faith, grace, prayer, stress

Take My Hand

Just weeks before my husband David unexpectedly died in 2012, we’d shared a conversation that was uncharacteristic for us; regarding what we’d want the other one to do if we died first.

“I’d want you to get married again,” David had said. “Because I know how much you love hugging and holding hands.”

I miss his hugs, his hand in mine.

handsHad he lived, David and I would have celebrated our 39th anniversary earlier this month. I’ve been without him for more than six years. I’ve faced a lot of changes in my life since then, both good and bad, but even good changes can cause stress.

According to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale developed by Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, the stressful life events I’ve experienced just in the last six months put me at a solid 285 in regards to measured stress levels, too near the dangerous 300 level for comfort. Among those life events I’ve experienced; a virulent flu virus that lasted more than two weeks, an attack of Shingles, an unexpected loss of income, a subsequent need to change jobs, a daughter leaving home for a month-long stint at an organic farm in sunny California, and an “outstanding personal achievement.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word outstanding, submitting my manuscript one day ahead of deadline was a personal achievement, nonetheless, one that left me feeling somewhat at odds with myself. You can’t have worked on something for so many months without missing the intensity of the writing.facebook
Lucky for me, I didn’t have time to feel that way long. Two days after submitting the manuscript, I began a new job, as program coordinator for a spirituality center. This is the view from my office. When the window is open, I can hear the peaceful sounds of the trickling fountain.

office window.jpg

While I no longer have David’s steadying hand to grasp, in the past six years I’ve discovered a stronger one yet. It is God’s hand that led me to a workplace that not only allows prayer, but encourages it. Which is why I was comfortable asking my new co-workers to pray for me on Friday when I was sidelined by a concern regarding the sale of my house. One of them went above and beyond, composing a beautiful prayer specific to my worry and e-mailing it to me; the message a reminder to trust God’s plan and providence. Taking a deep breath, I read and re-read the prayer, as if drawing sustenance from it. All the months of working on a book, searching for a new job, looking for a house, sorting through things to downsize and prepare for a garage sale, watching a daughter leave home, getting a house ready to sell…alone. Without David. I was so tired. Emotionally drained.

Please, God. Just show me that you’re with me in this. In all of it.

After work, I just wanted to go home. But I needed to be someplace else.

I headed to a nearby building, where my required TB test would be read by a company nurse. Lacking an internal GPS, the last time I’d attempted to follow directions to the nurse’s office, I’d ended up in the lunch room. So it was with some trepidation I approached the front desk. A tiny woman was hunched over a newspaper, only the top of her head visible. When she looked up, I asked if she could page the nurse. Her eyes darting around nervously, she suggested I just head there. It occurred to me, as a volunteer, she might not know how to operate the phone system.

“I got lost the last time I came,” I laughed as I explained, and her face brightened. She jumped from her chair with an energy that belied her obvious age.

“Then I’ll take you there,” she said as she approached from behind the desk. She held out her hand. Taken aback, I hesitated for a moment, but her friendly smile left me no choice. It would be rude to refuse.

Hand-in-hand, we started walking.

“Now, just pay attention, and watch where I take you, so you can find your way back,” she said in a voice so gentle, I unexpectedly felt a lump form in my throat. Her hand was warm, her clasp firm, as she guided me through a room, down a short hallway, and through a doorway. I recognized the winding hallway lined with potted plants.

“I know where I am now,” I said, pointing to the end of the hall. “I just go that way and around the corner.”

“I’ll show you a better way.” The delight in her voice was unmistakable. She seemed glad to make my trip easier. “Just go right through this door, and you’re there!”

She didn’t let go of my hand until we’d stepped through the doorway together.

“But you made this so easy,” I marveled. “Thank you.” She smiled before turning away to return to the desk.

A room, a hallway, two doorways… Previous routes had included steps, elevators, a trip through a closed courtyard. I felt foolish as I blinked back tears, pondering the encounter.

The welcoming gesture of an extended palm. The unexpected warmth in holding a stranger’s hand. The gentle voice guiding me as if I were a child. The sudden ease in finding my way. This had been no random meeting. There was a message in it.

“I’m here. In the prayer from a colleague. In the stranger at the front desk. The hand you miss so much is with me, but I will bring you other hands. I am with you and I will guide you. Trust me.” 

Isaiah 41:13: For I am the LORD your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. (NIV)

faith, prayer

The Shepherd Leads

Do you think that our universe is random; that the things that happen in our lives are but a manifestation of some great cosmic pattern? Or, like me, do you believe in a God who takes an active interest in our lives, one who will walk before us, beside us, and guide us in the smallest of things?

“What is wrong with me?” I wrote my friend Mary this morning, before I wrote my blog post. “I’ve wasted most of this month. I haven’t known what to work on next, and I don’t feel led in any one direction.” Poor Mary is privy to my innermost thoughts, my rants, and the ravings of a lunatic widow in frequent letters.

I have been praying. During the month of January I have given myself many moments of quiet solitude. I have “been still.”  And yet I had spent most of the month wandering around my house aimlessly. What is wrong with me? I have wondered, even as I recognized the symptoms of situational depression. If grieving my husband weren’t enough, this month added both the news of Jacob’s cancer recurrence and a virulent form of influenza to the mix. Factor in snow and cold and very little sunshine, and it is no wonder I have struggled with depression. I felt like a lost sheep, wandering around in a meadow, with no direction from its master.

“I’m not even reading good books,” I continued in my letter. “All I’ve been reading are books about grief.”

After my morning’s blog posting, I headed to my book shelves determined to read something other than a book dealing with grief. Was it pure coincidence that I chose a book I was certain I could not possibly identify with; a memoir about an unhappy marriage.  I’d heard good things about This Is Not the Story You Think It Is…A Season of Unlikely Happiness, by Laura Munson, but I wasn’t expecting any life-changing insight from it. Not only had David died a very happy husband, this book wasn’t about grieving a dead husband, nor would it be research-related for either of the two topics I’ve been struggling to choose between as my next project.

Just 24 pages in, I came across this passage, taken from a book the author remembered as getting her through hard times, a fourteenth-century tome in which the Christian mystic author asks the reader to choose one word to fasten upon their hearts. That one word, working in us, is meant to bring us through the hardest times;

“…fasten this word to your heart so that whatever happens it will never go away. This word is to be your shield and your spear, whether you are riding in peace or in war. With this word you are to beat upon the cloud and the darkness above and beneath you. With this word you are to strike down every kind of thought, driving it down into a pool of forgetting. …” from The Cloud of Unknowing

One word. Surely a coincidence I picked up this particular book to read this morning, out of a shelf of fifty others. And right after I’d chosen the word HOPE to concentrate on this year.

When the mail came, it brought the newest issue of “The Sun” magazine, which I snatched up to read as I performed my morning toiletries. (that means I read it in the bathroom, if you must know, and I don’t expect to loan it out to you now that you know my secret) Immediately, I turned to a letter to the editor that referred to a previous issue’s topic of depression. In the letter, a James Hillman was referred to in a manner that I found intriguing. Apparently, before his death, this psychoanalyst had bemoaned our society’s tendency to treat every depression with medication.

“Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life. It moistens the dry soul, and dries the wet. It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight, and humble powerlessness. It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression…Depression lets you live down at the bottom. And to live down at the bottom means giving up the Christian thing about resurrection and coming out of it; ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ No light fantasy; and then the depression at once becomes less dark. No hope, no despair. That message of hope only makes hopelessness darker. It’s the greatest instigator of the pharmaceutical industry ever!”

I just shook my head. Hadn’t I referred to hitting the bottom this morning, in losing my spouse? Oh, ye of little faith, what were the odds that I would read about “depression, despair, and hope” on the very same morning I had written and lamented about each of those topics?

“What if you needed an illness to slow you down and make you stop and think for a while,” someone had suggested to me just a few days before, when I’d mentioned how little I’d gotten done this month. I’d shrugged off the suggestion; Illness was one thing, depression was another. Surely I didn’t need depression. God did not seem to be leading me in any certain direction, and that was becoming increasingly frustrating. I wanted to write and I couldn’t seem to get past the first four chapters in one book, or the proposal with the other. Outside of my regular couponing column, I’d only written a few sentences in the last month.

What is wrong with me? I wondered again, and why have I hit a roadblock in my writing? I thought then of where I’d left off in the book about grief, and wondered what should come next. Would the book simply be about grieving? Of course not, but that is all I’d written about at this point, though the reader could see the beginnings of my faith journey. But what about David’s faith? How did he get to where he’d appreciated a daily blessing in the hospital before he died? Suddenly, I knew there was much more to the story than what I’d written so far. I didn’t even go downstairs, where I knew Abby would want a story read, or a math problem explained. Instead, I pulled some pages out of a notebook from Emily’s room and sat down on my bed and began writing.

And writing.

Could God be in the tiniest details of our life, right down to the books and magazines he nudges us to read? What an intriguing concept, but one that seemed too trifling to mention to anyone else. Our God is a mighty God. Why would he bother? And yet, those two choices of reading material this morning were a breakthrough of sorts. I didn’t want to stop writing, now that I knew the direction I must go.

I wrote several pages before I needed to meet Abby’s math tutor at the library. There, I eagerly settled  in at a table, ready to continue with my writing. But when I put my book bag down in front of me, I noticed how heavy it was, despite my having emptied it of children’s books downstairs. An unfamiliar book fell out on the table; Stunned by Grief, by Judy Brizendine. I couldn’t recall having checked it out, and certainly didn’t remember reading it. I skimmed through the first few pages, chock-full of helpful information and advice for anyone who has lost someone. I skimmed through the first chapters, already having faced most of the situations mentioned. Around page 150, I began writing things down. I recognized myself in paragraphs like these;

“Learning to rest in God does not come naturally. In fact, our inborn tendencies are opposite. We aim to be self-sufficient and in control of everything. Sometimes we drive ourselves crazy striving to get ahead-juggling, maneuvering, and stressing over all the balls we have in the air. Slow down and take a deep breath. God does not want us to fill our lives (or even a twenty-four hour slice) with anxiety and turmoil. He wants us to be at peace and to trust him completely…” (page 188)

Many times, as believers, we waste significant time and energy by trying to handle things our way. We forget that God’s thoughts and His ways are not the same as ours. By trying to keep control in our hands, we miss the fullness of life God promises us in Him. We create pain, discomfort, and unnecessary heartache for ourselves by not trusting in God and his provisions for us. God can give us power for living and complete peace if we allow Him to work in us. Satan, the great deceiver, will try to trap us into becoming anxious about everything. If he can agitate us and create apprehension, then we will not be in a place of trust where we can hear God’s voice. The enemy will then have succeeded in diverting us from God and setting our minds on a turbulent course.” (page 189)

“What is the matter with me?” I’d asked my friend Mary this morning. “Why can’t I see which way God is leading me?” Even while I asked the question, I knew I had been juggling two different book ideas and struggling to work on both, not succeeding on working on either one.

I flipped through some more pages and then took the book over to the copy machine to make copies of the pages with headings like these; God is Our Hope, Worry is Unproductive, and Remain Faithful to God. I hadn’t been to the library in three weeks. Surely the book was overdue, and there was too much to take notes on. After copying several pages, I took the copies and the book to the front desk. “Do you want to check this out?” the librarian asked, and I informed her I was returning it. “But it isn’t checked out to you,” she said, and I wondered anew how it had gotten in my bag. Why was it in there if I hadn’t checked it out? And, why hadn’t I recognized it or read it if it had been in my bag for the last three weeks?

Does God care about what we read? What we write? Does he guide us even in the smallest of things if we but listen?

I believe he does, and today…I listened.


What if?

Please let this CT scan be clear.  Please don’t let me lose my husband now, when I’ve just so recently discovered how to love him.”

These are the thoughts that assail me at 3:00 a.m. during one of those sleepless nights before the next CT scan. The scan scheduled for tomorrow.

I wonder how common this is among cancer survivors and their families.

It was four years ago last month that David’s cancer was diagnosed. Four years ago this month that he endured an invasive surgery to remove the tumor on the back of his tongue and 32 adjacent lymph nodes in his neck. Now it has been six months since his last CT scan. I am pretty sure it will be a year before the next one.  Each time, we breath a collective sigh of relief when the CT scan comes back clear.  There was that one real scare in August of 2008 scare; a tumor-like change on his epiglottis that necessitated the need for a surgical biopsy. But otherwise, the clear CT scans have been a blessing.

But those few days before the CT scan?

I am a basket case.

During the day, I hold it in pretty well. I go about my business and do the things I normally do.  But in the dark loneliness of the night, when my husband is sleeping peacefully beside me, it all comes back to me: those moments of watching my spouse fight for his life, the surgery that left him unable to speak for 8 days, the wounds that have permanently changed his voice. The punishing radiation, the poisonous chemotherapy.

The fear of the cancer returning. The fear of losing the person I love more than anyone else, the person that has become my partner in every sense of the word.

I reach over to touch David’s back.  I hear him murmur something, and he might reach back and take my hand.

I say a silent prayer of thanks for this moment, this one extra moment with David.

And, I am ashamed to admit, I plead and beg for more.

Please, God, don’t let the cancer come back.  Please don’t make him go through that treatment again.  Please let me have a long, and healthy life with him.

Please, please, please.

And then the morning light comes through the curtains and I realize I have tossed and turned through several hours of the night, and all over “what-ifs.” And in a sleep-deprived haze it all snowballs:

What if the cancer comes back?

What if I get cancer?

What if one of my children gets cancer?

And then the snowball gets wider, and encompasses way more than cancer;

What if we get in a car accident on the way to the doctor’s? Who will take care of our children? Will they love them like I do?

And soon, the anxiety level rises to ridiculous proportions;

What if I am driving over the bridge by Fareway and the bridge collapses ? (though today in Iowa that doesn’t seem such a far-fetched scenario; the dam in Delhi burst yesterday with the flooding)

and then, unbidden, come the everyday worries:

What if my book never gets published?

What if Katie never learns math?

And all this anxiety, because of an impending CT scan.

And yet.

What if cancer had never entered our life? Would I just be worried about something else?

If David had never had cancer, would our marriage be as strong as it is now? Would my world be so full of the good things?

This morning in church our priest had to stop talking during his sermon. His breath caught, he stumbled with his words. The emotion of what he was saying was so strong it brought tears to my eyes, and he had to stop for a moment to regroup.  He was talking about the recent flooding and how so many people just appeared on the scene to help sandbag.  Neighbors who didn’t even care for each other suddenly cared. People who wouldn’t bother to say hi to each other came out in droves to support one another. He was overcome with emotion as he related what had transpired in our town in the past 48 hours.  The worst brought out the best in people.

If we open up our hearts and care about others it opens up our whole world.

“Step outside your comfort zone and your world becomes a better place.”

I believe that with my whole heart.

Our experience with cancer taught me many things.  It taught me how to love my husband.  It taught me that there are many good people out there, and that the ones who aren’t so good might have reasons for their behavior that I couldn’t even begin to understand. It taught me how to open up my heart.  My world is bigger and better because of that experience.

That doesn’t mean I want to repeat that experience anytime soon.

My good friend Mary has often said, “Let go, and let God. Let God take your worries.”

I cannot change whatever the outcome is of tomorrow’s CT scan.  David doesn’t seem to worry about it like I do. I envy him that.

What if, instead of spending countless hours worrying I try doing what my friend suggests?

What if …

I  Let Go, and Let God?