A Love Story

I snatched the book out of my mail box Saturday morning before heading out for a day of camping. And I’d finished it before I headed back home today. It’s the easiest hard-to-read book I’ve read in some time. And I was so moved by the story that I think everybody really ought to read it.

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The title suggests the pages will speak of peace and grace. It certainly has that, but it’s also full of love and redemption.

Kara’s story starts as a youngster in a home with an angry father whom she struggled to please. After rebelling from the pressure and unattainable expectations, she was introduced to Jesus. His love drew her in and her life took a drastic turn away from the destiny she had been carving for herself. Shortly afterward she met a young man, Jason, who became the love of her life and the story unfolds as the two of them, and eventually their four “littles”, learn to love in a way she had never experienced previous to that. The same vulnerability that was required for her to walk that journey with him is what makes the story so compelling for the reader. She openly shares so much of her raw struggles of humanity that her story becomes all of our stories.

The depth and love of the story is beyond beautiful. The ending – tragic. The particular “hard” for Kara mentioned in the book title was breast cancer. She found a  deeply grace-filled, loving God along that journey.  Her “hard” eventually took her from this here, this now. She passed away about a year ago.

The book presents an amazing quality of relationships that few of us experience. Her marriage to Jason really seems to have been blessed and rare. They were endlessly focused on loving with kindness. But as Kara points out in her book, the best we have here is simply a shadow.  We are living in Shadowland. The real love story that can fill our hearts without compromise or end is available to all of us. It is the love of our Savior, Jesus.

So while I would wish for you a marriage and relationships filled with grace and peace, above all I would wish for you a relationship with Jesus. It is through the author of Love that we can learn to know Love. And when we allow Him to be the hero of our story, grace and peace are promised – even in the midst of hard.

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Stay and Play

Republished in honor of my Aunt Esther who passed away four years ago.  Originally published March 4, 2011.

Ding! Ding! Jeff needed something.  He was ringing his bell.  He didn’t have the strength to project his voice enough to call out.  He preferred his bed over the couch.  Many times I was working someplace else in the house when he needed a drink, or wanted to try a cup of soup, or was ready for more meds.  Sometimes he just had something he wanted to say or was awake and wanted company.  He’d ring the bell.  Ding! Ding!  It was a Christmas bell with an angel on the top.  We had a few of them.  I didn’t set them out this Christmas.  I don’t like the sound anymore.

We’d gotten the idea from my cousins.  They had used a bell with my aunt.  Two months after Jeff was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, my favorite aunt was given the same diagnosis.  One of her daughters called me.  “We don’t think Mom is being up-front with us.  We don’t know what all this means.  We thought maybe you could understand the test results and find out what is going on.”  “I’ll call her.”

I didn’t talk or visit with her frequently, but she was my favorite.  She shone of Christ.  She loved Him.  She was a joy to be around.  I called.  She was happy to hear my voice and I to hear hers.  She got out the MRI report and read it to me.  My heart sank.  She had “innumerable” spots on her lungs and liver.  She was South for the winter.  She played accordion with a group and they were counting on her to play with them in a couple of weeks.  She was hopeful that she would feel well enough to do it.  Did I think she should leave right away or stay and play?  Stay and play, dear aunt.  Stay and play.  Her accordion performances had meant so much to her over the years.  She needed to do this one more time.  She wanted to know what her options would be for treatment when she got back home.  I said little.  She assured me, “I’ve lived a full and blessed life.  I’m ready to rest if that’s what is coming.  I’ve lived my years.”  Stay and play, dear aunt.  Stay and play.  “I’ll talk with you more after you get home,” I promised.

After the concert she and my uncle headed north to their home and medical care.  It was a long and painful trip for her.  I never had a chance to talk with her again. She died a very short time after – her abdomen fully consumed with the disease.  I was getting ready to leave on a plane to go see her when I got the call.  I went to her memorial service a few weeks later.  They had accordion music at the service.  And it was as beautiful as she had been.  Someday in heaven I’ll hear her play again.  And there we will stay and play as long as we wish.

Blessed Widow

“Rest well, my Beloved.  I’ll see you again in God’s land.”

Quoted above is the last line of my final post written on Caring Bridge on June 22, 2010.  It was going to be my last public expression of grief.  HA! HA! HA!  I am SO funny!  I CRACK myself up!  Now I’m thinking I’ll write a book about it and go on tour giving seminars.

Here’s the blessed part.  Here are excerpts from the first part of my final post.

“His body was wearing out.  It couldn’t take him much farther down life’s path.  Strange to be 41 years old and have to process the thoughts generally saved for someone with much more experience in life.  But he rose to the challenge- aided by the strength of God living in him. 

Cancer gave him peace like he’d never had before… When he came to fully realize he didn’t have control of his life, he couldn’t work his way out of his situation- all he could do was have faith in God to care for him, for me, for the kids- he found that faith and trust were enough.  They were all he ever needed.

He did well.  He gave life and us all that he could.  He walked his walk.  His journey is over.  He ended it with his hand in his Savior’s.  That’s all that really matters.”

Jeff will without a doubt be in heaven.  That assurance is a wonderful blessing.

Here’s another blessed part.  I have society’s approval to grieve.  While Jeff had cancer, I had support.  I could ask friends to pray for us.  And they did and told me so.  Church folk brought meals on occasion.  Sometimes people I didn’t even know sent money or gift cards.  Other parents offered to pick our kids up from school.  People were supportive in any way they knew how.  And they continue to be.  It’s OK to be the widow of a cancer patient. 

What about being a widow from suicide?  What about being a widow of an alcoholic?  What about grieving the infidelity of a spouse?  What about being the infidel?  What about that grief?  What about the grief of having a spouse with an addiction problem?  Or a daughter who had an abortion?  Or being the one who had an abortion?  Or being abused at home?  Do we go to church and say, “Hey, could you pray for me?  I’m being beat at home?”  Or how about the virtual widowhood of a workaholic?  Or depression that steals your spouse away?  Or a “ho-hum” marriage that leaves a person feeling very lonely although not alone?  Or the grief of a separation that you dare not share while you try to work it out?  What about that?  Those are things we just don’t talk about.

I am blessed.  And….so are you.  If you have taboo grief and find some expression of your grief in my words, praise God.  If you find comfort for your grief, even more praise.  If you are uplifted, I will be on my knees thanking God.  He is the healer and giver of all good things.  Every good and perfect gift comes from our Father above.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”  2 Corinthians 1: 3, 4

“Dear God, You have blessed so mightily in my life through others.  May I now pass it on.”

Purse Strings

I had a patient today that was so excited about her new purse.  She’d found it on an internet site.  She had to get a larger size because her husband has cancer now.  And a light bulb went off in my head.  “Oh yeah, the purse!”  I thought.  Was nothing in my life spared from the touch of cancer?  Apparently not.

You can march through stages of my life by looking at my purse.  I have always tended to carry only the essentials.  Are all those things really necessary?  What is essential?  That depends on the circumstances.

In college I’d carry some gum, hand lotion, a lipstick, maybe a brush.  That didn’t take too much room.

Then came babies.  Forget the purse- just get a huge diaper bag and put my essentials in with the baby’s essentials.  But, surprisingly enough, baby #2 had fewer essentials than baby #1.  Funny how that works.  One finds that a baby really can survive for 3 hours without all their favorite things. 

Then the kids went to school and Jeff and I both went to the same office- our office.  If we wanted something there, we’d just have it there.  No need to tote it back and forth every day.  I was lucky to get out the door with my driver’s license and a credit card tucked in my pocket.  Some days I forgot those items and had NOTHING with me.  A purse?  Whatever for?

Then came cancer.  Suddenly I became the intra-operative locker.  “Here, take my phone and my sunglasses.  Oh, and here’s my watch.  Um, my wallet is in my pants’ pocket. Grab that too, if you would.  Hang on to my chapstick so I’ll have it right away after surgery, OK?  Thanks.”  I got a big purse.  Sometimes I just carried around a duffle bag.  I had my own new essentials to add to the locker, also.  I needed Bible verses for encouragement.  I needed my phone to keep family updated.  I needed my ever-present notebook to keep track of information.

My purse no longer functions as the intra-operative locker.  But it’s still on the larger size.  I still need Bible verses.  The notebook- I got a different one and write different things in it now.  I write story ideas.  I write things that people say at church that are meaningful to me.  I write prayer requests down that I hear people mention.  My phone- its importance fluctuates.  Sometimes I’ll leave it sit all day while other days I might have it clutched in my hand.  I usually also have a book with me now.  When I have a few minutes with nothing else to do, I’ll grab that and read a bit.

Will I ever get back to just my credit card and driver’s license?  Probably not.  I kind of like my purse.

The Man

Finally… I was well enough to go visit Jeff.  We had been through some very traumatic things, but our journey was just beginning.  Now Jeff was recovering from major surgery – resection of 1/3 of his colon with a grapefruit-sized tumor.  I had been at the hospital the day of his surgery….waiting.  As the day dragged on I began to feel worse and worse.  I imagined it to be stress.  It turned out to be the flu.  Shortly after Jeff returned to his hospital room after surgery, the nurse took me out to the car in a wheel chair with a “bucket” on my lap.  I was down and out for several days.  Now, finally, I was well enough to go see him instead of just talk on the phone.

 He was quiet.  Unusually so.  But, he’d just had major surgery, was in significant pain, and was processing a lot of information.  Completely understandable. 

 “Let’s go for a walk,” he said after a while.  “They’d like me to get up and move.  Hopefully it will help me get out of here quicker.”

 So, with IV pole in one hand and my arm in the other, he ventured out the door.  I was surprised how far he could go.  He seemed to be healing well. 

 “Let’s go down that hallway where there aren’t so many people.”

And as we went, he began telling me a story.  One he himself hardly knew what to believe.  But this is what he said:

“The other night when Bart was here, he was reading in the Bible.  I’d had some pain medicine….but I still heard what he was reading….I think I was alert.  I’m sure I wasn’t asleep.”  He’d had several days to think this over and still didn’t know quite how to say it.  He was searching for words – for an explanation.  His walk with God up to that point was on a very doctrinal, logical and factual level.  God was Almighty – not personal.  He didn’t have experience believing himself what he was about to say.    He looked around again to make certain we were alone.

“While Bart was reading, the room got very bright.  I saw a Man walk in my room and come by my bed.  The entire room was filled with this indescribable peace when He came in.  He was in white.  He didn’t say a word and I never saw His face, but yet He told me, “I will never leave you.””

And I believe.  How about you?

A Night of Pain

What was that sound?  Did I really fall asleep?  I can’t do that!  He needs me.  Wake UP!

It was the middle of the night.  Jeff was groaning on the couch in the bedroom where we were staying at his parent’s house.  He had had his colonoscopy that morning.  It had been anything but routine.  They had taken a biopsy but said there was no need to wait for the pathology report – it was without question cancer.  The mass appeared large and was located at the cecum – where the large and small intestine meet.  The mass left such a small opening in his colon that they didn’t know how anything had been making its way through.  It had been an extremely painful procedure for Jeff.  My stomach churned knowing how easy it would have been for someone to give him a little more medicine so he wouldn’t have felt a thing.  Instead, he could recount to me the graphic details of the procedure.  And now his pain was worsening.  Calls to Omaha had been unproductive.  “Yeah, it will probably be a little sore.  No need to call unless he gets a high fever.”

I got myself out of bed and went to him.  “Hey, let’s go to the E.R.  You need some help.”

“No.  Sit down by me for a minute.”  He was starting to shake.  He took my hand.  “I think I’m going to die.”  “Yes… you might.”  “No, I mean now.  Soon.  Before I have surgery.  I think I’m going to die.”

Ours hadn’t been a fairy-tale marriage.  It had been real.  It had been life.  We had to work through things – they didn’t all come easy.  And now, in the span of about three weeks we had sold our office building, had an accepted offer on a new one, been diagnosed with terminal cancer, closed the practice, left our home 12 hours away and were living out of suitcases.  We were looking at colon surgery, liver surgery, chemotherapy, and many unknowns.  If you were adding up the stress score of our lives, it was high.  We had started our marriage without God being the center, making things all the more difficult.  But we had stuck it out.   Jeff was proud, I was stubborn, and God was infinitely more full of grace.  We had not only survived, but we had made countless incredible memories of happy times and had two beautiful children.  We were back on the road with our loving God who had never left us.  We had been walking with Him a few years now.  We were growing in Him.  And He is good.  We had learned to work through things before.  Cancer gave us the opportunity to learn to do it better.

Jeff wanted to talk about some of the things that hadn’t gone so smoothly.  He wished they had been different.  He was sobbing now and I was holding him tight, mingling my tears with his.  We stayed there until his storm passed.  Then I got up and put his shoes on.  “Let’s go now.  You need help.”  We left the house and I sped down the deserted roads as fast as I dared in the dead of night, my husband trembling in pain beside me.

Staring Eyeballs

We went into the dark viewing room where the radiologists worked.  Just the two of us.  He flashed through the images until it got to the liver.  I recognized the shape.  And I saw two bright eyeballs staring back at me, one on either end of the liver.  “The density of the tissue in those spots is not the same as the rest of the liver.”  No, certainly not.  Then he took the scan lower into the abdomen.  “I’m not sure what this is exactly.  But it doesn’t look right.  I think there is something there.  I think Jeff has a mass in his colon and two lesions in his liver.  A more sophisticated machine that can take images of thinner slices could give a better picture.”  We sat and stared at it a minute in silence.  “Those are going to need to come out.”  More silence.  “We need to go tell Jeff.  Do you want to tell him or do you want me to tell him?”  I still wasn’t sure what it was we were telling.  “You tell him,” I requested.  “Ok.  Let’s go.”

We walked down the corridor toward the patient rooms.  My head was spinning.  Sitting in the hallway was a lady I’d befriended over the course of the 24 hours we’d been there.  She was there waiting for her loved one to end a long struggle with cancer.  She looked at me.  “What is it?”  she asked.  I just shook my head and stood quietly.  I didn’t know.  She rushed over and took my hand looking deep into my eyes.  “Is it cancer?”  I still didn’t know.  “He said he has a “mass” in his colon and two “lesions” in his liver.  I don’t know.”  “Oh, Honey!”  She held me tight.

I went into the room.  Jeff was taking the news very stoically.  “So what’s the next step?” he asked.  “You’ll need surgery.”  “OK.” 

Dr. Weaver left and we started to discuss our options.  We’d always gone to Denver for major health care needs.  Eight hours from home.  There was a nice condominium close to the hospital for people to stay in when family members were inpatients.  I could stay there. But with the kids, how would that work?  They couldn’t be expected to hang out in a hospital room all day.  And how long would all this take?  We weren’t sure. 

We talked it over with Dr. Weaver.  “Treatment will be a while.  This is not going to be fast.  You will probably have chemotherapy after surgery.”  The nearest chemo treatment center from our house was two hours.  “Doc, I think we need to go to Lincoln.  We can get treatment at the University Med Center in Omaha and the kids can stay with their grandparents.”  He liked that plan. 

I wandered through the hospital sometimes with no real purpose in mind.  Nurses stopped talking and looked at me when I went by, as if pitying the widow at a funeral.  The doctor who had delivered our son met me in the hallway.  “I heard the news.  I’m so sorry!”  He shook my hand.  “I don’t know what to say.”  I didn’t either.  I called my mom.  “Jeff has two lesions in his liver and it looks like a mass in his colon.”  She gasped and was quiet.  “I’m so sorry, Honey!  I’m so sorry!”  I was starting to get the picture through the reflection I saw in those around me.  Jeff had cancer,  and it was bad.

I asked the nurses if they could get me on the internet.  Usually patients and families weren’t allowed on the computers, but, yes, they’d do it.  I looked it up.  Stage IV colon cancer.  It didn’t get any worse.  I went back to talk to Jeff.  “It looks like you have colon cancer.”  “Did they catch it early?”  “No, unfortunately not.”

There was nothing more they could do for Jeff there that day.  But it was snowing hard outside.  “Why don’t you all stay at the hotel another night?  Go by the hospital in the morning and get your blood drawn then come over to the office while we wait for the results.  If everything is stable, we’ll send you on your way.” 

Morning came.  The snow was piling up.  The Wind River Canyon road was closed.  We couldn’t go home if we wanted to.  We headed over to the office.  Dr. Weaver had been making some phone calls.  He knew someone who knew someone who was in Omaha.  He was one of the best gastroenterology surgeons.  He’d get us set up for surgery with him.  But he wouldn’t let us leave until we also had an appointment scheduled with an oncologist.  We called Jeff’s sister, a nurse in Lincoln.  She knew someone.  Dr. Weaver talked with him.  A Loma Linda graduate.  Dr. Weaver approved.  The road opened in the afternoon and we were on our way back to Riverton with strict orders to get Jeff to Lincoln as soon as possible.  With the rate his hemoglobin had been dropping, there was no guarantee how long those two units of blood would last.

We were on edge.  Jeff didn’t feel well Saturday night.  He was light-headed.  We took the kids to the neighbor’s house and headed to the Riverton hospital to get checked out.  The ER doc tried to calm our nerves.  “Listen.  You’ve been shook up.  I know this all seems sudden for you.  But this has actually been going on a long time.  His labs are bad, but they are much better than they were Monday or Wednesday.  Go home.  Try to relax.  You have a long road ahead of you.”

Jeff tried to concentrate Sunday and worked furiously at getting as much done as he could at the office.  His work ethic was incredible.  “How can we leave these patients?  There are people who are counting on you.  We can’t just close.”  “Yes, we can.  We put a sign on the door.  CLOSED.  This is not an option.  You are going to die, and soon, if we don’t leave.  We shut the door, lock it, and walk away.  That’s how we close.”

Sunday night we rendezvoused with his family on I-80 three hours south of our house.  His dad was driving his semi truck from Lincoln to the West coast and had brought a couple people along to help us out.  Jeff’s brother-in-law drove with Jeff, the kids and a few suitcases back to Lincoln.  I went back to Riverton with his mother to try and wrap up some more of business.  She’d stay with me and would be there to keep me company while driving to Lincoln in a few days. 

By Monday noon, Christmas Eve, the phone rang.  It was Jeff.  “I need you here.”  “Ok.  I haven’t gotten a whole lot done since you left last night.”  “I know.  But I need you here.”  “Ok.  We’ll leave in the morning.”  “See you then.  Love you.”  “Love you, too.”

Follow Me

“The scope was normal.  No bleeding ulcer.  In fact, no ulcer at all.  Maybe a touch of gastritis.  I took a biopsy since I was there.  But it looked fine.  We’ll get him a couple units of blood tonight and run some tests in the morning.”

“What is chewing up his red blood cells like that?”

“I don’t know.  We’ll know more tomorrow.  You and the kids can stay in the hotel down the road tonight.”

“Jeff, how much do you weigh?”  Lots of questions while the nurses were checking him in to the hospital. 

“165”

“Let’s have you weigh on this scale.”  “Hmmm… 150.”

I had to remind him of his new weight several times in the next couple weeks.  “But how can that be?  I’ve been buying pants with a larger waist?”  Another mystery.

They hung the blood.  Life.  Slowly dripping into his veins.  Without it, he surely would not have had long.

The next day Jeff came back to his room after the CT scan.  “Doc stuck his head in the door after the scan was done and said everything was normal.  I’m kind of disappointed actually.  There has to be something wrong.  If that test didn’t find it, how will they find it?  What could it be?  Why didn’t it show something?  What will they do next?”  Bless his soul, he always thought I’d be able to find an answer for him.  I had none.

“I don’t know.  Dr. Weaver is in surgery.  I’ll call the pathologist in Riverton and have her look at your blood tests and see what she thinks.”

She was a new pathologist in town and didn’t know me, so wouldn’t be as likely to do me a personal favor.  I have a strong dislike for pulling “Doctor Strings”.  People should treat everyone the same.  If you won’t do it for me because I am me, then don’t do it for me because of my title.  But my dislike for pulling “Doctor Strings” was less than my desire to know what was going on with Jeff.  I called and identified myself.  “I need to speak with the pathologist.”  I explained the negative scan combined with the terrible blood test results and asked for her thoughts.  “But… that can’t be.”  I argued.  “He doesn’t have a chronic disease.”  That was as far as she would speculate with me.

“Which radiologist read the scan?”  Jeff gave me a name.  “Hmm… too bad.  I don’t like how he reads his tests.  I’ll talk with Dr. Weaver.”  He was a good friend, but we still called him Doctor. 

I went to the surgery waiting area.  “Hi.  I’ve tried calling Dr. Weaver, but he’s not answering.  I’m sure he’s in surgery.  Could you just give him a message?  Please ask him to call me when he has a few minutes.  I’ll be in Jeff’s room.”

My phone rang not long after.  “Yes, Dr. Weaver would like you to come to the O.R.”   It was the surgery room receptionist.

They took me to a pre-op holding area.  Sterile.  Curtain dividers.  Not much privacy really.  Not much warmth.  It’s so different being the one sitting and waiting instead of being the one popping your head in to say hello.  It seemed like a long wait.  Dr. Weaver didn’t sit down when he arrived.  His usual smile was absent.  He just said, “Come with me,”  and started walking down the hall.  I followed behind.

“Did you read the scan?” I asked. 

“I did.  I have something to show you.  Follow me.”

Are You Ready for This?

December 2007 I had a dream.  My dream was to move to Bozeman, MT.  Well, when one party in a marriage has a dream that isn’t shared by the other party in the marriage, there is opportunity for growth.  We grew.  Our compromise- we’d work very hard at growing the business that we had started in Riverton and plan to relocate to Bozeman when Estelle reached 9th grade- 6 years down the road.  It wasn’t the time-frame I’d had in mind, but long-range dreams are good too.   We’d make it work. 

Part of the plan for growth in the business included purchasing a new office building on Main Street that could house a full-fledged shoe store and would have office space to rent out to visiting physicians.  First part of December we listed our office building for sale on a Friday.  On Monday we had and accepted an offer from a buyer.  Cash.  No inspections.  No wait.  Cash.  Done.  WOW!  That was exciting!  We already had the building on Main picked out.  Now we sat down with the builder to see how we could make that space work best for us.  After many late nights designing and redesigning, we decided, yes, this was the building for us.  December 17 we wrote our check for earnest money and made our offer.  It was accepted.  As long as our banker agreed, it was a done deal.

December 2007 Jeff was having some issues.  He’d been having issues for a while.  His stomach hurt, very severe at times – thought it was an “ulcer”.  He was buying pants with a larger waist size- thought he was “getting fat”.  He didn’t have as much energy- thought he was “getting out of shape”.   He’d gone hunting alone and had hardly been able to get his elk out to the truck.   He got winded very easily.  He came home from work and sat on the couch more often than he felt like working on projects.  That wasn’t Jeff.

December 17 Jeff got out of bed in the morning, got his towel from the closet where he hung it, and walked out the bedroom door to take his shower.  Next thing I heard was a thud.  I flew out of bed to find him laying half in the hall and half in Estelle’s room.  I then asked a most profound and thought-filled question.  “What are you doing?!”  He kindly overlooked my stupidity and said he must have just gotten up too fast.  OK, off to the shower.

I went back to bed and started musing over all those issues.   Hmm…. not making sense.  Too many issues.  So I made a request.  “You know, it’s been a few years since we’ve had our blood drawn.  You can get the health fair blood screening any time of the year now.  Twenty bucks or so and we can just make sure everything is A OK.  How about it?  Skip breakfast this morning, I’ll bring you something to eat when I come in, and let’s see what’s up.”   It wasn’t his idea of a good morning.  By that time he was sure the dog had tripped him up since she liked to lay in front of our door.  He had just fallen over the dog.  No need for blood tests.  But, he agreed to do it if that would make me happy.  I thought it would.  So he did.

The next day I was having clinic in Worland at Dr. Weaver’s office.  He happened to come by his office to do paper work that day.  I updated him on Jeff’s latest.   We hadn’t gotten his labs back yet.  “Well, why don’t you just call and get those faxed over here and I’ll take a look at them.”  So I called and requested the results – pulling a few doctor strings – rather than wait for them to come in the mail like most people.  The lab faxed them to my office instead of Dr. Weaver’s office so Jeff actually got them.  He called me to let me know they were on the way.  I watched as they came out of the fax machine, still talking with Jeff on the phone.  “I’m fine, aren’t I?  Told you there is nothing to worry about.”  “I have NO idea what is wrong, but you are SO NOT fine!!  Something is going on.  Your labs are WAY out of whack!  I’ve never seen any labs that look this bad.  Let me talk with Dr. Weaver and see what he wants to do.”  We decided to have Jeff come to the hospital Friday to have an endoscopy.  He must have a bleeding ulcer.  His hemoglobin was about half the usual along with a whole bunch of other abnormalities.  Easy fix.

Wednesday morning I decided we should check his labs again.  “I’ll go with you.  I haven’t had my blood drawn in a while either.  We’ll skip breakfast together.   And if everything is still about what it was Monday, we’ll wait till Friday.  If not, we call Dr. Weaver.”   Ughh!  I’m sure he wondered why he was married to a doctor at that point.  He reluctantly agreed.  But, really, he was fine.  “That’s great, Honey.  Glad you are fine.  But we’re getting our labs drawn.”  This time I requested they fax his labs right away.

His hemoglobin had dropped half a point since Monday.  I called Dr. Weaver.  “Get up here this afternoon.”  We started calling patients to cancel appointments.  One of the patients in the waiting room overhead.  “Are you sick?” they asked Jeff.  “Well, I don’t think so but everybody else seems to think so.  Just have to prove them wrong I guess or they won’t leave me alone.” 

I went to pick the kids up from school since Worland was 1 1/2 hours away.  I had no idea when we’d be back.  It was a day before Christmas break was to start.  “Mom, what are we doing?  Why are you here?  What’s going on?”  A million questions with few answers.  “Dad’s going to have a test done at the doctor.”

We got in the car.  I drove.  We were winding through the Wind River Canyon.  He took my hand.  “Are you ready for this?” he asked.  “I don’t know.  What is it?  If I knew what it was, I might know if I was ready.”  He thoughtfully paused and said “You never know what a day will bring.”

Face of Death

He walked out the door and never looked back.  Resolute.  He had wanted the kids to make the trip with him.  They had chosen not to.  I knew his disappointment would be short-lived.  The mental picture they would have had would have lasted their life time- which was certain to be longer than the time he had remaining.  I voted with the kids.  I had packed a bag for him: several changes of clothes, tooth brush, hair brush, shampoo, razor- everything you’d take for a trip.  I carried it out. He walked to the car under his own strength- which was minimal- all bundled up against the cold.  He had no body fat to warm him.  It was less than a mile from our house to the hospice house.  A very short trip.  But yet so long.

“Would you like me to take you to Wyoming?”  I asked as we were headed down the hill.  I was driving.  Jeff hadn’t had the strength or concentration to drive for many months.

“I would like to go to Wyoming again.  But I think I would die getting there.”

Silent pause.  Quiet words, “The result will be the same regardless of which way we go.  I’m willing to take you wherever you would like to go.”  Pause- sitting at the light- turn right to the hospice house or left to Wyoming.

“I want to die here.”

“OK”- turn right.

We got him settled in his room.  First room on the SW corner of the building.  He changed into hospital pants and a T-shirt- the only thing he used from the many changes I’d brought for him.   Peggy, his hospice nurse, was there.  Sheila was there.

Sheila.  What a gift from God she was to me!  She’d been closer to Jeff than to me during our academy days.  We were friends back then- but we were on different wave lengths.  We’d lost touch over the years but had reconnected October 2007 at our class reunion.  That reconnection came just two months before Jeff’s diagnosis of cancer.  Without that reconnection I would never have thought to call on her.  And she turned out to be my steady hand of support and reminder of the love of God through the path that we had to take.  She was always ready to share a Word of Truth.

Back at the hospice house- The Monarch.  Kids came to visit Friday evening.  They didn’t stay too long.  There weren’t any tubes, monitors or IV’s connected this time like there were most times when Jeff was away from home.  Just lying in bed.  Talking.  But what do you talk about?

Company came Saturday.  Jeff’s cousins.  They talked about fun things they did growing up.  Remembering.  I couldn’t stay in the room all the time.  They were laughing.  Laughter is good.  But what about the elephant in the room?  What about the fact that everyone knew this would be the last visit they had together?  Would no one talk about that?  The heavy weight of it all made it hard for me to breathe.  I had to get some air.

Sunday came.  Jeff was very tired.  He had spent more awake time the day before than he had on any given day for months.  “I can sleep when I’m dead.”  he said.  He struggled to stay awake.  The kids were there most of the day.  There were many different rooms we could use at the hospice house.  They didn’t have to stay in Jeff’s room all the time.  They could get out and breathe when they needed to, play with toys, watch TV or sit by the fire.  They went to get flowers in the afternoon and brought them to Jeff’s room to brighten it up.

Monday came.  We really didn’t know how this was all going to go.  We had closed his bile drain tube Friday before he showered in preparation for his trip.  It had taken him all morning and part of the afternoon to have the energy to complete his shower and shave.  The drain had been his life-line.   His bile duct had scarred closed after his last major surgery in August 2009.  An external drain had been inserted.  We’d been changing dressings and emptying it at least twice daily ever since.  We’d tried to close it in the past, hoping it would drain the right way.  But it never worked.  His bilirubin would climb and a new drain would have to be inserted and the process started all over again.  The bile had changed from thick, dark and oily to thin, brownish and with flecks of tan tissue.  The interventional radiologist had told us in January those flecks we saw were pieces of his liver- destroyed by the cancer and coming out a little at a time.  Jeff had been able to eat nothing but cream soups for a couple of weeks.  He got a cup or so down on a good day.  He looked and felt like he was starving to death.  His legs hurt.  He was filling with fluid.  Now it was moving to his abdomen.  He could have taken diuretics.  But that would have meant he would have been going to the bathroom a lot.  He had no energy for that.  So a catheter would have been required.  Why?  Why do that?

We had talked it over the Wednesday night before.  He was so miserable.  I reminded him we could close the drain if we wanted to.  “What would happen then?”- he wanted to know.  “Your bilirubin would rise, you would become toxic and go into a coma.”  “How long would that take?”  “Probably a few days.”  “Would that be playing God?”  “Were we playing God when we inserted it?”  Tough questions.  Tough decisions.  No right answers.  Cancer was consuming his body. A bile drain was not going to save him- but might prolong the process.  The bile drain had also removed the bile which is necessary to process nutrition from food.  A blessing and a curse.  He had chosen to close the drain.  It was no longer needed.  And God is SO good!  We had tried and failed to close his tube so many times before.  This time was different.  The bile didn’t back up.  It went the right direction.  God let us know He was in charge.  Not us.  He took that burden from us.  But now what was going to happen?  We didn’t know.

Our daughter stayed at the hospice house Monday.  Our son went to school.  Sheila was by my side- always.  Our son and his cousins came by after school Monday.  After a while it was time for them to go.  They all lined up to give Jeff hugs and kisses.  Our son was last in line.  He didn’t want to kiss Daddy- he was scruffy.  Jeff was always very particular about his clean shave.  Jack didn’t want to kiss that scruffy face.  I insisted- “You kiss your Daddy- on his forehead then.  It’s not scruffy there.”  So he did.  Jeff promised him, “The next time you see me, Buddy, I’ll be shaved up, OK?”  “OK. Bye Dad.  Hope you feel better.”  Jack always added that on.  “Hope you feel better.”  I’d been hearing it nearly every day for more than two years from my little boy.  “Hope you feel better, Daddy….”

I thought Jack had understood.  We’d been very honest with the kids regarding what we knew to be true.  We tried very hard not to weigh them down with what we feared to be true- but stuck to the facts with them.  We didn’t hide truth- knowing that would only make it harder when truth showed up.  But Jack hadn’t understood.  When I told the kids Jeff was going to the hospice house, Jack wanted to know if Jeff would be at his birthday party.  His birthday is in April.  This was March.  I told him I didn’t think so.  “WHAT?  You mean they are never going to let him out of there??”  “That’s not it, Honey.  Daddy is going to die.  He won’t be at your birthday party because he will be dead.  He won’t be here.”

Back to Monday- the kids left.  Jeff decided he should get up, shower and shave.  I protested.  The shower was in a large bathroom.  There was no heater in there.  It would be too exhausting.  How about he use the tub room?  It was in a small room that could be heated to a toasty warmth.  There was a hand held shower attachment he could use to wash his hair.  It was arranged so other people could assist without getting soaked themselves.  He finally agreed to that.  I let the nurses know to get things warming- he was going to clean up.  The hospice nurse, Peggy from Asera Care, stopped in the room on her way out.  “See you tomorrow.”

Not ten minutes had gone by when Jeff started shaking uncontrollably. “Get me some blankets- I’m cold.”  Piled the blankets on.  “I’m too hot.  Take some blankets off.”  Took some off.   Still shaking- now worse.  And he was getting very hot.  I texted Peggy.  “Come back- going bad”.  She called.  “Have the nurses give him his Dilaudid and Ativan.”   Ten more minutes passed.  Worsening.  Now his whole body was tightening up, his jaw was clenched.  He pleaded through his teeth “Can’t they give me something else?”  He’d had a couple seizures before.  They’d lasted no more than a minute.  After the first one he said, “I never want to have another one of those in my life!”  This one was not letting up despite the usual medication and even more medication.  Twenty minutes had passed of pure torture for both of us.  Peggy arrived.  “The only thing we can do is sedate him.”  “Do it!”  We’d talked about this beforehand.  One of the blessings of hospice care.  They make you think through the ugly facts ahead of time.  “Do it!”  They dripped the medicine between his teeth.  It was not instant relief.  Peggy asked me to go in the hall with her.  “Your eyes are showing fear.” she said.  “Get yourself together and show faith or you will have to leave the room.  You are not helping him.”  I was stunned.  I aimlessly wandered to the fireplace room.  And sobbed.  Peggy came in a few minutes later.  “He’s resting now.”  “Can I go see him?”  “Yes.”  “I’ve had my last conversation with him, haven’t I?”  “Yes.”  “OK.”

I went to his room.  He was breathing loudly, exerting all the muscles he had in his upper body.  His eyes were shut.  I took his hand.  Sobbing.  Stroked his scruffy face.  “Just go to sleep, Honey.  It’s OK.  You are going to see Jesus’ face.  You are going to eat from the Tree of Life.  And it’s going to taste GOOD!  Let it go.  Rest now.”  I heard a raspy whisper.  “What are they saying?”  I was shocked!  “What?!”  It was Jeff, eyes open, talking to me.  “What are they saying?” he repeated. Translation- “Give me a run-down of my medical status.”  I could not believe it.  He was supposed to be in a medicated coma and he was talking to me.  Deep sigh, pull myself together, focus, present the truth.  “Well, your heart rate is up, your blood pressure is down, you have fluid in your lungs and your fever is high.  They don’t expect you have long.”  “OK.”  And he pursed his dehydrated, cracked lips to give me a kiss.  And he closed his eyes.  And kept struggling to breathe.

We had talked a few days before.  Was there anyone else he needed to talk to?  Anyone he needed to resolve anything with?  Were his conversations finished?  They were.  “What about your mom?  Have you said good-bye to your mom?”  “No.  We can’t talk about it.”

Now Jeff could do nothing about it.  He was powerless.  “Ruth,” I said.  “Go talk to Jeff.  He doesn’t feel like he’s finished his conversations with you.  Please go tell him it is OK for him to die.  He needs to hear it from you.”  She went to his room.  Just she and her dying son.  I can’t pretend to imagine what that was like for her.  She came back out about an hour later.  “Did you tell him?”  “No…  I couldn’t.  I THOUGHT it.”  “He needs to HEAR it.  He can’t hear your thoughts.”

The night wore on.  Such effort to breathe.  Brenda, Wes and I were in the room now.  Some healing of wounds was occurring.  “Wes,” I said.  “Have you told Jeff it’s OK for him to die?”  “No- but I can if it’s important.”  “I think it is.”  “OK”  Wes walked to Jeff’s side and took his hand.  Saying that you can say such a thing and actually doing it are two different matters.  Wes fell apart- sobbing.  “Brother, I just want you to know, it’s OK…”  Jeff- who had appeared to be comatosed for hours now- opened his eyes to meet his brother’s gaze and held out his hand to shake his brother’s hand.  We gasped.  He closed his eyes and continued his labored breathing.

Second shift was over.  Third shift was arriving.  The nurses came in to say good-bye.  “Jeff has been such a good man.  We’ve never had a kinder patient.  What a blessing he has been to us.”  One nurse touched his leg.  And he opened his eyes.  And held out his hand for a handshake.  Then closed his eyes and continued his labored breathing.

We sat in his room.  Sometimes talking.  Sometimes just being.  Listening.  Waiting.  He opened his eyes one more time- to wink at his sister.  His dad talked about how much Jeff loved Wyoming.  And Jeff groaned.  I thought it to be coincidence until it happened again, and again.  He did love Wyoming.  But, through the course of cancer, he had grown to love God even more.  Therein was the blessing of cancer.  It had its curses.  But that had been its blessing.  Jeff loved God with all his heart.  He was willing to give up every earthly dream and go tell others of the love of God if He had chosen to heal him.  But He didn’t heal his body.  He healed his soul.  Jeff’s willingness to obey was perfected.  God had completed His work in Him as He promised to do.

Morning light came.  The hospice aid came.  Was there anything she could do?  I wanted to shave him.  I knew Jeff would want that.  I went to his room with the aid.  Got out the razor and stood by Jeff.  His jaw lifting and dropping with every breath.  Neck muscles tightening and relaxing.  Chest heaving.  He had oxygen on now- in hopes he wouldn’t struggle so hard for every breath.  I wanted to shave him.  But I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t.  I laid by him instead.  But, the position he was in seemed to make him struggle more for his breath.  I got up and we tried to adjust his position.  Didn’t help much.  But I didn’t lay down again.  And I didn’t shave him.  I couldn’t.  The aid left.

Many people were there now.  Pastor Carlson- reminding us of the promises of God.  Lisette- helping plan the service.  Sheila- always Sheila.

Afternoon came.  Really no change in status.  How long would this go on?  Ruth went in the room, again alone with her dying son.  This time she stroked his face and told him it was ok.  And he quit struggling and rested.  We all came to the room.  I stomped my foot and yelled at Death aloud “Oh Death, WHERE is your victory??!!!”  I was angry at Death.  “You think you won?”  I thought.  “You just wait till you meet my GOD!  He’s bigger than YOU!”

Saturday night we had a memorial service of sorts for the kids.  There were a lot of kids.  We had our camping tent set up in one of the rooms at the church.  A fire in the fireplace.  Camp stools.  Marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers.  A table with pictures and outdoor gear.  His sunglasses.  A cap.  Binoculars.  Pastor Carlson was there to give a talk to the kids.  What is death?  What is our hope?  We had a video of pictures set to “I Will Rise” by Chris Tomlin.  He will rise.  This is not the end of his story.  It’s just a pause.  The next part of his story will be much better than the first.

Monday was the funeral.  But, it was a resurrection.  A resurrection for those in attendance.  A chance for them to be born again.

Some days I find it hard to ask “Oh Death, where is your sting?”  Hard because, some days, I feel the sting.  But I believe.  I believe the things we see are temporary.  What God has waiting is eternal.  He will erase the face of death forever and make all things new.  I believe.  And that makes all the difference.