Her Name Was Faye

Dear Will:

Recently my work has required me to attend meetings held inside of one of the local hospitals. We sit around a typical conference table in a conference room that would otherwise be typical were it not for the fact that it is contained within a building that also holds gurneys and monitors and people in surgical scrubs.

Sure—once in the room, you would never know; but to get to that room you go past a reception desk, down a hall, around and past doctors and nurses and an occasional patient. You pretty much can’t miss the fact that you’re in a hospital. Which is no big deal except that (as you may recall) I spent so much time in hospital beds a couple of years ago.

I won’t rehash it all here, but in the Fall of 2010 I was hospitalized four times in three months—in three different hospitals for three separate conditions. I’m fine now, but I surely wasn’t then. I felt pain like never before while suffering a full range of personal indignities and traumas. Words like awful and horrific don’t begin to capture the nature of my physical plight. Not only would I never wish to relive those three months, I wouldn’t want to even pay them a brief visit.

In other words, I’m not the sort of person who could ever again look upon a hospital dispassionately.

So imagine my surprise last month when the sliding doors parted and I made my way past the receptionist and headed down that antiseptic hallway toward the conference room:  Rather than feeling uneasy or nervous or sick to my stomach (rational alternatives, for sure) I felt oddly instead as if I were coming home. Even as it was happening, I was thinking, “OK, this is really weird.”

It has given me pause, as we say. Looooooong pause. Even as I write you this letter, I think back on my 90-day ordeal with bemusement as I recognize that I can laugh and joke about the pain and the scars and the multi-syllabic  diagnoses while feeling tender emotions about everything else. I’ve said before that God shows His hand in the midst of our trials, but I think there’s something more at play here. And I think it  has something to do with moments like this:

There was a day during my second hospitalization—this one an emergency, 10-day  stay in a remote community hospital. I spent most of that stay with a tube up my nose and an IV (dinner!) in my arm. As the days (and pounds) slipped away, I became increasingly aware of an unpleasant stench that I couldn’t escape. On this particular day, an older nurse’s aide entered my room—a Polynesian woman who gently, wordlessly lifted one arm, then the next, as with warm soap and water she bathed my rancid body. With tenderness she scrubbed my shoulders  and crusty face, changed my gown and sheets. The kindness embodied by that gentle act renewed my spirits and moved me to tears.

I was cared for by dozens of wonderful, angelic nurses and aides during the Fall of 2010, blessed women and men who did so much for me that I couldn’t do for myself. They changed my socks and emptied my bedpans and checked my vitals and brought me medications. They were among the kindest, sweetest people I have known. Although I can still recall many of their faces, today I can remember only one by name: a matronly Polynesian woman who without being asked and without a word washed me clean. Because of her and those like her, a hospital now feels to me like holy ground.

Her name was Faye. God bless her and all she represents.

PW

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God Always Shows His Hand

Dear Will:

It’s been quite an autumn.

It started with the prostate surgery in September. Everything seemed to go well, but about a month later I was in the ER for what turned out to be an “incarcerated bowel” (four feet of my intestines had escaped the stomach cavity and quit working). That required a nine-day stay in a remote hospital, most of it spent living on nothing but IV fluids and ice chips. And then for good measure I returned to the ER last week because I have developed a deep vein thrombosis, which is a fancy way of saying I have a blood clot in my leg.

Not fun. After going over 40 years without hospitalization, I have been in the hospital three times in less than 90 days. It has been painful, boring, frustrating, and (most of all) humbling.

At times, I’m sure, God comes to us when we call for Him in a moment of crisis. I have seen, however, that there are times when He actually goes before us and is waiting there for us when the crisis arrives. I can’t begin to tell you how often and in how many ways He showed His love for me in the midst of my suffering. God always shows His hand in such circumstances, and you don’t have to look very hard to see it.

Most often, His hands were the hands of friends and family, kind nurses and diligent doctors. The light in my hospital room always shone brightly because the love of God was there, expressed by the unexpected visit from a ward member, a note from my Seminary students, a simple act of kindness from a nurse’s aide. It was a profoundly moving experience to see, day after day, that He was watching over me and sending His children to me to let me know.

Do not get me wrong; I would not choose to go through again what I have been through these last few weeks. But having been through it, I remain very grateful. What a blessing to have my life touched in so many ways. How much wiser and more compassionate I will be in the future as I interact with others who likewise find themselves with physical or emotional challenges.

When I returned from the hospital at the end of October and sat down for the first time in 10 days with my family for dinner, I could not hold back the tears of gratitude that we were reunited. It might seem a small thing, but it was profoundly important to me. Consequently, when we were gathered around a Thanksgiving meal just a couple of days ago, I gave added thanks in my heart for the privilege and blessing of being together in that way.  I also feel blessed to have modern medicine, capable doctors and nurses, health insurance and an understanding employer. And above all, I have felt a deep gratitude for my wife who has somehow managed to keep the family operating even though I have been a heavy burden throughout what has proved to be an extended convalescence. Her compassionate service to me has often brought to mind the baptismal invitation that we might “bear one another’s burdens that they might be light.” Thus inspired, I am determined to go and do likewise.

I do not share all this to invite your sympathy. Rather I do it as an affirmation that God loves us and watches over us, and even when times are hard He is there for us and with us, every step of the way.

PW

Dappled Things

Dear Will:

Well, I did it: Turned 50, just like I said I would. And once I got over the shock of the whole thing, I suppose it wasn’t that bad. I played golf with some good friends, and my wife threw me a party, and my daughter gave me this awesome picture of the Gossamer Albatross. (Google it. It’s super cool.)

Not bad at all, when you think of it. You might say it was a pretty great birthday, in fact. That is, until my doctor called and informed me that (are you ready for this?) I have prostate cancer.

Well, that’s pretty annoying, isn’t it?

I guess you could say that I’m upholding a family tradition. When my dad was in his 50s, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Last year, my brother (five years my senior) was diagnosed as well. So I pretty much assumed this day was coming. I just didn’t think it would come so soon.

I imagine that it isn’t that often that you hear the words mild and cancer in the same sentence, but that’s essentially how my doctor described my condition to me. As a matter of fact, my cancer is so mild that had it not been for my father and my brother it is unlikely that anyone would even know about my condition. However, thanks to our collective vigilance, we have caught it in the earliest possible stages. I don’t even have any symptoms, to be honest. I even pass the standard blood test that is supposed to give early warning of the disease.

Mild or not, I am going to have to deal with it, however. Next month I’ll go down to Mission Hospital and my doctor will use some fancy robotic device to remove the gland altogether, after which (he says) I’ll be “completely cured.” Just like that. I’ll have to take a few weeks off from work (and from teaching my early morning Seminary class for the high-schoolers), but otherwise I should be good to go, without any significant, long-term side effects. Which I suppose is why I feel more annoyed than threatened by the whole thing.

To sum up: It’s true, I have cancer. But I also have a good job, excellent insurance coverage, a highly-skilled doctor using the most sophisticated equipment in the world, and the earliest diagnosis possible. It leads me to repeat something I said to you last month: In that which matters most, I am one of the truly lucky ones.

So my otherwise pristine life is now dappled with this little blotch—an irregularity that forces into greater focus all of the good things which are also mine. And so, rather than curse God for “allowing this to happen,” I feel rather inclined to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins instead:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
   For skies of couple-colour as brinded cow;
     For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
              Praise him.

PW