Before the Christmas decorations are put away, I want to describe an Advent filled with love, loss, faith and signs. Most of all, I pray to do the stories justice...
We had plans to launch the holidays visiting loved ones in Florida right after Thanksgiving. But when our four legged family member became sluggish and his appetite quirky, we thought maybe he swallowed something he couldn't digest in a recent garbage raid. With three raccoon fights and a scuffle upstate that cost Champ a night in the slammer, mischievousness was my first suspicion, but before we ventured too far, it was best to have him checked.
After a sonogram, the vet walked into the waiting room grim faced. This was more than an undigested bit of cheese.
Her words hit like buckshot. With chemotherapy, she said, there was an excellent chance Champ would live a quality life for maybe several months, possibly a year. After we scraped our jaws off the floor, we went home and discussed options -- who am I kidding? There was only one. We canceled our travel arrangements and scheduled his treatment, promising to guard against any choice that was in our's and not Champ's best interest.
As the doctor said it would, his first therapy brought magical overnight results. By morning, his jovial demeanor and ravenous appetite had returned. Thanks to treatment, El Nino and the mild days that marked December 2015, Champ ate and romped, chasing squirrels and sprawling like a lion across the weather beaten barbecue table that we kept for his grazing pleasure. This made us all happy and "Let there be treats!" became my new credo.
As life settled into a state of quasi-Christmas, my mother-in-law, Margie, phoned. Josephine, her petite, blue eyed Scottish friend, who was more like a sister, had entered hospice care. Josephine had been a member of the family landscape for so long, it was hard to recall a milestone event that she didn't share. She even pet sat for Champ two years ago when they were both strong. Now these two loving creatures who brought such joy to life had needs of their own, maybe each holding on for the sake of those they loved.
We met at Josephine's bedside, along with another friend, Maria. The three women had cared for patients in the same hospital for decades, each conscientious, knowledgeable, fun, and tender. Now they gently washed Josephine, rubbed lotion into her skin and strategically positioned pillows. Then the three of us gently lifted and positioned her delicate body on the loft of pillows, slipping one between her knees. She settled in like an angel.
It was a gift to witness this level of friendship and love... superheroes in action. Josephine, who gave so much care to others, was receiving it now.
I also gained insight about why at times in life I wanted to run away from such situations. We all want to believe that whatever it is others need, knowing what to do will come natural, but it doesn't always, and it didn't for me when Mom was sick. I didn't lack love, just the knowledge of how to care for somebody I loved who was suffering. But that night in the serenity of that room, I learned a thing or two. And when Josephine was resting comfortably, we left. When we arrived home, we received word that she went Home, sparkling clean, knowing she was loved.
When you're hurting, a friend said, there's something about Christmastime that plays grief in stereo. These words never rang truer than right then, when my sister-in-law Cathy phoned, and I heard the sadness in her tone. Before Thanksgiving, she said, the doctor told my brother Steve and her that he had six months. They intended to tell the family after the holidays, but as we spoke he was being admitted to the hospital. Her voice cracked. Those six months were reduced to days, maybe weeks.
I was in my early teens, like Steve's younger son when Mom first got sick and just a couple of years older than his older son when we lost her. None of us talked about it too much. It was more like we were vapor locked and only snapped out of it to deny it. It was the best we could do at the time. And now, with all my improved ability to communicate, I still felt speechless.
Throughout growing up in our house, Steve had a calming, stabilizing affect. He didn't curse the proverbial darkness; instead he functioned by doing the next logical thing, like flipping a light switch. He was a pencil behind the ear kind of guy, as opposed to taking things apart and putting them back together again. He ventured out beyond Brooklyn. He skied! And he explored his talents, whether it was guitar playing, experimenting with painting awesome graphic designs on the walls and ceiling in the boy's room or acting in a college play. When he married Cathy and became a dad, family life became the ultimate adventure and was all he talked about.
While I was with him one day in the hospital, I thought he would feel distressed when he woke from his sleep and saw me, rather than his wife, his constant companion. Instead I was given a gift. We had bits of conversation, and I used a couple of tips I picked up from my superheroes.
I was impressed as I listened to him express gratitude to people for the smallest gestures and services. I needed to practice being kinder, I thought. We all received a tangible gift in his room that was sparse in most places outside of it, even at Christmastime: kindness and love.
It was one week before Christmas when I drove home from the hospital. I opened my email to find a preview of the scripture I was asked to read at Josephine's funeral that Saturday. The words didn't spring to life until I read them out loud in church.
More than Conquerors
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us,who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:31-35, 37-39
Two days before Christmas, in the middle of the night, Cathy had a premonition and returned to the hospital, where our brother Tom was with Steve. By morning, Steve stepped across the Veil. And the services that were carefully planned for in advance by Cathy and Steve were scheduled for two days after Christmas.
At home, Champ's treatments were not as effective as the first two. His interest in peanut butter and homemade meatballs waned. On Christmas night, his condition began a rapid decline. We brought him to the vet the next morning, and, after an X-ray, we knew the gear had shifted into irreversible. We had to say goodbye.
A good friend reminded me that grief is part of the package of loving a pet. But there was something else he said: Your family gave him a great life. Not all pets get to have that. And, I thought just maybe there was solace in that. In as much as a four legged family member can know it, he knew he was loved and we knew he loved us.
Wasn't love the gift, the theme of this Advent? Hadn't it gracefully woven itself through each and every broken place?
The pastor at Steve and Cathy's church said that Steve chose the scriptures that were read at the church service. I was asked in advance to read the first one (a tongue twister, but nothing a little audio on www.biblegateway.com can't remedy). He said that Steve probed everybody to look deeper into the meaning of scripture at their men's bible study, and now he challenged us to read the three scriptures he chose and see what we could find. So I'm going to share them at the end of this piece, because who doesn't love a treasure hunt?
Cathy and Steve chose a restaurant in advance for when the services ended. Stepping into the banquet room, our breath was taken away. We stood looking across the Atlantic Ocean through an entire wall of glass. How incredibly loving of the two of them to share this place with us, I thought, and so like them, always in sync, never missing a chance to be kind and gracious. When we were seated, Cathy stood and explained that we were sitting in their favorite spot, and on one of their countless meals there, she and Steve watched a pod of whales pass by.
That must have been a beautiful surprise! I thought. Then it happened. Look at that! my nieces husband, Josh said. And it surfaced, a miraculous vision, a humpback whale breached the surface. When he disappeared, another surfaced, and then another lingered in front of the restaurant, water spouting through its blow hole... a pod of whales was passing through. There weren't many dry eyes. I had a feeling this was going to happen today, Cathy said.