Thursday, July 14, 2011

It Happened Again...

For the 2nd consecutive "routine" visit out to MDA, I got to chat w/ a terminally-ill cancer patient.

You should do that sometime.  Really, you should.

This was a 60-something lady from Kansas City.  Advanced pancreatic cancer, which is usually a get-your-affairs-in-order type diagnosis.  And yet...(Wait; I'm getting ahead of myself)

So, I'm downstairs eating bkfst @ the hotel, sitting at a table by myself.  This lady & I had sort of tag-teamed the toasters trying to get our muffins toasted.  She finishes getting her bkfst, looks around, and thankfully for me, there were no empty tables.  She points at a chair opposite me & says "Do you mind?"

We had a *great* visit!  Her hubby joined us about halfway through, which added to the chat.  Meanwhile, the guy @ the next table says "are you part of the archery tournament?"  I said, "No, I'm part of the MDA-patient tournament."  The lady acted like that's the funniest thing she's heard in a while; she said "Me too!"  As it turns out, the guy & his wife *were* part of the archery tournament, and get this: he's an oncologist out in Washington State!  He asked a few questions about MDA, & the lady & I both just sung its praises.  He said, "Oh, we have some of their data @ our office & I refer to their info often."  We swapped a couple of jokes, including this one from the lady w/ pancreatic cancer: "Any diagnosis is a good diagnosis, because that means you're present to receive it!"  We all laughed.

Of course, there was the semi-obligatory comparing of tests & procedures & processes & travel arrangements & such.  She said "My Dr. back home tells me I'm just weird.  Nobody lives w/ stage IV+ pancreatic cancer 5 years & counting."  I said "Yeah, mine here says that I'm living outside the numbers; that metastatic melanoma patients 3 years out are not very many."

A bit more random conversation, & they left to catch the shuttle.  As she walked away, she said "You go on living outside the numbers, & I'll go on being weird."

What a GREAT word!  I am SO thankful for so many people that I've encountered out here.

BTW, nobody would look at this woman & say "She has a very serious form of cancer that's usually quickly fatal."

So, again my challenge to myself: What exactly is it that consumes our (my!) thoughts & emotions?  Idiot drivers nearby on the road?  Employers not fully recognizing how totally awesome we are?  Our favorite team losing a game or not landing a prized recruit or not winning big enough?  A flawed, imperfect spouse? (Best not to stay there very long, as that thinking QUICKLY does a 180. As well it should!)  Family that doesn't behave like we want them to behave?  How the weather is not in line with your personal preference?  Gas prices?

Here's what she was thinking about this morning:
--Wow! They have cranberry juice this morning!  I love cranberry juice!
--Neat-o! The waffles are shaped like the state of TX on a map!
--Today's appt., & then we're heading home.
--Honey, I'm so glad you're feeling better today.  (Said to her husband. Who does not have cancer.  Again, this was said by her to her husband, who does not have cancer.)
--Isn't MDA a great place, populated by great people?
--I don't mind this 100-degree+ heat; all of my treatments have made me much colder by nature.
--It's nice that we don't have to drive ourselves to MDA, isn't it? (Re: hotel shuttle & Houston traffic)

Grab a bit of perspective from a delightful lady who's "weird," won't you?  That sense of perspective is precisely why visiting with terminally-ill cancer patients is a good idea...


p.s. - UPDATE: I ran into her later in the day, and she had just been told that she didn't have to come back for 6 months for her next P.E.T. scan!!  Trust me, this is some fantastic news...hoping to be told that one day myself.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

3 Years ago today... of the strongest men I've ever known entered eternity. 

I was in an ICU room @ MDA undergoing my first round of high-dose immunotheraphy, but had been kept abreast of happenings back here in H'burg via text, email, blogs, & facebook.

He suffered an extensive coughing spell (after-effects of chemotherapy) that resulted in him coding.  Medical personnel got him back in terms of a heartbeat, but nothing else.  3 days later, July 12, 2008, his race was declared finished, and victory--ultimate victory--was won over leukemia.  He left behind a much-beloved wife, and three very young children that he treasured deeply.

I'll never be the same because of his life's impact on mine.  And his family's impact on my life during his battle with leukemia and since his homegoing.

Every Sunday morning, I take my seat behind a computer in church to help with techie stuff.  This started when he was in the tech booth; I used to go in there & sit with him, back when it was an actual separate room.  (It's not now)  Thus, every single Sunday morning, I think of my buddy.

I'm not a poet.  Never claimed to be one, & never will.  But 3 years ago, I was in ICU @ MDA in Houston experiencing the, er, "joys" of high-dose immunotherapy.  It was there that I got the word that my buddy was on life support.  "Stunned" is in the right direction, but doesn't capture it.  "Devastated"..."Undone"..."Broken"...pick one.

I received word that the time of his departure was at hand.  At which point a poem of sorts came pouring forth from my soul.  As I said on this day last year, I've written 2 poems in my life.  This one, and another for another friend who died tragically.

Before reading (or re-reading) the poem, PLEASE hear these two challenges from my heart:

1) Register to be a bone marrow donor!

My friend was on regular chemo to keep his leukemia at bay until a marrow donor match could be found.  Yeah...

As a multi-time metastatic melanoma survivor/patient, I am no longer eligible to be a marrow donor, although I am registered.  Are you?  The test is not a big deal. 


(Another friend registered years ago & was a match for a guy out west who had NO HOPE.  My friend donated marrow...the recipient is alive & well with no trace of leukemia all these years later.  The cost?  My friend said his back hurt for a couple of weeks.  Worth it?  What do you think??  My friend has been flown out to spend family vacations with the guy whose life he saved.)

2) PLZ pray for the wife & kids & parents & brother & extended family today & these next few days as they remember what I shudder to even imagine.

(Now, the poem again.  It's appeared here before.  Stephanie had her Dad read it @ Jason's funeral; as noted by me previously, I will likely not have an honor that high this side of eternity.)

Mike Madaris, 7/12/08, on the coronation of my buddy Jason Weathers

Giants still walk the land occasionally.
I know this, because I knew one.
Physically strong and imposing
But that’s not the topic here,
For, he was not fearsome
Unless you lined up opposite him
On a football field
Or tried to throw him into a pool against his will.
Those aside, He got along with everybody.
Literally, everybody, as far as I knew.
Calm of demeanor, yet loved to laugh.
Quiet in personality, yet loved hard rock.
Intelligent, but not desiring to flaunt that.
Private, yet the son of a very public man
And later, married into another very public family.
In the midst of all, he was a giant.

The courtship. She was the only one.
They met when her Dad took a job at the giant’s church.
And his Dad’s. And his Granddad’s.
The realizing came quickly to most.
These two were a match.
They realized it too.
The courtship lasted until they finished college.
And he remained a giant.
Always loving, yet always honoring.
Serving. Cherishing. As it was intended to be.
Both of them Role models. Giants.
Who else marries a giant, but another giant after all?

10 years of marriage. A move to FL.
3 children deeply treasured.
One looks like her mother, yet like Dad in temperament.
One looks like his Dad, yet tempered like his mother.
And one too young to answer these questions
Though she surely looks like her Dad.
Each nurtured. Treasured. Celebrated.
Giants are like that about their offspring.

A servant’s heart.
Toward his lady. Toward his children.
Toward his friends. Toward his Lord.
Church service involved the out of the way
The behind the scenes
The un-glamorous
The invisible.
Sometimes giants stay in the background.
Perhaps that is why so few of us believe in them any more.

The servant heart spilled over into career choice.
Especially poignant to me this week
As I have been greatly served and blessed by multiple nurses
As a patient, the best in that field are wired as servants.
Others-centered. Paycheck almost incidental.
Towering over the rest of us.

The dreadful disease with the nasty prognosis
The treatment nearly as nasty
Uncertainty. Doubt. Fear.
In this case, for others more than self
Beloved wife and treasured children.
Parents. Parents-in-law. Brother. Brother-in-law.
Not wanting to burden others with the battle he fought so well.
The larger men among us worry about us like that.

7 months of desperate fighting.
Interspersed with time spent with family and with lesser mortals.
Like me. At Starbucks. Still dreaming of an earthly future that would never be.
Then the end; rather, the beginning.
What, after all, is a last, horrendous week against 30+ years of a towering-above life?
Faith became sight.
Death & disease forever vanquished.
Ultimate Healing. No more illness, no more treatment, no more pain.
“Well Done, good and faithful servant.” The stuff of dreams.
Thankfully, not of legends.
Hopes and dreams realized.
Sin not only defeated, but now utterly removed.
As has been sung, "I can only imagine." He need not imagine any more.
This makes me smile through tears.
Victory won. Decisively. Forever.
It is well…it is well with his soul.
In that land, there are only giants. Now one more.
And this land seems all the more empty.

Jason, my brother, I still miss you very hard on a regular basis.  Steph & the kids are doing very well, which would not surprise you.  Keep on rocking, dude, there in the land of the eternal "hello."  Can't wait until my own faith has become sight, & you & I can laugh together about how leukemia & melanoma are just a bump in the road as we celebrate the incredible grace that has two knuckleheads like us there forever in the presence of the One Who provides that grace.
Love you,
p.s. - Thanks for continuing to be my friend & hang out with me even after I got old.  *grin*  (Picturing your own grin & laugh as I type that...thanks for sharing all the laughs & prayers & smiles & tears & great rock music with me!)

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Long Space In Between

(Written the morning after my most recent scan, before getting the results.  Edited for readability 3 wks later on 7/8/11)

What goes through one's mind the morning after a P.E.T. scan & before getting the results?  The critical results?

Here are some thoughts I have Friday morning, 6/17, at 10:30 a.m. in my hotel room, 2 hrs before that appointment.

Not fear per se, but definitely anxiety that mounts as the clock moves.  A blend of "What will he say this time?" and "How will I react to whatever he says?"

Not to contradict the previous, but there's an amazing calm that comes along with the anxiety.  Of course, I attribute this to the overwhelming grace & presence of God, and to His graciously answering the prayers of many friends who are praying even as I write.  My favorite name of God in Scripture is Jehovah Shammah as I've mentioned here before.  Basically it means "the personal God Who is present."

Of the distant past, friends, family, places, etc.  And of the recent past: surgery, hospital rooms, etc.  Mostly, these fall under the category of things that bring great comfort (even the MDA ones!).  Strangely, I smile a lot as memories come.  And rest assured, I let them come, and even chase them now & then.

Not all of the memories are wonderful though.  Mercifully, these are quickly re-channeled into a wonderful appreciation of grace in the Gospel.  "Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (etc.)

I'm a bit of a dreamer anyway, and this morning in particular brings up quite a number of hopes for the future.  Stay tuned.  Be scared.  *smile*  The future in general gets collapsed into 2 phases: between now & the appointment, which is crystal clear, and afterward, which (mercifully, I think) sort of goes into a fog that I cannot see into very clearly.

My family is never far from my thoughts, but especially out here.  And especially on Father's Day weekend.  I'm struck this morning with the overpowering awareness that--as a writer once said--I am the narrow funnel where history & heritage meet legacy.  My inherited heritage is so deep & rich that I can hardly take it all in.  I pray often that 100 years from now my descendants will be making much of Jesus because of what God did in & through Mike Madaris' life.  Aside: I often teter over into the arrogance of thinking "Boy, I hope they make much of me!"  But as one of my favorite pastors, Crawford Loritts, says, I'm just a clap between two vast eternities; He is the One of Whom much needs to be made.

Always...ALWAYS!...worship seems to just bubble up.  PLEASE don't be impressed with Mike's spirituality here!  I don't create this worship, nor grit my teeth to do it; it's called forth from me, which is just a marvelous experience.  Yesterday, about 5 minutes before boarding the shuttle to MDA for my scan, I was overwhelmed by a couple of hymns that came from my soul.  ("At the Cross", especially the verse "Amazing mercy, grace unknown, and love beyond degree!" and "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" of which I prefer the version by Selah.)  So, yeah, that was me doing the subtle macho guy tear wipe that we disguise as scratching our face or fixing our hair or something.

There's a brief glimpse into what the long space in between a scan & getting the results of that scan looks like for me.

In about 2.5 months, I'll go back out there & do this all again.

Rejoicing in Jehovah Shammah,

Monday, July 04, 2011

Behind the parades & fireworks...

6/25/1950 - North Korea invades South Korea.  A small conflict in a rather remote corner of the world...

Meanwhile, at a junior college in MS, this handsome young man with blue eyes & a great smile was arriving from Choctaw County in SW Alabama to go to school, and to play football on a pretty good JC team.

I believe it was the following summer that the entire football team--that's the entire team!--dropped out of school & enlisted in the military.  They volunteered their services to go take a stand in South Korea because their country thought that was worth doing.

The details of that conflict & the countries who participated's motivations are murky.  Which is OK, as this is not a geo-political analysis of that war.  Or any war.  Today, 61 years later, the Korean war has never officially ended.  There's a line of demarcation that's guarded on both sides, and official hostilities have been at a cease-fire for some decades now.

Back to the point of this entry: The young man from Choctaw County & his teammates scattered to various branches of the service & various training centers.  He trained to be a combat medic.  His training would unfortunately come in quite handy in the months to come in the combat-laden frozen wasteland that was much of the Korean peninsula, ca. the early 1950s.

He survived, thankfully.  (I say "thankfully" for reasons that will become clear shortly) Today, he's still a tough guy physically & mentally & emotionally.  Courage beyond what I can imagine, both during wartime and since coming home.  Worked building airplanes in Mobile, AL, before a hearing problem ended that job for him.  Married.  Had a couple of children.  When the hearing problem kicked into high gear, he moved his family back to Choctaw County.  He built the house they live in now on a pretty spot of land that he cleared off to raise cows & have a few horses for fun.  His youngest child "helped" him build, since she wasn't in school yet.  Ever met a softie who's worked with cows & horses for much of his life?  Me neither.  I recall going to feed the cows with him some 25 years ago.  I'm in my 20s, he's in his 50s...he tossed a big 100-lb sack of feed over each shoulder & away he went.  I tried to toss one over one shoulder...didn't go well, & I was actively lifting weights at the time.  As I say, he's a tough guy.

I've known him pretty well for around 30 years now.

27 of those as his son-in-law, who married the younger daughter who helped him build the house. 

She has the same gorgeous blue eyes as her Daddy, plus the same hard work ethic.  She loves the land like he does.  She is as close to a Daddy's girl as a tough cattleman/soldier will ever have.  This particular cattleman/soldier is just crazy about his grandchildren, who have added a dimension of tenderness to him these last 25 or so years.  They, in turn, love their "Papa."

All of that said to say this:  it's July 4, a day on which we celebrate our freedoms, as well we should.  We honor our military, as we should on a daily basis in my opinion.  But my challenge to each of us is to take the time to ask questions along the lines of "so, what was it like?" and then shut up & listen.  Or perhaps a step back from that emotional brink would be just to say "thank you" to them. 

I listened to some tell their stories on the radio today while driving home; at times, it was rather hard to see.  (Must've been rain or fog or something...or something...)  One of the radio stories was another guy who was in Korea & as squadron commander ordered his best friend from back home to go do some recon; several months later, the guy found his friend about to die in a Chinese P.O.W. camp.  He buried his friend (& fellow P.O.W.) just minutes later on a hillside there in North Korea.  Another guy is just back from Iraq a few years back, where he was at the proverbial end of the spear, doing necessary-but-regrettable things outside the wire at night with his unit.  Some jackass HS acquaintance said to him shortly after he returned, "So, you're like a certified baby-killer now, huh?  What's that like?"  (If "jackass" is not the right word, there are others that are more offensive and perhaps more appropriate...)

Papa's Korea stories have unfolded over decades now, in small bits & pieces.  They're buried deeply within his memory, locked away until that glorious day when the swords are hammered into plowshares & spears into pruning hooks, at which point the stories will no longer be needed.  But they do spill out every now & then.  Mostly around Christmas.  Especially if Christmas is a cold one.  "I remember that Christmas we spent in the field in Korea..."  Usually a quick, short piece of a story, occasionally adorned with a picture or the worship bulletin from the Christmas Day service there.  Just little glimpses into the unspeakable horrors that we all (understandably) blow past on holidays like July 4.  "I remember going around from sleeping bag to sleeping bag in the morning & checking to see who was still alive & who had either frozen to death or suffocated when the snow covered their face"..."See this little guy from the Phillipines in the picture?  I've seen him stack up North Koreans like rats using just his bayonet & knife"..."I remember seeing Chinese troops line up across the valley from us & just walk toward our lines, getting mowed down by our fire.  They figured we'd run out of bullets before they ran out of soldiers..." 

I love the parades & the pageantry of July 4.  I'm descended from a long line of patriotic types, in the best sense of the word.  And I married into that too.  As we shake hands with those who came back & have a moment of silence for those who didn't & as we celebrate victories they won...PLEASE take time to try to listen to them if they'll talk about it.  (I know others who won't; I certainly am not going to insist that they go back in their memories to the darkest days of their young lives!)  Try to fathom what seeing & experienced things like this small-town boy from Choctaw County AL experienced when he was in Korea does to one's soul & psyche.

I close with this.  A pastor I know in small-town north MS told me that when the movie "Saving Private Ryan" came out, he had several of his salt-of-the-earth tough guy farmers with families & homes & such come to his office, & sit just weep about memories they had locked away, never sharing them with anyone.  Not even their brides of 50+ years.  Seeing "Saving Private Ryan" triggered those memories & brought them to the surface.  My pastor friend said, through his & my shared tears, one guy who's a deacon @ his church & a very gentle hard-working farmer shared that every Christmas, every birthday, & every family gathering of any kind brought clearly to mind the faces of German soldiers he killed in Europe in late 1944 & early 1945.  Said it always bothered him greatly that those young Germans would never experience marriage or family or owning a home or children or grandchildren...

That, ladies & gents, is so very often what's behind the sober salutes & pinning on of the medals & attendance at the squadron reunions & the faraway stares this weekend.

Thank you, Father, that you raise up men & women who put on a uniform & take an oath & undergo tough training in order to be willing to ship out to places like Normandy...North Africa...Saipan...Iwo Jima...Korea...Viet Nam...Afghanistan...Iraq...Thank you for the freedoms we have, which have NEVER been free.  Thank you especially that you've promised that day...that GLORIOUS, AMAZING day...when they will all hammer their swords into plowshares & their spears into pruning hooks & they shall remember war no more.  Until then, may we as a nation honor them and be as thankful for them collectively & individually as I am for Jimmy Mixon, "Papa" to me & my children.  Grant them all peace, Father.

Gratefully & humbly,