When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail

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(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)

 

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Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.

 

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Peak and Valley

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One sees great things from the valley, only small things from the peak.
— G. K. Chesterton

 

 

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It is all a matter of perspective
and what we perceive from where we stand:
it takes great strength and determination to climb the peak,
and look down upon the valley left far below
where even mountains seem diminished.

Yet what gives life meaning,
what encourages our faith,
and instills hope
is how we thrive while dwelling
deep in the darkest of valleys while
gazing up at the dream-like peaks.

 

 

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photo by Josh Scholten — view of Mt Shuksan from the top of Mt. Baker

 

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photo by Josh Scholten – dawn from the top of Mt. Baker, seeing its shadow to the west

 

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Excellent January Partly Cloudies

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Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt,
and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.

~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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After years of rarely paying attention,
too busy with whatever clinic or household or barnyard task needs doing,
I realize there are only a finite number of sunrises and sunsets left to me.

Now I don’t want to miss them, so whenever I can,
I stop, take a deep breath
and feel lucky to be alive,
a witness to that moment of transition.

Sometimes they are plain and gray
just as I am,
but there are days that are lit from above and beneath
with a fire that ignites across the sky.
I too am engulfed for a moment or two,
until sun or shadow sweeps me away,
transfixed and transformed,
ever and forever grateful for the light.

 

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Ensanguining the Skies

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How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. 
~James Wright from “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence”
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to the northwest

 

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to the north
To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
  Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
  I never kept before.Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
  Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
  Falls the remorseful day.
~A.E. Houseman from “How Clear, How Lovely Bright”
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to the northeast
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to the east
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to the southeast
It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~ R.S. Thomas “The Moor”
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to the south

 

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to the southwest

 

Last night, as you can see,  was a surrounding sunset experience – 360 degrees of evolving color and patterns, streaks and swirls, gradation and gradual decline.

It was all in silence.  No bird song, no wind, no spoken prayer.
Yet communion took place with the air breaking and feeding me like manna from heaven.

May I squander life no more and treasure each day.
May I keep my vows to God, church, family, friends, and patients.
May I be warmed on a chill winter day by the witness of such bleeding of last light of day.

 

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to the west

 

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to the west

 

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to the west

 

Dust Made Manifest

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Nobody in the hospital
Could tell the age 
Of the old woman who
Was called Susanna

Because she had no visitors
I would stop by to see her
But she was always sleeping

One day I was beside her
When she woke up
Opening small dark eyes
Of a surprising clearness

She looked at me and said
You want to know the truth?
I answered Yes

She said it’s something that 
My mother told me

There’s not a single inch
Of our whole body
That the Lord does not love

She then went back to sleep.
~Anne Porter  from “Susanna”

 

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Mom meeting great grandson Noah a few days before she died

 

We tend to forget who made us,
including our funny looking feet, our anxieties,
the crooked teeth, the wrinkles, the scars, the split ends —

We see only imperfection
when our Creator sees dust made manifest
in His image.

He loves us even when we do not love ourselves,
as we hide our nakedness.

He loves us even when we cover up with gloss
of polish, perms, plucking and plastic surgery,
hiding beneath our cosmetic masks.

He loves every inch
because we are His opus, a masterpiece.

He knew exactly what He was doing.

 

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photo by Lea Gibson

 

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photo by Andrea Nipges

People of Your Light

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On Epiphany day,
     we are still the people walking.
     We are still people in the dark,
          and the darkness looms large around us,
          beset as we are by fear,
                                        anxiety,
                                        brutality,
                                        violence,
                                        loss —
          a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.

We are — we could be — people of your light.
     So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
          as we wait for your appearing;
     we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
          as we exhaust our coping capacity;
     we pray for your gift of newness that
          will override our weariness;
     we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
          in your good rule.

That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
         your rule through the demands of this day.
         We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.
~Walter Brueggemann from  Prayers for a Privileged People 

 

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Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

 

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Today is celebrated the Feast of Epiphany (His Glory revealed and made manifest in all lives).

Even as weak and crumbling vessels, God is made manifest within us. It is not the easy path to say yes to God: it means sacrifice, abandoning our will for His will so His glory is illuminated by His Light, not ours.

And so, we, like Mary, shall say yes.
His Seed shall take root in our hearts.

 

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing…
We can ask for courage, however,
and trust that God has not led us into this new land
only to abandon us there.”

~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

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A Thread to Knit and Mend Hearts

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To Lea on her birth day, celebrated twenty five years ago with much drama and joy — we cherish each day with you in our lives…

 

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May the wind always be in her hair
May the sky always be wide with hope above her
And may all the hills be an exhilaration
the trials but a trail,
all the stones but stairs to God.

May she be bread and feed many with her life and her laughter
May she be thread and mend brokenness and knit hearts…
~Ann Voskamp from “A Prayer for a Daughter”

 

 

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Your rolling and stretching had grown quieter that stormy winter night
twenty five years ago, but no labor came as it should.
A week overdue post-Christmas,
you clung to amnion and womb, not yet ready.
Then the wind blew more wicked
and snow flew sideways, landing in piling drifts,
the roads becoming impassable, nearly impossible to traverse.

So your dad and I tried,
worried about being stranded on the farm far from town.
Our little car got stuck in a snowpile in the deep darkness,
our tires spinning, whining against the snow.
A nearby neighbor’s bulldozer dug us out to freedom.
You floated silent and still, knowing your time was not yet.

Creeping slowly through the dark night blizzard,
we arrived to the warm glow of the hospital.
You slept.
I, not at all.

Morning sun glistened off sculptured snow outside our window,
and your heart had ominously slowed in the night.
We both were jostled, turned, oxygenated, but nothing changed.
You beat even more slowly, letting loose your tenuous grip on life.

The nurses’ eyes told me we had trouble.
The doctor, grim faced, announced
delivery must happen quickly,
taking you now, hoping we were not too late.
I was rolled, numbed, stunned,
clasping your father’s hand, closing my eyes,
not wanting to see the bustle around me,
trying not to hear the shouted orders,
the tension in the voices,
the quiet at the moment of opening
when it was unknown what would be found.

And then you cried. A hearty healthy husky cry, a welcomed song.
Perturbed and disturbed from the warmth of womb,
to the cold shock of a bright lit operating room,
your first vocal solo brought applause
from the surrounding audience who admired your pink skin,
your shock of damp red hair, your blue eyes squeezed tight,
then blinking open, wondering and wondrous,
emerging saved from the storm within and without.

You were brought wrapped for me to see and touch
before you were whisked away to be checked over thoroughly,
your father trailing behind the parade to the nursery.
I closed my eyes, swirling in a brain blizzard of what-ifs.

If no snow storm had come,
you would have fallen asleep forever within my womb,
no longer nurtured by my aging placenta,
cut off from what you needed to stay alive.
There would have been only our soft weeping,
knowing what could have been if we had only known,
if God provided a sign to go for help.

Saved by a storm and dug out from a drift:
I celebrate each time I hear your voice singing,
knowing you are a thread born to knit and mend hearts.

 

*my annual “happy birthday” to our daughter Lea, now a 4th grade school teacher*

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