It Can Be Just So Terrifically Awesome! (Conversations About Cancer pt. 3)

(Part 3 in my series on what it is like to talk with people about pain and the awkward (pt 1 – click here), awful (pt. 2 – click here) and awesome results.)

I still remember talking with a recent acquaintance who knew Jeff had just been diagnosed with cancer. She innocently asked a question about his health and prognosis to which there wasn’t a positive answer. It was an awkward moment. And she handled it perfectly. She looked right at me, giving me her fullest attention, slowed her speech so she was very clear, and said from her heart, “I’m so very sorry.” Nothing more. She was slightly uncomfortable, but comfortable at the same time. And I was comforted – by her sincerity. By her honesty. She saw me. Heard me. Even though we didn’t know each other very well, she didn’t let the awkwardness keep her from acknowledging the gravity of what I had shared.

Good conversations, especially those between older and younger women should be immortalized.

Good conversations, especially those between older and younger women should be immortalized.

There was the friend I invited over to my home for dinner and we went into my office so we could talk. We’ve known her for years and she loves our family. It was the first time I was able to tell her our news.  She wept bitterly and gave full expression to her sadness for us. And I felt so deeply loved by her tears and the lack of shame in letting them go.

There was the friend in another part of the world I spoke to on the first day we heard Jeff’s initial diagnosis. The unexpectedness of our news squeezed a surprised and soft “Wow” out of her as she processed what it was I had just said. And, after a few moments, emotion washed through her voice as she simply and quietly said, “I am so sorry for you two.” As I sat there in shock, she then asked the right questions and allowed me to tap into her wisdom. She listened and counseled and did what older women are supposed to do in those moments. She led. And it was so great not to have to lead when it took all I had in that moment to just sit upright and keep breathing.

There were the crazy friends who, during one of Jeff’s stays in ICU, when things were so uncertain, drove a long way to be with me. They brought me food. Good food too. They let me talk all I wanted, made me laugh like only they can, engaged me in a real conversation…and then prayed over me as we all cried.  It was the ugly kind of cry too, with sobs and snot and running make up – the kind you only want to do in front of those who really love you.  And I felt very understood, cared for and loved.

Sometimes we do the carrying. Sometimes we are carried. And it is beautiful.

Sometimes we do the carrying. Sometimes we are carried. And it is beautiful.

There was the text message that asked just the right question at just the right time that saved me from going down a dark path. I wrote about it here. And I felt gratitude that someone dared to not let me go off on my own when I needed to stay connected.

There was the friend who doesn’t really hug very much who let me bury my head on her shoulder and sob. I know she was praying for me in my helplessness. And I felt the specialness of her gift to me, of her coming out of her comfort zone because I needed her. She put my needs ahead of her own. She even made me drink some water because she recognized I wasn’t doing well and couldn’t take care of myself. I don’t really remember how I felt in that moment because my nervous system was fried with fear and grief and unknown. But I wasn’t alone in it because my friend was there with me.

There was the older woman friend of mine who came and sat with me in the hospital, just to be present so I wasn’t alone in a moment when I really didn’t need to be alone. I didn’t have to talk if I didn’t want to, but I could if I felt like it. Even when I wasn’t sure what sort of emotional response I might have and that made me very nervous about another being with me, it felt very safe. And good.

There were the phone calls from friends I hadn’t seen in years, but had to talk with me. There were the emails and texts from around the globe from people who know and love both Jeff and I. There were the personal visits from those who had to really work to get to where we were but came anyway. In all this I felt…so grateful that friends didn’t let time or distance or fear or awkwardness keep them away.

It turns out, many many many of the conversations I have had about Jeff’s cancer have been awesome. Not in a “ha ha, hey, let’s throw a party” kind of way…but in a deep “we are here with you” kind of way. I haven’t had to be alone, either in my heart or in my outer world. These awesome conversations have been about more than just the exchange of words – but the exchange of love, relationship and presence. More than encouraging, but soul-defining. A blessing. A gift I get to keep the rest of my life. Who knew? That in the face of so much pain, there would, at the same time, be so much joy? Treasures hiding under the muck.

From these friends I’ve learned so much about communication and connection. About love. About how to listen. About what it feels like when another approaches my pain – and how to do the approaching… especially in those fragile, tender moments when a heart is breaking.

No wonder God wants us connected to each other, in authentic community and relationship. To not hide, to open ourselves to one another in all its messiness and hang out there – by the roadside together until the hurting one can get up and walk again. Offering grace. Taking turns taking care of each other – because each of us will be the hurting one at some point.

And I feel so grateful to those who know how to communicate, how to be human, how to be compassionate…how to stay with someone in pain and not run in fear or from the awkwardness. My interactions with them haven’t always been neat and clean and pretty, but they’ve always been real.

And the best part? Those friends always brought Jesus with them. And that is always an awesome experience.

Pr. 17:17 A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

Pr. 25:11 A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.

It Can Be Just So Terribly Awful (Conversations About Cancer pt. 2)

(Part 2 in my series on what it is like to talk with people about pain and the awkward (pt 1 – click here), awful  (today) and awesome (up next) results.)

It was one of the many, many times I’ve been sitting in a hospital waiting room while Jeff was in a major surgery, and I was talking with one of the many, many people who have visited me during these times and tried to bring comfort. And while I was grateful for the effort, it went horribly, horribly off the rails.

As he sat down, he began talking. And talking. And talking. (Let me preface this by saying I’m a pretty good listener. A decent conversationalist, able and willing to do healthy give and take. This story isn’t about me wanting to monopolize a conversation but about what was appropriate considering the situation.) At first, given our context, I couldn’t believe he didn’t really ask me how I was doing or feeling, beyond just the obligatory greeting. So the first time he took a breath I decided to try and volunteer some of my story. If you know me or have ever read this blog in the past, then you know I am kind of honest about heart and spiritual stuff. I didn’t go all Job on him, lamenting from the darkest places of my soul, but I was describing something of my fear and weariness and grief – as I thought was appropriate for a hospital waiting room. I assumed he would be interested and able at least to let me say what I needed to say and at least, tell me, “I’m so sorry.”

Um, I was wrong. He looked at me, not with rejection, (thank goodness) but with confusion. Like an actor must on stage when a fellow actor deviates from the script. He had no idea where to go or what to do with what I had just said.

So he began doing what many… so many have done with me in conversation when the topic of my husband’s cancer and what it has done to our lives comes up. He continued talking. And talking. And talking.

After a few tries to join the conversation, I just stopped talking to see if he would notice. He didn’t. For well over 30 minutes. At first it was sort of comical. I thought I was having an out-of-body experience, wondering where the hidden camera was. And then it just started to hurt. Because I was having to listen to him when I should have been given the gift to talk. Because I actually needed my intellectual bandwidth to manage my own stuff and he was taking it from me. Because in a moment when I was supposed to be loved, I wasn’t. And it hurt.

My guess as to what he was doing? I have several theories. First, he could have been trying run out the clock on our conversation – and by not giving me space to talk, he was avoiding having to go to an uncomfortable place spiritually or relationally. Second, he may have been working with the good intention that keeping my mind busy, off my circumstance and a few moments of distraction would be helpful. (I’ve been surprised to realize that many pastoral visits seem to operate from this mindset.) Third, he may have thought that his words were actually helping, that in that moment what I really needed was more input to help me process my pain. Fourth, he could have just been terribly un-self-aware, not paying attention to how I was receiving him and clueless about what I might have been feeling or needing.

I suspect there is another, more-common-than-one-might-think reason as to why he so epically failed in the comforting category, however. And it is a reason I have experienced often as I move through conversations with people about my husband’s cancer and what it feels like for me. I think I scared him. Oh, not me directly, but my situation. Because if God loves me and I’ve been a relatively faithful servant of his for years now, and He could let this horrible thing happen in my life…then He just might let it happen to him too. Or to someone he loves. And that can be a very scary thought.  A paradigm-shifting, theology-busting thought that many aren’t ready to handle. A God who lets (and might even cause) bad things happen to those He loves.

And so I find myself periodically confronted with people who hurt me with their words, who shut me out of the conversation about my situation (ironic) because they are afraid of where things might go. These people refuse to let me communicate honestly about how I am doing and feeling by saying things like, “Let’s just focus on the positive.” (meaning, let’s not talk about the negative possibilities) Or, “I know God will heal Jeff.” (which shuts down whole streams of conversation ) Or, “It will all work out for good.” (again meaning, let’s not talk about the negative possibilities) While I appreciate and value faith-filled positive folks, what I’m talking about are the times some are unable or unwilling to participate in conversations that don’t follow a specific script. They seem unable or unwilling to believe God might just defy their expectations in this situation and break someone’s heart. And that He would still be loving in that moment of profound pain and disappointment.

Then there are the people who want to talk about things like God’s glory and what a gift it can be to  suffer for Him. (They are almost always young folk, without any real suffering or significant life experience behind them.) They quote lots of verses or a book they’ve read – and often go into preaching mode instead of conversation mode. (Which works in the pulpit…in the hospital waiting room or coffee shop? Not so much.)  In their head-lead desire to be theologically accurate, they end up being heart-less, rejecting the very Biblical imperative of being human and compassionate. (For the record, I know God is good. I know most circumstances have the potential to bring about some good. But there are days I don’t feel very good about it all. If theology can’t meet me here, if it can’t allow God to be sovereign and me to be human at the same time, it is lacking.) They hide behind an impressive theology because they are afraid of a God they can’t understand or put in a box. And they are afraid of those who challenge their paradigm.

I am learning compassion for those I meet whom I scare – and I am learning to be patient with the multitude of words that come forth from their mouths, unchecked by their brains and uninformed by their hearts. I know they are trying to help and do what they know to do. But sometimes, I just need to get out of the way because a conversation with them in the wrong place at the wrong time, like a hospital waiting room, can be just terribly awful.

Pr. 10:19 When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.

Job 6:26  Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?