A Castle of Loss

A Castle of Loss…

Cancer, particularly Stage IV cancer, is a thug that executes a sneak-attack of felony battery and robbery leaving its victim beaten and deprived of health, community, friends, freedom, and control. It imprisons and isolates the victim creating a loneliness few people ever experience. No matter how many people are around, the cancer patient is walking a path alone. In a way, cancer is the ultimate “Green Mile.”

For most of the month of June, 2017 when I was first diagnosed, I was unable to communicate with my loved ones because I was mute and immobile—stunned, gobsmacked– I never saw cancer coming. I was like the straight-jacketed Percy Wetmore the other guards gagged and locked in the darkened padded cell. I was terrorized, sentenced to be alone and doomed in the dungeon of my castle.

I survived that month with the onslaught of scans and biopsies and telling my family and friends about my diagnosis. With every piece of doctor-provided literature I read, my life and my world were shrinking, and all I felt was loss. Nothing in the glossy pamphlets prepared me for losing my life, my future, my plans, and my goals. I was losing memories of my children’s life events that hadn’t even happened yet, like career success, weddings, grandchildren, holidays, and vacations. I finally understood what my mother-in-law meant when she said a few days after my father-in-law died, “We still have so many plans!” I still have so many plans, but cancer has robbed me of time.

What other things have been taken from me?

As Alan and I walked somberly through the hospital to the doctor’s office for my first treatment, my feet were slow and awkward as though shackled, and I couldn’t help but imagine I was walking the green mile. Wasn’t chemo just the first step toward certain death? I thought so, especially since my chemo regimen included a chemical derivative of mustard gas, and I was allowing, no – choosing, poison to be put in my veins. What choice did I have? I wanted to live. Death row prisoners have no choice in the manner of their deaths, and all prisoners hope for stays of execution. My only choice was to take the best and most current regimen for my type of cancer because it was the only thing that gave me hope to beat cancer. I think the role of the oncologist is to be a “peddler of hope,” and I was buying.

I had six infusion chemo treatments over eighteen weeks and then began daily doses of two oral chemo drugs and a monthly injection. The poison’s side effects are numerous, and my brain seems to be missing a few links as though I had a brief electrical encounter with Old Sparky himself.

Before cancer, I imagined my brain as a solid – a white and red jello-like consistency that’s been made with too little water in order to make an intricate and beautiful mold for a bridal or baby shower. Today, I envision it more like a sieve leaking out minute bits of memory, words, and names, and getting worse with every single dose. This state of “brain fog” has a slang medical diagnosis: chemo brain. And, boy, do I have it. And I’m saddened for its loss.

What other losses do I count? I can’t risk exposure to the outside world when my blood counts are down letting me know that my immune system is weak. In other words, it is too dangerous for my health to be around large groups of people, particularly children, for many days of the month which eliminates teaching – even teaching Vacation Bible school at church. Being imprisoned in my home takes me away from my career, my teaching friends/peers, and my community. I am home alone almost every day, and I miss my friends and my colleagues and my students. I am in isolation the majority of time like a death row prisoner who only gets 30 minutes a day outside the cell.

My daily chemo schedule also robs me of physical strength and stamina –  both physical and mental energy. Imagine the flu’s onset with its fatigue and achiness when all you want to do is rest and recover quickly and get on with your life. With the flu, you can always see the end in sight. With metastatic cancer, the only end I see is suffering and death.

Is that it? Just imprisonment and walking through the valley of the shadow of death? No, certainly not. Because a castle of loss…

Is Still a Castle

Don’t get me wrong – I live in my dream house. It’s beautiful and spacious. Our home feels like a mighty fortress protected by my sentries, Strider and Stella. Natural light shining through all the windows onto the hardwoods glow like the warm ambiance of hundreds of candles, and we are nestled in the woods. Looking out, all we see are trees. We have no need for window treatments as our closest neighbor’s house can’t be seen from our house. The loudest sounds come from Strider and Stella, the birds in the trees, or an occasional gun shot. We live in the country, after all. It is peaceful – our own hermitage.

My family supports me in every way possible – especially Alan. He handles all the stressful aspects of cancer including the dumbassery of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies to keep me from being more anxious about the cost of treatment even though it creates more stress for himself. He is my love and my hero in this quest, a Lancelot to my Guinevere.

Our son, Michael, has chosen to continue to live with us to help, and seeing his beautiful face and getting precious time and hugs from him every day is strong medicine. I don’t know of many 25-year-old young men who would postpone their lives to help take care of a sick Momma. He is my heart.

In my castle, our two dogs keep me company throughout the day, and they have divided their roles. Strider guards the house, and Stella mothers me and knows (usually before me) when I’m having a bad day. Bless her heart! She has a tough job. She really hates when I lie on the bathroom floor to cool off from a hot flash, continually nosing me to get up, and it’s not a gentle nudge. She uses that nose like an appendage to the point where she can open doors with it. I am grateful for their presence, their care, and their loyalty.

Cancer has shown me who my genuine friends are, and they constantly and consistently check in on me, sending me prayers for miracles, texts that make me laugh, cards of encouragement, and gifts that astound and humble me with their thoughtfulness and generosity. When I’m trapped in my castle, they are my connection to the outside world, their expressions of love breadcrumbs to find my way back to the outside world.

I’ve been studying Job lately, inspired by his faithfulness to God despite his circumstances. When he was covered by agonizing boils from head to foot, he wished he had never been born, but never cursed God. I have cancer, but I don’t wish I had never been born because I wouldn’t want to miss any of the precious moments that He has given me so far.

I don’t think God or Job would mind if I paraphrased a verse. You know the one: Job said, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I keep inverting the first sentence saying “The Lord takes away, and the Lord gives.” While some aspects of my life have been radically changed by cancer, more good things have come to me in the last year than I ever could have dreamed or imagined. The Lord has given to me abundantly, and I wouldn’t change a thing about this last year. Not even the cancer.

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The Fruit of the Spirit: Goodness

This is the talk I shared at my church on Sunday, January 28, 2018.

Good morning! My name is Julie Land. Most of you know me because you have been praying for me for the last seven months since I was diagnosed with cancer. What many of you might not know about me is that I’m a teacher. A high school English teacher. A high school American Literature and Composition teacher. I hear your groans. I also hear your brains whirring, recalling the times we’ve spoken and wondering whether or not you used proper grammar. I promise…I never think about your grammar!

A self-described nerd, I have loved books and words my entire life. I even loved my 6th grade grammar class that included diagramming sentences. But it wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered etymology, or word origins. When I teach, I introduce etymology to my students to exponentially increase their vocabulary. For example, one vocabulary word my students must learn is the word mortify. I ask students to think of other words that have “mort” in them and name them aloud.

When they look up the definition and etymology of mortify, they find that the word means to be embarrassed, and the Latin root mort literally means “death.” Thus, the students find that mortify means more than just being embarrassed, but means being so embarrassed as to feel as if you’re going to die. High school students can readily identify with being that embarrassed – usually at the hand of their parents!

Many of you have been introduced to etymology through Bible study, and the word we’re going to look at today is goodness.  Before I began studying scripture for this talk, I thought it would be easy to speak on goodness because I have been on the receiving end of kindness and goodness since last summer through prayers, cards, gifts, calls, and texts, and I am truly grateful.

Did you notice that I said kindness and goodness? That’s because I didn’t understand the Biblical difference between the two. I thought that goodness was a quality within a person, and kindness was how they actively expressed their goodness. Certainly the two words are closely related.

But as it turns out, the Biblical word goodness in Galatians 5:22 comes from the Greek word agathosune meaning “virtue equipped at every point” and as relating to believers, the goodness that comes from God and shows itself in spiritual, moral excellence, but it also includes rebuke and discipline.

Not used in any secular Greek texts, this word appears only four times in the Bible. For the purpose of this lesson, we will focus on 2 Thessalonians and Ephesians.

2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 (HCSB)

11 And in view of this, we always pray for you that our God will consider you worthy of His calling, and will, by His power, fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified by you, and you by Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 5:9 (HCSB)

9 for the fruit of the light results in all goodness, righteousness, and truth— 10 discerning what is pleasing to the Lord.

While showing kindness to others is a part of goodness, goodness also includes an additional aspect of righteousness and truth that is meant to lead a person towards reform or change. And, goodness always expresses the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I began thinking about Biblical examples of how Jesus spoke the truth to people who needed to change or grow spiritually, and there are literally dozens to consider, but the one that really speaks to me is the encounter Martha had with Jesus in Luke 10:38-42.

Some of you have just started mentally writing your grocery list because you’ve heard these passages dozens of times before. You’re thinking, Frazzled housewife or the overworked “20 percent” church volunteer needs to focus on Jesus, not the busy-ness around them. I understand. That’s the lesson I took from this passage as well.

However, I became excited as I reread this passage with new eyes until I realized that verse 42 is the last verse of that chapter, and NOTHING else is said about Martha. God left me with a cliffhanger! In “Lit teacher” jargon, God stopped at the climax without letting me know the falling action or the resolution. My students absolutely hate when I have them read a story that has an ambiguous ending where they must decide what happens to the character at the end, and when I was studying this passage, I felt their pain.

Then I did what I recommend the students do: I imagined what happened after Jesus spoke the truth to Martha for her own good – her spiritual good.

I can see Martha, standing in front of Jesus, sweaty and out of breath from rushing around, her mind spinning from the mental list of tasks she had to do. I feel her anger as she realizes that Mary, whom she expected to help, has disappeared and is sitting near Jesus, listening to his teaching instead of helping her as a sister should, letting all the work fall on Martha’s shoulders. I understand Martha’s approaching Jesus as the highest ranking male in the room to ask him to tell Mary to help her, indignant that she be the only one to serve so many. Martha’s mind is buzzing with how she will berate Mary when Jesus makes her assist with the preparations.

There’s a moment of silence, then Jesus says, “Martha.” Her mind is still thinking about cooking, so Jesus says, “Martha, dear.” He speaks with love, and that gets her attention. Then he says, “You are worried and upset about many things” which shows his empathy towards her situation.

Then he says, “But…” In literature, “but” is what I call a turn-around word. You are going in one direction, BUT then you completely turn around and go in the opposite direction.

Jesus tells Martha, “But only one thing is needed.” What is that one thing? Martha wonders. I’m scurrying around to provide food and drink to him and his disciples, and I can’t do one more thing by myself. The one thing I need is Mary!

Jesus continues, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.”

I imagine Martha standing there in front of Jesus and the disciples and Mary. She doesn’t speak; she can’t. Her cheeks are burning. Her tongue feels too large for her mouth, her throat too tight to swallow. She wishes she were anywhere but here. Indeed, she is mortified.

I feel certain that Martha was speaking on the inside, and I imagine her internal dialogue all began with her own list of “buts.” But, Jesus! I am working and cooking and cleaning for you and your disciples. Doesn’t that count for anything? But, Jesus! If I don’t offer hospitality, who will? But, Jesus! Aren’t I doing important things?

I completely identify with Martha and (what I imagine was) her speechlessness. When I found out I had stage 4 cancer, I was dumbstruck. I could not talk about it to anyone for a long time. And when I talked to God, all my responses began with a list of “buts.” But, Jesus! I still have so many plans! But, Jesus! I’m a teacher. What will the students do without me? But, Jesus! I need to see my children settled in life and see the birth of my grandchildren. But, Jesus! I’ve never done the thing you’ve asked me to do. Not yet, at least. But, Jesus! I thought I’d have more time.

The fact that Martha and I began every objection with “but” suggests that we were going in the wrong direction, and it is only through correction that God could reveal the right direction and ultimately, his goodness. Scripture tells us that goodness is not a quality we can manufacture on our own. James 1:17 says, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” This certainly includes a life characterized by goodness. In letting the Holy Spirit control us, we are blessed with the fruit of goodness.

So, did the spiritual correction work on the hearts of Martha and me? In a familiar story in the Gospel of John, Martha and Mary send for Jesus because their brother Lazarus is sick. The scripture says that Jesus loved the family, but He stayed away until after Lazarus’s death in order to show God’s power and glory. When He arrives in Bethany, Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you may ask.” I’ve always read this verse with Martha having an accusatory tone, and I think it’s because of the shortcomings I see in her in Luke.

But now, I read that she is stating a fact, and she’s hopeful that although four days have passed since Lazarus has died, there is nothing that God cannot do. She also states that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ who has come into the world. Martha has become a believer, and her heart is filled with his goodness.

Jesus Christ, our perfect example of the fruit of the Spirit, was the model and definition of goodness demonstrated by a human being. Now, no longer human, He sits at the throne of God eager to help us in our lives. And to help us, the Holy Spirit often uses correction tempered with love to assist our growth in goodness. Once God’s Spirit is at work within us, it produces the wonderful fruit of the Spirit; these fruit, or virtues, blend together to reflect the overall character of God. As the Holy Spirit works in our lives, our character changes to become more god-like.

What about my heart?  It’s had a “turn around.” And, the only good in me is the God in me.

Of iPhones and Acme

I upgraded to my new iPhone mid-May. While losing some contacts and text messages was inconvenient, the thing I hated most was the time it would take for my phone to learn my personal lexicon for predictive text. On May 31, seven words changed my life and broadened my vocabulary.

Bing! I received test results via the patient portal from my doctor’s office about 3:30 am. I picked up the phone and determined the message could wait until morning. I had had a CT scan and expected the results to show that I had gallstones and would require surgery. I had put off dealing with my gallbladder attacks all year to take care of during the summer break to minimize the impact on my students. I didn’t want to miss one or two weeks out of the school year since the course I taught had high-stakes testing. Plus, I was having the best school year ever, and I didn’t want to miss any time with the students I had come to love.

I love being a teacher, but I also love my summer breaks. I was willing to take two or three weeks of my summer to recuperate from gallbladder surgery as long as the doctors could do it quickly before my beloved blackberries ripen. After all, I am the blackberry jam queen, and missing any time in my blackberry patch was blasphemy to me.

That morning, I was lying in bed, watching Alan iron his shirt for work, luxuriating in the soft sheets and summer schedule, the sweet knowledge that I had seven blissful weeks of resting and playing, of creating and consuming, of reading and writing. Might as well start my reading with the email.

I opened the patient portal and began scanning down the report to the results. Nothing noted in the gallbladder. Strange. All my symptoms were completely consistent with a crapped-out gallbladder: upper right quadrant pain, pain shooting out my back, nausea, pain worse after eating fatty foods. That’s gallbladder for sure. I’d double-checked my symptoms on the internet, so I was positive.

I was positively wrong. The results showed nothing abnormal in the gallbladder, so I kept reading until the last line which said the radiologist found “two liver lesions consistent with metastatic cancer.”

This can’t be right. I’m pretty healthy for a gal my age. Allergies? c’mon. This is the South. Some arthritis, sure. GERD, of course. A little chubby from stress eating and not enough exercise, absolutely. But cancer, nope. Not me.

Closing my iPad, I didn’t mention the report to Alan. I was so sure that it had to be mistake that I didn’t want to worry him needlessly. I would call the doctor and get this mistake rectified, and Alan would never need to know.

A visit to the doctor that afternoon didn’t go as I had planned. I thought he’d read the report, agree with me, and schedule my gallbladder surgery. Instead, he said the radiologist who read my report was virtually never wrong in his findings. He also explained that the cancer had metastasized into my liver from somewhere else, and we needed to find out where ASAP.

A whirlwind of tests, biopsies, and appointments with specialists and surgeons were scheduled. I was Wile E. Coyote, and an anvil was just dropped on my life.

That blow from the anvil messed with my ability to speak. I literally could not say the words out loud to the people who most needed to know what was going on in my life. I was too chicken to level a blow to my loved ones knowing that the words would change and impact their lives and cause them pain. So, I texted. And texted and texted, answering their questions as best I could, and my iPhone learned a whole new set of words. C is for cancer, b is for breast and biopsy, m is for metastatic, and l is for liver.

I have stage 4 metastatic breast cancer with liver mets. This is my new vocabulary, and everyone knows it. Including my iPhone.