I woke early yesterday to the sound of rain tapping on the roof, running along the gutters, racing down the pipe and into the drain. I roll over, happy it is Saturday, a day to enjoy the deep comfort of my bed. The sound of rushing water is pleasant, it’s a river, picking up the deluge in its path and moving things forward.
Listening to the water I am reminded of the words that Rumi wrote, “God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box; from cell to cell.” I find myself thinking of the hidden things that make no sense and within moments it is these mysteries, and the wonder of life that move me from my bed to the couch to pick up the deluge as well.
So much of my life is solved in my journal, the pages where I pour out my thoughts like rivers. God gathers them, until His cups of healing spill over anointing my head, watering my soul and refreshing my life.
Friday marked a year since Sam had her bone marrow transplant.
A bone marrow transplant is not what you expect. Everyone prays for ‘the operation,’ they picture gowns and gloves, facemasks and the bright lights of theatre. They envisage hospital beds and the worst kind of pain because Hollywood has portrayed bone marrow transplants this way.
Having the transplant is the easy part of the process. The lead up to that day and the days that follow however are a terrifying miracle.
On the transplant day, the box arrives. It is a small esky that contains a bag of stem cells. These cells are the cells from the donor’s marrow and for us they were flown from America especially for Sam. In the box is a beautiful hand made card, unsigned. We are not allowed to know who the donor is, in case she doesn’t survive.
In every other way the transfusion takes place like all the other transfusions of 2009. The observations are done and recorded, the risk form signed, the bag hung and double-checked between two senior nurses before it is attached to the central line that will take these cells into my daughter’s body. In a few days the battle for life will begin.
If you were not aware of the serious nature of the process, you would consider it like any other day. For the procedure we did not even leave her hospital room. My parents arrived, we drank good coffee, we laughed, we admired Sam’s creative genius in decorating the hospital pin board and her proficiency at making this sun-filled ward her second home.
A year later we muddle our way through the aftermath, we process our grief, we focus on the many things for which we are thankful, the passing of time, the way we’ve been enlarged, the people who have come into our world and for life itself.
In Kindy this week we’ve been working with boxes, empty boxes of all shapes and size. We’ve been collecting them for weeks and finally the day came for construction.
The tape, the glue and the scissors are laid out like a smorgasbord down a long table I created by joining all the desks together. This way everyone has access to the same resources, a collection of paddle pop sticks, straws, matchsticks, foil pie tins, patty papers, and colourful balls. I tell them they can make whatever they want to with the boxes and if there is something they need that is not on the table I will try to get it for them.
When I tell them they can get up off the floor after rest time, it’s as if the gun has fired for the start of a great race. The energy is tangible, the focus is intent, and then there are tears. There are always tears in kindergarten.
“He got the box I wanted,” a child tells me.
I know, I get this and I feel the pain. Someone always gets the box we wanted and things do not seem fair. I listen with empathy, understanding that this is difficult. She had spotted that box from the floor while she was resting and thought of a plan. She knew exactly what to do with that box.
As I listen I think to myself, ‘If it only it were that simple. If only God handed out the boxes we knew how to use.’ Instead He gives us ones with flaps missing and holes and tears. He says, “have a go, you can do something with this.” He has a way of seeing our potential in a way we could never see it ourselves.
Like the children, we tantrum. We don’t want to do it. All we can see is the child across the table with our great box. We fold our arms across our chest and look down, we turn our back to the teacher, the only one who can really help us and we sense Him walk away. This is the worst part. When God himself has abandoned us and then we have nothing at all.
There have been times in my life when I thought God walked away. Like the time when Jack was born with silent reflux and cried for a year, the same year we were building our first home. I didn’t know how to construct a home to the background noise of a screaming child who would not sleep.
I tried to manage it all. The choosing of tiles, the fittings, the power points, the paint colours – all those things I had thought would make me happy but all I wanted was to sleep and for my baby not to cry. I wanted to be surrounded in family, friends and sunshine. I wanted to be in Sydney where life was easier, where I wasn’t alone and afraid.
I couldn’t see the opportunities in front of me just like that child this week could not see the trimmings down the centre of the table. Sometimes our eyes are fixed on other things, we are immersed in our sadness and the way things have not gone according to our plan.
I prayed for months that Jack would get better; I spent my days searching for a remedy or cure. He just kept on crying and I paced the floors all night with him slung over my arm. I didn’t get answers, or healing, or a quick fix. Instead God sent me a woman familiar with pain.
I can see her navy shoes and her matching trousers before I can see her blouse or tender face. I see her through the glass as she makes her way down the stairs that lead to the home we finally moved in to, the one that was built in tears. She descended into my life like an angel, carrying songs of joy. (Psalm 126:5)
I hear her laughter as she realises it is bath time and she takes my crying child from me so that I can adjust the taps. She rests herself on the toilet and I on the side of the bath and as the children soak, we have adult conversation.
For at least a year we did this. We bathed children, we drank tea, we talked and somehow I grew larger from her words of experience, her wisdom and her faith in me.
When I plucked up the courage to share the contents of my journals, she encouraged me that one day I would write a book. She spoke of her daughter who would write one as well. One day she arrived with a story written by her daughter about her horse, a story for me to keep because I appreciated great words.
It is incredible how all the experiences throughout our lives come together to equip us for the future and the phenomenal people who equip us to be brave. Cancer has completely changed my perspective about what makes a person great. I used to think it was about public ministry, or popularity, or talent or something like that. Now I see that greatness comes in the ordinary clothing of those who keep turning up.
In the months proceeding Sam’s diagnosis the Lord taught me how to prepare and how to lie down. He told me to take His yoke upon me, because His burden was light. He told me to come to Him because He would bring me rest and refreshment for my soul. Every time that I do this, I know His words are true and that they sustain me. We never quite know what lies ahead of us but one thing I know is that God always sends the right people to help us manage the season we are in. I watch and see as ‘God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,’ infiltrating the empty spaces as I open up to Him.
His joy moves from cell to cell and life continues to flow. He finds ways to connect you to the right people, giving you ears to hear and eyes to see and a thousand opportunities arise. It was through ‘Twitter’ that I found my friend’s daughter because in the waiting rooms of hospitals, this strange form of contact kept me connected with the outside world.
I had heard that Maggie was writing now and that her book was ready to be published. So I followed, gleaning all that I could from her and thoughts of her mother loomed large in my memory. So here we are, three women, three challenging sets of life circumstances and somehow we are linked by the finest thread of connection and a little bit of history that goes back more than a decade.
On the 3rd of August I wrote about Maggie in my journal, it was on one of those days when I had lots of questions and this is what I wrote. “Maybe I can get to know Maggie MacKellar beyond the 140 characters of Twitter?” Then the very next day, not even having registered that she was also following me, I spotted a DM in my Twitter feed from Maggie, it’s a comment about my blog and the rain of joy lightly falls.
On a farm before the rain comes there ‘is in the unspoken solidarity of large beasts all over the district that simply lie down…with intent, not in the relaxed way they do in their normal routine where they snooze in the middle of the day. Rather it’s a serious sitting on the earth. How do they know this? They must feel some shift in the atmospheric pressure – because they do know and in preparation for having to stand in the wet & cold, they sit in the dry before the rain comes.’ (Maggie MacKeller)
If we could sense what was coming, maybe we would lie down too? Maybe our perspective of what is important would change; maybe we would just get on with building a life from the box we’ve been given without complaint the way my friend once taught me. Maybe as we create this life and as we tell our stories we will discover a peculiar strength, a raw beauty, and the capacity to conquer in ways we never thought possible. My friend’s daughter published her book, just as her mother knew she would.
Today I stand in a Kindergarten classroom and hope that I can teach the children the kind of wisdom that Maggie’s mother once taught me. I return to the child who is holding the box that she doesn’t want and I think of my daughter who is also trying to rebuild.
After a little time of fossicking in the art cupboard, I have found sequins; foil cut outs and all manner of glittery things. I present them to the child and I ask, “Would these help?”
Suddenly every child in the room wants what she has but there is only enough for her. Am I wrong to give gifts to a sulking child? Maybe I am but this has been the way God has extended His grace to me. He takes the flimsy remains of the box I didn’t want and presents me with embellishments. He sends people who are acquainted with sorrow to fill the empty spaces and somehow through the stories we share, joy comes and I am recreated.