I understand Brittany Maynard.

On Saturday this woman, Brittany Maynard,  is going to take her life in order to end her horrible suffering. And while as much as I would like to condemn her decision, I have to admit that I understand her. I have never had to face something as terrible as terminal cancer. I have never had to contemplate the indescribable pain that she is experiencing-the physical and the emotional. I never had to look into the eyes of my sweet husband and know with certainty that he will have an entire life without me after I am gone. But before I rush to judge her, I have to admit that despite not having to endure the same suffering she has, that I can understand so much of her. I sympathize with the desire to control the uncontrollable, to have some sort of a say over your “own” life. I know all too well what it feels like to watch the darkness closing in and feel like there is no way out. Or to feel that the only way out is to curl up in a ball and die as the the suffering washes over me and dies too. I know some of what she is experiencing because I too have felt so deeply wounded that I don’t think I can survive it. I have felt so desperately exhausted that I know I cannot even muster another step or another breath on my own. I have felt overwhelmed by fear, by worry, by the unknown. I have felt broken by suffering. I have feebly looked ahead and seen only a a thicket of more of the same suffering. And then beyond that- a deep, dark woods of worse, unimaginable, but very real, very promised suffering. If this thicket is ensnaring me, how can I even make it through that woods? Wouldn’t it be better if I just laid down here in this thicket and let it all just end?

 

While in many ways I cannot even begin to fathom (or speak about) this woman’s experience, in other ways her story has struck a cord with me, and resonated through me. In many ways I feel that I can relate to bits and pieces of her story and what she must be feeling. I don’t want to pretend to compare my suffering to hers. And I most definitely do not want to start some sort of political discussion. But I can’t shake her story. I can’t shake the twisting feeling in my stomach made by words unsaid, thoughts unarticulated. I can’t shake the powerful, life-altering things I have been learning through my own (and my family’s) suffering the past year or so. And I can’t shake the thought that although it breaks my heart to to think that this woman has had to suffer, and that she chooses to end it this way,- it breaks my heart even more to think of how so many of us (myself included!) often view suffering.

 

Since my dad’s formal diagnosis on January 15th of this year, and since his Doctor and my mom had the “between you and me conversation” last November, I have become acquainted with a new kind of suffering that I was not previously familiar with, and one no one wants to meet, but at some point most of us will. Just over this past year or two I have seen several dear friends and family members experience the kind of suffering that rends a person -the kind of suffering that twists you up like a wet rag to wring out every last drop of liquid, and twists harder, and again, and once more, and then just when you think the rag can’t twist any more, by some force it twists around just once more until it is so tight and so empty that you are afraid it might snap. Alzheimer’s has brought my family and I pain I had never experienced, and only the promise of a deep, dark woods of worse pain. Whatever the tool of the suffering my loved ones have experienced, this kind of suffering begs a response, I feel. My heart couldn’t steer into it without some sort of guttural reorganization. I needed answers of behalf of myself and those friends and family I love. I needed direction. I needed to plot a course so I could press on through it.  And in that reorganization, that “cleaning of my heart’s closet”, I have come to realize a few things. Not things that make me any sort of expert. Maybe not even things that offer much of any kind of insight. I am just beginning this long walk through this kind of suffering.

 

But I have learned there is a dignity to it, not the type of dignity Brittany Maynard is grasping for as she peacefully passes away in the arms of her loved ones. There is a dignity in suffering well. I am not entirely sure how to suffer and grieve well, so don’t look to me for an example of this dignity. But I am sure if we think each of us can come up with people who have suffered with this dignity. I am not speaking of pride or not accepting help. I also am not talking about denial or blindly pressing on. I see great dignity when someone allows themselves to be weak, allows themselves to be vulnerable, allows themselves to acknowledge the depth and ugliness of their feelings in their suffering, but still chooses joy. When someone chooses to not run from suffering, or to expect pity, or to label it something exclusive of God I believe they are an example of that dignity that can only come from some supernatural grace that God has given them in their suffering.

 

At first glance it may not seem that God is in those moments of deep suffering, but I have come to learn that He is. I know His love more now, in the past year, than I ever have before. It is not because He has withheld suffering from me, but rather because He has allowed it, and walked with me though it. Where the presence of God is in suffering, there is great beauty. And great holiness. Christ suffered. He promised we would suffer too. So when I suffer here on earth, I recognize that I am not alone. I am experiencing God in ways I never would have without these horrible circumstances. The holiness in suffering does not take away the pain. It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t still love to escape it, to duck from under it, or to cave inside myself and shut it all out. No, the suffering is still suffering. It is still awful and at times unbearable. I wish so much that my dad would live with his “right” mind until he is at least 80. I desperately long to pause time and let us live together in this moment before something more slips away. While I am here on this earth nothing will ever alleviate the pain in enduring all that Younger Onset (Early Onset) Alzheimer’s brought to my family. But if I am able to share in Christ’s suffering (as in: connect to my Savior in a way I never would have been able to otherwise!), if I am able to be part of God redeeming something awful for His glory, if I am able to experience His holiness in suffering-then I choose not to run from it.

 

The temptation is always there. Our culture always tells us pain in bad. Suffering is bad. Sickness is bad. And they are. But not exclusively. I have learned that wrapped up in suffering is something awfully, ruggedly, heart-rendingly beautiful. I will never approach my God the same way now that I know, really know, the comfort that comes from knowing that He  “collect(s) my tears in His bottle and record(s) each one in His book” (Psalm 56:8).  I feel a new closeness to Jesus as I read that he wept as Lazarus lay in his tomb. Despite knowing that later He would raise him from the dead, despite knowing the hope that lay on the horizon, Jesus: the God-man, still shook and sobbed in His holy-human grief. The verse about “God’s grace being sufficient” and “His power being made perfect in weakness” ? (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is not a trite cliché hanging on my wall. It is a verse that I grab ahold of as my legs buckle underneath me. As the voice in my head berates me for not being able, I quiet it with this truth as I revel in the reality that it is in my very weakest moments that God is most glorified. Because when I am weak and unable, any good is not of my own doing, but His. Any victories can only be credited to His grace and strength. When I am empty, without even an ounce left to give, I know that it is He who works in me, who fills me up to over-flowing with joy and peace. And without suffering here, Heaven would seem much poorer. If the arms of my loved ones were always open wide to me, and I had the promise of lifetimes full of their embrace, the tender and powerful arms of my God would not so easily draw me away.

 

The truth is that suffering sucks. As much as it is a universal part of life, it sucks. And because we hate “hard” and we hate “pain” and we want to be in control, we try to manipulate it and escape it. Because we are weak. I used to bemoan my weakness. Now I am thankful to be weak. I am thankful that I have to battle against caving in underneath the weight of suffering. I am thankful that in many ways I can relate to Brittany. It is in my weakness that Christ is glorified. If bringing Christ glory is the goal of my life, than what better way to do it than to be weak. And what better way to be weak than to suffer. It may sound backwards or even unloving of my God to use my weakness to bring himself fame. But honestly, there is nothing more right in all the world. I AM weak. God doesn’t make me weak. He uses suffering to make me see my pre-existing weakness. I have been praying for years for God to let me see myself as He sees me. I order to see myself the way He sees me, I needed to see myself weak. I needed to see Him as He is-compassionate, gracious, wise, powerful, full of loving-kindness. When I see how weak I am, and see how much he loves me still, I see things as they really are. I am weak. He is strong. I am loved by the one who IS love.

 

I have rambled on and this post has gone to places I didn’t see when I first began typing. I am not even sure my thoughts are cohesive. I guess what I am saying is that I still have so very, very much to learn in my life, and in this area of suffering in particular. But if I have learned anything this past year or so, it is this: suffering without Christ is pointless and endless. There is no end game. There is no hope. And I actually believe the suffering will never end for those apart from Christ. Jesus is like the missing piece to the puzzle-the piece poor Brittany is looking for, the part we are all looking for. He makes suffering make sense. He makes it mean something. He makes it achieve something greater. His grace makes is easier to endure. His peace surpasses understanding. His hope gives us the light we long for now and “at the end of our tunnel”. And His love, oh His love, is carries us. It sustains us. It directs us. It spurs us on. It chides us. It corrects us. It comforts us. It strengthens us. It defines us. It saves us.

 

So when I want to run from suffering, I will run to Jesus. When I want to cover myself with blankets and hide, I will hide my heart in His Truth. When I am crippled by weakness and cannot stand, I will kneel prostrate at the foot of His cross-where His blood and love poured out of suffering, where His screams of anguish in the darkness communicated He feels my pain, where suffering had eternal purpose so that my suffering now could achieve an eternal glory. And it I do all because when I cannot even stand, His strength carries me there.

Instead of briers a myrtle will grow…my feeble attempts at understanding biblical gardening

 
I was talking to a friend briefly the other day about some of the biggest struggles I am facing lately. The thing about Alzheimer’s (or rather one of the things about it, or any other terminal disease, I could imagine) is that it takes a person away slowly. It isn’t methodical, but it is persistent in its progression to conquer a person’s brain, bit by little bit. I don’t know about you, but I am not sure how to deal with that, I mean like really deal with it. I know I should be mourning in a sense. I know that each piece of my dad that is lost (or that will be lost) is something to grieve, as it passes. Because the ugly truth is that by the time my dad dies and the “real” mourning starts my dad will have in many ways been long gone.

So I feel as if I must grieve now, in pieces, just as the pieces of him kind of flicker and dim and go out in front of me. When we first found out a remember feeling jipped. Pieces were lost that we didn’t even know about. I didn’t have time to process and grieve them as they went. I felt like someone stole something from me without permission. (I am sure there is a better way to say that. Do people usually ask permission to steal from you? Anyway…) Well now, less than a year later, I still feel like pieces are being taken from me. This time though I know the thief is coming, and I am helpless to stop it. I clench my fists around the pieces but they evaporate out of my fingers, like a mist. I guess life really is like a vapor.

So I grieve. I fumble at it, because I really don’t know how to do it right. I am also pretty sure there isn’t a “right” way, like some sort of formula for how to grieve. I also fumble at it because while I feel so appropriate grieving, I feel just as inappropriate. My dad is still here. Actually, he is 2 minutes up the road. He plays with my kids every Tuesday night while Peter and I go to Community Group. Their laughs and squeals echo in the air, lingering, hours after he has gone home for the night. Sometimes I sit in the quiet, when the air feels dense, and I can sort of hear them yelling and playing together. I can almost hear the kids saying “Oooh Pooooopppp.” Even Royce says it to him, because even Royce knows Pop is full of silly. So I feel wrong in grieving. I don’t want to waste time with it. I want to spend our time, budgeting it carefully for enjoying the life and time we have.

I am always torn back and forth between grieving what has been lost and enjoying what is still here. That is a hard balance, which somehow I will have to live with now. I am not saying that to sound like a martyr. I am just saying it. Because it is.

So I am trying to find a balance. Between the two. And this search for a balance leaves me exhausted and raw. It makes me want to turn inward, when I desperately don’t want- to coil up like a self-protecting potato bug, in my grief balance. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking only about my suffering (or my family’s), my thoughts and feelings, my life. The temptation is there to build a cocoon around myself and my my family and to fold inward on each other, shutting everyone else out. Maybe that temptation exists because I often feel like this new life we have because of Alzheimer’s is magnetic. I can’t help but look at it, be drawn to it. The temptation to shut others out comes because turning away from the magnet seems like a daunting task. But I fight that temptation. Sometimes extremely unsuccessfully. The sin magnet in my heart can also be quite strong.

I have been thinking about these things for months now, trying to sort it all out. I guess I hoped it would get easier, even though I knew it wouldn’t (won’t). And even writing that sounds ridiculous.

But then I was reading in Isaiah the other day.

Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
 Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn bush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”
Isaiah 55:1-3a, 8-13

These verses are lovely. I have been coming back to them for weeks now. They are so life-giving. I would read them over, pray them out loud. But when I got to the end I would kind of gloss over verse 13, because it didn’t really speak to me. Then for some reason, last week, verse 13 seemed to “jump off the page” as people say.

Instead of the thorn bush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever
 
I began to picture each plant mentioned in the first part of the verse. I even jotted down words to describe each one. Thorn bush-prickly, unapproachable, painful. Juniper- evergreen. I am such an agriculturalist that I had to look up Brier and Myrtle online to see what they even are. But here is where I felt the scripture came alive, I had an “aha” moment and (insert other cliché here).  It turns out Briers are thorned plants that grow together to form thickets. They become twisted together on themselves and mangled. Myrtles on the other hand  are a flowering plant that is an evergreen. It has a central vein which nourishes the flowers. Myrtles also produce an essential oil that people have used as an antiseptic and tonic. In Jewish liturgy is a sacred plant used to symbolize good deeds apart from the Torah (or the law).
 
myrtleillustration
 
 
Hello symbolism! My English teachers from High School would have been all over this stuff…ya know if it wasn’t from the Bible. I honestly almost started crying at the beautiful meaning here, the verse I had all but skipped over, now became my favorite one in the passage as it related to my struggles against grief turning me inward, mangling together my heart and emotions and good intentions and desires into a thicket of briers. I can’t make sense of the thicket myself. I can't untangle myself from it, no matter how hard I try. But then I don’t have to, do I?
 
Instead of the briers a myrtle will grow…a flowering plant, fragrant, beautiful, evergreen, nourished from a central vein. From the “fruit” comes an oil that cures and cleanses others, not by keeping the law (which I am helpless to keep) but rather apart from the law…by grace.
 
Oh God, untangle this thicket within my heart. I don’t want to close others off in my grief like a thorn bush. I don’t want to ensnare others (or myself) by closing off. I want to be life-giving. I often feel like I don’t have much life to give though, God. Nourish me by the central vein of your truth and love. Allow me to bear fruit-fragrant and beautiful, but also practical and a blessing to others in their areas of need. Make the myrtle grow where the briers once were (and still are). I am helpless Jesus. I have tried so many times to do good, for the wrong reasons. I didn’t realize this was tangling me even more in the briers. The law only shows me where my weaknesses are. I can not attain it. May I grow like a myrtle watered by your grace. May my life burst forth from your life, and may it always, ever, only be for your glory, God, for your renown. You are the redeemer, God. Redeem this grief. Redeem this suffering, please God. Make it into something beautiful and enduring. Make it into something that proclaims the joy that can be found through suffering, the non-sensical joy and peace that comes from you. May I love you and love others, because you loved me first, and because your spirit courses through me enabling me to do the good works you prepared in advance for me to do. Redeem me God. Redeem me in this. Turn this thicket, these thorn bushes, these briars, into your beautiful garden God, for your pleasure and fame.

I haven’t written in a while

I haven’t written in a while. It is not from lack of thinking and planning-more a lack of execution. Lately I feel kind of like I am walking through knee deep wet sand. Every step is calculated and labored. It surprised me too, this walking-through-wet-sand-grief. I am finding grief is sneaky, and it steals from you little bits, lotsa bits if you let it.

 

Last September my dad went to work one day, left in the middle of the day after a meeting and didn’t go back. Last September everything changed, even if we didn’t know how much yet, even if it had been changing all along without us knowing at all. In November we found out the probable diagnosis. The Dr. called my mom and told her the feared and unwelcome news “between you and me…Alzheimer’s”. When she told me on the phone that night I felt the vomit coming up in my throat and the silent tears spilling out of my eyes. Everything seemed blurry, the room rushed and spun around me. There was nothing to grasp onto. When Peter came down from putting the kids to bed, he found me collapsed on the dining room floor, clinging to the leg of a chair.

 

Two Novembers ago Peter came home from a family Doctor’s appointment for his dad. He sat with me on the couch. He bristled. He stared. I rubbed his back. Rubbed my swollen stomach as if trying to pacify the kicking baby in my stomach. We sat. Silence and sobs shook us both. “Stage 4” they said. Suddenly life looked much different.

 

Words can pack such more meaning than their syllables convey. One word can change not just the mood, the circumstance, but your life. In a moment, and with two words, spread across the span of four seasons, our lives came to look so much different. Everything changed. Everything was colored, as if even the things that weren't directly changed were somehow touched by the ripples these words left as they dropped themselves right into the center of our lives. Each time the one word news came upon us all I could muster was a whispered one word prayer. The only word I know stronger that “Cancer”, stronger than “Alzheimer’s”. I whispered “Jesus”. And many times since it has been all I have been able to whisper in between the sobs, in between the questions, in between the gulps and gasps for air, the fear, the deep pain that doubles me over at the waist.

 

I whisper only for my ears and His, the name that brings me peace, the name of the anchor of my Hope, the name that intercedes on my behalf giving words to the groanings of my soul. And nothing changes, but suddenly everything is different.

 

Grief is sneaky, but it can’t hide from my Jesus. It is powerful, but nothing is more powerful than my Hope. I don’t have to understand it. I sure as heck don’t like it. But in the grief that suddenly leaves me without air, I know where my comfort comes from.

 

I have so many more thoughts on this-so much more of the ways God has used this grief, these one word diagnosises to draw me closer to Him, to teach me things I would otherwise never have learned, to comfort me and change me in ways I am thankful for beyond words. I can’t type them now. I will try to share some of it soon. God has been changing me. He has been chiseling at me for a while. Turns out chiseling is painful and sometimes I want to run from it, but bit by bit God is revealing something beautiful. He is chiseling away at my pride, my selfishness, my lack of faith, my foolishness, my insecurities. Basically He has been chiseling hard, and with a purposeful, masterful hand at my heart. And I am in many ways raw. But when I get a glimpse I can see slowly it is becoming something a bit more beautiful, because I see more and more of Jesus there. The beauty is not my own. It is His. His work. His beauty. His glory.

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