Dear Dad, …

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

(Psalm 73:26)

 

Dear Dad,

I don’t come here often. It is a pretty peaceful place; but, honestly, I don’t like it here. I don’t believe you are here. I don’t have to come here to visit you. I feel you all around me, all the time.  I know you are in heaven. Coming here makes me sad. Coming here brings back memories I tucked away and don’t want to revisit. I remember that frigid day in February, when I shivered next to that gaping hole in the earth that was as dark and empty as the one in my heart. As I sat there, still and quiet, my heart broken, my soul crushed; I wanted to yell and scream and make it all stop. I wanted to wake up.

But it was real, Dad. You were gone.

Continue reading “Dear Dad, …”

Along the Way

My husband knew I loved sunsets.  I would pull over on the side of the road, or drive a few miles out of my way to find the perfect spot to view God’s daily grand finale. I had so many pictures saved on my phone but still didn’t want to miss the opportunity to stop and capture the moment. My husband was a man of few words, but he showed me how much he loved me all the time, in a million little ways.  Last week, he was out of town for work for a few days. One night while he was gone, he pulled over to take this picture of a beautiful sunset over the water and then sent it to me. No words, no text.  Just the picture. It made my heart smile.

Continue reading “Along the Way”

Keeping His Memory Alive

Every month, I take gift bags to my local cancer center, the same place where I had treatment the first time I was diagnosed, and where I go for monthly bloodwork, injections, and appointments.  Although I would love to do more, I can’t take bags for all the patients, but I take a dozen bags each month and pass them on to the wonderful oncology nurses who distribute them to those who could use a little pick-me-up as they go through treatment.  I have taken everything from comfort items to lipstick to Bibles and cake mixes.  Each month, I plan the gift bags around a theme.  I typically put these bags together myself or with the help of my loving mother; but, over the last couple of years, generous people have donated money, time, or materials to help fill these bags.

Continue reading “Keeping His Memory Alive”

What’s Left Behind

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In the middle of the night, I heard the low rumble grow into a deafening blast that shook the whole house.  Seconds later, the wind whipped into the windows, demanding to gain entrance.  A wall of rain edged closer, like a 1000-man infantry marching into town. As the storm blew through, I pulled the covers tighter.  I enjoyed thunderstorms, but this one was a powerful one; and I felt every flash, every roar, every gust, every drop. Then, almost as quickly as that storm blew in, all grew quiet as the nighttime darkness gave way to the morning light.

Hesitantly, I rolled out of bed and stumbled in the dim morning light, walking downstairs to the front window.  The flowers, beaten by the pelting raindrops, sulked as they leaned over the edges of the pots on the porch.  Small branches and leaves littered the front yard.  Water puddled in the driveway.  The decorative flag twisted around the lamppost.  The sun glimpsed from behind the retreating clouds, but the collateral damage left over from the storm was evident.

I walked into the kitchen and my nose met with the sweet smell of cinnamon and chocolate.  The night before, I baked cinnamon bread and a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  Although it had been hours since the sticky batter transformed into gooey goodness, the scent of butter and sugar and love still lingered in the air.

The thunder and the cinnamon bread.  The wind and the chocolate chips.

Both but memories … still seen and still felt.

Both left an imprint.

One left damage.  One left sweet memories.

Throughout the day, that thought weighed heavily on my mind.

We had the power to be the storm, or the chocolate chip cookies. 

We had the power to leave behind damage, or a lingering scent of love and memories. 

We had the power to leave an imprint of destruction, or peace. 

I watched a man help an elderly woman load her groceries into the car.

Chocolate chip cookies. 

I watched a woman scold the young cashier for being too slow.

The storm. 

I received a card with a sweet note from a dear old friend.

Chocolate chip cookies.

I was cut off by an aggressive driver on the highway.

The storm. 

I witnessed and experienced the real life collateral damage of the storm and the pleasant scent of chocolate chip cookies, over and over again that day.  Then, I thought about the imprint I made, what I left behind …

Was I the chocolate chip cookies, or was I the storm?

Did I leave behind damage, or peace?

My daughter was playing around this morning getting ready for school.  I was impatient.

I was the storm.  

My friend called, upset about a family matter. I listened and encouraged her.

I was the chocolate chip cookies. 

My husband forgot to do that thing I asked him to do. I made a comment.

I was the storm. 

My son struggled with a school assignment. I explained it and helped him complete it.

I was the chocolate chip cookies. 

Whatever we did, wherever we went, we left an imprint.  We crossed each other’s paths and we left something behind. We broke off tree branches and left deep puddles. We filled hearts and souls with love and peace.

When I came home at the end of the day, I noticed that the flowers perked up, no longer drooping over the sides of the pots. The puddles in the driveway were gone. I walked through the yard and picked up the branches, and untwisted the flag hanging on the lamppost.

There.

The damage had been done, but with a little time and a little effort, it was good as new. When I walked into the kitchen, I could no longer smell the cinnamon and chocolate. That delicious aroma no longer tickled my nose, but the memories of the melted chocolate chips and the cinnamon sugar still lingered inside my heart.

It made me think about how storms rolled into our lives.  We were left vulnerable.  We were left broken.  We suffered damage; and then, the storms passed.  With a little time, most of the damage could be repaired.  We fixed what was broken and dealt with the rest.

In this life, the sun shined too.  We enjoyed the cinnamon bread, the chocolate chip cookies, and the lingering feelings of love and hope and peace. Although we couldn’t count on those sweet times to last forever, we could store those memories in the depths of our hearts.  We could feel that love deep in our soul, long after the sun set on those delicious memories.

Yes, we had the power to be the storm.

Yes, we had the power to be the chocolate chip cookies.

But we also had the power to overcome, and we had the power to sustain.

We had the power, and we had a choice.

Whether we were the storm or the chocolate chip cookies, …

in the end, we determined what was left behind.

 

 

 

 

 

Grow Old With Me

 

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He handed me the gifts that he lovingly, yet haphazardly, wrapped in pretty tissue paper. As I tore one open, I saw a wooden picture frame decorated with a burlap bow.  Inside the frame was a picture of me and my husband, taken soon after I was diagnosed with cancer the second time.  It was one of my favorite pictures.  Then, I noticed the words written across the bottom of the frame.

Grow old with me

A sting of sadness fell upon my heart. It was a simple statement and something couples talked about when they made a commitment and said ‘I do’. They imagined the fairy tale that we all expected.  But for me, that simple statement, those 4 words, made my heart hurt when I read them.  I remembered walking down the aisle in that white dress. I remembered sitting on the beach on our honeymoon talking about plans for the future. We talked about buying a house we would make a home, where we would raise our children, and enjoy those quiet times together swinging our later years away on our  wraparound porch.

They were big dreams. Sweet dreams. Some of them came true.  We bought a house.  We made it a home.  We had 2 children, a girl and a boy.  We didn’t have a wraparound porch, or a swing; but we dreamed of buying a beach house with a porch and a swing one day. We had our ups and downs but all was right in our world.

And then it wasn’t.

It was a gorgeous August day when I found out I had breast cancer.  That was the first day those visions of me and my husband taking walks on the beach or enjoying an early dinner at a local diner slipped out of focus. Although it was a difficult time, we held on tight and we got through it.  Chemo, bald head, surgery …  all of it.  We made it to the other side, stronger than ever.  We put it behind us. We put the pieces back together.  I was okay and that vision of the porch swing was clear as day again.

And then it wasn’t.

Almost three years later, on a beautiful October day, we found out that my breast cancer returned to my bones and my lungs.  I had metastatic breast cancer and it was terminal.  My treatment was no longer an attempt to cure me, but to keep me stable and preserve my quality of life for as long as they could, for the time I had left.  According to statistics, that was about 33 months.

Wait. 33 months? What about all those plans we made? What about that porch?

Those visions of swinging away our lazy afternoons on the porch began to fade. It was a dark time. We were unsure and fearful of our future. How long did I have? How would my husband raise the kids on his own?  Would he be okay when I was gone? We had no idea what to expect. Along with more radiation and injections and medications, there was fear and heartache and desperation.

And then there wasn’t.

The medication was working. The scans were clear. The statistics were crushed.

The medication that was supposed to give me about a year of progression-free survival was still going strong. It was now 35 months later.  I was on my 31st cycle of those medications and my scans were still clear.  I was living a fairly normal life. I was happy. Aside from fatigue, aches and pains, and some stomach issues; I was doing great.

But we both knew that one day, that wouldn’t be the case.

One day, my symptoms would worsen.  My scans would show progression.  My health would fail.  Those visions of that porch would completely disappear.

So, this picture frame, inscribed with those 4 words.

Grow old with me

It wasn’t a simple sentiment. It was a hope, a dream, a prayer.

It was pleading. It was desperation.

Grow old with me 

Please.

As I held that picture frame in my hands, I realized something.  There was no question mark after those words. There was no punctuation at all. I was able to read those four words any way I wanted.

So, I chose to read them as a request.

Grow old with me

My husband didn’t like to talk about me being sick. He cared so much, so deeply, that he couldn’t imagine a future without me in it.  For him, even though he knew the statistics and my prognosis, that vision of us on the porch swing never blurred or slipped out of his focus.  Call it faith. Call it denial. It didn’t matter. To him, the dream of the two of us growing old together was as real on that day as it was on our honeymoon, almost 20 years ago.

Grow old with me

I found the perfect spot for that picture frame, next to one of our wedding photos.  I looked at that much younger couple smiling back at me.  Over the years, we celebrated with joy and we grieved with sadness, and we felt every emotion in between. We had good years and bad, but I wanted more.

I read those words again…

Grow old with me

I closed my eyes and said a little prayer. I let go of the fear and uncertainty that had settled into my heart.  I didn’t know how much time we had left, but I wanted those dreams, not fear, to reclaim my heart.  I wanted to be like my husband. I wanted to look ahead to our future, expecting all of our dreams to come true. As I took a deep breath, and cleansed my soul, that fuzzy picture once again came into view.

I saw the water. I saw the porch. I saw my husband sitting next to me.

“Grow old with me?” he asked.

“I would love nothing more.”

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Note:

This post was written based on the monthly theme from H&L Writes, a new monthly membership program specifically for writers by Holl & Lane Magazine.

 

 

Out of Focus

 

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The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and the trees were finally green. Hooray! These last couple months, winter held us hostage, but finally, spring had sprung!  May rolled in with its pretty blue skies and warmer temperatures; but along with it, brought that crazy end-of-the-school-year schedule. School projects, concerts, and programs overloaded an already packed calendar.  My daughter’s tri-fold display board resided on my dining room table for several weeks as she navigated homework, softball practices, and after school band rehearsals. Last night, I helped my teary-eyed son work through a very last-minute writing assignment that we had to complete in just one night due to our hectic schedule. Spring sports had begun and evenings were spent in my folding chair next to the ball field, either freezing or sweating (there is rarely an in between), splitting time between watching one child play ball and monitoring the concession stand consumption of the other.  My husband suffered work overload this time of year, as construction projects began, deadlines loomed, and out-of-town travel took him away for days at a time. I held down the fort as best I could, keeping the house in order and everyone on schedule, while trying to lift the spirits of my weary family. Oh, and as hard as I tried to shake it, this cancer cloud continued to tail me as I managed doctor’s appointments, prescriptions refills, health care claims, and the side effects of my treatment. I firmly believed God equipped Moms with extra energy; but, in the midst of the laundry and the grocery shopping, the band concerts and ball games, the pre-teen eye rolls and the back talk, the thankless duties and my sometimes invisible existence, this Mama grew weary too.

Life was crazy.  

But life was good.  

Instead of making New Year’s resolutions this year. I chose the word FOCUS.

I would focus on the people that mattered most. I would focus on the tasks that brought me joy and fulfillment.  I would focus on right now, not the past or the future.  I started the year off on task; but with the crazy May schedule, I needed a refresher. I needed to regain control.

As a people pleaser, saying ‘no’ was always hard for me. There were committees and volunteer opportunities. There were invitations and big events.  There were last-minute requests and awkward assumptions about my commitment and my time. Ugh. I was overwhelmed with guilt about expectations people had for me.  I was overwhelmed with the calendar hanging on my pantry door. I couldn’t write small enough into those squares, yet there were still things I wanted to do, things I wanted to be a part, things I wanted to enjoy…

...focus

I couldn’t do it all. If I said “yes” to one more thing, I was saying “no” to all the people and things that I claimed mattered most. If I said “yes” to that invitation, that commitment; then, I portioned my time and energy for the things that weren’t a priority.  I couldn’t ‘save the world’ and be the wife and mother my family needed. When I caught myself falling into that people pleasing trap, I whispered my word …

focus…

Then, I declined … with grace, but without guilt.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:34)

Then, on the flip side, there were people who said ‘no’ to me.  Over and over and over again. In different ways. People left me out or shut me out. People phased themselves out. People no longer had time for me. I realized that people weren’t as invested in me as I was in them. Relationships changed. People changed. People moved on. This was normal, but difficult. I allowed people space and time, hoping that things would get better. I wanted to fix what was broken but maybe it wasn’t worth fixing? I questioned myself and as I started to wonder what I had done wrong, I whispered my word…

…focus…

I chose not to waste one more moment worrying about other people or their opinions. I learned that lesson years ago; and I had to relearn it. I had to spend my time with those who wanted to spend their time with me. I chose to focus on them. Everyone had priorities, but I valued myself too much to be someone’s obligation or afterthought. Everyone had a right to focus on other things, but I had the right to let them. I wouldn’t worry about them anymore. My focus had to be on those whose focus was also on me.  I paid more attention to what people did, than what they said. I let their actions show me who they were. My Dad taught me that. He told me people can say whatever they want, whenever they want; but those whose words matched their actions, those were my people. He was absolutely right. Those people deserved my focus. The others, I wished them well, and let them go.

Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:18)  

Sometimes, I sailed through the hectic morning routine, listing in my head all the things I had to do that day.  The kids were older now and they were preoccupied with upcoming assignments and events in their days. No longer wanting to chat in the mornings on the way to school, the kids often sat in silence; and I let them, remembering they were not my chatty preschoolers anymore. I told them I loved them and wished them a great day as they scrambled out of the car, instantly regretting those wasted minutes. Then, I thought about the years I spent running a child care center – all the hours spent away from my own children, focused on the care of other people’s children.  I thought about the moments I missed. I wished that I could go back and do some things differently. Routine scans interrupted my life every few months to make sure my cancer was not progressing. Often, I had to wait a day or two before I got the results. Waiting for results was difficult. Not knowing if life as I knew it was going to change with a simple phone call. It was easy to fall down that rabbit hole, worrying about past, present, and future. But I caught myself…

…focus…

I had to focus on right now.  I couldn’t rewind the morning. I couldn’t change my past career path. I couldn’t predict or change my scan results. I missed moments with my children but my children didn’t suffer because of it. They hardly remembered that time. When I was working, I modeled for my children a strong work ethic, an entrepreneurial spirit, and what it was like to follow my dreams. I couldn’t go back and have a deep meaningful conversation with my kids during that past car ride, but I could talk to them at the dinner table and vow to check in during the car ride the following morning.  While I waited for my scan results, I enjoyed that 24 hour period while I waited. If I worried that day away, and my scans were good; I wasted a perfectly good day. If I worried that day away, and my scans were not good; I wasted my last day of living without progression. I needed to focus on now, not back then and when.

Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34)

Getting two kids off to two different schools in the morning was crazy.  Add in a sweet little 18 month old ball of energy into the mix when I was watching my adorable niece and it got even crazier. Thankfully, my husband worked from home and helped with the transporting sometimes, but a chaotic morning was not how I wanted to start my day.  I pushed the clock, felt anxious, and that set the tone for the rest of the day.  I couldn’t let that happen … 

…focus…

I felt better when I spent alone time with God in the morning, early in the morning, while everyone was still sleeping. The fatigue from my medications was worsening. My doctor suggested a routine bedtime and wake up time to combat the unavoidable side effects.  I was always both a night owl and an early riser, but getting more sleep was no longer a luxury; it was a necessity. I started going to bed earlier. I got a couple extra hours of sleep and still woke up before everyone else. I knew exactly what to do with that time. I chose the best seat in the house — the comfy couch in my morning room that allowed me to look out the large windows while I drank my tea, read my devotionals, and said my prayers.  I didn’t mind getting up so early. I looked forward to it. I reset my heart. I recharged my soul. I prepared for the day.

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life. (Psalm 143:8)

Spending that time in the morning helped me to bring focus back to my life.  When things started to get a little fuzzy, I remembered that word I chose in January.  FOCUS. Such a simple word but that word made a huge impact in my life. I focused on simplifying my life in my activities and my relationships. I focused on the activities that brought me joy. I focused on the people who really cared about me. I focused on remaining ridiculously present during the simple moments in my life, the ones that meant the most at the end of the day. I focused on God.  I read and reflected on His Word. I prayed for my family and friends. I prayed for my health and for God to work on my heart and make me the person He wanted me to be.

I gave Him praise for all the blessings in my life. I gave Him praise, even for the chaos. I thanked Him for the often messy, yet beautiful life I lived every day. In the middle of every storm, in the middle of every heartbreak, in the middle of every devastation that life had thrown my way,

He lifted me up, held me up, and built me up.  

I focused on that.

Life was crazy.

But life was good.

 

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Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

A Little Sunshine on a Rainy Day

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Looking out the window, I saw the trees darkened by the soaking rain.  The remnants of snow clung to the fallen leaves that collected on the ground over the long winter.  Not the view I typically enjoyed but I drank my morning tea and took it all in just the same. I noticed the birds searching for cover. The pop of color and the movement grabbed my attention. I saw flashes of blue and red, and even the robins’ amber bellies stuck out in contrast with the stark backdrop of leafless trees. A few evergreens stood majestically among the bare trunks, showing strength and promise; their clothed branches foretelling what was to come.

On a wooden stand in my morning room sat a yellow pitcher with white polka dots.  I found it for $3 at a local department store. The cheerful pitcher sat in the clearance section like a lone flower in the middle of a grassy field. It had an “AS IS” sticker so I examined it for scratches or chips, but it was perfect. Excited by my find, I brought it home and filled it with fresh flowers. That next day, it snowed; but that pitcher filled my home with a bit of sunshine; and on this rainy day, it was a welcome sight.

I curled up on the couch with my tea and a blanket and watched the rain and the birds for a while longer.  The phrase, “April Showers Bring May Flowers” came to mind. In Pennsylvania, spring was always slow to start; and this year, it was no different. A snowstorm hit just as spring finally arrived. Snow lingered on the ground and the rain was cold and biting. At first glance, no signs of spring were visible, but you could imagine the leaves growing inside the branches and the grass growing under the soggy, dead leaves. In all its glory, spring was coming … we just had to wait a little while longer.  

It was always at the end of a very long winter that we got restless and impatient.  We grew tired of the snow, the cold, the barren forest, and the cloudy days. We wanted leaves to cover the trees’ branches, the green grass to carpet the ground, the flowers to bloom in glorious color, and the sun to warm our faces.  We knew it was coming, but we grew tired of waiting.

When things weren’t going our way, we looked ahead to better days.  We used phrases like, “when I finish school’, “when I get my promotion”, “when the kids start kindergarten”, or “when I retire”.  We pushed off doing something scary… or that made us happy. We pushed off doing something risky… or fulfilling. We justified our inaction based on our circumstances ‘right now’. We allowed our mood to be determined by our circumstances ‘right now’. We surrendered that things were always going to be a certain way because that was how they were ‘right now’.

Imagine if the trees felt that way, if they gave up because all their leaves fell off in the fall and it was taking them too long to grow back? Imagine if the grass felt that way, if the grass decided not to grow again because the leaves and sticks piled on top of the ground made the grass unsure it could grow again? What if the flowers felt that way, if they refused to bloom because the ground was too hard and the warm weather took too long to arrive. Thankfully, the leaves, the grass, and the flowers knew to hold on and to wait a little while longer; because winter would one day be over.  

In its time, spring would arrive.

The leaves, the grass, and the flowers knew that while they endured the long winter and then waited for spring, they had work to do.  They didn’t complain and they didn’t give up. The leaves, the grass and the flowers weren’t visible yet but they were growing on the inside. The leaves formed inside those branches, the grass grew under the earth, and the flowers sprouted from their bulbs. They rested and grew and prepared for their springtime emergence. They worked hard and became stronger to survive the early spring frosts. They worked hard so the leaves and grass sprouted a brilliant green and the flowers bloomed in an earthly rainbow of colors. For without that careful preparation and internal work, they would not persist to enjoy the rebirth of spring.

We suffered through the long winters of life. We endured the floods of adversity, the droughts of understanding, and the storms of grief.  We sought shelter when the pain rained down upon us. We kept our heads down when the winds of despair left us battered and beaten. We searched for something to hold on to when the river of trouble overflowed its banks.

We prayed for the storm to pass.  We prayed for the sun to shine.

But sometimes, that didn’t happen as quickly as we hoped.

Sometimes, we endured suffering far longer than expected. Sometimes, we waited for relief that never came. Sometimes we absorbed yet another blow when we hadn’t yet recovered from the first one.

In desperation, we called out to God.

We asked for help. We questioned our circumstances.

In those times of suffering, God worked on us from the inside out.  Like the leaves growing inside the branches, He prepared us for the storms sure to find us.  Like the grass growing under the earth, He prepared us for the trampling sure to wound our hearts.  Like the flowers sprouting from their bulbs, He prepared us to endure the harsh conditions that sought to destroy our spirit.

In those times of suffering, God built our strength and fortified our endurance. In those times, God taught us patience and built upon our faith. The trials we suffered ‘right now’ prepared us for the future. The trials we suffered ‘right now’ allowed us to be a witness to others, an inspiration in times to come.  Like the leaves and the grass and the flowers, God prepared them to do exactly what they needed to do … grow.

And just like the leaves and the grass and the flowers, God prepared us to grow too, in different ways, but in the exact ways we needed.

I drank my last sip of tea and looked at the plaque hanging on the wall above that cheerful pitcher filled with flowers.

It was one of my favorite Bible verses.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.

For this is God’s Will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

This verse is often a difficult one …

“Give thanks in all circumstances”  

It was hard to give thanks when we suffered, to give thanks during a difficult time. The leaves, the grass, and the flowers, after enduring a long, hard winter, taught us that those hard times were necessary to strengthen us, that our situation was preparation for our own springtime. If we remembered the leaves, grass, and flowers when our patience was thin and our relief was nowhere in sight, we could better understand that we should rejoice always, and give thanks in all circumstances. For we should be thankful in times of sorrow, just as in times of happiness. 

Although I was not necessarily thankful that I had cancer, I was truly thankful for the lessons I learned through this journey. I was truly thankful for the love and support I was given from family and friends.  I was truly thankful for the grace God gave me throughout my medical treatment. I was truly grateful for the faith that strengthened me through my experience. I was truly grateful for the sharpening I received during my long, cold winters.

For if not for the winters of life, how could we truly appreciate the arrival of spring?