I have a new nickname, thanks to my 13-year old son, Owen. Cancer Man! He loves to smile at me, use a funny voice, and yell, “Cancer Man!” Please understand, this doesn’t come after any particular feats of strength or some special ability given me by my disease. Rather, I hear this super name at personally awkward times, like when I’m lying on the couch with my leg propped on pillows. Or after I shoot an airball during a lopsided game of horse. Or when I pull up gimpy after kicking a soccer ball. And even when I publish a blog post. Cancer Man!
Had Owen seen me at the end of the evening Saturday night, he would have had reason to use his nickname for me again. The night started pleasantly with dinner with my wife. We adjourned to the porch for a second glass and conversation. Somehow we got to this statement: “I think you have a high tolerance for pain, but you have a low tolerance for discomfort. You know what I mean?”
Huh, what, no, maybe, sometimes?
Her explanation confirmed my assumption but provided no comfort. Pain is what I feel in the hospital. Pain is what I feel in my abdomen and feet. Discomfort is my eyesight blurring. Discomfort is taking daily an unnatural quantity of pills and the use of the myriad other items that we purchase regularly from the pharmacy. Pain is a number on a FACES chart and the appropriate analgesics. Discomfort is my vocalizing minor ailments, followed by a dose of “when are you going back to work again?”
Mom, don’t worry, I’m ok. No need to call Kim.
I admit I didn’t take this or the remaining bit of conversation well. I had an extended period of me-time on the large rock in our front yard. Lord help me, am I a complainer? Do I seek comfort instead of growth? If so, I’m the hypocrite that Cancer Man rails against in his righteousness.
Well. Of course these things are true. They are true of us all. Kim admitted to having a low tolerance for discomfort, as well. But in my defense, I struggle with separating the aches and pains from the normal course of aging with those that might be disease-related. However, I think I can accept aging. In fact, aging is what I desire most–bring on the birthday candles! But I struggle to accept new health issues related to cancer, as if that is giving ground to the enemy. So I fight for normalcy, whatever that means for me.
I’m certainly not alone with this attitude. The highlighted stories from the Olympics were of athletes making comebacks from incapacitating injuries. They refused to accept their condition. Neither do I. But then reality hits, and I see how Kim is right. By not accepting my condition, I risk a life of frustration and disappointment that brings down me and my family. This cancer, to write this may be harsh, but to wish it away may not differ much from hoping to grow back a leg. Cancer Man’s kryptonite is this mortal life itself, clinging to it for comfort and happiness instead of the eternal promise of the Lord.
The soul of the man on the rock sank.
(Unbeknownst, my dear wife was watching the Olympics).
Yesterday morning I read Ezekiel 37. In it, the prophet Ezekiel is carried away by “the Spirit of the Lord” to a dry valley filled with bones. The Lord asks Ezekiel, ““Son of man, can these bones become living people again?” (37:3, NLT). Ezekiel, with a response that many of us might offer, says, “O Sovereign Lord….you alone know the answer to that.” Then the Lord commands Ezekiel to speak to the bones a prophetic message: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord” (37:5-6, NLT).
As I read this, I recalled an image I imagined as Kim and I were having our conversation, which she was surprised to discover was extremely difficult for me, because I fear being a helpless complainer. I imagined a scene from the movie Das Boot, a film about a German U boat and its crew as they attempt to sail through the Strait of Gibraltar to Italy (click the link after reading, it is quite dramatic). The Strait is heavily guarded by the Allied Forces, and the sub is discovered and attacked. The scene I imagined was of the submarine sinking to the bottom of the ocean, 280 meters down. As it descends, both the men and the ship groan. You can hear the popping of rivets from the increasing pressure of the depth. Ultimately, the boat rests on the ocean floor, leaving the crew despondent. But they work diligently the next 16 hours to repair damage to the ship, fretting about the decreasing oxygen level in the vessel. When ready, men cramp together around the sub’s control panel to execute their last chance of survival: to blow the ballast tanks. The captain gives an order, and a sailor at his station turns a large wheel to force water out of the tanks with a powerful rush of air. Motionless for several moments, the sub finally rocks out of the seabed in which it lies and begins to rise. As it ascends, the crew celebrate in screams of joy that soon turn to tears.
Life breathed into the boat?
As I sat on the rock processing what my wife said to me, I was sunk. But then I remembered that even if I disappoint those whom I seek to love, serve, and please, disappoint God, and even if I fail miserably at life by selfishly clinging to it, I am accepted as I am by the One who came to love and serve us, to please his father, but who seemingly failed at mortal life by being rejected and crucified until rising victoriously in eternal glory. This is the air I must remember to breathe.
The normal life? Aches and pains? Disease? Discomfort or pain, ultimately, we’re all dying. But nothing restores my will and purpose to live fervently than when I experience the breath of Christ, lifting me and urging me on. And it comes in the strangest of ways–like a difficult conversation that sinks me, a vision of a submarine that somehow manages to rise off the seabed with a gust of air, and a Scripture reading that reminds me that all things are possible with God, the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the world. All it takes is his breath. And that breath comes to us through Christ’s spirit.
I can’t say what drives athletes to make comebacks or what drives an amputee to strap on a prosthetic to run a race. It is often attributed to will, to spirit. I can only name what drives me, and I sense a life-giving breath into my soul that only comes as I intentionally live by faith. Sometimes this seems dull and dutiful, but then I come across Scripture that shakes my soul from where it lies, seemingly dormant, no less like the U-boat on the ocean floor.
I’m thankful for the breath of life, even as I don’t grasp what really happened in the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones to which he spoke. A true story? An allegory? Regardless of what happened to those bones, we hear that air rushed into the lungs of Jesus as he lay entombed, and that story is most told in history. It is also my only true hope in this life as hapless Cancer Man. It should be my first hope, but it is usually my last, when I’ve worked and played to find fulfillment and suddenly find myself sunk. To what else can I turn then?
As the boat captain exclaimed as he and his crew watched the needle of the depth meter rotate backward in their ascent, “We rise!” And so we do, and so we will.
First, I had a CT scan last week. The overall impression was stable disease. They noted the changes from the surgery, and some of that will just need to be watched. Though I no longer put all my trust in CT scans (they missed the tumor growing in my small intestine, remember), the good news is that there are no visible nodes growing in or near vital organs.
Second, and this one is strange, thanks (I think) to the recommendation and connection of a couple of friends, Kim and I will be on the Jules Show on March 6th at 8pm on FM 88.9 in Athens (recorded show available on the website). We record this morning, Wednesday, Feb 28. We don’t know what to expect but appreciate her taking an interest in our story. I’m sure we’ll discuss life, cancer, living as Christians, and my book (Two Stories).
Anyone find the maximum value on the depth meter curious for me? (Kim did…)