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.

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