Here We Go! Surgery Monday.

Tomorrow night or Monday morning, however you think of 3am, I will get up, shower with this weird stinky pink antibacterial soap, leave the house around 4am and arrive at the hospital to have one and a half significant organs removed. 

My life is so weird. 

I remember, recently upon getting this diagnosis, saying to Kevin “Well, it’s never going to be normal again.”  These are true words.  But they are not bad words. 

When I said “normal” what I meant was the idea of waking up in the morning and going through my day without worrying about something major and specific.  Sure, we all worry our child will run into traffic or that argument with a friend won’t get resolved.  But there is this “normal” kind of living that you do when you feel you have control.  You have a general idea of how the day, the week, the month will go.  You confidently plan activities for next summer without wondering if you will be healthy, functional, alive?  You have a sense that all is well, nothing terrible is about to happen.  Life feels pretty predictable. 

When you have cancer, or had cancer that might come back, you live with this sense of dread.  Is it coming back?  Will it be worse?  Can I beat it again?  Cancer is so disruptive and unpredictable.  Do you know how many tests they do?  SO many!  And one wrong number – one field in a huge spreadsheet, can throw everything off.  And every single thing you do (port placement, chemo, surgery, doc appointments) requires so many things to go just so.  And organizing your schedule around it while trying to minimize the impact on everyone around you is just so incredibly difficult and stressful.  Cancer makes life so darned unpredictable. 

But the truth is that none of our lives are predictable and the control we think we have, well, a lot of it is an illusion.  Cancer (and other hardships) just pull back the curtain a little bit. 

I just heard from a friend that her good friend’s husband passed away very suddenly from a heart attack.  No warning.  He leaves behind a stricken wife and a handful of stunned children.  It sounds like no one saw this coming.  Getting the rug pulled out from under you.  It feels so unfair and so wrong.  We turn away from God entirely, or, toward God in rage, in total despair.  

How. Could. You?  
Why us?  Why this?  Why now?  We rattle off our good deeds and offer them up feebly.  Wasn’t this enough?  What did we do to deserve this?  Is it because of that terrible thought I had?  That argument I didn’t resolve?  Was I not grateful enough?  Selfless enough?  I didn’t pray enough, did I?

But God is not much of a transactional God.  There was one significant transaction to wipe out the rest.  We sin.  Jesus went to the cross to wipe out all of those sins for those who believe.  They are gone.  Erased.  You don’t have to pay for them again.  Scripture makes this clear.  God does not punish us for a debt that has already been paid in full.  He is not up there in the clouds doling out punishments to smugly teach us lessons.  God is not mean. 

So, what is He up to?  Well, I wish I could explain it in a way that made everyone feel better but I can’t. I have a few things to share that might help a few people a little bit. 

Grief is real and big and purposeful.  One must walk through grief.  There is something about grief that changes us, makes us deeper and realer and more whole, eventually.  Even though it feels as though your very heart and humanity have been forcibly taken from you.  But grief is functional, and it must be experienced.  No shortcuts.  I believe this may be part of why there are not easy answers.  We simply must  move forward through the very human experience of grief.  It equips us.  Strengthens us.  Makes us softer, wholer and better somehow. 

No way over, under or around.  Just…through.  However, there are some things to consider as one walks through grief, that I believe are useful.

We don’t know what God is up to in the short term.  We just don’t.  Romans says “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  THEN (emphasis mine) you will be able to test and approve God’s will.  His good, pleasing and perfect will.”  Ok, so what this means, I think, is that once we ditch our worldly ways of thinking and doing, we are much better at seeing what God is up to.  But most of us are a long way off – still early on that journey of getting our minds renewed.  But.  If you really want to understand what God is up to, focus on Him and His ways.  Seek to understand His character and how He moves.  If you’re watching trashy reality shows and reading crappy romance novels and you’ve let yourself get brainwashed into expecting certain kinds of neatly wrapped up happy endings, you’re on the wrong track.  I love movies and books and all kinds of entertainment – I just have to make sure I don’t let those fairy tales strongly guide my expectations and how I think life works.  In the Hallmark movie, they always get together in the end, the kid gets rescued and they find a cure before it’s too late.  Not so, at least not always, with life.  In the meantime, while still fledglings at the whole figuring out God’s will thing, we simply have to trust Him.  I pray each night that I could somehow “Trust Him more each day.”

One path to trusting God more is thankfulness.  Grief and gratitude (for the grieving) or fear and gratitude (for the worried) seem like unlikely neighbors.  But they can be.  I can tell you with deep confidence that finding something to be grateful for, even the smallest thing to start with, changes your mindset.  Gratitude begets more gratitude.  It is easier to trust God when we intentionally reflect on all of the blessings we have received.  It seems weird, but I have worked myself into a near gleeful frenzy when I’ve started thanking God for everything I could think of.  Sometimes it happens differently.  For example, I love receiving thoughtful gifts, especially unexpected ones.  When I come home to a box or two on my doorstep addressed to me, and I tear through them to find fun Wonder Woman accessories or soothing spa products or a gift card somewhere fancy I’d never buy for myself, even if I’m worried about test results or feeling discouraged, those gifts can just lift me out of my funk and remind me of how much I’m loved and how God cares for me through other people and how thoughtful and generous people can be, how fun can burst out of nowhere, and how incredible and wonderful my life is, and all of a sudden this Stage 4 cancer patient feels on top of the world.  Because I feel thankful.  Gratitude lifts us up, toward God.   

God is in it for the long game.  What happens short term is PART of the bigger picture, but you may not see or understand how it all fits in.  Scripture clearly tells us that He works ALL THINGS for OUR GOOD if we love Him.  I’ve seen some of that.  There are incredible examples of God using evil for good.  Tim Keller says that God gives Satan (and us, our bad choices, etc) just enough rope to hang himself with.  I love that.  Think of Job.  All was taken from him.  He wrestled with it, debated with his friends, argued, even with God Himself.  God never gives Job the WHY but he does restore him and bless him.  This story has impacted millions of people for thousands of years.  Many a sufferer has gone to that Old Testament book in a desperate state of grief, anger or despair and said “OK, help me.” 

Imagine if my story, of struggling with cancer, made it into the volumes of history because I had a willingness to trust God and not a need to know why.  What if people, years from now, after the zombie apocalypse, went to this blog to read about how Jessi Marsh of ye old Monroeville, handled her suffering?  They probably won’t, and that’s ok – I don’t aspire to be Job.  I’d rather be known for doing something cool like inventing a teacup pig that would actually stay tiny so you could carry a wee little pig around with you wherever you go and let him out to run around the coffee table and teach him little tricks!  Heeeheeeee!  Or, you know, like, ending homelessness, than being known for suffering well (wouldn’t we all??)  But our stories, how we suffer, are important.  I hope to be authentic, to share my moments of doubt and fear (had a BIG one last week when an EKG came back abnormal.)  And share my sincere, honest hope in Christ.  My belief that God is WAY bigger than all of this but personal enough to look at me with love and care when I hurt and when I’m scared.  He reminds me that there are major challenges ahead, scary moments, physical pain, uncertainty, sadness, loss and strife.  But it’s my path, for my adventure.  And he is the activities director, the captain of the boat, the pilot of the plane, my doctor, my lawyer, my Sherpa, my advisor, my battle strategist and my friend. 

I love in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which Cass and I are currently reading, when the children ask the beaver if Aslan, the lion is safe.  The beaver says,  “‘Course he’s not safe.  But he is good.”

That’s God.  Not necessarily safe.  But definitely good. 

So, that’s how I’m approaching this surgery.  It’s an adventure.  I hope it all goes very smoothly but it might not – but I will make every effort to approach any bumps in the road with the mindset that God is always good.  He loves me more than I could dream, and He’s got an incredible story in mind for me that is slowly being revealed.              


The case for over-sharing

Last week, Mark “Facebook” Zuckerberg announced the happy news that his wife is pregnant, along with the normally private information that the couple had endured multiple miscarriages.  With that announcement came a flood of empathy and support and appreciation.

Sharing certain things is difficult.  Especially when the news is so closely related to your body.  Some things are so personal that many people receive difficult health news and immediately make the decision to keep it private. I completely understand this.  In early 2009, during my pregnancy with Cassidy, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes.  At the time, my response to this news, in terms of emotion, was SHAME.  I felt I had failed my little fetus.  I completely took responsibility – one of the many downsides to being natured and nurtured into leadership tendencies is that you tend to take responsibility for just about everything.  I was certain I had eaten too much Goodfella’s Pizza in college (holla, Bobcats!) and I was paying for it dearly.  Whenever I thought of it – pretty much constantly because I had to test my blood sugar 4 times a day – I would shut my eyes and bow my head in shame and think “it’s my fault.”  So, my shame led me to what we have constructed as an acceptable euphemism: privacy.  Hey, there is nothing innately wrong with being private – but we would do well to examine our reasons for desiring privacy.  In my case, it was because I was totally embarrassed and ashamed.  I assumed that anyone I told would nod knowingly and judgingly and condemn me for every carb they had ever witnessed me enjoy.  I shielded myself from that by telling very few people about my diagnosis.  As time went on and keeping it secret became cumbersome, I found a level of comfort and reduction of shame through the sisterhood I found in online communities of ladies with the same issue.  That, along with my natural extroversion, allowed the news to creep out timidly.  Typically I would follow the bomb drop with statistics about how common it is and how even skinny people get it and how well I was managing it through a heroically strict diet.  I steered people toward admiring me for eschewing sugar during pregnancy, desperately managing their ideas about me to protect myself from the judgment I anticipated. 

Years later, with that far in the rear view mirror, I talk easily about gestational diabetes.  I have grown in a number of ways that allow me to feel less concerned about that judgment, less bothered by those kinds of worries.  I am a bit gentler with myself and others – by the way, I have found that the gentler we are we ourselves, the gentler we can be with others – and I have seen plenty of bad things happen to good people, both as a result of their own choices and a result of the strange non-formulaic, apparently senseless ways of this world.  Grace is in order in both cases.  And if you don’t want to give me grace and prefer to judge me, I can see now that is way more about you than it is about me.  You and God will have to work that out, and it will probably be quite beautiful when you get around to it. 

I share about cancer freely.  I am sure some people have thought what I might have done to give myself cancer.  We think that way if we are afraid and want to feel sure it won’t happen to us.  The person with lung cancer smoked – whew, that won’t happen to non-smokers, so it’s ok.  The child drowned because the mom let the 10 year old babysit -whew, I would NEVER do that, so it’s ok.  Apparently senseless, non “obvious fault” tragedy is so much scarier.  The bowling ball rolled out the window and hit him on the head and killed him??  He was just WALKING ALONG?  Wait, I do that every day!  That might happen to me!!!!  Arghghghgh!  I also know some people don’t think like that at all.  Naturally empathetic people just care.  They just want to care for and comfort you.  They don’t care if you have HIV because you had unprotected sex or Hep C because you used drugs.  They just feel for you. 

That fear of judgment isn’t the only thing that prevents us from sharing.  Some worry that others will see them as weak.  Many people confide in me these days and a friend recently shared a cancer diagnosis.  This person didn’t want to be seen as incapable of doing their job.  Another person in a similar situation didn’t want the fuss and attention.  Yet another person didn’t want his family to worry.  I do understand these issues.  But I’m here to tell you there is something else to consider. 

My cousin recently called to tell me about how much he enjoyed a recent event where military and other people shared stories of overcoming insurmountable odds and thriving after experiencing trauma.  They did so with grace and humor.  It clearly inspired the audience deeply.  Those people chose to overcome their fear and value of privacy for the purpose of encouraging others.  Everyone is going through something.  And most of our world’s big problems (divorce, death of a loved one, a scary diagnosis, severe injury, intense failure) feel huge and solitary.  We feel alone in our situation.  Until someone else bravely shares.  Our tight, closed, scared selves relax a tiny bit and we hopefully whisper “You, too?” 

Lost babies is one of the most taboo subjects around.  I hear there is an underground network of people who privately rush to the sides of the recently bereaved.  I am thankful to not need admission to that club of support, but I guarantee you, there is love to be found there that exists no place else.  I know Mark Zuckerberg isn’t everyone’s favorite visionary.  But his vision is clear – that social networks operate to bring people together and inspire openness and collaboration and progress.  He took it straight to the heart with this one and I’m joyful on behalf of those who have felt they were required to grieve privately.  Many will choose the same quiet grief, even now that the door has been blown open.  But those who have longed for a bigger space to walk through their sorrows – Mr. Zuckerberg has knocked down some walls, put in a coffee shop and installed Wi-Fi.  He has invited you to join him in that space. 

My hope is that my decision to share openly about cancer has made it a little easier for someone else.  I share to create a bigger space, to make more room.  You can totally hide by yourself in the dark and deal with it on your own.  I judge ye not.  But if you want to come on out, there is plenty of room.  And pizza.  Even though I only eat that very occasionally now because it causes cancer.  Just kidding.  Like 97% kidding.  It’s actually aspartame.  Or Kenny G.