Joy Found Above Ground

I guess I’ve become a little gluttonous—for a few months now we’ve been living above ground, breathing clear, wide-open air, and taking advantage of the fullness of life we’ve had restored. I suppose I haven’t wanted to return to this blog, its roots so deeply hidden in the soils of heartache, suffering, and hard-fought, gritty hope.  For so long we felt like coal miners living in deep, dark spaces distinct and distant from the ordinary pace and activity of life above ground, awash with light and fresh air and options. Ours was a small cart on a solitary track moving ahead in a single beam of light. Weekly rounds of chemo; the ebb and flow of nausea, fatigue and insomnia. Focus only on the quiet voice of the Shepherd turned Coal Mine Guide. Silence the noise of cancer text books. The internet. Others’ stories, so tempting to overlay on our own. It’s quiet underground and not exactly scenic, yet as my friend Julie pointed out, deep down in those caves are gems and veins of hidden gold if you have the patience to mine for them. And she’s right. I’ve seen first hand the beauty of those places in the dark.

Yet little by little, since this past spring, the tracks for our small cart began to slope upward. We felt a gust of fresh air when doctors finally released Chris from chemotherapy in March. A haze of light filtered in when our gift-house came along. We began hearing faint sounds of life above ground when Chris’s spring scan came back clear. And then our cart shot straight up out of the mines and into the blaze and ruckus of summer when we arrived in Crested Butte, CO, for a summer mission. Pippa turned two and we celebrated with bunny ears, shakers and dancing.

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Pippa, how old are you now!

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Two fingers can be tricky! She sure had fun adding sprinkles herself :).

At first the intensity of the lights, sounds and clamoring activity overpowered our senses and atrophied muscles, leaving us breathless and scrambling for a quiet, even dim, retreat. But that clear air, the quickened pulse in our veins as we stretched and pushed our muscles uphill, the freshness of a friend and colleague’s idea, the remarkable beauty of a student’s life story kept our feet moving above ground.

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Priceless moments with students

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Putting those atrophied muscles to the test!

In June another blood test revealed 0% mutations. No signs of cancer. In August another scan showed healed bones and an even deader, more shrunken “cancer scar” in Chris’s liver. The miracle that began taking shape last year with threads fragile as silk started thickening into cords we could swing out on.

Pippa LOVED her eating her very own ice cream cone for the first time after Chris’s great report in August:

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Chris surprised me with a day with friends for my 40th birthday in July

September found Chris hauling 100 plus-pound river rafts and guiding students through whitewater; passing his climbing guide recertification with the highest score he’s ever had. In October we celebrated his birthday (belated) with a long weekend in the Black Hills, of course scaling towers in The Needles and exploring the mysterious chalk hills and buttes of the Badlands.

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Chris continues to be the poster child of the Avera Precision Oncology department, and we were surprised to read a recent article about him in their annual report in which they said, “With his cancer in remission, the family is currently living life to the fullest…” Wait. Did they say remission??

Chris, did your dad write this? (Chris’s dad has begun helping the Avera Foundation raise money to allow others to receive the kind of personalized treatment Chris has had and to make genomic sequencing standard of care.)

A phone call or two later we learned that this word, this miracle, came from Chris’s genomic oncologist, Dr. Leyland-Jones. After googling the definition of remission a while ago, Chris and I had begun using this term ourselves, but what a game-changer to hear it from a doctor and see it in print. I guess it was about a year ago that he said, “We might be able to eradicate this once and for all.” This is a new season.

Here’s a 3:27 minute clip from a South Dakota Public Broadcast featuring Dr. Leyland-Jones and Chris:

Just last week we celebrated our fifth anniversary a little early by gorging on climbs and hikes and canyons in southern Utah. Chris still struggles with neuropathy (numbness and nerve pain) in his hands and feet, a slow-healing side effect of the chemo. And yet, he managed to hike 20-30 miles, down-climb miles of uneven boulder gullies, ascend a blank rock face and overhung roof (with nothing but a rope, sling, and a couple prusiks for those climbing nerds who care) to dislodge a rope, and lead four different rock climbs.

While all these physical accomplishments are astounding, what’s most remarkable and meaningful is the gift of restored joy and freedom. I wish I’d been able to record Chris as he made his way up the rock wall on our first day of climbing in Utah. His repeated shouts of, “YES! This is just so fun!!” and “WOO HOO!!! I can’t believe how great this is!!” echoed throughout the valley below us. After three exhilarating climbs the sun hung low just above the horizon. We looked at each other and said, “Yes. We have headlamps, let’s do one more!” We grabbed our gear and scrambled as fast as we could to a nearby 5.9 climb. We made it up just as the last cloud turned from pink to grey, and even managed to get back to the car before headlamps became a necessity. It was a day suspended in time—pure joy untouched by all the muck and grime of the past and free from the unknowns of the future.

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The next few days the same momentum of joy carried us along as we rappelled through canyons in Zion National Park, sat in wonder overlooking Bryce Canyon National Park, hiked through a slot canyon in Escalante National Monument and enjoyed long, uninterrupted conversations about the past five years, our marriage, Pippa, and the future. We started each day echoing the praises of God that we read in a Psalm and then thanking Him for being so merciful, generous, loving and kind. We ate In-N-Out burgers, we ate Thai food, we ate a bag of honeycrisp apples. We slept in and read books.

We came home with full hearts and a little bit of warm sunshine trailing behind us as we stepped into the 20-degree chill of Sioux Falls last Friday. And now we continue walking in the steps God has assigned for us–returning to work, to Bible Study Fellowship, to MOPS, to our Eritrean friends, and to our community. It feels good to be looking outward, to be finding new ways to serve. I’m planting spring bulbs; Chris started going to a weekly cycling (spinning) class with a friend.

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Meanwhile while Mama’s working…Pippa is industriously grinding Play-doh into her clothing and the cracks in the floor :).

Today we celebrated our official anniversary by going out to breakfast, watching our wedding highlight video and playing with Pippa on the living room floor. If I could go back in time to this day five years ago, I would choose Chris and our life together all over again. All of it—the highs and lows that have taken our breath away and all the even places in between. I love you Christopher!

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The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” ~Psalm 16:5-6

 

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