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February 4th, 2022 – Post #31
Please forgive me if this post is excessively long. For me, writing has always been an outlet to somehow organize my thoughts, and the muddle of mixed metaphors running through my head. In the past, I’d just stick all my jumbled analogies in a notebook, but feel somewhat compelled to share them here, rather than just journaling my life away.
I’ve been thinking it’s rather fatalistic of me to be seeing life circumstances in terms of Tsunamis recently; living nowhere near the beach, except maybe the shores of the Muddy Mississippi, or the banks of the Meramec River; but seeing my mom’s condition changing reminds me of a tide slipping away from where it normally ought to land, reminding me of receding water just before an impending Tsunami wave – like a quiet warning that something awful is coming soon, and i ought to be prepared, if that’s even possible.
February Fourth is a day of significance for me. My mom’s mom, Elizabeth H. Miller, known as “Libby” to her friends, and “Grandma Woody” to her grandkids would be one hundred and ten years old today, if she’d only lived another eight years, three months, and an extra day or two. Also, on this day, two years ago, Grandma Woody’s younger sister, Frances Stouffer Stewart passed away.
Frances and I hit it off from the start of our friendship. There was a common bond between us the moment she said, “Yes, when I was young, your grandma was always after me to keep clean – she made sure I had a bath every Saturday night.” I had to laugh, because poor Grandma Woody couldn’t keep us grandkids out of the pigsty, hay bales, or mud puddles around their place – and bath time never kept us spotless very long. Even if she kept us inside (which wasn’t ideal for her nerves), we’d only raise the dust – bouncing around on the “davenport” and from one chair to another, playing chase games when she was busy in her kitchen. Frances and I had a lot in common – neither of us was ever clean enough to suit her.
The days I spent with Frances, just before she passed away, she kept shaking her head, saying, “I just keep thinking I’m seeing your grandma walking across the room in a long, white robe – I guess it’s because she was usually the one to take care of me when I was a child.” I was thankful to be with Frances in those last days. I think we both felt that in a way, my grandma was still seeing that her little sister was taken care of, by having reproduced a replacement caregiver.
I don’t know about birthday parties in Heaven, but I had to laugh that Frances took her last breath on her big sister’s birthday – maybe hoping there would be cake, to celebrate Libby’s big day. Frances was known for her healthy appetite. I’d sent a picture of her on her one hundredth birthday to a friend who commented, “Your Aunt Frances looks great – does she have some sort of health secrets?”
All I could say was that she had a sign in her kitchen which read “A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.” I do know she was still eating fruits and vegetables at nearly one hundred and one, because one night I served her a two course dinner – zucchini bread and raspberry ice cream, per her request.
Saying goodbye to Frances was a heartbreaking joy. She’d made it clear she was ready “to get her wings”, and in those last few hours, some of our most precious moments together were spent listening to a song she’d taught me to love earlier that summer – “Under His Wings” and another I’ve loved for a long time, “I’ll Fly Away”. In some ways, I suppose letting go of her was a little like letting go of a tree branch I’d clung to when a Tsunami-sized wave of grief had washed over me, during a particularly difficult season of life. Her home and her gracious perspective toward suffering had been a refuge for me when we both had to let go of three people we loved, one right after another. Even though she’d known and loved them much longer than me, she kept faithfully pointing me to even Higher Ground – to keep trusting in Jesus Christ, who she had turned to in so many sorrows during her century of life. She encouraged me to cling to the promises in God’s Word.
Watching the news recently, I listened to people on the East Coast, explaining how difficult it was to have their homes threatened by storms, putting them at risk for a repeated evacuation. I felt sorry for them, and yet, when the camera scanned the scene, it was obvious that they’d built their houses upon sand. What came to mind was Jesus’ words, at the end of Matthew 5-7, when He concluded:
“Therefore, whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And everyone that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.”
From a practical and a spiritual perspective, Jesus told us so long ago where to build. At some point, for most people, no matter how sunny life seems, eventually rains descend, floods come, winds blow, and beat upon our lives. The difference in outcome will be in what sort of foundation our lives have been built upon.
2004 was the first time I’d ever even heard of the word “Tsunami”. Watching footage in the aftermath, it was astonishing to see how so many just stood, mesmerized, as the surf slipped strangely away from the coast. Others hopped on motorbikes, or fled on foot, scurrying silently away from the beach; and a small number of brave souls ran from one group to the next, desperately shouting warnings to get to higher ground, probably looking like lunatics to those who didn’t have any idea what was about to happen.
The first time I went to the beach after that, I remember standing on a rooftop deck on Coronado Island, looking at the coastline off San Diego, feeling very small compared to the ocean, and realizing that sort of thing could happen in the United States. I fully admit my American, “That sort of thing doesn’t happen here – it only happens on the other side of the world,” mindset. I think it was the next year, when we were in Hawaii, that the Tsunami warning system went off, and we didn’t know if it was a test, or the real thing. It was hard to know what to do. There wasn’t really much to do, because there wasn’t really higher ground to go to. In the end, I believe it was just a test warning.
I’m saying all this, because I think when it comes to things like cancer, we all know it exists, but are somehow stuck in our astonishment, when it hits so close to home; like people along a seawall, watching as the waterline recedes, wondering why things look strange, and then all at once, realizing we need to run for our lives, or get to higher ground, in order to survive the horrible wave of grief that rushes in.
My mom’s decision not to undergo the Whipple Procedure was not made lightly. She remembers being in nursing school, and hearing about that surgery, and saying, “I’d never have one of those done,” because it seemed too barbaric to her. She was stunned to find herself in the position of having to decide that for sure. Although there have probably been improvements over the years, she did not feel strong enough to undergo such intense rehab, nor did she think the side effects would be worth the possible benefits, in her circumstances. Her only disappointment in not going through with the Whipple was that she adores her surgeon and wishes she could get more time to visit with him. She also didn’t want to hurt his feelings by saying, “No”. That’s our Beth for you.
Since that decision, she has been referred to a radiation oncologist and had an appointment this morning to go through a simulation of what her treatments will be like. The snow and ice made the outing a little more stressful – I’m thankful she made it to and from the appointment without making any snow angels on the ground.
After making it through eighty years of life, including a stint in the Navy, with no tattoos; she received three today, in the form of dots on her abdomen, to help guide the radiation beam. The plan is for her to receive five treatments, which will take about an hour and a half each, under a high beam, which will be guided by an MRI. Because this is more intense than regular radiation, there is a greater risk of damaging other tissue, including organs and blood vessels, so it’s been a stressful decision about whether to do it, or not.
I realize doctors are obligated to tell you everything that might go wrong, to cover their own tails, in case of a lawsuit, but it’s not exactly comforting to have to sign off on the long list of possible risks. I remember sitting in the waiting room while Danny, and his wife were both undergoing radiation, and hearing Herb, another patient, whom we’d only just met, candidly disclosing, “They didn’t tell me when I signed up for this how many times I’d end up having to change my undershorts, because of these treatments.” The list of possible side effects the doctor rattled off for high beam radiation was quite a bit more dire than Herb’s dilemma with his undershorts. I’ll spare you from the potentially dreadful details. Sometimes, a lot of these treatments feel a little like spraying Round-up on a rose garden – they might get rid of the weeds, but what of the rose petals?
My mom had to do a barium swallow this morning, which made me wince, since that’s how this whole thing sort of got started in the first place… When she had one this summer, she couldn’t keep any food down afterwards, and ended up in the ER, which is how they found the tumor originally.
During this morning’s procedure, they discovered a bunch of black streaks and partial rings in her intestines – which we had to laugh about, because that may be the most disturbing part of all this, when it comes to disrupting my mom’s daily routine. It turns out those anomalies on the screen were undigested Cheerios, which are fortified with Iron. To go through with these treatments, she isn’t supposed to have added Iron, as it messes up the imaging.
Her daily routine is to have a bowl of Cheerios, with a spoonful of sugar, and a handful of blueberries – although earlier in the week, she either wanted to add some variety, or got her words mixed up, because she said, “Well, I think I’m ready for my Cheerios and bluebirds”. We both laughed, because my dad had JUST been to the store, and blueberries had been on the shopping list, but “bluebirds” were not. We knew he wouldn’t want to have to go grocery shopping again so soon. She hasn’t had much of an appetite, but hasn’t tired of her old breakfast standby, so giving up Cheerios is going to be one part of the protocol she won’t like a bit.
As I’ve watched her strength and energy ebb away, like a slow, outgoing tide, there has been a sense of double grief for me. Three years ago, during this month, was when her brother, Danny, was diagnosed with his third form of cancer, a brain tumor. The two of them could sit together for hours, content to swap stories and talk about people they both knew. They had a deep love for each other, and so many similarities in their mindsets. Watching Danny, I think we both felt like our hearts were being ripped out.
Seeing my mom’s hand shaking while holding a cup; or taking multiple false starts to get off the couch; or trying to steady herself on legs that seem to be mostly just kneecaps; or seeing the exhaustion in her marbled, blue eyes; or her white hair starting to grow in; and all the other habits and genetic similarities she and Danny have shared, is like catching glimpses of him, and seeing what he suffered replayed again and again. There’s that growing feeling of horrific familiarity, that I know all too well, of what is coming.
Hearing her exclaim in frustrated fatigue, “I don’t know why I’m so tired – I’m just lazy I guess,” is to hear his voice, repeating the same script that I knew wasn’t true.
I remember sitting with him for hours, unsure of what to say, listening to the ticking of the clock. One day, I asked him what he was thinking about, and he said, “I mostly just sit here and wonder when I’m going to die.” Last week, the second hand on the clock he gave my parents for a wedding present got stuck. We took it down, because it was displaying the wrong time, adding to the discombobulation around the house. In the kitchen, I’d never noticed it ticking, but now, when I enter the room where I set it aside, until it can be fixed, I do; and quite frankly, the familiar sound I grew accustomed to at Danny’s makes me feel sick inside.
But I’m reminded of a moment that Spring just after his diagnosis, when the daffodils began to bloom in the woods outside his window, and a bouquet had been set on a nearby table. We were sitting together, and again, I didn’t know what to say, or how to help him pass the time, when he broke the silence with a question I hadn’t expected, saying, “How can people say God isn’t a loving God?”
His words startled me, and I didn’t know what to respond, other than to say, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, look at those flowers. How can people say God’s not loving, when He has made something that beautiful?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, quietly glad that he could find something to know he was loved despite his sad circumstances.
When I was looking through the pictures on his phone that next Fall, still hearing that persistent clock, heartbroken to not have him with me, I smiled to see that one of the last photos he’d ever taken was of that bouquet of daffodils. He’d actually tried three times to get a clear shot, but his hands had been shaking so badly that two of them were blurred. I wondered how many times between Spring and September, that he’d looked back at that image stored on his phone, to remind himself of God’s love, even in the midst of his suffering. I know that every Spring since, when I see the bright, yellow buds coming out of the winter-worn ground, I can’t help but smile, even if I end up crying all at the same time. Danny’s words about God’s love are a reminder, and a gift to me.
Right now, the ground is white and frozen, but I know that beneath the cold, harsh winter floor, there are bulbs just waiting to bust up and delight us, in the midst of dreary times. And how does that relate to Tsunamis? I’m not quite sure, other than to say, as far as cancer is concerned, I feel like by God’s grace, I’ve survived the overwhelming wave of grief that can come over a person when someone they love is swept away.
Some scriptures that have encouraged me are:
Psalm 61:2, “From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy. I will abide in thy tabernacle forever: I will trust in the covert of thy wings. Selah.”
And Psalm 62:5-8, “My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from him. He only is my rock and my defense; I shall not be moved. In God is my salvation and my glory; the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God. Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us. Selah.”
(From what I understand, the term “Selah” is a musical term in Hebrew, indicating the singers are to pause in silence, or rest. For me, there is significance in the addition of this word, because of my tendency to rush past these truths, instead of taking the time to rest in and reflect on the Lord’s promises).
Going through that grief with Danny and seeing so many of the familiar signs and symptoms of what terminal cancer does, I know I want to position myself for the coming grief, but I also feel compelled to offer words of encouragement to help others to make themselves ready. To those of you who have loved Beth Purcell, please don’t get caught off guard, standing there stunned, watching the tide go out, with a wave coming toward you. By all means, please, get to Higher Ground. Look to the Rock that is higher than you are, cling to God’s promises. He truly is a loving God, and does promise that one day, our tears will be wiped away, and the last enemy to be defeated will be death – which will no longer have a sting.
I’m not saying I know when anything is coming, but I do know what it’s like to see the impending signs, and then have everything suddenly swirling; clinging with every fiber to God’s promises, trying not to let myself be swept away in a sea of grief. I’ve been through that, and healed, but don’t want to repeat it. There’s something in me that wants to warn others, regarding their sadness over my mom, or maybe in their own personal lives, “Before that wave of what is most feared comes upon you, be on Higher Ground.”
It’s hard to know how vulnerable to be on the internet, or with anyone for that matter. I don’t want to be guilty of over-sharing, but I also don’t want to be so button lipped that I’m not real about all this. I know there will probably be those who think I ought to maintain a more positive attitude. Maybe I’m coming across like an alarmist. I don’t intend to. I just want to be realistic about where pancreatic cancer generally leads. Radiation is not a cure. It’s just one method of possibly killing it back some, and even the doctor said, “This is a double-edged sword. It could shrink the tumor pressing against the portal vein, but it could also cause scar tissue, which would constrict it worse.” My mom has been saying, “There’s really no good way out of this, is there?”
The story that stood out the most to me from the Tsunami disaster in 2004 was about a ten-year-old British girl named Tilly Smith. She’d studied about what happens to the ocean after an earthquake in geography class two weeks before her family vacation to Thailand. As she walked on the beach with her family and saw signs in the water that reminded her of her teacher’s words, she repeatedly insisted to her parents, “We’re about to have a Tsunami,” but they dismissed her, not really knowing what she was even talking about.
As she grew more distraught, her dad finally told a security guard, which set off a chain reaction that led to the beach being cleared, and about a hundred people heading to the second floor of the hotel – their lives were all saved by one little girl who had the courage to keep speaking what she knew, even when those who were “older and wiser” didn’t believe her.
I remember being astonished by her story and comparing it to footage I saw of others quietly hurrying away from the water without warning anyone else. To me, they seemed selfish, but I wondered, if I was in that situation, and knew what was coming, what I would have done. Often given to second guessing myself, and not wanting to cause a stir, I don’t know if I would have had Tilly’s courage. I wouldn’t have wanted to look stupid out on the beach, shouting to people, “Get to the rooftop, there’s a Tsunami headed this way!” while they scratched their heads and said, “Who is that idiot? and what the heck is a Tsunami anyway?”
I realize that an entire Tsunami is a much larger catastrophe than just losing a few loved ones, but in the aftermath of losing Danny, Frances, her sister Ruth, and their dear friend, Jean Wilson, in a short span of time, along with some other very grievous circumstances, I felt absolutely overwhelmed. I remember around then that I came across a photo from when I was about five years old, sitting on top of a rock, while on a trek up St. Mary’s Glacier. I wrote Psalm 61 and 62 on the front of it, to remind myself that when my heart is overwhelmed, the Lord can set me on a rock that is higher than I am. At the time, I was wanting Him to give me childlike faith that He is still sovereign, even in the midst of sorrow.
Our family still laughs about the irony of that trip. Erica may live in Aspen now that she’s an adult, and hike to the top of Highland Bowl, or anyplace else she can, whenever she gets the chance, but she wasn’t quite such a happy camper the day my mom carried/dragged her up St. Mary’s Glacier in her younger years. For some reason, I can’t find the photo of my mom trying to coax her along, but picture Erica in the same pose, displayed here with my dad.
When I asked Erica if she knew where the one with our mom is, she said, “No, but Lily and I could re-enact it. She threw a fit yesterday and did the exact same thing to me when we were walking.”
No wonder grandparents like grandkids so well – there’s got to be a little pleasure in seeing their kid finally get what’s coming, even if it’s forty years later. Of course, my parents have had moments when they’ve regretted instilling in us a love for hiking, because they’ve claimed more than once that we were trying to kill them by taking them on adventures above their declining endurance level – but here I am, digressing.
My point in talking about those two pictures is, I know I have a choice to get to Higher Ground willingly and with a good attitude; or throw a fit and get dragged or carried, which isn’t pleasant for anyone. I’m not at all saying I was the model child for always trekking along happily – there are plenty of pictures where I had my arms crossed and a scowl on my face, but I know in those times I missed out on a lot. And, ironically, what I remember most from the day we took the trip up St. Mary’s Glacier, aside from the wonder of seeing snow in summer, was getting carsick coming back to Denver, and throwing up on my Strawberry Shortcake shirt, and inside my mom’s swim bag, and in our friend’s front yard (sorry McClure’s)… I suppose it’s those little moments in life that make family vacations so… memorable. Sorry, I don’t mean to gross you out, or detract from the rock illustration…
I don’t want to miss out on what God has for me up on Higher Ground, even in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. I hope you won’t either. God is a loving God – and hopefully we’ll be seeing daffodils soon.
In the meantime, my mom’s still fighting through this the way she usually deals with the rest of what comes her way (Hint: I’ve never seen her throw a snowball without a smile on her face).
*To read more on my mom’s cancer journey from the beginning, or share it, please click below: