Category: Struggle


In my mid-20s, I was part of a small Bible study group which was, truth be told, probably more of a ‘find your spouse’ study group than anything else.  We had a lot of fun and spent ridiculous amounts of time together as a group.  Church functions, discovering new restaurants, pool parties, bowling, Christmas decorating, weekend trips, shopping, football, Spades tournaments that lasted for days, New Year’s eve parties, and more than a few late night races between those of us who had fast cars (and yes, I was one of them). One particular weekend, very late on a Saturday night, we were exploring how we felt about the serious topic of life.  Everyone had to write on a piece of paper one word to describe how they felt about death. We scribbled on our papers and folded them up, laid them in a basket, and one person began reading all the words out loud.  “Scared”, “dark”, “alone”, “final”, and “trapped” were just a few of the sentiments.  Then our self-imposed leader read mine: “peace”. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I love being alive and want to squeeze every moment I have out of it. A friend said to me recently (in her elegant, slow Southern drawl), “Dawn, I hope when you reach the end of your life, there’s no more dance left in you.”  Her simple statement hit me deeply as someone who has faced a terminal illness and, praise God, lived to tell about it. I truly don’t have a death wish. But as far back as I can remember, I’ve never been afraid of it.  Death has always seemed to me a warm blanket of rest. And letting go. And peace.

For the past several years, I’ve had the wonderful privilege to be part of a volunteer ministry at my church whose primary focus is caring for families as they navigate the dark waters of a loved one’s terminal illness.  As one of the leaders, I am often the first point of contact for a family after they have been advised by their doctor that it’s time to ‘call in hospice’. Our small band of volunteers serve as a sort of liaison between the family and hospice care. Many of them have never heard of hospice and don’t fully understand what it is, so we help them understand the language of ‘end of life’ care.  We also help with the daily tasks of life: housecleaning, yard maintenance, preparing meals, laundry, grocery shopping, and day-to-day errands, so that family members are able to focus on caring for their loved one.

There is no time or energy for hiding behind masks here. Grieving before a loved one draws their last breath takes on many faces, and we have learned that no one has the right to dictate how another walks down the path to good-bye. Sometimes they need to laugh so they don’t fall apart.  Sometimes they need to vent – and there are no rules about language here. Sometimes they need to weep. Bitterly. Sometimes they need to ask questions and try to answer what is destined to remain unknown.  Sometimes they need to sit and embrace the silence. But they don’t want to be silent by themselves. There is an unspoken comfort that comes from simply having a warm body close enough to reach out and touch. Even if they don’t

People often ask why we do what we do – especially when they hear about us for the first time.  “You mean you go into a stranger’s house and clean their toilets?” Yes.  “Why on earth would you practically move in with someone who’s dying?” Because they need us.  “Wow – you guys are weird.”  The families we care for would disagree.  There are many answers, and we all respond in our own way. But for me, the answer is two-fold: meeting people at the point of their need is what Jesus does. Not to over-spiritualize or set ourselves up on some kind of pedestal, but for me it is truly that simple. However, a very strong secondary driving force, and probably what drew me to this in the first place, is that I feel very much at home with people who are broken.  Whether they are broken because of their own choices or choices that were made for them or choices that were forced on them, I am drawn to them.

After being unemployed for almost a year (three days shy of one year to be exact) I’ve been incredibly blessed to begin working with an organization whose focus is providing a safe haven for ministers and their families in crisis. It is a comprehensive, intense program (on average from 12-15 months in duration) which offers relocation, housing, counseling, and childcare when necessary in an effort to provide healing and restoration to ministers and their families who have had to walk away from their calling – as a result of their own actions, or the actions of their home church.  I was initially thrilled about this opportunity because it meant I would be writing – and getting paid for it!  But it didn’t take long for me to realize that once again, I’m submerged in an environment where people’s lives have been shattered.  Men questioning their failures. Women questioning their marriage. Children questioning their future. 

The vast majority of the time, I will not personally interact with these families. Most of them I will probably never even meet.  But what we are doing is helping them put their lives back together. The ‘safe haven’ we provide is guiding them to an honest and authentic relationship with God, themselves, their families, and their church. It is a painful process. Peeling back years of unresolved or unexplored issues to face the core of their own souls.  And then to slowly, gently provide the balm of restoration. To help them stand again, scarred from the battle, but equipped with tools to win the war. I can’t say I love my job because it doesn’t feel like a job. I love what I am a part of. I love knowing that families have a place for hope.

And I feel very much at home.

I cleaned out our attic this week.  It’s only June – not even Summer yet according to the calendar – but the Atlanta area is already enduring temperatures way up in the 90s.  My goal was to work in the mornings before the heat soared past unbearable.  However, anyone who knows me knows that once I get started on a ‘project’, it’s hard for me to stop.  I’m like a freight train on crack. 

So I climbed the stairs, took a few steps onto the plywood flooring and looked around. Wow. I think there must be something about insulation, duct-taped boxes, and intense heat that promotes reproduction.  Where did all this stuff come from?  I found suitcases, Christmas decorations, papers from previous school years, air filters, clothes, and toys.  It seemed easy enough to begin editing.  I started with broken toys (how did they end up in the attic and not the trash can?)  I then moved on to parts and pieces of incomplete Christmas decorations (repeat previous question).  Clothes that no one in my family will ever wear again, luggage long past its prime, and a collection of stuffed animals that would rival FAO Schwartz brought back great memories, despite the fact that I was beginning to look and feel like I was at boot camp in the desert.

Going through each box with just enough detail to make sure I wouldn’t regret our Friday morning visit from the trash man, I was quickly filling the bags beside me.  Then I found it.  The box with Rachel’s costume from her dance recital six years ago.  It was an adorable bright yellow top and skirt that felt something like a cross between vinyl and plastic with black taffeta everywhere (literally).  Her group danced to Rascall Flatt’s Life is a Highway.  I remember her practically floating down the stairs to show her Daddy after we had the whole outfit perfectly in place, complete with slicked back her hair and makeup. She was beaming and her Daddy was speechless.

Next, I came across a collection of sports cars that Alex collected when he was much younger.  I remember the various Christmas and birthday celebrations when he received them and how he studied them, learned about the make and model, discovered all the parts that would open and close, and proudly displayed them in his room.  His favorite by far was the truck his Granddaddy gave him, a replica of his own. Alex kept a very special place reserved just for that truck and it was very often the first one he showcased when anyone else admired his collection.

With the heat sweltering and my eyes stinging from sweat running down my face, I was about ready to call it a day. My stomach told me it was well past lunchtime but I decided to go through one more stack before descending into the comfort of the air conditioned hallway. I moved a small blue blanket that a family friend had made for Stephen’s crib and opened the box underneath where I saw a stack of cards and some computer-printed sheets of paper. 

And I started reading.  “Dawn, we are praying for you and your family every day”; “Please know that Heaven is being bombarded with your name!”; “Our children pray for you and Baby Hood every morning before breakfast”; “So sorry to hear that you must undergo another surgery”; “Praying for you as you begin your chemotherapy treatments”; “Please let us know if we can do anything for you”; “You and Richard are a testimony of God’s strength and grace”; “I love your short hair!”; “The Lord brings you to mind several times each day and I am asking Him to give you strength and courage”; “Thank you for your updates by email…it helps me pray specifically for everyone in your family”; “You look fabulous with a bald head!”  More cards.  More Scripture passages.  More prayers.  Countless emails and notes of encouragement. 

I have no idea how long I sat on the floor of our attic reading those precious notes of encouragement, remembering like it was yesterday.  But what really made my heart swell was the realization that nearly ten years later I remain close to almost everyone who sent those cards, notes, and letters.  How it blessed me to realize that these friends and family have shared the good, the bad, the ugly, and the miracles of life with us! 

I was drenched when I slowly, carefully, came down those rickety stairs and closed the ‘trap door’.  But my spirit felt uplifted. Encouraged. Strong.

Eight years in the attic.  And still so very close to my heart.

Wednesday afternoon following the end-of-school party (see earlier blog, Summer’s Dance) Rachel and I walked into the house and I was planning to start dinner – a celebration meal of one of my family’s favorite dishes.  However, as I walked upstairs from the basement I was smacked in the face by the realization that the house felt extremely warm.  Here in Atlanta we were blessed with an extremely pleasant Spring and have recently entered the summer days that push temperatures into the 90s.  I checked the thermostat and held my foot up to one of the air conditioning vents.  Everything seemed to be working properly.  Stalling on dinner because I knew the oven would be involved I made a few phone calls, checked my email, and put away some laundry. 

About an hour later the house was still getting warmer and I had a growing concern that we were in for some bad news about our a/c system.  Not something we wanted to have to deal with any time, but especially with Richard and me both unemployed.  By 11pm on Wednesday night the temperature was a sweltering 81 degrees inside the house!  Then I remembered we had a cheer uniform consignment sale scheduled to begin the next morning which meant a house full of moms and cheerleaders trying on uniform parts and pieces trying to save a little before ordering a brand new uniform from the rep.

We decided to go ahead and call our heating and air guy, George, and leave a message so he would know first thing the next morning that we were having trouble.  I was shocked when he answered the phone – it was after 11pm – but very thankful.  He stayed on the phone with me while I checked a few things before concluding that, in fact, we were going to need a service call.  He was planning to be out late in the afternoon on Thursday.  I got up early Thursday morning and opened all the windows trying to move air through the house and was grateful to see that the skies were overcast. 

Consignment sale went well, temperatures stayed moderately comfortable, and the sun stayed hidden behind dense clouds most of the day.  Thank you, Jesus.  Sitting at the computer late Thursday afternoon I looked out the window and saw really dark skies moving in our direction.  Yes!  Rain is coming!  I love, love, love rainy days but it seemed especially welcome knowing that it would carry with it dropping temperatures and breezes.  Boy, was I right!  We had a whopper of a storm – thunder, lightning, lights flickering on and off, and hard rain.

George finally made his way to our house well past dinnertime.  After checking a few things he determined that the pump had gone bad.  Great. How much is this going to cost?  And how long before we have air?  George could tell by the look on our faces that we were near panic mode.  I finally bit the bullet and asked, “how much? and how long?”  He broke into a huge smile and said, “Let me tell you a story.”

George then began to share with us that he had installed a brand new, several-thousand-dollar system for a customer earlier in the week.  This same gentleman had bought a new pump last year but when he opted for the new system he wanted everything brand new, high quality, and that had resulted in another new pump.  The guy could easily have sold the pump to someone else or even sold it back to George but he didn’t.  He told George to put it on his truck thinking that someone else might be in a jam and need one.  Really?  Richard then asked how much the ‘used’ pump would be.  George smiled again and said, “you know, I could sell it but I’d rather bless you with it.”  Really??  Arrangements were made for the new pump and Richard walked outside with George to pay him for the service call – we should at least pay for that.  George wouldn’t accept a penny.

We have been navigating the jagged-edge State of Uncertainty for quite some time.  Our jobs (or lack of), our finances, even our housing is on shaky ground.  I have to admit I’ve been questioning if God is hearing my prayers or cares that my hands and knees are getting bloody.  What began yesterday with overcast skies as a gentle reminder that He knows, He hears, and He cares ended with a shout out of provision for me and my family.

In case you’re wondering, yes, Jesus loves me. This I know.

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.

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