Light in the Valley of the Shadow of Death (part twenty)

The angel Gabriel said to Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)

On Saturday, December 24, 2011, Gil spent the morning decorating our tree and wrapping presents.  He loves all the traditions and festivities that accompany the celebration of Christmas, and since I was still recovering from surgery and unable to lift anything over three pounds or stand on my feet for very long, he took full responsibility for making sure our home was decorated and that presents were bought and wrapped.  However, thanks to our friend, Claire, who set up a care calendar for meals, Gil did not have the added responsibility of preparing dinners.  Friends from area churches and the school where Gil is employed brought meals to our home, three times a week, beginning the day I returned home from the hospital.  This gift of love, offered by more people than I can count, continued through the middle of March 2012.

That evening, after making sure I was bundled up in a warm coat, Gil helped me into our car and we headed to a Christmas Eve service at Holy Trinity Church.  It was solely by the grace of God that I was well and strong enough to go out in public only eighteen days after surgery.  This was yet another answer to prayer because I so dearly wanted to attend a service of worship and celebrate Christmas with many of the Christian friends who had prayed so faithfully for the miracle the Lord had granted.

Gil held my hand as we slowly walked down the long steep flight of stairs which lead into the church.  As we paused half-way down the stairs, I remember looking up and smiling broadly to numerous friends who were already seated in the congregation. They waved to us and held up their hands in praise to the Lord because we all knew that the big smile on my face was God’s gift – a smile my doctors thought would not be possible after the surgery.  That night I was delighted to serve as a kind of “billboard” advertising
what the power of God can do in a person’s life.  There was much rejoicing and many tears of joy shed over the Lord’s miraculous intervention and answer to prayer; it was a Christmas Eve to remember.

The next morning Gil and Caleb and I sat in our living room around the Christmas tree and opened presents.  Our fellowship was exceptionally sweet and joyful because we were so aware of God’s generosity and how very different this family gathering was compared to the one that took place at Thanksgiving, before my surgery. As our family ritual of opening presents unfolded, my heart overflowed with gratitude to the Lord that I was alive and sharing this special moment with my family. Nothing escaped my notice that morning.  Every gesture and word seemed charged with eschatological meaning and grace.  It was as if time had been suspended and we were participating in something that was infused with elements of eternity.

Later that evening, after a delicious dinner, Gil and I sat in our family room and we turned on the television and looked for something to watch.  Gil moved from channel to channel and then settled on something that caught my eye: the actors were wearing period costumes and speaking with British accents.  We didn’t know what it was but our interest was piqued.  We later learned we were watching the second of five episodes from season one of Downton Abbey and that season two, which would begin in January, would span the weeks in which I would be in treatment.

I mention this television program only because it would help to carry me through the difficult weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments in January and February of 2012.  Each new installment of season two would be shown on Sunday nights, but I would record it and wait with eager anticipation until the following evening to view it.  This delayed viewing would be my “reward” for having made it through the day on Monday, always the toughest day of the week for me during that period of time because it was the day on which I had to undergo two treatments and not just one.

Three days after Christmas we all headed for Wrightsville Beach, where our friends Bill and Doris have a condominium on the ocean.  The condo was available between Christmas and New Years’ day and they offered us the use of it, knowing that time at the beach would be just what we needed after having dealt with the stress of my illness for the past eight weeks.

This time away as a family was a gift from the Lord and each of us found something to enjoy at the seashore.  The ocean speaks to me of God’s grandeur – His power, might and creativity – and as often as I could I would sit on the patio overlooking the ocean and worship the Lord and recall to mind His promises in Scripture.  The weather was mild for late December and although I was not yet strong enough to take walks on the beach, I could easily sit in a boat, so Bill took us for a ride in his cabin cruiser, giving us a tour of the sound and the ocean around Wrightsville Beach. The fresh air was invigorating.

Wrightsville Beach: late December 2011

While at the beach I spent time working on my laptop, setting up an online sign-up for rides to and from my forthcoming treatments at the UNC Cancer Hospital.  Gil would need to be at work every day, so I would have to rely on friends to take me to each of my thirty-three treatments.  I wondered whether there would be enough volunteers to cover all those appointments, but within days all the sign-up slots were filled.  I was completely astounded by this extraordinary response to my request for assistance.

Once we returned from the beach, all that was left for me to do before the start of my treatments was to meet again with Dr. Hayes, my medical oncologist, who would be overseeing my chemotherapy treatments and Dr. Chera, my radiation oncologist.  My friend, Sam, drove me to those appointments and sat with me while Dr. Hayes reviewed the treatment plan.  Dr. Hayes explained that I would be monitored weekly before each chemotherapy treatment to make sure I wasn’t loosing too much weight and that my blood levels were within the normal range for someone undergoing chemotherapy.

Furthermore, he provided me with prescriptions for three different kinds of anti-nausea medication and instructed me to fill all three prescriptions before Monday, January 9 – the date of my first round of treatments.  He explained that the best way to deal with nausea brought on by chemotherapy is to counteract it before it has time to become debilitating.  Dr. Hayes thought that it was reasonable to expect that I would experience some nausea, but he thought it would be rather mild.  Nevertheless, at the first sign of nausea I was supposed to take the first medication.  If that one did not work, then I was to take the second.  If still no relief, then I should take the third.

With each level of medication, I would experience more intensely the side effects that come with it; mainly fatigue and constipation.  So the stronger the anti-nausea medication, the worse the side effects.  Relief from nausea would come at a cost, but I was told that the nausea would subside after a day or two and I probably wouldn’t need any further medication until just after the next treatment.  I was encouraged at the thought that I wouldn’t be sidelined by side-effects (from chemotherapy and anti-nausea medications) every day – and that there would be some good days among the not-so-good ones.  The Lord had already impressed upon me the importance of finding, in every situation, some reason to offer thanksgiving.  This would prove to be an essential spiritual discipline, one which I would practice often in the days and weeks ahead.

Next time: going through chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

About Claudia Dickson Greggs

I am an Anglican priest, author, wife and mother. Writing and teaching about Christian life and faith are passions of mine.
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