Contrasts

Two very different scenes this week that nonetheless come together.

Scene One: It snowed over the weekend, starting Saturday night and through Sunday evening, with about five inches of snow here at the house. (See the picture from the dining room into the back yard.) Roads were pretty slick Sunday night, but by Monday enough plows had been through that roads were better, and I headed out to do some errands.

As I drove, I noticed how postcard-perfect the roadside scenes were. The sky was a soft shade of light blue that contrasted beautifully against the snow-covered landscape. The trees themselves were frosted with caps of snow on the branches; a string of evergreens looked like a Christmas tree forest, glistening under the winter sun. Nearby our house is a great set of sledding hills, and we can hear the shrieks of delighted children. But yet, muffled: I love walking in the snow, as it dampens sound and makes everything quieter, hushed, more peaceful. It truly was a magnificent scene, and gave my heart cause to praise God the Creator for this tremendous gift.

Scene Two: Heartbreak. Our daughter had been pursuing a course of action academically that was not working out for her. It had been her hope to succeed at this new school, and yet her health is not such that she can achieve what she needs to achieve. And so she had to come to the point of deciding what to do: to try to push on, or to step out.

Every parent fiercely wants the best for their child, and every parent’s heart breaks when their child can’t get what they want. I’m no different, and so I ache for her to have to make a difficult decision.

And in the midst of it, the Father’s heart is breaking as well, I am sure. Two thoughts come to mind. First is the beauty of the snowy scene, and how it shows the magnificence of God. Look, he is saying: you’re right to feel for your child. But look around you, and see how much I love you too. I love you enough to give you this entire creation to enjoy, and it’s beautiful. And I love you enough to give you this gift even though you don’t deserve it. Receive my gift; lift your head, stop focusing on your own troubles and look at the magnificence I have for you.

And second: Remember the promises God makes throughout history.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

Our daughter’s troubles will pass. There is hope. And we see that hope in the love of God, reflected in the beauty of his creation on a snowy January day. Come, Lord Jesus, fill the hearts of your faithful, and wrap us in your love.

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It’s Not Goodbye, Mom

My mom, Sandy Stoddert, 76, passed into eternity Saturday night.

Mom had struggled valiantly against the effects of Parkinson’s Disease since 1985…yes, for 33 years, and since she was 43, she’s been dealing with it. She fought to keep her independence as long as she could, taking in home-based aides for the last five years she lived in her home in Vermont. Then in 2011 she admitted it was time for more help, and she chose to move to Virginia into an assisted living home in Woodbridge. But the disease kept after her, and in parallel she began developing a series of infections that later would weaken her kidneys to the point they couldn’t cope. Just before Christmas 2016, she moved into her nursing home, and it’s there, surrounded by those who have cared for her, that she died.

I’d seen this coming for awhile, although the actual end was a little faster than I’d expected. She developed her final infection in mid September, and this time her kidneys didn’t respond. Her brother, and my sister, each came down to say what they needed to say to her last weekend.

Then it was my turn.

You see, when my dad passed ten years ago, the decline from his surgery to his passing was only six weeks, and much of it was spent in hope of recovery. But when it became obvious that his story wouldn’t end well, I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye. It was more about me, more about asking forgiveness for my own shortcomings, than about him and what was about to happen.

Enter God: he got my attention in one of the class lectures last week. The professor had in someone to talk about her call, and what she does (she’s a chaplain at a hospital in Kentucky). And when she started talking about the four things she wished everyone had the chance to say to a loved one who’s dying, I really sat up and paid attention.

I used that, then, as the basis for my own talk with mom last Wednesday.

  1. One, I forgive you. I forgive you your role in my parents’ divorce and what that meant to me at the time, I let all that go.
  2. Two, please forgive me. Forgive me for all the times I didn’t show you love, when I put myself first.
  3. Three, here’s what you meant to me. You gave me your love of reading and books, your love of history and government, and you were the one to make sure I got to church. And so here I am, a senior executive in the government and trying to follow Christ as he leads into this new adventure…and yeah, I wrote a book too.
  4. Four, I love you, and it’s OK to go. The last words I heard her say to me were on Monday, when she said she was tired. And so I told her it’s OK, we’ll be fine. My sister and I are doing OK, and all the grandkids are launching into their own lives just as you’d want them to. Go ahead and rest. Go find your beloved dog Kep, and play with her again. And take hold of the healing that we just can’t get for you here. Oh, and by the way: I love you.

Three nights later, she passed away. Go in peace, mom, and savor all the restoration that’s available now in Christ. I’ll see you again soon enough.

(PS: Here’s her obituary.)

Mom’s Ailing

I’m having to come to terms with the fact that my mother perhaps has very little time left among us.

About ten days ago, she developed an infection that affected her kidneys, causing them to be ineffective at metabolizing sodium, among other things. This is at least the third such infection in the last 14 months, and it got to the point this week that my sister and I have put her on a do-not-resuscitate, or DNR, order. She’s eating less, and at one point this week refused her medicines. The palliative care nurse practitioner noticed she looked a little sad Tuesday, and asked if Mom felt she was beginning to transition home. She nodded.

Large parts of this, of course, feel like when my dad was ailing ten autumns ago. He went in for open heart surgery, came out of that, developed complications, and slowly sank over the next six weeks: in mid September, he had surgery, and by November 6, he was gone. What feels the same is the slow-motion horror of the train wreck you can see developing and are powerless to stop.

It’s so much different from when Mary’s dad passed this summer, largely unexpectedly. And what feels different from my dad to my mom is that we’ve had 32 years to see this coming. Mom’s Parkinson’s Disease has reached a pretty advanced level, and so it’s entirely foreseen that some complicating factor will start to work on her. Still, it’s not easy seeing her drift away, unable to communicate well, weakening.

And yet, I have to confess to a certain peace about this. Perhaps because it’s been developing for so long, but also perhaps because of what I know. I know, for instance, that I’ve done all I can for mom, and so I really don’t think whether she knows I love her is in question. And all the more, I know there is a restoration of all things that awaits her. There is newness, wholeness, beyond anything we can imagine. Mom will be restored, not only to how she was before the PD afflicted her, but also to what she was always intended to be, in a resurrected body free from everything. This is the promise in Christ: this is the fruit of his resurrection, opening the way for us to follow him into glory. We don’t follow Christ because we get eternal life: we get eternal life because we follow Christ. Makes all the difference in the world.

The medical team hastens to say that the new antibiotics are working better, her numbers are improving, and in any case, it could be some time still, months even, before the end. But for the first time we are talking about an end, which in turn gives me hope for a new beginning. Alleluia...come, Lord Jesus.

 

Recovering From Surgery

Thanks for the words of concern and prayers in my recovery from a burst appendix two weeks ago. They’ve all been deeply appreciated. I wanted to pass along a few observations from my convalescence.

  • I really don’t do “recovery” well. I want to be out doing things and when I do, I chafe at getting exhausted. It’s getting a lot better; for awhile I needed a nap every afternoon. Now that’s less the case. I took one yesterday, and then had a hard time falling asleep at night.
  • Saw my surgeon for my second follow-up this morning. I’m healing well, according to him, but not there yet…he wants to see me Monday, and maybe that will be the last time. I’m really ready to be done with this…
  • We definitely have an Enemy, and I’m kinda not surprised he came after me. We go up to the mountain for our Emmaus weekend in eight days, and folks have commented that the Enemy often tries to do something in advance of a weekend. Glad I got to catch that particular spear…
  • It’s amazing to me how much my routines have been upset, and that includes my spiritual ones. I used my commute in each morning as prayer time, and now I’m out of that habit. I have to make time differently for Christ, and that’s been a struggle sometimes.
  • Prayer works. I really did feel bathed in security when I was being wheeled in for surgery, and prayers for healing since then have been answered. The secondary infection that set in has largely disappeared, praise be.
  • The dog really doesn’t understand what’s going on. She’s hurt and perplexed that she can’t stay in the bed with us at night anymore. It’s hard to explain to her that the last thing I need is for her, in the middle of the night, to hit a tender spot or pull on something that doesn’t need tugging on. So we’ve started teleworking together, that seems to let her feel more comfortable.
  • I’d been prohibited from lifting more than 20 pounds until today. Man, I’ll miss that excuse for getting the kids to do things…

Burst Appendix

Ten days ago, on a Saturday night, I started to feel a little twinge in the right side of my abdomen. Mind you, this was after working in the yard for a few hours at a charity event, and during bowling night, so I figured, I must have pulled something.

It didn’t get better, and I noticed I lost energy: I came home and slept 12 hours that night, and after church Sunday I slept another 15 hours. Something wasn’t right. Monday I stayed home from work, exhausted, but still not in a lot of pain. Tuesday, though, it wasn’t getting better and I figured I should find out what it was. With one bout of diverticulitis in the family this winter, I thought it could be that, and so went to an ER that could take pictures.

The CT scan showed my appendix had begun to burst. I was taken via ambulance to Mount Vernon hospital just before 1, and by 2:45 I was being wheeled back for surgery.

Things like this–sudden, emergency, literally life-saving surgery–can be a little upsetting. My bride was a little alarmed, but I remember feeling very calm about it. I knew I was in the best hands I could be, the healer above all others, and so I didn’t feel fazed at all.

I think that’s a difference from where I would have been years ago. I think I would have been much more assaulted by the feeling of not being in control, of wanting to research the best possible surgeon, pick a different hospital, etc., etc. Instead, I felt reassured throughout the day, reassured that I was being loved and cared for even beyond the walls of the hospital. I put out a couple of Facebook messages, and brothers and sisters in faith responded with a wall of prayer for me. That felt good, that felt welcomed, and as a result I was able to breathe in the gas in the OR without worrying about what came next.

Recovery has been uneven: discharged after 48 hours, and the first couple of days at home were good. Yesterday my drain showed qualitative and quantitative signs of change, so back to the ER to make sure everything was OK. The CT scan showed no structural problems, but they put me on a stronger set of antibiotics to kill off whatever’s still around inside. Part of the hardest thing to do is…nothing, just to sit around and rest and recover. I don’t “just sit around” well.

But through it all, I am being held, I am being supported, and I do believe healing is available for me. These are incredibly reassuring, and I hold onto them through these next days and weeks.

Always an adventure, huh?

One Tumultuous July

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. (Romans 8:35-37)

Can I just share a little of what my July was like? In the space of the previous month, here’s what I’ve faced (in no particular order):

  • My mother’s sudden hospitalization for a kidney infection, with the attendant disruption to our everyday lives of being at the hospital frequently (she’s better now, thanks be);
  • The unexpected death of a coworker, who in the space of a weekend had an accident around the home and lapsed into a coma from which she could not recover;
  • A longstanding friend’s mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, same as my mom; and if that wasn’t enough,
  • Her husband was taken to the ER with a mild heart attack;
  • The utterly unexpected firing of a longtime friend in very, very murky circumstances that leave me worried for what comes next;
  • My boss being taken ill with serious abdominal illness, hospitalized, and only gradually returning to work during a very hectic time at the office that I had to cover (on top of the above list); and
  • Another coworker’s father in law needing emergency surgery for an aortic aneurysm (they caught it in time)

And that’s just within the span of July, all happening to people around me who are part of my love and my life–and who therefore affect me with all of these goings-on. It’s overwhelming! This is a pretty scary list!

hairoutAt times like these, we can hear some pretty horrible theology from people. Well-meaning people, to be sure, but still, what they tell us can ruin our understanding of God if we let it happen. Things like, “It was God’s will.” (God does not will us disease! Disease is an effect of the brokenness we brought into the world from our expulsion from Eden.) Or “God never gives you more than you can handle.” (No! If anything, the Bible tells us, it’s more like there is nothing we can’t handle WHEN WE GIVE IT OVER TO GOD, not when we try to take it all on ourselves!)

And yet through this month of madness, I haven’t crumbled, I haven’t curled up into a ball in the corner. I have endured, and I am absolutely, utterly, completely convinced it’s only my faith in the power of Jesus Christ that has kept me together. I have been strengthened, indeed I have become “more than conquerors” by being able to turn to Christ, by placing myself and each of these situations in his hands, and by trusting in him to help me through. There are certainly days this month when it most certainly did not feel like “overwhelming victory,” yet here I am: assaulted, assailed, buffeted, but not breaking in the force of the storm. For that, I can only give everlasting thanks to Christ.

Come on, August, do your worst. I’ve got backup.

Sudden Hard Turns

She got the call today, one out of the gray,
And when the smoke cleared, it took her breath away.
She said she didn’t believe
It could happen to me.
I guess we’re all one phone call from our knees
We’re gonna get there soon.

–Mat Kearney, “Closer to Love”

I got the call myself this past Wednesday morning: my mom has been taken to hospital. I knew she hadn’t been feeling herself the day before, but I didn’t expect it was this bad. Kidney infection. I rushed over to the ER feeling anxious, more anxious than I had expected I would. She was asleep, and really groggy–not waking up. I was alarmed but the staff reassured me she was sleeping well, and needed rest more than anything.

Over the last few days we’ve learned that the infection had seeped into the bloodstream (boo) but was a bug that was very responsive to basic antibiotics (yay), so it should be on the easier side to treat. She’s still in hospital as I write on Sunday afternoon, four days later, and may or may not be released tomorrow.

But I’ve also come to appreciate how fragile my mom really is now, at 75 and after three decades with Parkinson’s Disease. Her mental acuity is duller, her speech is quieter, it’s harder for her to put into words what she’s thinking. There’s no way she could manage her own care now, and the move into a nursing home, which I’d kinda didn’t want to do last year, turns out to have been a good thing.

At present, the kidney function numbers and the blood test numbers are all moving in the right direction. This doesn’t appear to be more serious. But, of course, when it’s your mom, and it’s a hospital, you start to think about such things. Fortunately, I can say (at least today) that unlike my dad, there isn’t anything I haven’t said to her yet that I need to. And so in that regard, the idea of perhaps having to do this drill over something more serious someday doesn’t leave me with the feeling that I have unfinished business. Having the call come that my mom is in the hospital was a sudden hard turn that threw me on Wednesday. But it wasn’t as hard a turn as it could have been. For that I’m grateful.