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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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cancer

To cap off the day

Arddun and I had a lovely today. Poor Tony had a semi-frustrating one working from home, but Arddun and I ended up having a most enjoyable afternoon out with Andrea — my cousin and Arddun’s second cousin, who is also known in these parts as “AN-DEEEE!”

Two pairs of sandals, a satisfying sushi lunch, and a decadent truffle-fries afternoon tea with Gail later, we all arrived home (sans Gail) with my aunt in tow. Maybe it was the mental break I’d gotten from today’s outing. Maybe it was how, flanked by two dear women who are connected to my mother and I by familial blood and by the blood of Jesus, I felt encouraged and emboldened.  Or maybe it was the sandals. But we took 3 little steps this evening, together.

  1. We emptied my mother’s shoe cabinet.
  2. We destroyed my mother’s pain medications. Every last pill, smashed and pounded. Liquid morphine, no more. The ghosts of past excruciation, exorcised.
  3. We put on her hats.

My mother had Cancer Hats. She had always been a bit of a hat-wearer when she played tourist, but she also received a few new hats when she started her chemotherapy and lost her hair. And so we gave them a new lease of life this evening…

Velle, Andrea and Ah-yee wearing mum's Cancer Hats

… and then passed them on to my aunt, with much love.

To fall by degrees

There’s a scene in the second season of Downton Abbey, where William has just been brought in from the war front and we, the viewers, learn that he cannot recover. He is dying. His father rushes in, and just when the doctor is about to tell him that his son will not live, Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess steps in and cuts the doctor off smoothly.

“You see,” she goes on to explain to the doctor, “Sometimes, we must let the blow fall by degrees. Give him time to find the strength to face it.”

All through my trip in Singapore, I have been falling by degrees.

It’s not so much that the doctors have started using words like, “comfort” and “quality of life” to describe my mother’s options. It’s not even that Death waits patiently around a bend that is yet to be revealed. It’s watching the woman I love most suffer horribly. It’s sitting in front of her, but not even touching her because every hair on her body screams in agony when a wave hits hard. It is knowing that no other human can help her right now. That it is not in anyone’s power to stop this invisible, arduous torture of this woman I love so profoundly, so biologically.

I have told a couple of you that my faith is shaken by this. I still know there is a God, but I wonder about His compassion. I come back to the fact that His ways are not my ways, and I yell at myself to remember that God is good. Always. Even when it’s absolutely horrible, I remind myself, He is always good. They say.

Sometimes, I see the blessings he gives us. But lately, I struggle to feel Him near me. I have to beat back this crushing wave of cynicism that rises within me every time I think about that Footsteps In The Sand poem. Where are you now, Lord? Because if you’re carrying us through this nightmare, I’m really not feeling it. I’m not seeing it. My mother is suffering more each day.  Are you actually carrying her, or is that just a pretty poem?

I’ve been told that my understanding of suffering is wrong, and that I have to adjust my relationship to it. That suffering isn’t something bad to be avoided, but is needed for teaching and learning. Sounds philosophically lofty. Probably even biblical. But if you give me a self-help book to read right now, I will boil it for soup and feed it to your dog.

Because I am not ready. And I feel betrayed. Because my mother hurts.

I lie most days now, without meaning to. Every time a check-out chick asks me how I’m doing, I say “good thanks” out of reflex because I don’t want to scare the poor woman with what I really think. I should be in Singapore right now, but it’s not so straightforward. We’re moving back with the aim to live in Singapore for 6 months, but 3 April doesn’t feel anywhere NEAR quick enough. I am listless every day. I need to be there, but my family needs me here and I have to be responsible and tie things up properly before I uproot everyone and everything. I want to leave tomorrow, but I can’t. I wanted to leave yesterday, but I couldn’t either. Every moment in Australia now feels like a choice between selfish desire and my mother’s mental health – even though intellectually, I know it’s not so black and white. But my every pore is screaming to get out of Australia now.

I want a lot of things. Most of the answers lately have been “no” or “not yet”.

It will get better. I am acting like a child now, I know.

Pray that my mother feels God’s protection, and not just know it.

How to be sad together

Over the year, I’ve thought quite a bit about the concept of comfort – how we gain comfort in times of sorrow and suffering, how we endeavour to comfort others going through pain and strife, and how we think God gives comfort to His children.

It’s not an easy one to figure out.

My mother is going through pain on many levels at the moment. There’s the actual cancer, and with it, the loss of many freedoms coupled closely with the fear of not knowing what the near future will bring and whether she can be healed. There’s the pain of distance, where many loved ones are on hand to help, but her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter live in another continent. And there’s physical pain – an unrelenting ebb and flow of sharp and dull pain that keeps her awake and takes over many senses in the worst of times. Where no position feels comfortable and time stretches on like a torture rack.

For someone rather given to wordiness and expression, I find myself in foreign territory – that of not knowing what to say. I know what I don’t want to say. But then there’s an entire spectrum of should-I-shouldn’t-I that gives me a severe case of analysis paralysis. Most things sound lame in my head. Most lines sound so throwaway and careless. So plastic and hollow. Platitudes and clichés, Well-intentioned, heartfelt banalities. On the cerebral, we understand the exchange of them to be a very poor cousin to all the non-verbals we want to express.

Like how we love you so very much, and how we’re so very sorry you’re afflicted in this way. Like how we wish so much that we can take this cup away from you.

Even then, such words are uttered out of helplessness. When we comfort, what we usually, desperately want to achieve is resolution. We want to proffer a solution. We want to fix the hurt. We want to swoop in and play the saviour.

It is the last bit, especially, that turns the act of comforting on its head because it’s so easy to make it about us, instead of making it about the one in pain.

It becomes, “I need to give tangible, practical help.” It becomes, “I need this to go away so that we can all feel better.” It becomes, “Let me show you how clever I am.”

And so it starts. The self-help books. The advice we heard from 2 to 8 degrees of separation. The best-kept secrets for long health and wellness. Eat this, Drink that. Don’t eat this. Don’t drink that. There’s a man in Nantucket with a miracle cure. There’s a woman who was so self-disciplined that she followed this diet to a tee and cured herself of cancer.

Cured herself of cancer?

It might seem to come from a place of love, but the intention is very much focused on the physical – even when we don’t know what we’re talking about. I find myself doing it. I’m here, and I find myself offering “helpful suggestions” because I’ve run out of ideas and I want to fill these pain-filled silences with something practicable and meaningful.

So I suggest things on pain management, because my blessedly short 4-hour labour with Arddun was my last closest experience with agony. Except I still don’t know what I’m talking about, because it’s such a cardboard cut-out version of the relentless, debilitating pain my mother is going through on a per-minute basis.

That’s when the help changes from being edifying to anything but,

In observing others and myself, I’ve found that there can be a tipping point. Where demonstrating concern – only on our terms – achieves the opposite result of very much discouraging and insulting the recipient. Like offering a bandaid to an amputee.

I know that everyone reads love differently, but I’d wager all the money in my pockets with all the money in yours that most of us wouldn’t rank unsolicited advice as the first and chief means of comfort. And yet, even knowing this, all of us are so prone to dishing it out to others as a reflex. I have heard myself spouting a few bits of nonsense every now and then in the 12 hours since I landed, and sometimes I want to smack myself.

But we do it anyway. Perhaps because it gives us something useful to do. Perhaps because it’s an old, bad habit that has never been corrected. Perhaps because it doesn’t require as much emotional engagement as sitting down with someone, holding their hand and fighting back the tears because neither of you can really stop this.

I am at a loss most of the time. But I’m learning how to communicate with my mother again. It sounds bizarre because she is my longest and closest friend, but this sickness has introduced a whole new vocabulary and dynamic to work around. I’m trying to work out how she receives comfort. How she interprets support and love. I’m trying to work out what edifies her, and what doesn’t. In other words, I’m trying to shut up when it don’t help.

Here are a few things I’ve gleaned so far (and again, this isn’t perfect):

  • There is no miracle cure. There is no magic bullet. It’s not about neutralising acids or balancing ying and yang better.To my mother, God is the ultimate healer. No one else.
  • Sometimes, all she needs is a hug and a sincere prayer.
  • She needs sleep. The pain keeps her awake and stops her from eating. It clips her wings and takes away her independence. Pray about that instead.

Grief does not change you. It reveals you.

So far, 2013 kinda blows.

We’ve pranged our new car twice… okay, I pranged our new car twice… got handed a very rude quote for some dental work that needs to be done, and have been patiently waiting for my employment situation to unfold.

But that’s just money and inconvenience.

For most of you who know me and some of you who have been following my blog, you’ve been made aware of my mother’s cancer. She had a lot of chemo last year, and that finished up in October.

In the first week of January, my mother had her routine check up with her surgeon and oncologist, and we found out that the cancer’s metastasized to her sternum and it’s inoperable. And so it’s more tests, and more treatment, and more fear and trembling. A quick scheduled reunion got cancelled because of other unforeseen health issues that popped up, and so now we wait and worry.

And then friends suffer sudden and devastating loss at the turn of the month. The kind that makes you cry until you’re soundless, and your chest hurts like the dickens.

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I walked into a bookshop today looking to find words to comfort others, because I lack. And after explaining to the store manager what I was trying to achieve, he handed me a small stack of books and I started tasting the wares to see if they were appropriate enough to pass on.

I ended up getting quite attached to one of the books. It wasn’t a preachy one expounding how to overcome grief, or what the stages are. Just simple verses, reflections and prayer that might articulate grief in its variety and complexity. But until I read that book, I had forgotten that grief visits us even when there isn’t a body count and a coffin. Grief is ultimately about loss, and it comes when trust is broken, when health is irrecoverable, when “big sin” separates us from God and we feel like we can no longer have His fellowship.

I had intended the book to be a balm for others but in reading it, I learnt that I’ve been grieving for a while.

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I wish I can tell you that I’m good with grief, but I’m not. Someone at my writing group on Saturday talked about Fight or Flight – and my immediate reaction to tremendous loss has never been flight to the safety of God’s arms, but the overpowering desire to put on armour and go into battle. Greatest defence is offence, they say. However, my version of “coping”  usually involves standing alone and yelling at something, or hitting out till someone else hurts just as much as I do. It isn’t healthy. I wish my instinct is to run to God first, and maybe one day – when I finally grow up enough to have a child-like faith – all I’ll want to do is run into the arms of the Saviour. Besides, running to God is, by far, the more intelligent and sensible thing to do than standing there, defenceless but seething like a mad woman.

My friends have just lost their children. I cannot imagine losing my child, much less two of them at one go. And yet I am deeply edified by them and their unwavering faith. I have always had the sense that their relationship with Jesus is one that is far more intimate than mine has ever been. They are His kin, whereas I feel sometimes I’m like His distant cousin twice removed – the one you might meet during Christmas, Chinese New Year, weddings and funerals. And again, I ache with them but I marvel even more at how they lean on Christ because He’s really family.

I found a post I had written last year, when we first found out that my mother has cancer. I didn’t publish it, because it was very raw and because I didn’t want to distract from the true sufferer and victim – my mother. I’ve always found my own grief a bit of a time-suck, the idea of wallowing just self-absorbed and futile. It irritates me. Crying has always irritated me, even though I can do it well and do it often.

But after reading that book today, and then finding this old post, I realise that some of the emotions are still there because they have not been dealt with, but swept aside repeatedly. And even though I’m not angry anymore, I am still mixed up. Because the fear is still there, along with the longing, and the fight not to despair. It’s still relevant, and the scab’s raw and bleeding again.

So here’s what I wrote. And be warned – it’s not pretty. But I thought I’d put it out there because if you happen to be like me in the anger department, I hope this gives you an outlet and a prayer… and evidence that comfort can come – even when you’re standing there alone and screaming.

By now, you might have heard. Both churches on each of our continents have been told. This morning, I wrote an email and this afternoon, the elders at PP will be praying over my mother. I’ve embargoed this post, and I’ve written so many private posts both in this blog and on my heart.

Because it’s official. Two and a half days ago, my family found out that my mother has The Big C. And not the good kind, if there ever is such a thing. And our world fell apart. Walls of hope shattered like thin, brittle glass and you cannot see anything clearly – most of all the way forward. And my reaction was shock and horror… and unimaginable anger. I was so angry, it was unholy.

I spent the next ensuing hours alternately blaspheming and begging in my heart. I couldn’t pray, couldn’t look at the bible, and threw the “I love Jesus” hand towel in the wash although a part of me wanted to burn it like an effigy. I was so mad. Pain and suffering inflicted on me is one thing. But to torture my mother who has loved and served passionately, touched so many lives and still carries with her the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. Who didn’t ever have it easy. Couldn’t He cut her some slack? Couldn’t she catch a break?

Lots of verses flew through the mind, like the futility of building barns for tomorrow, and the whole damn book of Job. When God allows suffering, when you know on the one hand that He allows it because He is GOD and He has the big picture… such knowledge can be both a sweet comfort and a mockery of the pain you currently feel. And for the first six hours anyway, understandably or wrongly, I was really, really mad with my Maker.

And the other head voices chime in. You know this isn’t about you, but you wonder anyway if this is a sick chess game between God and the Devil to test your faith or punish you for all your sins. Your heated words, your stupid, thoughtless actions. You wonder, wildly, if you had brought this down on your mother. Only because it strikes so close and if she didn’t deserve it, maybe she was collateral damage because of you.

It’s crazy talk, but that’s what grief brings. Your head knows better that God is compassion and love, long suffering and infinitely patient, far from vindictive. But the heart is wild, angry, hurt, irrational.

And yet today is Sunday. A day, like any other day, that the Lord has made. And knowing that flawed and loving people are bear-hugging my mother with words and prayer and deeds is comfort immeasurable. Channeling God always brings beautiful, brutiful stuff. And from the bottom of my heart, I ask for forgiveness and again entreat Him for all my heart’s desire.

My mother – ever brave, ever strong, ever faithful – is also human and scared silly. Her fear isn’t unbelief – it’s understanding. There’s something about sickness that silences the masses. It’s not like death, which brings out grief that’s hot, searing, immediate, total. Tangible. Sickness becomes the white elephant in the room, and everyday life feels clumsy, false and suspended. And my mother, she’s practical and smart and incredibly brave. She has chosen not to hide her illness from those who care enough to ask. So please honour her bravery and don’t act all stiff and funny around her. Just hold her and laugh with her and scream with her and cry with her, will you?

For her. For me.

TTT – Laptop, Love and Laughter

Been a while since I’ve done one of these, but I thought I’d do a quick one before retiring for the night.

1) A new laptop

Tony got me a brand new laptop for our wedding anniversary. (Because nothing quite says I love you in our household like sparkly new technology. Ooh baby!) I’ve spent the greater part of last weekend and this week slowly migrating content across, getting the new laptop just so, and saying a quiet sayonara to The Brick that was Dell, and my netbook. (Remember netbooks? Yeah, it’s been at least 3 years which, in IT land, makes it an awkward teenager. But one that I still have a fondness for anyway.)

Several things to be thankful for – crazy end-of-year sales, enough disposable income to afford it, and the fact that I can now pass on two laptops to two families in temporary need of a means to do basic things like word processing and spreadsheeting. Yeah. I made that last word up.

2) Friends who pray

We received news to cause another mountain of anxiety early this week, but all it took were two discreet emails and I’ve been so touched by the conversations / sharing / notes / emails / texts of love, comfort and prayer that have come through. I hate waiting, but even though there is a weight on my family’s collective heart at the moment, it has already been lightened knowing that others are holding up the edges through thoughts and prayer.

3) A growing sense of humour

I have always loved Arddun’s laugh, because she has such a deep chuckle that grows into the most infectious belly laugh. She’s always found the oddest things funny. My bunny slippers. The sound of cracked pepper. My mother. (Heh!)

But lately, she’s started to appreciate pranks. She caught an episode of Raa Raa the Noisy Lion this morning, where Raa Raa was jumping out of bushes and roaring as his friends walk past, just to scare the dickens out of them. She thought that was ha-la-rious. The other day at the indoor playground in our local mall, a 5-year-old girl was standing on the hood of the bumblebee car and, with arms outstretched and hands curved into claws, went roaring like a dinosaur to her little brother.

As soon as that girl got down from the car, Arddun went straight to the hood, climbed up, and then roared for all her worth to nobody in particular. After which she chuckled to herself, before doing it all over again.

Then this afternoon, while scanning the aisles for real sunglasses for Arddun at Baby Bunting, I’d left Arddun at the play area behind the cashier… only to hurry back when I heard Arddun chuckling hysterically.

I arrived in time to see Arddun beckoning towards a fellow inmate playmate with her arms outstretched, for what I assumed was a cuddle. Or a roar. I couldn’t really tell. Because every time Arddun would amble towards this older kid with her arms outstretched (think Frankenstein here), the latter would back away with a worried expression on her face which would then set Arddun off in a fit of giggles. Like, roll-on-the-ground-laughing giggles. And then she’d get up and do it all over again.

I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but it was clearly making the older kid uncomfortable, so I told Arddun to stop freaking her new friend out for the fun of it.

I don’t know what goes on in her busy brain, but I love that she loves to laugh.

Arddun sleeping in her pram with arms behind her head
Music and mayhem. My work here is done.

Sparkly nail polish

I’ve always found false optimism in the workplace grating. I consider myself a fairly upbeat, energetic person but there’s something about faking the rainbows that gets under my skin like nails on a chalkboard. I get highly suspicious when everyone rushes to embrace the upside of an idea, without taking the time to poke holes in the approach first and see if it still holds water after a few inevitable trials.

Yet, I’m not wholly convinced my attitude is a result of a whole-brained approach to problem solving. I think a part of me also wonders if I’ve grown more cynical over the years. And then I watch an episode of TED Conversations, and wonder if I’ve somehow lost my innocence.

My Thursday’s Three Thank-Yous have fallen by the wayside. Partly because I haven’t been blogging much at all… but mostly because I’m not feeling overly blessed or happy of late. Cerebrally, I know I have plenty to be thankful for. The fact I’m able to stay home with Arddun. The fact that I have most of my health, apart from this dastardly cough and cold that won’t go away. The fact that Arddun’s one year old and still alive. The fact that Tony has a job and is well-respected where he is.

The fact that we see double rainbows on Flemington Road when the rains hit the sun.  The fact that Canberra has real Winters and Summers and the most gorgeous Autumns. (I don’t really care much for its Springs. Too windy and ridden with hayfever hazards.) The fact that the sun, the moon, the stars, the planet are still working. The fact that we haven’t completely destroyed our eco-system. Yet. All that.

But I’m wondering if the cynic in me just cannot bring myself to be thankful for the seemingly mundane and natural. That summoning gratitude for ten fingers and ten toes is bordering on the desperate and false. And most of all, how CAN I profess to such gratitude when my own mother is suffering still from toxic, worrisome, potentially fatal cancer, and I cannot, CANNOT feel happy about that?

It feels like I’m pretending I’m happy for sparkly nail polish when I’ve lost my whole foot. Anything before the bit about the foot just seems ludicrous and hollow.

And yet, I know I must press on. And I know I still have things to be hugely grateful for. And I know I have a little girl in my life who makes me laugh every day. And a loving husband who rushes home at day’s end and makes sure I take my medicine. All that.

I just wish the attainment of happiness was as easy as Shawn Achor makes it out to be.

The Big C

As with everything else in life, one never truly gets it until it hits home.

You think you understand that babies will turn your world upside down… and then you finally get one, and you’re still shocked and awed. You think you understand that road accidents devastate families… and then your cousin dies in one, and you cry till your eyes are swollen and your heart literally hurts.

You think you understand how scared and upset you’d be if you found you had a chronic disease. And then your mother gets cancer. And suddenly you cannot breathe.

My mommy has cancer. And not the very nice kind, if there even is such a thing. And the mind and heart, they fumble. The mind starts to shoot a million instructions while the heart starts to crawl under the nearest table and hug its knees, rocking to and fro while whispering, “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God…”

Yes, my God. Why, my God. How, my God. When, my God.

Wait. Please don’t answer the last question, my God.

And it’s huge, the Big C. There are so many facts, and there are so many things to learn. And then there’s the grief, because it’s there. The coming to terms with dreams put on hold for now. The coming to terms with the painful reminder that you really don’t have the next decade all figured out. That this is the new reality, with all its uncertainty.

And all that is true, and all that I wasn’t prepared for. But the other big C that has blown my mind away has been the church.

I’ve grown up in a church all my life. I speak of the people, not the building. I grew up in a modest two-bedroom home with my mum for most of my life till my twenties… but I’ve also grown up with a church since birth.

This means that I know a few hundred people, easy. And they know me. This means we’ve watched each other get older and stranger and grayer and lovelier and meaner and thinner and fatter and sicker and healthier. For years. This means that they know which schools I’ve gone to, met guys  I’ve dated, mediated between my mom and I when we’ve had fights, admonished me, praised me, attended my wedding, kissed my new baby through gifts and cards, teased my husband, read my blog. I’ve loved individuals, fallen out with individuals, had crushes on individuals, cried on many shoulders, hugged even more. This is my other family. My extended family. I love them as a whole, even when they exasperate me.

Despite knowing this, my return to Singapore has floored me… and renewed my faith in God’s rather crazy scheme of throwing random strangers together and calling them family.

Here’s an example of how church works.

We find out about my mother’s cancer on a Thursday. By Friday, my mother’s care team (cell group) is crying about it, and by Sunday the congregation has prayed for her. In the meantime, a close sister in the faith has been selflessly shuttling my mother back and forth her gazillion tests and appointments, and another has become the media centre. Not that they were the only ones who’d have done so – there’s been a steady queue of volunteers for anything – chaffeuring, cooking, money… Even babysitting Arddun.

And then the cards and the emails and the advice and the visits come pouring in. I’ve actually lost count now. It’s been overwhelming in a goosebump-inducing way.

In the meantime, I’ve been hugged and encouraged, taken out for meals, and reassured over and over that my mother is in good hands because everyone here will love and watch over her. Also, a Chinese whisper starts about my mild mastitis and soon, a myriad of aunties are asking me loudly how my rash is going, and checking with Tony if his diarrhea has cleared yet. Big crowds, eh? Can’t always version-control information. ;)

In the last few years in Canberra, I’ve met individuals who yearn to better understand what God intended the church to be like. And many have thought the answer to lie in smaller groups. Move away from corporate worship! One finds intimacy with God and one another in smaller, more intimate settings.

And yes, that is true. Small groups are very conducive for getting the D&M going. Gut spillage is safer and easier in intimate settings. And I’ll admit that many Christians in big churches tend towards toeing the party line outwardly. The presentation of a spotless, God-fearing facade, etc etc.

But I reckon that even small groups can encourage the building of facades. And big churches can foster intimate fellowship.

As tempting as it is to point at big “corporate” churches as the cause of dispassionate, clinical, checkbox Christianity, I am now reminded that the willingness to engage with one another in a meaningful fashion lies within each of our grasp, no matter how quiet or noisy our environments are.  Because God intended church to be big. I’m not talking local congregation sizes – I’m talking about a church that knows no bounds. Including the churches in Canberra and Wellington Point, I know of at least four congregations that have raised their hands to God in prayer for my mother’s sake. And my mother hasn’t been the only beneficiary – Tony and I came home to find our house cleaned, and homecooked meals in our fridge.

The devil isn’t in the detail. Practical Christianity is.

And thank God He gave us a Big Church to practise.

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