God sends someone.

Yesterday I invited my coworker to join me for lunch and she explained that a pregnant teenage girl had come to one of our buildings seeking help as she was fleeing from an abusive boyfriend.  My coworker was staying with her until we could safely get her onto a bus, to a town where she has family.  I decided to stop over at that building to see how they were doing.  As soon as she walked in the room, I was flooded with feelings of why I got into this work in the first place.  I supervise a team of talented people who work together to implement strategies of fundraising, public relations, marketing, advertising, event planning, social media and grant development.  My job involves management, problem solving, organizational leadership, policy development, etc.  But this, right here, this girl, is why I started doing this 16 years ago.

I’ll call her Stephanie.  She couldn’t have been older than 18.  She was beautiful, with dark hair and blue eyes.  But she hadn’t showered in many days and had that run down look of someone who hasn’t been taking care of herself in a long time.  We learned that she was about 4 months pregnant, by a man she was fleeing from because he hurt her.  They had been living under a bridge.  While we waited, we talked with her and she shifted between making funny, clever observations that made us laugh, and sharing parts of her story that put tears in all of our eyes.  She expressed that she wanted more for her baby than living under a bridge with a guy who wouldn’t stop hurting her.

There was a time this wouldn’t have struck me as courageous – it would have simply seemed sensible, and the obvious right course of action.  But as I get older, I have seen so many people stuck in bad situations because it’s just too hard to leave, it’s too complicated, it’s too uncertain, it feels equally selfish to leave and stupid to stay,  I’ve seen people stay because they think they don’t deserve better, they are waiting for someone to rescue them (that person is never coming, by the way, so don’t wait around) or they just don’t think they can do it.  I’ve seen smart people act like deer in the headlights because they are so confused about what is best, what is right, what is worth continuing to get hurt over.  Dysfunctional, unhealthy relationships are never easy, never simple, and sometimes things really can get better and work out, and some people stay because they live in that hope.  But if someone is physically hurting you and/or your children, there is only one answer.  Even so, for so many women, it feels like an impossible choice.  

This girl left her home town at some point, maybe with this guy or maybe she ran into him later.  She thought they would build a life together especially once she got pregnant.  But he started to abuse her, throwing plates across the room, and as she said “he wouldn’t change.”  He promised to, and he would for a while, but ultimately, he didn’t.  She loved him.  She wanted to believe him.  She cried because she missed him and felt bad leaving him.  But she was resolved, and she was leaving.  I was filled with admiration for this tiny thing, with an even tinier thing living and growing inside her.  We told her how brave and important what she was doing was and she said God was giving her the strength to do it.  Brave and humble.  That’s better than I can say for most of us, most of the time.

As we were about to leave to take her to pick out some needed items in another building, a man I didn’t know came into the building.  I stopped and waved her back into the office we came out of and shut the door behind me.  It only took a few seconds to determine that he was not her ex-boyfriend – he was a service worker, coming to fix something in the building.  But in those few seconds, I realized I would do whatever it took to protect her.

I don’t share that to get credit for being a nice person or anything.  The reason I share it is this:  When you have cancer, had cancer, might have cancer again, and you’re a mom, the thing, ALWAYS in the back of your mind is what is going to happen to my kid if I don’t make it.  As a staunch Christian, you can square all kinds of things with God – His will be done, heaven will be cool, dying will suck but probably not be that scary.  People die every day, I’ll figure out how to do it.  But when you think about your kid without you, sometimes it’s enough to split your heart right down the middle.  Gut you.  Break you.  The only thing that helps is knowing your family will come through and make it ok for her and help her remember you and all of that shit that is hard to think about without crying.  But this experience reminded me of something:  Even in the very worst circumstances, where that kid has run away, been abandoned, on their own, penniless and pregnant…God will send someone.  Yesterday, he sent me (and a bunch of other super helpful colleagues of mine who did great work to figure this out.)  I was so proud of us, because I knew that any of us would have done anything to get her on that bus.      

We took her to pick out clothes and a backpack.  She had to leave her things under the bridge so he would believe she was still around – all she had was the clothes she was wearing, an ID and a blanket.  We went through our supplies, finding things she needed while she kept us laughing, pointing out who we reminded her of or what she thought of us.  I got off easy with “Cat Woman” although someone quickly pointed out “no, that’s Wonder Woman.”  Another coworker was deemed Augustus Glut from Willy Wonka, another “some kind of Disney character” and another “kitty cat who doesn’t like the rain” or “someone who would get lost easily.”  She cracked us up and broke our hearts.  What happened to get her here?  This is a person.  A precious child.  Somewhere, at some time, someone was her mother.

We got her a police escort to make sure she got safely on that bus.  She is gone now, to a safe place.  And I’m praying for the next person God sends to help her.  And the next one He sends to us for help.  May we always be ready and faithful.    

Two dragons

I had a CT scan on Friday.  We had a really busy and fun weekend, during which I ran my best 5K race ever.  I’ve never run a 5K in less than 40 minutes, and my time was 38:41 with a 12:27 pace.  I know it isn’t fast, compared to most runners, but, honestly, I was thrilled.  My follow-up doc appointment was scheduled for Monday.  I didn’t have any anxiety (or scanxiety as we cancer fighters call it) all weekend, but for some reason, an hour before the visit, I started worrying and couldn’t stop.  When we got there, I noticed that they called every person back before me, even if they had arrived after.  I started pacing, near stroke-level panic, realizing they might be putting me as Dr. Mehta’s last appointment.  This could all be a total coincidence, but there was something I was sensing that turned out to not be totally unfounded.

Being a cancer patient does all of these strange things to you, and one of them is it creates this extreme, urgent desire to read people.  You read everyone from the receptionist to the lady who takes your vitals to the nurses, and most definitely the doctor.  I wonder how, when they teach about bedside manner in medical school, how they handle this.  Do they tell the prospective doctors that patients waiting to hear news will be filled to the brim with anxiety and reading every facial expression, every word, interpreting every delay, every bit of data.  She looked at me sympathetically – something is wrong!  He frowned at my results – I’m dying, like, tomorrow.  I even read the “system.”  They didn’t email my blood work – I definitely have diabetes, leukemia, high cholesterol and zero white blood cells.  Often my interpretations end up being wrong – at times, what I thought was a sure sign pointing toward bad news was nothing more than a computer glitch.  But not this time.

He gave us the good news first.  Liver looks great.  Abdomen looks fine.  Tumor markers are very low.  But in my lungs, a previously unchanging nodule (a normal thing that lots of people have) changed.  In 6 months, it seems to have grown from 4mm to 7mm.  My doctor said he really doesn’t think it is cancer, but because of my history we have to be sure.  He said he could send me for biopsy but that it really is so tiny, it would be tough to get a piece of it and a lung biopsy is no picnic.  He mentioned a chest tube and I started getting tunnel vision and feeling light headed.  Now, don’t get me wrong – I will do whatever has to be done.  What. Ever. Has. To. Be. Done.  I promised myself I would never shy away from a procedure or treatment no matter how much it would hurt or scare me.  Frankly, I’m not scared of anything like this.  I won’t like it.  I might even hate it.  But I do what it takes.  I’m not going to get sicker because of a lack of courage.  Now…given the honest recommendation of my oncologist to wait, I’ll take it.  We’re waiting to see if it grows.  If it doesn’t in two months, we’ll check again in another two.  If it grows, we’ll do the horrible sounding biopsy.  If it’s cancer, we’ll “scoop it out” (ugh) and proceed with chemo, I assume.  After all of this, he said he thinks it’s 98% not cancer.  That surprised me.  I thought we were talking 50/50.

So how am I doing?  Not great.  Not bad.  I have truly, truly been through the emotional wringer with all of this – it has this ripple effect that touches everything else in your life.  I have experienced such highs and lows through it all – I’ve felt more alive than ever in my whole life, and I’ve also felt like death doesn’t sound so bad.  I’ve felt so fully loved, so much hope, so much gratitude, and also disappointment, anger and sadness.  I’ve been shocked both by unexpected kindness and unexpected failures.  Cancer amplifies life.  Takes you soaring one day and plummeting to the ground the next.  I’m kinda beat up, honestly.

But I think the “beat up” that I feel is more the hangover that I’m experiencing from that 45 minutes in the waiting room and exam room where I knew something was wrong, and got the “bad news” vibe before I actually heard what this news was.  I suppose there is something chemical in the brain that happens – adrenaline, cortisol, something that just floods everything.  The news honestly isn’t dire at all.  As my mentor said “2%?  There’s at least a 5% chance there is something worse in my body I don’t even know about.”  That really helped me gain a little perspective, actually.  But my brain thought it was dire for 45 minutes, and it’s still there, in that “oh shit” space, even though the data says otherwise.

I dug out a Tim Keller sermon this morning, because I know I have to think my way out of this one and the best way to do that is to listen to people smarter than I am.  It was a good reminder of what I know to be true in terms of God’s goodness, His sovereignty, His purposefulness.  It also reminded me of my own responsibility in my emotional life.  There is this little fable or whatever I’ve read once or twice about there being two wolves that live inside you (I think of mine as dragons) and one is anger/frustration/unhappiness/bitterness and the other is joy/contentedness/peace/love.  They fight for control.  Which one wins?  The one you feed.

The bad dragon loves self-doubt, fear of failure, unforgiveness, performance-based acceptance, blame and shame.  I need to feed the good dragon with knowledge of God’s love and care, restful, energizing experiences, wholesome food, tough exercise, you tube videos of news bloopers, grace, people who are encouraging, fair, loving and consistent, healthy vulnerability, challenges I am capable of meeting, good books, pleasant company and prayer.  Help me feed the good dragon, ok?