Tuesday, June 30, 2009

We Are Family

This Thursday I will have my final dose of chemo. Yipee! This whole ordeal, which started almost exactly eight months ago, will then enter a new phase. In terms of my physical body, I will, in effect, be returning to my pre-cancer state of health. And for that I will be very glad. No more side effects of drugs and radiation treatments. No more fatigue. No more compromised immune system.

It's that last effect – manifested by a very low white blood cell count - that has necessitated nightly shots of Neupogen administered by my nurse Jacquelyn. The Neupogen, which stimulates my bone marrow to make more white blood cells, also causes me to feel very achy – like when you have a debilitating flu. Thankfully, acetaminophen takes care of that. One thing just leads to another once you enter the world of pharmaceuticals, it seems.


A couple of months ago, one of our pastors asked me to consider doing a testimonial at church. The spirit was willing but I was having trouble putting the words around it. I found myself all over the place with so many different things to say about the impact that the fantastic Reformed Church of Highland Park (RCHP) has had in my life over the last nearly three years.

In the meantime, a few folks have done their testimonials expressing what the Church has meant to them. It has been both very moving and a window into the role of religion and this particular church community in their lives. In reflecting on what my Church has meant to me recently, it has made me consider how religion can work in our lives and the spiritual power of this blog community too.

For us, finding RCHP was a bonus benefit of our move to Highland Park in July, 2006. We choose this town very deliberately and were thrilled by the house we landed. As far as a church…that was something that we'd work out. Little did we know what awaited us when the strong recommendation came in from our Jewish friends, no less! It just goes to show that you can plan and consider very carefully and yet God's grace is something bestowed upon us.

This Church has challenged us since the first time we walked in. We were embraced from the get-go, and challenged. It has felt completely comfortable and yet a little uncomfortable the whole time. It's the discomfort that comes from stretching and growing. I firmly believe that if you are very comfortable with where you are (Church-wise and life-wise), then you aren't challenging yourself enough.

And then most recently – this Church has meant more than I ever thought that a church could mean to me. Besides growth, it's meant love and family for me…for us.

The idea of a family has always meant a lot to me. It's been a very well-defined word, not used lightly. My birth and extended families have been my first consideration -almost to a fault some might say. Just ask any of my old girlfriends. J And, of course, there is nothing more important to me than Jacquelyn and my babies. But, my last few months have helped me to appreciate in the depths of my heart a wonderful broadening of the word family. My RCHP church family has been right next to me throughout my illness - with all of the presence and support that the word implies. They've been like the cloak of Jesus that I clutch for healing - embodying His teaching. I trust that they aren't going anywhere.

Further, my church family has loved me. After using my sleeves for too long, I've taken to bringing a handkerchief to church with me because of the many tears of sadness, warmth and joy that I find myself shedding nearly every week in those pews. The little Church on 2nd Ave offers me an incredible emotional haven, wrapping me in the safe and loving arms of God.

There are many parallels between the remarkable RCHP congregation that has been physically present for me and this online community. I acted somewhat out of character back in November in opening myself and my health challenges up to the world. Though this blog would certainly make you think differently, I was never one to broadcast my troubles or struggles. But, the return on that risk-taking has been the most tangible presence of God's love that I have ever felt pouring forth from all of you. I have felt an army of supporters travelling my road w/me - something that has literally saved my life.

It has been absolutely amazing for me to discover how much faith there is out there amongst the people that I know. Since taking my faith public, I have received strong responses from all corners of my life. In a Church community, you would expect that. But, I learned so much about the faith and doubts of friends and acquaintances. There is so much intentionality and praying going on – who knew?! To mix religious metaphors – it has been, for me, a validation of the law of spiritual karma. Namely, the more you put out there, the more you get back. It is a beautiful thing. (I've found that it works the same for love too.)

After all of these years, I just may have learned to let myself be loved. That may be one of the best outcomes for me from all of this. And for that, I thank God for the blessing of opening myself up to a bigger circle.

When I needed a boost of love and faith, my Church family and online community have come through beyond my every prayer, and for that I can never thank you enough.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Circle of Life

A few weeks back I mentioned the foursome of baby robins that graced us for a time, nourished and protected by a doting mother. All four of us Juricics would conscientiously try not to disturb the new and fragile family. But it is a jungle out there, even in our backyard. One morning, 7-10 days after they'd busted into the world, they went from four to one. Not yet ready for flight – we feared the worst for them. The next morning the nest had been knocked to the ground and no little tweeters were left - most likely, unlucky victims of the necessary circle of life. It is only cruel or tragic because we choose to differentiate between the various expressions of God – favoring baby robins over, say, possums. All, ultimately, part of God's plan.

Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of God's plan and my own personal circle of life. That circle of life is my view of everything that is most important to me. It is my perspective on my past, present and future. As the song says – "It's the circle of life, and it moves us all, through despair and hope, through faith and love." It's my horizon, my fate. But instead of it getting smaller or tighter, the cancer has made my circle more intense, brighter and wider. If you can visualize it – my circle has gone from fuzzy to focused, from slow-burning to bursting. That's been the gift of my misbehaving pancreas to the rest of me.

I need to find a better way of saying this, but…if this cancer doesn't kill me; it'll be the best thing that ever happened to me (besides Jacquelyn and my babies). It certainly has been thus far.

Many people have expressed to me that they are sorry to have heard the "news" about me. Though these sentiments are certainly sincere, they are not ones that I share. As I've said, I wouldn't wish this upon anyone – but so far it hasn't been a bad thing that has happened to me, probably more good than bad until now. I haven't "lost" much of anything yet. I recognize that that could all change in a moment, that I could lose it all. And even if that is God's plan and the circle of life, I won't be okay with that. But til now, all it has cost me is a few sections of my digestive system. Other than that physical effect, all that I've lost is the false notion that I am invincible. It is an idea that most of us carry around with us, but a trait that we don't actually have. By losing that lie, I've gained a far more valuable truth.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Embracing Acceptance

"I can't believe I forgot to pick up this week's farm share this morning!"
"I just don't know what to do with you sometimes Noah/Ana. You just don't listen."
"The train delay this morning made me 45 minutes late for work."
These statements (or something similar) have been heard around our house recently. Those nagging things that go wrong or other than we'd planned in our lives, causing us anger and/or stress. We all have them, regularly. There's no avoiding them – but it is up to us how we react to life's little trials.
Back in January, as I was recovering from my surgery, I started thinking about how I could live a healthier lifestyle to minimize the chance of a recurrence. I've been striving for a stricter diet of less white flour, sugar, processed food and industrial meats intended to make my body less hospitable to the cancer. I decided that a reintroduction of a daily practice of meditation to complement my discipline of prayer could do much for my mind. Beyond the chemo and radiation treatments, I want to be doing all that I can to help myself.
So…I just got back from a meditation retreat in Massachusetts. It was three wonderful days of contemplation, hard work and relaxation. Three days of basic and delicious vegetarian meals, wake-ups at 4 am and total silence. Three days of being totally cut off from the outside world – no cell phones and no leaving the grounds – to meditate for about 10 hours a day. The technique is called Vipassana and it stresses observing the reality of oneself by observing the sensations within the body. I had taken a 10-day course back in 1996 and this 3-day refresher seems like a great way to jump start my practice.
A key aspect of Vipassana practice is to couple the awareness of our body's sensations with equanimity. What that means is to be conscious of everything that happens within, and at the same time not to react to it, understanding that it will change. Put another way – in more colloquial terms – is don't sweat the small (or any particular size) stuff.
Interestingly, my cancer diagnosis has taught me to be equanimous too. It gave me a new perspective on what is important in my life. There were few things that got me very upset before and fewer now. If anything, it was the small stuff that did disproportionately get to me; being too hard on me and those around me about the little things. So much of that is gone now. I am attached to far less in terms of particular outcomes and have fewer expectations. I understand that there is little else but to roll with the punches. Trains are sometimes late, to-dos will sometimes slip our minds and kids will (should) act like 3-year-olds. All of which is much easier with the conviction that it is all part of God's plan and that he walks the path with me.

Another funny thing happened to me on the way through this cancer challenge…
I had always viewed time as a precious resource, to be maximized and never wasted. I prided myself on being very efficient. Multi-tasking was seemingly second-nature to me. I have always liked to have a plan. I wasn't neurotic about it, but good planning implied anticipation and a sense of control for me.
The diagnosis of this most deadly of cancers threatens to take away my remaining time and shatters my sense of control. You would think that every minute would become even more precious to me. And although it is, in the sense that I appreciate every morning more, I am running around much less. I welcome spontaneous upsets to my best-laid plans. I derive much more pleasure from a slow and simple meal or one sip of a delicious wine than ever before. It is actually my relationships that have usurped time as the most precious commodity in my life. Strange considering that a "premature" death threatens me with less time on this earth. Family and friends have always been very important to me but never as much as now. Maybe it is exactly the recognition that time here was never ours but merely granted to us by God – whereas, our relationships are, ultimately, all that we have and all that we make and all that we take.