Still Learning

The masthead for October 2010, “A Work-filled Fall,” perhaps could be better titled — “So What If It’s Late November and I’m Just Now Posting an October Masthead.” The photo was taken at the Philadelphia Convention Center with a cell phone that I’m eager to replace. Under one of the escalators/staircases was this huge wall of chinaware magically secured in place. I nearly blew right by the artistic expression as one who is distracted by her thoughts might do, but after I frustratingly tried to dodge a small crowd of people taking photos of it, I got out of my head long enough to see what they were actually taking a picture of.

Until someone pointed out to me on Facebook that none of the bowls and cups have handles, I thought this was a massive collection of coffee mugs. I’m going to go ahead with that initial impression and dedicate this masthead to the night in mid-October when I went to McDonald’s at 9pm and ordered a large mocha latte. I very rarely order a coffee-based drink, let alone an espresso-based drink. It’s more to do with taste preference than to do with caffeine. Actually, I’ve always purported that caffeine doesn’t affect me like it does others. That is, until I ingested 20 ounces of liquid adrenaline on an empty stomach that night at McD’s.

I entered the restaurant already exhausted but in need of a quiet work place because earlier that day my advisor had set a lofty deadline for the next morning. I worked there until 1am, then headed home for another 4 hours of dissertation bliss. Mid-all nighter, the shakes started. And the muscle tensing. And the heart pounding. I thought I was having a heart attack; of course I wasn’t in the mood to die, but it did cross my mind that I would at least have a good excuse not to meet my deadline.

Well, I didn’t die, I did meet my deadline, and I did realize that I am not impervious to a caffeine high. Just when I think I’ve figured myself out, there I go and surprise myself all over again. And I’m not just talking about the caffeine here.

Making Room for Truth

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-talk lately.  I’ve been more sensitive to the lies I let in about my capability and my worth, and have realized how poisoning these lies can be.  I like what others have said about this issue…

A college friend, Sarah (Gale) Evers, wrote sort of a New Year’s resolution in January, 2009 on Facebook:

I’m calling 2009 “The Year of Kindness.” What could life look like if I treated myself with kindness? What if I worked out not because I ought to, or as punishment, but because I wanted to, or it was the kindest thing to do for myself? What if my self-talk was more kind and gentle? What if I relaxed in my expectations for myself and lived in grace? And what would happen in my relationships as that sense of freedom and KINDNESS overflowed from me?

***

myjoy, a commenter on the Stuff Christians Like website, wrote:

My anthem right now is Ephesians 4:29, it’s everywhere around me, in sermons, in studies, on TV, everywhere! God is clearly trying to tell me something.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

God is challenging me to have everyone be better off than before they talked to me.

And today I just had a revelation. It’s not just directed at other people. It’s also about what I tell myself. Is my internal dialogue helpful for building me up? Or am I tearing myself down? Am I better off after hearing my own voice, than when I started? Or do I remain dejected, discouraged?

So I pray God will use this verse to change my heart, to tame my tongue, that the same mouth I use to bless His name I do not use to curse others or myself.

I too am challenged to add more kindness, more grace, and more truth to my internal dialogue.  When my head hits the pillow each night, I want to look back over the day knowing that I was better off after listening to my own voice all day long.  After all, if the God of the Universe can forgive me, love me unconditionally, and see me as completely worthy in his eyes, surely I should do the same.

Gallbladderlessness

In the last two posts (here and here) I had mentioned my “back spasms” and then mentioned that my health had been deteriorating throughout December.  The “back spasms” and “back discomfort” in fact had little to do with my back.  As symptoms progressed – nausea, loss of appetite, exhaustion, weakness, general sick feeling, back pain, itching in hands/feet, darkened urine, and so on – it had become clearer that I had liver and gall bladder issues.

Gall bladders store bile, and I had developed small gall stones (perhaps I had already passed larger ones during those horrific nights spent writhing in pain?) and gall sludge, which were preventing bile from moving through the organ as it ought.  It is not recommended that you try blocking your flow of bile at home.  Oh my painfulness!

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It was determined on Thursday, December 11th that I would need to have my gall bladder removed, so I scheduled a surgical consultation.  After scheduling the appointment, my symptoms worsened to the point where I had only about four good hours in me a day.  By Sunday (just one day after Ro passed away), I turned jaundice.  Seriously yellow.  That was enough to have all procedures expedited, and I was admitted to the hospital that day.

I really have so much to say about the hospital experience.  I’m not just talking about my 3-night stay or the unflattering gown or the fact that from Sunday to Wednesday the only thing that I was allowed to eat/drink were two liquid meals consisting of Jello, popsicles, broth, and juice.  I’m talking about what I learned about advocating for yourself, trusting your body, and communicating with hospital staff what your body is telling you.  This sort of hospital drama is a story for another time – like maybe when the medical bill arrives.

I had two surgical procedures.  First, I had an Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP; scoping procedure) to rid my biliary ducts of the gravel-like gall stones and sludge.

ercp

ercp2

The procedure was supposed to take 30-45 minutes, but due to my “notably J-shaped stomach” and the doctors’ several attempts to clear out my duct-work, my ERCP took almost two hours.  As I was coming out of the anesthesia and clearly still incoherent, I explained to the doctor that “J” is for “Jesus.”  That was right after giving him a fist bump instead of a hand shake and asking him if 1) he found any macaroni and cheese in my biliary duct and 2) it was okay that I kept farting.  I do recall Brian apologizing on my behalf; I saw nothing wrong with my behavior at the time.  Moral of the story: If possible, always have a friend or family member take you in and bring you out of surgery so that they can make excuses for your ridiculous behavior.

The next day I had my gall bladder removed laparascopically.

laparoscopicsurgery

The surgeon told Brian that this surgery went perfectly.  I have this foggy memory of screaming and thrashing as I came out of anesthesia this time, and in the first recovery room I had noticed that they put weights on my legs.  As far as I know, it is not normal to put weights on people’s legs for this type of surgery, so I am assuming they were placed on me due to the thrashing.  Recovery was strange and scary for me, but after about 3 hours of recovery time I was discharged.

By the evening of my gall bladder surgery, Wednesday night, I was home.  Ro’s funeral service was in Cleveland on Saturday morning.  If you would have asked me Friday morning at 6am if I would have been well enough to travel for the service I would have said no.  In fact, Brian did ask me that question at 6am on Friday morning, which is why I cried in response: “We’re not talking about this now!”  I couldn’t deal with no.  But by the strength and healing power of God I rallied to a point where I could travel.  Okay, so maybe I wasn’t in best form, and maybe traveling set my recovery back a day or two, but it was completely worth it.  To be a part of such a wonderful tribute to Ro and to be with family during that time was completely worth it.

Recovery has been a process, but I have been living in a state of gallbladderlessness (thanks for the term, April!) for just over a month now and am fairly well acclimated.  And you know, I may not store bile like all of the people in this world with gall bladders, but I think my J-shaped stomach, the rest of my GI tract, and I will be just fine!

My Favorite Baritone

On Sunday morning, December 7th, I received a concerning phone call about my step-father.  (His name is Robert, but decades ago the nickname Ro was given to and seamlessly stuck with him.)  Ro was in the ICU with renal failure.  The situation looked grim.  I was in a sickly state myself, but felt a tug at my heart to venture to Cleveland, so we went.  Brian and I were greeted at the hospital by my brothers and mom, and we all waited for Ro to return from a surgical procedure.

The nurse finally gave us the go ahead to see him, two at a time.  Brian and I went first.  Ro was tired but alert.  I tucked my hand into his clenched fist and used my other hand to stroke his hair.  I tried to lean over the bed rail to plant a kiss on his cheek, but my torso wasn’t long enough.  I stretched onto my tip toes and puckered out my lips as far as they could go.  The three of us chuckled as I worked my lips out a nanometer at a time.  It didn’t work, so I went flat on my feet and took a step back, ready to attempt this again with more momentum at the start.  Lips ready, the second attempt was successful.  Ro nodded and smiled in approval.  We had a short conversation, exchanged I love yous, and then Brian and I returned to the waiting room to tag in the next pair.  The visit wasn’t easy, but the strength of family together made all the difference.

After exhausting Ro, we watched football in the waiting room and dined in the cafeteria so he could rest.  A couple hours later, Brian and I went with my mom to see Ro one last time before returning to Pittsburgh.  I took the same position at bedside, gripping his hand and petting his hair.  I once again leaned over the bed rail for a kiss, and once again we laughed as I found myself trying to reach his cheek by straining my puckered lips.  Didn’t work.  Just as I was about to lean back in a failed attempt, Ro turned his head and puckered his own lips to bridge the gap.  Such a sweet kiss.  Eye to eye we both said I love you to one another.

The week to follow was a whirlwind of emotion and turmoil.  I was struggling with my own health, which was deteriorating by the day, but that seemed so irrelevant compared to Ro’s fight for life.  For us, it was this roller coaster of feeling hopeless about his outcome one moment, but then in the next moment getting an encouraging update that maybe the next procedure they attempt will make all the difference and he’ll improve.  Ultimately, procedure after procedure failed, and by Thursday Ro was unresponsive and in transition to hospice.  Over the years, he had fought his way through so many ailments, but this time the battle was too great.

Saturday morning he started singing again…in heaven’s choir.

***

I struggle with the word “step-father” because it sounds so second rate, like when you put the word ‘step’ in front of ‘father’ it somehow lessens the parent-child relationship.  Sure, I have a father who I know and love, and sure, my mom tended to make the big decisions for me and my brothers during our childhood, and sure, Ro was closer in age to a grandparent than to a parent, but there is nothing ‘step’ about the relationship that I had with and the love that I have for my step-father.  He has been a father figure in my life from about the age of four.  There aren’t many memories that I have of my life before he entered in to our family.

He did all of those parenty things, like make me eat my vegetables, drive me to extracurricular activities or to friends’ houses, encourage me, love me.  He was my tooth fairy and my teacher at the piano bench.  He would watch me swim in our pool when I was so desperate to get in the water, but wasn’t old enough to swim alone.  When we went camping and I had a distraught look on my face as I took my first bite of sour cereal one summer morning, he told me that I shouldn’t eat that because the milk sat out on the picnic table all night.  He mowed, he raked, he buried our dead pets in the backyard.  He teased that I always had to be on center stage, but I knew he loved it when I sang, danced, or raised my voice louder than anyone else in order to be heard at the dinner table.

He helped me learn to ride a bike and was the chaperone of my very first drive with a learner’s permit.  In my high school days, I joked with Ro – though it’s true – that one of the most important lessons I learned from him is that, when in a bind, your socks can be used to wipe dirty hands.  I still laugh about the one morning when he served as my alarm clock – he opened the bedroom door, threw a shoe at me, and left.  So random.  But just as randomly, one day he walked through my bedroom door and gave me a watch that he had bought for me earlier that day, just because he was thinking about me.  I don’t know how old I was or the day it happened, but I remember the moment when I recognized that he had stopped pushing me to study and instead reminded me to make sure I didn’t overdo it.  All along he encouraged me to pray and to read my Bible, and most certainly led by example in this regard.

Do you see this theme of me, me, me, what he did for me?  Yes, kids are needy little creatures, and Ro was such a big part of meeting those needs and wants during my childhood.  It’s such an unselfish act and he did it willingly as any loving father would do for their child.  There was nothing second rate or ‘step’ about any of this.

For the past decade he had grown dependent and in need of increasing care and I have long been married off, but even still there was a special bond between the two of us.  And even though we have lived a state apart for many years, there has been a comfort in knowing that my roots are just…there.  They are a constant in my life; they ground me.  Ro is part of my history and has had a hand in who I’ve become.  I miss the comfort of this root just being there.  I miss him.  I will miss our breakfast dates where we talk about politics, current events, the end times, and the Bible.  He always listened when I shared about my most recent adventures and believed that I could succeed in whatever I was doing.  I will miss his laughter and his song.

Ro had so many wonderful attributes – he was a great listener, humble, a prayer warrior, hard-working, encouraging, supportive, and patriotic, to name a few.  Jesus was on the throne of his life, and because of the relationship he had with God he studied the Bible like crazy.  My mom found a note that he had written from a devotional referencing Psalm 98:1-3.  He wrote: “Victories in sports, business, or politics must be won again and again, year after year, but there is a victory that was won once for all.  The psalmist celebrates the victory of God’s power and holiness, beautifully prefiguring the final victory of Christ over sin and death.  Our greatest victory is receiving God’s gift of salvation, and this victory need never be won again.”  Ro lived in the light of this victory.

There’s no mistaking – his God-given gift was his voice.  He studied music, taught music, and had music seeping from his pores.  He performed in a multitude of choirs and was a professional soloist.  As he would practice at the piano in our living room, I always felt this great privilege of being serenaded on any given day.  Beyond all this, his music was an offering and helped people connect with God.  I remember sitting in church during a duet he sang, “Household of Faith.”  I was not even a teenager, but still recall the power of the two voices – not only did they have the chill factor, where my arm hair was on end and I was pushed back in my seat breathless, but those voices also invoked a connection to the lyrics and a call to respond.  I remember this same response as Ro sang “He is No Fool” and “He’s Alive” as well.  This was not just a talent, but a powerful spiritual gift.

At Ro’s memorial service, my mom did such a beautiful job honoring Ro’s life.  At the end of her reflections, she shared a story about Ro auditioning for a choir in the Cleveland area about 17-18 years ago, the Singer’s Club.  She didn’t think he should have to audition given his ability; he humbly shrugged his shoulders and went to the audition.  When he returned, my mom asked him how it went.  He sheepishly replied, “They said, ‘To what do we owe this honor?’”

I echo my mom’s words:  It has been an honor to listen to this man, to know this man, to love this man.  But Robert would say, “To whom do we owe any honor?”  To his Lord and our Lord, Jesus Christ, who won that greatest victory.

(Click here to hear an excerpt from “God’s Great Grace,” Ro’s last public solo in 2001, age 76.)

Perspective

Yesterday afternoon I went to the doctor to find answers for the back spasms that I’ve been having. The first episode was in late September, here and gone in a painful, scary night. The spasms didn’t rear their ugly face again until early November, but again they were over within a night. The past week or two though, the spasms, or at least an aching and discomfort, have been nearly constant. On Saturday night it was painful to the point of inducing vomiting.

During the doctor’s examination yesterday, we discussed what might have caused this recurrence with such intensity. Among a number of possible culprits, the doc asked me if I have been stressed.

For the two seconds that I said, “Uhhhhh,” the last three months of my life zipped through my head. My grandmother’s death. The October grant deadline, the intense two-week deadline for part one of my comprehensive exams, and the general chaos of graduate student life that keeps me straddling the edge of sanity. My brother’s November house fire. Tough conversations about travel expectations to visit family, especially around the busy holiday season. The busy holiday season. My step-dad’s admittance to the ICU with numbers in his blood report skyrocketed to levels that bodies don’t survive. Crying with my mom as we discuss end-of-life decisions for this husband, this father of ours.

“Uhhhhh, yeah. I think so.”

***
Saturday night around 3 a.m. I thought Brian was asleep. I was tossing and turning in bed, frustrated that no position worked comfortably and feeling hopelessly miserable with the aching and throbbing. I swung my arm behind me and gripped mid-back where the pain was the worst. Moments later a hand touched me in that same spot.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“What are you doing?!”

“I just felt like I was supposed to be praying for your back right now.”

I burst into hot tears, “It hurts so much!” Brian prayed. He put a hot cloth on my back. He held my hair as I threw up. He made me a bubble bath at which we laughed as the bubbles seeped over the edge of the tub. He coaxed me to sleep after 4 a.m. even though he had to be up in less than two hours. I tried to apologize over and over for the inconvenience, but he never let me.

***

What would we do without the strength and support of our loved ones during our stressful, weak times in life? I feel the touch of their hands on me, praying for me, lifting me, easing the weight of my burden. Sure, when the doctor asked me if I have been stressed all of these events from this fall flooded into my mind, but the woes from the past three months have rarely been in the forefront of my thinking. It’s the blessings that I see. I see the fortitude and devotion of family and friends. I see love and joy that surpasses understanding. I see the eternal perspective in my soul that tells me that a house, a job, suffering, life on this Earth,…these are all temporary. There is so much more for which to hope and to live.

Yes, I am so richly blessed.