Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sometimes we keep secrets from others. Other times, we keep secrets from ourselves. This is of the latter.

I am turning thirty in fourteen days. That is not the secret. In fact, I've made sure people know. What is largely unknown about this event is the intense grief that is weighing on me as a result. This milestone birthday, combined with the death of a close friend's eighteen-year-old son a few weeks back, has brought to light a bleak understanding of my own mortality and a sense that time is running out. Everything is hurried. Everything, too much, is sacred, all moments irreplaceable- lost to time's greedy hands. It brings to mind a childhood nightmare, a clock with wildly spinning hands- a signal that time is flying away from me- and panic sets in. Faster! Run faster! It's almost over! You don't have much time! Remember everything!

In light of this, I need to tell you a story.
And like so many of my revelations today- and all the time -and for all people-, this one has it's root deeply buried in the past. This story has been told only to my husband, and only just today when I myself fully came to understand it's implications.

There was a life before the farm in Sandy where I spent the majority of my childhood; a span of time before the gardens and the duck pond and the sounds and smells of horses came into my world. Before divorce or threat or bitterness. It was brief, but real. My memories from those years are faded, sunlit. In every one of them, it is summer. I can see the house, the hills of grass, a glass gazebo standing, full of sun, in a corner of a garden. If I close my eyes, I can see through the moss-coated branches of the maples outside my bedroom window, see how the diffused light moves through them, through my window, and plays across my face and hands, how it turns the leaves to emeralds. It was centuries ago, it seems. Twenty six years or so. I was four.

My parents did not attend church and did not talk about religion. And so, looking back, it seems out of place that a very young child would have such a firmly held belief in God. But I did. I cannot say I loved Him. But I did fear Him. And I knew soundly that He was in control and that, quite possibly, if I was good enough, and pretty enough, and asked often enough, God would hear me. And perhaps if He heard me, He might do the one thing I so longed for Him to do, the thing I needed Him to do. I wanted Him to save my mother.

I remember countless hours spent in my bedroom, looking up through the maple branches towards the sun, that place in the sky we all imagine God to be, and praying with everything that I was for God to keep my mother safe.
"Please don't let my mother die....please don't let my mother die..." And then my memory fades and life moves on. Nothing stays the same forever. It can't.

And yet, I believe, He heard. And more importantly, He did something I did not; He remembered.

Many years later, on a farm in another part of the state, the nightmares had begun. Only one comes back after all this time. It haunted me even in my waking hours, right up to this morning. In the dream, I am in a long, tall, white room, rectangular in shape, and brightly lit; sterile. I am strapped into a straight-backed wooden chair in one of the narrow sides of the room. On the other side, far from me, hanging twenty or so feet in the air, is a clock whose hands are spinning wildly, too fast, frightening. And below the clock, a tall ladder stands. Near it's top is a man in a white lab coat and he is laughing maniacally. My time is almost up and he controls the clock. For twenty years I have thought he was a scientist.

This chronically bothersome dream, along with the grief surrounding The Dirty Thirty, are what drew me into a friend's office this afternoon after dropping off the kids.
"Am I too young to have a mid life crisis?" My first words upon entering.
And because after all these years of friendship nothing surprises either of us; "Melissa, If anyone could have a mid life crisis at thirty, it'd be you." came the reply.
I proceeded to lamely articulate my deep sadness about this birthday, my nearly overwhelming sorrow over the loss of my friend's son, my fear of death...and finally, the dream.
"That's a weird thing for a ten year old to dream about." My friend looked at me, trying to figure me out, a hopeless pursuit.

I left with those words in my mind. A weird thing for a ten year old to dream about. And I went to coffee. The cafe was quiet. I ordered iced tea and sat near a window, watched people enter and exit for a few minutes before the words returned. A weird thing for a ten year old to dream about. And then The Voice, the One believer's know so well, asks, "What was happening to you at ten, Melissa?" Three things came to mind:

Horses. Divorce. And, a secret I won't let myself think about: cancer.

I was in the fifth grade when my mother was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. A tumor had been found and cancer cells had spread to the lymph nodes beneath her arms. She would have surgery, radiation, possibly chemo. Nothing else was known. I recalled those long ago hours of prayer and prayed again,
Please don't let my mother die.

The months that followed were marked by daily trips to the hospital, several surgeries, and stress related hair loss. I went to the hospital but I did not get close to her, did not ask questions, did not want to talk about it. She was attached to tubes, her head covered in a scarf. She was thin and quiet. I thought if I touched her she could break. I stood in the shadows and said nothing. I learned to be solemn, still, detached. Somewhere in those days of darkened hospital rooms, phone calls from doctors, and visits from family, a clock began to tick.

As I sat in the cafe today, remembering my mothers cancer, the familiar dream returned. For the first time in twenty years, I knew who the man on the ladder was. It all made a terrible sort of sense. The man who held my life in his terrifying hands was not a scientist as I'd imagined.
He was a doctor.

I was never able to connect with my mother in quite the same way again. Fear of loss keeps us from all sorts of things. I began spending more and more time with friends, and less time at home. I have never talked to her about cancer, illness, death or fear. Have never asked a question about it. When ten years of remission had passed, she casually mentioned it. The chances of the cancer metastasizing in other places drops significantly at that point. I think she thought that would help me. It did, but I never said anything. I still can't look her in the eyes and I have never known why. Something about her scares me, though she is the most gentle person I have ever known.

I sat in the cafe, looked out the window, and let the tears fall, glad there were few people around at that time of day. For twenty years I have feared something that never happened. It never happened because the God of heaven heard the whispered prayers of a frightened child and, I believe, He saved my mother, planned to save her before she was even ill.

Today, my mother and her husband live five blocks from me in a historic Victorian which is listed on the National Register of Historic places. She's dreamed of a house with a white picket fence for as long as I can remember, and she has that now. She spends her days reading and gardening and, in the summer months, making more apricot jam than anyone in the family cares to eat. My children walk to grandma's once or twice a week. I cannot imagine my life without her steady presence.

I drove my kids to VBS in Hood River today. As I took the exit and coasted up the hill to the stop sign, a memory came back, so bright and clear that it might have happened yesterday. One of our summers at the lake. My father and I were out on his boat fishing. He was baiting my hook and showing me how to cast, teaching me to sit very still.
I was five and it was my birthday.

I caught more fish than anyone that bright, summer day. A total of five. And I thought at the time that God had given them to me as a gift, one for each year, and I told everyone in the campground that I thought so. Today on the off-ramp, as that memory resurfaced and all the weight of this milestone, my fear of dying, the tragedy of death sat like a great pressing thing on my soul, I did something I don't often do- I asked for a birthday present. And He heard me. Again.

I got up from my chair in the cafe, left a few folded bills on the table. The enormity of what had just transpired over a normal glass of iced tea was dizzying and hard to grasp. I was free. The dream, such a terrifying part of my existence even now- lost it's power in the light of understanding. My mother's cancer, the source of so much fear, was seen for what it was: a miracle story of survival. And throughout; woven intricately over and under and within, there's mercy and the ever present touch of His love.

I no longer need to fear the forward motion of my own life. There is no clock, no doctor, no hospital- but only a just and loving God who holds my life in perfect hands. For the first time in twenty years, I'm awake. The nightmare is over and I am free.

This might actually be a very happy birthday.

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