Tag Archives: Cancer

On Choosing Truth.

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Ian in the red chair.

I am driving three hours to the airport this morning.

Three hours with the windows rolled down and the soothing sounds of James Taylor calling me home to North Carolina.

It’s hardly a road trip, but something in this endless stretch of highway makes me remember. I remember Ian in the red chair on Monday—the last time I saw him before the ICU. Before tubes and sunken cheeks, fluttering eyes and soft, swollen hand squeezes. On that Monday night, there was a big grin and animated talk of the road trip he would make to come see me in Albany. He would come alone, because he wanted to hit the open road unencumbered. Cancer had rendered him house and hospital bound for months, and Ian wanted OUT into the germ-ridden world we’d tried so desperately to protect him from since his diagnosis. We would see a Broadway show, and make a Greek recipe he’d seen on the Food Network during one of his chemo sessions.

I remember week two in the ICU. That dark room where we lived and died by the blue and red numbers flickering and sinking on the black screen by his bed. Hearts sank with them. Pleading, Breathe, Ian. You can do it, buddy! We’ve got this. I’m right here, Ashley’s right here. And still, the dreaded numbers sank.

Sitting beside him in room 17, we’d been tossed a tenuous lifeline of hope that day. I grabbed ahold of it with both hands as I held Ian’s, and with tentative excitement I began to talk about his impending trip to see me. Constraints of the English language make it impossible to describe the sheer relief and joy that flooded my exhausted heart—it was as though I’d spent my whole life holding my breath, and at long last had been granted permission to exhale and breathe in hope. For a few precious hours, I began to believe that Ian would walk out of room 17. There would be a road trip after all, and one day we would incredulously marvel that cancer had once disrupted our lives.

I drive today, and think about how Ian never will again. Last week as Kellan and I prayed together before we fell asleep, he asked God to help my sister in law do well on the LSAT she was taking the next day. Tears burned at the back of my eyes as I thought about all of the prayers I would never pray for Ian. Never again would I get to ask God to help him ace a test, or land a job or please make him dump that girl.

And I thought about the God that heard every tearful plea during those last three weeks in the ICU. Lord, you breathed life into him when you made him–let him breathe now. Heal his lungs. Wake him up, Jesus. Please, let it be me instead. Simple things for the God who created the Universe. Everything to me.

God saw. God heard. God said no.

God said no to a road trip and a thousand secret dreams that atrophied and died with my little brother. I could not understand why a good Father would withhold so much good from me. Why a good Father would stand by and watch as Ian breathed out one last time, and I breathed in an impossible ache that would never, never go away.

God preempted the question my weary heart asked with every painful beat in the book of Matthew. In Matthew 7:9-11, Jesus asks the crowd gathered around Him,

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!”

How much more. As I am violently tossed about in an ocean of unknowns, I cling to what is true. When hearts throb heavy and grief slips out of dazed, exhausted eyes, there is nothing else I can do. Truth is that God is a good Father who is incapable of giving his children anything but good gifts. Even when fish masquerade as snakes, and the searing sting of sin rips through bone and marrow. Truth is that God loved Ian so much that He crushed His precious Son so that Ian might be His. Truth is that Jesus went to the cross willingly, for the joy set before Him. Truth is that that joy was my little brother. It was all of us! In the face of that irrational, relentless, sacrificial love, my paltry offerings are laughable in comparison. I do not get to accuse God, as though I love Ian more. His love for Ian was forever settled at the cross.

As I drive, I do not understand why God said no. I simply fall back on what I know to be true. And I think sometimes, that’s all we can do.

How will you choose truth today?

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Waiting for my Wooden Leg.

photo (5)In the wake of Ian’s death, I was flooded by a precious barrage of cards and books about grief that friends with their own grief stories thought might be helpful. I have faithfully read every one, and undoubtedly the book that I return to the most is my now dog-eared copy of CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed. My friend Karen sent it to me—Karen’s Mom died of cancer a couple of years ago, and I thought of all people, Karen would know what I should read.  I was right. That short little yellow book was the very first piece of mail that I received in New York when I got back from the impossible cocktail of my honeymoon and Ian’s funeral, and I think I love it because it feels safe. CS Lewis was a godly man who walked faithfully with Jesus. He was also a man that stood helplessly by and watched his precious wife wither and die of cancer. A Grief Observed chronicles his raw, heart-searing, lip-trembling emotion as he stares up, red eyed and exhausted, at a God who no longer feels safe or good to him. It is his story. It is many of our stories.

I pulled it out again last night, because it has been one of those weekends. One of those weekends where you walk into Friday congratulating yourself for doing a little bit better—and then abruptly, like an early-morning mist that you can never be quite sure was there at all, it disappears. Over dinner, someone casually asks whether or not you have a big family. That’s a question you’d never considered, never rehearsed, never steeled your heart against. It catches you so unexpectedly off guard that shards of your broken heart leap into your throat and you awkwardly, tearfully, stammeringly attempt to decide on the spot whether your family is still “big”. You fight the good fight not to weep in front of strangers as your brave façade crumbles, and once again you remember that your world is broken.

CS Lewis talks about this in his book. He says:

“Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”

And so, to my one-legged friends—the vast ranks of us stumbling  with crutches or learning to ‘stump about’ on awkward prosthetics—you are not alone. And on those exhausted days that you cannot stump about one more solitary step, cling to this:

Isaiah 46:4b I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

He has promised to carry you.

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That Sucks, and I’m Sorry It Happened to You.

DSC_0120This past weekend, it finally happened.

I’d been dreading it since the moment I walked out of Ian’s ICU room for the very last time. I remember walking into the pristine, whitewashed hallway with sunshine pouring through oversized windows, and thinking that it should have been raining. I’ve always clung tightly to the irrational belief that the weather ought to mirror how I feel inside, and it seemed unjust, somehow, that the sun could shine on that day while my heart shattered into a thousand irretrievable pieces. My brother Stephen just held my sister Emily and I as tears streamed down our faces, and I thought about how for the first time in years, he was the only brother. The weight of two sisters was on his shoulders alone, and I wished we still had Ian to share it. The three of us stood alone, right outside the room where our brother’s body lay on a hospital bed. Three where four belonged, and the silent scream of raw emptiness enveloped us.

For the first time since I was five years old, I only had one living brother. Since that day Ian died, I have quietly dreaded the moment that someone would ask me how many siblings I had, unsure as to how I would answer. Maybe it seems like a simple thing to you, but when faced with the reality that every answer might beg further questions which might beg a story about my little brother dying of cancer…well, I wasn’t certain that I could tell that story over and over again for the rest of my life. Not without breaking over and over again—and I find that most strangers don’t want my mascara stains on their shoulders. And what to say? I have two brothers and one sister. I HAD two brothers. Do I still have Ian?  I have a brother and a sister and another brother in heaven. No, that’s too Precious Moments and Ian would hate it. I have another brother but he’s gone now. Too vague? It makes it sound like he up and joined the circus. I have a brother and a sister. Incomplete.

Nothing felt quite right. I’d rolled it over and over again in my mind like monotonous waves endlessly crashing on the same little stretch of sand, and still nothing. Finally, last Friday night at Ashley’s bachelorette party, the moment I’d been anxiously awaiting arrived with no pomp or circumstance at all. One of her sweet friends looked at me over a plate of pita and hummus, and asked if I had any siblings.

My heart was eerily calm, and without thinking at all I smiled and answered simply: Yes. I have two brothers and a sister. I’m the oldest of four.

That was the end of it, and that’s the way it will forever be. When pressed, I will briefly tell the story as unfortunate listeners awkwardly stumble through some sort of response.

Can we talk about the response for just a moment? I think so often, we don’t know what to say when confronted with pain. Any kind of pain, really—it makes us uncomfortable, and so startled, we jump. We jump to fix it, jump to change it, jump to change the subject.

May I humbly offer a suggestion? It’s deceptively simple, really. When someone is breaking in front of you,  sit still and listen compassionately—with your whole heart. And then look your friend squarely in the eyes, and repeat after me:

That SUCKS. And I’m sorry that it happened to you.

That’s it. When broken humanity is confronted with the searing shards of sin, the very last thing that we need is another tired platitude. Even the most well intended clichés hollowly mock real pain. When the knife of divorce violently tears through a family, when miscarriage steals every birthday and little girl tea party and Christmas morning a Mom and Dad will never get to have, when loneliness looms large and cancer takes curly hair and coffee dates and hand squeezes, what we cannot offer is a solution to what has been broken. We cannot make it better. [Please do not tell me that Ian is better off in heaven because while I’m sure it’s great, I would prefer that he were sitting in my living room right now. How’s that for selfish?] What we can and should offer is a God that has walked every inch of broken humanity, and weeps with us in the midst of our pain. A God who hates it more than we do—so much, in fact, that  he climbed up on a cross and was broken in our place so that we would only ever have to experience the shadow of pain. [And oh, the shadow stings! Praise Him for saving us from the real thing.] We can offer a God who is redeeming every broken thing, and will one day restore the world to what He intended. And until that day, we can offer fierce, unafraid love. A love that says I can’t make it better, but I will sit right here with you and hurt too.

That sucks. And I’m sorry that it happened to you.

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The Picture.

Ian functioned as my desk one day while I worked on invitations at the hospital! Clearly, he just loved it.

Ian functioned as my desk one day while I worked on invitations at the hospital! Clearly, he just loved it.

I used to love wedding shows like Say Yes to the Dress, but I’ll confess that since my own wedding, I cringe and scramble for the remote control at the slightest flash of crinoline. Something in me can’t watch women thoughtfully ponder the merits of lace and birdcage veils, monograms and seating arrangements. It’s not that I think those frivolous little details don’t matter-rather [embarrassingly enough], there  is a sense of loss as I think about all of the little things that go into wedding planning that were once so very important to me—things that I didn’t get to experience in the way that I’d dreamt about. Ian was diagnosed less than two impossibly short months after Kellan knelt down in the sand at Bald Head Island and asked me for forever. I remember standing in the hallway outside of my little brother’s hospital room in a daze, looking at my Mom in disbelief as she asked me a question about the church we had been attempting to book for the ceremony. Stunned, I vehemently told her My stupid wedding doesn’t matter. With more than a hint of fire in her resolute brown eyes, my five foot nothing Mother looked back at me and in a voice that left no room for discussion, informed me: Your wedding matters. We are going to do cancer AND your wedding. We are going to do them both.

That’s just my Mom. And if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in twenty-six years of living, it’s that you don’t argue with that woman.

And we did it all, right up until Ian’s last three week stint in the ICU. Dresses were fitted, cakes were tasted, linens and songs and hors’douvres were selected. And still, I have no concept of what it must be like to plan a wedding without the ominous threat of cancer muddying the champagne waters. What is it like to obsess over shades of blue and English garden roses versus lilies, as though there could be no greater dilemma in life? How must it feel to spend the last month of your engagement elatedly, breathlessly counting down the hours until you get to say “I do”, soaking up every

Ian, Emily and Mom helping me cake taste one day!

Ian, Emily and Mom helping me cake taste one day!

last, sweet moment? My last month was spent sitting beside Ian’s hospital bed in room 17 of the ICU. I never wanted to talk about how many days were left until the wedding while I was in his room, just in case he could hear me. I was afraid he’d figure out how long he’d been there and become scared, or worried that he might not get to be at my wedding.

I hesitate to say any of this, because regardless of the circumstances surrounding a wedding, it  should NEVER, never be about the silly, precious details—or even the sweet anticipation leading up to “I do”. There is nothing inherently wrong with caring about the details, but a wedding is always about I choose you for better or for worse, and mine certainly was that. And goodness, it was beautiful. Sweet friends and family made sure of that—and one day I will tell you the story of how my best friends sat down in the critical care waiting room, laptops out, white wine in hand, and took every piece of my wedding away from me so that I could keep spending my days with my brother. I’ll tell you about the seating charts that they carefully arranged in antique window panes [they’re so breathtaking that I’m hanging one in my apartment], the wines that they picked, the navy ribbons they tied on programs, the caterers they met with. Never has there been more extravagant love poured into a wedding—March 2nd was soaked in it.

Danielle, Michelle, Ian, Dad, Dan and Ash at a tasting at my reception venue. I was so glad later, that Ian had been there.

Danielle, Michelle, Ian, Dad, Dan and Ash at a tasting at my reception venue. I was so glad later, that Ian had been there.

So please understand that I loved my wedding, and am indescribably grateful for the bridesmaids and friends that made it happen. It’s just that sometimes, a piece of my heart hurts that it all had to happen the way that it did. I feel like such a diva saying it out loud, but it’s true and I think Jesus understands. I grieve the loss of my brother—and I also grieve the loss of what I had hoped that time would be. The sheer excitement, the unabashed joy, the giddy countdown.

One of the things that I’m learning about grief is that when something like cancer strikes, it takes more than a life. Cancer stole my baby brother. Cancer also stole a thousand dreams that I didn’t even know I had-dreams about a wedding and a dance with a curly-headed kid, an excited last month of singleness, a proud graduation ceremony, a first job, Christmases and birthdays and Uncle Ian. I grieve the death of my brother daily. I also grieve the death of a thousand dreams as they are slowly, painfully un-realized one by one. And I think that’s okay.

Tonight I’m hopping a plane for Maryland, where Kellan and I will spend the next couple of days celebrating one of my dearest friends in the whole world [she was in the waiting room in the ICU that day] and her soon-to-be husband. On Sunday, exactly three months after our own adventure began, we’ll watch Ashley and Dan promise to honor and serve and love each other no matter what. “I do” will be so much more meaningful to me now that I’m on the other side of it. Regardless of what the time leading up to the wedding looks like, that moment when a man and a woman look each other square in the eyes and promise for better or for worse is such a profound mystery. To stare back at a sinful person and vow to love him like Christ loves him is other-worldly. To vow to honor him above yourself, to die not only

Best friends. Without these women, there would have been no wedding.

Best friends. Without these women, there would have been no wedding.

to your sin but to your preferences, to choose grace instead of punishment, to agree to share every triumphant joy and every broken moment on the bathroom floor.  To be exhausted and frustrated, and still choose to do it all over again the next day. Marriage is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful picture of the gospel, and I have only scratched the surface. And as I savor this picture that I have been given,  I am grateful for the picture of the gospel that my wedding day was, too. Something breathtaking emerged out of something unspeakably ugly. Three days after there was death, there was something new. Something good. Something redemptive steeped in extravagant, undeserved love. March 2nd will always, always remind me of the cross in a thousand ways–and really, the cross is what weddings were designed to remind us of all along.

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Temporary Sting.

DSC_0005Saturday morning [the day that Ian graduated] began with a jolt as the phone on my bedside table began to buzz at 7:30 AM. It felt like it didn’t stop all morning-messages and phone calls from sweet friends that were praying for my family poured in all day. Offering to attend the ceremony. Offering to bring wine later.

We walked on to NC State’s campus, and everywhere we turned happy families were taking proud pictures with their grinning, red-gowned graduates. The joy in the air was palpable—and we didn’t belong. As we walked across the brick sidewalk, I remembered Ian. I remembered driving him to work at his coffee shop the summer that we both lived at home and shared a car. He would often ask to pick up breakfast on the way, and would happily munch on his egg mcmuffin as I lectured him on the perils of fast food for twenty minutes. [I’m a big sister. It’s what we do.] I remembered Stephen and I making him Mexican food at Stephen’s campus apartment, right after I moved home from Senegal. I remembered visiting the dorm room he’d hastily cleaned up right before I arrived, and seeing a gargantuan pile of easy mac spilling out from beneath his rumpled bed.

I remembered Ian’s other accomplishments that we’d celebrated as a family. His first, fumbling piano recital. Little hands struggled to find the right keys and an exceedingly proud face beamed from the piano bench. I remembered sitting in the front row as he and his curly hair starred in Oklahoma, and each girl in the audience swooned. I thought about every play, a cappella concert, musical, soccer game, and tae-kwon-do meet. My family had always been on the front row for each kid’s accomplishment, whatever it was—and now, we were slowly walking towards Ian’s last.

I found myself in the front row once again, as administrators sat my family right in front of the graduates. A thousand curious eyes bored into the backs of our heads as Ian’s story was explained. Mom walked to the stage to receive his diploma, and the audience rose to give him a standing ovation. As if they were wide-eyed children with their noses pressed to the window looking at a terrible accident from the safety of their own cars—everybody in the room gratefully thinking how awful. I’m so glad that’s not me. I would have been thinking the same thing had roles been reversed. We then clapped as everyone else’s Ian walked across the stage one by one.

I left as quickly as I could. Ben and Michelle had insisted on coming [and true love is sitting through ANY graduation—but especially this one], and they took me to grab lunch and go to Saturday night church. We sang a song called “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery” and I cried because the idea that God sent his son to die for me can never again be glazed over or trite after you’ve watched your parent’s son die. I cried thinking about heaven, grateful that Ian is there and longing to join him. I cried because death has been defeated, and the sting is only temporary. I cried because that temporary sting throbs with a dull roar and aches in every piece of me.

The gospel matters. When curly hair falls softly onto the kitchen floor, it matters that you have been loved with an everlasting love. When white blood cells flicker and falter and fade, it matters that you have been relentlessly pursued by the God of the Universe. When your hold your little brother’s swollen hand as he dies three days before your wedding, it matters that God is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

It matters that the sting is temporary

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Towards the Sound of Guns.

DSC_0135The other day, I picked up Kellan’s copy of “It Happened on the Way to War”, and began to read. Authored by a marine, he references over and over again the idea that “marines move towards the sound of guns.”

Towards the sound of guns. I’ve mulled it over and played with it in my mind—this idea of running towards what most people sprint away from. It has arrested and engaged my attention largely because I feel like moving towards the sound of guns is precisely what so many people did with my family while Ian lay dying in the hospital.

So often, my parents and I would look at each other gratefully in the wake of someone’s extravagant kindness and exclaim, “I NEVER would have thought of that!” Whether we’re just a special brand of insensitive or simply complete and utter dolts was never determined. What we do know is that the way that we care for people in the heat of battle will never be the same again, thanks to the sweet lessons that we learned from the friends that loved us so well.

This blog comes from a fellow learner. The following are five helpful things that I’ve been taught over the past couple of months—things that might prove to be helpful to you as you step into the messy sea of humanity outside of your front door, and put flesh and bones on who Christ is and what He came to do

1. Move towards the sound of guns. If you remember nothing else, please remember this. I was most grateful for the people in my life that ran “towards the sound of guns”. People that did it understanding that there would be nothing comfortable or safe about walking onto the oncology floor or into the ICU—and that it would only get worse as I burst into tears or ranted or numbly refused to say more than four words to anyone. [It was always a crapshoot.] These were the people that showed up. I think about the first week of Ian’s diagnosis, when his organs began to shut down and he landed himself in the ICU for the first time. [That punk always had a flair for the dramatic.] My apartment was a five minute drive from UNC Hospital, and I’d convinced my bleary-eyed parents to get some sleep with the promise that I would be by his bed the second that the nurses let visitors back onto the floor. There was very little light in that dreary, gray room, and every day sobbing people filled the halls as someone else died. Ian had an angry-looking tube protruding from his pale neck as a dialysis machine filtered his blood, and he could barely move his hand or flutter his eyes. It was the worst place to be.

 For me, initially it was always hardest to walk into the hospital. Whether it was into the oncology wing, or into the ICU, there was a curious emotional rush that came with actually stepping foot into the building. That early morning as I steeled myself to go sit with Ian in the ICU alone, my roommate Ashley grabbed my arm and told me that she was going with me.

She was in grad school with ZERO time to spare, and I vehemently insisted that she shouldn’t come. But seven AM found Ashley lugging a cooler of snacks and my computer into theDSC_0148 ICU, arm in arm with me. Both of us in sunshine yellow gowns, blue gloves and hair nets, she sat there all morning, praying with me, reading to Ian with me, and simply not letting me be alone. I was so grateful.

I think about Amy, who showed up the night we were told that Ian would probably die—three impossibly long weeks before his actual death. I texted her asking her to pray, and seconds later my phone lit up. “I’m on my way”. Ignoring my stubborn insistence that she didn’t need to come, half an hour later she found me crumpled over a chair in the waiting room, sobbing. She threw her arms around me and sobbed too.

I think about Michelle, who as Ian lay dying in the final days of his life, would watch over him with me as my parents occasionally escaped for an hour or two to debrief. We’d each hold one of his hands, and we’d sing to him, pray over him, chat with him and tease him as the steady rush of the ventilator hummed in a dark room.

Each of those women ran towards the sound of guns. Now, there were days during those last three weeks in the ICU that I refused to step outside to see anyone. There were days that I asked people to stay away, and I sincerely meant it. There were days that I knew friends were sitting at a neighboring Starbucks or parked in the critical care waiting room “just in case I needed them”, and I never even said hello. I STILL have a thousand unanswered texts and emails from friends [we’ll get to those in a moment]. People ran towards me with no expectations placed on how I would respond. They were simply there. [And the night I decided after a week and a half of not leaving the ICU that I couldn’t go on without a piece of Tia Maria cake from the Twisted Fork, Ben was ready and waiting to load me into his car.]

 2.      Release your expectations. My Facebook messages and emails are STILL backed up with hundreds of notes. Over the course of Ian’s illness, I began to pick up my phone less and less until I never picked it up at all unless I absolutely had to. During those last three weeks that Ian was in the hospital, I NEVER responded to a text unless it was DSC_0216imperative. Don’t misunderstand me—it was life-giving every time I heard from someone. Sitting beside Ian’s bed, I listened to every voice mail  read every text and email [often out loud to him!], and opened every card. I was so grateful to the people that consistently reminded me that we were not alone. I simply did not have the emotional capacity to respond. And that was okay.

 3. If you want to help, there are almost always practical things you can do. I think about the night Ian was diagnosed. Danielle ran home to grab the bedding and pillows off of her bed, so that my Dad wouldn’t be cold and [extra] uncomfortable as he slept beside Ian’s hospital bed. I think about Jess and Ben, who made an enormous dinner [healthy, and in disposable containers! Make it your mantra.] and delivered it with hugs and a card. I think about Haley giving me a hundred dollar bill to pay for parking in a card that reminded me that I was not alone. I think about Gretchen and her chicken pie and caramel latte, Heather and two pieces of cheesecake, Amy and two dozen cupcakes, and a thousand other meals. The people that not only said “let me know how I can help”, but “I’m bringing food, what time should I come?”.

If someone’s world is falling apart, they often haven’t the foggiest idea as to what they need. “What can I do for you?” will garner exhausted, blank stares. “Call me if there’s anything you need” will leave your phone silent. Move towards the sound of guns. While Ian was sick, people:

  1. Showed up at my parent’s house with groceries.
  2. Landscaped their yard without ever asking.
  3. Coordinated dropping off/picking up my little sister from ballet.
  4. Cleaned their house.
  5. Texted INFORMING [not asking] that they were bringing dinner to the ICU. [Man can only survive on hospital chili for so long!]
  6. Texted, emailed, wrote cards and called with no expectation of a response. And said as much. Hallelujah.

 4. Offer an escape. I think about Danielle sitting with me in the waiting room and insisting that we watch an entire episode of New Girl and just LAUGH. [And let me tell you, that show is HI-LARious!] I think about Jess, Haley, Gretchen, Ashley, Hartley, Michelle and Danielle showing up at the door of the ICU with a bottle of white wine, glasses, and binders of notes as they planned my wedding and I drank. I think about the friend that snuck wine coolers in to my Mom. [I’m telling you, if you don’t need a drink in the ICU, …well, you’re probably a Baptist.] The point here is, sometimes your friend will need to cry. Sometimes she’ll need to laugh hysterically about the fact that ANOTHER person just died in the room next door. [True story. The vicious cocktail of grief and no sleep makes it difficult to muster appropriate emotional reactions.] Sometimes she’ll need to be really angry, sometimes she’ll need a distraction, sometimes she’ll need you to just stay away because she has zero emotional energy left, even for you. Loving someone in the midst of the darkest time of her life is an art, not a science—but love always implies some sort of action.

5. Pray. I remember walking into the waiting room and seeing Hartley and Michelle on their knees, begging God to heal my little brother. I remember friends that wouldn’t leave without praying with me. I remember texts, emails and voice mails voicing prayers that reminded me that even when my exhausted heart ran out of words, thousands of people were storming the gates of heaven on my behalf. On Ian’s behalf.  [It was the only way I fell asleep, many nights.] Get loud. Let them know you’re with them. Pray like it’s YOUR little brother dying in the bed in room 17. Remind them of hope-of mercies that are new every single morning. Scream with them that it SUCKS, and insist with them that Jesus is good no matter what.

There are caveats to this, and I’ll talk about those another time. The examples that I’ve given are a simply drop in the ocean of kindness that was lavished upon my family during [and after!] Ian’s five-month bout with cancer. We are indescribably grateful for the multitude of you that loved us so well in the midst of the battle.

What have you found to be helpful as you’ve cared for people?

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The Bathroom Floor. [A Broken Hallelujah.]

JCP_3471 bwI am thankful for a husband who loves me even when I’m breaking. Who knows when I’m crying on the bathroom floor, and instead of going on a run or telling me to get up, comes to sit down beside me and pulls me, shaking, into his lap. How did you know I was crying? He smiles softly. I’m your husband. I always know. And I’m not going anywhere.

God tells husbands to love their wives the way that he loves the church. Honestly, I think he knew that sometimes, we would have a hard time seeing him another way. Kellan is to incarnate God’s love towards me. And right now, Kellan is how I see him. Quietly. Softly. I’m your God. I always know. And I’m not going anywhere.

Sometimes, you can’t get off the bathroom floor. And what you need is not a God who tells you you’re fine and pulls you to your feet—what you need is a God who holds your hemorrhaging heart. A God who understands what it is to watch someone in your family struggle to breathe and die.You will scream if you hear “light and momentary” when your heart knows that in sixty years tears will still burn at the back of your eyes when Ian isn’t there on Christmas morning. That the soundtrack that has played in the background of your life will now forever be marred by curious dissonance of a key misplaced. No matter how happy I am, something will always be missing. Broken.

Tragedy is an interesting thing. Without warning, you join the massive ranks of bloodied, red-eyed, broken people. People suffocating under the weight of an impossible ache that feels like it will never, never go away as they struggle to get out of bed and answer phone and drive to the grocery store in a world that they no longer understand.

It makes me think about Mary.

Her brother died too, after all. I imagine the raw panic that welled up inside her as Lazarus lay white-faced, laboring to breathe, and she stood by helplessly. Maybe it was the first time she’d called his name, and he’d simply stared blankly through her. Maybe it was the wheezing as though he was drowning and everything in her felt like she was drowning with him. Maybe he could no longer move to motion for a glass of water or squeeze a hand. Her big, strong brother looked so frail laying there in that bed—nothing like the kid she’d grown up with. Mary did the one thing that she could do to help, and sent word to Jesus to come quickly—because she just KNEW that He could save her brother.

She waited for him to come-and every agonizing minute felt like a thousand. I imagine her sitting by Lazarus’ bed, holding his hand, fighting back the tears that threatened to consume her as she thought about how they’d playedJCP_1584 bw house together when they were little. Sure, he’d pretended to hate it-but secretly, he’d loved every second of hanging out with his sister. [Even when she made him be the dog.] She thought about the first time he’d fessed up to having a crush on the neighbor’s daughter. She’d pretended to be surprised when actually, she had known for months because that’s how sisters are. She thought about the walks they used to go on, conversations around the dinner table, and the incessant teasing that she’d always made a grand, indignant show over.

Mary waited for the only one who could heal her brother. She watched panic fill his deadened eyes as his dry mouth searched for air it could not find. The wheezing grew louder, and slipping in and out of consciousness he would sometimes moan, and sometimes a tear would roll down his cheek. As she wiped each one away, she would have done anything in the whole world to save her brother.

Mary held his hand the whole time. And with tears streaming down her face, she crumpled over her brother’s body as he shuddered one last painful time, and then silenced.

When Jesus arrived days later, she hadn’t slept. Her eyes were red and swollen, her head was pounding, and she walked towards him unsure whether legs could carry a heart that heavy. Her lower lip trembled as she quietly whispered, “If you’d been here, my brother would not have died.”

My question has been different. You see, Jesus was there as Ian died.

JCP_3555 bwLord, you were there. You saw every labored breath, every weak move of his hand, every teary, fearful glance towards the monitor beside his bed. You heard. You never left. And my brother died.

I find no answer as I ask God why he said no. Instead, I find a God that cries with me. That hates it even more than I do, and that longs for the world to be restored to what he created. I find a God that is redeeming all of the ugly, sad things in the world, and in the meantime sits with us on the bathroom floor.

If we claim to follow God, we must join Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and decide that He is good and worthy—PERIOD. That He is better than life itself. And while I would rather He’d taken mine than Ian’s, I with them cry that my love will not waver “even if He doesn’t save”. For the believer, this must be our defiant “nevertheless” in the face of broken, hellish ugly. This is not what you intended, it’s not what you created, and you’re redeeming the world from sin and death. You’re coming back, and you’re going to make all of the sad things become untrue. And until then, you ache with us.

I can offer nothing but a broken hallelujah.

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