Living in the Shadow

Standard

This summer has been such a mixed bag. There have been many great things about it. I love the more relaxed pace of the afternoons and long evenings. Last night after dinner the three of us headed down to the park so Jaime and Lucas could play soccer and I sat on a park bench watching them run and laugh and enjoy their health and freedom. It was heavenly.

img_2606

Run like the wind, boys!

I’ve loved the lazy mornings and the long bike rides and eating breakfast at 11am. I’ve loved the swimming and biking and playdates. Sometimes I think I never want summer to end.

This, however, is the most I’ve ever struggled with my CF in the summertime if I’m remembering right. It’s as if my lungs have forgotten that this is supposed to be my healthiest, most carefree time of the year. Instead I spent most of the month of June on a some combination of IV antibiotics, oral antibiotics and steroids. I had the month of July “off” but struggled through a particularly challenging adjustment period. Once I was through the adjustment phase I was dismayed to find that my lung function had dropped back down five points and after consulting my doctor, we began a round of oral antibiotics at the start of this month. They didn’t seem to be cutting it so last week I started a burst of steroids as well. I can’t find my footing and my lung function is stubbornly refusing to climb back up, even while on the medications. It’s been incredibly disheartening.

My emotions have taken a pretty hard hit, and that has perhaps been the hardest part of this summer. Just three short months ago I was flying high. I was so relieved and excited to have gotten through the winter relatively unscathed for the first time in several years. My heart was brimming with hope and thankfulness. I thought I had finally regained the strength and stability I’d been laboring towards for the past two years and I fully expected to continue to gain health and strength through the summer months. Suddenly I could imagine things for myself that I barely dared to hope for during some of the hardest moments of the past two years. I thought that after jumping hurdle after hurdle I’d finally reached my goal. Yet here I am, no better off than I was two years ago. Back to the beginning again. I imagined blue skies and puffy white clouds, and instead the skies have been dark and the storm clouds menacing.

And it hurts. Dreams are threatening to slip away forever. The hope, the joy, the anticipation I felt last spring seems like some sort of cruel joke now. I feel betrayed. Was I a fool for expecting those clear skies?

I know that in these hard times, the only thing that keeps me from sliding into an abyss of despair and bitterness is my hope and trust in God. But the truth is, it can be very hard to trust God in times like this. As humans it’s our natural tendency to assign blame when things go wrong. It makes us feel like we have some control over our destiny. So in these circumstances, when there’s nowhere to point the finger, sometimes I find myself wanting to blame God. Is God responsible for my current state of health? No, I don’t believe that. But part of me wants to be angry that after filling my heart with hope and joy this spring, He didn’t stop the events of this summer from happening. Why.  Why?

I recently re-read the book Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey. If you haven’t read it, you really should. It’s an open, honest book that explores the questions many of us are hesitant to voice aloud–questions of God’s fairness and accessibility and why He doesn’t consistently swoop in to prevent our hurts–why evil and disease and death seem to have free rein in this world. In one chapter, Yancey discusses Job, specifically The Wager at the beginning of the book, where Satan asserts that we humans are not really free. He argues that we only love God because of what He does for us; that we only love him because of His blessings. As the story goes, Satan is proved wrong by the life of Job, who amidst a staggering amount of suffering, still clings, even if by a thread, to his hope and trust in God.

Satan denied that human beings are truly free.  We have freedom to descend, of course–Adam and all his descendants proved that. But freedom to ascend, to believe God for no other reason than, well…for no reason at all? Can a person believe even when God appears to him as an enemy?…When tragedy strikes, we will live in shadow, unaware of what is transpiring in the unseen world. The drama that Job lived through will then replicate itself in our individual lives…Will we trust God? Job teaches us that at the moment when faith is hardest and least likely, then faith is most needed. His struggle presents a glimpse of what the Bible elsewhere spells out in detail: the remarkable truth that our choices matter, not just to us and our own destiny but, amazingly, to God himself and the universe he rules.” Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God, p. 192-193

I don’t know why God is allowing these struggles in my life right now. Part of my healing is simply acknowledging that and admitting how frustrated and angry and hurt I feel. The next step is making the choice to have faith and to trust God. These feelings of faith and trust can be impossible to muster up on my own. That’s where I turn to the example of the man in Mark 9 who sought healing for his son. He acknowledged his doubt and asked Jesus to help him to believe. Similarly, the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith in Luke 17. I imagine that Jesus was pleased with those requests. God is not surprised nor do I think He is disappointed with my angry feelings.  He’s my father, after all, and He understands hurt and pain. I think it makes Him angry too. I may be living in the shadow now, unaware of what is transpiring in the unseen world, and unaware of how this will all work out. But I am never in the shadow alone and my response matters. And so even though my heart is broken and wants stay locked up tight, I ask God to give me faith–faith to believe that He is trustworthy and that He will provide whatever it is I need. Faith that He will complete the work He has started in me and that His plan for me is good. I ask Him to open up my heart so that He can fill it with peace, and then hope and joy again.

VenturaFamily-1

Photo by Joyce Gan Photography

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper and not to harm you. Plans to give you a hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

Keeping Hope Alive

Standard

As Jaime recently mentioned, our summer has been great overall! He’s a summer enthusiast, I’m a summer enthusiast, and Lucas has followed in our footsteps to adopt summer as his favorite season as well. We’ve enjoyed days at the pool, time in our garden, park trips, games, lots of soccer, visits with family, art projects and bike rides. If you ask Lucas, though, he’ll tell you that his favorite part of summer is sleeping in as long as he wants. I didn’t realize those attitudes started at the young age of five but I’d have to agree, sleeping in is the best!

IMG_2377

A pool date and ice cream with cousins! Well, ice cream for the cousins and a banana for Lucas.

IMG_2229

Playing soccer in the sprinkler.

IMG_2440

Perler bead art project meets Lucas’s love of deer signs!

IMG_2444

Scrambled States game with more cousins!

Jaime also reported that I had been back to the doctor after finishing my round of IVs and was relieved to see that my lung function had come back up to 38%. When I first began the IVs I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I was on them two years ago I went from feeling a little sick to feeling horrible within the first week. This time, however, I felt much stronger and more stable throughout. Relief flooded in when I felt my breathing ease and I knew I was headed back up towards that 38%. Then I started to hope for more. I thought maybe I could surge up into the 40s again which would give me a little more cushion in case my lung function settled. During antibiotic treatments, my lungs are healthier than usual due to reduced congestion levels and less inflammation. It’s not uncommon for my lung function to drop a few points after I’m off the medications, once my chronic levels of bacteria return with their accompanying symptoms.

I made slow and steady progress in the first two weeks of my IVs, but into the third I felt myself plateau. It’s okay, I assured myself, at least you’re back to baseline.  I remember telling my sister that I almost wished I hadn’t hoped for the 40s because it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. It’s tiring being a hopeful person sometimes. Allowing yourself to hope means opening to the door to disappointment. Hopes that aren’t realized lead either to despair or require me to readjust my expectations.

I decided to readjusting my expectations was the way to go. Having done so, I was relieved, even excited to blow the 38%. The rest of the appointment went well too–my blood oxygen saturation, blood pressure, temperature and pulse were all normal. My lungs sounded clear and my heart sounded healthy.  The only thing that gave me pause was my doctor’s confession that he would feel more comfortable once I strung together six months of stability and we saw that the 38% was sticking.

I wanted to feel joy about the 38% and satisfaction for how hard I worked to see that number again, and I did, at least for a time. But after a few days, I began to feel the weight of his comment. I know where he’s coming from. What happened to me–a sudden and not-easily-explained eight point drop in lung function is not a good thing. He has treated hundreds of CF patients over the course of his career.  He certainly knows that lung function can slip down after a course of treatment. He knows from experience that as baseline lung function drops, patients are more likely to have frequent infections and health becomes more difficult to maintain. He’s a compassionate and caring man but he never sugar coats the truth.

And so a few days after the appointment I felt myself sliding into a place of grief. I felt sad that somehow I have gotten to this place of 38%.  I grieved the fact that I was even temporarily pleased with it. Wasn’t it just yesterday I was struggling because I had dipped into the high 40s? And not so long before that I was stuck in the upper 50s, straining with every fiber of my being to get back into the 60s? The honest truth is, I am sick and tired of readjusting my expectations.

With these unhappy thoughts coursing through my mind, I entered the adjustment phase–the span of time that my CF symptoms spike up as my body gets used to life without the help of antibiotics.  This means hours of coughing each morning and again in the evening, back pain, headaches, and poor nights of sleep. It’s about as enjoyable as it sounds. I began to feel certain that I would work and strive and do everything in my power to maintain that 38% and that it wouldn’t be enough, and my lung function would slip down to a new, lower normal. Sometimes it’s hard to hold onto hope when you’re so frequently disappointed, and feeling awful doesn’t help either.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent years in a Soviet work camp (and therefore knew a lot about despair) said, “All that the downtrodden can do is go on hoping. After every disappointment they must find fresh reason for hope.” Why is hope so important? We know from medical studies that hope itself has a healing power. Hope causes the placebo effect–where patients show improvements just because they believe they are taking a medication that will help them. Hope is such a strong influence that many drug studies are done double-blind so that the patients aren’t influenced by the unconsciously communicated hope of the researcher. There are studies that show that patients who have an attitude of hope experience much better outcomes than patients who feel defeated or depressed, and true hopelessness can even result in death.

Hope is an essential part of a healthy soul. When I’m hopeful I believe that there are good things ahead and that my life is worth fighting for.  It keeps me from giving up. I do get tired of readjusting my expectations. I weather plenty of disappointments in my life with cystic fibrosis. It’s hard that with a progressive disease, what I’m hoping for feels like “less” over time. Just two years ago I was hoping for 50% lung function. Now I’m hoping for 40%. Or even 38%. The numbers are less, but what is behind them is really the same. I want the health and strength to live a full and meaningful life.

The “small” hopes–hopes to recover from illness, hopes for a higher lung function, hopes for a better day tomorrow–they are important. If I didn’t wish for those things, if I didn’t think they were possible, I wouldn’t fight nearly so hard for them.  Sometimes they lead to disappointment. But better to hope and be disappointed than to live in darkness and despair.

I have other hopes too, ones that don’t require any adjusted expectations. I have the hope that God will transform and redeem my pain and bring wonderful good out of it–for me and for others. I believe that the ugliness and pain of this disease is only temporary but that the good God brings from it will be eternal. I don’t know all the ways God has redeemed my suffering but I have witnessed some things. I have seen my faith become stronger and deeper. I have been drawn and into a closer relationship with God and with others because of my dependency. I have struggled but I have also experienced victories. I have been knocked down but I have also overcome. The joys would not be so sweet without the hurts nor the victories so gratifying without the struggles. I know the eternal glories that await me when this life is through will far outweigh any loss I have sustained. I know God is using this disease for my good. I have built my life on that hope.

And my desire for a full and meaningful life? That can happen at 100% lung function, it can happen at 50%, and it can happen at 30%. It may look different at each step of the way and it may involve adjustments and disappointments. I may need to find fresh reasons for hope on a regular basis. But until the day that God calls me home to heaven, I know He will help me to truly live.

We wait in hope for the Lord;
    he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
    for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
    even as we put our hope in you. 

Psalm 33:20-22

IMG_2363

Waging War

Standard

It’s time for a health update and this is not the one I thought I would be giving! I had a really great winter, getting only two viruses that I was able to recover from without excessive difficulty. I was so excited as the calendar flipped from March to April, and as we sailed through May I thought for sure I was in the clear. I was dreaming of reaching new heights and regaining some lung function this summer after not battling with a myriad of bugs all winter.

A few weeks ago, however, I started to notice increased shortness of breath. I was keeping up with all my normal activities, but suddenly exercise, yard work, chasing Lucas around, and other things of that nature became more difficult. My seasonal allergies are bad at this time of year so I assumed those allergies were irritating my asthma and I wasn’t too concerned. I headed to a routine pulmonary appointment the last week of May and was surprised when my breathing test revealed that my lung function had dropped from 38% to 34%.

I had no other signs of illness or infection, so my doctor put me on five days of steroids hoping that would reduce the apparent inflammation and get me back on track. I experienced a little reprieve while on the steroids but still wasn’t feeling right, so I contacted him again last week. He put me back on the steroids and added oral antibiotics to address any infection that might be locked up and hiding in my lungs. On Friday I went in for a check and was dismayed to see that my lung function, rather than rebounding, had dropped an additional four points to 30%.

Cystic fibrosis can be puzzling. Most of the time when my lung function drops, it’s because I’m sick and I know it. Usually it starts with a virus and moves to a CF-related secondary infection. My lungs fill with mucus, my airways swell, I struggle to breathe, and I can’t wait to get relief. But this time, I feel pretty decent. I do have the shortness of breath that I mentioned earlier and my lungs have been achy, but overall I have been feeling fine and handling all my regular activities. There was nothing obvious to account for this big drop and that makes it even more unnerving.

My doctor explained that although I wasn’t exhibiting any classic signs of infection, infection is still the number one cause of a drop in lung function. The fact that I wasn’t responding to steroids probably means that although my asthma is always a component of my struggles, it wasn’t the main player in this situation. My doctor ordered a chest x-ray to rule out anything else unexpected, but that came back clear. So we have circled back to the notion of an infection.  This one is hidden, yet waging war on my lungs all the same.

To quote Farmer Boggis, “Dang and blast!” Dang and blast and a lot of other emotions too. A kind of numbness settled in at first. I just couldn’t understand it. Next, frustration. Moments like this shatter any fleeting feeling of security I may dare to believe I have. Getting through the winter unscathed was such a victory–a victory I was reveling in and so grateful for. Yet here I am with my lung function lower than it has ever been before. After a bit the frustration moved aside and the grief set in–waves of sadness swelling up and washing over me as the fears gripped my heart. My lungs are functioning at only 30%. It’s so scary.

Times like this always bring emotional struggle. It’s never just a physical battle. It’s necessary to experience the disappointment, the frustration, and the sadness and face the fears. The emotions never fit into a neat little box. There is no scheduling myself 36 hours to get over it. Friday night was rough but Saturday I felt better. Sunday I woke up in the wee hours of the morning feeling heart-broken. But in the midst of the sadness and frustration I knew it was time to get to work. The tables need to be turned. It is time to wage war against this infection.

This battle has two fronts: the physical and the emotional. Waging war means doing everything in my power. Jaime and I started doing manual percussion on my chest in addition to my normal airway clearance. Monday afternoon I headed to the hospital to get a PICC line placed and I started an IV antibiotic on Tuesday morning. My buddy the treadmill and I have been spending time together each day as currently, brisk walking has been the only thing that makes me cough mucus out.

IMG_2066
Attempting to show this infection who’s boss!

To balance off the treadmill work, I’ve been resting more in the afternoons. These afternoon rests are made possible by the arrival of my sister Julie from Tennessee! She got here Wednesday and will be staying through Monday to help me with chores, play with Lucas, give me moral support, and make a bad situation a heck of a lot better. She’s helping me with the physical aspect of this war but also helping all of us get through it emotionally.

IMG_2155

Aunt Julie is an awesome playmate and Lucas is thanking her with hundreds of hugs and kisses.

Fighting on the emotional front means a few things for me. First of all, I am committed to continue on with as much of my life and daily routines as possible. The PICC line is so great that way. There are some restrictions, but nothing too limiting. I’ve been spending time in my garden. Nature feeds my soul. I’ve been picking Lucas up from school and running an errand with him here and there.

IMG_2073

Lucas, holding the door for his class at pick up!

IMG_2075

A quick stop for some groceries and an orange balloon.

We’ve been keeping up with his school work.

IMG_2063

A special secret school project to thank his teacher.

I’ve continued my normal work schedule.

IMG_2061

Tutoring with my PICC.

I may have to cut back on some of these activities depending on how the next weeks play out, but as long as I have the strength, I want to continue on.

Most importantly, I’m trying to keep my eyes off my circumstances and on my Creator. He is the one who calms my fears and speaks peace and comfort to my heart. While I was on the treadmill the other day, a song came on that I haven’t heard for quite some time. The words were fitting. They go like this:

I will lift my eyes to the Maker
of the mountains I can’t climb
I will lift my eyes to the Calmer
of the oceans raging wild
I will lift my eyes to the Healer
of the hurt I hold inside
I will lift my eyes, lift my eyes to You

From “I Will Lift My Eyes” by Bebo Norman

These troubling circumstances are a lot to handle. These mountains are too high for me and these oceans too rough. The hurt and fear are at times more than I can bear. But none of it is too much for God, and I know my life is safe in His hands. He holds me and watches over my life. And best of all, He has already won the war.

A Different Kind of Strength

Standard

 

Strength is something I think a lot about. Perhaps it’s because at this point in my life and at this stage of my disease, I’m often aware of the strength that I lack. I feel the weakness of my body every day in one way or another. I utter the words “God, give me strength” with more regularity than any other prayer. Sometimes it’s the mundane, like a heavy basket of laundry I have to carry upstairs or a sink of dirty dishes that needs my attention after a long and tiring day. I always pray it before I get on the treadmill and at the inevitable moments when I’m longing to get off the treadmill. I pray it over things more serious, like when I sense God is leading me to do something that I don’t think I’m strong enough to do, or when the future seems uncertain, or when I’m worried about how my disease is affecting Jaime and Lucas. I want to continue to live and to thrive even as I fight this disease. God, give me strength.

So what exactly is this strength that I’m asking for? What am I hoping that God will do for me? That’s what I’ve been pondering lately. What kind of strength does God promise to give?

There are many verses about strength in the Bible. Here are a handful of my favorites:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength. ~Philippians 4:13

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. ~Isaiah 40:29-31

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” ~2 Corinthians 12:9-10

The notion of being strong in the midst of weakness is different from most traditional understandings of strength. I did a Google search of the word “strong” to see what images are associated with the word. There were pictures of muscular men and women, of heavy weights being lifted with ease. There were memes that included words like “brave, fearless, bold.” There were pictures of lions and sharks, clenched fists, super heros…even a picture of ultra strong toilet paper (you know, the kind that never rips or tears or leaves a residue). Strong.

In this season of Lent, I’ve been reflecting on the last hours of Jesus’s life.  I believe we have a lot to learn about strength, a different kind of strength, from Jesus. It has always brought me much comfort that while praying in the garden with His disciples prior to His death, Jesus asked God to take away the suffering that was to come. He asked for a way out. Jesus predicted His own death many times in the gospels. It seemed He knew it was God’s plan for our redemption. Yet in spite of that, when His suffering was at hand, He still pleaded with God to take it away. Although He was a sinless, perfect human, He didn’t want to suffer either. Resisting the pain and wishing for reprieve wasn’t a sign of weakness. I imagine He looks on me with understanding when I ask him to take away my pain, because He felt the same way.

When God didn’t give Him a way out, however, He accepted it, and there was great strength there. Jesus accepted pain that He didn’t deserve and trusted God to redeem it and bring immeasurable good from it. In the hours leading up to His death, Jesus endured all sorts of physical and emotional pain as He was beaten and falsely accused. His closest friends abandoned Him. He had poured out His life to love and serve and heal people, and in turn they abused Him and said all sorts of horrible untruths about Him. They demanded that He be tortured and killed. Yet Jesus looked on them with love and asked His Father to forgive them. He was not bitter in the midst of His suffering.

And while Jesus was on the cross, what incredible mental strength He exhibited. Jesus lost all physical strength while on the cross. He was first beaten and flogged and then nailed on a cross to suffocate to death. All the life drained from His body over the course of the hours of His suffering. We know that as the Son of God He could have summoned the power of legions of angels to remove Him from the cross and annihilate His enemies. But He didn’t. This kind of resolve is unimaginable. Many times have I been in pain or periods of struggle and have thought that I would do anything, anything to make it go away. Jesus had the power to stop his suffering with one word, yet He resolved to endure for our sakes.

He accepted the pain, He endured the suffering without bitterness or hate, He willingly surrendered His power, and He forgave those who had done the unspeakable to Him. And He died. But after three days, Jesus arose from the dead! And here we see the most notable aspect of Jesus’s strength, the strength to overcome. Jesus has overcome! Overcome sin, overcome evil, overcome darkness, overcome death.

I know that because of what Jesus has accomplished on the cross, one day I will go free. Free from this body of disease. Free from the chains that bind me. But while I wait for that day, I pray for strength; the kind of strength that Jesus demonstrated. I ask for strength in the midst of my weakness. Not necessarily the physical power to escape my struggles, but the power to accept them and endure them. I ask for the strength to choose joy and love over bitterness. I ask for the ability to trust that God will redeem any suffering He allows to come my way.  I ask for the strength to live a life worthy of my calling no matter my circumstances.  I ask for the power to overcome. This, I believe, He has promised me.

God, give me strength!

ventura-73

The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song. The Lord is the strength of his people. Psalm 28: 7-8a

 

 

Space for Grief

Standard

Living with Cystic Fibrosis is hard. I am reminded daily that my body does not work properly and that to continue to live, I must fight. Some days I become weary. Some days I feel sad. I’ve been learning lately to give myself space for grief. Grief is unpredictable. It can be triggered by an event or a period of intensified struggle, and sometimes it surges up unexpectedly.

I’ve had a few times recently were grief has darkened my day. These dark days have traditionally made me feel guilty. I regularly see quotes such as these:

Someone out there is praying for all the things you take for granted.

Remember, no matter how many problems you have, there is always someone who has more.

These sentiments surely have a place in our world. In our consumerist culture it is easy to be in a perpetual state of discontentment and lose sight of all our blessings. We complain about minor inconveniences. We take things for granted. Many of us, including me, have not suffered the extreme hardships of hunger, violence, abuse, or the loss of worldly possessions that are rampant in parts of our world. It is important to remember that and to retain a proper perspective.

Sometimes when a wave of grief hits me, it brings with it a big dose of guilt. The voice in my head berates me. You have no right to be upset. So many are suffering so much more. Many CFers struggle far more than you do. Remember all those healthy years you had. You have a loving husband, a beautiful son, a supportive family, true friends, a wonderful home. Look at all you can still do.  And the list goes on.

It’s true. I am abundantly blessed and I know it. However, the pain in my life is real too, and sometimes I need space to grieve that. Sometimes I need to pour out my heart to God, lamenting the pain, explaining my hurts, expressing the sadness and disappointment. Grieving doesn’t have to be angry and bitter. It doesn’t have to indicate that I’m not trusting God, or that I feel sorry for myself, or that I’m not accepting my situation. Grieving doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not thankful. It is possible to be grateful for all the good in my life, all the blessings, all the wonderful things that have come out of my challenges, even to be thankful for the challenges themselves while allowing myself to mourn the pain, the loss, and the ongoing adversity. Some specific struggles have endured for years with ups and downs, times of hope and times of despair, bends in the road, minor bumps and major setbacks. At times I feel tired and bruised. There is chronic hardship in my life that will never leave me. Barring a miracle, there is no end in sight on this side of eternity. It’s hard. It’s sad. And so I grieve.

Tears can be cleansing–a discharge of the pain bottled up within me. It’s as if their release waters the soil of my soul, making way for acceptance, joy, and peace to bloom once again. When I take my hurts to God, I find the grace I can’t always extend to myself. There is no guilt there, no pointing finger, no accusations, only the reassurance of God’s love and His presence.  There is the reminder that while I will continue to struggle, I will never struggle alone. There is healing in that place of grief.

I felt compelled to write this post today. It’s definitely for me. This is something God is working out in my heart. Grief is a gift I’m learning accept without guilt and without comparison. But perhaps it’s for you too. Maybe you need to give yourself some space to grieve.  Maybe it’s time to stop pretending that your pain doesn’t exist, isn’t that bad, or doesn’t matter. Maybe you need to allow those tears to fall so that true acceptance, joy, and peace might thrive in your life again. Maybe you need to hear God whisper to you how much He loves you, how much He cares, and how through it all, He will never leave you or forsake you.

ventura-family-42

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Psalm 30:5

 

A Look of Love

Standard

This time of year always stirs up my emotions. As the summer draws to an end and Labor Day weekend approaches, my mind wanders back to that summer of 2004, the summer when Sheri was dying. I saw her several times then, as much as her energy would allow. In the earlier months I would bring food for her and we would play games or work on crafts to pass the time. As the summer drew to the end, the visits were short and she wasn’t able to do much more than lay on the couch.

Time softens the pain of losing a loved one in some ways. I have gotten used to not seeing her regularly. I don’t expect to see her name pop up on my email or see her neat, cursive writing on a card in my mailbox. But each year at this time, when I reflect on her life and her death, the wound reopens and feels as raw and fresh as it did that first day when I knew I wouldn’t see her again on this side of eternity. There are always torrents of tears as that longing surges up–the longing to see her, hold her, touch her, talk to her and share life with her once again.

Last night I was looking through a box of memories–photos of Sheri, emails and letters she wrote, her book of poetry. I found a few pages I had written the month after she died. I wrote:

I remember when Sheri had a bad lung infection, a blocked bowel, and the tobramycin in her system got to toxic levels. She lost part of her hearing. She lost kidney function and had to go on dialysis for a while. She was in Ann Arbor, away from home for weeks. I remember I drove her and Mom to the hospital. She had a towel and a bucket with her in case she threw up. That was the weakest I’d ever seen her. She turned and gave me a look of total love and compassion before she stepped out of the car. It was the same look she gave me the second to last time I saw her alive. I hope I never forget that look. So much was wrapped up in it. She felt so much compassion for me, watching her go through her pain and how much it hurt me to see her like that, and compassion for the fear I felt in wondering if I’d ever go through similar things, and the love she had for me and how much she wanted to protect me from all the pain she’d been through. All that was in her gaze.

I remember that moment clear as day. I can still see her with her towel and bucket and more importantly, I can see that look of love. In the midst of one of the most trying and painful times in her life, she was reaching out to me with her eyes–extending comfort, love, and understanding.  She was not so overcome by her own struggle to miss the grief of her little sister who was sad and more than a little bit scared.

That look of love brought me comfort then and it brings me comfort now. I remember Sheri’s strength, her courage, her poise, her compassion, and especially the feeling of her love. She fought for life and brought so much joy, laughter and grace into our lives. She refused to be defeated by pain. Her life may have been short by today’s standards, but she used her life for good and for God’s glory. And now in heaven, she’s experiencing only joy and peace–no need for tobra or towels or buckets or tears. Her example gives me courage and strength.

I see Sheri’s gaze only in my memory now, but I know God looks on me with those same eyes of love. His love is an everlasting, steadfast love. His mercies never come to an end. The sadness is there. The fear is there. But God is also there. And someday, we’ll be together again. When God’s purposes for my life are complete, I’ll join Sheri in heaven. It’s fun to imagine what we might do. Run a marathon just because we can? Have French fries without the side order of pancreatic enzymes? Have a fit of laughter that doesn’t end with coughing? Those things are just silly fantasies and chances are, none of that will matter. But I’m pretty certain, when I see Sheri, I’ll get to see that look of love again.

Sheri Leigh VanBruggen, September 26, 1968 – September 4, 2004

img017

Our Sheri, in 1985. 

 

 

Another 20-Year Anniversary

Standard

The year 1996 was a big year for me. It was the year Jaime and I started dating. It was the year I graduated from high school. After graduation, I turned 18. In the fall I headed off to college. There were lots of milestones!

There was another big event for me in August of that year. The first weekend, I went to meet the girl who was to be my roommate for my Freshman and Sophomore years of college.  I remember having a stomach ache on Sunday that weekend. Thursday of that week that I wrote in my journal about abdominal pain and fevers. Friday morning I had an allergy appointment and my mom took me even though I was ill, feeling that perhaps the allergist could shed some light on my condition given her medical background and expertise. Once we got there she began examining me and when she touched my abdomen, pain surged through me. I shot up off the table, surprising all three of us. She knew right then it was probably my appendix and rushed me across the hall to where my physician had his offices. Within a few hours I was in surgery.

These days, appendectomies are often done laproscopically, but 20 years ago, we weren’t even presented with that option. We were hopeful, however, that the procedure would be routine and I would be out of the hospital after a few days. That was not meant to be. Once I was in surgery, they found that my appendix was hugely swollen and had perforated. Infection had spilled out into my abdomen and infection and scar tissue were clinging to my large and small intestine. They had to remove portions of both intestines as well as the appendix.

At the time, it was also determined I had a mild case of bronchitis. Out of concern for my lungs, the doctors decided it was best not to put me fully under for the surgery. The exact details are fuzzy in my mind, so I turned to my journal to fill in the details. There I reported that they gave me a spinal injection but I was partially aware during the surgery. Apparently I was lashing out and hitting at the doctors and nurses. They gave me a shot after the surgery to help me to forget. I did forget the surgery itself but had nightmares for months after the procedure as my subconscious tried to wrestle with the horror I had been through. (Side note: if you hit medical personnel during surgery, however justifiably, they will label you “combative” and that term will follow you around for the rest of your life!)

The first memory I have post-surgery is being wheeled from the elevator into my room. I thought I was screaming and writhing in pain, but was told later that I was in fact deathly still and softly moaning. I wanted to die. I had never, ever felt such a degree of pain and misery and it seemed unbearable. My second memory is of my parents and two of my sisters arriving at my room with a big bunch of balloons. I remember the shocked looks on their faces when they saw me. I remember my mom rushing to my side, and the others leaving immediately. The next two weeks were the most difficult of my life up to that point. I was discharged from the hospital after several days only to be readmitted due to uncontrolled pain and swelling. The infection took a long time to get under control. I became undernourished and unable to eat. Weight melted from my frame. The surgeon, skilled but callous, implied that I was anorexic because I wouldn’t (couldn’t!) eat. He also blamed me for the seriousness of my condition, deciding I must have withheld information from my parents about how I was feeling. He didn’t take into consideration that CFers have stomach pain routinely which makes it seem normal and also builds a pain tolerance that is perhaps higher than average. The staff seemed annoyed and threatening when I pulled my NG tube out in my sleep on the second night. Nothing was going right. It was an awful experience.

There were good things that happened too–Jaime came to visit me and brought me a cheerful stuffed Tigger. My sisters and dad came to visit regularly. My aunt and grandfather came. People sent flowers and little gifts to cheer me up. And my long-suffering mother stayed by my side most of the time, fielded phone calls from me in the middle of the night when I was despairing, and read to me to help pass the time. One day she read these verses from 2 Corinthians 1:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. (v. 3-5)

Those verses meant a lot to me during those weeks and the time of recovery that followed. It was the first time in my life that I was in real trouble. I was dealing with an infection serious enough to cost me my life. I was being cared for by a surgeon who was unkind and unfair. I was due to leave for college and didn’t know if I’d be strong enough to go. The future felt uncertain. And yet I felt God’s comfort deeply, perhaps for the first time. I found joy in knowing that this comfort I had received could be used to help someone else. It was the first time I personally grappled with the notion of redemption–that God could take a painful and ugly experience in my life and bring good from it. And He did bring forth many good things. I felt forever marked by God’s love and care for me during those days. I learned that life is indeed uncertain and disaster can strike at any time, but that God is a sure and steady anchor and can see us through any storm. I had a new understanding of what real pain was which made me appreciate all the more Christ’s sacrifice for me on the cross. My faith was deepened. I understood a little more about how much my sister Sheri had suffered with her CF and I felt compassion and respect for her.

I also had new eyes through which to see the pain and suffering around me, and once I got to college just weeks later, I found that hurt was rampant in people’s lives. I had friends who were scarred by abusive pasts, friends who were struggling with depression, and those simply looking for acceptance and love from a cold, hard world. I found I could relate to them a little better, and I felt deep sadness for the wounds that were ongoing, unable to be fully healed by the passage of time.

Although I thought my wounds were fully healed, years later, we discovered that this surgery was a big player in the infertility I was experiencing. In an exploratory procedure, our reproductive specialist discovered that my abdomen was full of scar tissue from the appendectomy and was it creating a mess of things. And unbeknownst to us, one of my fallopian tubes had been removed and tied off, a detail the surgeon failed to mention back in 1996. While the infertility was painful and difficult, it was another formative time in my life where I learned to trust God and accept His plan for me. In a spectacular show of redemption, Lucas was born on August 9, 2011–the 15th anniversary of that dreadful surgery. His birth on that day reminded me that our hurts do not go unnoticed by God. He sees, He knows, and if we allow Him to, He works all things together for our good, no exceptions. What a miracle.

That experience 20 years ago marked my transition from childhood into adulthood. It was a time of major growth for me. It was also the first of several times where I was in real danger and God preserved and protected my life. After that I knew without a doubt that He had a plan and a purpose for me. I knew that my life wouldn’t be perfect–couldn’t be perfect in a world so marked by pain and suffering. But I also knew that He would be my faithful guide and companion, and that He would provide whatever I needed. And He has. Great is His faithfulness.

57 revised