I’ve been thinking… about being a human with a serious illness

posted in: Illness 1

A surprising thing happened on my way to celebrate and promote Waiting for Good News, Living with Chronic and Serious Illness, (Minneapolis: FortressPress, 2018). I wrote this book from the perspective of someone who loved and lived with a father, and later a husband, who had chronic illnesses. It’s a good book, full of information and stories from others, especially targeted at those who care for someone with illness.

The surprising thing: I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) just three months before the publisher’s release date. Cancer! Me! Who cares if Stage 0 Breast Cancer is not life-threatening? Who cares if the area is small and easily removed by a lumpectomy? Who cares if surgical recovery is quick and mostly painless? I do and so do the 60,000 others who are diagnosed with DCIS each year in the United States (according to the American Cancer Society). Ironically, my sister, Sue, who copy-edited my manuscript before I sent it to my editor at Fortress Press, was diagnosed with an invasive breast cancer (Stage 1) just as I was beginning my post-surgical radiation treatments.

Even before the book was released I was dealing with anxiety about what this diagnosis meant to me, my life, and my future. There were days when I went to the manuscript to remind myself of the process many of us go through when we receive a diagnosis we don’t want to hear. I laughed when my radiologist “scolded” me for minimizing my experience. “I don’t just have the T-shirt,” I replied. “I wrote the book!”

But could I really practice what I preached? It was an odd experience that (to date) has lasted for five months. From the first phone call following my annual mammogram, “We need you to have another mammogram,” to the biopsy and receiving the results and hearing the diagnosis, through the MRI (to ensure there would be no surprises during surgery), and the radiation seed implant the day before the surgery, the surgery itself and an appointment with an oncologist to discuss follow up medication, and through my four weeks of daily radiation, my life was not my own.

All pretty orderly, reasonable and expected, right? So why do I feel so strange? Why did I suddenly become hypervigilant, terrified I’d forget an appointment, or fail to follow through on work tasks? A reasonably good driver, I panicked every time I made a lane change on my drive from my home in Winterset, about 30 miles from the Des Moines Cancer Center? A wonderfully patient oncology nurse helped me see that I was feeling so out of control of my life that I was working overtime to control anything I could. Damn!!!  I wrote the book.

I really wrote the book! What is wrong with me?

Ah-hah. I am a human being with a serious illness. My relatively predictable life was turned upside down and inside out and I was at a loss to get it back in order (see page 10, Waiting for Good News). Even as I experienced unusual (for me) emotions, fatigue that seemed to come out of nowhere, and this need to “get a grip,” I absolutely knew that God was present with me and I would not experience anything without God’s compassion holding me up. What sweet comfort. And what a grand reminder that none of us is destined for health issues and none of us is immune. “…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45, NRSV).

So, I’ve been thinking. Thinking with deep gratitude about the highly skilled and deeply compassionate health care providers I have now had the privilege to know. Thinking about the people of the congregations I serve and their ongoing outpouring of love and care, complete with stepping in to lead when I could not, and sending gifts, cards, gas money, letters and regular text message check-ins. Thinking about family and friends in Winterset and the amazing ways they showed their care and support.

I’m not really a Pollyanna type, but I do see silver linings. I do trust God to redeem all things, I do see the gifts of humanity in seasons of struggle. I do count my blessings. And, just as soon as I write those words, I start to think again.

I’m thinking…about those who do not have the support that I do; those whose cancer is advanced and is life threatening; those whose lives are altered in such a negative way that my words are offensive to them.

I am so sorry. I write always to help and not to hurt. I am not a fan of bumper sticker solutions to difficult problems, and seldom offer the bible verse that will provide all you need, but…

here is my prayer for you, borrowed from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing that you may abound in hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13, NRSV).

Until next time,

Sally

I’ve been thinking…about the joys of aging

posted in: Aging 0

It Feels Like my Third Act

I was terrified when I hit fifty, being pretty certain the rest of my life would be shorter than what I had already lived. In my first act, I had received accolades for several impressive accomplishments that I believed would no longer be considered extraordinary but rather expected of someone over fifty. However, later that year I spent a delightful afternoon with a dear friend who was just a year older than me, comparing our notes on aging. Our conversation became a celebration of the learning that took place during the difficult, even tragic, events of our lives.

When my husband died suddenly at age fifty-three, I was set adrift and my new-found wisdom and reliance on past experiences seemed to vanish overnight. “How was I to continue living without the love of my life?” Grief is a painful process for anyone and I felt it all. While still processing and grieving, I began to give thought to creating a new vision for my future without him. As a child and into adulthood, I longed to be a Lutheran pastor. However, my commitment to my husband (who didn’t see himself as the spouse of a pastor) and sensitivity to my parents’ feelings (who were convinced women should not be pastors), led me to put my dream aside for more than thirty years.

My third act began when I retired from my career in social work administration and entered the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Everything in my life was different. I left my family, my support system, a team of colleagues I loved, my home, and everything that had provided me with security as I was dealing with life as a widow. I was fifty-eight years old, living in a third-floor walk-up in the third largest city in the United States and was learning Greek and Hebrew for the first time in my life. Nearly all of my classmates were at least thirty years younger than me and our professors had the same expectations for me as they did for my young friends. I viewed the entire experience as an adventure, filled with opportunities for learning, developing new perspectives, and gaining unique experiences amidst a diverse community.

I loved my first and second acts. I loved my husband and family. I loved my work and my team. I didn’t love the struggles, the figuring out how relationships work, how to be a mom and care for a family, how to support others in their difficult times, and trying to file it all away for future use. I don’t miss the frustration of failing, falling and getting up again.

I love my third act. I serve a congregation in central Iowa, filled with people I love and respect and from whom I am learning. So often, when writing a sermon, teaching a class of teenagers, or visiting someone who is dying, I find myself being so grateful for every experience I’ve ever had, as they not only made me who I am, but are so helpful in understanding and caring for others. Okay, I still make mistakes, but I recover so much faster than I did in my youth.

There is something very freeing and exhilarating about facing each new day with sixty-eight years of life-long learning experience.

I’ve Been Thinking… about joy and dirt

posted in: Uncategorized 0

When I purchased my little 1890-built home in Winterset IA, 2016, I was thrilled. Within months of moving in, I hung a small barn board sign on my porch: JOY.

That’s all it said, but it said it well. Typically, I am a person of joy. I am grateful to be alive; to have a home; a family that I love; a faith that provides comfort, as well as joy; work that is a calling; friends I adore and a sweet little dog whose name is Amazing Grace. My life brings me joy.

Once the sign was hung, I had my huge backyard fenced in so sweet Gracie could run and play outdoors without danger or the possibility of getting lost. Using permaculture strategies (I know just enough about permaculture to believe I’m part of an earth-saving movement), I first analyzed, planned and then staked out a plot of grass that would become my garden. I layered cardboard and newspaper, followed by leaves and grass clippings, nutrient-rich soil, compost, and straw for mulch. I used the same process for my front terrace. The snows came, and my new garden was under development.

As soon as the soil could be worked (standard language in gardening manuals), I pulled back the mulch, added another layer of soil and compost and started planting. I got to see a few flowers out front and the four strawberry plants came in beautifully. As for the rest, well, it would either grow or it would die. No matter what, I was feeding the soil and that brings me joy. The garden plot did not fare much better. I ate a few tomatoes, had enough potatoes for a meal, and the kale was almost plentiful. One cannot live on kale alone, but I was cultivating healthy soil. So, I pulled up some dying plants, left a few in the ground, and began my layering process once again, in both garden plot and my front yard terrace.

This year, I again added soil and compost (lots from a previously unused dog kennel now serving as a compost bin), planted my seeds, starters, and transplants and covered them up with straw mulch. Much better this year, despite the long weeks without rain. Enough potatoes to actually weigh (#31 pounds) and sweet meaty tomatoes to eat every single day. I’m freezing and giving away basil, parsley, oregano and mint and finding great joy in the bright spots of color from the perennial flowers my daughter-in-law gave me. Oh my, the terrace still looked pretty sparse, but the too widely spaced yellow, blue, lavender and deep red flowers made up for it. A sudden stretch of serious rain plumped up the strawberry plants and brought new life to the Daylilies and the Hostas growing close to the house.

Not the prettiest garden around, but there are great things happening under all that straw.

On the flip side – my beans, peas, carrots, radishes and cucumbers really struggled and produced only a “eating while cleaning up the garden” snack. The cucumbers were hilarious. They grew fat, instead of long. The plants flowered, a little green poke emerged, and then…fat orange cucumbers with humungous seeds. Are you kidding me? Oh well, back into the soil from whence they came. My soil will continue to grow healthier as I drop everything back into or on top of it and await next year’s planting season to repeat the process once again. This brings me joy, so I had a local crafter create a matching sign that says GARDENS and hung it below my JOY sign.

Joy Gardens hopes for the future:

Eliminate all grass in the front yard and replace with strawberry plants and blueberry bushes so I can eventually pick berries from my own yard. Why the front yard? Because berry plants and bushes are pretty, and they do not require mowing. Plus, many people walk past my house every day. Retirees walking dogs, children and teens on their way home from school, the occasional exercise walker. Why not provide them with a little rest stop and a sweet snack. Am I worried about others eating up all my fruit? Not a bit. I do hope they save a little for me, but just the thought of my yard offering a treat to passersby brings me more joy than making jam.

I looked long and far to find the author of the quote I adapted for myself after seeing it somewhere many years ago. Sorry there is no credit line. If you wrote it, tell me.

“She who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits for food believes in God.” YES!

One more thought: Of all the gifts my mother ever purchased for me, my favorite is the garden sign I received Christmas 1982. Although there were a number of years that my husband and I were too busy enjoying summer camping, biking and kayaking to plant and care for a garden, the sign is in my garden today:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on Earth. *

Until next time,

Sally

* God’s Garden, lines 13–16, Poems, by Dorothy Frances Gurney (London: Country Life, 1913).

PS – Who knew? If I have a chance to go to Starbucks, I usually use the drive through. The last time I was there, the drive through was so busy I decided to go inside. There – right on the counter – were large bags of used coffee grounds. FREE! Coffee grounds are a great addition to garden compost. From now on, I’m going inside.

I’ve been thinking… about the latest expose on Roman Catholic priests

The story was already being told as I tuned into the local IPR station. He shared his story of abuse as an acolyte when he was a child and expressed sorrow, but not surprise at the latest round up of victims. What I am thinking about is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church, but is about the horror of people in positions of trust failing to live with integrity. And, in some respects, I am thinking too about how the priesthood might just be a draw for those identified as pedophiles. The situations on my mind, are those involving teachers, therapists, youth group leaders, camp counselors, coaches, and other positions that allow for close relationships with children. They are all violating a moral code that breaks my heart and tears apart the life of their victims.

While some pedophiles and those guilty of sexual assault are never caught or convicted of their crimes, the legal system tends to come down hard on them and they are forced to deal with the harsh consequences of their actions. Okay, now this is where it starts getting sticky for me and why it is that I am thinking about this current event. From where I sit (as a Lutheran pastor), it seems to me that pastors and priests, anyone who serves in a position of leadership in the church, has an even greater responsibility to act with integrity. I am heartsick at the thought of anyone hiding under the shield of Christ’s church to further their lifestyle of child sexual abuse.

What is keeping Pope Francis, someone for whom I have so much admiration, from clearing the decks and wiping the roster clean? What is keeping him from turning over the tables and refusing to sanction any reassignment or health leave of absence for both abusers and those responsible for covering it up? I’m not sitting on some self-righteous throne here. I’m asking what I believe to be a legitimate question.

I have only my experience with Roman Catholic friends and my armchair knowledge of how that church works, but I know that among its members, faith runs deep and challenges to the church are painful. I think anything that leads us to question our faith in any system is agonizing, but I ask, “At what terrible cost to those about whom Jesus said, …whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

I understand why the victims may not want to pursue this. I can only imagine the shame that is felt by this twisted abuse of a position of trust. “He’s the priest. I must have done something to cause this. It’s my fault, because a minister would never do anything bad.” So, the suffering is compounded because of the position the spiritual leader holds. And rather than making the abuser pay, other men of God cover for him and people get paid off to remain silent.

Is there something wrong with my thinking on this? What have I overlooked?