Being nervous

What would it feel like to have a doctor say, “There’s nothing more we can do for you. Go home and get your affairs in order.”

Nate wasn’t told those exact words, but getting things in order is what he’s been doing during this last month since he learned he had terminal cancer. Most of us have categories in our lives that we set aside for later, things like redoing an address list or cleaning out old files. We procrastinate at balancing our checkbooks and washing out our refrigerators. If I were to die tomorrow, I’d be mortified to have other people rummaging through my dresser drawers and seeing the disarray there. My things aren’t in order.

Nate has been trying to square off with each procrastinated category in his life. It has been overwhelming, yet he’s done valiantly. One of the most difficult parts about setting his affairs in order has been discovering he couldn’t accomplish it alone. He’s had to humble himself enough to accept the help he’s been offered by those who love him, no easy task. We’d all rather be the helpers than the helped.

As he has acquiesced to the efforts of others, I’ve seen a fresh calm come into his life. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Maybe the rest Jesus meant was the relief that sets in when we let others help us.

Whatever the case, Nate has worked to set his affairs in order and to touch base with those who are important to him. Time is slipping away, and he is well aware of it. Today we drove two hours back to our old church so he could meet with Pastor Colin Smith. Linnea accompanied us, and although no one verbalized it, we all knew it would be Nate’s last visit there. His fatigue is escalating rapidly, and I’d prayed he would be alert and focused during the meeting, able to settle any lingering spiritual questions.

Linnea and I sat on a bench outside the room as they met, praying for clarity and the Holy Spirit’s power to move within both Nate and Pastor Colin. On the drive home, we tried to get him talking about what had gone on during the meeting, but Nate was exhausted and non-communicative. Later, however, during our bedtime conversation, some of his thoughts bubbled to the surface.

“Life has a precarious nature to it, but we don’t realize it on a daily basis. I’m realizing it now, because of the crisis I’m in.”

We talked a little more, and then I asked, “Are you afraid of anything?”

He thought for a minute, fingers-to-fingers as always, and said, “I’m not afraid, really. But I’m nervous.”

“About what?” I asked.

“Well, not about what’s going to happen after I die but before that.”

“You mean the cancer? You’re wondering what the cancer is going to do to you?”

“Yes.”

We talked about the Hospice ladies and their assurance he won’t have to suffer any great pain. He nodded in approval, but didn’t seem convinced. Then he said something that gave a clue to his meeting with Pastor Colin.

“I guess eventually God takes everything away except faith. That’s the one thing that can’t be taken away.”

We looked up the verses about God shaking everything that can be shaken to show us the things that can’t be shaken. (Hebrews 12:26-28) I sensed a type of little-boy nervousness in Nate, completely understandable under the circumstances, and thought it would be good to quote that wonderful promise in Romans 8:28 for unshakable reassurance. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.”

“That’s you,” I said. “This whole mess is going to work out for good… for you. You’re going to beat me to heaven, and heaven is about as good as it gets. You’re going to be freed of your constant back pain and every bit of this awful cancer while I struggle along probably into my 90’s, becoming a burden to everyone and wondering why I couldn’t get to heaven as fast as you did.”

He smiled and said, “Do you think you could squeeze into this little bed next to me?” (the hospital bed)

It was tantamount to a comedy routine, but it was worth the effort. He was asleep in a few quick moments. Moving my hand across his chest, I could feel the small tumors now erupting randomly on his skin like dime-sized boils. I’m nervous, just like Nate is, and my thought paralleled his: what is this cancer going to do to him before the end?

“I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, nor powers, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” (….and not cancer, either) (Romans 8:38)

The beauty of this season

Nate is not a nature guy and doesn’t normally notice what’s going on outside his window. Today was an exception. Here in Michigan we had a summery day in late October with temps in the mid-seventies and lots of sunshine. The day begged us to “come outside and play,” so the two of us decided to take a short ride. Although I’d planned to drive to our tiny town a mile away, as we were weaving through the subdivision Nate began commenting on the beauty of the colored leaves.

“Wow, look at that yellow one. And the red over there. Are the colors darker than usual this year?”

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Instead of driving to town, we drove to a beach-look-out with a wooden deck. Since no one was there, I drove right up to the planks so Nate had only four small steps from his car door to the railing. There was a bench on the deck drenched in sunlight, and a warm breeze was blowing off Lake Michigan.

“Could you tolerate that bench for a while?” I asked, hoping he could. And he nodded.

We sat quietly, taking in the beauty of the lake, the sand, waving dune grasses and endless fall color. Some people don’t like autumn, because colored leaves represent a process of dying, and they know bare trees will soon follow.

Our family’s reality is similar in that Nate is in the process of dying. Strangely, though, this season, much like autumn, has a spectacular beauty to it, and none of us want to minimize that just because we know what season comes after this one. The Bible says, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven, a time to be silent… a time to lose… a time to weep… a time to mourn… and a time to die.” (parts of Ecclesiastes 3)

Although we are moving along the time line that includes every one of those negatives, God is simultaneously providing counterpart-positives. This morning, I looked at Nate sitting on the bench. He is on the losing side in every physical category, losing muscle, balance skills, the ability to read and write, clear thinking. Yet there we sat, enveloped in beauty, enjoying the season around us, and thus enjoying ourselves.

This sounds terrible, but there is much about our season of dying that we’re all enjoying. Our family is together, providing tremendous support, counsel and love to each other. Our grandbabies are with us, punctuating the air with giggles and baby talk. Prayer is the staple of nearly every hour. Scripture rescues difficult moments by delivering sustenance and vigor. Friends are bringing a steady stream of delicious, healthy meals to our door. My calendar is empty, absent of pressure to accomplish. Our mailbox is full of loving greetings. We have time to ponder, to converse and to wait.

The Ecclesiastes passage says, “There is a time to love.” Love takes time, and right now we have time all day long, every day. We only have today without any promise of tomorrow, and at any time a flurry of health-related activity might spin into our peaceful home. But for this day, we have time, both quantity and quality, and we are delighting in it.

In the mean time, many of the other positives of Ecclesiastes are also taking place, right now: a time to laugh, a time to heal (relationships), a time to get, to keep, to embrace, a time of peace. We’re experiencing all of that, and its wonderful.

The same chapter also says, “God has made everything beautiful in his time.” (verse 11) It’s not just the good times of laughter, dancing and healing that he makes beautiful. He makes everything beautiful! The one condition is that the beauty will be evident only in his time, not ours. I believe these days of preparation for Nate’s “time to die” have been made beautiful by God’s detailed involvement.

Autumn is a time of dying, yes, but the process is undeniably beautiful. It’s breathtaking. As we took it all in on the bench overlooking the dunes ablaze with fall color, we couldn’t see winter’s bare trees. We know they’re coming, but that can’t spoil today. We know death’s awful separation is coming, too, but we won’t let it ruin the now-moments.  God has made everything beautiful in his time, and that time is right now.

Hanging out at home

Less than one month ago, we didn’t know a thing about pancreatic cancer, and we certainly didn’t know it would come crashing into our family like it has. But today as I walk through our cottage, I see a hospital bed and bedside table, a cane, a wheelchair, a shower seat with hand-held shower arm, a “lift” chair to help a person get up, a giant bag of pill bottles, rubber gloves, a urinal and, being delivered tomorrow, a triple-purpose commode seat. And most shocking of all, leaning against Nate’s chair, is a thick, navy notebook full of pages that says “Hospice Home Care.” Unbelievable.

Today we got acquainted with two new Hospice ladies, one a social worker and the other a nurse. The social worker began her process of getting to know our family by asking many questions. When she finished, she offered their massage service to Nate, who hesitated. His entire trunk from chin to legs is sensitive to the touch, coupled with his fear that if touched too hard, it will hurt. Every organ is affected by the cancer, and the thought of being pressed by a masseuse was about as appealing as climbing into a boxing ring.

Since Nate was too tired to explain, I described what was going on inside his body, stumbling for a succinct reason why he wouldn’t want a massage. Linnea interrupted and said, “Mom, just say ‘no’. You’re allowed.”

Her comment was a relief. I’m learning that Hospice is all about making our loved ones comfortable, not just Nate but the whole crowd of us. Before the social worker finished, she was offering me the massage service. I looked at Linnea who said, “Say yes!”

Today’s nurse gave Nate a physical exam, and his blood pressure was good, 122 over 85. He’s stopped losing weight, although I think it’s because he’s holding fluid in his abdomen. Having become bone-thin, he suddenly has a bulging stomach that feels like a giant water balloon. The rest of him is getting leaner and leaner.

One leg and foot are also filling with fluid and when asked, Nate acknowledged it did hurt. I told the nurse he never complained, and this was a perfect example. His sock gripped too tightly and made an indented circle of constriction where the elastic gripped. “Can we cut them?” the nurse asked, and I disappeared to find a scissors.

While Nate watched with a frown, I cut a 4” line down the front of his sock so it could slide on without being too tight. “Let’s cut the other one, too, so he’ll have a matched pair,” I said, trying to ease Nate’s fears.

The nurse also ordered a different mattress for the hospital bed, one that would “undulate” while he slept, to keep his skin happy. (I am jealous over that mattress.) The bed motor is purring, a fan is humming, tiny green lights are flashing and the whole place has all the conveniences of a hospital. But we are at home. The greatest blessing of today is recognizing that.

Our family hope is that we can keep Nate at home with all of us in these peaceful, familiar surroundings for the duration. To hear children laughing, to smell stew in the oven, to see the glory of colored leaves out the windows and to hold hands with the ones you love most are the delights of these days. But we’ve long since given up trying to control our uncontrollable circumstances. If God wants to pluck Nate from this cottage and put him in a hospital, he’ll do it for a good reason. And whatever God does, we are behind him.

“The Lord’s plans stand firm forever; his intentions can never be
 shaken.” (Psalm 33:11)