Archive of ‘Book Reviews’ category

When Hope Seems to Die.

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Rainfall
“But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned into a new strength…and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that could neither despair nor weariness, nor endless barren miles could subdue.”–J.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings

I’ve been home from Virginia for a week now. I continually reach up to run my fingers over the prickly hair growing back around a head wound gathered together with brutal metal staples. It throbs in a mending kind of way. Despite days of heavy rain and barometric pressure changes I’ve had no intracranial hypertension headache, and I can see clearly. This is what I prayed for. It is what I asked you to pray for.

It was my twenty-fifth surgery. It was certainly not minor. It involved replacing a clogged valve in my shunt and tubing in a ventricle in my brain that allows built up cerebral spinal fluid to drain. I had an unnamed anxiety I don’t have with my spinal surgeries, but the time in the operating room was much shorter, and I was in the hospital only forty-eight hours post-op. The few days of respite I found in late February in Arizona were completely undone by the flight home and the loss of my shunt function. The fifty-nine days leading to this surgery included three trips to Charlottesville, Virginia, the last two with hospital stays. Danica’s Hopkins trip was sandwiched in. If you’ve read our story long you know I manage different kinds of pain with varying levels of grace. Pressure at it’s worst renders me completely disabled and hopeless. There is no medication that brings me relief. The level of fluid that collects in my subarachnoid space puts me at risk for stroke and permanent blindness. This is my fifth shunt. I had three lumbar peritoneal shunts that all eventually failed due to calcification of the device and tubing. My first ventricular peritoneal shunt was placed exactly one year to the day before this revision. It was a miracle and gave me total relief from symptoms. I can’t imagine having gone through my huge fusion in October or Danica’s surgery and recovery without the healing I was given.

The trauma of the process of surgery when multiplied over and over cannot be explained. Something about this shunt failing when it did, the suffering along with the fighting and traveling for help and the reopening of my head unhinged me like nothing else has before.

Nothing.

I’ve been completely undone.

I’ve wept buckets of tears.

I’ve hidden in shame.

I’ve lied and said I’m okay when I am not.

I am not okay.

I’ve been curled in the fetal position gasping for jagged breaths. My mom dropped the girls off after school every day, and they would find me in bed with bloodshot eyes and a pile of snotty tissues. I cannot disguise this kind of fear and grief from them. I tried to explain, “This happens sometimes. It’s the anesthesia. It’s the stopping of pain medication. It’s the first opportunity I’ve had to mentally and emotionally process an impossibly hard year…” I prayed with them. After all, this is the right thing to do. When we are hurting we take it to God. When we are afraid we trust in Him. I answered texts and emails with the tone of healing, but I did not answer my phone or let anyone visit. Before Dan would get home I got out of our bed, washed my face and greeted him at the door. I pretended for him in a way I didn’t feel I needed to with Delaney and Danica. He says he is only as well as I am. I couldn’t bear to tell him how desperate he should be feeling.

The anxiety has been all consuming. For the first time in a decade I’ve begun to doubt my salvation. It’s as if I suddenly realized THIS IS MY LIFE. There is no asking for this cup to pass. EDS cannot pass. None of this intervention can be fully healed on this earth. This is not a faith issue. This is strands of DNA and failing flesh. What do I do with that? My body will never be more well than it is now. I’m forty-one years old. I won’t ever turn my neck to the left or the right again. I’ll never not have a bulging device sewn into the front of my head. The relief I’ve sought has plunged our family into a chasm of debt we will never recover from. I feel selfish. I feel ugly. I’m second guessing every time I’ve fought for better if this is as good as it can be. I feel like a liar, because I’ve said hopeful things for so long now. I believed them. I held others up with the faithful words of a God I now question. I want to open my laptop and delete all of Gauntlet with a Gift. I want to delete the files from the years I wrote at Team Danica and the years I’ve written here. Was any of it real?

Friday I did everything I could to move myself into a different head and heart space. I didn’t get back into bed when Dan and the girls left for the day. I made the bed. I showered and shaved my legs. I washed my hair and tried to style some pieces over the hideous incisions. I was exhausted. I needed to go to the post office to buy stamps for bills and mail a few love gifts. I had a panic attack. What if the postal workers notice my head or a stranger asks what happened to me and I break down in public? I considered not going, but my friend’s birthday was the day before. She’s fighting cancer, and I was late to love her, so I breathed in and out, and I got in the car. In the pouring rain I drove myself to a tanning place, and I went in and paid for ten minutes of light therapy. UV rays and vitamin D have helped in the past. It was full of people with the same idea including a rogue Axe body spray wearing male somewhere in the salon. Half way through my time I was in a crazy mast cell attack. These are always worst after surgery. I cried. I used a gross tissue in the bottom of my purse to try and straighten up. I went through the Starbucks drive thru and bought a venti white mocha with whip. I just needed to practice some self care, right? It was going to be fine. I drove to school to pick up my Delaney and Danica in car rider line. I listened to my favorite worship music. I cried. I used my sleeve to try and straighten up. I felt something stir inside me, and I posted a picture of healing IV bruises on Instagram. Sometimes saying things are getting better might actually make things better. Words have power like that. But not this time. I got home and crawled back under my weighted covers.

Yesterday was Dan’s only day off. For our family this means we have to get things done, because I cannot lift laundry baskets or grocery shop. While I was away Dan helped Danica go through her drawers and take inventory of how little she fits in and make a list of what she needs for a new season. We drove to Old Navy first. The smell of the store brings me to my knees. I knew I had twenty to thirty minutes max before I got deathly ill. I fake smiled and acted excited as we looked through the clearance rack and sale priced items and matched a few outfits together and found two dresses, because Danica is determined to get this family to church no matter what, and she has to wear a dress. I had a fifty percent coupon for Michaels and Danica needed a plain white t-shirt to paint at school for field day…a day she won’t attend, because of her restrictions, but she still wants to do a shirt. If Old Navy is Agent Orange to me then Michaels is Napalm. Our in and out trip left me shaking. We were back in the car and were supposed to get the Target health and beauty and groceries next, but I couldn’t. I had to get home immediately. I cried. I spent the afternoon between bed and the bathroom. The fallout from visiting those two stores would be hours of sickness. Danica was so happy with her new things. Dan and Delaney had to go back out. Danica came to snuggle me, and I cried. I told her I was sorry. I reminded her our family rule, “We all get to feel how we feel.” I reminded her how sad surgery can make you. She squeezed my hand and went to her room to play with her dolls. I cried.

Finally, I did the brave thing. The hardest thing. I reached for my phone and dialed the number of my older sister, Rochelle. She’s the one who has seen me at my worst and never looked away. She’d driven to the hospital just a week before to sit with me. She’s done this more times than I can count no matter what state my surgery is in. She shows up. Just a week before she somehow came over the mountain from West Virginia, a three hour drive, to sit in the UVA emergency room with me for an hour. She just shows up. I do pretend with her sometimes, but she knows. She can hear the empty lilt to my voice as I offer very little personal information and ask her a bunch of questions instead. This call began the same way. I asked how she was. I listened to the joy of her busy week watching my nephew Avery play tennis in a regional competition. Without warning my pain came pouring out of me like a river breaking dam. With every word I was finally moving towards truth. Of course, I know this. Say it out loud. Name it, and it loses power. Tell someone who knows your whole story. Tell someone you can trust with your heart. They will speak gentle words back to you, and you will move an inch toward healing and light. She listened. She cried. She allowed me to be exactly where I was without judgement. The only thing she wouldn’t let me leave with was the feeling I was no longer a child of God. She reminded me He already finished this big fight and won, He is for me and there is nothing I can do to to lose this love.

Later in bed I was crying again. Dan took my hand and held it tightly. He never tries to rush me to something else. This morning he left for Dayton for an overnight overtime trip. His leaving brought my fear back to the surface. I did something else brave. I texted my parents. I told them how I’m not okay. I asked them to pray. After church they brought me a chai and picked up Danica to spend the afternoon with her. I sat here in my nest chair and opened my Bible to Psalm 88. It’s a Psalm of lament that doesn’t try to end on a high note. It doesn’t try to rush you to something else. God gave it to us for a reason. The last words from Heman, one of the pioneers from the singing guild set up by David, are, “Darkness is my closest friend.”

Timothy Keller writes about this Psalm in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

“Three times in the Psalm the word ‘darkness’ occurs (v. 7, 12, 18). The effect is to say it is possible to pray and pray and endure and things not really get any better. The Psalm ends without a note of hope and so its teaching is that a believer can live right and still remain in darkness. Darkness may symbolize either outside difficult circumstances or an inner spiritual state of pain. That is the very realistic, tough message at the center of this Psalm. Things don’t have to quickly work themselves out, nor does it always become clear why this or that happened. One commentator wrote: ‘Whoever devises from the Scriptures a philosophy in which everything turns out right has to begin by tearing this page out of the volume…The very presence of such prayers in Scripture is a witness to His (God’s) understanding. He knows how men speak when they are desperate.’ Kidner’s point is this. If we believe that God through the Holy Spirit inspired and assembled Scriptures for us, then we see that God has not censored prayers like this…God remains this man’s God not because the man put on a happy face and controls all his emotions, but because of grace.”

And so today I sit with a God who doesn’t try to rush me to a praise especially when my Hope seems to be dying. Somewhere in the deep sorrow I feel the tiniest shiver of a goosebump of joy. I want the ache to eventually drive me into a greater sureness of His love for me and strengthen the belief that my afflictions will someday be once and for all eclipsed by His glory. Until then I lament and He listens and loves just the same.

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Struck. A Team Danica-Monica Update. And a Giveaway

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Struck Like a Bell

I get the notification every day on my facebook feed. You have memories. Most of the time they include a blog post from the old Team Danica blog where I was much more faithful about writing for you. They also include status updates about pain, sickness, medical tests, treatments, surgeries and hospital stays. Either I am asking for prayer and support or thanking you for it.

I’m tired of our story.
I’m sure you must be too.

Danica’s healing since her surgery has been a miracle. You know I don’t use the word without understanding the full weight of it. Our joy in the excellent news during her visit to Hopkins several weeks ago and celebration of removing her neck brace has been tempered by my suffering.

After a random April snow last week I’m convinced spring is here to stay. I am wildly in love with the birds and blooms. I want to slosh in the mud and hunt all things new. I want to sit still and study the rebirth of dormant life. This is the season when my hope is made visible. It is also when my mast cell disorder explodes. My skyrocketing histamines raise my intracranial pressure in tandem. My already hurting head and accompanying symptoms are somehow worse on these pollen soaked sunshiny days than when the roller coaster barometer reeked havoc on my fluid filled brain. I forget this happens every year. Social media memories remind me.

It’s holy week. Danica has been sick with a fever and headache since Saturday and home with me. After Dan and Laney leave each morning we’ve been reading through the Old Testament prophecies and New Testament Gospel accounts of the days leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection. We aren’t at the foot of the cross yet, but we see the sadness of Jesus as He nears and hear His aching lament. It comforts me to know my fully God yet fully man Savior understands the cry of a heart that trusts my Heavenly Father but wails just the same.

Tonight I am crying out.

It’s been hard for me to read and write since my shunt failed. I have always said the pressure is the one part of my complicated diagnoses that I cannot live with. A year ago I was so desperate I wanted to die. After three failed LP shunts God directed me to a vascular neurosurgeon at the University of Virginia who had only recently begun seeing EDS patients and was brave enough to help us. The VP shunt he placed gave me complete and lasting relief for almost a year. I didn’t take a day of it for granted. No matter how broken the rest of my body is I most desire to be mentally and emotionally able to think clearly, read, write and learn and form and nurture relationships. When my pain and brain fog cloud these abilities I become frantic. I’ve come to terms with all the other loss and disability, but I beg God to leave the core of who He created me to be in tact. My habit of voracious reading comes to a snail’s pace when I am in this much pain and lose so much vision in my right eye. I edit my list of books and slog through the ones I most want to read. “Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death” by Russ Ramsey moved to the top of my stack.

I read it cover to cover in one sitting. Like always, I read with a pen to mark up the margins and a journal to copy words I needed to save. I have to admit there were points in his story I felt upset. All the things he was experiencing with one sudden diagnosis, surgery and recovery I’ve been through repeatedly. In the last ten years many people have begun a conversation or note or email with something like, “It’s nothing compared to what you are going though…what you’ve been through, but…” I cringe. Every time I cringe. Here’s the thing I always tell people who are going through different but no less hard things,“There is no monopoly on suffering.” Once I got past the self indulgent contrast between my life and his I began to gobble his experience seasoned with truths.

Days before I picked up “Struck” I’d read an article on Desiring God by Matthew Westerholm titled “Lament Like a Christian Hedonist: How Joy in God Bears Real Pain.” I book marked it and returned to it several times. I found comfort in the reminder it’s biblical and okay to wrestle hard with your hardships. It was this prepared soil the seeds of chapter fourteen fell.

Because the Lord often withholds explanation for our pain, we must not look at suffering as though it is some divine gimmick designed to teach us some important life lesson. That would make too little of the reality. God’s people do not walk through suffering toward the moral of the story. Rather, we walk toward the eternal presence of the Maker and Love of our souls, This I must remember…Suffering is not an event. It is a path…There are plenty of advisers out there who would counsel me to dress this up with positive thinking. But I do not think it would be honest to try to pad my experience with cleverly contrived optimism that denies what is true. My faith in Christ provides a deeper, truer way. I want to feel my sorrow. I want to walk in it. If the Lord walks there with me, what possible advantage could there be in conjuring any other way? No, I choose the road of suffering, and I pray for the courage to walk it honestly. The truth is my heart is broken. I need time to say as the psalmist said, ‘When I remember God, I moan, when I meditate my spirit faints.’ As part of my confession of faith, I need to say that I am not okay–not completely.

Tonight I am not okay. I can beat on the breast of my Father God, and He will hold me close and listen to every cry. “Though I continue to ask why, more often than not the question on my mind is ‘What’s Next?’ Sometimes He will answer, sometimes He will not. And I will again have to lean on what I know of who He is when I cannot make sense of what He allows.”

The God of the universe. The same God who sees Syria tonight. The same God who sat with my beloved friend this afternoon as she met her oncologist to see if her brutal cancer treatment is working. The same God who watched my sister and her family bury their dear Pops today. The same God who sits in the psych ward at the bedside of a fellow zebra’s husband who tried to take his life because he cannot bear to watch his wife and children suffer any longer. The same God who formed my Danica in my womb, fearfully and wonderfully, errant DNA and all and knows why she is running a fever for so long. The same God who sees my CSF logged brain and feels the bulging behind my right eye. He is good. He suffered hell for me. Love like that can be trusted with ALL THIS.

As I lay my throbbing head on a tear soaked pillow tonight I pray Russ’s song of lament:

Lord, You are with me. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death together. Since I do not know the way, I have no choice but to trust You. To trust You means I walk a steady path believing you are with me. The sound of my footfall echoes the two operative words you use to call me to the communion table–remember and proclaim. I remember that You are a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, and I proclaim that I have no better guide. I have no better guide for two reasons: because You are God and because no one has stepped forward to lead me in a worthy manner. So I follow. What else can I do?

I haven’t asked for prayer lately.

I am tired of our story.
I’m sure you must be too.

But God is not tired. He does not grow weary or faint. Danica asked me to post something on facebook this afternoon when her fever spiked. Her childlike faith remembered your prayers for her miracle and wanted the same prayers for her sick body now. I was humbled. Won’t you please pray for her tonight? If she is still spiking by morning we will head to the children’s hospital. Please pray for my brain. I am terribly anxious about our trip to Charlottesville on Monday and my procedure Tuesday and what the next steps might be. I am terrified of a shunt revision. Please pray for Delaney. She is so sad about Dan and I leaving next week. She wants the joy of the sunshine and warm breeze to play as a song in our home instead of the dirge of sickness. Please pray for my Dan. He worked overtime this past Sunday offsite to help pay for another expensive medical trip, and he is working all week and then Saturday and Easter Sunday so he can take the days off to drive me to UVA. He is exhausted. He comes home to do laundry and dishes and look into the faces of a woman and children he loves desperately and wants to save somehow. Please pray for healing and provision and strength and Grace to do each next thing we think we cannot do.

Our Hope Remains.

What is your song of lament tonight?

I’m listening to Michael Gungor’s “Beautiful Things.”

I’m giving away a copy of “Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death”. Comment here on the blog or on social media with your heart cry by Sunday night. I will randomly choose a winner from the comments and send you a copy of this special book.

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Begin. One Word. A Team Monica Update

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BeginAgain
“Always we begin again.”–St. Benedict

I bought the beautiful hardback book “Every Day Sacred: A Woman’s Journey Home” by Sue Bender in January, 1996 at a Walden Books at the Valley Mall in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The simple rendering of the empty red bowl on the cover drew me in. My life was out of control. I was lost in my faith. Nothing seemed sacred anymore. As I flipped through the pages I saw lots of white space, rudimentary illustrations sketched in black and only a few words. I realize now that my life word, Dayenu, was being planted way back then. In Sue’s introduction she spoke of a begging bowl,

“All I knew about a begging bowl was that each day a monk goes out with an empty bowl in his hands. Whatever is placed in the bowl will be his nourishment for the day.

I didn’t know if I was the monk or the bowl or the things that would fill the bowl, or all three, but I trusted the words and the images completely.

At that moment I felt most like the empty bowl, waiting to be filled.”

BeggingBowl

Sue’s book became a treasure I’ve carried with me everywhere. There were more than a few times I could fit everything I owned into my powder blue two door Chevy Cavalier marked with the Grateful Dead dancing bears sticker on the back windshield. Somehow my Bible and this book were never lost in the fray of my vagabond life.

If you visit my home you will see little bowls everywhere. Some are sitting empty. Some hold a rock and a feather, a small cross or piece of sea glass. They are not all displayed at once. I rotate them in my decor. They tell a kind of story. In late November, 2003, the night before my brother Neculai died, I painted a rather large bowl at a pottery studio with my mom. I scratched the date and my initials on the bottom. It’s now a deeply emotional space. I brought it out on my kitchen counter the week of Thanksgiving, a holiday that will always be tempered by sudden loss. Every time I’ve passed it since returning from Danica’s surgery in Baltimore I get a lump in my throat. I knew my word for 2017 was somewhere in the hollow of the simple blue glaze.

Since my own complicated fusion in October I’ve been the monk begging, the empty bowl waiting to be filled and the sacrifice filling the bowl for someone else.

I first heard the poem “The Singing Bowl” by Malcolm Guite at the opening of The High Calling retreat at Laity Lodge in November, 2014. I scribbled down the words in my blank Moleskine. Later that night in the silence of my room I read them over again and again. Each stanza was emptying my heart for every sacred thing I would receive in that hallowed place. There was no internet access in our rooms. I desperately wanted to google Malcolm and find his work. Sitting quietly with the scrawled letters in my own handwriting was gift. Before every session that weekend I opened my green notebook and read them again. Waiting at the San Antonio airport a few days later, finally with Wi-Fi, I found his book of poetry by the same title and ordered it.

Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,

Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.

Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.

And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.

My word for 2017:
BEGIN.

DesertSun

God made a way for me to take a solitary trip to Tucson last week. It was something I’d prayed for and desperately needed. In this world of constant sharing I wanted to keep it quietly tucked inside my hurting heart. It was everything I’d hoped and more. After spiritual famine and astigmatism I could taste and see good again. Tuesday morning I sat at the airport waiting to return home with absolutely no pain. Zero. No headache. No neck pain. No joint pain. No cardiac symptoms. No burning and stabbing needles in my feet. No mast cell attacks sitting near people with all kinds of scents. I was well. I filled my journal pages with gratitude for the body and spirit healing. I wrote about the things I long to do in this new year, specifically a dream I’ve had for some time to host a retreat for young zebra women in Arizona. I want to offer them respite from their medical lives, encouragement in community together and a few days of knowing there is a beautiful place where they could feel some better. I made important contacts and explored locations moving the idea into real planning. I was hopeful and excited.

ZonaMKS

My travel home included flights from Tucson to Chicago and then on to Akron/Canton. A little over two hours into the first flight the captain alerted us there were extreme storms around Chicago and no flights were being allowed to land so we would hang out at a high elevation circling above Nebraska and Iowa and hope things improved. An hour later he let us know we would have a very uncomfortable landing in Milwaukee through turbulent weather. It was during this descent and pressure change I experienced an ice pick pain in the right side of my head, loss of hearing in my right ear and fluid leaking from it. We sat on the plane in Milwaukee waiting for some kind of small window in the Doppler radar to make it into Chicago. Almost all of us on a large packed flight were making connections there. Suddenly we were ascending quickly and descending again through lightning and pouring rain at O’Hare. The airport was in total chaos. Every passenger needed to be booked on new flights for the next day. I stumbled off the jet way and began to cry.

With each new surgery I’ve been increasingly afraid to do things alone. I had to work through this doubt before I committed to the Arizona trip. I’ve felt more and more of myself being swallowed by disability. I’ve found myself resenting my broken body as an enemy instead of caring for it as a temple of the Holy Spirit. I used to be a seasoned solo traveler. In the past I’d have been frustrated by the inconvenience of an unplanned night in Chicago, but I would have jumped on the Marriott app and found a room, hailed a taxi and adjusted my sails. Instead, I felt like a lost and injured child. It wasn’t just the circumstances upsetting me. I was instantly questioning my theology and belief in everything I’d just been grateful for. Thousands of people were being affected by the weather. Of course God was doing things providentially in many hearts and lives through this maddening detour. My myopic view left me sobbing in a wheelchair by the baggage claim holding the howling shunt side of my head in my hands.

The first time I ever spoke of the desire to host a zebra retreat was with my friend Christy who lives just outside Chicago. I knew her from Chiari and EDS support groups on Facebook for several years before she went out of her way on a particularly difficult day of her own tests and appointments in Maryland to visit me during a long and lonely hospitalization for my initial AE/PANS/PANDAS treatment. We are kindred. Since meeting three years ago we have written many #pentopaper cards and notes and letters, emailed, texted and talked on the phone. Both our lives are impossibly knotted. We’ve longed to see one another again face to face, but it’s never happened. Tuesday night I texted her without hesitation, and she jumped at the strange and stressful opportunity to show me hospitality. She arranged for a car to pick me up and came out to the driveway to greet the mess that I was with an umbrella and a smile. It was late. Her husband and girls were in bed. She was reeling from a challenging and emotional week away for invasive diagnostic tests in Georgia. Everything about me showing up in the middle of the night was inconvenient. Sitting across the table in her warm and cozy kitchen with a cup of hot tea sharing hearts for hours…falling into the most comfortable guest bed with silky linens and perfectly plump pillows…waking to her beautiful face shining Jesus the next morning was God giving me a glimpse of His purpose for this detour in my life.

Since returning home Wednesday afternoon I’ve continued to experience intense intracranial pressure. Other symptoms that accompany this pain are also constant. My amazing miracle VP brain shunt is not working properly. Tomorrow my dad will drive me to Charlottesville, Virginia for a Monday scan and appointment with the University of Virginia vascular neurosurgeon who placed my shunt last April. I am undone. I begged God for a year without surgery. It was difficult to leave my family for the time in Arizona. Leaving them tomorrow is crushing. We are so close to Danica’s trip back to Baltimore to see her fusion and meet with her neurosurgeon. I don’t understand.

The rule of St. Benedict, “Always we begin again,” reminds me of fresh starts in Jesus. It invites a trust for my daily bread and the strength and Grace to move through time and space with exactly what is given to me. It encourages me in my Dayenu life of always enough. Chronic illness and daily suffering have a way of emptying over and over. Rising each morning asking God what He wants to do through this brokenness is a part of healing but never being healed. I am a beggar, aware of my need and completely dependent on His love. My life is an offering.

I can’t tell you what new thing He is doing in this pain, but I believe. I have to believe.

“‘Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name. You’re mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end. Because I am God, your personal God, your Savior. I paid a huge price for you’…This is what God says,…’Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands.'”–Isaiah 43:1-3, 18-19, The Message

This is my heart song tonight. Soli Deo Gloria.

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A Bruised Reed and The Broken Way. A Team Danica Update

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ICUBrave

I’m sitting in a hospital recliner facing my Danica’s bed in the PICU at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. She is resting comfortably, but I don’t want her to open her eyes and not see me here. She was in surgery for over six hours today. Just before 8 am I followed the anesthesia team into the huge operating room to hold her sweet hand. She looked up at the many masked faces and back to mine, and she began to cry until she breathed enough gas for her to drift off. In that moment my brave broke into a thousand pieces. I came out to hug Dan and see my dad and mom who were in the family waiting room, and I began to cry too. The doctors said the first update would come in an hour or so. It would take that long to place all her lines, prep her and get the initial imaging done before the first incision. I needed coffee and a distraction. Dan and I went right away so we could hurry back up to wait as closely as we could to our girl.

I stopped at the chapel alone.

Kneeling in the empty, dark and perfectly quiet room I prayed.

I’ve been reading Ann Voskamp’s new book The Broken Way the past six weeks. I’ve had to take it in bite size pieces, because I am a bruised reed. I’ve been feeling like a sham…saying the “right” things about hope and healing in the light while secretly covering a spreading hematoma of doubt, fear and even anger. The leaking has gone deeper than the surface tissue. It’s become a blood clot in the main artery to my spiritual heart. I’m not just bruised. I’m broken.

This morning in the make shift sacred space, prostrate before the good God I’d been forgetting in my pain and my daughter’s suffering, I took a ragged breath of Grace, and the oxygen of Jesus fanned the smoldering wick back into a tiny flame. The blockage cleared in the yielding.

Ann’s words underlined, copied on a note card and carried with me in the Bible I’ve struggled to read echoed in my mind.

“What happens if you just let the brokenness keep coming? Surrender. Let the wave of it all break over you and wash you up at the foot of the cross. What if I lived like I believed it: Never be afraid of broken things–because Christ is redeeming everything.

I am cracked open yes but not trampled. With my head on the ground the Spirit ministered with the truth from Psalm 34:18. “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” Gently Jesus splints my snapped soul with bandages of compassion.

Broken

Danica’s surgery went well. Exceeding, abundantly above all we could ask or think. The details are amazing. The “Gauntlet” bringing us here may even be a gift. I haven’t given up on that yet.

“The fellowship of the suffering believe that suffering is a gift He entrusts to us, and He can be trusted to make this suffering into a gift. The fellowship of the broken take up the fearless broken way, are not afraid of brokenness, and don’t need to try to fix anyone’s brokenness, or try to hide it or mask it or judge it or exile it…Never be afraid of broken things–because Christ is redeeming everything.

Thank you for being part of the “fellowship of the broken.” You were praying us into today, through today and will continue in the coming hard days of recovery. Thank you for being the given in our need. Our Hope remains.

I’m quietly playing the achingly beautiful song “Image of God” sung by Christa Wells and Nicole Witt. Still your heart. Close your eyes and listen. Play it again.

Dan, Danica and I attended an intimate concert with Christa along with Jess Ray and Taylor Leonhardt the week before we headed here for surgery. It was soul food for us all.

Christa Wells

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Imperfect Birds. A Team Danica-Monica Update

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Imperfect Birds
“What does the title “Imperfect Birds” mean?

It’s a line from a poem by Rumi. The line is ‘Each must enter the nest made by the other imperfect birds’, and it’s really about how these kind of scraggly, raggedy nests that are our lives are the sanctuary for other people to step into, and that if you want to see the divine, you really step into the absolute ordinary. When you’re at your absolutely most lost and dejected … where do you go? You go to the nests left by other imperfect birds, you find other people who’ve gone through it. You find the few people you can talk to about it.”–Anne Lamott, from Writer’s Digest May/June 2010

We made it. Danica is tucked in bed next to me in a room at The Believe in Tomorrow House in Baltimore Maryland. We can see the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center at Johns Hopkins from our second floor window. She and I flew from Akron-Canton into Reagan National yesterday. Dan and Delaney drove the turnpike and timed it perfectly to swing by the airport, pick us up and drive to Baltimore. We had a good family night at a hotel near the inner harbor. We were able to meet up with some of Dan’s Maryland family earlier today, and Laney left to spend a few days with her aunt and uncle and cousins here.

This evening we had a beautiful meal prepared by a mother and her daughters who choose to come once a month and feed the parents and children staying here. (If you are a family with healthy kids who need a little perspective find a local Ronald McDonald House or something similar and volunteer there. You will walk away grateful and inspired.) Danica was so excited for the homemade ziti to come out of the oven. Our room is right off the kitchen. I was already in my pajamas. A woman I’d briefly met earlier in the afternoon was waiting too. She began to ask about why we are here and about Danica’s surgery. My throat was sore, and I was beyond tired. In my head I was thinking, “I just can’t tell our story right now, and I certainly can’t ask you about yours.” But I did. If you know me you understand this is where I believe the “thousand things” are happening. This woman is from Seattle and here alone with her fifteen year old son. He is in the hospital on a ventilator. He got a simple cold virus that spread to his spinal cord…something like polio. It paralyzed him from the neck down. They expect to be here several months at least. She was hungry for someone to listen. I leaned in. As different as our children’s medical conditions are and the reasons we are here we are much the same. Our conversation moved through the issues we face and the emotions behind them. This is the real beauty of respite homes like this. They not only ease the financial burden of hotels with a minimal fee, but they offer close proximity to the hospital, home cooked meals, laundry and places for the kids to relax besides your room. Most of all they offer a community of others who are looking for a nest as imperfect as their own where they can rest awhile. Lying here in the dark I’m worn so thin you could see straight through me. I’ve been following Danica’s lead. Her courage amazes me. I’m being more careful about showing my fear and sadness around her the closer we get to Wednesday. I didn’t realize how badly I needed to rest in this woman’s messy nest too.

Some of my dearest friends are mothers of children who have Ehlers-Danlos and Chiari. They are waging their own health battles and having surgeries while searching for the best care and fighting for the most whole life for their loves. We are spread across the United States. Our lives intersect in person occasionally at the same hospitals or doctor’s offices while traveling to see the few experts who understand these complex diagnoses. Most of the time we support one another online. We have private message boards and email and text. We mail #pentopaper and care packages. We laugh and we cry about the specific brand of hard we’ve been given. We are one another’s life saving pit crew. We are one another’s heroes. Jodi Picoult wrote in Second Glances:

“Heroes don’t leap tall buildings or stop bullets with an outstretched hand; they don’t wear boots and capes. They bled, and they bruised, and their superpowers were as simple as listening, or loving. Heroes were ordinary people who knew that even if their own lives were impossibly knotted, they could untangle someone else’s. And maybe that one act could lead someone to rescue you right back.”

As Danica and I were closing up the house to leave yesterday I walked Twixie one last time and peeked in the mailbox. Our mail was supposed to stop Wednesday, but apparently the postal carrier hadn’t gotten the message yet. I was meant to get the letters waiting there. There was wisdom and encouragement from my ninety-four year old grandmother, a beautiful card from my older sister, a letter from a younger hero I adore and precious words from a kindred friend I met at The High Calling Retreat two years ago. Cindee and her children were just being diagnosed with EDS and Dysautonomia, several of the many comorbid conditions we share. I’d been baptized by the fire for years. God brought us to the Texas hill country to sit in one another’s nests for awhile. Since our meeting she’s co-founded Chronic Joy, non profit ministry whose mission is: “Radical hope. Compassionate change. Equipping those affected by chronic physical and mental illness through community and education rooted in Jesus Christ.” She wrote and published Discovering Hope, a beautiful handbook for those who are suffering from chronic illness and the people who love them. I was humbled to write the foreword to this book. Her letter sits with me now as I hide in the tiny bathroom to find some light.

“I ache for your weariness…for your mama heart that has to be strong for your little that is going through so much and longs to salve, solve, shield, comfort, cheer lead, encourage and love on, yet alternately has to endure, cajole, persuade, swallow down, smile through the pain…I have no easy words, no quick solution, because we both know those fell away long, long ago. So I lift you up on the wings of prayer and hold you close and write these books, design the images, follow the call of this ministry for US, for our precious kids…because it matters, because WE matter. Every heartbeat. Every moment. Every breath…”

Danica will have an invasive test called a CT myelogram tomorrow. She will be under anesthesia and have dye injected into her spinal cord to give the surgeons the best image of the drain stuck in the fourth ventricle of her brain. Dan and I will give her up to strangers and let them take her away while we sit and wait and pray. Please pray with us. The risk of a spinal fluid leak is real. I’ve had a leak after a lumbar puncture producing the worst headache of my life. Please pray she will have peace as we get her settled and come out safely and more confident about Wednesday because of making it through this difficult procedure.

To all the imperfect birds who have invited me into your nest or come to sit in mine, I thank God for you. I pray circles around you and your families. You make me braver.

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Just Show Up. Part One. A Team Danica-Monica Update

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Galveston angel
“Nurturing friendships is hard enough when everyone is healthy. But when you show up and do the work of being a friend to someone who is suffering, it will cost you something. In other words, you’re going to have to sacrifice your comfort, your schedule and maybe even aspects of your faith.”–Kara Tippetts

We are three days in, and it’s already been a week of hard. Monday I had my stitches removed. If you are a facebook friend I’m sure you cringed at my “over sharing” photo. (Please remember that at least half my “friends” are people who are walking through similar surgeries and recoveries. We celebrate healing no matter how gnarly, and our wounds are truly the places where light filters to our souls.) During the same visit Danica had her pre-op labs drawn and other tests for screening. Her last needle experience in Cincinnati was brutal with several failed IV attempts for a CT with contrast. She was anxious. As much as we talked about how this blood draw was a quick stick with no straw and a much smaller needle she lost her courage when it came time. Both of us showed our needle PTSD. It was ugly. It took the doctor, two nurses and myself to hold her down to try to get a stick, but she jerked, and we missed. She was sobbing. I was sobbing. I left the room for a minute to tell God He got this all wrong. “I CAN’T WATCH HER SUFFER AGAIN.” I was really thinking how impossible this was going to be. We are headed for brain and spinal surgery, and we can’t get through a needle stick. I came back in and moved from the completely understanding and comforting ally to get tougher on her. We had to get through this. We switched to the other arm, held her at four corners, and I began to pray over her. “Jesus, Calm Danica’s heart. Help us stick this vein.” We got it. On our way out our dear doctor hugged us both. She knows how fragile I am from my recent surgery. She’s walked the long road with me for over six years. She knows how impossible all this seems, especially right now. Her hug validated all those things and then said, “You can do this!”

Afterward my dad took us to Chic-fil-A and then to Danica’s special hair appointment where she had the underneath of her head shaved and a purple stripe added for Chiari. It was sad and fun all at the same time. Every step makes November 30th more real. We are all feeling the weight of it.

I had my every six week maintenance chemo drip yesterday. It was painful to sit in the chair for over eight hours with my neck in such spasm. By mid bag I begin to feel oh so sick and the deep bone ache began from the inside out. Last night I was exhausted but could not sleep because of the steroids, the hurt and how sick my tummy gets. I was up and down, up and down…finally I gave up trying to rest. Around 4 am I slipped out to the cold, dark living room and picked up the book “Just Show Up: The Dance of Walking Through Suffering Together” by dear Kara Tippetts and her friend Jill Lynn Buteyn. My friend Kristin had given it to me in January of this year. At the time I skimmed and shelved it. I brought it out to read at chemo but didn’t have the energy. I finally read it cover to cover this morning with a pen and a highlighter. I got out old school college ruled notebook paper and wrote Kristin a long letter stained with some tears.

Kristin and I

Kristin is my friend from Denver who first loved us when she heard God telling her to “Drain it.” (If you’ve never heard this story before you’ve got to read it!) We worked remotely for the same company based in Northern Virginia. I’d only briefly met her twice face to face when I’d traveled to Virginia for work functions and a third time when she came to visit me after one of my surgeries in Maryland before she moved to Colorado. I often say we are the least likely of friends. We are different in many ways. All my life I’d found friends who were almost mirror images of myself. This was someone I could learn from in a whole new way. We became close. She became the person who made me laugh out loud when no one else could. She allowed just enough whining before kicking my butt with the perfect amount of tough love. Even though we live very far from one another she has consistently found ways to “show up” for my family and I. Last October we took a very special girl’s trip to Galveston, TX to celebrate me turing forty. It was the first time we’d spent quality time together in the flesh. We shared hearts. I learned more about her walks with a former fiance’ and her dad who both fought and lost cancer wars. I understood more about how she knew what so many people simply can’t when it comes to loving someone in chronic suffering. When I found out about my emergency surgery she immediately called and said she was coming. She flew to spend a week with me in the hotel after my hospital discharge. It wasn’t easy for her to find care for her children or for her husband to handle all the details while she was gone. He told her “Go be the hands and feet.” (Seriously, this guy lets her obey God and “drain it” and now this. Corey, you are Jesus in skin.)

Kristin hasn’t been feeling well for some time. It’s strange how long and hard we have to look to find what becomes glaring when it’s finally seen. I hugged her in the parking lot of the Dulles Virginia Residence Inn on October 28th as the sun began to rise. She flew home and went to a doctor’s appointment on Monday to explore a lump. Two days later she had a CT that screamed malignant tumor. A week later she had a biopsy that named it. She has cancer. Big cancer. I checked flights to Denver. I wanted to go so badly, if only to ring her doorbell and hug her again. Neck healing be damned. I should have hugged her harder and longer.

This giving and receiving thing still seems so complicated to me. I’m proud. After all this time, I still really want to become independent again. I want to pay all our debt on our own merit. I want to go back to work and save the day. I want to disappear off this screen and be a person who shows up in flesh and blood for others. I want to bring you dinner, or clean your bathroom or fly across the United States to care for you post-op. But I can barely put my own socks on. I can’t drive now and maybe never will again. I’m disabled in all the ways I think the world needs me…in all the ways you, my friends and family, need me. I’m humbled over and over again. I even fight it with my own parents. I fight it with my husband and my children. They see me wincing through a smile. They see me faking it but hear me saying I’m not. I want to find my worth again in their lives too. Everything in this world screams this is by doing. What if you can’t do? What if you can only be?

Like Kara Tippetts I’d like to be known as a “keeper and grower of friendships, a tender nurturer of those around” me even in my suffering. Stripped of all the trappings of what I do for a living, where I live, what I wear or plans for any future I am left with a worn chair in the corner of a living room where I sit and read and write and pray. I pray circles. I mail words. I pray circles. I’d like to believe this is a kind of showing up too…a kind of giving. I’d like to believe BEING in Jesus really is enough. There’s my word again. Dayenu. More than enough.

Kara was dying as she finished writing “Just Show Up.” The way she lived and died impacted the hearts and lives of thousands and thousands of people because she wasn’t afraid of the one thing that remains when everything else falls away. She wasn’t afraid of community. She wasn’t afraid to give and receive. Some of her last written words were these:

“Friends, Community. It is the only way to know and be known. It’s where we see our own humanity and frailty, our gifts and our weaknesses. When we show up for one another, we invade each other in love and become witnesses to the truth that trials and sickness and pain are not the whole story. There’s more. So much more. We can remind one another that our lives are not a mistake. And, most importantly, that we are loved with an everlasting love.”

I’m four weeks out from surgery today. Two weeks away from my baby girl’s huge operation. I am healing slowly. Anything I do jeopardizes what we just tried to accomplish. This surgery can’t be repeated. It HAS to be the last time inside my cervical spine. I HAVE to find a way to ask for and receive specific help. I spent a lot of time in bed on heat after Dan and the girls left for work and school. Chemo recovery day is hard. I still had many phone calls and follow ups to accomplish. And my lists of things to do in the next week and a half before we leave for Baltimore seemed to grow longer not shorter. Around 1 pm I got up to make my family their favorite chicken casserole. It sounds simple, right? I reached down for the large Corning Ware dish. I reached down for the heavy Calphalon pan to boil the water for the stuffing. I bent over to put the chicken in the big pan in the oven. I reached up to get a mixing bowl for the sour cream and soup mixture. I leaned back down to get the chicken out of the oven and then cut it in little pieces. I lifted the large bowl to dump the ingredients and mix them. I lifted the stuffing pan and my wrist slipped out of joint as I scattered the stuffing on top. What if this one meal…this one personal act of love and assertion of independence ruined something? My neck was screaming. Now there were dirty dishes. The dishwasher was full and clean. This is rare. Usually Dan runs it each night and empties it each morning. I have no business reaching in and out of a dishwasher ever. But I did. Doesn’t a sink full of dirty pots and pans and a full dishwasher negate the encouragement I was trying to give by making the meal? So I emptied it.

My girls came home. Danica had homework to make up from Monday. She had a lovely gift bag from a teacher at school. We went through the things. Of course I needed to find a journal to begin a list of gratitude. The mail came. There was a box from my dear friend in Wisconsin with things for Danica. We went through the things. My body was howling, but I kept a cheerful face and spirit for my girl. We added the gifts to the gratitude journal. I took the cardboard to the recycling bin in the garage and sat down to wail.

I need help. We need help. I’ve pushed your offers away, because I wanted to do these weeks cozied here as a family. I did work on a list of specific ways you can help during and after Danica’s surgery, but I kind’ve wanted to keep you out of this part. It’s ugly. I’m ugly. I’m in full on lament. I realized this afternoon I cannot even pack for this kind of trip. I need help.

I got on my knees and with no head bowing ever again I prayed for God to help me ask and receive. I begged Him to help me be honest and detailed about how others can help and trust Him to fill the slots.

The next post will be this ask. Humbly, I will ask you to “just show up.”

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Still Walking. A Team Danica-Monica Update

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At home
I still walk.
Doctors, looking
down at me, say
YOUR SPINE IS DISINTEGRATING,
STAY IN THE WHEELCHAIR OR ELSE.
Or else what? I’ll never walk again?
Never stand up? Of that
I am not afraid.
I am afraid
of sitting down
for the last time.

So,
I still walk at home.
Unlock the door,
wheel inside, then
up:
My remembered feet
on the cool slate,
My gaze straight into Gran’s painted eyes.
Someday, I will have to look up
to remember…
or take her down with me.

For now
I still walk at home.
Nothing fast, nothing fancy,
Nothing but one foot in front of the other,
Which is everything, really,
Everything if you appreciate
the shift of weight from heel
to toe, the way your arches
sigh into the carpet, and
the small dance that happens
when you just stand still.
–Lynn Goldfarb

I searched for a stock image of a younger person using a walker. One in a medical institution would have worked, but I really wanted one outdoors, maybe a young woman like me walking in the sun and leaves. There were hundreds of photos of older people with someone caring beside them helping them take each next step. There were no photos of a forty year old wife and mama gripping a metal support with wheels praying each step will take her closer to restoration.

In a way it’s sad I don’t write much during the several weeks between major surgeries and days like today when the fog begins to clear, and I’m able to process the pain and grief I’ve endured. I know I’ve lost wise things, and I’m sure I’ve buried others. This is how we survive any recurring trauma isn’t it?

Twenty-four. It’s a lot of anything. It’s a crazy amount of wounding.

I felt afraid. This terror was new and different. Fear is rarely part of these operations anymore. My pain becomes a place I’d rather die than keep living. I get a scan, see the new damage and mark the date on a calendar. I don’t ask myself how many patch jobs we can do before my spine disintegrates. This time as I woke from anesthesia I wondered if we’d gone too far. I had oxygen, but I couldn’t breathe. If I stayed awake I could make myself take breaths, but I was under the plastic bag of too many drugs. I just wanted to sleep. Every time I fell asleep I stopped breathing. An alarm would sound. I’d jerk awake. The nurse would remind me, “BREATHE.”

There was something about the way my body was positioned during this surgery that completely ruined my hips. The op notes are vague. I know part of the pain and inability to walk alone was from the bone marrow aspiration from my right hip. Once we moved to the hotel my sister and sister-in-law would help me to the bathroom. I felt my legs dragging behind me as I held onto the walker for dear life. There were burgundy stripes in the hotel floor, and they became like little mile markers for my marathon.

I’m grateful for hard fought battles won. I’m thankful for the scars, new and old alike. They are my beauty marks.

I won’t JUST sit in a chair.
Not even my “nest” chair.
I will put one foot in front of another.
Which is everything really.
It’s everything.

Presurg

Postsurg

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The Quiet Time. The Waiting Time. A Team Danica Update

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Waiting
YOU keep us waiting.
You, the God of all time,
Want us to wait
For the right time in which to discover
Who we are, where we are to go,
Who will be with us, and what we must do.
So thank you … for the waiting time.
–John Bell, quoted in The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers

Friday marked 37 days since I pulled my car over and talked in detail with the Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon about Danica’s broken hardware and cervical instability. We picked a “tentative” surgery date of October 12th. I broke up with Cincinnati Children’s. And then it was quiet. We know all too well how difficult it is to get the OR for such a long period of time with all the right people scheduled, especially two head neurosurgeons who have different clinic and surgery days. Because the doctor is brand new to Hopkins he had to order special equipment, something in particular for Danica’s difficult operation, as well as the instrumentation for her new fusion. I guess it makes sense you don’t take a position at one of the best hospitals in the world and then waltz in and use whatever stuff they have. I keep saying something breezy like, “God’s got it on His calendar!” But we’ve been getting antsy, and I’m wanting to orchestrate the hundred things that can only be planned after we have a firm date. You can imagine my “beautiful mind” notebook, right?

My dear friend Kris Camealy has written a new Advent devotional titled Come Lord Jesus: The Weight of Waiting. I began reading an advanced copy the same week we made the decision about the surgeon and hospital for Danica’s surgery. Oh how I needed the disciplined walk through holy anticipation of God’s good plan of salvation through the birth of Jesus Christ. Every day of the Advent journey is deeply rooted in Scripture. I’ve gone back to read the passages again and again. I began to realize. God is not asking me to do nothing in the wait. He is asking me to prepare my heart and mind. He is asking me to humble myself and sit in hopeful and trusting expectation. He is asking me to believe He will work His purpose perfectly in the fullness of time…His time and not mine. If a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day then a month can definitely feel like two thousand years! He is asking me to believe He is there in the silence. (I will be posting about Come Lord Jesus again when it officially releases on October 16th and doing a giveaway!)

During another difficult waiting season in my life my friend Violet send me these words written by Oswald Chambers:

“God’s silences are His answers…Can God trust you…or are you still asking for a visible answer?…His silence is the sign that He is bringing you into a marvelous understanding of Himself…You will find that God has trusted you in the most intimate way possible, with an absolute silence, not of despair, but of pleasure…If God has given you a silence, praise Him, He is bringing you into the great run of His purposes.”

I already see the beautiful things He’s providing in this quiet time of waiting. With no firm surgery date I have been able to just be with Dan and my girls. I was able to celebrate Delaney’s fourteenth birthday doing “normal” mom things like taking her and her friends to try on formal dresses and out to eat. The first month of her freshman year of high school I was not just physically here but fully present. It has made all the difference. Just the simple stability of picking Delaney and Danica up from school every day has created calm in all of us. I was able to schedule new family pictures and actually follow through. I’ve mostly stayed off my computer and phone and snuggled, read books and had long talks with my Dani J. We celebrated Danica’s ninth birthday with her friends this weekend and will have cake and presents as a family tonight. There are barely traces of frantic Monica, because there was nothing I could do but WAIT and live real life in the quiet instead of holding my breath. This is Grace.

I canceled my Friday, October 7th scan and appointment in Charlottesville, Virginia with the vascular neurosurgeon who placed my VP shunt in April. The logistics of flying there are much more expensive and trying to navigate the several hours from there to DC without being able to rent a car and drive myself are just too difficult. My shunt is working beautifully, and I have continued to have complete relief from pressure headaches and symptoms. It rained buckets last week. I’ve been overwhelmed realizing what a true gift my surgery was. I never could have continued to fight for this relief without all of you praying and encouraging and donating. You didn’t give up. Thank you. We suffer gratitude. I will keep on thanking you because there is nothing else I know to do.

I am keeping a long standing appointment in Maryland with my neurosurgeon on Monday, October 10th. I am suffering increasing neck pain and symptoms. There is definitely spinal cord compression. If Danica’s surgery had remained on the 12th I would have needed to cancel my own scan and consult. I’ve wondered if I could even make it through being Danica’s advocate and caregiver during surgery, hospitalization and long recovery in the pain I’m in. Much like my emergency hysterectomy before her last big surgery I see God making a way for me to put on my own oxygen mask first. The plan is for me fly to DC this coming Sunday, the 9th. I will have my upright flexion and extension MRI and see my neurosurgeon on Monday and fly home that evening. I’m secretly praying if I need a one or two level fusion he would keep me and just do it even though I have no idea how my family would function here if that happened or how we would financially do it. I would be a much better mom to Danica in post op mode with more stability and less pain. Will you please pray specifically for this trip? I also have all day chemotherapy tomorrow. The new treatment plan is for me to have a full bag of Rituxin every six weeks indefinitely. Over the past week or so I have begun getting the blisters back on my hands and feet and my eye and legs have been twitching. These are always the first signs infection is ramping back up. Will you please pray this chemo will suppress the fires and be a long term answer, so I can completely avoid plasmapheresis? It is always healing, never being healed.

Before Danica’s big surgery six years ago Dan and I both read Tony Woodlief’s book Somewhere More Holy. (I can’t recommend this book enough.) I pulled it off the shelf to read again, and these words settled in my aching places:

“We have forgotten the God of small things, which is mostly what He has been with us because we ourselves are small, fragile things. We wait impatiently, sometimes hopelessly, for the burning-bush God, or the booming thunderclap God, forgetting that even a righteous man like Job covered before the whirlwind of God’s voice, that holy Moses could bear only a glimpse of God’s backside. We assume that we would hold up well against a visitation by the whirlwind God, and in our narcissistic longing we forget the God of the still, small voice, the suffering-servant God, the God who said of children that His kingdom consists of such as these. ‘Part of the inner world of everyone,’ writes Frederick Buechner, ‘is this sense of emptiness, unease, incompleteness, and I believe that this in itself is a word from God, that this is the sound that God’s voice makes in a world that has explained Him away. In such a world, I suspect that God maybe speaks to us most clearly through His silence, His absence, so that we know Him best through our missing Him.’”

I did finally get THE call from the Hopkins neurosurgeon late Friday afternoon. I met a friend for coffee yesterday, and I broke down for the first time. I realized I’ve been holding everything really close in the silence and the waiting. As sure as it was time to be quiet and still, I now need safe places to lament the hard that’s coming.

When I make the call to Baltimore today to officially reschedule everything will change. My body will leave my skin. My brain will leave my head. My heart will leave my chest. I will stop eating and sleeping well. Everything will become fast forward. Nothing will change about my God.

This morning my family left for school and work, and I sat remembering one of my favorite passages about waiting: “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the Lord.”–Lamentations 3:24-26 I prayed for strength to do each next thing and for complete surrender and dependence on my good God.

His Hope will not disappoint.
Our Hope remains.

This song from All Sons and Daughters album Poets and Saints is on repeat.

You’ll notice a few changes here on my site. I’ve added a specific place for Team Danica posts. If you subscribe at the top you will receive updates in your email. So many of you are asking about next steps and what we need. I don’t have specific answers for you. I plan to mail prayer cards to those of you who’ve faithfully prayed and supported us once we have the true surgery date.

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Pen to Paper. A Challenge. A Giveaway

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pentopaperwords
“One comfort that I relish is a letter from a close friend. The surprise of the letter in the day’s mail, the recognition of her handwriting on the envelope, the ritual of getting settled into my chair and reading and rereading her carefully chosen words.”–Deborah Chappell

pentopapergiveaway

I painted our ugly black metal mailbox white and used blue paint to stencil a flower and the numbers 309 on it. 309 Hoover Street in Staunton, Virginia was the first place I began to send and receive #pentopaper cards and letters. We left Ohio when I was five years old. My first grade teacher, Mrs Cobb, who would later be Delaney’s third grade teacher and is now Danica’s third grade teacher, became a pen pal when we moved away. I’d sit on the front porch swing waiting. The mail truck would stop at our house, and I would leap barefoot over the sprawling roots of the maple tree to check and see if there was a letter for me. Soon after I began collecting stamps. Every year for Christmas I would ask for the USPS Philatelic book containing every stamp released that year. A life long obsession with cards and stationary took hold as well, and I began collecting all kinds of paper. Most of all I began a love of slow, thoughtful back and forth conversations written by hand.

If you know me personally you have most likely received a #pentopaper from me. It’s been a priority most of my life, but when I became very sick I struggled with losing the ability to minister in any active way. I began setting aside a day a week to look through my address book, my facebook friends and church directory and mail cards and letters to touch base, encourage or celebrate people. I took the opportunity to pray specifically for each person I wrote. In a world where we primarily follow and respond to one another’s lives in seconds on social media or text messages if someone is very close to us, there is something incredibly intimate about receiving a letter touched by someone’s own hands, written in their unique style and penmanship, envelope licked by their tongue and carried to their own mailbox. They push the flag up as if to say, “Stop here! I have a piece of love to send today.” I’m fascinated with the logistics of the postal service. People complain about the price of stamps, but I still marvel for under fifty cents I can write you a letter, mail it from Ohio today, and you will receive it in California Thursday or Friday this week. I like to think of the journey it takes from here to there.

I have also been the recipient of hundreds of #pentopaper acts of kindness over the years. There are days a letter in my mailbox is the only contact I have with the world outside my home. The thoughts and prayers expressed in my own love language have literally rescued me. I don’t take one for granted. I cherish them all, and I hoard them. I don’t save much of anything I haven’t used in the past thirty days. My life is simple and lean, but when I die there will be my books and hat boxes, shoe boxes and Rubbermaid containers stuffed full of personal mail. The postmarks form the framework for my life’s timeline. Friends come and go. A few have stayed forever. Some people I don’t know at all, but they are praying for my family and I and supporting us. These cards and letters tell a story I love to read over and over again.

As part of my year of listening I have pulled back almost completely from responding on social media. I rarely text. When I feel myself wanting to type a few characters to express my sorrow or joy over something you’ve shared or just wanting to tell you I love you, and you are on my mind and heart, I STOP. I sit down next to my rolling cart full of paper, pens, stamps and stickers and my old fashioned address book, and I write something real and lasting and walk it down to my mailbox with a prayer. On every piece of mail I’ve sent I’ve written somewhere on the envelope the hashtag #pentopaper.

As a thank you to everyone who has taken the time to love me this way and as a challenge to those of you who aren’t really wired or disciplined to send #pentopaper much at all I am hosting a fun giveaway.

It includes the sweetest little set of jewelry with a tiny letter necklace and tiny letter earrings. I can hardly stand it they are so precious. There is also a set of “You’ve Got Mail” notecards with twenty USPS stamps and the book The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication by Margaret Shepherd.

To enter please comment here on the blog or on a social media post about a time you received #pentopaper that made all the difference. I will randomly choose a winner Monday morning, October 3rd. In the meantime think of someone who could use a note of encouragement, thanks or love and find time to write them and stick it in the mail. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #pentopaper. Let’s fill up one another’s mailboxes with kindness.

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Surgery Scheduled. Steady My Heart. A Team Danica Update

by

Trust
“Then you’ll take delight in the Almighty; and will turn your face toward God. You’ll entreat Him and He’ll listen to you as you fulfill your vows. When you make a decision on something, it will be established for you, and light will brighten your way.”–Job 22:26-28

How many times have we fallen into a hotel bed in Cincinnati, Ohio? I should have been keeping a tally along the way. Our first trip was April, 2010. Danica was two and a half years old. We saw the crazy 3DCT confirming her atlas assimilation and how badly her first Chiari decompression failed her. The five months between the tragic news and her second decompression and difficult fusion were filled with second, third and fourth opinions. The surgeons threw their hat in the ring only to second guess themselves and the risk vs. benefit for our little girl and their own surgical careers. There was so little information about a case like hers. We were praying like crazy but moving forward in fits and starts. Many of you read our story as I pecked it out on our little Team Danica blogger site. You were witness to the wrestling of faith and fear. You saw the strain in our marriage and family. You saw me breaking physically and mentally as I fought for the best chance at the best life for my girl.

I’ve been reading for an online Bible study I’m doing from Suzanne Eller’s book Come With Me: Discovering the Beauty of Where He Leads. I’m seeing myself in the humanity of the disciples as we dig deeper. These men saw crazy impossible miracles and days later questioned the economics of a few loaves and fishes and thousands of people. God gave us a miracle. As time passed I thought God was punctuating Danica’s suffering so we could move on to my own bitter fight. The disciples were always forgetting, weren’t they? I don’t want to forget our first miracle. Suzie writes about her husband’s cancer diagnosis years after her own fight with breast cancer. “We beat the odds, and that was a gift. For a long time I thought that was the big miracle, but later I realized the true miracles came as we dug deep into our faith and came up with enough to make it through the day–or the hour if that was what was required.” Whether it’s been six days or six years you’d think I would forever remember the kind of healing and scandalous provision God made for us, but sometimes I don’t. There were moments leading up to our Cincinnati trip I was too blinded by what was unfolding again to turn back and SEE. My heart is fused forward, like my literal neck. Forward. Do the next thing. Do the next thing you think you cannot do. In the past few weeks I’ve been reaching through our story to remember. It aches in the deepest place. You’ve been asking. You’ve been praying. If I write it. If I say it. It’s more true. So I haven’t.

“God, I don’t think we can do this.”

Danica needs another complicated surgery. Her beautiful hardware is broken along with at least one level of fusion. She also has a piece of shunt tubing left near her brain stem. It’s dangerous and needs removed. I could write a neurosurgical and cervical spine treatise here, but it would confuse most of you. We went to Cincinnati with trepidation. After our scans and appointments in late July her case was escalated to new surgeons. We had no idea what our meeting there would look like. I approached it as an information gathering session. The surgeons were humble and kind. They patiently let me ask every detailed question. Dan and Danica mostly listened but felt comfortable in raising their own less clinical concerns. We walked away with an ambiguous scope of surgery and some warning flags. We returned home dealing with Danica’s escalating anxiety about the hows and whens of surgery. “Mom, I just want to know what’s going to happen and MOVE ON.”

While waiting for an important opinion from a surgeon at Johns Hopkins we prayed for guidance. I begged God to make the crooked path straight and help us know for sure where we needed to be. He answered. Last week I got the second call from the Johns Hopkins surgeon after he reviewed every single bit of Danica’s history, prior op notes and her imaging. All the concerns were addressed before I could even raise them. A light shone bright. There are still many details to work out, but her tentative surgery date is Wednesday, October 12th, in Baltimore. She needs an invasive myelogram to see exactly how to approach the drain tubing in such a precarious place. We will have several days of pre-op there before surgery. She will be hospitalized a week or so after surgery. Depending on how she is healing we may need to stay in the area for awhile after discharge. And she will have to wear a brace. There’s no posturing. This is a hard surgery. The brain part. The hardware removal. The new fusion including taking some of Danica’s own rib to make fusion slurry for her neck. This is harder than the prior one, but it must be done and soon and in a new city and at a new hospital.

I’ve been pushing myself to get the girls settled into their new school year. I’ve been trying to spend heart to heart time with my Laney. I finished my last big round of chemo last Tuesday. I will have a Rituxin treatment every six weeks moving forward. My C4-5 is cachunking every time I move my neck. My appointments planned with Dr. Liu at UVA for shunt post op and my scans and appointment in Chevy Chase with Dr. Henderson are the Friday and Monday before Danica’s planned surgery. I know in my heart I won’t be able to make them, but I refuse to cancel them. I need them. I can’t figure out the logistics, but I hate to be so close and not follow through. I’ve been on the phone for hours every day with hospitals, billing departments and our insurance company. It’s soul sapping work. The Virginia hospital where I had my VP shunt placed in April sent my account to judicial affairs. They are suing us. In all our crushing medical debt this is only the second time a hospital has gone to this measure to get a judgment to pursue a levy of Dan’s wages. I’m trying to understand the amount. My insurance company is helping. If I agree to make any payments then I’m accepting the amount which we think is wrong. I’ve focused on paying Danica’s bills this year to prepare for possible surgery at the hospital in Cincinnati. (The money you’ve donated has made the way for us to take those trips and pay most of those bills. Thank you. Thank you. Can you feel our hearts? Thank you.) I try to keep the stress from Dan while quietly informing him. He is working so hard. We can only do what we can do. He can’t become paralyzed by the weight. I try to carry it. I’ve hit a wall. My left eye is twitching. My jaw hurts from clenching and grinding. I ache all over. I’m out of cortisol. The adrenaline is spent.

“God, I don’t think I can do this.”

I’ve felt the needle in my spinal cord. The cut in my back to take a rib. The slicing of the back of my head and neck for a third time. The spasms from damaged nerves and cut muscles. It hurts like hell. To look in my Danica’s eyes knowing that agony is suffering multiplied.

A week ago Danica and I were driving to Paper Allure, a sweet #pentopaper shop I love, to pick up a birthday gift for a friend when the call from the Hopkin’s surgeon came. I pulled over in a parking lot, put him on speaker and jotted notes. Danica heard the entire thing including new, more scary parts of her surgery. She was quiet the few blocks from where we stopped to our destination. At the store she saw a display of bracelets hung by clothespins with one word on them. They are made of swarovski crystals and were a little pricey. She asked if she could have one. I reminded her that she had a birthday soon and maybe it would be special to get one to wear for her surgery. The young lady helping me overheard us. She went in the back room to wrap my gift, and the owner of the shop told her she could let Danica pick one. Kindness changes everything. Danica’s eyes lit up and out of all the possible words like hope and courage and believe she picked trust. The bracelet is from a beautiful project called Little Words. It has a little gold tag with a number you register online with your own story. You wear the bracelet as long as you need the word. When you meet someone who needs the word more than you it’s time to pass it on. They log on and continue the narrative of the life of the bracelet and the one word. In the car on the way home I asked her why she picked the word she did. With the simple faith of a child she said, “Because I TRUST God.” She’s asked for me to read her old entries on Team Danica. She wants me to tell her about the Gauntlet. She still believes in the gift. Oh, God, I can’t see it, but she can. As I tucked her in bed that night she asked to see ALL my scars. She said “If you can go through that many surgeries and be okay, I’ll be okay.” This weekend we worked on making a folder of photos and short video clips from her journey. I’m wanting to make a multimedia slideshow with a new fight song. I played a few I was considering on YouTube for her. She ran to her room and grabbed the first edition ipad with the shattered screen, the one someone bought her six years ago while she was in her wheelchair, and said, “This is the song we should use.” It was Kari Jobe’s “Steady My Heart.” It’s a song on her own playlist she listens to over and over again. I cried as we listened to the meaningful lyrics.

She believes.

He’s here.
He’s real.
We can trust Him.
Even when it hurts. Even when it’s hard. Even when it all just falls apart.
We can run to Him.
He is lover of our hearts.
He is healer of our scars.
We find refuge in His arms.

My Danica Jean is taking the lead. She’s grabbed my hand. She’s reminding me to lean hard. She’s showing me how to trust again.

“God, we can do this.
Through Your strength.
By Your Grace.
We can do this.
Please, steady our hearts.”

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