Monthly Archives: April 2011

Resurrection Sunday

My Dad

We had planned for a good day. That’s what we do on hospital days, entering the mindset of thankfulness, verbalising every special moment. Ordinary things really; but cancer taught us to celebrate the tiny, incidental stuff. We made our grateful list, congratulating ourselves for our good management: coffee in the sun, the sales on Oxford St and the closeness of specialist appointments.

The secretaries were doing their best to cheer people up about being in the cancer ward at Easter. They donned silly cardboard bonnets and handed out eggs as we signed in. “He’s running to schedule,” they smiled as we handed over our appointment card, “won’t be a long wait.”

We settled in with our sweets from the kiosk, adding that to our grateful list. The kiosk at St Vincent’s stocks all my favourite English treats from childhood: Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, Fry’s Chocolate Cream, McVitie’s Jaffa Cake Biscuits, all at reasonable prices. I have my father’s sweet tooth.

Our turn comes and though it’s small talk and kind gestures, I get the sense that our haemotologist really cares about my daughter. We’ve been meeting like this every fortnight or more for so long now he feels like a friend. Mostly he is happy; but the liver results have skyrocketed again and he decides to increase the drugs. He says he is sorry but maybe next time we might reduce them again.

Next the ear specialist; it’s a longer wait but he stocks good magazines – we are grateful. When our turn comes it’s awkward; it always has been with this doctor. Not sure why. Maybe I am just over seeing so many specialists. We just want to get this over and done with. Every time it’s the same news. “Your ear is full of fluid, it’s a wet environment; the infection isn’t worse but not better either; keep going with the powder.” Then he whispers the amount to the secretary and she scans my card, I sign, we book the next appointment. Today it’s different. He is quiet as he looks in her ear. He looks at me, then in the ear again.

“Not so good,” he says as he rolls back his wheelie chair to meet my daughter eye-to-eye. “I’ve been concerned this might happen.” He describes the condition he is seeing inside her ear. “The scar tissue is closing over and very soon it’ll form a barrier and I won’t be able to see your drum at all. On the one hand it will prevent the infection but on the other, your hearing will be lost.”

My daughter swallows. This news is hard to bear. He swivels her chair so she is facing the wall and he is probing her ear again. All I can see is the back of her head; but I can tell by the way she moves her feet, the way she points them and steadies herself that she is doing all that she can to be strong. I watch as he unravels something that looks like the small intestines of a rat and packs it into her ear. It’s an endless coil and he manoeuvres his long tweezers until the last strand has disappeared from sight.

He tells us he is attempting to stop the hole from closing over entirely, that there are options for patients with hearing loss but if he can prevent it he will. We listen, then take the script and the instructions for what to do next. I pay the bill and book the next appointment. He wants to see her 10 days from now.

We say nothing as we walk to the lift. Sometimes we have no words. Finding ourselves at the car, she comments on what a great park I managed to find. It’s automatic to notice these things, to write them on the invisible list of grateful, but we don’t drink coffee or go to the sales; we are no longer in the mood.

Silent tears roll down her face and her lips quiver. I place my hand on her leg and say something useless like, “It’s so unfair.” She gulps air and manages to tell me that she doesn’t know what to do about tonight.

“Tonight?” I’ve forgotten what is meant to be happening.

“Every time I buy tickets to a concert this happens.”

Then I remember her plans with her dear friend to celebrate one of their favourite artists before her friend heads overseas to start a new job.

“I don’t want to let her down but I can’t go with all this stuff packed into my ear.”

Eventually she finds the courage to ring her friend. I listen to the laughter in her voice as they connect, as she tries to explain, as she makes her apology and offers up her ticket for somebody else.

Hanging up, she smiles. Her friend told her that blocked ears and concerts don’t mix. Not to worry about the tickets, she’ll bring dinner after work instead. Such kindness and understanding make us grateful.

We are grateful for so many things. Tomorrow will be Good Friday and we have all weekend to hang out. As we near home we stop at the shops for chocolate eggs and yummy things for cooked breakfasts. We tell ourselves that the doctor has to give us the worst-case scenario but that things will work out somehow.

I find myself thinking about what Barbara Johnson said, that we are “Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” I consider how easy it is to get stuck on the bad news. In Jesus’ time the resurrection happened in just two days, but in our lives sometimes it takes much longer. It feels like we get out of one trial and straight into another. It takes a determined effort to not get all hung up about this.

When I think about Easter I picture my dad in his clergy robes and I hear him saying, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” My voice echoes it back in my mind and I am grateful that I inherited more than his sweet tooth; I have his faith as well.

I feel like complaining like the Israelites did when they got to the Wilderness of Shur and there was no fresh water to drink, and then I am reminded that God gave them a strategy (Exodus 15). He knows we are weak and afraid and helpless without Him. He didn’t leave us alone; if we ask, He shows us what to do. He told Moses to throw a tree into the water so that the water became sweet. He did that for us too when He sent Jesus to the cross. That tree, that cross make me look up. I see possibilities and healing and creative miracles for Sam.

I’m not happy about the wait, or her packed-up ear, or yet another problem. But I have hope and that gets me through.

What about you? What do you need hope for?

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making space

“The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” (Psalm 16:6)

The morning sun is shining through the tall eucalypts, creating lines on the Parkway. I am driving down this narrow road that has taken me to school every working day for the last five terms. Today is my last day at school and I am taking in everything as I drive.

There are only three roads out of the peninsula where I live, but this narrow road is the one I take most often. It is so familiar to me that some days I wonder how I got to work at all. Today is different. I am using all my senses to soak up the seemingly insignificant, to mark this day in my memory somehow. It’s interesting what you see when you really look.

I think about the lines, the shadows that are cast on the road and the spaces of sunlight in-between. How magical is the sunlight, I think to myself, suddenly recalling how dark this road used to be the year my daughter had cancer; the year this same road took me past the school where I work to join the highways that lead to the hospital.

I don’t remember the lines being on the road back then. Mostly, I imagine, it is because I left before the sun rose, eager to be by her bed before she awoke, before the round nurses stabbed her insensitively for blood, bruising her veins, stripping her dignity and making me mad. But today the lines are there, taking on the shapes of the trees in shadowed silhouettes, combinations of wide and narrow strokes. They remind me of the barcode label on supermarket cans.

At school we teach the children about lines and conformity. It is necessary. We must have rules and systems and order. If we do not, we cannot function as a society. The rules and the lines and the consistency of it all help us feel safe.

One of the first things I teach my class every year is how to line up. We practise this again and again. We take turns at having different leaders and I remind them that even if they are the leader they must all be behind me or they are out of place. In no time they follow me like ducks around the school in beautiful, silent formation.

Every now and then one escapes from the pack when they think I don’t know. They get distracted because they see something to climb, or decide to dash off for a quick drink at the bubbler. I turn around and smile. I tell the group how wonderfully clever they are at walking in a straight line and notice how quickly the absconders return to be included in the praise. They don’t know that I admire them for their ability to escape the norm.

It is my role as a teacher to admire conformity, so I do. It works wonders to praise what you desire and life works. You move around the school and no one falls over. You return library books, you borrow more, you put on hats, you hang up bags and everything is orderly and manageable.

Every now and then it is necessary in school to put on a performance. You remind the children how clever they are at lining up and you tell them that we are going to practise performing the song we’ve been learning on the basketball court. You show the first child where she needs to stop so that all the children can fit in the line. You demonstrate how they should all put their right hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them so that they are evenly spaced, and you show them which way to face.

All your words float off into the air. No one really gets what you are trying to say. Instead they continue walking aimlessly in the line in which you taught them to walk. There is so much to learn in Kindy and you sigh, knowing that if you are patient they will get it eventually. Most of your practice is spent getting onto the ‘stage.’ After about 30 minutes you are ready to practise the song. They perform magnificently, singing with gusto and the cuteness factor is 100%.

Then when the day comes to perform you remind them everything again and when the iPod begins to play you notice that most of the kids have forgotten your instructions. All they really want to do is wave at their parents or to sing, or to bob on the spot. Some want to hide their face in their jumper, but to the best of my ability I have taught them to conform. I’m trying to conform as well, but somewhere on the road I discovered this voice inside of me. I neither know how to shut it down nor how to get it out to make it say what I want it to say; so instead I rose early every morning and I wrote my pages. My pages became my obsession that led to two things – a blog and a book manuscript.

It’s not much of a book but a book nonetheless and the people who saw it were kind. They saw its potential. They saw my potential. They told me to keep going, to keep walking along that line and to pick myself up if I fell over, to dust myself off, to start again. I was terrified. I had written everything I knew, but after that I had no idea what came next.

On a whim, I listened to my friend who gave me the courage to send the awful words from my manuscript to the clever, writing lady who only works with published writers. Somehow she saw my potential too. So this is the beginning I guess. Awkwardly I stand in line unsure what comes next. I try to watch the others so I know what to do but the truth is, I have no idea. What I do have are a whole lot of words and a story I want to craft into something worthy of reading.

As I sit at the table, my teacher speaks about writing and I take in every word. Her language is delectable. “You all have great stories,” she tells us, “but the experience doesn’t make the story; the words create the story.” I write it all down, absorbing, digesting it all, wondering how I came to be in this apartment in Bronte just down the road from where I studied education a quarter century ago. I think about the circle of life and how far I have come. I wonder why it took so long to get here when all I’ve ever wanted to do was to write.

I think about the dark space where all was death, destruction and despair. Yet I know that God has been with me in these places. I read a few weeks back in Exodus 20:21 that “the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” I was so encouraged by this. I, like Moses, have found God in the thick darkness. I have known the greatest of fears and the nearest of comfort. I have heard his voice as he scooped me to the surface time and time again. I have seen that “God rises up out of the sea like a treasure in the waves,” just as Thomas Merton wrote.

As I place my terrible manuscript on the table, my teacher tells me, “These are books, you must make space for them.” I picture the children in the lines as I signal to them to drop their right arm. I tell myself to make space for this; it’s time to sing. I hear the melody and I begin to rise – hoping my voice won’t fail me, hoping I remember the words. I think about the barcode on the supermarket can that shows the virtue of conformity. I know I have broken away from the pack; I’ve climbed the railings that are not safe to climb and I’ve snuck a drink from the bubbler. I think about what it is to be safe and how to live a predictable, orderly life; and as I break free, I decide it’s a risk worth taking.

What about you? What are you making space for and what risks will you take?

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the lady who swallowed the fly

By Friday afternoon the children in my class are ready to unwind. “You’ve worked hard all week,” I tell them, “so I am giving you a couple of days off.” After assembly we pack our bags. It is quite a process teaching 24 children to do this all at once without chairs flying everywhere or things being left behind. At the beginning of the year I taught them the drill and drew it on the whiteboard, step-by-step. Visual clues, so that I wouldn’t wear my voice out repeating the process.

Bag on table

Pouch in bag

Hat on head

Bag on back

Chair on table

Finger up for a sticker if your name made it to the chart!

It is nearly the end of term now and all I have to say is “Let’s get packed and ready to go home” and they are off, no need for a reminder. Okay, maybe a few reminders. Some kids don’t get it at all; but this is okay because the kids that do get it have learned to look out for the ones that don’t and somehow, like a family, we get it together and make it out the door.

The quicker this goal is achieved, the more time we have to sing, or read a story or play a game. On Friday afternoon we have a tradition. Sitting on the floor, leaning against their bags as though they are on poolside recliners, we read the big book. I love the big book because it is a wonderful opportunity for the children to engage with the text as well as the pictures. I remind them that they can read now and so they must help me with the story. Mostly they can’t read but they don’t know that. The repetition of the story, the clues in the pictures, the rhythm of the words, the chorus of all the other voices, convinces almost all of them that it is fine to have a go.

Every now and then we stop to discuss the punctuation. Do they know what that funny upside down shaped ‘i’ is? “It’s a surprise,” they tell me. Do they know about the question mark? “It’s a clue,” they respond. They are guessing; but sometimes we need to do a whole lot of guessing before we figure life out. It is all just part of the learning process. We get there in the end and, like the comma in the middle of it all, we discover opportunities to breathe. I’m terrible when it comes to commas. I litter them everywhere when I write. Even when I am not sure whether one belongs or not, I decide to add one too many rather than one too few. Over the past few years I’ve discovered that breathing is everything, even when you have no idea what comes next.

I’m in that place right now. The ‘I don’t know what comes next phase.’ Try explaining quotation marks to children and why sometimes it’s two little sixes and two little nines and why at other times it is only one of each. I figure that sometimes, some things don’t need to be explained all at once. Sometimes you don’t need the full explanation. Sometimes it is enough to say that it is just the way it is and that later on it will all make sense. Mostly the children are happy with that and by daylight, I am happy with that too. It isn’t until after dark falls and the possum lands on the corrugated roof and the dog begins to bark that I find myself upright, afraid and wishing for a glimpse into tomorrow. That is when a million conversations start to play in my head and all the voices are my own, rolling around ideas, replaying the scenes and trying to remember what life used to be like before my daughter got cancer. If I hadn’t kept decades worth of journals, I don’t think I could possibly recall what life was like back then, nor what my dreams used to be, nor who I spent my time with, nor how we celebrated life.

In just over two years it seems that almost my entire life has changed. I have discovered that my life is fragile like paper: thin, worn and easily torn. I have learned that it is almost impossible to stand alone and that sometimes the person to my right and the one to my left are not the ones I expected to be there. I have been happy to be sandwiched between the leaves of many pages and strongly bound into the covers of people who were willing to protect me, to stand with me and to be committed to the story that I never wanted to record. This story is not the story I ever expected to tell 23 years after my first-born child lay cradled in my arms. Yet this is my story. This is my life. Slowly it takes shape.

Maybe like me, you look at the book in your hand, which is your life, and it seems rather insignificant. Maybe it is lifeless, or dull. Perhaps the pictures didn’t come out in quite the tone you were expecting or the story pains you to tell. Perhaps the story you wanted for your life is in someone else’s hands or maybe there is someone else that is doing the thing that you once wanted to do more than anything else.

Maybe after all the tears, all the trudging along hallways, or the early morning risings with the clouded thoughts; after watching your face in the mirror of the morning, as the steam finally vanishes into the vent, you stare at this person who used to be you. The dreams seem to have vanished with the fog of the hot shower that barely even woke you. You manage to stay fixated anyway on the bags that are sagging under your eyes that used to be bright and full of promise.

Maybe you think it is too late for you? Maybe a little bit of you drowned while you were fighting to hold everyone else’s head above the water level. Maybe for you it seems like all hope is gone, that you are too old to dream now, or try to start again, or to take a new course or develop that gift that weighs like lead on your soul because you want it so much. Then you think about the children, sitting there in front of you, ready to participate in the story, ready to help you with the words they know, and bouncing on the spot with the rhythm of the reading. You picture it all, the magnificent power of the narrative and even though life feels like it has been way too big to squeeze between the pages of a book, you suddenly discover that there is nothing else you want to do more than this – to write your story down into a book and maybe, just maybe, it will change someone’s life.

Just out of view you see the silhouette of the young child who is gifted at reading, the one who understands words beyond his years. Every Friday he has become the page-turner, helping you to hold this enormous book, pre-empting when it is time for the page to turn. He reminds you that sometimes books are too big for just one person to carry; but that shouldn’t stop a story from being told.

Then one Friday afternoon, there you are, all caught up in the very big book, and the voices of the children. It is as wonderful as breathing and almost second nature. It has always been amongst your favourite things, to read out loud. Then, without warning, you recognise the woman in the story and you discover you are no longer the one who is reading the book. Somehow in the slipstream of life, or the rhythm of the words, you’ve been sucked in. You are not the one who is in control anymore. Instead you are the woman who swallowed the fly and you don’t know why. It’s been years now (well two at least) and you’ve done everything you possibly could. You’ve taken it all in your stride, you’ve taken on more, you’ve hoped that in some way all those additional things might stop the spider wiggling and jiggling; but it is still there. Though your capacity for big things has grown, you look at the cow and you don’t know how you can stomach another really big thing.

You look into the blue eyes of the small child who is helping you hold it all together. You make a silent exchange because you both believe that there will be another Friday and another big book. Then as you close the covers and the kids line up to go home for their two days off, you decide that it has to end with the cow. You are thankful for all the ways you have grown these past few years; but the time has come to write a different story.

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