Hope in the Fire

The smelter’s fire.  Intense heat.  A forced forging.  A process.  One in which a solid becomes malleable.  Shifting, sifting, chaffing, changing.  A removal of impurities and unwanted elements.  A refining.  In fact, a freeing.  A freeing of what is pure from what is not.

I’ve been there, in that fire.  My fire of adversity was named cancer.  From its appearance, it looked beyond enduring.  When you are in the thick of it, you feel like you are being reduced to your base.  You have no concept of how you got there, how long you will be there, if the process will be repeated, or if you will survive it at all.  And if you do, what will be left of you?

Yet, the Smelter’s fire refines.  If you consider the word “refine”, you see its origin coming from Re, meaning again, and the verb Fine.  Again, fine.  One could even say Again Fine is merely a new starting point, as refine also means to improve little by little, as to be perfected.  Also quite compelling is the word “adversity”, as it is derived from the Latin adveretere; meaning “turn toward”.

Adversity. Turn toward.  Refine.  Again fine.  Improved.

Although we may face adversity in its very worst form, we should always remind ourselves that we still have choices while we are in it.  We can be bitter and angry at our circumstances, asking why me, or why this, or why now.  Or we can turn toward the master Smelter, trust Him, and yield to His hand.

If we trust that in this, there are impurities being purged, in this, we are being reshaped into something more, in this, a greater understanding of truth can be learned, and in this, a deeper relationship with God can be gained, then we will have hope in the fire.  And in the end, we will know that is wasn’t all for naught.

Sometimes, it takes the hottest fire to free us, but at all times, God is still with us.  And when adversity comes our way, if we cling to Him, and put ourselves into His loving hands, then He can use the fire to shape us into the people He made us to be.*

*Zachariah 13:9

This third I will put into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.  They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’”

Daybreak, by Lynnea Washburn, from the Living Victoriously collection.

All portions of the blog are ©Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.

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Affairs of the Heart

(Note: what was intended as a short break from my blog ran a bit longer than expected.  Thanks for hanging in there.)

Two years ago this April… and for the second time in my life… I was told to “put my affairs in order”.  Never a good thing to hear.  But what I still wonder is, what exactly are “My Affairs”, and what is their proper order?

As it turns out, the kind of chemotherapy that I had needed to kill my cancer has a well-documented history of causing Cardiomyopathy (Heart Failure).  Although the chemo dosage I received was well below the levels commonly known to cause this, it happened none the less.  We knew it was a risk, but if we wanted the best odds of surviving the cancer, it was a risk we simply had to accept.

The most difficult part of living with Heart Failure is the possibility of dying from it.  When the heart is only pumping half as strong as it should, it could stop at any time.  Thankfully, there is treatment: a combination of medication and diet changes that will prolong life. Water pills to help the kidneys work, beta blockers to help the heart pump stronger, and a low sodium/low fluid intake.  Getting the medication to the effective level desired is a long, slow process that for me, took close to a year to complete.

Eight months into the regimen, my doctor determined that unfortunately, my heart had made very little improvement, which meant I would also need a defibrillator device inserted into my chest. With my own set of “paddles” wired into my heart, in the event my heart should stop or fibrillate, I would get a shock that would correct it, and save my life.  Of course, I was told that it would feel like getting kicked in the chest by a horse.  Wonderful.  Still, better than the alternative.

It was during this time that I found myself living with a new companion, the little dark cloud over my shoulder named Sudden Death.  It followed me where ever I went.  Each night I prayed to God to let me to wake up the next morning.  Each morning, I thanked God for His answer.  I constantly reminded myself that in all things God can make good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.*  I worked hard at getting my emotions out of the way, to lean on His strength because mine was sorely insufficient, and to trust, trust, trust God for each day.  It was hard work.

“Are you sure, God?” was my persistent question.  “Are you sure… after the cancer… this is what we are doing?”  The questions only started there.

“Why am I going through another wilderness with you, Lord?  If this is where you want me to be, then what am I to understand here?  What is it that you want Lord?  From me… through this?  Am I to walk here for the rest of my life?”  For months I asked these things of God.  I wrote long open letters to Him, asking for more faith, acknowledging my weaknesses, my bewilderment, expressing my gratitude for what He had already delivered me from, asking forgiveness for my doubts about where I was now.  Although I knew I was loved, and I knew He was with me, make no mistake, I was really struggling.  Struggling to understand, or perhaps… struggling to accept.  Clearly I didn’t agree with it.  Clearly I thought God had made a mistake.

Then, after many months, an answer came.  In a word: Yield.

From a book called One in a Million.**

Once the book was opened, revelations came tumbling out.  It was as if God plucked that book off my shelf, plopped down next to me on the couch, opened a page and started reading aloud.  It was really quite incredible.  That book had been sitting there for so long, it dawned on me that God had put the answers in my hands long before I had formed the questions in my mind.  Right there, in black and white, was a reply to every single question I had written out to God.  Literally.

Clarity followed.  I was reminded of all that I had learned in my walk through the wilderness called cancer.  It was there that I had gotten to know God more intimately than I had ever known Him before.  It was there that I learned I was not as capable as I thought I was, but God would step into my weakness and provide me with the hope, determination, and strength I could no longer muster.  It was there that I experienced a profound humbling that revealed the depth of my belief.  Which was then tested, and cemented.  It was there that I had made the choice to go anywhere with God than to stay where I was without Him.  So, you see, after wondering for so long what I was doing here, in a way, you could way that I was here… by choice.

Now it was time to yield.  Yield to the wilderness, for through it, we will have the privilege to experience God anew.  Yield to it, and through it, He will continue to grow us into the people he knows we can be.  Yield to the wilderness, for He uses it to prepare us for the abundant life He has promised.***  The wilderness can hone, perfect, strengthen, humble, grow obedience, courage, hope and faith.

And in the peace that has followed these many months of wondering (wandering), I realized two more things.  One; at some point the cloud called Sudden Death suddenly vaporized, and two; I found that My Affairs, the ones that truly matter, were being put in order after all.

*Romans 8:28

**One in a Million, copyright 2010 Priscilla Shirer, B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN

***Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Copyright Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.

Act II

I was checking off my last-minute errands before we took off to Mexico the next day.  It was a vacation I finally felt well enough to enjoy, except for this little bout with a pesky chest infection.  No matter, I thought, another round of antibiotics should do the trick, and I was just leaving the doctor’s office with prescription in hand.  I should have known it was bad sign when the nurse came running out after me as I headed to my car after the chest x-ray.

“Can you come back in?” she asked, “The doctor would like to speak with you.”

Crap.  They found something.

A million things ran through my mind in that short walk back to his office.  My health had been returning steadily.  It had been almost four years of clean scans since my cancer treatment.  Had the lymphoma returned?  Could it be?  But these symptoms were different.  I couldn’t catch my breath after walking ten yards, my heart pounded after walking upstairs, and I couldn’t sleep due to a constant cough.  Nothing like before.  It wasn’t the same script.

Doctor N gave me that same sideways look I had seen once before.  Uh oh, I thought.

“You may have Cardiomyopathy,” he said.

“I don’t know what that is, but it has something to do with the heart…?”

“Yes, its heart damage.  Most likely caused by the chemotherapy,” he continued.  Knowing of my vacation plans he said, “You need to have an echocardiogram immediately.  I’m setting up an appointment for you downtown this afternoon, and I’m working on getting you in to see a cardiologist.”  I only learned later he had been writing “STAT” on everything all along.

Like a book you are partway through before you realize you’ve read it before (except you don’t remember the ending), this was all way too familiar.  Numbly I drove downtown, knowing the way to the hospital by rote, which allowed me too much time to ponder what this all really meant.

After the echocardiogram was done, the tech nurse asked if I could wait a minute.  She wanted to have a cardiologist check it before I left.  As more and more time ticked away, I began to realize they were debating whether they should let me go.  Finally, the nurse said I could leave, but that Doctor N would be calling me.  I got as far as the lobby outside the exam room when my phone rang.

Good news just doesn’t travel this quickly, and I knew what he was going to say even before he got the words out.  “As I suspected, you do have Cardiomyopathy.  You have an urgent appointment Monday morning to see the cardiologist.  We decided to let you go home now instead of admitting you, but Lynnea. you. cannot. go. to. Mexico.”

I sat, eyes brimming, as fear egged on emotions that I fought to contain.

“I’m so sorry,” he continued, “I know it’s not what you wanted to hear, but this is extremely serious.  If something were to happen… you may not come back.”  As that idea sunk in, I knew he was right, and although I could barely form the words, I said I would be at the appointment on Monday.

Now what.  What in the world was I dealing with?  How serious is “serious”?  What about the trip?  We’re leaving in the morning.  No wait, I’m not leaving.  Should they still go?  They should go.  Will they?  They won’t want to.  Am I safe to stay alone?  What if…?  What a mess.

Of course the first thing my husband and I did when I got home was to go to the internet and seek out as much information as possible.  That’s when we learned that… oh… Cardiomyopathy is Heart Failure.  All my symptoms were there… and, ohh… the possibility of organ transplant… and ohhh…. the possibility of sudden death.  That’s when the reading stopped.  Cue ton of bricks.

We looked at each other, held on tight, let the tears flow until we found our breath.  Shaking my head and straightening, I said,  “Well.  We’ve been here before, haven’t we?”  Conceding nods.  We both know the mantra that comes next.

“You and I both know that if it is time for me to go, then no one, and nothing, will prevent that from happening.  And, if it is not time for me to go, then no one, and nothing, can make that happen.”

If it had not been for the cancer, I would not have known this to be true.

I could not believe I was in this place again, but now was not the time to think about that.  We only had a few hours to sort things out, tell the family, and make a new plan.  It was emotional, messy, difficult, hard, hard work.  Finally, with the help of my parents, a plan emerged that we could reluctantly live with.  I would stay, my oldest son would be there with me until my parents flew in the next evening.  My husband, son and girlfriend would go to Mexico as planned with the understanding if they decided to turn around and come home at any time, they could.

So marked the inauspicious beginning of Act II; Heart Failure.

And although my heart didn’t stop working at that time, it surely felt like it was breaking.  Clearly Mexico was not where God wanted me to go.  But I couldn’t help but ask Him ~ then where in the world, God, are we heading now?

The Circus Master

It’s amazing how fast things whirl around you when you are set perfectly still.  There are times when no matter how hard we try, we just can’t keep up.  Instead of the perfectly spinning top, we find ourselves wobbling like one about to topple.  It’s in those times when we must accept that we are no longer the efficient version of ourselves.  But it’s hard to give yourself permission to carry less than you once did, and it’s hard to be the one taking on the extra load.

From where I sat, watching our Family Circus, I thought things seemed pretty typical.  The boys skirted their homework, played video games too loudly, bumped off the walls while doing just about anything, and were generally the same old mess makers they had always been.  But for some reason it seemed this was no longer tolerable to their dad, and his patience was clearly running out.  A casual thing for some perhaps, but a rare event in our household.

Our easy-going guy had become the barking task master and was now making everyone jump.  So many things got under his skin.  The dishes, the schedules, the appointments, the laundry, the housework, the meals.  All the things that made up our three-ring life.  Even my reminder of whom-needed-to-be-picked-up-when resulted in a sharp snap in my direction.  Something was definitely off.  It didn’t make sense that the regular routine had now become so irritating.

Certainly things weren’t working quite like they once had, and I could see my husband was working harder than ever.  The energy required to parent this household was already demanding enough, and now he was going it alone.  His juggling act got very complicated.  On top of his job, the boy’s schedules, and caring for me, he was trying to keep normalcy balanced up in the air for fear it would all come tumbling down.  It was no wonder he was losing his grip.  I worried, wondered if he had anyone to talk to, and decided we had better try to sort it out.

Carving out some time alone, we finally got to talk.  As we did, we began to unpack the load, sorting through the tightly bound piles looking for things he shouldn’t be carrying.  Would things go smoother if the boys pitched in more?  Sure.  But we know they aren’t going to become perfect children just because of my cancer.  A loosened knot.  It’s unrealistic to think any of them will change into superman overnight (or ever).  An untied bundle.  And you know, you can’t expect to, either.  Another burden set aside.  The piles of shoes, the backpacks, the afternoon dishes, are these really worth being so upset?  Unbound.  Considering everything… do these things really matter…?  Unloaded.

We sat talking, working, unwinding, unbinding, until there was only one thing left in our pack.  And then I saw.  It wasn’t about any of those things.  It was about the single, biggest, hugest thing we had ever carried before.  It was about the one thing we couldn’t bear to speak.  The thing too difficult to articulate.  Beyond what to do with anger when there is no right place for it to go.  Beyond staying mute with indignation while wanting to cry out I am sorry that I am sick.  It was about standing on the high wire of our life and looking out and seeing nothing underfoot.  Not daring to take a step forward, not even daring to take a breath.

Finally, we exhaled.  Then the words came.

“We both know… if God decides it’s my time to go, then no one and nothing can prevent that from happening.  But if God decides it’s not my time to go, then no one and nothing can make it happen.”

And for some reason, simply knowing only that, it was enough.

Enough to gather up the things we should carry, give all the rest to God, and walk hand in hand into another day.

Queen Anne's Lace ©Lynnea Washburn

All portions of this blog are ©Lynnea Washburn.  All right reserved.

Overliving

Halfway to the halfway mark.  You’ve got to find your milestones no matter how small they are.  A new cycle had emerged; treatment, side effects, normalcy, repeat.  Four cycles, evaluation, then four more.  It was a deceptively simple routine.  One in which I felt I was accomplishing nothing, but at the same time experiencing everything way too much.  I called it “overliving”, a side effect of sensory overload, an awareness dialed up to the tenth power.

It began with oversmelling.  Every smell had intensified so much that a once-pleasant scent was now acrid.  Cooked chicken smelled like dead foul, steak like rotting cow, and coffee smelled exactly like what it was; burnt beans.  The smells were closely paired with overtasting.  Even water now had the flavor of chemicals and chlorine.  Nothing tasted as it had before, or perhaps it tasted exactly as it should… about this I have continued to ponder.

Then there were the soaps, the cleansers, the shampoos.  I can’t tell you how many different varieties were tried.  Even the unscented had scent.  And oh, how they lingered!  On the sheets, on my clothes, on my skin.  The products certainly did their job, and no amount of rinsing reduced their ever-so-fresh guarantee.  Each scent was now overdone and overblown, and made my nose zing in agony.

Body temperature was another thing.  Whether it was my skin or my internal gauge, I was completely out of whack.  At times overly hot, but more often much too cold.  I felt every little draft, and spent many hours wrapped up and still chilled to the bone.  When a wood fire was lit in an effort to bring me comfort, it smelled as if I was inhaling the burnt cinders themselves.

Surprising however, were the emotional changes.  This wasn’t on the radar of possible side effects.  I started noticing and enjoying seemingly little things I had missed before.  I felt happiness more strongly, gratefulness daily, and found much to appreciate around me.  The purity of a bird’s song, the warmth of a single ray of sun, the peace found in the dusk of the day, and the uplifting breeze that held the promise of spring.  I found new appreciation for small joys.

Music fell fresh upon my ears, with new meaning and more emotion than before.  Sunday messages held words spoken uniquely for me as if I were the only one in the room.  Conversations were filled with insights and resonating truth.  Books were read with new levels of understanding and empathy.  I often felt as if I were seeing things for what they truly were for the very first time.  I found new significance in familiar places.

It was as if somewhere it had been decided that if I had to endure the physical discomfort of this new kind of overliving, then I would also get to experience a new kind of overjoying.  And although the physical effects would gradually diminish, there has been something lasting about the emotional ones.  One was clearly medication-based, but the other?  Perhaps… this was merely grace.

And once again I pondered, if life is not the same as it was before… perhaps now it is exactly the way it should be.

Water Lily 1 ©Lynnea Washburn

Water Lily 2 ©Lynnea Washburn

Water Lily crystal paper weight

From the Living Victoriously collection of fine products by Boston International.

All portions of this blog ©Lynnea Washburn.

Beauty for Ashes

“Would you like me to cover up the mirror?” the wig maker asked.

“No,” I said.  I thought that watching the progression of my hair being removed would be easier than seeing it all gone at once.

I had been warned that it would fall out suddenly, and that long before I was ready, I would need to make a decision about what to do with my hair.  Or lack of it.  They were right.  It was mere weeks after the first round of chemo that it had begun to fall out.  Reality hit too soon as hair filled my brush, laid upon my pillow, and came off in my hands when I stroked it.

I hadn’t sought out the wig maker.  Someone I once worked with some ten years prior, in another state no less, just happened to have a close friend from her college days that lived not far from me.  I had met this friend briefly some 12 months before, and when she heard I had cancer, she called me.  It was upon her recommendation that I considered the wig maker, and I had made a consultation to find out more.  But since the hair had started to go, my consult was quickly changed to a hair removal.

His name was Kurt, and his talent was amazing.  Kurt’s father had immigrated from Europe to the United States with the craft of wig making using human hair.  What began as a thriving high fashion business in New York City changed over time to become a specialized salon that catered to the needs of cancer patients.  Kurt’s father may have taught him the trade, but Kurt’s tender disposition was uniquely his own, empathic, caring and kind.

With my husband in tow, we arrived early in the morning, as Kurt had cleared his entire day for me.  Gently he began, starting at the back of my head, and he carefully removed my hair in sections.  He then placed them on a bed of long pins in a very specific order.  This way, the hair would be sewn onto a silk cap exactly where it had once belonged on my head.  All the while, he left the front of my hair in place which framed my face.  He knew what he was doing.  From my vantage point, all I saw was me looking back at myself looking normal.

“Ready?” he asked before the last of it was taken.  After a quick breath and an encouraging smile from my husband, I nodded.  The last two sections were removed as I watched, and I sat there in disbelief as I looked in the mirror.

“I look the same!” I said in surprise.  Then I laughed.  What was I thinking?  That my whole face would suddenly change?  That I would morph into someone else?  Or something else?  I startled myself with this silly realization.  The fact that this irrational fear had only vanished when all the hair was gone was equally stupefying.  I gained some composure, put on a long scarf, topped it with a hat, and turned to my husband. Voila.

“You look beautiful”, he said.  I married the right man.

Later that day, when the wig was finished we returned.  It looked amazing.  You couldn’t even tell I was wearing a wig.  I was shown how to wash my hair in the sink, attach it to my head with double-sided tape, and style it as usual with the blow dryer.  It was a bit challenging to find where my hairline used to be as I positioned it on my forehead.  A bit off and something just looked… well, a bit off.  With practice I would get it… most of the time.

But the hardest part of the day came as we prepared to leave.  I attempted to tell Kurt how much this meant to me.  To still have my hair, to keep a part of myself, was huge.  Overcoming my fear that somehow I would lose myself was even greater.  I was humbled by the fact that his talent, this gift, would help keep me whole.  He had gathered the markers of illness and had woven them into a crown.  My gratefulness overwhelmed me, and the longer I stood there the harder it was to speak.  I got as far as saying thank you, but the rest of my words were choked back by tears.  It’s okay, he said.  He gave me a hug.  He understood.

Later that evening, as I was saying goodnight to the boys, I asked each one if they wanted to see my bald head.  Tyler and Nate’s reactions were the same.  They looked me over and slowly nodded, as if to say… so there’s your head, uh huh, okay, we can deal.  Then when I showed Nick, I laughed aloud for the second time that day as he exclaimed,

“You look the same!”

From now on every morning, my cancer was going to show its reflection to me when I looked in the mirror.  But it would be my choice to decide what it is I truly saw… how I had changed, or how I remained the same.  And it would be my choice to decide what I would reflect to the world.

* * * * *

God says He will give you a crown of beauty instead of ashes*, and this I know to be true.  He tends to your needs through providence that appears to be coincidence.  He tells you what you need to hear through someone words.  He comforts you through someone’s gifts, encourages you through someone’s smile, touches you through someone’s hug, and loves you through someone’s heart.  He sees you for what you really are, and no matter what you’ve been through, you are beautiful to Him.

Roses & Damask ©Lynnea Washburn

* Isaiah 61: 3

All portions of this blog are ©Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.

Life’s Tilting Axis

Life respects no boundaries created by unfortunate circumstances.  It just goes barreling on regardless of what you are dealing with.  The reality is, it’s not just about you.  Even when you wish it were.  Even when you are justified that it should be.  Life is funny that way.

The very day I arrived home from the hospital, almost as soon as I was settled into my room, the phone rang.  It was the police.  They had our son down by the retention pond with cans of spray paint and fresh graffiti on a retaining wall.  I sat stunned while my husband went to retrieve him.  Why today… of all days?  Welcome home, I thought.  It really didn’t matter that I was exhausted, bruised, and broken from my hospital stay, a conversation was necessary.  So a conversation would be had.  You can’t just stop the world and get off.  Life demands what it demands.  Buck up and take it like a mom.

I already knew what the graffiti would look like.  Some composition of ” R.I.P.”, a single eye crying, a lone cypress tree standing strong yet contorted by the elements, a poetic rap surrounded by rain.  It had been his running visual dialog for the last month, ever since a friend of his had died in his sleep from an undiagnosed heart condition.  In fact, that very day they were supposed to swap back the shoes they had recently borrowed from one another.  It was sudden, it was horrifying, it was real, and it was finite.  It was not something anyone can make sense of, especially not a teenager, and especially not my son, the thinker.  And on top of that, now there was my cancer.  If actions reveal the condition of the heart, our son’s graffiti revealed a heart deeply troubled.  His world had been shaken to the core, and was spinning on an axis of unanswered questions.

Our conversation started with sad eyes and deep sighs.  Tell us about the graffiti. Tell us about your feelings.  Let’s talk about other choices.  Let’s talk about your friend, let’s talk about my illness.  Let us tell you how we see you, the young man that you really are.  Let us tell you how God sees you, the young man that you can be.  Let’s talk about Him.  We must remember how much He loves us, remember what He desires for us, and remember how much we must trust Him.  Really trust Him.  Even when things don’t make sense.

It was one of those rare moments when everything that is pent up comes rushing out wordlessly.  Fears and worry, doubts and frustration, truth and love expressed in trembling hugs and silent cries.  When parent and child meet on common ground each holding broken pieces of themselves in their hands, and look straight into each other with tears in their eyes and yet see everything clearly.  When hearts connect through shared pain, and honesty becomes the gateway to understanding, at a time when there is little understanding of life.  Nothing was as important as that moment, and it was critical for our beginning to cope.

Later that night I realized that what I thought was a cruelly timed problem was really a gift for each one of us.  For had it not been for the circumstances, we would have never had the conversation.  A conversation through which we gathered our brokenness, laid them out before the Lord, and simply said; this is who we are, remind us of who You are.  One through which our heartaches were heard, and our hands were guided to piece our fragile world back together, gently reset it on it’s axis, and get back on.

 

 

All portions of this blog are ©Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.