low for him to safely receive his chemo, so the oncologist sent him back home. Yes, home. Ordinarily this would be a disappointing setback, but when the setback means that he gets to stay home with his brothers all week while they are on Thanksgiving break, we are grateful for the delay. Three cheers for untimely immunosuppression! Today I am grateful for a low ANC. Today, we are thanking God for the fleas.

In truth, we have a lot to be grateful for, even without the fleas. Plenty has happened since my last post, but you know what they say about "no news." And in this case, they are mostly right.

During the last few weeks, Jonah's nausea has remained much milder, and he has been able to gain back some of the weight he lost. Although he sometimes struggles to work up an appetite, he has, for the most part, been able to keep his food down. Sudden waves of nausea do still take him off guard from time to time, but they are far less frequent, which is a very welcome change. Having a kid on chemo is remarkably like having a pregnant woman around the house—badly timed cravings for bizarre foods that suddenly become unappetizing to him the minute we return, rain soaked and freezing, with the takeout boxes in tow. It's a good thing leftover curry tastes even better the next day.

Jonah just completed phase two of his treatment, so we were able to move out of our friends' lake house last Tuesday, and Jonah has been here at home since then. He even felt well enough to attend his first full day of school this year, to go fishing with his dad and brothers, and to spend part of the day at a friend's house. We should be able to spend Thanksgiving Day at my parents' house as well and to enjoy the remainder of the break together as a family.

Then, probably next Monday— or as soon as his white cell counts recover—Jonah will begin phase three of his treatment. This stage will last about two months and should consist of a three-day hospital stay every two weeks. The drugs they will give him are strong and require monitoring and "rescue medication" afterward. But between those hospital stays, his doctors expect him to be able to come all the way home. That this easier phase of his treatment falls right smack in the middle of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays is a blessing that, as you can imagine, isn't lost on us. Our prayer is that Jonah will feel well during this phase and be able to participate in as many of the Christmas festivities as possible.

After this next two-month phase of treatment is complete, Jonah will begin another two-month phase called "delayed intensification," which should be just about as pleasant as it sounds. For those two months, we will need to live in or around Spokane to be near to the hospital in case of emergency. But the good news is that this will be the final difficult stretch before entering the much milder "maintenance" phase that will continue for roughly three years but be spent almost entirely at home. At that time we expect that he will be able to return to a relatively normal routine of school and sports and piano lessons.

I can hardly express how inviting the phrase "normal routine" sounds. At about this time two years ago, I wrote a post called "The Glorious Status Quo" in which I was, ironically, rejoicing in the discovery that I didn't have cancer. I was delighting in the fact that normal life could go on as planned. Even then, I was learning to recognize the joy of just being allowed to live a common, unremarkable sort of life. But now? Nothing in the world sounds sweeter than a boring ol' month of laundry and school and diapers and mop water.

Many of my friends have been posting an item or two each day for the month of November of things for which they are thankful. It's a terrific exercise. I have never done it myself, but I imagine I'll give it a whirl at some point. But one thing these last few months have taught me is that there is far more that is joyous and lovely in this world than I have tended to recognize. So I am making more of an effort to keep my eyes open. I have taken hundreds of photos in recent weeks of whatever I find that strikes me as true, good, and beautiful, and it's been a helpful activity for cultivating gratitude. I am by no means an expert photographer, and most of my photos have been snapped on my cell phone camera. But that doesn't really matter. The point is to not allow the blessings of life, both great and small, to go by unnoticed. Taking pictures lately has been a simple way of tuning my senses to the goodness of all that God has given us—from cabbages to crayons, from ice formations to eyelashes.

And Jonah has also begun to know, deep down in his bones, that just to fall asleep in your own bed each night is a gift without parallel. He recognizes, better than any ten-year-old I've met, that there is glory in the little things because for him the "little" things are anything but. Think about it: When was the last time you thanked God for the privilege of setting foot in a grocery store or a classroom or a church? When have you ever thought to be grateful for the simple fact that you have an appetite? For blood cells that function properly? For seeing your messy, noisy family everyday at breakfast?

Open your eyes to what you have. These are gifts. These are reasons to give thanks. Take the time to notice, and you will always have cause to be grateful—even, perhaps, for the fleas.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cirque du Today

If there's one skill that our whole family has been honing lately it is flexibility. Every time Jonah's situation changes—and it changes frequently—we have to be ready on a moment's notice to swivel and twist and turn our plans upside-down. Some days I feel like I belong to a troupe of those gravity-defying Chinese acrobats, dangling precariously from a wildly swaying trapeze, my limbs looped all around like a human pretzel. How did I end up here? Why did I agree to this? It feels like madness. It probably looks like madness, too. But in reality it's the only sane thing to do. If I were to remain stiff and still—if I stubbornly refused to take part in this swirling circus act—I would simply be knocked flat on my back by the force of the action around me. We all must either bend or break. The show must go on, whether I participate willingly or not.

I am willing. I truly am. But I am awfully sore.

Before Jonah's diagnosis, we tended to be creatures of ossified habit, who usually made plans that required little elasticity, little variation from our comfortable, predictable routines. But on one startling day in August, all of our carefully constructed plans were spontaneously gutted and remodeled, and now our days consist more of vague expectations than of well-marked schedules.

Birthday surprises from my favorite people.
We avoid making time-sensitive promises. We RSVP with a caveat. When we celebrated my birthday last week, we were uncertain how Jonah would be doing over the weekend, so we waited until the last minute to make a decision about where to go. I was supposed to sign up for a specific date and time for parent-teacher conferences, but I didn't because, well, I have no idea what I'll be doing two hours from now let alone next Thursday afternoon. With the help of my mother-in-law and many friends, we do try to stick to a schedule for the rest of the family, and our other kids are adjusting to the “new normal,” but Jonah's situation is a constant question mark looming over each day's activities, and we all sometimes feel stretched a little thin.

I have grown a little weary of answering the seemingly simple question, “So, what are your plans for today/tomorrow/this week?” I just never know. I have been reminded over and over of what the apostle James says: “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” This has always been true, but it's never seemed more obvious. More times than I can count, as soon I tell someone our “plans” some unforeseen situation arises to change them. If I inform you that Jonah's going to get a blood transfusion today, he doesn't. If I tell you that Jonah is likely to have a good week, then he spends the whole week in bed sleeping or puking. And if I tell you that I expect him to feel terrible after his chemo, then sure enough, he'll be cheerfully sitting up, enthusiastically watching the World Series and eating heaps of spicy Thai curry. So who am I to tell anybody my plans? I am not writing this story. I am simply living it. And living it well means living it in faith. Living it flexibly.

The view from our hospital room after Tuesday's storm.
Just writing these updates can be a difficult exercise. I delete more than I publish, wondering what tone to take, what details to share. Dwell too long on the struggles and heartaches, and it sounds like an ungrateful pity party. Spend too long giving glowing reports of happy moments, and it reads—at least to me—like a cheap veneer. The fact is, both sides of this story exist simultaneously. Dark clouds and sunshine share the same sky.

On the one hand, Jonah appears to be moving steadily toward recovery, God is helping us to grow and mature, and we have a small army of friends and loved ones praying for us, holding us up, catching us when we're falling, and helping us to untangle from these acrobatic knots we're tied in. We are blessed beyond measure. But on the other hand, we have a child missing his friends, missing his routine, missing his health, missing out on school, and fighting a life-threatening disease. We exist in a state of constant flux and sudden change, perpetually living out of suitcases in a no-man's land between hospital, lake house, and home. We have to stay on our toes as much as any prima ballerina, and we are being stretched far beyond our comfort zones. I can definitely feel the burn. 

Right now, we are in the hospital with Jonah, hoping we can discover a solution to his ongoing malaise. He's been tired and dizzy and prone to random fevers and daily bouts of nausea. And now he is also receiving four consecutive days of IV chemo—the variety that usually makes him feel intensely sick. While we did arrive here with a loose set of expectations, we were hardly surprised when the plans changed. 

Jonah working on a little Latin in the hospital.
First, Jonah was dehydrated after a weekend of illness, so he couldn't receive his chemo until he was fully hydrated, which took many hours longer than we had expected. He was also supposed to receive blood after his first dose of chemo, but he ran a fever again, and the transfusion had to be postponed nearly twenty-four hours. And yet, so far Jonah has tolerated the chemo far better than we anticipated. He was able to eat a real breakfast even after his chemo, and then ate a big, spicy lunch and dinner. This, too, was unexpected—and very welcome. But then the nausea medication started to make him so dizzy he could hardly walk and so loopy he couldn't finish a coherent sentence or remember what he'd done five minutes earlier. Then he started having abdominal pains. Or bladder spasms. Or both. He can't face the sight of a muffin, and yet he craves Panang curry. One minute he's smiling and doing craft projects, and the next he's flat on his back moaning and clutching his belly. I never know whether it's best to make him nap or eat or study Latin or take a walk.

Yesterday the oncologist was expected to check in with us first thing in morning, but she got so busy that we didn't see her until early in the evening. We are hoping that Jonah will be discharged this afternoon, but we know that this is also subject to numerous factors outside our control. We wanted the family to spend the weekend together, but when Asaph started throwing up last night, we realized that, in order to protect Jonah, a family gathering is not going to happen. Plans may change and change and change again. And if so, we must remain flexible; we must be ready to spin and bend. 

I like to think that in years to come we will spend a lot of time laughing over some of the crazy contortions we found ourselves performing during this three-ring circus. With a little distance, a series of mishaps that once seemed like a miserable crisis may seem more like a well-timed comedy sketch, and we will be able to appreciate the intricate series of plot twists that formed this chapter of our story.

What makes these moments tolerable is knowing that while we may have lost control of a particular scene, our God hasn't. He is writing this story, and He writes well. He writes well even during the suspenseful chapters. Especially during the suspenseful chapters. This particular chapter has been a real nail-biter, and I confess that I am one of those folks who prefers to inhabit the tamer plot lines—more Austen and less Tolkien for me, thanks. When I reach the tense, frightening chapters of a novel I almost always skip to the last page, just to make sure that everything turns out all right in the end before I want to keep reading. Weak, perhaps, but it's the spoilers that keep me going. And it's no different in this real-life cliffhanger. 

While I may not know many of the intervening details, I can take courage because I already know that this story ultimately ends well. I can step out from the wings to grab hold of the swaying trapeze, to bend with every plot twist in this particular suspense story, because I know the Author; because I know the Author is good; because I know His promises are true; because I know with a deep, unswerving confidence that, although I might not yet see how, all things—all things—are working together for good.
“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” —Romans 8:37-39 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Joys and Trials, Tears and Smiles

I know, I know, I know. It's been too long since I gave you an update on this here blog. I had grand plans to try writing some kind of profound and meditative post this week, but after scrapping a few false starts, I gave up and decided that you'd probably prefer to just read a newsy update anyway. So here goes:

Jonah got out of the hospital for a couple of days after his long week of nausea, and his doctor surprised us by saying his ANC was high enough for him to come all the way home again. So we let it be a surprise for everyone at home, too, when he walked in the door. Such a happy moment! Jonah was able to stay with us for Sunday and Monday, and we enjoyed a restful time as a family, although he was still feeling quite weak after so many days of being unable to eat more than a Cheerio or two.

Then Tuesday he was back in the hospital for his weekly spinal tap and the start of his next round of daily chemo. This time, at least, I came prepared with packed bags in case his nausea kept him in the hospital. Accessing his new port went beautifully, and the spinal tap went smoothly as well. Then he went down the hall for his dose of chemo, and seemed to tolerate it well enough afterward to leave the hospital and return to Coeur d'Alene.

Well, within five minutes of reaching the car, Jonah was turning green, and by the time I merged onto the freeway, he was vomiting into his pink standard-issue hospital bucket. Every two minutes. All the way to Coeur d'Alene. Then it continued every two minutes for more than an hour at the house there, after which the doctor told us to return to the hospital. And then it went on every two minutes all the way back to the hospital and for a good half hour after we arrived. Four straight hours of unrelenting misery. Sorry for the unpleasant details, but I have never seen anybody that wretchedly sick in my life. Quite honestly I didn't think the human body was capable of heaving so many times and for so long without a reprieve. Perfectly horrid.

Jonah finally wore himself out and fell asleep in his hospital bed—even before receiving any nausea meds, and managed to sleep straight through the night. (Thank you to all who were praying for that!) To help Jonah's nausea, the doctor decided to try placing a motion sickness patch behind his ear, and he woke up feeling much better. Although Jonah was not able to bring himself to eat more than a few bites for the next four days, he was still significantly more comfortable than he had been the week before without the patch, so we will keep those handy for when he receives this same nasty chemo drug (Ara-C) next time around, two weeks from now.

By Friday afternoon, most of the chemo was working its way out of his system, and  Jonah was feeling well enough to eat again. The best news was that Jonah was released from the hospital just in time for the family to come up for the weekend—the first time that has worked out since Jonah's treatments began. And what made it even more delightful was that Jonah's uncle Brandon and cousin Branson arrived from Arizona the following day.

My mother-in-law commented a couple of times that it almost felt like Christmas being there together. Having all that family around boosted Jonah's morale more than anything that's happened yet, so we let the other boys skip a day of school on Monday in order to be together a little longer. It was definitely worth the extra homework. We had beautiful weather for the weekend, Jonah felt energized and ready to play (and eat!), and we were able to go to church, spend time at the park, hit some wiffle balls, dig in the sand, paddle in the canoe, splash in the hot tub, and eat some terrific homemade meals. Branson and Jonah cooked an outstanding chicken dinner together on Sunday, and then Jayson and Brandon took over the next night, grilling some spectacular hamburgers for all of us.

On Monday night Jayson's mom and I drove back home with the rest of the boys while Jayson, Jonah, Brandon, and Branson stayed in Coeur d'Alene. Jonah had his weekly spinal tap again on Tuesday morning, but this time Branson, who hopes to become a brain surgeon, was able to go with Jonah to watch the procedure. Not many high school students would choose to do something like that on their four-day weekend!

Jonah's nausea threatened to return in the car on the way back from the hospital, so the guys pulled over on the side of the road to pray for him before they reached the house. Once they arrived, Jayson also gave him his new patch and some of his nausea meds, and Jonah's appetite gradually improved as the evening wore on. By Wednesday Jonah had no nausea at all and was able to enjoy an outing in the canoe on his last morning together with Branson and Brandon before their return to Arizona.

That Jonah is feeling so well so soon after Tuesday's chemo and spinal tap is a huge blessing. It means that we can fairly accurately attribute Jonah's severe nausea to that one specific chemo drug, which in turn means that we can expect him to be free from nausea for the next two weeks until he starts receiving that drug again.

Jonah is now home for the weekend. He is tired and anemic, and his ANC is on the low side, so he isn't allowed to go out in public because of his weak immune system. But we are grateful to have him home whenever we can, even if he's just lying in bed reading a book or watching baseball on his iPad. We are also grateful to have a couple of weeks of relief from the extreme queasiness. Jonah does have a cold right now, so please pray that he would get over that and that his body would remain free from any serious infections, and that the rest of us would stay healthy throughout this cold and flu season so that our family can be together without putting Jonah at risk. Please pray as well that Jonah's nausea would be less severe during his upcoming rounds of chemo and that any other side effects would be minimal. Chemo is vicious stuff, so pray with us that it's doing the job it's meant to do, namely to cure Jonah of cancer—for good.

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
    will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
    you will bring me up again.
You will increase my greatness
    and comfort me again.
I will also praise you with the harp
    for your faithfulness, O my God.
—Psalm 71:20-22

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Back in the Thick of It

As a much-needed respite during these months of difficult cancer treatments, Jonah was able to spend nearly a week at home. He was grateful just to be back among his people again, seeing his brothers everyday, sleeping in his own bed, and sharing meals with the family.

He joined his class for a half day at school last Wednesday, which, while it may not have been the "first day of school" we had anticipated, was still a welcome opportunity to catch up with his friends and feel a little bit normal, if only for a while. Jonah also got to see his class play on Friday morning. We look forward to the day when he'll be up there on the stage performing with them again.

He also spent some time outdoors swinging his new bat and trying out his new batting gloves. We even went out for dinner one night, to church on Sunday, and to my parents' house for Sunday dinner. But all his activities had to be brief and bookended with rest. His body is still quite weak, and going off the massive doses of steroids he's been on was rather painful. In spite of a handful of little outings, Jonah spent most of the week in bed with a splitting headache and lots of body aches. 

Steroid withdrawals by themselve are no fun, but we now think that he was also suffering from anemia at the same time, because after a blood transfusion on Monday he felt much, much better. Some kids are more sensitive to anemia than others, and we think that may have been behind the severity and duration of his headaches. One more thing to keep an eye on in the future.

The good news is that Jonah's bone marrow test revealed excellent results. His MRD numbers are right where his doctors had hoped—in remission. This sounds fabulous, which it is, but what it means is that here were no detectible cancer cells, not that he is cured. The doctors know from decades of treating kids with leukemia that the cancer will almost certainly return unless chemotherapy treatment continues. However, these good results do mean that Jonah's prognosis is as good as it could be and that we can stay on his present course of treatment instead of requiring an additional eight-week round of intensive chemotherapy. But now begins the first of three eight-week-long phases of chemo, two of which will require Jonah to be away from home. If all goes well, he will likely be able to come home periodically for about eight weeks in between the first and third rounds. Please pray that everything goes as well as—or even better than—his oncologist anticipates it will. 

Now we are back at the hospital, and for longer than we had expected. Jonah had surgery Tuesday morning to remove the PICC line from his arm and install a subcutaneous port in his chest. Since the port is under the skin, it will allow Jonah to enjoy more normal activities when he's feeling well, and we won't have to keep flushing the lines or protecting them from water. It will improve his quality of life once the incision heals. The recovery, however, is not going as smoothly as we had hoped. We anticipated that he would be able to leave the hospital on Wednesday, but he has not been well enough yet to leave because of side effects from a new chemo drug.

While he was sedated for surgery, Jonah also received yet another spinal tap, plus three additional kinds of chemo throughout the afternoon. Nothing like a quad-shot of toxic chemicals to brighten your day. Jonah has been suffering from fevers, headaches, soreness, and nausea ever since he came out of surgery, and the meds he's taking to combat the side effects make him feel punch drunk and spacey. He's mostly miserable, in a zombie-like trance, or asleep. For a few hours a day he's lucid enough for TV. And we got a few smiles out of him today.

We are working with his oncologist and the nurses to try to find some solution to the multiple side effects, but so far there's been no magic remedy. Tylenol, oxycodone, and morphine have kept his pain somewhat under control. But even after seven different nausea medications—including one marijuana derivative—acupressure wrist bands, ginger gum, a ginger supplement, and some pleasantly fruity aromatherapy, he is still living with a constant malaise and no appetite at all. It's all I can do to force him to take a sip from a juice box or eat a single Cheerio.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that all this pain and poison is designed to help and heal. In the last fifty years the survival rate for leukemia patients has gone from nearly zero to close to 90%. Huge strides have been made in this field of medicine. But still. If these pills are so toxic that the nurses have to wear nylon gloves just to touch them, how can I bring myself to watch him swallow them? Every day? For months? It takes a tremendous amount of trust, both in God and in our doctors, to believe that all these things are working together for Jonah's ultimate good.

Sitting here far away from my family helplessly watching Jonah go through this trauma has certainly put both my joy and patience to the test. It can be tempting to sit here staring at my pale, miserable son and throw myself a little pity party to the soundtrack of the beeping IV pump. But spending a week or two on the Pediatric Oncology floor does provide an eye-opening change in perspective.

We are surrounded here by children who are suffering much greater trials than Jonah is. Walking down the hall to the ice machine, I alternate between feelings of horror and gratitude when I come face-to-face with examples of how much worse off Jonah's situation could be.

I've seen kids with feeding tubes and oxygen masks and missing limbs and massive head scars from brain surgery. I have met mothers who have lost their kids to cancer, and I have met others whose kids are facing multiple surgeries and dangerous radiation and developmental delays and very bleak prognoses. So who are we to complain? Jonah's in remission, for pity's sake. His prognosis is good. We're facing more than three years of chemotherapy to keep those undetectable rogue cancer cells from rearing their ugly heads again, but we have good reason to expect that we will not have to see Jonah crippled, maimed, or, God forbid, buried. Among the folks on this floor of the hospital, we're the ones who got a break. We have it easy. Our kid just has high risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia, that's all. Others may envy us.

A good friend of mine who is an oncology nurse told me that when she heard Jonah had leukemia, she prayed, "Please God, let it be ALL." I would never have known to pray for such a thing, but she did. And after talking to a mom a few doors down the hall whose 13-year-old son has AML, I find myself praying, "Thank you, Lord, for letting my son have ALL instead." ALL. What a relief. Thank God.

No, really. Thank God. And please keep praying for Jonah and for all of us. We are on a long road, and we will need your prayers the whole way.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Guess Who's Home!

There's no place like home!
After a very long month away from his home, his friends, and his family, Jonah is finally going to be sleeping in his own bed tonight. God has certainly been keeping us on our toes and teaching us to hold our plans very loosely, but after all of the unexpected changes during these past several weeks, we are praying that this week at home will be refreshingly mundane. Jonah is incredibly happy just to have the privilege of setting his feet on familiar ground, and we are so thankful to simply be together as a family again.

Look at Liam's face in that picture. A happy reunion, if there ever was one. Liam and Jonah have seen each other for a grand total of about thirty minutes during the last four weeks. We tried—twice—to get the whole family together at the lake house, but both times our two littlest got sick and couldn't be around Jonah, so tonight was  our first family meal since August 19th. It's a joyous occasion, but still bittersweet, since we know that he has to leave again on Monday. However, we hope to make these six days as sweet as possible for him—and for all of us.

Jayson and his mom and I have been driving back and forth between home and the hospital and the lake house, sharing the load of caring for a household divided by distance. This has made our schedule rather hectic, but it has also allowed each of us to have time with kids in both places. It's been difficult, but it's been livable. However, there's nothing that compares to being all together in our own home. So wonderful. Never underestimate the value of normalcy.

But then again, never underestimate the value of trials. Sometimes the deepest, richest grace comes wrapped in the most unappealing packages. I have discovered flashes of glory in the most unlikely settings. I was loading groceries into my car after a little shopping trip in Coeur d'Alene last week, and, noticing something moving out of the corner of my eye, looked up to see this bright bird of paradise hopping around inside the weathered cab of a dilapidated yellow pickup truck. Sometimes grace is like that: beautiful, glorious, and surprising—and all the more so because we find it within the ugliest situations.

These weeks have been a wild and unpredictable ride. I have tried multiple times this week to sit down and document it, but blogging without a proper computer has been more difficult than I thought. I hope to get a laptop soon so that I can keep you updated more easily. Now that I'm home, I'll try to fill you in on what we've been up to these last several days:

While I was home last week, I was able to do a few fun things with my other boys, including joining Paul's and Asaph's classes at the county fair. But most of my week was spent away from home with Jonah.

The Friday before last was quite the preposterous series of events. After a long day at the hospital for a clinic appointment, Jonah and I returned to the lake house only to discover that we had locked ourselves out. My keys were on the kitchen counter, and the other set of keys was ninety miles away. Thankfully Jayson and the family were already planning to come up to see us that evening, so they hurried to the van and got there as soon as they could. In the meantime we met a few of our sweet neighbors—including another ten-year-old boy who has been on cancer drugs himself for a kidney disorder—and enjoyed a lovely afternoon by the water, eating grapes and reading aloud while we waited.

Once Jayson arrived, we breathed a brief sigh of relief. And then chaos ensued. We were halfway through unloading the van while the big boys ran through the house shouting excitedly to each other as they discovered each new room, when Liam threw up on the hearth, Asaph started coughing, Jayson and I  scrambled to quarantine and disinfect, and Grannie M buckled both little boys back into the car and drove them the whole 90 miles back home for the weekend. The remaining boys tore into a huge box of gifts from Jonah's baseball team, I followed them around picking up bits of wrapping paper, and then the spaghetti boiled over. Surprisingly (no doubt because so many people have been praying for us) we all managed to keep our sanity and sense of humor through the whole ridiculous scene. And we were still able to enjoy a beautiful Saturday on the lake the next day with my brother's family and both my parents. My dad rented a boat, and we all—even Jonah—spent several pleasant hours enjoying the water and the warm weather to celebrate my dad's 60th.

In addition to a few regularly scheduled visits to the hospital, Jonah also managed to visit the Emergency Room. Twice. Last Wednesday morning I took him in after he couldn't stop vomiting, and then on Friday evening, right after Paul and Jude came to stay the weekend, I had to take him back to the ER for severe abdominal pain. That night was particularly rough; I've never seen him in such agony. The pain turned out to be simply the result of a slowed digestive system on account of the drugs he's on, but that didn't make it any less miserable. After a few doses of morphine, an X-ray, and a CT scan to rule out more serious problems, he was admitted, and we spent the rest of night in the hospital—by which I mean, we got to bed at 5:30 in the morning and slept until 9:00. Yaaaawn. But later that day, after a good nap, Jonah was back on his feet and doing this:

We've had our difficult moments, to be sure, but Jonah has been remarkably brave and has maintained good spirits and steadfast faith during some very challenging times. Please pray that he continues to pass this monumental test. We are thankful to know that Jonah is done with the first phase ("induction") of his 3 1/2-year treatment. Jonah's hair is just now starting to fall out slowly, but today he was able to quit taking his steroid, which means the puffiness in his face should start to subside over the next few weeks. This morning he also had a spinal tap and a bone marrow aspirate. The results of his bone marrow sample will determine how aggressive the next phase of treatment must be, so please pray for the tests to come back negative, with no cancer cells.

Thank you all for praying for us and for providing us with meals, cards, gifts, rides, donations, and encouragement throughout this first difficult month. We know that the grace of God has upheld us and met our many needs, and we know that much of that grace has come through your hands. Thank you. Please rejoice with us in Jonah's homecoming, and please continue to remember us all in your prayers as we move on to the next phases of Jonah's battle with leukemia. We sure do love that boy.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Out of the hospital!

So, the big news is that Jonah was released from the hospital yesterday evening. His doctor was not terribly concerned about his ANC so long as he stays away from public places and sick people for the time being. He has an appointment with his oncologist on Friday, so we will find out then if he is safe to go out a bit. We are enjoying Jonah's first day out of the hospital at a beautiful home on Lake Couer d'Alene owned by some friends from our church. What a huge blessing this place is. It will be hard to go home after being spoiled like this! The view and the house are both lovely. Jonah was nervous about leaving the reassuring safety of the hospital, but as soon as we arrived here he forgot all about his fears and started excitedly exploring every room.

Jonah was able to walk down to the dock this morning and dangle his feet in the lake. No swimming for him until his PICC line is replaced by a port at the end of the month, but the fresh air and the proximity to the water have had him smiling. And, as some wise man once said, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine." From where I am sitting I can see the lights of Coeur d'Alene and the resort in the distance, and we are sharing the neighborhood with deer and and red winged blackbirds and blue herons. 

Jonah, who loves to spend time in the kitchen, got to help me make some beef stir fry for dinner tonight--another big boost to his spirits. While we are stuck so far from home, he might as well hone his culinary skills, right? By the end of this ordeal, I hope to have a fully fledged sous-chef around the house.

Next, we will need to bring our piano keyboard up here so that he can start practicing again, and I need to learn a thing or two about being a homeschool mom. In a place like this it will be all too easy to feel like we're on vacation and to forget that this boy has some work to do!

So far Jonah has felt fine today in spite of yesterday's dose of chemo. This is great news, since I have not had to give him any anti-nausea or pain medications at all since we left the hospital. I am more than happy to eliminate any unnecessary drugs from his medication-saturated body, so I would be grateful for your prayers that this will continue. And please keep praying for his ANC to recover. My dad is turning 60 next week, so, although some of our other kids have had colds,  we'd love to be able to have the whole family together to celebrate. We have much to celebrate already.

Some of you have asked how you can help from a distance. We have had countless immediate needs already met by many of you, so thank you. But if you are looking for addtional info, a friend of ours has created a web site for us that should have all the pertinent news about Jonah and links to additional ways to help: www.helpjonah.comWe are grateful for all your ongoing prayers and support. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Jonah, 9/4/12

I am sitting here by the window at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital wondering what today will bring. Last week Jonah's oncologist said she expected him to be released from the hospital on Tuesday. That would be today, for those of you who are keeping track. But so far it looks like Jonah's ANC is still too low (55. Normal is around 2-3000.) for him to leave the safe and sanitary environment of the hospital without serious risk of infection. The slower his ANC is to recover after a dose of chemo, the more time he will have to spend away from home, so please continue to pray that his numbers will climb back quickly each time.

Two of Jonah's good friends came to visit this weekend which boosted his spirits and helped the time pass much more pleasantly. He really misses being at school and church and seeing his friends regularly, so these short visits are a very welcome change to the hospital routine.

Jonah has been feeling fairly good, but he is now starting to get some mouth sores, a common side effect of the chemo drugs. They are designed to kill fast growing cells, which includes cancer cells but also includes the cells of the mouth/GI lining and hair follicles, so mouth sores and hair loss are almost inevitable. No hair has fallen out yet, but we expect it to happen sometime this week or next. And the steroids he is on are also making him look a little puffy in the face--also a common side effect.

Just to make life a little more exciting, I woke up yesterday with abdominal pain that was so severe I thought it might be appendicitis. But thankfully that gradually subsided, although it took all day. I suspect that it had a lot to do with stress and my less than optimal eating habits lately. Anyway, thanks to those of you who were praying for that. I would hate to put the rest of my family through having two of us in the hospital right now--although it would no doubt make for some funny stories to tell later. (My grandma had her appendix out at the same time that she was supposed to be taking care of things at home while her mom was in the hospital, so they both ended up in recovery together. Crazy times. It's an anecdote that makes us laugh when she tells it now.)

We would, in fact, love to have none of us in the hospital soon. Jonah has always enjoyed being outdoors, and the closest he can get right now is a third floor hospital balcony overlooking the city. The view is fun, but it isn't the same as having his feet in the grass. So please keep praying for his immune system to bounce back rapidly so that he can leave sometime in the next couple days. He will have to be back here again every so often, but we would love to maximize his time away from the pediatric oncology ward. I will keep you all updated when we find out when Jonah can be released. Thanks for praying.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The latest on Jonah, 9/1/12

September? Wow. August 20 seems like an age ago. Did finding missing socks and paying library late fees ever seem remotely important to me? Two weeks ago would I have believed that I would now know how to flush a PICC line with saline and would have words like "Daunorubicin" and "lymphoblastic" rolling off the tip of my tongue? I cannot imagine living through such a sudden and spectacular transformation without knowing that we are upheld by the God who does not change.

After he endured a very long week full of nausea and weakness, Jonah's doctor adjusted some of his medications, and he seems to have finally turned a corner. His appetite, thanks to the steroids he's been on, is now back with a vengeance. He wakes up in the night wanting a snack, and he called me on Friday asking me to bring him some popcorn, two homemade two-egg omelets (because the hospital ones taste like damp dish sponges), and a bag of Buffalo Bleu Kettle Chips, all of which he ate in short order. Since then he's managed to consume remarkable amounts of food—strawberries, peaches, yogurt, bacon, sausage, pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken couscous,  root beer, cranberry juice, and so on. After he lost several pounds, we are thankful that he's eating again and keeping it all down. And at this rate he looks like he's going to gain that weight back sooner than later.

Jonah is also the most cheery and talkative we have seen him in weeks. This weekend of seeing him acting more like himself again has been an emotional boost for all of us. We know he will continue to have ups and downs over the course of his treatment, but it is such a joy to have Jonah up and about, smiling, cracking jokes, and with some pink color back in his cheeks after a month of looking pale and tired all the time.

We were able to meet with Jonah's oncologist yesterday, and, as long as he continues on his present course, she is planning to release Jonah from the hospital as early as next week. His blood count is near its nadir, meaning that his immune system is at rock bottom, leaving him at high risk for infections, but as long as his numbers start to come back up as anticipated and he stays free of infection, they would allow him to leave the hospital on Tuesday. This does not mean that he can come home yet; we live too far away for that, but it would still be a welcome change. Thank you for your continued prayers to that end.

We also learned that Jonah will probably be allowed to come all the way home (and sleep in his own bunk bed!) for short intervals much sooner than we thought. This is also a huge relief, since earlier this week another oncologist told us she thought he might not be able to come home at all for six to nine months. That is still a possibility if his blood count is slow to recover after each dose of chemo. But over the next nine months Jonah will very likely be able to come home for varying periods of time in between his stays in the Spokane area. He may even be able to join his class at school for part of that time. So please pray for his body to recover quickly from his treatments and that he (and the rest of us) will remain infection-free  so that we can be together in Moscow as much as possible. We would all—obviously—love to have Jonah home again.

In the meantime, we have found a place to stay, at least for the next couple of months before snow comes, that is within the one-hour allowable driving distance from the hospital. Some church friends have offered the use of their vacation home on Lake Coeur d'Alene, and who could say no to that? This is a huge blessing which is going to make the prospect of living away from home much sweeter for Jonah. The boys may even get to enjoy some autumn fishing together before the weather turns.

We continue to be humbled and astonished by the kindness and love shown us by our Christian brothers and sisters both here and around the world. Hopkins was right: "Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men's faces." Every time we turn around, Christ is there, and He is unspeakably lovely. Every hot meal, every generous gift, every kind note, every offer of help, every hug, every prayer on our behalf has been Christ to us during these long two weeks. And we are grateful.

UPDATE: Just in the time since I sat down to write this, Jonah's nausea already started to return, and his temperature is now slightly elevated. Please pray that the nausea and fever would subside quickly and that he would still be able to leave on Tuesday.

This gives you some idea of how each day goes for Jonah right now. By the time I start to write one update, the situation changes so that my "update" is already out of date before I hit "publish". We are certainly being kept on our toes, so thank you for praying, even when we don't know what to ask for from moment to moment. God knows our needs even before we do.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Quick update: 8/28/12

Jonah's procedure went well this morning, so thank you again for your prayers. He was able to eat a little for lunch, but couldn't keep it down, so please pray for the nausea to subside from this recent dose of chemo. He had a good nap and is eating a little right now--and watching the Mariners play the Twins.  (He's probably going to go through TV withdrawals when he comes home!)

Folks from Christ Church Spokane have been caring for us here at the hospital and have been bringing us some lovely meals. It's been a blessing to see friendly and familiar faces here--and the home cooked food is a dramatic improvement over the hospital cafeteria fare.

Jayson's brother, Brandon, flew home today, and we are extremely thankful for his willingness to be here; it was just what we all needed. Jonah's words: "I have the two best uncles in the world." Yes, buddy, you do.

Jayson's mom is currently home with the rest of our boys. What would we do without Grannie M?What a saint she is.

Thanks to all of you who are making these days livable for all of us. I have had the hymn "Great is Thy Faithfulness" playing on repeat in my head all day: "All I have needed thy hand hath provided." True words. Never have all those psalms and hymns we've memorized over the years been more precious to me than they have been this week. Even when I've been too weary to form words of my own to pray, those verses are there when I have needed them most.

But I will sing of your strength, in the morning I will sing of your love; for you are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble. -Psalm 59:16

Monday, August 27, 2012

More news on Jonah: 8/27/12

Today was the first day of school for Jude and Paul, so Jayson and I were grateful for the opportunity to be home for the big day. Asaph will start pre-school tomorrow, so we plan to be here for his first morning as well, but we will head back to Spokane to spend Tuesday with Jonah at the hospital, as it is likely to be a rough day for him.

Jonah's fever subsided on Saturday afternoon, and he seemed to have improved on Sunday and was able to eat a little and to rest. He continued to be tired and dizzy throughout the day, however. Jayson's mom and brother went to stay with him last night so that we could come home. This morning Jonah was able to get out of bed and walk around for the first time in three days, but after a short stroll around the floor he was exhausted, and his nausea and vomiting returned for a while this afternoon.

Tomorrow around noon, Jonah is scheduled for another round of chemo and another lumbar puncture and spinal tap requiring him to go under anesthesia. We are also likely to find out the results of his bone marrow analysis tomorrow or Wednesday.

In addition, we are in the process of registering a second car (an extraordinary gift from our church family) so that we will have transportation both here and in Spokane. We will also be getting another cell phone soon—another thing we had never really needed living in our little town. We are also still hoping to find a housing arrangement for the next few months that will allow Jonah to live near the hospital and where the whole family can be together on weekends.

Thank you again for everything you have blessed us with—the meals, the rides, the housework, the cards, the gifts, and everything else that has helped carry us through this most difficult week of our lives. And thank you, always and especially, for your prayers.

Here are the specific prayer requests we have right now; please pray for
  • Skill and wisdom for the doctors and nurses entrusted with Jonah's care.
  • Relief from Jonah's nausea, discomfort, and fatigue.
  • Quick and thorough effectiveness from the chemo and other treatments.
  • Favorable results from his bone marrow sample and other tests.
  • Jonah to be spared from any infections or complications.
  • Good health for the rest of our family, especially while Jonah's immune system is wiped out.
  • Safe travels as we go back and forth between home and Spokane.
  • Patience, peace, and joy throughout this trial.
  • A place to stay in Spokane that would meet the various needs of our family over the next few months.
  • Wisdom for the numerous decisions we must make.
  • Complete healing so that Jonah has a long, fruitful, and healthy life. 
  • Jonah's faith to remain steadfast. 
And, just for fun, here's a video of Jonah at age four, pretending to be Pastor Dale (our pastor in Texas), complete with "robe". A few days before Jonah's diagnosis, we watched this together and had a good laugh. Watching it again today made me smile.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Update on Jonah: August 25, 2012

Thank you all again for praying for Jonah and for providing us with so much help in our hour of need. Jonah had his second dose of chemo yesterday and his nausea has been pretty severe since last night. This morning he spiked a fever as well and has not been able to bring himself to eat today. He is sleeping right now, so please pray that he will wake up feeling better and regain his appetite. 

Jayson and I are both staying with him in Spokane together for the first time which has been good for us, but watching Jonah suffer is tough. And knowing how fragile is life is right now is the hardest thought of all. We will probably be riding this emotional roller coaster for a long time, so please pray for continued peace for the whole family. 

We could also use prayer for good sleep, good appetites, and good health for all of us. If any of us gets sick, we need to stay clear of Jonah on account of his weak immune system.

Jonah's prognosis seems fairly good so far, but even in the best scenario, the treatment will not be easy for him or for us. We are still awaiting the results of Jonah's bone marrow analysis, so please pray for a favorable outcome to that, since that could change things substantially. And throughout the weeks, months, and years ahead, we of course ask for you to join us in praying that God would spare him from severe side effects of his treatment, but especially that God would spare Jonah's life and cure him completely. 


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Update on Jonah

To all our friends and family,

Thank you again for your overwhelming demonstration of love and support since we found out on Monday night that Jonah has High Risk (because he is older than 9) B-Cell A.L.L (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia). I know many of you have been waiting for an update on Jonah, so I'll start with that.

Jonah's first night in the hospital was rough—lots of needles and tests and interrupted sleep. But yesterday morning, Jonah was able to watch a little baseball and visit with Uncle Ethan (my brother) who has a great gift for keeping Jonah laughing. In the afternoon, my dad and I got to spend several hours at the hospital, and Jude (our 8-year-old) was able to come with us. This was a good opportunity set Jude's mind at ease and allow him to see what Jonah's going to be doing for the next several weeks. Jude decided to stay the night in the hospital last night. He'd much rather be there sleeping in a recliner next to Jonah than sleeping in his bunk bed all alone.

Yesterday was a difficult day for Jonah in some respects, however. Jonah had to be sedated to have a PICC line inserted (like an IV but it delivers medication much deeper in the body and will stay in for this whole first month). While he was under he also had a spinal tap and a bone marrow sample taken. He also has received blood at least twice now, and it's amazing how his color has improved as a result. (Donate blood!)

Jonah's second day in the hospital
Jonah had a lot of pain at the insertion site of the PICC line at first, but that has subsided. Removing the IV was also near the list of his least favorite experiences, but he was relaxed and smiling again by the time I went home. He had an EKG done just before we left, and he was very relieved that it didn't involve any needles. Jonah also received his first of many doses of chemo. Because Jonah's spinal fluid was clear of any cancer cells, he is not likely to need radiation in addition to the chemo. That in itself is an answer to prayer.

We have had to absorb a lot of information during these last two days, so we're in for a steep learning curve, but we're also grateful for the highly trained staff that have been ready to answer our questions. There are four pediatric oncologists just at this one hospital, and we are thankful for their expertise in this one field of medicine. Jonah is in good hands—both human and divine.

The first four weeks of Jonah's treatment will be the most intense, and he will need to stay in the hospital throughout the first month, during which time he is likely to go through some of the worst side-effects of the chemo. Because Spokane is more than an hour away from our home, Jonah will not be allowed to return home for at least another 8 weeks after that. Then, if everything goes according to plan, he will continue to receive treatment periodically for the next 3 years. In between treatments, Jonah should be able to return to most of his normal activities, including sports (which is a huge deal for him).

Jonah, Jayson, and Jude were all able to rest soundly last night, and we're thankful that Jonah has had a bit of a break today from being a human pincushion. One particular highlight of the day was a visit from a good friend from our church in Dallas. Luis Ortiz has been a profession baseball player (formerly with the Rangers) and is now a batting coach. He happened to be in Spokane this week for an annual scouting visit with the Spokane Indians (one of the Rangers' farm teams), so he was able to come to the hospital this morning and talk baseball with Jonah—probably Jonah's favorite topic of conversation in the world lately. Luis told Jonah that when he comes back next year he'd love to take Jonah to a game and bring him to batting practice with the team. Talk about something to look forward to! Jonah is also looking forward to a little visit from his friend Rory today, and Jayson's mom and brother will be flying from Phoenix tonight. Jayson's mom is planning to stay for as long as we need her, which will be a tremendous blessing for all of us.

I have cried more than I can remember during these last two days. But half the time the tears have come when I see how well God has cared for our family and how many people love us with the love of Christ and are ready to sacrifice their time and resources on our behalf. I have also seen God's provision in ways we could never have foreseen.

My brother's family just moved back to town a few weeks ago, and because he was here, my brother was able to drop everything and take Jayson and Jonah to Spokane as soon as we got the news. He is also staying with Jonah tonight to allow Jayson and me to give some time to our other boys.

My dad was also scheduled to fly to Canada the night of Jonah's diagnosis, so he had already taken the week off of work and was able to cancel his travel plans to stay here for us. Jayson could not work for a better college during a time like this; his colleagues have already lined up to take over teaching classes for him and help cover his other work responsibilities while he's away.

One of Jaysons' colleagues who is an elder at our church has a daughter who had childhood cancer, and she was already scheduled for her annual routine scan today at the same hospital where Jonah is. Because  of this, they were able to come and visit Jonah and Jayson and offer helpful advice and encouragement—and bring a heap of cards for Jonah.

And one of my oldest and dearest friends, Annie, has taken charge of organizing all kinds of help for us and was here just this morning to bring groceries and clean.

These unexpected blessings seem to be raining down on us in ways we could never have anticipated. Our church family has surrounded us with more help than I can possibly list here. We have people ready to take care of carpooling, garden watering, meals, cleaning, grocery shopping, and much more. I opened the mailbox this morning to find an envelope containing an anonymous gift of several hundred dollars. Another friend who owns a local coffee shop (Thank you, Bucer's!) e-mailed me to let me know that an extremely generous account was set up there in our name so that we can grab lunch or lattes on busy days. We have other friends who live in Spokane and have offered to help—one of whom is letting Jayson borrow a car today so that he can get home to have dinner with us tonight.

We are grateful for so many things, but we are especially grateful for your prayers. They do not fall on deaf ears. In addition to Jonah's healing, our most immediate need for prayer is for the planning stages of this situation. Jonah will need to keep up with his schooling as much as possible, so we have details to sort out on that front. We are also going to try to keep life as normal as we can for the other four boys, so that they can continue at school and maintain their own friendships there. At the same time, we need to figure out a place to stay in Spokane for the next three months and decide how, where, and when we might be able to continue to function as a family during Jonah's time in the hospital. We don't yet know how to divide our time and our family for three months between two cities that are 90 miles apart. We will be spending more time in the car during these months than we've ever spent before, so we also need to find worthwhile ways to spend that commute time.

Thank you for your love, your kind words, your generosity, and your prayers. God bless you all. He is our rock, our fortress and our deliverer; our God is a rock, in whom we take refuge, our shield and the horn of our salvation. He is our stronghold, our refuge and our savior.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Magic Beans

Two summers ago, I let my boys dig a huge, Holes-inspired pit in a grass-free corner of the yard. There, after several days of shoveling, they unearthed, to everyone's general disgust, a damp, reddish wad of moldy, foul-smelling cotton that had once been a pair of men's briefs. Fruit of the Loom does not, apparently, produce fruit of any sort when planted. As a matter of fact, if you take almost anything you own, bury it in the dirt, dump water on it day after day, and expose it to summer heat, all you will get for your trouble is rust, decay, and stink.

But apply the same brutal treatment to a handful of seeds, and the results are quite the opposite; those seeds rise, glorified, from their soggy graves to become all things pleasant to the eye and good for food. How is that possible? Who would have believed it? And having believed it, how could we ever grow tired of seeing it happen?

Our fourth season of gardening is nearing its peak, which means my sense of wonder at the garden's transformation is also nearing its peak. Every time I return to survey the bounty that has sprung from the ground behind our house I marvel: Where did all this come from? Granted, we have a few bare patches where slugs or birds or beetles have done their worst, and a few other empty squares where some much-anticipated herbs never so much as raised a tiny green flag before they surrendered to sad mortality.

But for all the unforeseen failures, we have also discovered unforeseen blessings; there are places where tomatoes and squash and even a cherry tree volunteered to grow where we did not plant them—surprise gifts whose flavors and colors will remain a mystery until we see the fruit ripen. We also have brilliant red, ruffled poppies and hollyhocks that popped up unbidden in the middle of the lettuce, and I could not bear to remove them. Their cheery flashes of color have certainly been worth the loss of a salad or two.

So while the results of our work in the garden have been inconsistent they have always been rewarding. Just discovering the newly emerged seedlings in the spring is a kind of reward. But harvest time is, doubtless, one of the most unsullied delights of the year.

What other time would it be possible to eat outside without bringing anything with you from the kitchen? Red-purple raspberries literally fall into my hand before I can pluck them. Sweet strawberries peek out shyly from under their leafy tents. Fat green snap peas dangle from their curling vines, quiet and camouflaged, waiting to be discovered by the careful eyes of hungry boys. And what sensation, I ask you, can rival the seedy-sweet explosion in the mouth from a sun-warmed yellow cherry tomato that has traveled less than two feet from the vine to the lips? Then afterward, the bright, greeny smell of tomato vine on my hands is as close to eau d’été as I have ever found. This is the season that raises distant memories of Eden.

Once the back yard harvest begins, it is easy to forget the work that went into forming these fruits. We may have spent hours digging and composting and weeding and watering and slug-smashing, but when those ripening tomatoes first appear, they still seem miraculous. And in many ways, I suppose, they are miraculous.

What logical connection can there be between those tiny, pale, dried up seeds that we started with and the exuberant, branching, fruit-heavy greenery that is taking over our garden today? In May I could carry them all in the palm of my hand. But in August I am hardly able to tame the tomato jungle they have become, even with the aid of ropes and cages and sharpened steel.

And the sunflowers! Those humble little seeds that litter the ground at every baseball field in America are capable of rocketing into the sky and bursting into massive solar blooms over our heads. It almost defies the imagination. Wherefore these horticultural fireworks? I have two of these green and yellow giants standing sentinel over my back garden at this moment, and although I planted them there, I cannot explain their regal existence. How could anyone deserve this? What a transformation! Beauty for ashes! Edible sunlight! Water in excelsis! O brave new world that has such produce in't!

Knowing what we know, how is it that we are able to casually stroll through the farmer's market without our awe-struck jaws dragging on the pavement? How can we shuffle half-heartedly around the grocery store, cringing at the price of melons and failing to recognize them for the hefty spheroids of botanical wonder that they are? How can we bear to pass by an August garden without stopping to sing loud alleluias at the sight of every unaccountable tomato?

The truth is, dear Jack, that every bean is a magic bean. A splash of water can turn one of those dry, unassuming legumes into a fairy tale stalk that will ascend, spiraling and twisting toward the heavens—and almost overnight. What person in his right mind wouldn't trade his only moo cow for a marvel such as this?

Yes, yes, I realize that we did a lot of work to make this garden happen. Yes, we scraped a few shins and pinched a few fingers as we built the beds and worked the soil. Yes, we did battle with weeds and slugs and birds and heavy clay and cold nights. But even with all our hard work in mind, we hardly seem honest to claim the harvest as our rightful reward. What did we do—really—to deserve this bounty? The answer, ultimately, is nothing.

The very strength to carry a garden spade is grace. Fertile soil? Grace. Sunlight? Grace. Rain? Grace. That magical transformation of seed into seedling? Grace. From seedling to vine? Grace. From vine to flower? Grace. From flower to fruit? Grace. The hands to pluck and the mouth to taste? Grace. And that transformation again from fruit in the mouth into the strength to carry a garden hoe? Again, grace. What do you have that you did not receive as a gift?

This evening, after we say grace, I plan to eat it. I plan to fill my glass with water that has been turned into wine and to fill our plates with piles of fresh-picked magic; with resurrected seeds; with fairy-tale fruit; with crisp, green, sweet piles of amazing grace.

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