Children’s Hospital

20140725-204043-74443436.jpg

September is Histiocytosis and Children’s Cancer Awareness month

“Children’s hospital” is an oxymoron–not just two words that don’t belong together, but a thing that shouldn’t have to exist at all. Kids are supposed to be the healthiest among us. There’s something not right with whole buildings dedicated to things that go wrong with them.

Children’s hospitals are a bizarre proposition:  a place where the parents are as dependent as their children, depending on doctors for their schedules, their information, their hope. We’re easy to recognize in the halls, even without our special tags associating us with our VIP’s. You can tell us by our not-at-our-best appearance and by one of our standard expressions of fear, worry, or fatigue. We observe an assumed code of avoidance as we pass each other in the hallway:  because we don’t wish to be seen in the clothes we slept in, we grant each other the silent dignity of ignoring each other’s unwashed hair and tear-streaked face. Our zombie appearance barely conceals the grief and guilt and sheer terror on the inside. I often wept uncontrollably as I stepped outside of the hospital during our long stay, temporarily shedding the armor that I wore inside to protect and fight for my child.

Our children’s rooms are places of tenderness, but also of terror, where every day, every visit by a doctor has the ability to change our lives forever. The hallways are no refuge. Here other parents’ children are being moved to their next test or procedure:  bald, staring vacantly, heavily bandaged, hooked up to machines. We passed too many children’s rooms where, day after day, the only visitor was a nurse. A child without an advocate, without love, is the saddest of all.

There are also wonderful stories in these places, stories of healing and miracles and love. These stories must be what makes it possible for the dedicated staff to get up and face each day. Yet I am dismayed that these institutions are needed at all. I look forward to a place and time–somewhere, someday–when no child will ever hurt again.

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” –Revelation 21:4


Friends


Rachel Platten’s Fight Song popped up recently on my playlist. Music has an ability to retain memories, and this song took me back. A friend introduced it to me at a moment in my life when I was feeling particularly powerless. It would be an overstatement to say that the song gave me the courage to take back control of my life, though I did just that a few months later. However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this friend and others saved my life (or at least my sanity) during that time.

Friends are an amazing invention; good friends are a godsend. They’re almost like family, but different. They make good times better and hard times tolerable. Knowing that someone cares about what I’m going through has meant simply everything when I’ve struggled to cope. One of the really cool things about friends is that there are so many kinds. There are the ones who are sympathetic, the ones who hold up a mirror and gently force me to face the truth, and the ones who make me stretch and grow. There are the ones who make me laugh and the ones who let me cry, the ones who make me feel good, the ones who teach me and make me think. They all have their place and are special in their own way. The only downside is that they don’t all last. Time and distance and life can separate us…I grieve each loss. Yet I’ve learned that even the losses have their silver lining, because they make room for new friends. With each life change, I’ve forced myself to focus not on the goodbyes, but on the new friends I haven’t yet met. So far, they’ve always been there, all for the negligible effort of reaching out.

“No friendship is an accident.”  –O. Henry, Heart of the West


Rest


Why does it feel so good to lay your head on your pillow at the end of a long day? I understand the biological need to recharge, but why would God have made us so that we need rest in the first place? The Bible says on the seventh day, after He completed His creation, that even God Himself rested. Clearly, rest is good.

I’m fascinated with the concept of rest, probably because I’ve never been good at it. I’ve always been restless, feeling like I have to be doing something. Even when I was just sitting, I was reading. Or paying the bills. Or organizing something. That is until recently. Since Megan’s illness, I’ve slowed down. It was understandable when we were in full stress mode, but it’s lasted. It would be easy to assume that it’s the result of a fundamental change in perspective, which did happen. But that’s not it. Somehow, I’m more tired. I still want to get up and organize the pantry and weed the garden and clean out the garage. But for the first time in my life, I don’t feel like it. I’ve lost something permanent, some reservoir of resilience.

I’m learning that life doesn’t get any easier…it’s been a mild surprise. I somehow had the illusion that one day it would. That once I got through school or established in my career or some money saved that I could relax. But the challenges just mature as we do. And if you’re a parent, then you suffer others’ challenges on top of your own. Yet I’m surprisingly not discouraged by this revelation. In a strangely comforting way, it’s almost a relief. I’d hate to get too comfortable with this hard life. I’m pretty sure that by the time it’s done with me, I’ll be ready to let it go.

“Any fool can face a crisis–it’s the day to day living that wears you out.” –Anton Chekov


Uncanny

Do you know who this man is? Neither do I, but I feel like I should. This picture popped up when I Googled the tiny cemetery in rural Oklahoma where my great-grandparents are buried. It’s the spitting image of my great-grandfather, but it’s not him. Great-grandpa lived to be 100, and I was blessed to know him as an adult. Humans are hard-wired to recognize those we know. Though the resemblance is uncanny (my mother says “amazing”), I know it’s not him.

So who is he? The Internet associated him with a country cemetery of maybe 350 residents, of whom I’m related to a meaningful percentage. Plus he’s looking at me with my grandmother’s eyes and her brother’s face…he’s got to be a relative. We have no idea who he is, and there’s no one left who would know. The last of my great-grandparents’ twelve children–ironically their oldest–died five years ago at 100. My guess is that he’s my great-grandfather’s father, after whom he was named, and who’s buried in the same cemetery. The resemblance between them is too strong for him to be anything else. According to his headstone, my great-great-grandfather died in 1925. Anyone who might remember him would be at least 100. I doubt that person exists.

His face has stayed with me since I found the picture; it bothers me that I don’t know for certain who he is. He looks just like a man I grew up loving, a man who attended my wedding. We must be related, yet he is lost to time. I suppose that’s the fate of us all. We’re here for a brief instant, then the day comes when the last person who remembers us is gone. It is sad, but it is life. Already I’ve lost friends and loved ones at this halfway point of my life. Yet I remember. I remember them with fond memories; I will see them again, all too soon. And I will learn who the man in the picture is, and we will remember together.

“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.”  –Antonio Porchia


Cemeteries

(Mennonite Cemetery, Kingman KS)

I’ve always loved cemeteries…to me, they’re places of peace. When I was ten or twelve, I’d ride my bike to the cemetery a mile outside of my small farm town and walk in the quiet under the shady trees. I’d read the barest of details about its inhabitants, carved into rock, and wonder what their stories were. Usually the only sound was the Kansas prairie wind, as few cars passed by out in the country. It was a peaceful place to get away, and ponder the meaning of life and how difficult it is to grow up.

My grandparents and great-grandparents are buried in country cemeteries…they’re wonderful places to visit. One of them is a couple of miles from my father’s boyhood farm in central Kansas. My great uncle is buried near my grandparents. He was never the same after his service in the European theatre in WWII. Grandma told me that he panicked in a foxhole, and his buddies had to hit him on the head to knock him out so that he didn’t give their position away to the Germans. She also called him “shell-shocked”, whatever that meant. Whatever happened over there, Uncle Donald spent his adult life in a nursing home. We saw him occasionally at holidays. I always liked his innocent nature, even though I’m not sure I ever had a conversation with him.

My great-grandparents are buried on a dirt road cemetery in Oklahoma, just across the Kansas state line. Great-grandpa participated in the great Oklahoma Land Run as an infant in a covered wagon. He and grandma farmed until he was 55, when his doctor told him to sell the farm and retire to town due to his poor health…he lived to be 100. They’re buried on the same flat, windy, treeless prairie where they raised their 12 children. It is a fitting resting place.

My mother’s parents are buried in a Mennonite cemetery in southern Kansas. If it hasn’t rained, you can navigate the rutted, hilly dirt road the four miles off the highway, passing by the spot where the one room school that grandpa attended used to stand. Though we’re related to a third of the cemetery’s residents, I can’t be buried there, as I’m not a member of the local church. It’s always been an exclusive club:  grandma harbored resentment her whole life for having to earn the church’s approval to marry grandpa, due to her suspect Nazarene faith. But she’s now a full member, buried next to her daughter, who she tragically outlived. I miss the three of them so much…even today, decades after they’ve been gone, I can’t stand on that quiet prairie without breaking down.

I don’t visit the cemeteries often, as I don’t believe my loved ones are really there. When I do, I don’t go for them–I go for me. I go to remember, to honor, to immerse myself in the cycle of life which foretells my own fate. I go to remind myself of what is important, though it is in the past. I still find peace in these places, though it’s a more mature peace than that of a teen on a bicycle those many years ago.

“Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality.”  –Emily Dickinson


Inclusion


One of the faith questions I’ve struggled with the most is the belief of so many that there is only one true religion. I was born into a Christian family in a Christian country, and so that is my faith. I believe in it strongly, particularly in its messages of love, inclusion, and redemption which resonate with me. But in spite of my own deep belief, I struggle with the notion of Christianity as the only path to God. I have friends of many faiths from all over the world and have adopted two girls from Buddhist China. When Megan was critically ill, prayers for her were sent up to heaven by Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. I simply cannot accept that the God of Love that I believe in so strongly would doom my friends and billions more to separation from Him, simply because they were born in a non-Christian country…a choice that was His, and not theirs.

However, John 14:6 seems to definitively state that Jesus is the only path to God, that “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That seems pretty clear. Yet I recently read a perspective pointing out that this passage says only that Jesus is the gatekeeper to God. What the passage does not say is what filter Jesus will use to decide who will pass through to God. It’s a critical point. Neither that passage, nor the rest of the chapter, says that Jesus will only pass Christians through. Jesus as gatekeeper to God is probably a strange notion to non-Christians, but to me it reassuringly aligns to a possibility that we’re all worshipping one God after all.

I’ll never understand why human nature inherently creates ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Why must we be right and everyone else wrong? Science has proven that there are no genetic differences between races. I also see no evidence that a different God created my Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist friends…it seems to me that we all come from the same place. The Bible consistently depicts a God of Love; I believe simply that He loves all of His wonderful people from a wide variety of faith backgrounds. Including me, a Christian from America.

“I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.”  –Khalil Gibran


Don’t Dissect Roadkill


School starts tomorrow. As always, the girls are ready, having long ago given in to end-of-summer boredom. I’m reminded this time of year of one of the best commercials ever:  a joyful parent skipping down the aisles of an office supply store to the tune of the Christmas song It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, with their sullen child in tow. It’s also got me reflecting on the teachers who left a mark on my life that still echoes today.

My 10th grade biology teacher, Mr. Pitts, didn’t look much older than we were when he began teaching at my small, rural Kansas high school. He was meant to be a teacher…passionate about both science and kids. Somehow, on what had to be a limited budget, he managed to secure frogs, earthworms, pigs, a cat, and even Moray eels for us to dissect. As we prepared for one of them, he told us a story about bringing a dead possum he’d found on the road to dissect at his last school. I’ll spare you the graphic details of what he found when he opened the critter up, but suffice it to say that I learned a memorable lesson that day. Yes, I learned not to dissect roadkill, but the real lesson that day was what it looks like when you love your job. More importantly, Mr. Pitts was the first person in my life to suggest that science and faith don’t have to be in conflict. If made today, his candid response in a public school classroom to a student’s challenge to evolution might get him fired, but I’m grateful for the permission and peace that he first gave me to believe in both. From my 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Brothers, I got my first taste of adulthood, as I learned how difficult it would be to live on $200 a week as a meter maid, the job I drew out of a hat for a budgeting exercise. I learned how to turn writing into a process from my freshman English teacher Mrs. Starnes, a skill I could not then imagine would so impact my life for so long after graduation. And I learned how special a teacher can make an awkward pre-teen feel from the Hardesty’s. I’m still in awe of how they could be so gruff and yet be so beloved by so many of their students. Though they never had children of their own, they touched the lives of thousands of children in 40 years of teaching, many of them deeply.

Teachers have a unique ability to impact the lives of others; that’s why the good ones choose to do it. But we don’t have to teach to make a difference. A hospital visit, a well-timed card to a friend going through a difficult time, even a cheery ‘hello’ and a smiling ‘thank you’ to the store checkout clerk have the power to change someone’s day. In honor of all the great teachers out there, this week I’m going to especially focus on paying forward the impact mine had on me. Watch out for kids on the street, and may all the students and teachers have a blessed school year.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”  –Henry Adams