Treating the Cancer

First and foremost, the violent act and the loss of life in the recent Arizona shootings are a tragedy. I weep with those who have lost loved ones and with those who have serious injuries to overcome. May God keep you tightly in His Grip and give you a peace and comfort that surpass your understanding.

Yesterday I found myself commenting on another blog (something I don’t do often), offering a sliver of my perspective on the latest controversy with the Arizona shooting. The dialogue got me involved enough to conjure up my own post. The claim in the news is that violent, divisive rhetoric from the Republican political party is to blame for the shooting. Just a few (of many) thoughts I have on this…

First, if you search for assassinations and attempted assassinations of U.S. Presidents, it is clear that both Republicans and Democrats have been victims to this heinous act. This is not a partisan issue.

Second, many of these acts occurred long before Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, and Glenn Beck even existed. This is not a current issue.

Zeal on this matter is warranted, however I believe the current attention in the media is misdirected. We all believe something wrong has occurred and we want justice, but to blame things like violent rhetoric is a distraction from a more central dilemma. There is a conflict within us all — we want to see fairness and justice and “good,” but we have the incapability (neither as a race nor as individuals) to perfectly uphold this standard. This want for good yet inability to be perfectly good, if not dealt with, becomes restless within us.

For many people, it is an unresolved conflict, and it’s much easier to blame some surfacey problem than to address the crux of the issue. If politicians will just speak more kindly about each other than this wouldn’tve happened. If we banned violent movies and video games then there would be no crime. If we were more educated about mental illnesses (which the shooter was believed to have) then all will be well. Stricter gun laws will bring world peace.

No, no, no, and no. These may help reduce crime rates temporarily, but these will not fix the core issue. Treating abdominal pain with a pain pill seems rather foolish if the root cause of the pain is cancer. The pill may offer temporary relief, but to ignore the underlying disease would be fatal.

We are in a predicament. We understand there is some moral code, some Golden Rule, that we cannot bear to see violated, yet we ourselves are incapable of perfectly upholding it. None of us on our own are capable of being perfectly good.

After you peel back all of the culpable layers, this core dilemma pervasive throughout humanity is the cause of the tragic Arizona shooting. The shooter fell way short of the standard. And even though it might seem like our blunders aren’t nearly as shameful as his, the truth is we all fall short of the standard too. No, a pain pill will not treat this cancer.

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.)

“Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner”

A week ago today we had the funeral service for my grandmother. Of course there were many moments of tears and sadness, but the weekend overall was really nice. Nice? Yes. Because the entire weekend was about our family. My mom and step-dad, my brothers and their families, my uncle and aunt, my cousins, family friends, other extended family… Amidst our mourning there was room for joy and laughter because of the bond we share with each other and the fun memories we have of Grams.

A couple times my mama asked, “What are you going to say about me when I die?” I think this question arose for two reasons – 1) she knows that there are several things she has done in her day that make her vulnerable, and 2) she, the daughter, spoke at Grams service and if I, the daughter that occasionally is accused of being unrelated because of my total weirdness, would have the charge of speaking at my mom’s service, she would again feel very vulnerable left in my hands.

Well, just as you felt it was challenging to speak about Grams in fifteen minutes, Mama Bear, I also feel like I would need at least five days to sum up what I would want to say about you at your funeral. But yes, I probably would share the story about you telling Tod that you couldn’t figure out how to rewind his DVD. I would have to talk about you letting me stay up until 2am one night when I was in elementary school so that we could all go over to your friends’ houses and mischievously decorate their yards with toilet paper. Celebrating your life would not be the same if I didn’t offer up to everyone the pictures of you dressed as a sumo wrestler in a purple dress or in an old-person mask to greet people at airports or to liven birthday parties. Dress as a horse with a friend and canter in to the church office to wish the senior pastor happy birthday? That’s my mom! When I learned last weekend that you wore an olive barrel to high school on dress down day, at that moment I better understood why you helped me make an outfit out of garbage bags for a high school dare rather than scoff at the idea. We get each other that way.

All these things you love to do, it shows the world that you love life, love to laugh, and love to make others laugh. You have that legacy of joy and laughter from Grams and Grandpa, and you spread it like wildfire into the lives of others.

At your funeral, I would also share about another trait you inherited – your kind, giving heart. I know you often feel tired and spent, which in part comes from being such a diligent worker, but the main reason for the exasperation is because you spend your days giving every piece of yourself away to those in need. Like Aunt Helen, who outlived her husband and her son and didn’t have much family around her, you poured your energy in to helping her move, helping her pay bills, reminding her to laugh, and giving her company when she had none. You answered her frantic, confused calls at the wee hours of the night. You planned medications and treatments for her with the nursing staff. Teens with deficient parents. Your elderly parents. Your aging husband. Ro spoke for so many when he grabbed your hand that one time and said, “I don’t know what I would do without you. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

I have been on the receiving end of this sacrifice and generosity. Okay, so there was the one night when I was a child and I wanted to crawl in to bed with you because I thought there were millions of bugs crawling all over my walls. I came in to your room late at night, explained my predicament, and begged, “Pleeeease could I sleep in your bed just like the kids did on the Cosby Show?” You told me to pretend Jesus was with me and to go back to bed. So not the most shining moment of theology or sacrifice, but in your defense, I did just wake you and I was annoying sometimes as a kid.

With those few minor exceptions aside, you gave and gave and gave to your children. Moonlighting so that I could have luxuries like braces or a high school trip overseas, taking us on mystery trips, relinquishing personal time in favor of our sporting events and household upkeep, doing word searches with me, reading Bible stories at the dinner table, leaving a touching note in my sock drawer on my first day of college, loving me unconditionally even when I was a brat – you offered these things and more without asking in return. At the age of eight, I didn’t think about the inconvenience for you when I barfed beef and noodles in my bed and hair in the middle of the night. But I do remember you patiently consoling me and cleaning me up, and the next day buying me a 101 Dalmatians sticker book.

By your words and more importantly by the way you live your life, you have taught me to be committed, to never give up, to be crazy, to work my hardest, to be strong, to walk humbly, to love God, to serve others. You saw my talents and strengths before I did and helped me to develop them. I remember you created a game out of memorizing Bible verses on our road trip to California in ’87, and I am still able to recite many of those verses today (not so hot with the state capitols, though). It was your firm foundation that gave me confidence to go forward courageously in life. Sometimes I sit and think how I could repay you. There’s no way I could. It would be like trying to create a beach one teaspoon of sand at a time. All I have to offer is teaspoons compared to the bulldozers of treasures you have bestowed upon me.

And then there’s this magical bond that you and I have. It’s uplifting and encouraging in times of need.  Other times it takes on the form of plastic bugs, Dirty Dancing quotes (the other day you sounded just like Jennifer Grey, by the way), unabashed laughter, or gentle petting (usually me petting your baby butt soft face). One of my favorite laughing moments was when you called me while we were IMing. We both held the handsets to our ears, but never actually spoke one single word. As we continued IMing, we got to laughing so hard on the phone that we had to hang up and put on oxygen masks. We have this unsquelchable connection that runs mysteriously deep.

At your funeral, I would need to capture your wit and creativity and come up with the best stories to exemplify your strength and athleticism (sooo many stories to tell!). So beautiful, so smart, so wonderful. My job will not be easy. I have an idea – you must NEVER DIE!

Finally, I would share the story that Grandpa shared at his mother’s funeral and that you shared at Grams’…

The young Mother set her foot on the path of life. “Is this the long way?” she asked.  The guide said,” Yes, and the way is hard. You will be old before you reach the end of it. But the end will be better than the beginning.”

But the young Mother was happy, and she would not believe that anything could be better than these years. So she played with her children and gathered flowers for them along the way and bathed them in the clear streams. The sun shone on them and the young Mother cried, “Nothing will ever be lovelier than this.”

Then the night came, and the storm, and the path was dark. The children shook with fear and cold. The Mother drew them close and covered them with her mantle. The children said, “Mother, we are not afraid, for you are near and no harm can come.”

The morning came and there was a hill ahead. The children climbed and grew weary, and the Mother was weary. But at all times she said to the children, “A little patience and we are there.” So the children climbed, and when they reached the top they said, “Mother, we would not have done it without you.”

The Mother, when she lay down at night, looked up at the stars and said, “This is a better day than the last, for my children have learned fortitude in the face of hardness. Yesterday, I gave them courage. Today, I have given them strength.

The next day came strange clouds which darkened the earth – clouds of war and hate and evil. The children groped and stumbled. The Mother said, “Look up. Lift your eyes to the Light.” The children looked and saw above the clouds an everlasting glory, and it guided them beyond the darkness. That night the Mother said, “This is the best day of all, for I have shown my children God.”

The days went on, and the weeks and the months and the years. The Mother grew old. She was little and bent, but her children were tall and strong and walked with courage. When the way was rough, they lifted her, for she was as light as a feather. At last they came to a hill. Beyond they could see a shining road and golden gates flung wide.

The Mother said, “I have reached the end of my journey. Now I know the end is better than the beginning, for my children can walk alone, and their children after them.”

The children said, “You will always walk with us, Mother, even when you have gone through the gates.” They stood and watched her as she went on alone, and the gates closed after her.

They said, “We cannot see her, but she is with us still. A Mother like ours is more than a memory. She is a living presence.”

Your Mother is always with you. She lives inside your laughter. She’s crystallized in every teardrop. She’s the place you came from, your first home; she’s the map you follow with every step you take. She’s your first love and your first heartbreak.

Nothing can separate you. Not time, not space…not even death.

You have always been and will always be a living presence in my life, my friend, my hero, my teacher, my mother. I love you!

Please Check Your Rollater Here, You Will Not Be Needing It Beyond These Gates

When I call my maternal grandmother for semi-regular phone chats, at some point I ask her how she’s feeling in the aches and pains department. She usually underplays the back pain or the leg pain with some cavalier comment like, “Oh there are good days and bad days.” So often she will change the subject to something for which she’s thankful. And every conversation includes her saying how richly blessed she is to have such a wonderful family.

She and my grandfather (who passed away four years ago) have lived extraordinary lives. Her days have not been without struggle – growing up during the Great Depression, watching her father leave the family when she was just a girl, having a still born child after being exposed to a gas leak, losing her husband after 61 years of marriage, enduring debilitating pain from arthritis – yet no trial could squelch her joy. It runs too deep. Both she and my grandfather have exuded joy, laughter, strength, generosity, and graciousness. That is their legacy. I am the one who is so richly blessed to have such an admirable lineage.

I love the memories of Grams humming while working, breaking into song and dance during conversation, and laughing uproariously. Laughter is big in our family, and we usually feed off of each other to a point of no return. When Grams laughs hard she breeds tears with no breathing and no noise, just open mouth and squinted eyes, and then she throws back her head and puts a tissue over her face – maybe as a way to mask the laughter paralysis.

The examples of humor in our family are endless. Here is an exchange between Grams and my mom from last year after Grams had a miserable bladder infection. Anticipating the Q & A time with her friends at dinner that night, she called my mom at work with the following question.

Grams: What’s another word for ‘crotch?’  I can’t be telling my friends that I have a pain in my crotch!

Mom: Gee, Mom, I don’t know.  Let me look it up in my thesaurus. [Looks up ‘crotch’ in Roget’s Thesaurus.] There’s only one word here, Mom.  Angularity.

[Both start to lose it.]

Grams: So I can tell my friends that I have a pain in my angularity?

Mom: Yep.  Matter-of-fact, that sounds so good and genteel, you can even use that in your Christmas letter next year!

[Grams has to get off the phone, presumably to put a tissue over her face.]

A queen of puns. Able to wear big, silly bear paw slippers yet still look perfectly put together – hair done just right with classy jewelry and an outfit that matches her furniture. Wise. Beautiful. Challenging card player. So crafty and clever. Always ready to say how much she loves us.

I learned some valuable April Fools jokes from Grams. She taught me how to make homemade picture frames in 6th grade. She and my grandfather introduced me to the classic movie, True Grit. Their marriage was one to emulate. Their faith was one of the important models in my own faith journey. I have rarely seen such humble sacrifice of time and money for those in need as I have seen with Grams and Grandpa. Their lives have been an offering to God and an overflowing gift to others.

***

I received an unexpected phone call yesterday. I knew when my mom’s voice broke during the message that the news wasn’t going to be good. Grams passed away. She missed a regularly scheduled brunch in the dining room of her retirement community, and her friends reported her absence to a nurse on staff. The nurse found Grams in her apartment around noon. Shortly after, my mom arrived at the apartment. There Grams was sitting in her chair in the TV room. With cookies beside her and a reminder note to meet her lifelong friend for Sunday brunch at 11:30, she did not sit down yesterday morning knowing that she would not be getting up again.

But you know, as unexpected as this was for all of us, I find great peace in knowing that she was not unprepared. On her footstool lay a page and a half of notes she had taken from the Charles Stanley sermon on TV that morning. For most of her 87 years she professed a faith in the God of the Bible and an acceptance of Jesus as her Savior. In her final moments she continued to worship Him and study His Word, not because of an obligation to perform religious routine, but because of a personal relationship she sought to deepen. She was not unprepared; she was ready at any unsuspecting moment. She was ready at this moment.

Mom and I cried on the phone together as she said that she wished Grams wasn’t alone when she died. I wished that too. But, as indicated in Grams’ sermon notes, one of the discussion points of Charles Stanley’s message yesterday morning was an elaboration of Jesus’ proclamation, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Grams wasn’t alone at her final breath, and she isn’t alone now. She is forever with her Savior.

It is no coincidence that Charles Stanley’s memory verse of the week is Romans 6:4 – “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

My late grandfather wrote a beautiful letter when his mother passed away. I cannot find better words to express the loss of a loved one who has this personal relationship:

“1,952 years ago, a Man stood on a hill near a small lake far away from here – and said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I am sure I have never understood those words as well as I do right now. Thank God for Easter morning! The grave is not the end!

You go on ahead, Mom. We’re here between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – and because of what these two days mean, we can still look forward to more celebrations like you wanted – when all your family is home again – where there is no more hurting, no more loneliness, no more tears, and no more dandelions!”

You go on ahead, Grams. We will look forward to celebrating with you again!