It’s the second day of a new month. It’s Wednesday. It’s the beginning of month eight of Annie’s six month prognosis. We just had a visit from our community hospice nurse. The visit was short and sweet; but more about that later…
Since Thursday the syringe driver has successfully helped in stabilising Annie’s recent spate of nausea. The combination of Haloperidol and Cyclizine is working, for now. I say ‘for now’ because it’s not like this is some radically new anti-sickness medicine. For the last six months these two drugs have been used in conjunction with Ondansetron. The main difference is that she has dropped the Ondansetron and instead of taking the Haloperidol and Cyclizine orally, she is having them delivered through the driver. The driver delivers the drugs gradually throughout the day which results in Annie feeling the effects of the Haloperidol which contains a sleeping agent. I tend to find Annie in one of two places recently: beneath the covers of a blanket or between the covers of her bible!
Yesterday evening the nurses had agreed to remove the driver from Annie’s stomach – now that she has stabilised – and attempt to replace it with the pill version. Annie had been coping very well with the driver and had become quite fond of her little purple, lace-strapped shoulder bag that housed the driver unit! She had a very good night and certainly wasn’t too bad this morning. But then roughly half-an-hour after the community nurse’s visit, she threw up. It’s too early to tell whether the pills just need a little time to work or whether we just have to accept that her body prefers that the drugs are gently chauffeured with a driver rather than swished down with a quick gulp of water! We’ll stay with the pills for 24 hours and see how things go. At least for now, she’s eaten and there’s been no further sickness…yet.
Having Annie stabilised for almost a week has granted me more time to serve others in our church family at Manor Park. The early hours of Friday morning were spent at McDonalds with the young men of Manor Park for our fortnightly breakfast walk through 1 Samuel. Then later that day, the fellowship continued from one generation to another! I was able to go out and visit some older saints. I have been meaning to write an article about how in God’s kingdom, suffering and sickness makes you better. I know, it sounds strange and intriguing and I hope to elaborate some time. But by way of example, I have personally found that going through suffering first hand makes for better visits with those who are sick and suffering.
On Friday I visited a very dear sister who is no stranger to suffering. The Lord called her husband home after his struggle with cancer some years ago and she often wrestles with her own poor health. When I’ve made visits like that in the past, it’s easy to leave feeling like the Lord’s purpose was simply to test the work of His grace and patience in those I visited as they endured my visit! But since passing through suffering there’s a noticeable change. Certainly noticeable to me – but perhaps those dear brothers and sisters are such trophies of God’s grace that I just don’t notice that they are still enduring my visit! I treasure those visits even more than I did before. It’s not just a case of asking the Lord to help me know what to say, what not to say and when not to say anything at all; rather, as Annie and I have been daily at the feet of Jesus, seeking His peace and wisdom through suffering, His Word of comfort naturally overflows from my own heart with deep compassion, sincerity and empathy. Not only that, the testimony that these suffering saints share with me resonates deeply within me – it makes me a better listener than I was…or at least, I have a greater desire to be a better listener than I was before! When I leave, I find that the fellowship has refreshed my faith, restored my joy and renewed my hope in Jesus.
The weekend was a lovely blur. My Saturday morning time of prayer with Dave lead to a fellowship breakfast here with his wife and their kids. The children came with colourful offerings of lovingly handcrafted cards and pictures propelled with joy, excitement and smiles. The air was thick and sweet with the smell of sausages, pancake batter and maple syrup, keeping the American-style tradition of all fellowship breakfasts we tend to host at our home!
Sunday evening our home was filled again with young disciples meeting around the Word of God to study the subject of Knowing God’s Will. Annie was here but she was so tired she had to sleep upstairs. But as ever, when the night was done and Annie was well rested she said: “Tell me about it then!” and we talked together about who was there and what we looked at and what we learned. And it really is a case of what ‘we’ learned. I wonder sometimes if these young people realise that I really am learning (and re-learning) with them as much as I am teaching and leading.
Monday was a very good day for Annie. The Lord even granted her strength to join our fortnightly church plant fellowship gathering as we came together to think about the place, the purpose and the power of prayer – a subject that we were reminded of again just this morning.
As our community nurse visited this morning she remarked how well Annie looked and also commented on how unusual it was that – at this very late stage – Annie is experiencing relatively little pain. The nurse said to us:
“There must be something in the power of prayer!”
Our response was to smile and nod as the evidence of Lord’s work, grace and peace in us can speak for itself.
It might have just been a bedside-friendly platitude but she continued to elaborate, telling us about the many patients she sees without “a faith” or – in her own words – “…without a strong faith…”. She described to us patients who not only struggle with the present physical pain of their suffering but also those who are overwhelmed by past regrets which makes the present and the future even harder to deal with. For the record, this is our nurse who knows that we are Christians but – as she has shared with us before – is not personally “…religious or anything like that…”.
During our time with the nurse she also broached the subject again of the ‘Advanced Care Plan’. We’ve talked – with some difficulty – about this before in previous posts. She asked how we would feel about Annie being in the hospice “…when it comes to the last couple of weeks…?”. Those words slice through the air like the sharp end of an arrow. It reminds me that doctors and nurses might not be able to accurately assess how many months you have left (as the opening of this post suggests) but they have much better experience knowing what a cancer ravaged body looks like within two weeks of its expiry date. This timeframe seems to be how hospices successfully schedule without overbooking.
I find that there’s two ways of dealing with bleak information like this; both ways centred around the fact that we are not alone.
The first outlook is to remind ourselves that we are not alone. Every person on this planet will face that sharp tip of that arrow one day. You and I have an arrow like that with our name on it. That arrow might still be in the quiver, it might be pressed fast on the string and poised momentarily on the bow, it could be ripping through the air as we read. One day we are all going to be in our last two weeks of life. Whether we realise it or not. You don’t need a medical messenger to remind you. We may cut some unwholesome and unhealthy habits out of our lives, replace them with healthier ones (cancer repelling ones, even) and convince ourselves and our doctors that we have extended our stay on earth; but whatever your lifestyle, your outlook or your philosophy: one day you and I will wake up to day-one of the final fourteen days of our life. It could be much closer than any of us would like to think. We might already be in that period right now – none of us really know.
On October 26th, 2008 I went to watch the San Diego Chargers play the New Orleans Saints at Wembley Stadium with one of my closest friends and dear brothers in Christ. I have a photo of him smiling and full of life. The date I remember because….hey, I was at Wembley Stadium with one of my best friends watching the one and only regular season NFL game played outside of the USA! But I also remember the time of the photo. It was 9:03pm. I remember it because it was printed at the bottom corner of the photograph. 26 days later, this very precious and dear friend to Annie and I, was suddenly and shockingly taken to be with His Lord Jesus. A few days after that, the weight of that coffin pressed against my shoulder.
None of us know when we will be in our last weeks of life. Present age and health is no indicator that we are not already in it. A refrigerator full of health food, a cabinet full of medicine and a hardcover A2 diary won’t shield you from that arrow’s sting. It has its appointment and it will not be postponed. It will fiercely tear up our calendars and rudely interrupt our schedules as it screams towards the target with our name on it.
That first outlook is not really a comforter, it’s a leveller. It simply makes us less aware of our discomfort by making everyone else around us feel uncomfortable! “Hey, we’re all gonna die someday, so what’s to worry about?” Annie and I find no comfort in that at all.
The second outlook is simply, Ryan and Annie are not alone. It sounds a lot like the first one and yet it could never be more different. It is the source of true comfort that raises the shield of faith against those sharp arrows (there’s always more than one!). We hear their battering thuds, we shake at their force but we never experience their sting. We have a shield of faith and it’s emblazoned with the Name of Jesus.
“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens!” – Woody Allen
As our nurse testified this morning, not every shield of faith is strong enough to deal with that arrow. Some shields of faith are simply not up to the job. They crack, they crumble, they tear apart when you need them most. Some shields may fend off that one arrow. But what about all the other personalised deathly arrows that follow? Death has a loaded quiver with our name on it! In the face of death there’s always more than one arrow. Dark clouds of deathly arrows rain down in those final weeks, days and hours: doubt, regret, despair, uncertainty, remorse, horror, terror, fear, loneliness, anger, anxiety, panic; arrows that will shatter the shield of religion, science, ignorance, and poetical, philosophical, even humorous optimism.
Jesus is uniquely the only person in history that has ever demonstrated authority and power over death. He’s the only person who went beyond the grave and returned. He’s worth listening to. No one else is worth listening to. If you don’t listen to Jesus, you might as well listen to Woody Allen. (And Woody Allen, if you’re reading…you really should listen to Jesus, you’ll have a lot less humorous quotes about death but a lot less fears too!)
For all those reading who are thinking “It’s alright for you, you have a strong faith.” or “I wish I had your faith!” We’d assure you that the strength has nothing to do with us. It’s all in Jesus. If you just opened up the bible and saw for yourself what kind of shield He is when it comes to death, you’d shelter behind Him too. To say that you wish you had our faith is as crazy as standing at one end of Tower Bridge and saying to everyone that comes across it or is about to cross it: “Wow! I wish I had your faith to walk across the Thames!” Once all the polite british people smile and say nothing to you, very soon someone (probably American) would slap you upside of the head and scream at you : “Are you for real!? Just look at the size of the bridge!”
As for Annie and I, we can testify as fresh as today, Jesus is a great shield. He shields us from past regrets. He shields us from future fears. He shields us from all deathly arrows. On the cross He bore the full wrath of God for our sins. He took the hit for us. He took the punishment we deserved for our sins. One day the last arrow will leave the bow. That arrow will bring with it not our last weeks but our last breaths. And when that arrow comes, once again, we can stand behind Jesus, our shield, and we can declare:
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15:55-56
Yours, shielded for life and death in Jesus our refuge,