Sunday, July 31, 2011

Heart Pain

This past week I've been "working out" (I'm using that term rather loosely) every day at the gym down the road using time I usually spend blogging and reading.  Boo to the latter.

I have noticed, however, some benefits to daily exercise.  I can keep up with my son Theo at the park without getting out of breath, sleep deeply at night, and not feel guilty about eating that extra whole wheat chocolate chip cookie.  My "fat"pants aren't so darn tight.  

Treading on that @$%* elliptical for 30 minutes every day has definitely put me more in touch with my physical body.  In the past week I've experienced cramps, shooting pains, numb toes (apparently my tennis shoes are too small) and sore muscles.  I've sweat enough liquid to fill a small swimming pool, and every afternoon on that darn machine my face and body turn bright, beet red.  (This attractive coloring lasts for several hours past the workout.)  I've known since middle school that my face turns red after running and that sore muscles are a result of working hard, but I have experienced something else I never, ever expected.

Grievers often find that their inner pain exhibits itself through their physical body - studies show that people in a prolonged stage of high-stress grief are at increased risk for heart attacks, heart disease, ulcers, and kidney stones (among other things).  One of the best and most difficult pieces of advice my spiritual director gave me was to "make friends" with my inner pain, and during my daily workouts this week I made the initial steps toward doing this.  How, you may ask?

Well, I have finally found my pain's physical location.  It's in my heart.  My heart hurts so much.  It feels constricted, broken, aching, throbbing, heavy, so, so, heavy it can be difficult to breathe.  In the last eight months since Vincent died, my whole body has felt heavy all day long, sluggish, unresponsive, numb, unhappy.  But now, now all this inner pain is all centering itself in my heart where it throbs at odd moments every day, triggered by memories, songs, pictures, words, images. 

Now that I have discovered the location of my pain, all that remains is for me to simply "make friends" with it.

...I'll let you know how that goes.  

Friday, July 22, 2011

Walk On

This week I joined 24 Hour Fitness, located just down the road from our house.  It's been several months since this post, and I'm glad I finally got up the nerve to do something about it.  Plus my 30th birthday is rapidly approaching, adding to my motivation.  

Each day this week I broke out of my normal pattern of study/reading while Theo's at preschool and have instead been working out, slowly burning calories that largely accumulated while sitting in bed holding Vincent.  Considering my last intentional exercise was well over six years ago, I'm not as sore as I anticipated.

But the thing is.... I don't really feel any better inside.  I'm still tired, exhausted, angry, sad.  Perhaps there is no golden ticketno one specific thing that will make my life more bearable.  I guess I should know after eight months of grief work that the only way to feel (minutely) better is to keep walking, moving forward (wherever and whatever that is).

       Lord, strengthen me.
       Let my hands be adept to serve,
       feet quick to follow,
       eyes sharp to see.
       My heart, steadfast, be Yours.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Rainbows and Prayers

"Lord, I want to know your ways more and more... This is my cry; give me an endless love and thirst for you... That is my cry to you forever, Amen.       Yours only, Rebecca Holmes"                  
-Diary excerpt dated March 18, 1993  (I was 11 years old)

Last week during his nightly prayers Theo asked God to send him a rainbow, preferably soon.

I thought to myself, "Good thing we live in Hawaii!" and promptly informed him that he would be seeing a rainbow sometime during the weekend.  I was sure of it.

On Saturday while driving to Costco, we saw it, slightly foggy and indistinct, but as we rode along the colors became increasingly bright, almost sharp, and ten minutes later it was a full-fledged rainbow stretching across the sky complete with a double.  Yup, there were two of them. 

Theo was ecstatic.  I was happy his prayer was answered.  Theo thanked God and Vincent for sending him the rainbow(s) and then informed us that when he goes to heaven he's going to make it rain for a long while.  Great.  Double great.  

These days Theo seems to be talking a lot about when he gets sick and dies and goes to heaven like his brother.  I've had "rational" conversations with him where I informed him of the low probability of death for a child his age.  We talked about statistics, how most kids in our country don't get cancer.  At other times I've tried different approaches - we've discussed how it is to miss someone you love, how it hurts to wait to see them, but today when he brought up the topic of his death yet AGAIN, I felt like having a fit.  I don't like having conversations with our 4 year old son about his OWN death.  I don't EVER want to think about it, EVER!  I hope I'm long gone before he kicks the can.  So today, when Theo brought up the topic of dying, I felt like having a very angry talk where I would inform him - yes, instruct him - that he was NOT going to die anytime soon, much less get SICK and die, that I was simply NOT going to allow it.  Because I can control things like that, dag nabit! 

Only I can't.  Obviously.  And that stinks.   

Perhaps at the end of my story I'll be able to look back and see how all along my life was an exercise in surrender - the surrender of control, ambition, treasure.  And how with each surrendering, each large and small death, I was brought nearer to the heart of God, the one who lost (and then gained!) it all.

That would be an answer to one of my earliest prayers.  

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saturday Prayer

why, why
exhaustion chases me
my heart heavy full sinks down, lower still,
this is more than I can bear

Why, why have you forsaken me?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Prayer

I'm exhausted
body, mind, spirit, soul.
In weakness make me strong
that I may stand with you on the high places.

Photo by Theo (4 yrs)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thursday Prayer

Grant me the grace of thinking before speaking,
of offering mercy, not accusation
of forgiving and forgetting.
Let not my past wounds blind me to your presence.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wednesday Prayer

God, I lie so easily.
Must come from years of practice.
Sometimes the truth is more complicated, depressing,
often unbelievable.
As you can see, I'm full of excuses.
Fill my ears with the complicated truth that I may speak it out
even when it is uncomfortable, unglamorous, painful.

Photography by Theo Stringer (age 4)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tuesday Prayer

Calm these tumultuous waves.
Let the lake of my heart silently mirror
glory from your life above
as clouds reflected on the water.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Monday Prayer

You know how I hate delayspatience is not my strong suit.
Throughout this day take the moments of waiting
whether for e-mails, approaching deadlines,
family members, parking spaces or grocery lines
and create in me an inner place, broad and open
where you can speak and be heard,
a space where the stillness itself resounds with your vibrant song.

photo by Theo (age 4)

A Week of Prayers

Starting today for one week I'll be posting a prayer every morning.  Feel free to check in during the week and pray along with me.  See you all!

(photo by Theo Stringer, age 4)

Mon bébé

Last night I stayed up late for hours
restless, surfing the internet
reading odd news stories, viewing children's crafts
bone-tired but not sleeping
I think I was searching for you

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Downward Mobility

When my son Vincent was diagnosed with liver cancer back in June 2010, my primary goal was to keep life as 'normal' as possible.  I wanted only to get through his treatment and forget it ever happened.  After all, terrible things like childhood cancer don't happen to our family.

Yes, I was experiencing massive amounts of denial.

As we spent week after week in the hospital, I frequently noticed posters advertising the start of a new support group for parents of children with cancer.  Though I initially resisted the thought of hanging out with "the cancer people," our family was thrust into a group of precious individuals well-acquainted with grief, disappointment, and tragedy.  Since attending our first group meeting last year, we have participated whenever possible.  This year alone, two families from the group have watched their children die.  One passed away just a few days ago.

Belonging to a grief-filled community means abandoning the luxury of ignoring life's inherent risks and dangers.  It means admitting fragility and powerlessness over tragic events that shape our brief lives on this planet.  Before Vincent's diagnosis, I belonged to a privileged slice of society whose main worry for their little children concerned where to send them to school and whether or not to vaccinate.  Our family was well on its way to achieving comfortable American middle-classdom.  I held a stable position in church leadership, my husband was completing graduate school, and we were enjoying the development of our two young sons.

One year later, here I am with no job, one less child, and discouraging prospects for the immediate future.  I'm currently a stay-at-home mom to my fragile four-year-old, bartering music lessons for discounted preschool and holding garage sales to pay utility bills.  Much has been lost.

And yet, there remains unlikely connectedness and community in the midst of pain.  We are not the only grieving family.  We recently stayed six weeks in the Philippines where loss and death are all around, homelessness and starvation just a typhoon away.  In a world rife with suffering, our afflictions bring us closer to the life of deep awareness and trust.  Who has time to chase after a bigger house or nicer car when your child is intubated at death's door?  When someone you love passes away, it doesn't matter which name brand you're wearing or what kind of status bag hangs on your shoulder.

For me, participation in a pain-scarred community means living authentically, surviving on faith.  It means caring more about time spent with others than money earned for myself.  Vincent's illness changed my life, not just because he died, but because we are now part of a global community of people who live tremulously. I can no longer presume security and entitlement.  I'm starting to surrender my demands for control, opening my heart to a more simple way of life.  This last year has seen our family begin the path of downward mobility.  Each loss brings a greater appreciation for life's fragile beauty.

I'm reminded of Jesus, our servant king, who willingly chose a humble path marked by sorrow. Scripture says he emptied himself of the glories of heaven in exchange for the poverty and vulnerability of human flesh.  "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head..." He left behind a joyous relationship with his Father to be part of a flawed human family.  He gave up the wealth of heaven to eek out a living as a carpenter, losing celestial perfection for the brokenness of human societyquite an exchange!  He died a criminal's death in order to become the world's greatest hope for peace and reconciliation.  In choosing the downward path at an inestimable cost to himself, he fully identified as one of us, a wounded brother.

Our hospital's Childhood Cancer Connection support group has been a tremendous gift this past year.  I never thought I'd want to be part of a community formed in the shadow of sickness and death.  Ironically, the group continues to enrich me with a greater reverence for life, anchoring me in a context of shared experience, reminding me of what matters most.

There is still a long way to go on this downward path.  I struggle with entitlement, bitterness and anger.  I want more and more things, believing I deserve them for having lost my child.  I often forget how the call to follow Christ is a call to pick up my cross. The smaller and emptier we are, the more space remains to be filled with God's Spirit.  Even though the abundant life is marked with sorrow, it's also punctuated by divine joy.  As John the Baptist once said, "He must increase, and I must decrease."

Monday, July 4, 2011

Prayer of Consummation

Ignite me with Thy scintillating light.
Consume my souldraw me
even as a moth to the flame.
Disintegrate me
and from these ashes birth renewal, healing, perfection.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Prayer (when despairing)

I'm drowning, God.
Are you asleep, tossed about by these waves?
Or perhaps taking a midnight walk across the water?
Do you not see that I am weak, weary, sinking?
I keep waiting for things to get easier, but they don'tto find my footing
but instead I am mired, enmeshed, submerged.