Monday, January 18, 2016

All blessings

I read the doctor's letter in front of the fire place. I've laid here for weeks, watching the flickering flames, sometimes shifting to watch the clouds beyond the windows drop ribbons of sleet. I tried to read a book in the firelight a few weeks earlier, but there was too much inflammation in my brain to string symbols into sentence-strands. So I rest and wait and hope and pray. I do not need to read this break, after all. But this letter's salutation makes it seem important, worth reading.

"Dear honored patients...I have been dealing with cancer for the past 10 years...I do not have much longer to is time for me to shut down my practice... I must spend my remaining time getting my affairs in order and spending time with my family....I have already chased enough rainbows."

I'd just seen him two weeks earlier. He wasn't hooked up to his IV this time. His nurse didn't check in on him every 15 minutes like she has in the past. He coughed less. "I'll see you in February," he said when I stood up to leave.

There is a special bond you develop with your doctor when you are very sick. He must know your history — every emotional trauma and every twist and turn in symptom presentation. He must know what's happening in your liver, your heart, your brain, your bones, your cells. He comes to know you in ways nobody else does. And then he takes all that knowledge and he thinks on it. He reviews your thick stack of lab results again and again; and he pieces everything together as best he can. He carefully prescribes new medication. And when he's worked with you awhile he says things like, "The normal dosage for this tincture is 20 drops twice a day, but you should start with 5 drops once a day."

A few months ago I sunk into the leather chair opposite his desk for an appointment. He wanted to know my symptoms. I try to explain. My head is buzzing. It feels like every cell in my brain is swelling, morphing into a red ant. My brain is crawling with millions of biting red ants. Now it's growing, like a water balloon pushing at my skull. My head is nauseated; I'm dizzy. I feel like a inflatable doll who's been filled with lead. His nurse interrupts for a moment to change the IV he's hooked up to. A few seconds later he's doubled over, hacking from the cancer that has spread to his lungs. When his coughing subsides he looks up and asks me to continue. It's been a long, saw-tooth journey, I say. I am tired. "I know," he says, and he looks me in the eyes, his own clouded with cancer and compassion.

My dad is in the other room. I want to go to him, to tell him that my doctor will die soon, but first I need some time alone. I am blindsided by how sad this letter makes me feel. So I lie here. I wonder about the woman my doctor married last month. What sorts of things will they do together in the next few months? Where do his kids live? Does he feel afraid?

And then it hits me: what am I going to do now? A few hours earlier I'd googled "twitching between finger and thumb" and I sifted through dozens of articles about Multiple Sclerosis and ALS. The twitching began two days after I started taking the new medicine my doctor prescribed. I stop taking the medicine immediately but the twitching continues. I wonder if it's flipped a switch in my brain. I want to ask my doctor, but I can't now.

I return to L.A. a few days later. I have work I can do, and I want to distract myself. I'm still feeling lousy, and I realize my body is suddenly rejecting the medicine I've been taking the last 6 months. I stop taking it, cold turkey. My body feels shocked, but my neurological symptoms are a little bit quieter. The twitching subsides and I'm able to grade three days in a row. While I work, I try not to think about my next steps. Medicine, doctors, supplements, grad school. I push them into a mental closet.

I check the mail my second evening here. It's a two-minute walk to the mailbox but I stretch it into four minutes. I breathe in the balmy air, and God and I peer into my closet to discuss what I've stuffed there. I tell him the future is scary, and anxiety is a vine growing up out of my gut and around my chest, tightening. Are you going to take care of me this semester, God? I want his reassurance, so I ask him to prompt someone to send something in the mail to reassure me. It feels like a far-fetched prayer.

When I return to the house I rifle through the stack of mail I've just collected. At the bottom of the pile is a card addressed to me. I open it to find a gift card to the health food store down the street, and this anonymous note:

"Someone wanted to surprise you and let you know you're cared for."

Two days later, a random check arrives in the mail.

On Wednesday my friend, A, texts me to see how I am doing. "Can I do anything for you?" she asks. I tell her to keep praying. She says she will and then offers to do my grocery shopping and cooking. I hesitate. I know how much work that will be. She lives 1.5 hours away and has an 11-month-old baby. But I know she means it, and I need help. Yes, I say. I would love that. I feel anxiety's thorny vine loosen a bit.

Saturday morning she arrives with a trunk full of food she's bought, prepped, and cooked for me. I can't wait to snuggle Baby H, so I take her while A unloads. Soon, my refrigerator and freezer are stuffed with the food required for my new diet. Homemade soup, bone broth, wild salmon A's husband caught in the bellies of Alaska's rivers, free-range turkey, berries, kelp, fermented veggies, and dozens of bags of chopped vegetables for juicing, roasting, and snacking. Carrots. Turnips. Brussel Sprouts. Cabbage. Cucumber. Mushrooms. Onions, and more.

There is a box on the floor, next to the cooler, full of non-edible goodies A wants to give me. A cast iron skillet ("You need iron, and iron will absorb into your food if you use this," A says), a new blender, and a number of other tools. And then she pulls out two new knives. I've been using a $7 set of IKEA knives for 12 years now and am delighted with these new knives. I put them to use, slicing a beet to put in the juicer, and I wonder if this is what it feels like to transition from driving a minivan to a Lamborghini.

Mid-morning we sit on the floor with the baby, and A tells me she's been researching doctors on my behalf. She's found a good one she thinks can help. She has other ideas about how to help me get healthy, too. She has a plan, and she is going to be my advocate. The future doesn't feel so scary anymore, and my soul feels fuller than my fridge.

Today my kitchen is swirling with the sounds of a culinary symphony. The steady rhythmic base of my new knives striking the cutting board. The soothing soprano-sizzle of onions in my new iron skillet. The occasional pop of hot oil, the dinging of the timer.

Sometimes I wonder if orchestral symphonies in heaven will smell as beautiful as they sound. Perhaps the musical note "A" smells like summer strawberries; "B" smells like ocean breeze; "C" smells like dry pine, "D" smells like someone you shared your life with, and so on. Clair de Lune could smell like summer vacation at the sea. Today, my kitchen symphony smells better than it sounds — a taste of heaven, perhaps. The sharp smell of citrus. Rosemary's perfume. Pungent garlic and sliced winter cucumber and freshly juiced kale.

At noon I sit down to eat lunch. Spinach wilted in olive oil and garlic, roasted root vegetables, and turkey seasoned with fresh rosemary. It feels like a feast compared to my tired attempts at meals this winter. I eat slowly, noticing the textures, savoring the flavors. And then I notice anxiety's thorny vine has disappeared, and it isn't from any effort of my own. It is because of my friends, the ones who are teaching me that they love me because they love me, not because of anything else. Quietly, slowly, I sing a prayer of thanks: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..."

© by scj


  1. "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salivation, who say to Zion, "Your God Reigns!"
    Isaiah 52:7

    1. LF,

      Ah, this is just lovely. Thank you for posting it!


  2. Oh Sarah what a beautiful,beautiful post!! Thanking God for your friend "A". I love you my friend!

  3. Tears of joy for God's goodness revealed through the ones who love him and who are his feet and hands -and tears for sadness because I was not aware of your more recent situation with your health. Tears for the sting of a broken world, for sickness and disease and sin and all the disgust in our fallen world. Which reminds me that this is not our home. My prayers are with you.

    1. Anon,

      Thank you for your words of compassion, and your prayers. I'm often reminded of my heaven-home these days, and I eagerly await the day heaven's glories will eclipse earth's sorrows.