Thursday, August 18, 2016

Diving Into the Underworld

As I rode down my stair chair this morning, I balanced a large cup of coffee and a tumbler full of power juice. Unable to sleep much the night before, I jarred awake just in time to dress and meet Lu who had agreed to drive me to another podiatry appointment. Settled in her passenger seat, the warm liquid filled my veins and our second trek across town - in only a matter of days - began.

After relying on tramadol to get through Grandpa's last days, I realized the semi-narcotic hadn't controlled the pain in my right foot. Knowing my doctor had offered a steroid shot for nerve pain in June, I sent him an email and made an appointment. Lu drove through almost pre-dawn traffic a few days later.

However, when Dr. Tucker looked at my foot, he said, "Look, there's swelling. I think you have a stress fracture. You need an MRI."

The MRI was ordered stat, performed Sunday night, and confirmed the diagnosis. Thus, I've had a stress fracture at the base of my second metatarsal since early June. And all the other metatarsals are in "stress reaction", meaning they could fracture too.

But let's not talk about that.




Suffice it to say, my upcoming left foot surgery has been postponed again. And I'm oh so very thankful.

On Wednesday, a Bible study friend sent a prayer request text. Her husband's dear friend had died. When I read it again, I realized that not only did I know the vibrant 55-year-old husband and father who died of a heart attack on his morning jog, he and his wife had attended my book signing.




Always ready with a smile, Michael had a charm and ease that ministered to everyone who entered his zone. The world was a party and he needed to meet and encourage every life he encountered. And he did that well.

I cried more on Wednesday than the day Grandpa died.



On Thursday, I went to physical therapy, wanting to try anything to make my foot better. Signed up for "needling", I was mentally prepared for my therapist to stick needles in my foot, like acupuncture. So when she explained she would stick a needle into my muscle and move it around underneath the skin, like an EMG, I freaked.

I wanted to muster up the courage to continue, but couldn't. Weeks of pain combined with recent losses and I wept.



Relief flooded in the next morning when I learned about the stress fracture, especially when I realized needling wouldn't have helped.

But after the long night and several long days, I questioned going to Michael's Saturday funeral. I wasn't ready for more emotion.

Somewhere in the midst of those muddled thoughts, the Holy Spirit spoke, "You need to go. You need to walk through this underworld of grief with your church family. Don't be afraid of the emotion. It's not time to lighten up. It's time to 'walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil'" (Psalm 23: 4 NIV).

So I went. And surprisingly didn't shed a tear.



Michael embodied the essence of life and the overflow filled our sanctuary. Stories were told. Laughter ensued. And great strength was displayed in lives of his three girls.

"Don't feel sorry for us," one of them stated. "We  got to live with the best dad the world could offer."

And she meant it.

The service was emotional and powerful.
It was Jesus in full motion.

And Michael must have loved every minute from the place where the sky knows no limits.




The underworld continues to call. The more I read. The more people I get to know. The more I recognize the deep places of pain and loss we all swim through in hopes of processing our way back to the surface.

But maybe the real surface is on the bottom. The Psalmist did say, "Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls..." (Psalm 42: 7 NIV).

Will you reach out today, this week, this month? Will you dare to breathe the air of another's under-the-surface-world?

There are beautiful places just beneath the surface.





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Monday, August 8, 2016

Just Breathe

Early Sunday morning, I woke on a blue foam mat that was stretched across the floor in my Grandpa's retirement home room. Dad loomed tall above me and asked, "What can I do to help?"

Without hesitation I answered, "Coffee. I need coffee. A big Dunkin Donuts cup of coffee."

"You got it," he promised before searching google maps for the closest brew.

I napped while he was gone, just like I had all night. Having caved to sleep around 11pm, I stirred every hour or so, checked on Grandpa's stats, and then faded back into oblivion certain he wouldn't last the night.

But he did. Much to everyone's surprise.

In fact he breathed another 19 hours before finally letting go. While his stats indicated he was hanging on by a thread, that piece of thread must have been made of steel.

But that was my grandpa. Strong. Stubborn. Determined.



Grandpa and my mom

In the days before Gramps became unresponsive I started a blog post about stillness. While my cough had abated, sinus pressure still slowed my days and as it dragged on, the continued illness made it easy to give into fatigue, aka: stillness.

Being still makes me somewhat crazy. Or perhaps I should say being still challenged my sense of self until week five and six of bronchitis unfolded. Somewhere in the midst of vaporizer steam, mucinex, antibiotics, sudafed, steroids, albuterol, grapefruit seed extract, bronchial syrup, cold and flu soup, etc., I leaned into the stillness and accepted that simply breathing was enough for now.

I didn't have to do anything to feel purpose. I just had to be His.

Like a rose.



Or a wild flower.



 Or a brook.



"Be still and know that I am God..." (Psalm 46: 10 NIV).

or

Just breathe and know that I am God.

or

Just lay in bed and know that I am God.

"... I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth" (Psalm 46: 10 NIV).

I was still valuing stillness when mom called and said Grandpa was unresponsive. We spent a lot of time at his beside over the weekend, singing, praying, and sharing. But one memory trumped them all.

It was late Saturday night. Dad had stopped by with Lily (the King Charles Cavalier) and we'd sat around talking and laughing and waiting.

At some point, one of Grandpa's caregivers stopped by. She peered around the corner at his tired frame and immediately teared up.

"Oh Mr. Hughes," she began, "we won't fight at bedtime no more. But I'll miss you."

Her tears fell in earnest as she prayerfully blessed him and his family and said goodbye. By the time she finished, we all wiped tears, including the hospice nurse.

What got to me was that the woman who stirred our emotion only knew my grandfather less than a year. During that time, he was fully dazed by Alzheimer's.

He rarely talked, played with his food, slept for hours, and occasionally caused problems. Stubborn to the end, nurses developed a dance routine to get him ready for bed.

Lost in a mental fog none of us want to experience, he still meant something to that nurse. Something enough to make her say more than once that she will miss Mr. Hughes, my grandpa.

He was far from a perfect man. Alcoholism marred his life after his platoon followed Patton's into the Battle of the Bulge. Haunted by foxhole memories of WWII, he struggled, but fought on.

And in the end, he blessed a woman who's paid little to care for those on the dementia ward.

Be still.

Live quiet.

Just breathe.

And be healed.

Like Grandpa.


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Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Miracle Named Catherine

I have an almost eight-year-old granddaughter, named Catherine. Without indulging in even an ounce of coffee, she dances, twirls, and sings when we're together. Dance parties remain the activity of choice and due to recent summer fun, Don and I have participated in more than one.

During a recent family gathering, she surprised me by blurting, "Gigi told me you wrote an article about me a long time ago."

And Gigi, her other grandmother, is right.

Several years ago, I wrote a monthly testimony column for a small paper. By the time Catherine turned two, it was obvious her story needed to be told. For only a few months after she was conceived, Catherine's parents learned their unborn child had a diaphragmatic hernia.

In case you don't know, our diaphragms are a sheet of muscle that separate our intestinal tract from our respiratory system. When a baby forms with a hole in that muscle, their intestines and stomach often fill the upper chest, leaving little space for the lungs to grow in the last month in utero.

So no one knew what would happen to Catherine when she entered this world and was forced to breathe on her own, which made for many long months.



She came in mid-August and took her first breath, and then another, and another. Whisked away to the PICU, she was soon covered in tubes and apparatus that kept those breaths coming.

In time, doctors explained she was born with a lung that functioned at 75% and another at 25%. Her internal organs were mixed up like a jig saw puzzle, which would require surgeries in due time. But as the days went by and the breaths kept coming, she defied the odds and survived.


Catherine lived in the PICU for four months. When doctors discharged her, she went home with a trachea and a feeding tube. She didn't learn to eat until just before her third birthday, and endured a second hernia repair not long after.

After eleven surgeries (or more), scars cover her frame. Her internal organs have been set back in place (almost), and she looks like a thriving eight-year-old.

A miracle in motion.



It wasn't easy. The miracle that is Catherine involved dedicated parents, a great team of doctors, a lot of fancy medicine, and advanced medical equipment that saved her life more than once.

I know Catherine wouldn't be alive without the benefit of modern medicine. Still, when I touch her, it feels like I'm touching a miracle.

I tell her that every chance I get these days because just over six months ago, her life turned upside when her parents divorced. As her young heart processes the unwanted change and the stark reality that life is not fair, I like holding her close and reminding her of the miracle she is.




When I saw her earlier this week, my cough disrupted conversation and my right leg had grown weak from activity that culminated in our dance party. A third antibiotic roamed my system and doctors had cancelled my upcoming surgery.

Not in the best shape, I paused a little longer when I had the chance to remind Catherine that she's a miracle. The world slowed. My symptoms faded in importance. And I peered deep into shining eyes that reflect a warrior's heart.  

There, I saw a resilient life that is overcoming the odds yet again. And I felt stronger. Able. Ready to keep fighting my own fight of faith.

Her miracle gives me the courage to keep praying and waiting for my own. Which is what miracles are meant to do.

Mine may involve more scars and medicine, one breath at a time. But my God is the miracle maker. He works them out in His way and in His time. Some happen immediately while others unfold gently, like the seasons.

So while I wait, I'll hug Catherine a little tighter and longer and remind us both that God holds us even closer.



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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Don't Shrink Back

Shortly after I sipped morning coffee, I did what I should've done all last week. I leaned over a pot of semi-boiling salt water with a towel draped over my head and breathed balmy air. As the washing machine churned in the background, I tried to mentally transport to the beach.

It almost worked.

Bottom line, I'm still sick. Sick enough that barring a miracle, my left foot reconstruction, scheduled in just over ten days, will most likely be cancelled.

Which leads to mixed emotions.

Weary of being sick and slow, I would prefer a break from laying around. On the other hand, getting it over with would just be nice.

So would you pray for me? For a miracle? For God's best plan?

I check in with my doctor again on Monday.




That said, I just saw that another terrorist attack has occurred. Innocent lives have been taken and a yearly celebration turned into a night of carnage.

In the last two weeks I've heard a growing number of talking heads voice that most of us truly want the same thing: family, health, vacations, and all that makes up what we consider "normal" life.

And then there are those that don't.

Some point fingers at particular religious groups while others focus on skin color.

But among every people group and religion, there are those who live for peace and those who stir up strife. Those who make a difference with acts of kindness, and those who shoot guns and detonate bombs.

It's really quite simple.




Okay, maybe it's not really that simple.

But when I sit in bed day after day, napping, coughing, coughing more and napping again, my sense of self worth shrivels to where it's hard to wrap my brain around life's basics, let alone those who wish to do others harm.

But a war is raging. A war on innocent lives in random locations. And it's not going away soon.

"So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a little while,

'He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back I will not be pleased with him.'

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved" (Hebrews 10: 35 - 39 NIV).

I don't care if you're sick in bed like me or on the front lines, making decision that effect our national security.

Don't shrink back.

Find some way - even if some very small way - to pass on a smile, to encourage a friend, to promote healing.

Be intentional.
Get uncomfortable.
Push beyond your norm.

It matters. Right now. As the world grieves, again, our small encouragements heal.

At least that's what I tell myself when limits overtake and fatigue requires rest.

My prayers. My phone calls. My reaching out. It still matters.

Like this little boy.

I just saw this for the first time but it's exactly what I needed today.



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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

After the Fourth

Settled in a Starbucks across town, I’m waiting for my third doc appointment this week. My cough and cold never abated, even after antibiotics. So I see the doc again in a few hours.

Downing coffee dressed as a caramel macchiato helps pass the time. And gift cards allow for the midafternoon indulgence. So now I sip, type, wait, and remember.

Because I don’t do well when slowed to a crawl.

While others may think of me and recall recent feats (like our trip to New York City or successful book signings), when I feel isolated, I also feel strangely separated from all I've accomplished.

In a way, it’s my own fault. I have a need for movement, an inner urging to keep going. Perhaps even a slight fear of not being able to one day, which transforms a short time-out into a week of agony.



To my credit, I’ve been sitting a lot more than normal in recent months and am facing another round of surgery in the coming weeks. So I’ve been fighting feelings of isolation for a while now.

They come and go in waves. But as the fourth approached after a sick week and I realized Don had to work, they intensified again...

Until I read Ute’s email.

My friend, Ute, chose to spend the summer with her family in Zimbabwe. Isolated from American norms, they've ministered to individuals and succeeded in installing a new playground for a small community.

While she's confident God sent them overseas for the summer, it’s not been an easy stay. The poverty, superstition, and corruption create a difficult living environment, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

She described her emotion well in an email I read Sunday morning. So I empathized with her readiness to be home.

Missing the Fourth of July added to her angst, since having lived all over the world, Ute’s proud to call America her home. Celebrating our freedoms makes sense to her because she doesn’t take them for granted.



Struck by her plight—her loneliness, isolation, and fatigue—I fought back against my own. I sent a text to my busy family, suggesting we try to gather on the Fourth.

With a family reunion only days away, we almost let the Fourth slip by. But 19 texts later a plan formed that included dinner at my house and fireworks after—a day early, on the Third, only a few hours later.

So I got busy.

Advil helped as I straightened an upstairs bedroom so my folks could spend the night. And soon Don and I strolled through a grocery store, fixed a pot of chili, and cut up strawberries for homemade strawberry shortcake.

Everyone arrived, ate, and hung out until dusk, when we drove to a park where fireworks barely made it over the tree line. It wasn’t the best view. But a gentle breeze and sparse crowd made for a delightful outdoor visit.

We had plenty of food to eat.

Nice cars to drive.

Air conditioning when we slept.

Tap water to drink.

Doctors to fix my feet.

Inhalers to help me breathe.

Family to love and annoy.

And time to just sit and be.

I slept for almost three hours after my parents left. Ate a little. And then slept more.

The house was quiet and that creepy sense of isolation crept toward my soul again. But the memories of togetherness surfaced and offered ammunition against the silent void.

On the other side of the world, a strike began in Zimbabwe today. Teachers, doctors, and nurses haven’t been paid in over a month. Minibus drivers are “protesting roadblocks by police demanding bribes.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36717354)

Drought accompanied by a cash shortage has left the government on the verge of a shutdown, and my friend is there in the midst.

Perspective.

It sure makes it easier for me to keep going on the day after the Fourth.

And after listening to my lungs, my doc was fairly certain she heard evidence of pneumonia this afternoon. An x-ray didn't confirm her suspicions, but new antibiotics should take care of whatever's going on.

So no wonder I've been struggling. Even Eggs needed more than a day to work up the courage to leave our bedroom after Lily came to visit and firecrackers filled the weekend nights.

She's turning back into the kitty we know and love, and slowly, very slowly, I'm feeling a little more like myself too.





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Monday, June 27, 2016

Till I'm Hurtin' No More

I've been diving deep.

It could be the sinus pressure that made me linger in bed. Or the cough that left me feeling like rocks churned in my chest. Or perhaps the amount of time I’ve abstained from Starbuck’s coffee.

Regardless, after Echinacea soup and a doctor’s visit, albuterol has me breathing better. Flonase has lessened the nasal pressure. And I’m seated in a Starbuck’s sipping a soy milk caramel macchiato.


It’s a new thing. A way to get out of the house.


The music and chatter may distract, but it’s worth a try. I may even learn to prefer the background noise to the screaming silence in my house.

I attended three days of Vacation Bible School last week. Dressed in crazy costumes, I registered children as they arrived. But then workers discovered mold in our church building Wednesday, and VBS was cancelled.

So Thursday morning I woke to my first summer's day with no agenda. Thoughts turned to my book, so late in the afternoon I strolled into my local Barnes and Noble and asked if they’d stock it. When the manager agreed, I felt like...




I woke Friday ready to build on the previous day’s success. Thus, when I walked into physical therapy, I didn’t balk when they pushed my limits—again. But they went too far.

It was strange. All they’d asked me to do was to place my right foot in front of my left on a foam pad and balance. But I couldn’t do it.

My left ankle flopped back and forth like a dying fish.

Still, the therapist asked me to try again on a harder foam surface. I didn’t want to, but I also didn’t want him to think I was disagreeable. So I tried again—to no avail.

Determined, he asked me to balance on the hard floor. It still didn’t work and I finally said, “I really can’t do this.”
I could tell what he couldn’t… the foot was wearing out.

And sure enough, when I went to walk, I was pigeon-toed and unable to move forward without great difficulty.

I could feel the tears build, but prattled on about my kids and my book and anything else happy I could drone on about to keep emotions at bay.

sweet memories like these:
a springtime lunch


the mountains in July '14


chick-fil-a just two weeks ago


As I drove away from therapy, however, I lost it. I had planned to go to the grocery store, but changed course. At Nick’s BBQ, I headed to the food counter and fell apart - again.

You see I’ve handled leg weakness for a long time. But there’s something about this pigeon-toed thing that challenges me to the core. It throws my balance, feels unattractive, and requires extra focus and resolve.

Kind waiters filled my order and carried it to the car. So I went home, ate too many gluten-filled cheese biscuits, and wept.

For now I’m waiting to hear my surgeon’s opinion on scheduling the left foot reconstruction. Part of me hopes it will happen soon so the healing can begin, while another part of me wants the foot to calm so I can wait.

In the meantime, if I walk slowly and purposefully and hold my foot up straight, I can disguise the issue.

And that will have to do for now as I wait for docs to call and schedulers to schedule and days to unfold.

So I've been diving deep and writing songs.

I planned on sharing the other one, but Lu's keyboard didn't have a sustain pedal and this song works much better without it.

So here's to fighting for life, believing for love, and trusting that one day I won't be hurtin' no more.




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Monday, June 20, 2016

Wherever Your Steps May Lead

Just down the hall from the registration tables at Vacation Bible School, a break room holds food, water, and... coffee. By mid-morning, I indulged a second time, succeeding only in accelerating my thoughts as the body tired.

Hours later, when I attempted to nap a second time, my phone buzzed more than normal, rousing me. Family members answered a Facebook call one-by-one, with half the participants joining from across the ocean.

Nathan, my oldest, two of his cousins, and a friend are traipsing through Germany and Austria for several weeks. The phone call confirmed they're having fun, and recent photos reminded me of why I enjoyed two visits to that part of the world many, many years ago.





I confess, it's odd to realize my son is off seeing the world while participating in VBS seems like a big accomplishment for me. But I'm happy to report my foot seems to be healing.

When I saw my doctor ten days ago, he ordered x-rays to confirm a stress fracture wasn't causing my added pain. With all bones deemed as they should be, he told me to come back for a steroid shot in a few weeks if the pain persists.

Look close and you will see the staple-type device they inserted in my first metatarsal to change the angle of the bone. It's one of three procedures done to put my foot straight again.





In hopes of avoiding more needles, Don and I went shoe shopping. With my recently flattened, now size 9 right foot, it's a challenge to match my high arched, size 8 1/2 left foot. But a pair of Birkenstock sandals surprised me and left me hopeful.

A pedicure might be in my future.



I helped with VBS set up last night. I cut strips of yellow duct tape that another mom stuck on the hallways floors, turning carpet into a thoroughfare. The yellow stripes curve in a few paces for added fun. But most importantly, I made a new friend in the process.

Rhoda and I didn't just build a road, we started a friendship. Walking the halls of my church enriched my life simply because I journeyed there with another.


No my feet won't carry me to Europe these days or across another ocean for an adventurous mission trip. But my slowed steps took me far enough two weeks ago that these girls were able to perform our year end recital play.



 



The day after our show, I went out for an hour and promptly headed back to bed for the rest of the day. It took many more days before ordered reigned in my home and life came back to my bones
because I just couldn't take many steps that week.

But just yesterday I built a highway in our church. A road that a hundred kids or so can follow as they trek to and from classes, learning more about Jesus.

My steps aren't taking as me as far as I'd like to go. But they're taking me far enough to make a difference.

How about yours?

Cause you never know where a few steps may lead.