Category: Life


Open the Gate.

I’ve just watched again, for the umpteen-gazillionth time (that’s a Southern expression for a bunch) the ASPCA’s commercial featuring Sarah McLachlan’s soulful ballad ‘Angel’. It is a tear-jerker to be sure. Sad, lonely, and abused animals fill frame after frame while the singer’s haunting melody drifts woefully along in the background. The ASPCA nailed it with this one. Their two-minute ad has garnered over $30 million in donations since it began its TV and website appearance in 2007 – an unimaginable windfall in the world of nonprofit fund raising from a single campaign.  I’ve also seen an increasing number of advertisements for ‘nutritionally sound’ dog and cat food, more ‘comfortable’ methods of leashing and grooming our pets, psychiatric care for stressed-out pets, and one particularly new brand of food that is bought from the refrigerated section and kept in the refrigerator at home because it’s made from 100% fresh ingredients! Exactly the same food we eat – minus the preservatives, additives, and fillers.

Is it just me or have we gone a little pet-crazy?

Let me be quick to say, I love animals. I’ve had numerous dogs and cats throughout my life, a few fish, and even a lizard for almost two years (and if you know me, it was truly a sacrifice of love for me to allow any kind of reptile inside the house). I draw a hard line on rodents. Absolutely not. No way. Not happening. But I’m getting off point…

I really do love animals and have experienced the ecstasy of puppy kisses, the amazing birth of kittens (three different litters), blue-ribbon worthy photographs, and the abiding loyalty from a pet that only its owner can understand and appreciate. I’ve also suffered through the agony of emergency vet appointments, lost and runaway pets, accidents (two dogs hit by a car), injuries (one dog bitten by a snake), mental instability (a cat who went crazy), and saying good-bye to a four-legged friend who shared life with us for 18 years. I often referred to our flat-coated retriever, Tiger, as my second oldest child.

However, it strikes me as of late that we as a society have elevated our pets to an almost god-like position within the family. People name pets in their wills (think Leona Helmsley), provide air conditioned dog houses (remember Tammy Faye Baker?), and buy puppy treadmills for their dogs to enjoy a pleasant walk inside when the weather outside is frightful. For the super-elite (or insane), pet owners now have the opportunity to provide the Fauna Sauna Heated Spa Bed. At a cool $850, their pet will enjoy lounging on an elevated, heated spa bed to relax muscles and treat anxiety. I’m not making this up, folks – it’s out there. Google it.

While I deeply appreciate the work that animal rescue organizations do to promote spay/neuter campaigns and punish animal cruelty, it flabbergasts me (another Southern expression for shock and amazement) that the loss of even one cat or dog in a shelter is intolerable. Extreme measures are taken – and accompanying exorbitant costs – to provide emergency surgeries, treatments, foster parents, etc. Sadly, many of these pets don’t survive in spite of the monumental efforts on their behalf. And if a female dog or cat is pregnant? The call to action is desperate, if not hysterical. We must not lose a puppy or a kitten!

What does this elevated pet status say about us? Rabbi Shmuley Boteach reflected in a 2009 Huff Post Healthy Living article, “…I met [a woman] recently in a Manhattan office. Seeing that an enormous Great Dane sat next to her desk, I inquired as to why the dog was at work and not at home. Her reply startled me. “My husband and I divorced about six months ago and we share joint custody of the dog. And since she’ll be going back to him this weekend, I want to spend as much time with her as possible.”” (July 20, 2009).

Really? What could possibly be going on in our minds and hearts that would cause adults to fight over who gets to spend the most time with their pet but not their own children? I think I have an idea…

Unconditional love.

We crave it. We bounce through relationships trying to find it. We read books and visit counselors and attend seminars to learn how to give and receive it. But we are human. Imperfect, broken, and flawed. And emotionally intimate relationships are fragile. Our very nature shuns vulnerability. Since the Garden of Eden, we have been trying to hide our nakedness, physically and emotionally. But our pets don’t tell us we are overweight, or financially irresponsible, or negligent housekeepers. Our pets don’t blame us for a divorce, or become disrespectful teenagers, or get strung out on drugs. They don’t cheat on us, or hurt our feelings with an ill-timed remark, or give us the silent treatment after an argument.

They simply love us where we are, for who we are. They are happy to be with us, whether lazily spending the day watching TV or going to the park for a brisk walk and a game of frisbee. They wag their tails from the simple joy of being called by name, tenderly scrubbed around the ears, or given a crunchy little dry treat out of a box off a shelf in the laundry room.

We love them because they do not judge us. They do not compare us. They love each of us individually and uniquely. And we don’t fear losing their love. Hmmmm….sound vaguely familiar?

Check out Psalms 139:13-16:

“For you [God] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

God knew every one of our days before we took our first scared, cold, naked, vulnerable breath. He knew about first days of kindergarten, hurtful nicknames, straight As, first dates, college classes, divorces, lost jobs, car payments, vacations, and cancer. And He knew our nature would be to reject him, to run from that which knows us too well. Still He loves us. Still He pursues us. Still He died for us. Still He answers prayers, performs miracles, provides unexpected blessings, and remains faithful when we are not. Is it possible that we are trying to fill a void intended for God with a pet? Satisfy our craving with the creation instead of the Creator? The Bible tells us that He calls us by name, knows the hairs on our head (which change daily), and has our name carved on the palm of His hand.

Enjoy your pet(s). Love them. Provide your best care. But remember: at the end of the day no pet, no spouse, child, friend, or significant other can fill the void intended for our relationship with God. And the next time you have a cool $850 laying around? Give it to a local children’s shelter. Your pet won’t know the difference and you could very well be the hands and feet of Jesus to someone who needs to know they are special, valuable, and unique.

I’ve just celebrated ten years as a breast cancer survivor. Although the weekend was full of activity with my youngest son’s football SuperBowl game, my husband’s birthday, a football banquet, Georgia romping all over Auburn, and Clemson (where my cousin’s son plays) rocketing into the ACC championship, I found myself in quiet reflection for a good part of the time.  I guess it’s the change of season that always does it to me: I find myself gazing at red and gold trees so long that my kids have to remind me the traffic light has changed. I stop on the side of the road and take pictures of particularly fire-y bushes just because, and often get completely lost in the gentle swirl of falling of leaves down onto the street or into a yard.

So maybe it’s simply this time of year that causes me to become so aware of my ‘being’. Maybe it’s that in the last two months more than one dear friend has passed away and I’m thinking about how their families will handle the holidays this year. Maybe it’s just recognizing once again that I’ve been given another year. Another 365 days. One more calendar full of Monday mornings, baskets of laundry, school pictures, garbage pickup, football games, Sunday dinners, report cards, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, and car payments.

Sometimes I worry that people tire of hearing me celebrate again, a good report from my oncologist, another landmark ‘anniversary’, another “I remember the day…” story. And to be honest, sometimes I feel guilty for having another ‘anniversary’. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve lived it but there are days and even seasons when I experience what some people refer to as ‘survivor guilt’.  The ‘why them and not me?’ question… the ‘but she was a single mom’ question… the ‘her kids will never know her’ question. So before I go too far down Melancholy Lane and cause the few readers I do have to turn off their computers, let me turn the page.

I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be given time. Do you know how Webster defines time? Check it out: “time (n.) The indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.”  Huh??? If someone read that definition out loud and asked me what it meant, I don’t think my answer would be, “oh yeah, you’re talking about ‘time’.” Let me see if I can make it a tiny bit more personal …

I’m thankful for time to make my son a cup of hot chocolate on Saturday morning.  Not just the dump-it-in-your-cup-and-hit-the-microwave-button kind, but a cup of hot milk with chocolate powder, stirred with a wisk, topped with a mound of whipped cream, and sprinkled with red or green sugar crystals. Served on a dessert plate with a spoon on the side so he can dig into the whipped cream while the chocolate cools. And his smile as he says, “thanks, Mom” makes getting up a little earlier on Saturday a little easier.

I’m thankful for time to flatiron my daughter’s hair. And she has a LOT of hair! She may not always ask me at the most convenient time (like when I’m already running late getting myself ready) but she still wants me to help, still wants to tell me about school and her friends, music, and – oh yes – boys. She still wants to talk.  And at barely two months shy of 13, I’ll take it. She’s my only daughter. And I’m seeing in her the makings of a wonderful, strong, beautiful woman with a laugh that sounds like butterflies.

I’m thankful for text messaging and cell phones. My oldest son now lives in Texas and when I think back on my college days when my mom and I would ‘talk’ only by letter, it must have been maddening for her. Me, I was just happy to see something in my mailbox! But to be able to send my son a picture of our beautiful Fall trees when he’s missing the change of seasons, or get a picture of his new puppy on my phone, or just send a “have a great day, I love you” text message makes me feel like we are still very much a part of each other’s daily lives.

I’m thankful for time to write. I never dreamed I would have a job that allows me to write AND receive a paycheck. Some days it is technical, some days it is counseling verbage, some days it is creative and free-flowing, and some days it is painful because the organization I work with cares for people at the lowest, most desperate point of need in their personal lives, in their marriages, and in their ministry.

I’m thankful for the time my friends give to me. They invest in me and I’m learning to give myself the freedom to be ‘me’ with them. I’ve learned that some can handle ‘me’ and others can’t. I have friends from every kind of background and lifestyle you can imagine – and it makes my life incredibly rich and colorful! I wouldn’t have it any other way and I treasure this beautiful jewelry box of ladies I call my girlfriends.

My life is not perfect: far from it. But here I am, living this “indefinite continuous progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole”.  I am, we all are, living time. Pretty cool. Kinda’ scarey. Very thankful.

I have a dear friend whose husband is undergoing a stem cell transplant this very day to fight a rare form of cancer his doctors discovered a few months ago.  Turns out, because he is a diabetic, there is a specific protein used as a marker at his checkups.  A spike in that protein marker was the red flag that alerted his medical team to do more testing, thus finding the cancer.  His prognosis is good, very good in fact.  As I shared coffee and a bit of an emotional visit with his wife recently, she said almost in passing, “for all the hassle of [her husband] being a diabetic, it may very well be what saves his life.”

When I was diagnosed with cancer almost ten years ago, our midwife found a lump in my breast at my 8-week “well baby” check.  I wasn’t scheduled to have a mammogram for several months and there was no reason the midwife should have examined my breasts that day.  But she did.  They could very well have shrugged it off as hormones related to the pregnancy.  But they didn’t.  And the pregnancy with my third child  may very well be what saved my life.

After my first surgery – a lumpectomy – I developed an infection at the surgery site.  Our doctor was dumbfounded as it was extremely rare for an infection to occur with what he referred to as a ‘clean’ surgery.  I was on antibiotics for ten days before we could schedule the next surgery.  Because of the Christmas holiday and a skeleton crew in the lab, there was a delay getting the results.  This caused a delay scheduling the third surgery, a mastectomy.  At the time, we were frustrated with the multiple surgeries which delayed the start of chemotherapy.  After my chemo treatments ended we had a very narrow window in which to deliver Stephen before I began radiation.  The last week before he was born Stephen gained enough weight to avoid going to the NICU.  If there had been only one surgery on the front end, I would have started chemo several weeks earlier.  Stephen would have been born several weeks earlier, meaning he would most certainly have had days or even weeks in the NICU.

We all have had experiences similar to this.  Maybe not cancer, or diabetes, but what about the time you walked to your car and realized you had left something you needed in the house?  You took those few seconds or even a minute to go back inside.  And as you were driving you came upon a horrible accident, one that you could very well have been involved in had you left on time.  Little things like a forgotten item, big things like cancer or diabetes, every day, seemingly insignificant, sometimes frightening or frustrating.  May I encourage you to be mindful of today – and even thankful for – the speed bumps?

I’m a cancer survivor.  Ten years this Fall.  So is my Mom.  And my mother-in-law.  My Mom and I both had breast cancer.  I was diagnosed first and felt a strangely comforting familiarity when she was diagnosed almost two years later.  I knew what might possibly lie ahead for her.  I knew I could be her advocate for the best possible care because I had learned the lingo, knew the doctors, and understood that ‘chemo cocktails’ were not served on a pretty little silver tray at a party.  Thankfully, my Mom had one surgery followed by radiation.  No chemotherapy, which for her tiny frame might very well have been more deadly than the cancer they found.

A few short months later my mother-in-law was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  Again, I felt to some degree that I could serve as her advocate.  I asked questions, a lot of questions, to the obvious annoyance of her doctor.  After a disastrous first round of chemotherapy, she found a new oncologist: mine.  Even so, chemotherapy was very difficult for her.  Everything that could possibly have gone wrong went wrong with every treatment.  But she is one of the kindest, most gracious, strongest Southern women I know and she now counts herself among the few who survive this ghost cancer that gives no warning, no symptoms, nothing.

Several years have passed and she, as a result of the chemo, suffers from neuropathy.  I had never heard of neuropathy before she was diagnosed.  Apparently, it is a long-term side effect of her chemotherapy.  Basically it means that she, at times, either feels debilitating tingles or numbness in her extremities – she either feels pain or she feels nothing in her hands and feet.  So much so that last year as she was leaving a movie theatre, she fell and broke her nose.  Couldn’t catch herself with her hands to break the fall.  As a follow-up to this ordeal with her oncologist as she was explaining what had happened, he looked at her and quietly stated, “This is your gift of life.  Your neuropathy means you are still here, still alive, still capable of struggle.” 

As she related this appointment that evening over dinner, it hit me: there are times in life when pain is our gift of life.  It means we are here to experience the struggle, the hardship, the emotion, the heartbreak of LIFE itself.  What is the alternative?  To feel nothing.  To be so numb that nothing reaches our soul.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like pain any more than the next person, but given the choice to never feel anything again, I’d like to think I would choose the pain. 

Wherever you find yourself on this Saturday before Easter, I’d like to encourage you and even challenge you to embrace your pain.  It may very well be your gift of Life.

%d bloggers like this: