Terminal and Loving Every Minute

My guest today is Andrew Budek-Schmeisser. Andrew is a reader of this blog and his comments have left me deeply moved so often that I asked him to write a post for us. Andrew is terminally ill, and it has changed the way he views the world in remarkable and beautiful ways. I want to take notes on living from the dying.

Yes, I’m terminally ill. My wife went to the doctor last week, and the receptionist asked, tentatively, “Your husband…is he still alive?”

That was a weird feeling, when she told me.

The doctor himself thinks I’m pretty far past my sell-by date…and he’s always surprised, too, that I’m still here. He’s thinking of writing a paper for a medical journal.

Really weird feeling, yeah?

But it reflects the truth. I’m losing ground steadily, and now spend large parts of each day lying on the floor in a fetal position, waiting for the pain to, well, not pass, but moderate to the point that I can get up again and do something. If nausea, incontinence, and fatigue allow for it. And if I remember what I wanted to do in the first place.

Something like writing this. It will take me quite awhile. I run out of physical and mental resources pretty quickly now.

And I still love my life. I would not trade this life for anything, including having my old health and vigour back.

It’s not because I’ve overdosed on Scripture like James 1:2 (“Count it all joy, your afflictions and trials…”) or Romans 5:3 (“…rejoice in your sufferings, because suffering produces endurance…”)

Make no mistake, James and Paul are right, but it wasn’t something I could take on faith. I had to learn these lessons myself, through facing the abyss, day after day. Looking for blessings in my life became vital for survival, a necessary antidote to the despair that could so easily overwhelm me.

Yes, illness brought blessings, and the fact that it seems like there’s no way out makes them even more precious.

It took time to recognize them, those blessings that came in frightening garb. I was a high achiever, and always had multiple projects going on, projects which I thought defined me, and validated my worth.

But now…those aspirations won’t come to pass, and it’s OK.

The goals are not what made the dreams worthwhile. They never were, and I’m so glad I saw that ere the end. It was all about the process, and the marks that the process made on my soul.

Each moment is a gift from God, and like the manna that fed the Israelites in the desert, each is perishable. Moments can’t be hoarded for later use, and they’re not intended for replanting in the hope that they will raise some of some future harvest.

We can come to each instant in our life fresh, with the heart and eyes of a child, taking hold of this precious uniqueness of now in wonder and delight…or we can choose to be jaded, and to pile the moment in with the past wreckage that attends present circumstances.

I choose wonder. I choose delight. And I choose to hold these tiny time-intervals dear, and as a direct line to the God that loves me in spite of my mistakes, and through my current ordeal.

It is an ordeal. The pain is real; I could see it as a prison; I haven’t been off the property in eight months. Riding in a car hurts too much, and there’s nowhere I can sojourn in comfort. I can’t do the things I would have liked to do, and much of the time is spent trying to build strength and resolve to do the things I have to do.

It isn’t a penitentiary, though. It’s more of a hermitage, a place in which the fires of adversity can temper my soul to become an instrument of God’s love, and the hammering of pain forges my heart to become that love.

Each moment from the Almighty that I choose to treasure, and which I choose to do my best for His sake, it adds to the storehouse of love that I can show.

Each stab of pain builds compassion for those who are worse off; there are so many suffering with no place to call home, no one to love them. I have a wonderful wife, a group of devoted dogs (some of whom know how to save my life, doing a canine version of CPR…they’ve done it several times), and friends I’ll never meet in person but whose hearts have reached out to me through the Internet. How can I complain about a small thing like dying?

Each realization that yeah, this could be the last day, it makes the sunlight brighter and the air sweeter, and the touch of a cool breeze on a summer day a gentle benison from Heaven.

With all this, how can I keep from singing? And more importantly, how can I keep from loving?

Achievement is nice, but it’s not for this that God made us.

Success is grand, but it isn’t God’s ultimate plan for our lives.

A bright future is wonderful, but it’s not something God ever guaranteed.

What we have is now, and we have a simple mission statement – to love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

We learn to love God through the practice of loving others, and we can only truly love others when we let go of ourselves. Jesus was and is the servant and sacrifice to those He loved and loves. He laid the stones along the path we are to take.

And in dying, I have learned to let go. I have let go my earthly hopes and aspirations, giving them over to God. I’m sure He’ll treat them with care; He saves each tear we shed, and can we expect He will do less with the dreams He gave us, that we couldn’t fulfill in this life? They’ll be waiting.

I’ve learned to let go of my concern for myself. Yes, it hurts, but it’s OK that it hurts; I was never in control of this, though I tried to pretend through defiance and will that I was, but God is in control of it all.

I’ve learned to let go of possessiveness in relationship. I don’t want my wife, who is quite young, to make the rest of her life a monument to our time together. I want her heart to go on from the point where I leave this life, hurt for sure but healing, and hoping. I don’t want to see her lonely.

And may be most important, I’ve learned to let go of my preconceptions about God. I wanted to believe that I was favoured in that things went ‘right’ for me; the breaks fell my way.

And then it was me that broke.

I saw that favour was not the good job or the research contact or the book deal. Favour was being led by the hand by the Almighty, into a place where I could accept, without resentment, the hand that is dealt me, and embrace, without anger, the further pain that will surely be mine before this life is done.

By not looking back in resentment or forward in sullen dread…only along this road can I fully love in the now.

And as I love, so am I Loved, and so, further…I’m terminal and loving every minute.

 

Andrew Budek-Schmeisser is the author of two novels, “Blessed Are the
Pure Of Heart” and “Emerald Isle“, and three short e-books. Formerly a
security contractor and teacher, he lives on a remote mesa in New
Mexico with his wife and a number of rescued dogs and cats.

I am very grateful to Andrew for his willingness to share such hard-won wisdom and perspective with us. Live in peace, brother: in this life and the life to come. Readers, if you’d like to respond to Andrew – leave him a comment below or reach out to him via his blog. He is house-bound but our words can reach his living room, and our prayers can reach on high.

Knocking on Death’s Door… with Cookies

We moved into our new neighborhood a little over six months ago, and while we’ve had longer conversations with a few of our neighbors, there were a few we haven’t seen much of yet (apart from a quick Trick-or-Treat hello on October 31st). “Invite the neighbors over for dinner” is on our year-long bucket list, and we’ve only made partial headway.

When a hospice van pulled into the driveway of one of our less-known neighbors a few weeks ago, I was filled with all sorts of confused feelings. When hospice comes calling, it means a family is facing loss: it’s a time when you can be sure emotions are running high and you need your community to hold you like never before. But what if you’re the next door neighbor? And you don’t know their names? I felt so close to their grief, and yet so far away. Surely of all the times to make a new friend, this would be the most inappropriate?

I poured out my sadness for them on Facebook: lamenting that we hadn’t connected with these neighbors sooner and now feeling so helpless. Within minutes, friends chimed in with their own stories of grief and comfort as they had cared for and lost loved ones, and how a neighbor showed up and offered a hug… Or a meal… Or a card… Or a plate of cookies. “What a difference it made”, they said. “Now is not the time to hide because you don’t know them well,” they said. “Show you care, even if it feels awkward. It matters,” they said. I cried reading every one of their comments. I am sometimes just overwhelmed at the goodness and kindness and generous wisdom of my online and real life friends.

I am usually a “take a meal” kind of person, but knew this family were Jewish and was anxious about trying to prepare a meal that may not be kosher. So I opted for cookies. My daughter and I defied a school-night-bedtime, and we wrote a note offering to take trash out or walk their dog, and just generally to say we had noticed the van and we were sorry and we care and we were praying. I wrote what my Facebook friends said to write. Our neighbors weren’t in when we stopped by. We left the note with their relatives. It didn’t feel like enough. But I trusted my friends’ advice.

My neighbor texted me her heartfelt thanks a few days later, and then walked over the following week to say that her mom had passed away, and that they would be sitting shiva for a couple days, if I’d like to come visit with them. Since the little I knew about shiva came from the high drama of Jonathan Tropper’s book (turned movie) This is where I left you, I did a little more research to find out about the traditions of shiva and Jewish mourning. In short: Judaism provides a structured period of mourning of up to a year, allowing mourners to go through the various stages of grief. Families will often sit shiva for up to seven days after the funeral: a dedicated time of staying together (often sitting on the floor or low to the ground), and many will open their home to the community to come and mourn with them. Shiva.com is an excellent resource on understanding shiva, how to plan for it, what to bring, and much more.

I baked bread, and my friend who’d followed the story since my first Facebook post added a jar of homemade berry-orange jam; and on the day after the funeral I made my way over to the neighbors for our first real conversation. I spent an hour with them: hearing about the incredibly sophisticated and talented women their mother had been, admiring her art, enjoying a snack, and sharing stories and even laughs. I met their children and looked at photos and it was, quite honestly, the most genuine and lovely hour of meeting neighbors I can remember. I had showed up that first day with cookies wanting to be a blessing, but in truth I walked away so much richer than when I’d arrived.

I’ve thought about that afternoon often, and marveled at the gift of a community tradition like sitting shiva. My white, western, christian culture doesn’t have anything like it in comparison. We see and experience grief and death, but so often my experience of grief is that the mourners are so lonely and overwhelmed, and the friends around them just aren’t sure what to say or do… and so keep their distance.

This is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing, though, as Sheryl Sandberg has repeatedly urged after losing her husband and walking this devastating road last year. “Just show up,” she counsels in her advice on how to speak to people who are going through a hard time.

One of the beauties of the shiva tradition is that it walks the whole community through the process. The bereaved know there are grieving rituals and time periods that honor the months-and-years-long stages of grief. The community around them know that there are appropriate and welcome ways for them to show up and show support, and the family knows they can count on that. I think it’s a beautiful and profound and deeply humane thing. I wish we had something like shiva traditions: death and mourning are something we are pretty bad at, I think.

So I share this story not because I’m holding myself up as an example of someone who knows how to do this well. I share this story as someone who is actively wanting to learn from others how to do this better. I took the advice of my friends who had walked this road and I showed up. At death’s door. With cookies. And then I took Sheryl Sandberg’s advice. And I’m learning from the deep, relational wisdom of the Jewish community whose curated shiva practices are comforting and profound in a way that I ache for.

I know I’ve needed that kind of comfort myself, before. I remember with crystal clarity opening up an email twenty years ago, in the week after terrible crisis, and reading these verses a friend had sent me from Job 2:

“And when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place… They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him….. and they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13)

I remember sobbing in the computer lab as I read those words: tears of grief that needed compassionate space. My friend’s willingness to be near and offer that space spoke volumes.

Perhaps there is nothing quite as comforting as having people willing to just sit with us in times of great loss. It strikes me as remarkable that even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead moments later, when confronted with his dear friend Lazarus’ death and the throng of grieving friends, Jesus’ first response was to weep (John 6:35). To share in their grief before rushing to make it go away.

Just show up, says Sheryl, you don’t have to say or do anything.

Let’s show up.

 

 

Things My Mother Told Me (Shannon Wilson)

Reader Shannon Wilson sent me this amazing story about her Mom. Please welcome Shannon to the blog and savor this beautiful story.

For the past 15 years, my mother has talked to me about the day that she would die. My mom holds loosely to this life, primarily because she holds tightly to the promise of her Savior,  knowing life is a vapor and she has the treasure of eternity with Christ just up ahead. She started countless sentences with this phrase:  “Shannon, when I’m gone… ”  The first several times, I was horrified. Who wants to think about their vibrant and healthy mom dying? But she did it anyway, throwing the idea around with the ease of a pizza order.

Over time I got used to this odd “coaching” that only my mother seemed to do.  She would receive an eyeroll from me in response to her casual banter about the day I wouldn’t have her beside me. I told her time and time again that just because she prepped me about this wouldn’t make the day easier for me when it actually arrived.

Alongside this “prep,” there are truths of God that she has hammered into me over the years.  She said this to me, “It is the time in between the valleys, when you are on the mountaintop, that you press hard into Christ.  When you are not in the valley, when you are on a peak, don’t forget to know him well in these days, because a valley will come.”    This was not a gloomy, pessimistic view; my mother is the opposite of those things.  She is a dispenser of wisdom and I had grown up enough (finally) to heed her words. After a season in the valley, I came to a mountaintop.  I pressed in to Christ and remembered her words, “Press in on the mountain, a valley will come.”

  On January 14, 2014, my mother didn’t show up for an appointment. The police even used the phrase “missing.”   Finally, we got the call that brought her location into the open.   She had a severe stroke that induced a brain seizure. Her brain was bleeding and seizing while she was driving on major highway.  She got up to 90 miles per hour and slammed into a guard rail.  She had just been taken to the trauma center. Come quickly.   In an instant we went from one crisis – My mother is missing – to the next.

Suddenly, I didn’t know if my mother would be alive when I got to her.   I did not know if she was alive right then, at that moment while my dad and I were in the car, speeding toward her.  In those minutes, the words that my mother had spent years building into me seamlessly and suddenly wove together with the Spirit of God within me.

I wanted my mother to be alive.  I prayed desperately for her to be alive, for God to save her. Desperately I prayed,  boldly I begged…I was not ready for this to be the day.

Shannon holding her Mom’s hand in hospital (Photo used with permission)

 

At the same time, running a parallel track, I knew that it was entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that my mom was already in the presence of Jesus and seeing him face to face, or that she would be at any moment.

In those minutes, one truth from the mountaintop blazed forth and settled over the two tracks in my mind. He had told Martha this truth two thousand years before,  I AM the One thing, He said, I AM the Better thing.  I knew it to be true.   For my mom and for me.  Jesus, the One thing, spoke again through the words implanted in my heart through His Word:  “Do you believe?”  In that instant I knew that I believed that He is Enough, that if he took her or had already taken her that we would sing His praises at her funeral.
January 14, 2014 was not my mother’s day to die.   Today, she is a walking, talking miracle. About 6 weeks after the accident she made this statement to me, her speech halting and slower than before, but clear as a bell: “Shannon, I have prayed for you to have more of God and less of me…so when the day comes, HE would be enough.”
There it was.  The thread that she had been weaving for 15 years.   Her purpose behind all those years of casual prep, the encouragement to press in on the mountaintop, had never been to make the day “easier”  for me or to assume that the day would come less painfully.  Her purpose was to fill me with more of Jesus.  So when the day comes, and it was not that day but it will be another, that I would know that He is enough.

Shannon Wilson lives in NC with her husband and son.  Her passion is to write and speak about the riches of God’s Word and encourage women to live out the Gospel in their daily lives.  She loves reading, talking, wildly accessorizing and spending time with her family.  Connect with her on her blog, twitter and instagram (@shannonhw), or find her on Facebook.

 

To be or not to be?

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I had to read Shakespeare at school. I could understand enough of it to vaguely track the plot and appreciate the occasional wordy insult or clever pun, but not much more.

But Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech kept running through my mind as I was preparing a talk on Philippians 1, and it was serendipitous to look it up and find that for the first time in my life, I could really appreciate Shakespeare on my own. And what’s more, it turned out to be both educationally and spiritually encouraging as I compared Hamlet’s speech with Paul’s writings in Philippians 1 – as both of them wrestle with a choice to live or die.

Both are famous passages. Both deal with life and death. But the differences are significant too. In Hamlet’s speech, he is debating whether or not he should commit suicide. On the one hand, he is tired of the pain of living: being subject to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and the “heartache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to“. And so he longs for death to end it all: he wants to “sleep“. But, on the other hand, he says if he were to die, there is:

the dread of something after death.
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others we know not of.

And so Hamlet chooses life because, he says, “conscience makes cowards of us all“. He longs to die but is afraid because he is not sure what comes afterwards. For Hamlet, to be or not to be is a lose-lose choice which he ultimately decides as a coward.

Paul, on the other hand, sees the choice between life and death as a win-win choice. In Philippians 1 he boldly writes: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body…”

For Paul the choice is not, as it is for Hamlet, between painful life and uncertain death. For Paul, the choice is between a fruitful life knowing Jesus now, and eternal life with Jesus beyond death without any of the nastiness of this life. His choice of the latter is a no-brainer, but he chooses life because he still has work to do here.

But here’s the thing which got me excited about comparing these two speeches. The big difference between Hamlet and Paul’s outlook is their view of the afterlife. Hamlet talked of a hope of “sleep, perchance to dream“. Life after death was wishful thinking at best. He describes it as an “undiscovered country“, and laments that “no traveller returns” from there to assure him of what it is like.

Aye, there’s the rub.”

But the difference was that Paul had SEEN THE RISEN JESUS. He had met that one traveller who had travelled through death, who had not only discovered but conquered that “country”, rising again to proclaim that for those who know Him, death has lost its sting. Paul knew that beyond death there was resurrection life to be experienced with Jesus. And so for Paul (with apologies to Shakespeare),

There is no dread of something after death.
The eternal country from whose bourn
Jesus has returned, delights the will,
And makes us bear the ills we have today
’til we rest in bliss we know not yet of.

(reposted in honor of Kathi, who did not lose her battle against cancer so much as triumphantly gain eternal life. “For I am convinced that whether in life or in death… We are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”</em>