Little Did I Know

Dear Will:

Today I took a 6-mile hike through Peters Canyon. Although I have hiked there many times, this was the first time that I walked the full loop.

I couldn’t have picked a nicer day for a hike: clear, blue skies, a light breeze, weather in the low seventies. It was glorious. And although the trail was busy, it was not so crowded that I couldn’t enjoy a little solitude and the chance to be alone with my thoughts for a couple of hours. I thought about my children and their various challenges. I thought about my great wife and the many ways that she blesses our family. I thought about the weeks and months ahead and some of the difficult decisions we’ll be facing.

And of course I thought about my health. Today was a bit of an experiment—an extended hike following several months of forced inactivity. But over the last 30 days or so, I have really been feeling good—like myself again—good enough to take on a long hike and not worry that the paramedics would have to rendezvous with me at the trailhead. And I’m proud to say that I completed the trek without the assistance of the medi-vac unit.

It used to be that when someone asked “How are you?” I would respond “Fine” and give it no further thought. But now when people ask, I tell them I feel great. I don’t necessarily feel a lot better than I used to, but I have come the appreciate the profound blessing of vigor and energy that I previously took for granted. I have experienced firsthand why it is that “it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). After all, without bad health, how could I ever truly understand what it means to be healthy? There was the time a few weeks back when (I kid you not) I watched an elderly man walked nonchalantly across a waiting room and thought, “You have no idea how fortunate you are.” Now when I walk casually across that same room, I notice. Imagine.

When I first learned of my cancer back in August, I shared with you the poem “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins—a poem in which the poet glorifies God for “dappled things . . . With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.” I shared it in advance of any real physical challenges.

Little did I know. Now I sit here cancer-free, having been hospitalized four times, with seven new scars on my abdomen and anti-coagulants running through my body, and I appreciate the poem more than ever. For I have since tasted the sour; I’ve seen the dim. And having done so, I am so much more grateful for the sweet, so much more dazzled by the light.

Walking the trails in Peters Canyon is a small thing—something I thought little about in my previous visits. But today, as I stood high atop the East Rim Trail and looked out over the reservoir and the eucalyptus, as I walked the Creek Trail and delighted in the cool riparian habitat created by the ground-fed stream, as I felt whole again, pain-free, normal even, I finally understood what prompted Hopkins to close his poem like this: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.”

Praise Him indeed.

PW

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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

Footprints All Around Us

Dear Will:

I recently took my kids to the San Diego Zoo.  What a crazy collection of creatures that place has!  Once you stop gawking at the lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), there are all these other critters running around that you never heard of or imagined.  I keep expecting them to erect a Dr. Seuss wing one of these times.  There was even this one thing that seemed to have come straight out of the bar scene in Star Wars.  Goofy little body.  Ugly, throw-away-the-mold face.  A name you couldn’t pronounce.  From a place you never heard of.  Unbelievable.  Fascinating.  Marvelous.

Some can wander through a place like that and see Charles Darwin all around them.  Not me.  Everywhere I turn I see the handiwork of God.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have the faintest notion how to make an Okapi or a Lemur.  For all I know you’ve got to go through millions of years of modifications to get it just so.  But if you try to tell me that a gazelle or a Macaw or even a warthog happened by chance, I say “No way.”  (Well, maybe the warthog.)

Likewise, I am fascinated by how the human body is able to repair itself.  If I cut my finger today, within moments the body goes to work on repairs; within hours there is visible evidence that healing is underway; and within days it is as if nothing even happened.  Amazing.  Wonderful.  Miraculous.  And definitely not happenstance.

One does not have to go very far or work very hard to see evidence of a loving God: in the leaf of a tree, in a billowy cloud, or in a snow-capped mountain peak; in a bug that skitters or a hawk that soars; in the shape of the human ear, the back of your own hand, the ripple of muscle, a giggle, a sigh, a smile.  Everything we see or touch or hear or taste allows us to feel God’s presence if we will attune ourselves to Him.  If the world is, indeed, His footstool (Isaiah 66:1), is it really all that surprising that we should see his footprints all around us?

That great Book of Mormon prophet Alma (son of Alma) put it this way: “. . . [All] things denote there is a God;  yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44).

He didn’t specifically mention the Okapi, mind you, but I’m pretty sure that, had he  seen one, he would have agreed with me and cast a grateful eye toward heaven.

I close with the words of the poet:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—  
  For skies of couple-colour as a 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.  

“Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

PW