Um, This Would Be Fascinating If It Wasn’t…You Know…Me

A year and a half ago, our lives changed forever.  In the morning, we suspected Jeff had an ulcer.  By the evening, he was in emergency surgery to remove a blockage in his colon.  It was cancerous.  When it was over, I was talking with his surgeon in one of the little rooms off to the side of the waiting room.  It was then, she asked me a question.

“Are you squeamish?”

Because, looking back, I was clearly in denial…and because I had no experience yet in what exactly a surgeon might possibly mean by this… I told her I was a former biology teacher who had done numerous dissections.  I had a pretty strong stomach.  So when she asked if I wanted to see a picture of Jeff’s intestines,  I said in that enthusiastically optimistic way Davises do, “Sure, I’ll take a look.”

I am not a TMI writer and I don’t want to gross anyone out but…his guts were so sick…so inflamed and infected that it looked like balloon animals were exploding out of his abdominal cavity.  I could go on with the description, but… sit with that image a minute.

And in one of those moments of unintentional clarity, I blurted out words that have stuck with me ever since.  I said, “Um, this would be so fascinating if it wasn’t…you know… my husband.”  And then, as my intellect collided with my heart and life, the gravity of it all began to sink in.  Emotion began to rise and my stomach started moving in that way that let me know it was time to look away.

Who knew… I actually was squeamish.

A season of life has passed and now I am in graduate school studying marriage and family therapy.  I am on my way to becoming a counselor who, hopefully, will walk with people when their insides are hurting and need attention…or when they are in metaphorical waiting rooms of their own, wondering just what the hell happened to their world…

My days are often spent learning about the many ways people and families can be wounded and broken.   I love what I am studying and could read and discuss it till the cows come home.  For the most part, I can’t wait to get out there and enter the world of helping. (Did I mention I can be enthusiastically optimistic?)

Sometimes, I find myself flashing back to my waiting room moment…where the consequences of something  on a piece of paper became very personal to me.

I see all the more clearly now that these things I am learning about…Dysfunction.  Shame.  Fear.  Loneliness.  Grief.  Unhealthy boundaries.  Anger. Emotional woundedness.  Trauma.  Painful memories.  These topics aren’t just ideas in books.  They are real things that happen in people’s lives.  And not just to others, but to me.  These are the things that, if I were to make the right incision, just might pop like balloon animals out of me too.  I am more fully awakening to the realization that I am living what I am studying.  I always have been.  And in these moments when I glimpse the reality of the spiritual cancer that lies inside of me, inside of all of us, these words are echoing through my heart, “Um, this would be fascinating if it wasn’t…you know…me.”

Coming face to face with the depth and significance of one’s (read “my”) mess can be a weighty experience.  Coming face to face with Jesus, not just on the pages of a book, but as a Person who is with me…in the middle of all the emotion and pain…it is fascinating and horrifying… and so absolutely fittingly beautiful.

While the messiness of it all sometimes scares me, it seems to energize Him.  Thank goodness.

Hopefully, a counselor who knows Jesus as Healer for herself, is a better travel companion for one who is hurting, than someone who has just read about the process and the Savior in a book.   Hopefully, I am on the path to becoming both book smart AND experienced.  That waiting room a year and a half ago was an important stop along the way.

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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?

It Can Be Just So Terribly Awkward – (Conversations About Cancer pt. 1)

(As I’ve been talking about Jeff’s health and our circumstances with people for a while now, I think I’m ready to write a bit about what the experience is like, to have pain in my life and to have conversations about it with others. This is part one.)

I feel kind of sorry for many of the people I’m relating to in my life right now. Because as I’m going through various conversations with them, I have a choice to make. At what point, if ever, do I mention, “My husband has cancer.” ?

Just for the record, I’m not one of those over-sharers who bares uncomfortable truth out of context, with terrible timing, throwing very private, personal and valuable information to anyone who unfortunately happens to cross my path. In fact, at times  I can be a slightly socially awkward introvert, who waits a while before opening up. I am ok with listening first, asking questions of the other and sharing healthily… if it is safe, appropriate, if I’ve read the other person well enough to guess that they are indeed interested and it is the right time. (FYI – it isn’t always safe or appropriate, I don’t always read people properly, not everyone is interested and it isn’t always the right time.) For the most part, I am comfortable with myself and even when things get personal,  I’m not a bad conversationalist.

The conundrum comes when I realize this person will be in my life for a while and Jeff’s and my situation will eventually come up. How to tell them, to introduce the information for the first time? If I bring it up too soon or botch the actual words… before they get to know who I really am…maybe before I’m emotionally ready to release such personal information…they may retreat. I don’t blame them for being unsure if they want to commit to anything more than just a superficial relationship with one whose life is going to be so very messy. On the other hand,  if I wait a long while to share, after we have actually become friends or it is obvious I’ve had the news for a while, they may justifiably ask, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” How on earth do I make this easier for them? For me?

Because that moment when I actually say the words, “My husband has cancer,” can be just so terribly awkward. It is not an emotionally neutral statement and there are so many the unspoken implications that go along with it. Where exactly does a conversation go after that? And who leads after this point?

For some, it can be an emotional moment, especially if they know Jeff, if they already care about me or my kids, or if they have a similar experience in their background and more fully understand the weight of what I just said. Some have cried or gotten choked up with me as I’ve told them, which is powerful. I am almost always touched deeply when this happens – I don’t find this awkward at all. It is just that in these moments, I realize that, while I’ve had time to process the shock and grief, the other person hasn’t. So sometimes I get thrust into that also-awkward role-reversal moment of having to offer comfort to someone else about my grief. I’m ok with this and fully understand how we get here. But sometimes it still doesn’t seem quite right.

For others, they don’t know what to say. Either because they themselves are socially awkward around heart topics and don’t want to say the wrong thing. (Which is totally ok by the way.) Or they may want to ask questions but aren’t sure just how to do it or if it is appropriate. Sometimes there can be long awkward silences I am expected to manage because I am the only one in the conversation who seems to know what to do next. For the record, I appreciate these people, because I know they mean me no harm. In fact, I don’t mind subtly coaching them on how to handle me or others like me. I usually don’t even mind leading the conversation from here based the other person’s comfort level and needs in the moment.

Then I’ve had some conversations where the other person wasn’t really listening and didn’t hear what I said… either literally or metaphorically. Or they were so unsure of what to do that they pretended they didn’t hear me. (This has happened more than once.) These are truly awkward moments because they usually go on with the conversation as if I just said, “My husband had a burrito for lunch.” And I’m left to figure out where things drifted off to the surreal. I just mentioned cancer and they are back to talking metaphorical Mexican food. I dared to get vulnerable and go to the deep end of the conversational pool, entrusting them with something valuable from my heart… and they ran, screaming for the shallows, leaving me treading water, wet and alone.

Fortunately, awkward doesn’t kill. It is just uncomfortable. Sometimes it leads me to question myself and my relating abilities, which isn’t always a bad thing. A little more introspection and self-awareness can often be quite helpful in learning to relate better to others.  Sometimes I let it hit me in my self-worth, which is pretty much always a bad thing. Or, I wonder if staying connected in my outside world is worth all the work it takes. (Hint – almost always, when I consider hiding, it is dangerous.)

Ultimately, creating congruence in my life between my inner and outer worlds, between my heart and my relationships – working the discipline of appropriate honesty rather than secret-keeping – is very worth the effort. The pain of talking about A when my heart is breaking about B…well, I suspect if I did that long enough, unlike awkwardness, it would eventually kill something inside of me. Secrets create a powerfully destructive duplicity. And this is much more painful than an awkward conversation.

Awkward passes. Thank you Jesus. So I’ll keep at it, trying to figure out how to do that for which there is no real instruction manual. Trying to learn conversational graciousness, kindness and gentleness – and walk with others well as we learn to communicate about important things during an important season of life.

Pr. 12:25 An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.

 

I Meant It, Even When I Didn’t Know What It Meant

(Written Friday night in ICU at Jeff’s bedside, after his surgery)

Jeff,

When I said, “For better or worse,”,  “In sickness and in health,” I meant it. Even when I didn’t know what it meant.

I'm wearing his ring, since he had to take it off for surgery.

I’m wearing his ring, since he had to take it off for surgery.

On that cold November day in our mid-twenties when I spoke those words…you were so humorously nervous about becoming a husband. Me, so in love and so oblivious to just how hard marriage could be. We were so sure we had it all figured out. The older couples around us must have looked on with a curious mixture of fear for us at our ignorance and joy with us at our enthusiasm. The same way we look at young couples now. Years in together, three kids and many adventures later, we are finally all grown up. Or at least significantly on the way.

And look at where we are tonight. You just out of another surgery to deal with the damage cancer is doing to your guts. Me weeping at your bedside, my guts all knotted up too. Who knew this was coming?

Really, no one knows what their vows mean until they have to keep them. I guess we know something about it now.

I look at you laying in ICU. Again.

I see you sleeping, exhausted and pale, attached to beeping machines with tubes running everywhere. Again.

I feel my heart ache, literally, with a visceral spasm that rolls through me from the inside out. My soul must look like angry waves on the front end of a hurricane. Again.

And I know I will have to do all of this again.

And I will.

Because I love you. Because just like on our wedding day, I am choosing to love you. I didn’t know what it meant then. I sort of have a clue what it means now. And I’m still in. Even though I don’t know what we will both have to do in order to keep our vows. I will try my best to love you with all I’ve got, even as it breaks my heart, even as it leads me to places like this. I will hold your hand and kiss your face and honor you until it is time to hand you off to the One who loves You infinitely more than I do.

And that must be a lot – because after all these years together, I’m learning to love you quite a bit.