Monday, February 21, 2011

Angels

The other day, a hospital aid saw me reading a book on Christian spirituality, and asked me if I prayed to my angels. I sort of laughed and said, no, I just pray to God and let him sort out the details. It's so much simpler that way.

I take a fairly utilitarian view of angels. The Bible says they are ministering spirits, sent to take care of the saved. The word itself simply means "messenger," with no particularly spiritual connotation. Other than a small number of rather enigmatic, extremely intriguing mentions, not much else is said about them in the Bible. So, as usual, I am fine not trying to articulate what God has chosen to leave a mystery.

But if you change that word "angels" back to the word "messengers," you start to see them everywhere--God speaks to us in many ways, after all--and they really aren't that mysterious or fascinating anymore.

Or are they?

***Warning: Long, overly-detailed ramble follows. But stay with me, if you are able, and perhaps it will be worth it.***

When I found out, that awful Thursday night six weeks ago, that we were going to be flown to Denver, I got on the phone and let a few people know. Then, after driving home to throw some necessities in a bag, I took a moment to post a quick sentence or two on Facebook about what was happening.

That evening, shortly after arriving in Denver, we were visited by Kelsey. Kelsey is the niece of an old friend whom I have not seen in around twenty years. She did not even get to meet us that night, but she left a very encouraging note (with some of the most amazing handwriting I have ever seen!) about God's providence and provision. I wonder if she knew how prophetic her note was. Kelsey's visit was like the rolling of a pebble that precedes the avalanche...and I didn't know it, but the prayers had already started.

The following morning, Sarah underwent her first surgery. She was in very rough shape. I was contacted that afternoon by Bob and Nita, two complete strangers who had heard about our situation through the church grapevine. They took me out for dinner and a badly needed break from the hospital.

That evening, Sarah was moved to ICU. The following morning, she almost died.

I have already written about what happened the morning we lost our son, and shared my opinion of the nurses who were there. Without those sweet ladies, I truly believe we would have borne the full brunt of the horror and missed most, if not all, of the blessings. And we got through it.

Still, it didn't take long for the horrible reality of what had happened--and the horrible awareness of the challenges before us--to set in. Around noon that day, as I sat dazed on a bed at the Ronald MacDonald house, I got a call from my boss. I don't even know how he found out. He offered me whatever I needed--time off, money, anything--and told me not to give work a thought. "Just take care of yourself and your wife." How many bosses would do that, on a Saturday no less? That afternoon, Amanda, a barely-known friend whom I had not seen for several years, showed up at the hospital. I talked with her for a long time while Sarah slept. With the help of her generous ears and quiet voice, I started working through my grief, anger, and loss.

While waiting for Amanda to arrive, I had called my brother Scott, who lives in Rawlins, about a three and a half hour drive away. As it turned out, he just happened to be in Cheyenne for a big, once-a-year youth rally. An hour and a half away. Being a good brother, of course, he was already making plans to come down. On the way, he called and told me that he was bringing Kelly. Kelly lives in Cody (around eight hours away), and she is one of the only people in the world that my wife could have confided in at a time like this. She, too, just happened to be in Cheyenne.

Right behind them came Brian and Jen. Brian has been my friend for many years, and he is one of the calmest, wisest, funniest people I know. His wife, Jen, is all those things, plus she is an RN. And both of them happened to have several days of flexible time ahead.

So, Kelly and Sarah had a long, honest, loving talk that set the tone for the very long recovery that was to follow. Brian and Jen took turns spending the next several nights with Sarah. And all of them took turns cheering me up and helping me keep a good perspective.

The next few days are sort of a blur in my memory. Mike S, from Cheyenne, came down and helped out for a while. Kim and Blake, a couple friends from my Portland days who happened to have settled in Denver, showed up. They, too, were eager to help out with prayers, reading material, some great chow, and, bless their hearts, a guitar (! ! !) for me to noodle away the long days. Somewhere in there Jenny, a dear friend whom I had somehow not seen in a couple decades, showed up with her husband, Paul, and provided some much-needed cheering up. (Jenny has been an ongoing presence throughout this fight, and I can barely describe how grateful we've been for her)

After a few days, Brian and Jennifer told us that soon they would have to return to their normal lives. This posed a big problem: Sarah was very frightened and disoriented from both the pain and the pain medications, and she needed someone to spend nights with her. I knew I couldn't do it alone. I needed to get away and get some sleep at night if I was to stay in this for the long haul.

So, as soon as I found out Brian and Jen were leaving, I said a quick prayer: You've provided this far...what now?

Within a half hour of asking that question, I got a phone call from our old friend Katie B, who lives in Montana. We hadn't seen Katie in about ten years, but Sarah and I consider her a dear friend, nevertheless. Katie just happened to be in Denver visiting her sister, and she wanted to know how she could help. Stay the night? Absolutely.

I can't overstate how important that was for Sarah and me both. For someone as smart as Sarah, waking up disoriented and in great pain, unable to tell dreams from reality, was extremely scary. Having a familiar face there to reassure her has been, I believe, a huge part of her mental and physical healing. And of course, I was able to get a good rest knowing that she was being well cared for.

...and all this time, I kept hearing that people all over the world were praying for us.

After a few nights, Katie told me that she was going to have to go back to Montana. Again, I just said a prayer and, not having any ideas just where to look next, sat back and waited. About a half hour after talking with Katie, I got a call from Kate C., a childhood friend of Sarah's.

(A quick aside: You will note that people named Kate/Katie figure heavily in this story. As my friend David [married to yet another Katie] told me, "Katie makes everything better.")

Kate was living in Durango, and was headed up that day to stay with us for a couple weeks. Kate and Sarah have been best friends since second grade, and I could hardly imagine a better person to have around long-term. Whew.

But, wait. Due to some unforeseen complications, Kate was going to be a day later than originally planned. I was too exhausted, still reeling from everything that had happened, and I wondered: How am I going to get someone to stay with Sarah this evening on such short notice?

Enter Katie S., another bygone friend who, it just happened, had recently moved to Denver with her husband, and who just happened to be between jobs and eager for something worthwhile to do. She called, quite out of the blue, and asked how she could help. Spend the night? Absolutely!

Katie S., for those of you unlucky enough to not know her, is a living incarnation of the "hilarious giver" Paul described in 2 Corinthians 9. I've rarely seen anyone who gets such a big kick out of doing nice things for people. And she's a pretty darn good chauffeur, too.

Well. Once Kate C was here, things settled into a fairly normal routine. I spent days with Sarah, while Kate slept in my room at the Ronald MacDonald House. At nights, we switched places. What a blessing to have, if not comfort, at least stability of a sort. Thanks to Kate, I was actually starting to get my feet under me.

About a week into Kate's stay, she got very tired and needed a night in a hotel to catch up. No problem, I said. I was pretty well rested by then, feeling almost like a normal human being, and staying one night at the hospital wouldn't be a problem. So, Kate took off for a hotel around lunch time. Within a half hour of her leaving, the phone rang: It was Katie S (whom I hadn't talked to in about four days), asking if I needed someone to spend the night with Sarah. I said, no, I had it covered for tonight. I had barely hung up with I got a text from Kim, asking the same question. I had a good laugh. I guess sometimes even God has to resort to overkill to get his point across.

Allow me to say a few words about Kate. I've sort-of known her for a very long time, of course, and I've always considered her a nice person, but a bit of a flake. Well, yeah. I still think that. But what an amazing, intelligent, responsible, rock-solid-in-a-crisis kind of flake she is. Not only did Kate provide me with some rare opportunities to practice my combat driving skills, she proved to be the truest, most stalwart kind of friend to Sarah. And yes, to me as well. Thanks, Kate.

All too soon, Kate's stay with us came to an end, and finally I was alone. Sarah was still in very bad shape: Overwhelming pain, discouragement, nausea, you name it...and on the back burner, the grief and shock at what had happened. And I wasn't doing so great myself. After a couple days alone trying to take care of Sarah, I was a wreck: Exhaustion beyond anything I had ever imagined. Hurting body. Empty mind. Broken heart. Emotionally and physically falling apart.

I mentioned on Facebook that I was having a very bad time. My friend Heather said that, if only she had $500, she would be on the next flight out. Heather and Brian, two of my closest, most trusted friends in the world, live in southern Cal with their three kids, and there was just no way.

But wait. Did I mention that my dad had been going crazy trying to find ways to help? He saw Heather's comment on Facebook, and did the old wallet-quick draw. "You do have $500," he said. "Get out there."

So, for a week, we had Heather. I was in awe of her almost from the start. Unlike me, she seems to suffer no ill effects from spending time in the hospital. The crazy hours, the lack of privacy, the constant interruptions, the smells, the overall stress of taking care of an extremely sick, extremely unhappy person--it was all like water off a duck's back to her. And oh, how she loved Sarah, this friend she had met only once before, staying with her almost around the clock, holding her hand through the attacks of pain, breathing with her, talking her through the rough spots.

What else can I say? There is no way I can mention all of the people who have emailed, sent cards, contributed money, given medical advice, left encouraging notes on Facebook, brought food, listened to me rant and rave on the phone, sat up late talking with me and helping me find the things to laugh about. Not to mention the geese in the park. The nice lady playing Celtic harp in the lobby. The pictures and videos from my students. The new friends at the RMH. The amazing whistle-playing acoustics in the stairwell.

And through all of it, I could hear God's voice, whispering to me. I am here. I am here. I am here. You are not alone. You can do this. Don't give up. I am here.

***

We asked God to provide for our care and protection. God, as he so often does, answered by sending his people. In my book, that makes all of you angels: Messengers of God, sent to remind us that he is here. And the humanness of these particular messengers does nothing to diminish the mystery of their work: Always the right person, exactly when and where we needed them (not a moment before); no planning or smarts on my part to explain it.

So, no. I don't pray to my angels. But I know them when I see them. And I surely am grateful for them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How...?

While waiting with my beloved wife to endure her latest painful round of tests the other day, it occurred to me with great force: I think I know why the light died when Jesus was on the cross, why the earth shook.

For the past month, I have sat by watching and listening as my wife suffers through a truly horrifying series of painful illnesses, and the sometimes even more painful treatments for them. I have listened to her cry out in pain, seen her experience all the indignities common to hospitals, listened to her beg for relief when there was no more relief to give. And I have been here, offering support and encouragement, but there has been nothing I can do to stop it.

Almost three weeks ago, I held my son in my arms and watched him die. It took almost three hours. I gave him my love, of course, but when it came to the dying, there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it. I just had to watch.

Around two thousand years ago, God watched his son die a horrific death. It took around six hours. And my Bible tells me that he could have stopped it.

Oh, God in heaven, HOW COULD YOU NOT STOP IT? Was this really the only way? Am I really worth anything like that?

Sometimes I get to thinking that I am a loving person. But I know nothing about love.

Only this: I have received it.

Change me, father.