Finding Hope, Redemption, Courage... from Cancer

"(At one time) my future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. I thought I could see along it for many a milestone. Now there is a bend in it. I don't know what lies around the bend, but I'm going to believe that the best does. It has a fascination of its own, that bend." - Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Monday, November 22, 2010

Noelle (Family Christmas Update #2)

Here is our extremely talented creative girl, who unique view of the world consistently provides fresh perspective for those around her. She is thoughtful and enthusiastic, passionate about the things she likes (music, dance, art, school!) and those she loves (mom, dad, elliana, her friends at school, grandma, grandma's dog walter, the cousins... probably in reverse order to what I've put here!) Everything she does is whole-hearted and full of laughter and FUN!

I remember my mom telling me that she was pretty sure I had her and dad figured out by the time I was 18 months, standing up to them and pointing out the things they were doing that was inconsistent with what I'd been taught. Well, this apple certainly does not fall far from the tree. She is quick to see what her mom and dad do wrong and does not tolerate any quick dismissals of our behaviour. And though it can drive us crazy, I really love that Noelle has such a strong sense of self. I know that she won't easily be swayed by other people's opinions. She tests things out for herself.

She's also very aware of what she's feeling and doesn't hesitate to tell us. It makes for some lengthy discussions at times as we work through how to process those feelings, but when we get tired we find ourselves encouraged by writers like Dr. Haim Ginott (Between Parent and Child), Adele Faber (Siblings without Rivalry) and Dr. Sears, as well as Daniel Goleman's "Emotional Intelligence," that the effort we're putting in here will one day pay off. Let's hope they're all right!

Noelle is a natural care-taker. She shows compassion for those around her and values equality and justice. She loves learning how to help other people be good friends as she learns to be a good friend herself at work. She's the girl who will look at me and say, 'mom, are you ok? can I bring you a glass of water?'

Noelle is a well-rounded girl who loves a lot of things and wishes she had more time and energy to do all of them - okay, probably wishes her parents had more energy to let her do them!!! She especially would like to play hockey and basketball... but maybe another year, we said. Let's stick with music and dance this year.

As a reward for her piano practicing, as well as for trying new foods and doing her chores, Noelle asked to work for a "hockey buddy jersey." Yeah, I wasn't sure what she meant right away either. Last Christmas David got me a Ryan Kesler jersey, so for his birthday I returned the favor and got him an Alex Burrows one. Noelle told me last week as we watched the game that she wanted to have a "hockey buddy" just like us, and when I asked her to pick who she wanted, she deliberated a long time before picking #33. Not bad, Noelle. Fitting of course, that the true captain and award winner of this house would pick the captain and award winner of the Canucks (though he's not playing like it this week. Yikes). Her sister is also earning her own jersey - though her stickers are for successful potty training days instead of piano and chores. Noelle picked #22 for her. Wouldn't my grandpa laugh to see these girls wear the jerseys of the two players he loved to call the "sisters"!! I can hear him laugh right now. Anyhow, I think Noelle thinks if you put the jersey on then you're as good a player as that person, and they're like your "buddy." That girl just makes me smile.

The best - and hardest - part of Noelle's year has been adjusting to school. She's learning to follow verbal commands and working with a speech pathologist/school counselor to develop further confidence and decreased response time in the classroom. She absolutely loves her classmates and teacher and absolutely hates missing school. She's made a few friends there who she values very dearly and even with a high fever, chills, shakes and thick cough today she cried when I said she needed to stay home and rest.

This weekend my first baby turns five. But she's no longer a baby - far from it. Where did that time go?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Elliana (Christmas Family Update #1)

We have a fabulous family photographer. She knows how to capture our children at their most charming. Yes, Joanne, you know we love you! Though, really, in this case the subject also helps. Elliana always seems to know how to behave in front of a camera. I remember two years ago, taking our first pictures of a family of four, we were all surprised at how photogenic our four-month-old baby was. I guess it was just a sign of what was to come.

For a mom who's spent more time sick at home than most do, I feel incredibly blessed to have Elliana with me. I remember a woman I really looked up to at one of our previous churches told me how her oldest daughter was the perfect personality to comfort her during a sad time of her life. Elliana reminds me a lot of what that woman told me. She really embodies joy and peace, and really embraces the abundance her little life offers. When you need to be picked up, she will run to give you a hug - well, also because she just LOVES being hugged, held, and cuddled. This is convenient - she's our last baby so we appreciate this. Uh, well, most of the time. Sometimes I do wonder what her kindergarten teacher will say when she asks to sit on her lap instead of at her desk! =) But we have a few years there...

Elliana had a difficult time when I first got sick. She had just turned eight months old and the medications I had to take forced me to wean her really abruptly, and sometimes I wonder if that's why she likes to hug - and be hugged - so much. She loves her baby dolls and little people - snafoo-ing her sister's little people school bus on a regular basis and saying, 'people, people, how was school today? Did you have fun?' She likes to put blankets on her dolls and kiss them good night - several times a day, while they sleep on our living room floor.

She loves her big sister, but doesn't seem to miss her too much while she's in school. I think it's because she gets to use her toys then. =)

The big news of course is that she is now potty training - an exciting prospect in a house who knows we won't have more babies. The thought of a diaper free life is thoroughly intoxicating. She decided to train herself, actually - something I'd heard other parents talk about but didn't really believe them. I mean, what kid just magically does it? Huh. This one did. Don't get me wrong - there are accidents, several in fact, and we're a long way from being done, but I am very appreciative that this time is so much easier than the first time, especially because its a tricky process when you're carting kids to school, piano, ballet and the dentist.

Anyhow... those of you who don't know my little girl, I hope you get to meet her someday. She is creative, funny, and - though exhausting - brings such a smile to us on a daily basis.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Case for Christmas Cards

Every Christmas, it seems there's more and more to do. Ironic that a holiday that should be about inner qualities of peace and joy, by its very over-eventfulness, robs us of those sweet sentiments and prayers for quietness and rest and joy that we send to family and friends.

That is, if you're one of the ones who do Christmas cards.

Every year, I argue with myself. Cards or no cards? Picture or no picture? Should I send the Merry Christmas email that has become more and more popular in a world going for the most responsible environmental stance? Considering the expense, work, and time involved, do I need to do this? Should I scrap it altogether?

For some reason, this tradition has stuck with me from the time I was a child. I'm not sure why, but I have these vivid memories of helping my mom update her address list in her tattered paper address book and checking off the column in the year when we'd finished writing the card. I liked remembering everyone as we went card by card, asking Mom several questions about who those people were and where she met them and how come we don't see them more often. I'm sure she got tired of it.

This year, I went further than usual. Having joined a Stampin Up stamp club this past year, I thought I'd spend the money I'd usually spend on buying cards on supplies to make them.

After all the supplies came, and I started to make them, then I remembered I usually send out 100 cards a year. I think I remembered that on card 16.

I know what you're thinking: you don't really know that many people, right? Surprisingly enough, I do. And though some I don't see anymore, I think about them often. I especially thought of them yesterday as I organized and purged many of the cards given to us over the past decade.

I had expected to throw more of them away than I did.

There were so many Christmas cards, all of them different, some with names inside, others with special notes, some with typed letters, but almost all contained something I didn't expect to value: the sender's very distinct hand-writing.

I know handwriting analysts will psychoanalyze the way each of us slant or crunch or expand our letters and give us all sorts of conditions we never knew we had, but there is something about handwriting that often captures the essence of our memories of that person who wrote it.

I smiled and laughed and cried as I saw the familiar lines of my dad's letters, or my grandparents - all four of whom are now departed, some for almost 15 years - just reading their own letters made me feel like they were with me somehow.

I gasped and sighed when I saw one huge stack of cards I'd kept from my dad's funeral, the sheer volume of people - most of whom I hadn't seen in so many years - who'd bothered to write me a personal card saying they were sorry he was gone and what they remembered about him best. What really stuck out to me was how many of these same people sent cards again that Christmas, recognizing how hard that first Christmas would be after he left.

I had heard others talk about how bittersweet the holidays can be, but I forgot that its partly because so many memories come up of people you wish were at your house drinking apple cider and playing games or watching the snow fall, the ones from whom time or distance or moves or death separates you.

But I realized how important these memories were. And I also realized how poor my own memory is on its own.

I'd forgotten most of these cards or even what some of these people did. I'd forgotten how meaningful and plentiful the cards were the year Noelle was born, three weeks early (she was due Dec 21) but on the only day of snowfall that year. I'd forgotten how many people simply cared, or thought good things about us and our family.

So I didn't throw that many away, but at least they're all in one place now, a box in the newly organized craft room/office.

And next to me sits a box of 100 home-made Christmas cards and 100 pictures to send out whenever I finally get to it. There's time of course. My aunt told me last year I was always the first Christmas card of the season, so I think I can wait a little longer.

But I also think I'm going to enjoy it.

I didn't know the last Christmas I'd have with my dad was 2002, also my first Christmas as a married woman. I didn't know the last Christmas with my beloved fellow hockey fan and Grandfather would be the following year, or that the next Christmas would be my last one before becoming a mother, or that 2008 would be my last Christmas without cancer, or that 2009 would be my last Christmas without the grannie we were all so close to.

I'm glad I kept the cards. Maybe someday, hopefully a long, loooooonnnnng time from now, someone will find an old card with my handwriting on it, and maybe they'll remember that time we did a chinese fire drill in our slippers on the way to Superstore, or the girls trip we did to Disneyland only months before I was pregnant with Noelle, or that random class we had together or those years we worked or attended church together.

Because, really? You can't put a pricetag on that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

And we know that suffering produces... hope

I was preparing this morning for the Revelation Precept Study I've been doing with a few other women and stumbled across this part in my Bible that really stood out to me today. For the past few days, I have been praying throughout the day for our friend who is in the hospital awaiting surgery, and it was this verse God brought to my mind as I was praying for him and his wife. He has coped with a relatively unpredictable health problem since he was a child and is on the cusp of seeing a potential elimination of that problem, if the surgery is successful. I would have thought, knowing what I do about him, that he'd be quiet and reserved and very, very careful about life, and yet, knowing him, in his wife's own words, he's actually kind of a daredevil.

That makes me smile.

Can I confess that sometimes perfect people bother me? You know who I'm talking about. There's just some people that seem to have perfect lives. The ones who are exhaustingly busy with jet-setting to the coolest, hottest places? The ones with perfectly behaved children that are each in five activities and won awards in all of them? The ones that have more than enough energy to get their kids to a different play date every day? Or, this is the killer for me - the ones whose facebook statuses are always about how nauseatingly in love they are? Don't get me wrong - I know there's some of you reading this, and please know that I, and the rest of us less-than-perfect-ones love you. We also love our husbands, our less-than-perfect children, and our less-than-perfect lives.

Please also know that I'm willing to bet that, at some point, even these perfect people have experienced pain. I bet that any of them, like us, could pinpoint moments that make us cringe, moments that shadow the rest of our lives, so that when we remember them, we still shake them out of our heads and say, 'let's not go there.' Sometimes they're the result of our own mistakes, other times they were things that happened to us. And no matter how many times we think we've dealt with them, don't we still - at least subconsciously - try to arrange our lives so that pain can't happen again? Sometimes that trauma is so great that an overarching sense carefulness affects every decision we make.

I know that I, at least, have been there, many, many times.

More confession time: I write in my Bible. (Don't tell, they might cite me for irreverence.) When my dad died, I asked mom if I could have his old Bible. It was really well-used, and yet really well-made, and I felt that as I worked through the grief of losing him, maybe the insights of things he'd underlined could help me, almost like he was there.

On November 29, 2004, I marked this one passage in my Bible, that my dad had marked before me: "...we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us...." My red markings in the margin from this date in 2004 say this: "how has suffering done any of this in me?"

It was a fair question to ask then. A lot of things were going well for me. I'd been through some things and come out the other side. I'd recently graduated nursing school, David and I had moved out of my parents' house, we were both gainfully employed and financially independent, we had a tight-knit church family, and several friends, and were living in the place we still call our "favourite" home. To cap it off, we'd celebrated from a month-long vacation.

The point is, I should have been happy. Deeper. Wiser. And yet, I was remarkably NOT.

There were reasons, of course. I'd just seen the second phase of disillusionment with my ideal job (I know, remarkably, not nursing, but a worship ministry position), I was not adjusting to the two days two nights ritual of full time nursing well at ALL, and I desperately missed that supportive, constantly encouraging and appreciative environment I'd enjoyed in my six years and double major at TWU.

I also finally had enough time on my hands to miss my dad.

But all those things that I had been through (and thought I'd conquered), the situations I called "suffering," if they were indeed suffering, and if I was indeed following after God the way I thought I had, why did I not see any of these things (perseverance, character, hope) in me? I didn't have perseverance, for every time something didn't go my way, I would - at least internally - still lose it. And for all the fooling I did myself and others, I didn't really have much true character, either. Character means courage, and around then I was afraid of just about everything, particularly of (gasp) the possibility of more suffering.

Oh, and the most glaring deficit... I definitely didn't have hope. I'd started to see myself as one of those people that just has to deal with harder things, that everything about life was going to be hard and troubled and, well, joyless.

So, not much room for hope.

But that night I realized that if I believed the Bible to be true, then this part also had to be true. So, I started to pray for hope. Not so that I would be happy, but so that I could say suffering had done something in me besides bitterness. If I was going to go through all these things, it better actually do something good.

It's been a kind of slow process.

The first thing that changed was that we found out we were going to have Noelle. In fact, her birthday is exactly 364 days after I'd written that note next to Romans 5. Her name means "Good news,"and she certainly has been. Despite all of the ups and downs we experience with our first child - poor guinea pig that she is! - the day she was born, I knew something had changed. I was remarkably happier, and more hopeful, simply by having someone else to concentrate on, and not thinking about my own needs so much.

And then the really tough things came, one after the other. Not just the usual trials of parenting, but other darker, more intense trials. Some threatening my marriage, others, my kids, still others, our family's spiritual well-being. Some of this stuff I don't even like to talk about. Ever.

Probably these were the worst trials of my life, each of them leading up to the concrete shocker - cancer. All of them have come since I've prayed for more hope in my life. But strangely enough, the prayer for hope has been answered, somehow not in spite of the difficulties but because of them. There have been tears since I've gotten sick, and frustration, and continual, utter exhaustion, but so much more hope. Maybe its partly because some of the things I was afraid of happening have happened, and I'm still okay.

It makes me a little more confident to risk. It makes me concentrate on what might be good around the corner instead of bad. And I gotta say, this is a much better way to live.

Now don't for one minute think I am suggesting we not be careful at all. Sometimes pain is there to teach us what situations - or even sometimes, people - to avoid. We aren't called to win everything, to make everything perfect. I think that's what it means when it says suffering produces... character. People with character learn when to risk and when to pull back.

Please let me be one of those people. And let it not stop there. Let character produce hope.

There's another note in my Bible next to that first one about Romans 5:5; this one is from November 28, 2009 - Noelle's fourth birthday, and five years after I originally asked myself that difficult questions. It reads, "He DID do this for me." I know why I wrote this. It's also why we gave our second daughter the name Elliana, which means, God has answered my prayer.

He has given me hope.

So why do I bother to tell you this? Because I think there's more than a few of us who might have questioned that verse before, or at least thought, are you kidding me? Suffering producing hope? Yup. It's the real deal. We don't need to be as scared of suffering as we have been. We don't need to fear that we'll end up as lonely old ladies (or men) with a ten-pound chip on our shoulders, ten cats, three rats, and no friends, all because our hard lives left us as bitter as horseradish (sorry, not a fan of that either).

I'm writing this on a particularly exhausting day. Sorry guys - this running around every day to take kids to school and doctors and dentists and groceries and yadda yadda yadda, the kind of days where you're out allll day, especially when that happens most days, that's for the birds. I am flat out on the couch right now and can barely cope with the idea of getting up to the bathroom. And, we still don't know if the new drug is working. The next set of bloodwork, which I won't have for at least six weeks, will tell us more. Despite all I've just written, we do appreciate your prayers for us, for me particularly, that Sprycel does bring down the cancer chromosome to an acceptable level. That all this exhaustion is doing something tangible.

The reality is, there's no guarantee its going to all get better. But it IS going to be okay. Suffering does produce hope. And hope does not disappoint us.

I believe that now. And it only took cancer to do it. Yikes. Too bad I couldn't learn it sooner.