What does it mean to be alive?

My mother-in-law refused to die. She didn’t seem to get that simply being alive and living were two separate things. Life is more than your heart beating, your blood circulating, your breath coming in and going out like the tide. Life is more than simply existing, simply enduring.

I’m not sure what she was looking for, but I know that she didn’t find it.

The doctors had done all they could, but the cancer had done more. It had won the battle, even the war, but she wasn’t pulling out, wasn’t flying the white flag. She was held hostage to it but wouldn’t admit it. In the end, she was reduced to a sort of half-life, a half existence. A life that was the opposite of full.

She was alive, barely. She had so much pride that she didn’t ask for help even when it came to getting food. After she died, we found frozen dinners in her house and nothing homemade. We found receipts for a personal shopper from Publix. She’d rather ask strangers for help then ask her family. She’d rather hobble along pretending, trying to make do for as long as possible in adverse circumstances.

For some, this was admirable, but not for me. For me it was a sad way to die, a desperate attempt to hold on – but for what? A cure, a miracle? It was as if she thought that she was going to do the healing, that she thought that if she held on just a little longer that she would outlast the disease.

Her death was the same. So much struggle. So much fight. She lasted five days when the nurses thought she would only last five hours. It was an ugly death. It brought no grace or comfort to the family to see her struggle so much.

It had been a year and a half after her diagnosis that she finally died. A year and a half of tests and experiments, a year and a half of pain and struggle. She didn’t plan well. She didn’t budget her time or her energy. She didn’t do anything on her bucket list. She hadn’t even thought about it at all until I asked.

I don’t know if she didn’t know – if she was simply ignorant of the slow decline that cancer brings, of how it steals your abilities and independence bit by bit, piece by piece. Cancer takes all your pieces off the board one by one and doesn’t give them back. Cancer doesn’t play fair. When it got down to the very end she still wouldn’t let go. She was still fighting against this adversary. But she wasn’t fighting death by living. She was just enduring.

We don’t bring ourselves into this world, and we don’t take ourselves out. It is not for us to determine the length of our days. We have some control over how well we will live in terms of taking care of our bodies, but we have little control over how long we will live. Any moment our heart can stop beating. Any moment a blood vessel can break. Any moment we can choke on something and die suddenly, quickly, quietly.

Our lives are not our own.

If God was going to provide a miracle, then God didn’t need her to fight so hard to stay alive in the middle of so much pain, so much suffering. God gave her over seventy years of life and she had little to show for it. God gave her a year and a half after her diagnosis and all she did was hold on, in some desperate appeal for more.

More of what? Life for the sake of being alive?

If someone gives you a gift, they expect you to use it. You aren’t going to get a second gift if you refuse to open and use the first one. You certainly won’t get another if you don’t say thank you for the first one.

Why would God grant more life to someone who has chosen not to live it at all?

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Chain link life

What all forms of cancer are caused by something as simple as a virus? Scientists have already found that some forms of cancer are. What if that is the answer to all of it? What if, years from now, you can get a shot to prevent cancer the same way you can get a shot to prevent chickenpox? What if it really is that simple and we’ve been making it too hard?

But until scientists figure that out, we have to take care of ourselves.

I think there is nothing inevitable about family history. Sure, my Mom died of lung cancer and her Mom died of a heart attack. But both of them smoked cigarettes and neither of them exercised.

Illness is just looking for an opportunity to get in. Whatever your genetic history, it is like a chain link fence. Some of the links are weak. Wherever they are weak results in whatever disease your family tends to develop.

Cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure – all of these are robbers trying to break into your defenses. All of them are looking for a way to sneak in and steal your most valuable possession – your health, or even your life. It is literally a life and death struggle, and if they win, you lose.

So you have to strengthen the gates. You have to do what is in your power to not let them in. You won’t live forever. That is impossible. But you can do quite a bit to make the life that you have pleasant. You might even be able to lengthen your life.

Now I have no desire to live to be a hundred years old if it means I have to eat all my food pureed and I’m in a wheelchair. But I will do whatever I can to live well. Length of life isn’t as important to me as quality.

I knew a guy who weighed over five hundred pounds. He said that being overweight was common in his family. Of course, he said “heavy” and not “morbidly obese” which he was. Of course, being obese runs in his family the same way that inactivity and eating high fat, high salt food runs in his family. Being massively unfit isn’t something that had to happen. He thought that because everyone in his family was immense, that was his destiny. If they all exercised and ate well and were still obese, then yes, there’s a problem there. But that wasn’t the case.

The thing that really drove me up the wall is that he had a free YMCA membership because of his insurance plan – which was paid for by the state – translation, my tax dollars. He didn’t use it to exercise. He didn’t use it to get healthy. He drank the free coffee, hung out and used the free wireless, and then floated in the pool. He didn’t swim in the pool. He didn’t take the exercise classes in the pool – or anywhere else. He used the pool the same way that Baron Harkonnen in “Dune” used his suspensor belt. He floated in it to get relief from the crushing weight of his body. While he was floating in the deep end his joints didn’t hurt and he could breathe better.

Being in the pool is the best place if you are obese. But then it is up to you as to what you do with your time there.

I tried to show him exercises I’d learned in water aerobics classes. He could have moved while in the pool and gotten stronger and healthier. He ignored me and told me his tale of woe, that he was essentially doomed to be huge.

What if I used the fact that heart problems and lung cancer run in my family as an excuse to not exercise and eat poorly, and to continue smoking? It is going to happen anyway – why fight it?

This is so backwards. Yet, this is so common. I feel that blaming others for our own self-imposed problems has become the new “American way”.

We all have to start thinking differently, and we all have to wake up. The level of obesity in America is off the charts. Children are developing “adult” diseases are shockingly young ages. The fact that there are a number of diabetes magazines now is disturbing. It isn’t a lifestyle. It is a disease.

We don’t have to worry about another country invading us. We are doing it to ourselves. We have met the enemy – and he is us.

This isn’t about crash diets and fitting into skinny jeans. This is about being healthy and strong. This is about being able to walk around the block without getting out of breath (for starters). This is about having enough energy to really enjoy life, rather than just endure it.

It isn’t to be found in “five hour energy” drinks and a super grande mocha latte. In fact, if you live healthy, you don’t need caffeine and sugar at all. Really. If you get enough sleep and you eat well and get moderate exercise, you don’t need the boost of caffeine and sugar to keep you going.

It isn’t natural to have to put stimulants in your body just to live a normal life. If you have to have caffeine and sugar just to get through your day you are doing something wrong. It is a sign that you are shortchanging yourself somewhere.

Get moving. Get enough sleep. Drop the fried food. Eat more vegetables. Quit smoking. Drink water. Stop drinking sodas.

And every time you whine about having to take on or give up something for your health, get over it. You are acting like a child. Every time you think you’ll “cheat” and not do something that you know is good for you, the only person you are screwing over is yourself.

How dumb is that?

The bad part is that when we get older, we don’t have parents to tell us how to live in a good way and to make us fly right. The really bad part is that many of us didn’t have good parents to start off with, and we have to parent ourselves.

Your life is your choice. Choose wisely.

Death, or not.

My mother-in-law is dying. Or isn’t.

She has pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed in December of last year. It was stage three, possibly stage four. There is no stage five. She was given until about May. It is now late December. We are planning to have Thanksgiving at her house. We are talking about having Christmas this year too.

A year ago, just thinking about how that particular Christmas was going to be her last Christmas just tore her up. She was very teary. She didn’t think she’d even make it to another birthday, which was in November. She’s made it, and made it better than anybody expected. She’s still driving herself to her doctor’s appointments. She’s still at home, sleeping in her own bed. Hospice has not been called.

The trouble is, she has changed personality, and it really isn’t for the better. She was married young, and married to a very domineering man. She was very submissive. Her own personality was overshadowed by his. She grew up stunted, with all her energy being focused on one thing – the house.

She has spent her entire adult life playing house. She paints the rooms, again and again. She redecorates. She buys knickknacks. Decorating the house is all she talks about. All of her energy has gone into decorating her house. The results aren’t anything exciting. It is hard to believe her life energy has been spent in this way and there isn’t anything real to show for it. It is hard to believe that God put her on this earth to do this.

So she now has become assertive. She still works on the house, but she has gone from being passive to being pushy. She uses the fact that she has pancreatic cancer to push people around. She has cancer, so nobody else’s plans matter. Everyone else has to drop whatever they are doing and drive over and visit with her or do her bidding. She doesn’t ask, she commands. The fact that she has a limited lifespan is always part of it. You’d better do this, or else.

Or else what? She’ll die? You’ll feel guilty that you didn’t spend more time with her?

While I’m glad that she is starting to wake up to who she is, I wish she’d have gotten past the toddler stage a little sooner in life. Toddlers are always about me me me, and they never care about anybody else’s feelings or plans.

The problem is, she is in her 70s. She has had plenty of time to grow up, and she hasn’t. She has had plenty of time to be a productive person, and she hasn’t.

We all are dying. Being born is the beginning of death. None of us have any guarantees on how long we will live.

So there is nothing especially sad about a 70-plus year old woman getting cancer, even cancer that has a high rate of death. Death comes to us all. Many people don’t make it to her age.

What is tragic is that she didn’t wake up to the fact of her mortality sooner and do something useful with her life. What is tragic is that she didn’t stand up to her abusive, bullying husband earlier and leave him, taking their two sons with her. That would have saved them from years of being harmed in every way possible. What is tragic is that she is treating this time as a time to push other people around, when life isn’t ever about that. What is tragic is that when told she had cancer, she kept on decorating her house.

Maybe I’m reading this wrong. Or maybe I’m not. I’m angry at her acting hurt and put upon that she has a death sentence, when my own Mom died at 53. My mother in law has lived nearly 20 years longer than my Mom, and has nothing to show for it. My Mom volunteered all the time. She made the world better for other people. She wasn’t well educated, but she had an open heart and gave constantly. This woman, however, is a little child in an adult’s body.

I’m tired of her. I’m tired of her neediness. I’m tired of how shallow she is.

And I’m sick of myself for feeling this way. It isn’t very Christ-like. It isn’t very nice.

I wish she would have protected her son, my husband, when he was a child. To stand by while your child is being abused is to condone it. I don’t think she understands the depth of damage that caused. I don’t think she understood that her inaction was just as abusive because it translates to abandonment.

I wish she would have grown up sooner. I wish that she would have woken up to the truth of her mortality sooner. I wish that she would have become a human being sooner.

I guess late is better than never, but it still isn’t happening. She’s not blooming very well. She’s stunted and warped from her life, the life that she chose. There is nothing passive about this. She chose to marry him. She chose to continue to live with him. She chose to raise two boys when she herself was still a child. She chose to do what everybody else did rather than think for herself.

She chose to stay asleep.

She’s mirroring what she has seen her whole adult life, living with her husband. Her role model is a self-centered man who beats up on anyone he finds weaker than him. So she is blooming into a self-centered woman who pushes everybody around and expects them to drop whatever they are doing to take care of her.

God help us all.

Prison of cancer, and thankfulness.

I know two people who have cancer right now. It doesn’t look like they are winning the battle. One is a friend from high school, so she is my age. One is my mother in law. Sandy, my friend, has brain cancer. The doctors have recently told her that they are not going to continue treatment. Chris, my mother in law, is still undergoing chemotherapy.

Both don’t want to die, of course.

Prayers are going up, out, across, and within for them. Prayers asking for relief, for healing. But healing comes in many ways. When we pray, it is useful to remember that God isn’t our waiter. God does what is necessary for The Plan. We aren’t big enough to see The Plan. We are part of it. We are inside it. We are pawns on this board.

I offer you a story from the New Testament.

Acts 12:1-17 (NRSV)
1 About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. 2 He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. 3 After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. 5 While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him. 6 The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. 8 The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. 11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” 12 As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. 13 When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. 14 On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.” 16 Meanwhile Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. 17 He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, “Tell this to James and to the believers.” Then he left and went to another place.

Notice that “the church prayed fervently to God for him” in verse 5. God sent an angel to free him. He didn’t recognize it was an angel. He thought it was a vision, but he did what he was told. He walked past the prison guards. Iron gates opened on their own.

Who is to say that prison and cancer aren’t the same? Both hold you hostage. Both stop your progress. Both can be the end of you. So I’ve thought about this story and linked the two. Peter was freed from prison because of intercessory prayers. God heard the prayers and sent an angel.

Who is to say that angels don’t take the form of doctors and nurses? God works through us. Healing can come in surprising ways. We are constantly looking for miracles, while not noticing the ones that happen around us all the time.

I prayed for Sandy in earnest when I found that the doctors had decided to cancel treatment. They feel that there is no point. I’ve been praying for her off and on in the meanwhile, but this renewed my efforts. While I was praying I asked God to heal her. I got the decided feeling back from God – “why should I?”

This stumped me. This is God? This is the all-loving, all-merciful God? I said in reply that it was because He would be praised and thanked for it. He said “Why? She hasn’t thanked me yet.”

I thought, really? Is that true?

Then I thought, how petty.

Do I want to worship a God that has to be appeased? Do I want to worship a god that essentially says “What’s in it for me?” when you ask for a boon?

I grumbled about this.

And, then, as usual, I started writing. I understand things by writing. Writing isn’t about pinning things down all the time. For me, it uncovers. It digs down. I learn things when I write about them. So I wrote. And something amazing came to me.

God wants us to be thankful because that is what separates us from animals.

God made all of the earth, and all that is in it, but he made us separate. He commanded the Jews to say at least 100 blessings every day – to constantly be on the lookout for ways to say thanks. Christians are adopted Jews, yet we somehow forgot that command.

We are commanded to be thankful, not because God needs it, but because we need it. We need to be thankful, to be aware, to be alert. We need to not take anything for granted. We need to be awake to the beauty of life and be grateful constantly.

Otherwise we become like animals. We forget who we are. We forget where we came from. We forget where we are going. We spend our days being asleep even when we are awake.

God wants us to be fully alive. There is something to this life that is interesting. You can be alive, but not living. You can go through you days, all day and all life, and never really live.

Who cares about “life after death” if we never even lived while we were alive? If there is “life after death” would we waste it as well, being mindless?

Thankfulness keeps us alive.

Don’t wait to be thankful. Don’t wait until your prayer is answered. Be thankful now. Be thankful for what you have. If you are a good steward of a little, then you will be given more. Remember the story of the servants who were given different amounts of money to keep for their master? It isn’t about money at all.

Parasites

Such a negative word. Parasite. You think of vermin and viruses. You think of slimy, gross things eating away.

This is such a human-centered way of thinking. If it doesn’t benefit us, it is bad. I’ve written along with others that our need to define things as good or bad is part of our undoing. We have this need to control in our need to define.

What is against us has to be bad. Of course.

But mosquitoes are what birds eat. Their song, their strength in flight, is fed by these insects that cause us torment.

Who knows about tapeworms and viruses? Who knows what purpose they play? Do we have to know?

When we take antibiotics, anti-life by definition, we are killing these very viruses. They are growing and thriving in an environment that is hospitable for them. Perhaps kinder would be to just prevent the environment in the first place.

Is it the fault of moss that it grows in a wet place? No. So if you don’t want moss, fix what is causing the moisture.

What about cancer? Cancer is mindless, but it grows and divides. Is it alive?

Part of the mission of Star Trek was to seek out new life.

They flew around the universe encountering countless beings that looked like people and countless more entities that looked nothing like life. Week after week we learned along with them to see value in these beings, these entities. We learned to see them as having a purpose, as having sentience.

The most important thing we can learn is that just because their purpose and sentience isn’t the same as ours doesn’t make it wrong.

We’ve heard that just because someone else is on a different path doesn’t mean they are lost.

So, does this mean that we allow the tapeworm to move in? Does this mean we show compassion to cancer and we don’t cut it out?

These are hard questions, and I’m not sure I have the answers.

I think there is something in there about boundaries.

I’ve heard one definition of jealousy is thinking that someone has something that is yours.

Surely your body is yours.

But if it is, consider this. A rabbi once said that “Is that your nose? Where is your receipt?”

We don’t create ourselves. We have some influence on our bodies by what we eat and if we exercise. We can somewhat shape ourselves. But for the most part our bodies are gifts to us. Unmerited.

Our bodies are temples. Our bodies house our souls. Even our souls are gifts. Consciousness is a gift of the Creator.

Who are we to refuse entrance to other members of creation?

Now, if we keep our bodies in bad shape we will invite more things than we might know how to deal with.

It is like having a small house and hosting a huge party. We might have a lot more party-goers than we know what to do with. We might run out of party food and they will start eating our staples. We might have to call the police.

But what happens when the party goers are cancer? Is the doctor the police? Doubtful, considering the nature of Western medicine. It treats the symptom rather than the cause. But that is the focus of another post, another day.

I don’t have the answers. I’m OK with asking the questions and living into the answers. Sometimes just asking the questions is a good start.

The biggest thing I want to get across is that just because something isn’t for us, isn’t part of our plan, doesn’t seem to have a purpose that benefits us – doesn’t mean it is bad. It just is. It is part of creation. Perhaps we don’t have eyes to see the purpose. Perhaps it doesn’t have a purpose, and perhaps we need to be OK with that.

We tend to want answers, and closure. Perhaps it is healthier just to observe without judgment.