“And these words, ‘You shall not be overcome,’ were said very loudly and clearly, for security and comfort against all the tribulations that may come. He (Jesus) did not say ‘You shall not be tormented, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be grieved,’ but he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’ God wants us to pay attention to his words and wants our certainty always to be strong, in weal (abundance/good times) and woe.”– Julian of Norwich (14th Century anchoress and my all-time favorite devotional writer)
“How do you keep going?”
I was thrown off by the question, and I didn’t have an adequate answer ready.
I was her instructor for a required leadership course last year, and she signed up for a Bible study that I led in the evenings. We connected deeply over a shared experience: Life has been hard for both of us these last few years. We meet periodically, sharing stories of grief and darkness, exploring what healing, hope, peace and joy really mean, pondering God’s role in all of it.
A few days ago we sat in the back corner of The Haven – one of the dining venues on campus – trying to get away from the chaos that comes with the last week of classes. She shared her most recent battles. I talked about losing Mom. And then she asked, “How do you keep going?”
My eyebrows shot up, and I spluttered some sort of answer. I don’t remember what I said, but I think the important part was the question. It has stuck with me.
Today marks one month without Mom. One month since I pulled into the MedCheck parking lot, worried because it was so unlike Dad to call and say I should drive down since Mom wasn’t feeling well.
Even weirder: It had only been 6 days since he had called the previous Friday afternoon. “When are you getting home tonight? Mom isn’t feeling well, but I have to be at the (Carmel High School) football game. Could you take her to MedCheck before they close?”
I was already planning to be home that first weekend in November. Dad and I had a strange autumn, and due to scheduling conflicts and a hurricane reschedule, we had only attended one IU football game together. Usually we make it to at least four or five. We were pumped to finally be heading down to Bloomington the next day for IU/Wisconsin.
Something in his voice didn’t feel right to me. I followed my instincts, cancelled my evening plans and left right away. Mom had a tightness in her upper chest and throat, and she had some shortness of breath. That sounded serious, but she INSISTED on MedCheck instead of the hospital.
The doctor there wasn’t pleased with her symptoms, and we were sent to the hospital (Cue: “I told you so” comments in the car). The doctors there had no immediate answers. She was admitted, and we were told she likely wouldn’t have more tests until Monday.
My heart sank with a selfish thud. I texted Dad, not wanting Mom to hear the disappointment in my voice. “Looks like we’re not going to Bloomington tomorrow.”
It was never a question. There was no way we were spending the day at IU if Mom was in the hospital. I’m thankful that’s the type of family we are.
Looking back, I see what an incredible gift that weekend was. I spent all of Friday evening with Mom, just the two of us. We talked about everything for hours. Work, friends, family, ups, downs… we covered it all. She tried to convince me the doctor was “hot” and “just my type” (he wasn’t), and she also went down a rare memory lane, talking about her parents and her growing up years.
The next day, Dad and I arrived in her hospital room pretty early. We made fun of her for watching some show about cute puppies, and we warned her that we would be changing it to football soon. She was less than thrilled.
We even took this selfie during the game to send to my sister, and the look on Mom’s face says it all (“You guys are so annoying”). I had no idea this would be the last photo of her, and it makes me laugh and cry at the same time. She wanted to watch her puppy show, and instead we cheered for the Hoosiers, with outbursts (“Come on! You have to catch that!”) even when the doctor was trying to talk to her.
On Sunday, some bad storms were headed our way. She texted while I was still at the house and told me not to come visit, saying I should head straight back to Anderson so I wouldn’t get stuck in bad weather. I told her she was ridiculous and that I was coming to see her anyway.
I didn’t stay long, but I’m so glad I went. It was our last time together. We talked about how bored she was getting, and we chatted about the week ahead. Heart stress test tomorrow, getting some answers soon, and hopefully no surgery. We rehashed a few of the life topics we’d talked about on Friday night.
Then, she urged me once more to leave. “Alright,” I said, getting up from the uncomfortable recliner. I kissed her on the forehead and said, “Love you, Mama.”
“Love you, baby,” she responded. “Be safe. Get ahead of these storms.”
“I will. See you soon.”
I closed the door to her room and left the hospital, with no clue how significant those 20 minutes were or that “see you soon” would mean later that week under a white sheet.
Four days later, because of the strain in Dad’s voice as he told me Mom was sick again and that I should come home, I raced down I-69 and across 146th Street. Mom had started feeling unwell during a physical therapy session (from surgery two months previous), and the office happened to share a lobby with the exact same MedCheck we were at on Friday. The PT had taken her there to get checked out.
The thought crossed my mind: “This is mom’s second episode in less than a week. I wonder if this is the beginning of the end.” She had approximately 5 billion minor/medium medical conditions, and she had aged a lot in the last 5 or 6 years. She had just been in the heart hospital the whole weekend, but her stress test had come back TOTALLY fine. All of this was on my mind as I pulled into the parking lot.
I’m a very detailed person, and I tend to notice things that are out of place. My eyes darted to Emergency vehicles parked in a row at the back of the lot, police and EMTs standing in groups near them. “That’s odd,” I thought. “You don’t have THAT type of situation at a MedCheck, right?”
Dad was standing out by his car, talking on his cell phone. “Oh, good,” I thought as relief swept over me. “I bet Mom is ready to go home.” I popped out of my car and approached him as he hung up the phone. Casually, I said, “Hey, how’s she doing?”
“She’s gone, sweetheart,” he said, his face twisted in torture like I had never seen. The next few moments were a blur, but I remember guttural howls I didn’t know I could make, burying my face in dad’s chest, and repeatedly asking “What happened? What happened?” And then it dawned on me. Those emergency vehicles… the EMTs and police. They were there for Mom.
That is what was happening exactly one month ago. It feels like I have lived 100 years since then.
This week also marks the two-year anniversary of starting my immunotherapy treatments at the cancer center. I was still recovering from my third surgery to remove cancer from my body, and I was just days away from my fourth surgery – this one to implant a port into my chest for the administration of all of my upcoming drugs.
I’m not going to rehash the torture of 2016, as you can go back and read my posts from that time. But that year was awful. There were many beautiful moments with friends, family, and students, but I wouldn’t go back and do it again no matter what you offered me. Except maybe having my mom back. (sigh.)
It feels so appropriate that my last moments with Mom were in a hospital. Throughout those surgeries and treatments, my parents were constants. Every appointment… hours in waiting rooms and recovery rooms… Caring for me in the aftermath of the surgeries when I couldn’t do anything for myself… Sitting with me through hours of IV treatments… Spending entire weeks in my apartment so that they could be with me through the awful post-chemo nights.
Mom was such a champ through all of it. Dad was pretty squeamish around all of the needles (ha! Sorry, Dad!), and I don’t blame him. It couldn’t have been easy to see nurses push giant needles into my chest, right above my heart. When it came time to access my port, Dad would take his leave. But Mom, super used to all things medical due to her own challenges, sat with me through this process and the 3 or 4 hours of treatment EVERY TIME.
Rewind to my third surgery. Because of the process that took place during this particular operation, I had to have a “drain” for a couple of weeks. You can read about it here. I was supposed to empty the drain multiple times a day, and it wasn’t as simple as that sounds. Seeing the tube coming out of a small hole in my torso, attached with a few stitches, sent my stomach lurching and my head spinning. I would get so woozy that I thought I was going to pass out. Every. Single. Time.
So, guess who learned to do it for me. Guess who set aside her own struggles with seeing her daughter in pain. Guess who emptied that thing multiple times a day, even though it was hard on her emotionally and physically. Mom. Out of all the things she has done for me over the last 33 years, this sticks out as the most characteristic, the best illustration of how she loved.
(Ok, that and the time when I was in high school, and she sat with me at Panera when I was upset about a boy. She called him every cuss word known to man… not out of meanness toward the boy, but because she knew her filthy language would make me laugh. That was the epitome of Mom.)
Again, it feels right that our last time together was in a hospital. That type of environment had become our home base for a while. We were comfortable there, in a place most people hate. We knew the rhythms of nurses and doctors and vitals and trips to the bathroom and meals on plastic trays. Some of our best heart-to-hearts were in those sterile rooms. It was in a hospital room where I kissed her forehead and told her, “I love you,” that last time, and it was where I heard her sing-song voice say, “Love you, baby,” for the millionth and last time.
“How do you keep going?”
The simplest way I can put it is this: about seven years ago, I got serious about my faith. I was in my mid-20s, and I had worked within churches and para-church ministries the entire time I’d been out of college. And, I was miserable and lost. I didn’t know who I was, what my purpose was, or how to figure any of that out.
I started reading in earnest (Scripture and books about faith). I started running and using that time to clear my mind and think about God. I started praying for guidance and direction, even when it felt like I was talking to nothing but thin air. I began a daily morning routine of sitting down with a cup of tea to study, think, and journal.
I did it on the days I felt like it. Then, I started having the focus and self-discipline to do it even on the days I didn’t feel like it. And it changed me.
I discovered something about the Fruits of the Spirit. A lot of well-meaning Christians will occasionally challenge themselves or others to pick a fruit of the spirit and “work on it.” Practice being more patient. Practice being gentle. But that’s not how it works.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”– Galatians 5:22-23
We don’t get those things by trying hard to embody them, as noble as those efforts are. They are a gift, the outcome of getting to know Jesus on a deeper level. It’s why they are called fruit and not the trees themselves. We can plant the tree. We can care for it, make sure it has the right amount of sun and water, prune it at the right times. But we can’t force the fruit to appear.
Over the last 7ish years of learning more about my Savior and growing closer to him, he has slowly worked on those things in me. Sometimes it has been a painful process. Other times it has been extremely beautiful. Often times it is both.
A few years ago I was starting to really see a difference in my life. I was more patient with my loved ones and my students. I had way more love in my heart for people who are marginalized and experience injustice. I was more faithful and trusting in the God I was getting to know. I was gentler with myself and had real peace even in uncertainty.
And then: cancer.
Throughout that season, people often asked how I stayed so joyful. Some were even bold enough to ask if it was a mask I was putting on. No, it wasn’t. It was a life-force coming from deep inside, from the cracks and brokenness and fear and sleepless nights when you have no words, from the places where God dwells.
I learned pretty quickly that joy doesn’t have to come with laughter and silliness. Sometimes joy is a settled feeling, a contentment, a stability even when our world is a whirlwind of uncertainty. It is Immanuel, God with us, the eye of the storm taking his seat in our hearts while the wind blows our hair and ravages our skin.
I learned that faithfulness doesn’t have to be putting on a fake smile at church while we raise our hands and hope for a better tomorrow. Sometimes faithfulness is staring into the darkness with one hand clutching Christ’s words and the other holding fast to wise friends, choosing to lean into the scary promises that God is good and that he loves us within THESE circumstances.
Early in my cancer journey, I picked up a book that had been sitting on my shelf for several months. Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. I have this thing for devotional classics that are hundreds of years old. I love them. I learn so much more from their writing than all of the current “it” books. I love that they have withstood the test of time, and I love how connected we are to those of the past, how we still need to learn the same lessons.
I opened the book, not knowing anything about it except that Julian lived in the 14th Century and that she is the first known female writer of the English language.
I learned that she was 30 years old when she wrote it. I was reading it at age 31. She was writing about a deathbed experience she had, when she was so ill that she was given her last rites. I may not have been that sick, but I was dealing with stage 3c melanoma and some scary survival statistics. I was starting to feel a tight bond with this sister from across the centuries. Sometimes I wonder if God had me in mind, 700 years in advance, when he spoke to Julian and urged her to write it down.
Today, on this one-month anniversary of Mom’s death, I pulled this book out again. I skimmed through the pages, re-reading everything that I underlined. Here are a few quotes that speak to me again.
“In the moments of joy I might have said with Paul, ‘Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ.’ And in the moments of sorrow I might have said with Saint Peter, ‘Lord save me, I perish.’… God wishes us to know that he safely protects us in both joy and sorrow equally, and he loves us as much in sorrow as in joy.”
“And thus our good Lord answered all the questions and doubts I could put forward, saying most comfortingly as follows: ‘I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you shall see for yourself that all things shall be well.'”
“Although a man has the scars of healed wounds, when he appears before God they do not deface but ennoble him.”
“And these words, ‘You shall not be overcome,’ were said very loudly and clearly, for security and comfort against all the tribulations that may come. He (Jesus) did not say ‘You shall not be tormented, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be grieved,’ but he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’ God wants us to pay attention to his words and wants our certainty always to be strong, in weal (abundance/good times) and woe.”
He is good and he loves me. He is with me in joy and sorrow. Cancer doesn’t change the truth, and neither does Mom’s death. That is how I keep going.