To Feel the Hem of Heaven

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Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs.
And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place,
touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.
You will go away with old, good friends.
And don’t forget when you leave why you came.

~Adlai Stevenson, to the Class of ’54 Princeton University

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I was eight years old in June 1963 when the Readers’ Digest arrived in the mail inside its little brown paper wrapper. As usual, I sat down in my favorite overstuffed chair with my skinny legs dangling over the side arm and started at the beginning,  reading the jokes, the short articles and stories on harrowing adventures and rescues, pets that had been lost and found their way home, and then toward the back came to the book excerpt: “The Triumph of Janis Babson” by Lawrence Elliott.

Something about the little girl’s picture at the start of the story captured me right away–she had such friendly eyes with a sunny smile that partially hid buck teeth.  This Canadian child, Janis Babson, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only ten, and despite all efforts to stop the illness, she died in 1961.  The story was written about her determination to donate her eyes after her death, and her courage facing death was astounding.  Being nearly the same age, I was captivated and petrified at the story, amazed at Janis’ straight forward approach to her death, her family’s incredible support of her wishes, and especially her final moments, when (as I recall 54 years later) Janis looked as if she were beholding some splendor, her smile radiant.

”Is this Heaven?” she asked.   She looked directly at her father and mother and called to them:  “Mommy… Daddy !… come… quick !”

And then she was gone.  I cried buckets of tears, reading and rereading that death scene.  My mom finally had to take the magazine away from me and shooed me outside to go run off my grief.  How could I run and play when Janis no longer could?  It was a devastating realization that a child my age could get sick and die, and that God allowed it to happen.

Yet this story was more than just a tear-jerker for the readers.  Janis’ final wish was granted –those eyes that had seen the angels were donated after her death so that they would help another person see.  Janis  had hoped never to be forgotten.  Amazingly, she influenced thousands of people who read her story to consider and commit to organ donation, most of whom remember her vividly through that book excerpt in Readers’ Digest.  I know I could not sleep the night after I read her story and determined to do something significant with my life, no matter how long or short it was.  Her story influenced my eventual decision to become a physician.  She made me think about death at a very young age as that little girl’s tragic story could have been mine and I was certain I could never have been so brave and so confident in my dying moments.

Janis persevered with a unique sense of purpose and mission for one so young.  As a ten year old, she developed character that some people never develop in a much longer lifetime.  Her faith and her deep respect for the gift she was capable of giving through her death brought hope and light to scores of people who still remember her to this day.

Out of the recesses of my memory, I recalled Janis’ story a few years ago when I learned of a local child who had been diagnosed with a serious cancer.  I could not recall Janis’ name, but in googling “Readers’  Digest girl cancer story”,  by the miracle of the internet I rediscovered her name, the name of the book and a discussion forum that included posts of people who were children in the sixties, like me,  who had been incredibly touched by Janis when they read this same story as a child.  Many were inspired to become health care providers like myself and some became professionals working with organ donation.

Janis and family, may you know the gift you gave so many people through your courage in the midst of suffering, and the resulting hope in the glory of the Lord.  Your days were short here, but you touched the depth of truth and touched the hem of heaven.
~~the angels are coming indeed.

We who have been your old good friends,  because of your story,  have not forgotten how you left us and why you came in the first place.

For excerpts from “The Triumph of Janis Babson”, click here

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To Leave Nothing Concealed

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In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.
~Brennan Manning from Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging

 

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Jesus is God’s wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed. Jesus’ suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others.

Our own experience with loneliness, depression, and fear can become a gift for others, especially when we have received good care. As long as our wounds are open and bleeding, we scare others away. But after someone has carefully tended to our wounds, they no longer frighten us or others….We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole being. That is healing.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread for the Journey

 

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There are unconcealed and transparent wounds all around me today.  Our yard is frozen in time with glaze ice entrapping newly budded twigs alongside glass-like showcases of old dead weeds.  Some forty foot trees are bent over in half, their tops brushing the ground, burdened with such a heavy load.  During the northeast wind last night we heard crack after crack as branches gave way, unable to sustain in such conditions.

This morning, in the illumination of day light,  it looks like a tornado hit the yard — broken branches and wounded trees everywhere. The wind continues and the temperatures stay sub-freezing.  Winter is not done messing with us yet.

It is conditions like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, firestorms and silver thaws that remind us how little control we have over our environment and how much control it has over us. Being unable to walk anywhere outdoors that isn’t coated with ice is a humbling, helpless feeling. Yet I’m grateful for the reminder of our helplessness and woundedness. We dwell in this often hostile world and try to steward it, but we adapt to it, not the world adapting to us. We cannot stop the frozen rain from falling, but must wait patiently for the southerly winds to blow.

In fact, the warming and healing will come. Soon will I listen out our back door to the south, and hear the frozen trees in our woods knocking their branches together in a noisy cacophony as the south wind warms the ice, causing chunks to drop from the branches, clattering and clacking their way to the ground.

…from stony frozen silence of the wounded to animated noisemakers with a steady puff of warm wind.
…from bleeding to bandaged thanks to the warmth of family, a friend, a neighbor.

At times when I’m iced over –
rigid in my opinions, frozen in emotion, silent and cocooned –
the approach of a warm touch, an empathetic word, or heartfelt outreach breaks me free.

Perhaps I remain frostbitten around the edges, but I am whole again, grateful for the healing of the warm wind.

It is well worth the wait.

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Be Open for Business

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Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.
~Anne Lamott from Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers

 

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same abandoned Montana schoolhouse as above a few years later (this photo by Joel DeWaard)

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I have the privilege to work in a profession where astonishment and revelation awaits me behind each exam room door.

In a typical busy clinic day, I open that door 36 times, close it behind me and settle in for the ten or fifteen minutes I’m allocated per patient.  I need to peel through the layers of a person quickly to find the core of truth about who they are and why they’ve come to me.

Sometimes what I’m looking for is right on the surface: in their tears, in their pain, in their fear.  Most of the time, it is buried deep and I need to wade through the rashes and sore throats and coughs and headaches to find it.

Once in awhile, I can actually do something tangible to help right then and there — sew up a cut, lance an abscess, splint a fracture, restore hearing by removing a plug of wax from an ear canal.

Often I find myself giving permission to a patient to be sick — to take time to renew, rest and trust their bodies to know what is best for a time.

Sometimes, I am the coach pushing them to stop living sick — to stop hiding from life’s challenges, to stretch even when it hurts, to get out of bed even when not rested, to quit giving in to symptoms that can be overcome rather than overwhelming.

Always I’m looking for an opening to say something a patient may think about after they leave my clinic — how they can make better choices, how they can be bolder and braver in their self care, how they can intervene in their own lives to prevent illness, how every day is a thread in the larger tapestry of their lifespan.

Each morning I rise early to get work done before I actually arrive at work,  trying to avoid feeling unprepared and inadequate to the volume of tasks heaped upon the day.   I know I may be stretched beyond my capacity, challenged by the unfamiliar and stressed by obstacles thrown in my way.  It is always tempting to go back to bed and hide.

Instead, I go to work as those doors need to be opened and the layers peeled away.  I understand the worry, the fear and the pain because I have lived it too.   I am learning how to let it be, even if it feels miserable.  It is a gift perhaps I can share.

No matter what waits behind the exam room door,  it will be astonishing to me.

I’m grateful to be open for business.  The Doctor is In.

 

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Now and Now and Now

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And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment … a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present…
~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter

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My clinic days are filled with anxious people, one after another after another.  They sit at the edge of their seat, eyes brimming, voice shaky. fingers gripping the arms of the chair.

Each moment, each breath, each rapid heart beat overwhelmed by fear-filled questions:  will there be another breath?  must there be another breath?   Must this life go on like this in panic of not knowing what the next moment will bring?

The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the known that the next moment will be just like the last.

It seems a serious deficit of acknowledgment of NOW, no recognition of a moment just passed that can never be retrieved and relived.  There is only fear of the next and the next so that the now and the now is lost forever.

Such worry and angst is more contagious than the flu virus rampant in the waiting room.
I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day.
I wish a vaccination could protect us all from our unnamed fears.

I want to say to them and myself:
Stop wishing away your life.
Stop wanting this moment, this feeling, to vanish.
Stop expecting some one, some thing or some drug must fix it.
Stop being blind and deaf to the gift of each breath.

Just stop this moment in time
And simply be.

I want to say to them and myself:
this moment is ours,
this moment of weeping and sharing
and breath and pulse and light
and yes, sometimes despair.

Shout for joy in it.
Celebrate it for what it is.
Be thankful for tears that can flow over grateful lips.

Stop me before I write
out of my own anxiety,
yet another prescription
you probably do not need.

Just be–
and be blessed–
in the now and now and now.

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Good to Melt

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How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,

my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go

separate and sure
among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you

perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping

–to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.

And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.
~Wendell Berry “The Cold”

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Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist,
and into them enters suffering,
in order that they may have existence.
~
Leon Bloy

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I watch new heart chambers form every day
too frozen solid, too overwhelmed
with hurt
and loss
and despair
to continue to pulse warm.
So I try
to help patients let go of
their suffering,
let it thaw to liquid, let the ice melt down,
allow it to pass through freely
forgiving, forgiven~
a heart changed
by winter transformed to spring,
flowing warm from new found grace.

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Refusing to Pledge an Oath to Life

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It is…the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life…
The man who kills a man kills a man.

The man who kills himself kills all men.
As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Suicide rates in the United States have increased by 25% since 1999.

Based on the anguish of the patients I see every day,
one after another and another,
over and over again I hear
a too-easy contemplation of suicide,
from “It would be easier if I were dead”
or “no one cares if I live or die”,
or “the world would be better off without me”,
or “I’m not worthy to be here”
to “that is my plan, it is my right and no one can stop me”.

Without us all pledging an oath to life,
willing to lay ourselves down,
to bridge the sorrow and lead the troubled to the light,
there will be no slowing of this trend.

…when there is no loyalty to life, as stressful and messy as it can be,
…when there is no honoring of the holiness of each created being,
…when there is no resistance to the buffeting winds of life,
only a toppling over, taking out everything and everyone in the way,
our sad and hurting world is wiped out by one suicide,
all people killed by one act of self-murder.

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When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I’m on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Sail on, silvergirl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
~Simon and Garfunkel

A Little Light

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О Greater Light, we praise Thee for the less;
The eastern light our spires touch at morning,
The light that slants upon our western doors at evening.
The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight,
Moon light and star light, owl and moth light,
Glow-worm glowlight on a grassblade.
О Light Invisible, we worship Thee!
     
           In our rhythm of earthly life we tire of light. We are glad
  when the day ends, when the play ends; and ecstasy is too
  much pain.
We are children quickly tired: children who are up in the night
  and fall asleep as the rocket is fired; and the day is long for
  work or play.
We tire of distraction or concentration, we sleep and are glad
  to sleep,
Controlled by the rhythm of blood and the day and the night
  and the seasons.
And we must extinguish the candle, put out the light and
  relight it;
Forever must quench, forever relight the flame.
Therefore we thank Thee for our little light, that is dappled
  with shadow.
~T.S. Eliot from “O Light Invisible”

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These are days too long, stretching to midnight with work that cannot be confined in a forty hour week and rising way before dawn to prepare for the next onslaught.

I am weary, too quickly tired, and I admit it.

Controlled by the rhythm of blood and the day and the night and the seasons, though quenched like the burning sky in the morning, I will be relit, again and again, and grateful.

 

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