Alive

Simple things should be celebrated; things like breathing. I am continually disappointed by how quickly I lose gratefulness for the mundane. I wake up. I stretch. I drink water without pain and think only of my thirst. I shuffle to my bathroom and manage to brush my teeth without fouling the sink with last night’s dinner and don’t give it a second thought. I met Jesus at my bathroom sink. He’s still there, I just forget to say hello far too often.

I celebrated my fifty-second birthday not long ago, marking another year in overtime since someone called the last quarter. Forty-seven has been the major mile marker on my road of life since I was thirteen. My father never made it to forty-eight. They carried him out of the house on a sheet twenty days before Christmas in 1978. It wasn’t until I reached 47 that I realized how young my father was when he passed away and began to sense a tinge of living on borrowed time. Then, in my forty-ninth year, I was informed that I had cancer already at Stage IV.

Beating dad’s longevity by two short years seemed a small accomplishment in the face of that diagnosis. My youngest hadn’t yet reached the age I was when I lost my father. I certainly didn’t want him or my other children to go through what I did as a child. I know firsthand what widowhood did to my mother. I couldn’t bear the thought of such a burden on my wife. So I decided to submit to the chemo and walk through the fires of radiation to see my way through. That’s when I met Jesus at my bathroom sink.

I’ve been a dedicate student of the Bible most of my life. In more than three decades of study, I had developed a fairly woven tapestry of theology. All of that went away at teeth brushing time. I would pray to the Lord not to throw up and then when I did, I would thank Him for carrying me through. I was especially thankful for the mornings I didn’t have to brush my teeth twice. When life is under that type of stress, one becomes thankful for the simple things in life. Each day is horrible, but you’re glad for it because it’s a day you’ve overcome. Redemption is another day closer. Sorrow only lasts for the night.

I get stressed out now. I worry. Will we triumph over the termites? Can I get my budget done on time? Will I parent well and help my children be successful? Are my brakes making noise, or is it just my imagination? Will folks at church get offended at me? Will we win that bid? What if I get fired? Silly stuff, really, because I’m alive. Every time I breathe without thankfulness, temporary pressures take on the form of titan troubles. He carried me through the fire, what is that in the face of a business budget or bad brakes? I am cancer free, thank God, but I need to remember the character that chemo taught me.

I do things now I wouldn’t have done three years ago; things like going to a hip-hop concert with my kids on St. Patrick’s Day. “Honey,” my wife asked, “you want to go to a Toby Mac concert with your kids?” Sure, why not? I’m alive, aren’t I? If they’re going to have fun, I’m going to join them in the experience. I hadn’t been to a pop music venue since 1979. Five minutes into the show, I remembered why. Hip hop isn’t really my thing. Through most of the sets, the visuals on the big screens were more a distraction from the music than they were an enhancement to the show. I say “most” because I was grateful for them when Matt Maher performed.

There I was, a recently minted fifty-two year old with his teenage and twenty something kids suffering through songs I didn’t know and words I couldn’t make out but glad my kids were enjoying themselves. Then, in the middle of the bedlam a worship service broke out. Matt Maher had taken the stage. Lyrics were on the screen and the songs had a melody I could follow. I came out to be with my children and have fun. I didn’t expect to wind up in tears.

“Amen, Amen
I’m alive, I’m alive
Because He lives
Amen, Amen
Let my song join the one that never ends

Because He lives
I can face tomorrow
Because He lives
Every fear is gone
I know He holds my life my future in His hands”

(“I’m Alive Because He Lives” by Matt Maher)

As I sang this song, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness. I’m alive. I’ve marked another year. My children are not orphans, my wife not a widow. I am the wealthiest man I know. And I am so because He lives. Simple things should be celebrated; things like breathing, even at a hip hop concert.

The Wrong Side of the Gun

It has happened to me too many times, which is to say that it’s happened to me twice. I have jumped on the hood of an oncoming car, been threatened by a group of drunk rednecks embroiled in a romance rift, cleaned public restrooms which were defiled beyond description, sat under the disappointed glare of my father and across the table from IRS Inquisitors. None of these circumstances compares to the discomfiture I felt on the wrong side of a gun. No other place I’d rather not be.

I was only fifteen the first time. I grew up in a small town with little crime. It was the kind of place where people only locked their cars on accident and their houses hardly ever. I was walking home late at night with no sense of apprehension or concern. A car started up on the road across the field that ran parallel to mine. I watched as it made its way to the perpendicular street, drove up the hill to my road, turned right, and headed toward me. What, me worry? We lived in a safe place full of friendly people who were more apt to offer me a ride home than run me over. I didn’t slow my pace or change my course. The car, however, headed directly toward me and stopped as it pulled alongside.

Did I mention that our town was full of friendly people? I happened to be one of those people. Not only was I friendly, I also had the benefit of being young and naïve. The driver was a long hair, but I was partial to hippies so he didn’t bother me. His girlfriend looked nice enough. I bent down to the passenger side window to find out what they needed. That was when the driver stretched his arm across the back of the seat behind his girlfriend’s head and pointed his pistol at me. “Give me your money,” he said. For better or worse, I’m generally a logical person prone to truthful answers. Unfortunately, the robber found my truthful response of “I don’t have any money” less than believable. “Give me your money, [insert alliterative curse]!” His girlfriend looked more scared than I felt.

For a split second, I considered falling backward off the road as it sat on a short rise that marked the end of the field it ran beside. I would be out of his line of sight with a good chance of making my escape. I didn’t consider this option because I was particularly bold but because I was partially disbelieving. The revolver had to be a fake, I reasoned, a toy gun the hippie was using to make a fast score. Thankfully, an olfactory miracle saved me from my folly. Despite the wind at my back, I was still able to smell the oil of the gun in my face. I became a believer and tossed my wallet through the window. My assailant gunned the engine and roared away. I walked for about a minute after that then considered what he might do when he found that my wallet really was devoid of cash as I had said. I sprinted the next half mile home. My brother wouldn’t believe I was mugged until I called our mom at work. She gave me no rest until I called the police. They never caught the perpetrator nor recovered my property.

The second time was worse. I was nineteen working as a low-level manager in a fast food restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond isn’t huge; but compared to where I came from, it was Big Town. It is the kind of place where people lock their cars on purpose and deadbolt their doors even when they are home. Anyone offering you a ride is suspect. I was working the morning shift prepping the salad bar with ice in between taking orders and making breakfast croissants. Bucket full of ice, I headed out to the dining room just as one of my customers stormed past the serving line. I’ve dealt with my share of angry customers, but this took the cake. What on earth could I have gotten so wrong with her order that would cause her to cross the barrier line between customer and food server with a look that said she was ready to throttle me? I continued forward to intercept her, feeling certain that my chances were good against a lady in her sixties. That’s when she dropped the bomb.

“He’s got a gun,” she said as she passed me and went straight back to the kitchen. I looked up and sure enough, there he was shooing my customers to the kitchen with threatening waves of his nickel plated .357 magnum revolver. I should have been more alert. Had I noticed him before my customer told me that we were being robbed, I could have warned the crew in the kitchen to beat feet out the back door. But it was too late. He had us in his sights and though there were maybe fifteen of us and he had only six shots, none of us wanted to be his target. Coworkers and customers were herded into a bunch in the small kitchen. Only two of us were in managerial ties. He trained the gun on me. I absolutely hate being on the wrong side of a gun.

“Open the safe, [insert derogatory comment regarding inappropriate family relations]!” I had him. For better or worse, I’ve been blessed with a sense of humor that loves to express itself under pressure. Hands raised over my head, face before the open bore of his threat, I donned a slight smile and said, “I don’t have the combination.” Checkmate, Robber Man! My victory was short lived. “I do,” chimed in Jeremy, the assistant manager. I wanted to shoot him.

Robber Man ordered us into the walk-in freezer and refrigerator. I won the freezer lottery along with several of the customers and a couple of my coworkers. A lady holding her three-year-old daughter started chanting, “He’s going to kill us, he’s going to kill us, oh God, he’s going to kill us.” Fortunately, I already had a relationship with the Almighty through the auspices of His Son Jesus Christ and I felt assured by Him that we weren’t going to die that day. “Ma’am, he’s not going to kill us,” I told her. This seemed to allay her fears momentarily. But then she started chanting, “I’m going to be sick, I think I’m going to throw up.” This was serious. I got within inches of her face and made sure we had strong eye contact. “Ma’am, you are not going to throw up.” Her eyes went wide and she was trembling from fear and the cold. “You know why you aren’t going to throw up?” I asked her. No, her headshake said. “You aren’t going to throw up because this is my walk-in and if you throw up in it, I’ll have to clean it up. So you are not going to throw up.” I wasn’t a highly compassionate young man. Regardless, she managed to keep her croissant breakfast down. God bless her!

We turned the freezer fan off and my coworker and I began stacking the boxes of frozen roast beef in front of the door. I was confident we weren’t going to be killed, but there was no reason not to take precautions. Frozen roast beef makes for an awesome barricade. That didn’t stop us from jumping when the door was pulled open. “You can come out now,” Jeremy said to the wall of boxes in front of him, “he’s gone.”

Jeremy had his own tale of terror to tell. Our safe had two compartments. As a crew leader, I didn’t have the combination for either door. Assistant managers had the combination for the top safe. As the daily cash receipts mounted up, they would bundle the money with a report and put it through the slot in the back of the top safe to drop it down into the bottom one. Only our general manager had the combination to the bottom safe and she wasn’t working that morning. After the robber had put us all in cold storage, he directed Jeremy to open the safe. Jeremy complied, opening the top safe and giving the gunman all the cash. The robber then asked him to open the bottom safe. Jeremy was stuck. After volunteering his possession of the combination, he was forced to confess, “I don’t have it.” A tense moment transpired while the thief weighed his options. Thankfully, he settled for the top safe cash and the minimal amount in the registers and didn’t add murder to his crimes.

The police apprehended him and his wheelman within the hour. They brought him back to the store for an on-the-spot, single-perp line up. “Is this the man?” they asked me. Right build and race, I told them, but he had covered his face with a bandana while holding us up. All I had seen were his eyes and the gun.

That is exactly what I told the prosecutor on the day of the trial. He interviewed me for about a minute in the hallway outside of the courtroom. The case would be in front of the judge shortly. He thanked me and asked me stay close until the bailiff called me in. Then he and an attractive young lady engaged in a very cordial and lively discussion. “I am going to say this and so.” “Good, then I will respond with thus and such.” “Fantastic, then I can move for a whatchamacallit.” “I won’t object and we can be done with this one in less than half an hour.” It donned on me then that she was the public defender. They were both overworked young professionals in a taxed judicial system doing what they could to make their day smoother. For a country bumpkin like me, it was a real eye opener.

I can’t remember what sentence was handed down after the prosecutor secured his conviction. The main bone of contention from the defense was the impromptu, single-perp line up at the scene of the crime. The police had presented us with only one man to identify, no wonder several of us said he was the robber. In spite of her argument, the decision went against her appointed client. His gun and bandana certainly matched the description, as did the amount of cash found in the car.

In the weeks following the event, what surprised me most in recollection was my calmness in the encounter. I remember being glad the restaurant remained closed as the police worked the crime scene since it gave me time to have breakfast. It wasn’t until several months later that the true impact of the event started coming to light. I was in a convenience store happily looking for a snack when I found myself suddenly anxious and very uptight. I scanned the store and eyed the exit and wondered why I was on the verge of a panic attack. That is when I fully noticed him.

A worker had just come on shift and walked behind the counter without his store smock on. My peripheral vision had caught the action and my limbic system pushed the fright-and-flight hyperdrive button. I paid for my purchase and went to my car where I sat shaken, waiting for my body to metabolize the sudden influx of adrenaline. I was shocked by the realization of just how deeply the robbery had affected me.

One might think being victimized by armed robbers would make me a strong advocate for gun control. But the only gun control I advocate is a firm and steady grip on the firearm to improve aim. Having said this, the reader could be excused for believing me to be a Second Amendment proponent for personal self-defense. But self-defense is not the primary reason I own firearms. I enjoy hunting, but harvesting wild game isn’t the reason for my arsenal. I own guns because I am a student of history with a deep respect for our Founding Fathers who had a healthy distrust of human nature when vested with governmental authority.

As much as I dislike being robbed at gunpoint, the thought of living under the authority of elected officials who are on the wrong side of the gun disturbs me more. I remember the stories of Don Antonio’s father being pulled out his house in front of a Guardia Civil firing squad for making jokes about Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator. I remember him showing us the walls pockmarked by bullets where priests had been lined up and shot by the regime; lambs led to slaughter, losers of the Spanish Civil War. I think of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot and shake my head sadly at all those who believe it couldn’t happen in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Our Founders held no such delusions.

As I write this, there are five front runners in the 2016 Presidential Election race: Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. I have studied each of their positions on the Second Amendment. Were I a single-issue voter (which I am not), following is how I would rank my choices from best to worst.

No.1 – Ted Cruz
Cruz would be my top pick of the pack for a politician that would work to uphold our right to keep and bear arms. Of the five, he is the one whose communication and actions on the subject indicate that he gets the true purpose and meaning of the Second Amendment.

”The Second Amendment to the Constitution isn’t for just protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny — for the protection of liberty.”[1]

Senator Cruz understands that the Founders enshrined in our Constitution the right of the people to keep and bear arms as a bulwark against the State’s abuse of the monopoly on violence. It is intended as a hedge against tyranny. The first purpose of an armed citizenry is to protect our liberties from threats domestic. Secondarily, being familiar with and in possession of firearms makes the citizenry more prepared to defend its liberties against foreign enemies. Target practice and hunting are meaningless without these two securities being in place. And in a nation where the citizenry is denied the right to defend its liberties from all governments, both foreign and domestic, the notion of using a firearm for self-defense is nothing more than an invitation to be prosecuted for such action by the state.

No. 2 – Marco Rubio
Rubio comes in second not for any lack of support for Second Amendment rights but because I could find no clear statement from him that compares to Senator Cruz’s crystal expression of the Founder’s intent in the Second Amendment. Aside from that, his focus on violence being the real problem while defending our right to keep and bear arms is commendable. An example of this can be seen in his delivery of the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in February of 2013.

“We were all heart broken by the recent [school shooting] tragedy in Connecticut. We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country. But unconstitutionally undermining the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.”[2]

When pressed about this during a CNN interview a couple of months later, Senator Rubio had this to say:

“My position on guns is pretty clear. I believe law-abiding people have a fundamental constitutional right to bear arms…I’m troubled this debate is about guns. It should be about violence. Violence is the problem, guns are what they’re using. We are missing a golden opportunity to have an open, honest and serious conversation about these horrific violent acts, because everyone’s focused on passing these laws that have proven ineffective.”[3]

As much as I like his answer and his efforts to correctly characterize the problem, the following policy statement from his web site is what put him in second place in my book:

“New gun laws will do nothing to deter criminals from obtaining firearms; they will simply be ignored by those who wish to do harm. Meanwhile, new restrictions will infringe on the rights of good, law-abiding Americans who wish to have a gun for hunting, sport, or, most important, the protection of their families.”[4]

Whenever a politician – right or left – puts hunting first in a list of gun rights, my radar goes up. I begin to fear that they don’t truly understand the Second Amendment; or, worse yet, they do but opted to pander to those who don’t anyway. At least he qualified the order of his list by claiming the protection of our families as the most important reason to have a gun. But it is couched in the context of deterring criminals. I assert that the Founders believed it was most important to deter tyrants. I happen to agree with them.

No. 3 – Bernie Sanders
Those who know me may be surprised that I place Bernie Sanders above the darling of the Reality Show Right, but I mean it. He would be my third pick in the current field in spite of statements like the following:

“This is what I do believe. I come from a state that has virtually no gun control. And yet, at political peril, I voted for an instant background check, which I want to see strengthened and expanded. I voted to ban certain types of assault weapons, which are designed only to kill people.”[5]

All due respect to Senator Sanders, but as a man who has harvested his fair share of game using firearms I can attest to the fact that my dove hunting shotgun is perfectly capable of killing a man. I am also fairly certain that given the opportunity, I could take a deer down with an AR-15; particularly if I had a magazine that held more than ten rounds of ammunition. So exactly, pray tell, is an “assault weapon” which is designed only to kill people? Personally, I wouldn’t own a firearm that was incapable of taking human life. Every tyrant I’ve ever studied or read about is human. They are the reason why I own guns.

So why do I place Senator Sanders third? Because with Bernie, you know what you’re buying. I dare say that of all the presidential candidates, he is the least ambiguous regarding his beliefs or positions. Besides, if he got elected I would expect there to be an upswing in gun sales and a true galvanization on the right.

No. 4 – Hillary Clinton
Clinton scores below Sanders because her gun control solution is to attack capitalism and free trade. The following is one of her positions statements from her web site:

“Hillary believes the gun industry must be held accountable for violence perpetrated with their guns. Hillary will lead the charge to repeal the so-called ‘Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act,’ a dangerous law that prevents victims of gun violence from holding negligent manufacturers and dealers accountable for violence perpetrated with their guns.”[6]

The web site lists this as one of the ways Clinton plans to prioritize community safety over gun lobby profits.[7] A true socialist elite with a law degree, her solution to the nation’s violence problem is to criminalize manufactures and expose them to fiscal confiscation through the courts. Sanders at least had the sense to defend the manufactures by voting against such measures. It makes me think he understand at least a little bit about how commerce should work.

Last – Donald Trump
Trump is the loser when it comes to politicians whose positions on the Second Amendment I could trust. I use the term “politician” when it comes to the Donald loosely as I don’t consider him to be one. Many may consider this to be a good thing. Not me. Like it or not, the office of the President of the United States is a political office which requires political experience. That would make the Donald worse than an apprentice. He is simply not qualified for the post.

Note the following from the Reality Show Right darling that the likes of Shawn Hannity and Rush Limbaugh seem intent on fawning over as the potential savior of conservatism:

“I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.”[8]

The statement comes from his book The America We Deserve published in 2000. It is essentially his initial résumé for the office he currently seeks. Generally oppose gun control? I don’t want a president that “generally” opposes gun control. Tell me clearly if you’ll fight for my right to keep them or if you intend to erode my liberty in some way. Support the ban on assault weapons? I refer you to my comments above regarding Senator Sanders.

In a display of his need to play to crowd and his savvy celebrity brand marketing, the following policy statement can be found on his campaign web site:

“Gun and magazine bans are a total failure. That’s been proven every time it’s been tried. Opponents of gun rights try to come up with scary sounding phrases like ‘assault weapons’, ‘military-style weapons’ and ‘high capacity magazines’ to confuse people…The government has no business dictating what types of firearms good, honest people are allowed to own.”[9]

Which Donald are we to believe, the supposedly serious and concerned citizen who took counsel with a group of White House experienced domestic and foreign policy advisers to write his book in 2000 or the crass and sophomoric midway carnival man of the 2016 Presidential campaign? Therein lies my dilemma. Not only do I not know where he truly stands, should he get elected I fear conservatives will fall asleep and the Donald will rob us all blind.

An armed America is a strong America. Vote your conscience and stock up on ammo just in case.

[1] Ted Cruz, “What the Times Doesn’t Get about the Second Amendment,” National Review (2015), accessed February 7, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/417149/second-amendment-history-lesson-times-ted-cruz.
[2] http://www.ontheissues.org/2016/Marco_Rubio_Gun_Control.htm, accessed February 7, 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] https://marcorubio.com/policy-for-you/marco-rubio-gun-owners-second-amendment/, accessed February 7, 2016.
[5]http://www.ontheissues.org/2016/Bernie_Sanders_Gun_Control.htm, accessed February 7, 2016.
[6]https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/gun-violence-prevention/, accessed February 7, 2016.
[7] Ibid.
[8]http://www.ontheissues.org/Celeb/Donald_Trump_Gun_Control.htm, accessed February 7, 2016.
[9]https://www.donaldjtrump.com/positions/second-amendment-rights, accessed February 7, 2016.

Pizza Night: Milestone on Recovery Road

I prefer miracles over medicine, but enjoy being alive most of all. With a diagnosis of cancer comes an assault of life-altering information. You are no longer just feeling sick; you are ill. You aren’t fighting off some foreign invader; you are being attacked by your own flesh. Treatment success rates are given to you in percentiles and the percentiles matter. The devastation of the therapy is contrasted with the known path of the disease and it actually sounds like the better option.

I still chuckle when I see drug commercials on television. You know the ones. People who look somewhat healthy are all shown celebrating the various fun activities of a normal life: family dinners, beach outings, fishing trips, and the like. The cheerful voiceover announcer begins to talk in soothing tones about the new drug you should ask your doctor for to treat your condition. “Do you suffer from an overactive bladder? Are trips to the bathroom keeping you from going to the beach? Nopeasama® could be the drug for you. Patients treated with Nopeasama® have shown marked improvement in bladder control and have been able to reclaim their lives.”

The music is uplifting and the lighting bright. The fancy logo scrolls across the screen as the announcer’s tone drops in volume and elevates in seriousness. “Nopeasama® has been known to cause diarrhea, severe vomiting, and frequent nosebleeds in some patients. Other possible side effects include dizziness, drowsiness, depression, and dehydration. In some instances, Nopeasama® has caused blindness in small hamsters and redheads. If you are a small hamster, do not take this product.” I laugh, but I laugh like a man whistling through a graveyard.

Faced with a choice between a highly probable death and a course of therapy guaranteed to cause permanent damage, I signed up for the treatment. This seems like a no-brainer and it actually is. Had I taken more time to think about it – or if I had known then what I know now – I might have chickened out and ran the other way. After all, dying in and of itself isn’t that scary of a concept to confront. Perhaps a story might help to explain what I mean.

Pretend for a moment that you are the hero in a classic Western movie. You are minding your own business, leaning up against the hitching post while you watch the dusty traffic on Main Street. A man in a black hat rides up to you, leans forward in his saddle and says, “You know, I could kill you, Cal.”[1] You see, that threat only carries a minimal level of menace. We in the audience barely squirm as you calmly stare the villain down with a cocky I’d-like-to-see-you-try smirk on your face. “CUT!” the director cries. “Let’s do that again; only this time, make me feel it.” You knew this was coming, because black hat always blows his line on the first take.

“I’m gonna kill ya, Cal,” black hat says. “But I’m gonna kill ya slow, see; so it hurts. Hurts real bad. And I’m gonna make your woman watch while I do it.” Now the audience is nervous and black hat hasn’t even given the details yet. Then he says, “I’m gonna make your tongue swell up so big that swallowing water will be nothin’ but a distant and painful memory. I’m gonna fill the lymph nodes in your neck with so much fluid, they’re gonna explode clean through your skin. Once I’m nearly done with you, you’ll wish you had taken me up on my offer!” No cocky smirk this time, black hat is serious and you’re in trouble. What’s worse, your woman is looking real nervous and on the verge of tears. “Offer? What offer you talkin’ about, Cancer Bill?” The villain looks pensive. Misery was his game and he was fairly good at causing it by sneaking up on folks. But it was always a gamble when you asked them to volunteer for it.

“Oh, well, we can go through all that I just talked about or you let me bolt you down in the Mask and shoot you with my fancy new ray gun every mornin’ for seven weeks straight. Your neck will burn worse than that time on the cattle drive when you forgot your bandana and lost your hat in the windstorm. But you won’t mind that much because about the middle of the third week, your throat’s gonna feel like I shoved a brandin’ iron down it and let it sit a while as I watched the smoke come out your nose. And in case you get any funny ideas about making things better with some ice cream or mamma’s chicken soup, I’m gonna fill your veins with my special snake venom. It won’t kill ya, maybe, but you’ll wish you’d died. All you gotta do is make it to the end of the seven weeks and I’ll call the feud off.”

“Well, why didn’t you say that in the first place, Cancer Bill. Sign me up for the torture. It sounds like the more sensible deal. Besides, makes me nervous when my woman cries.” Cue the sunset.

Upon reflection, my decision to undergo chemotherapy and radiation for head and neck cancer was perhaps more cavalier than courageous. They warned me it would be painfully difficult and leave me a changed man. But I had no idea how painful and nor did I appreciate the challenges that the differences would make. Which brings me to pizza night, or almost.

Shortly after my second dose of chemo, anything that had even a remote connection to tomatoes came off the menu. I love tomatoes. Fresh tomato slices served with dinner? Sign me up. Tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches? Any time of year. Ketchup? Good on eggs, potatoes, burgers, meatloaf, and any meal that needed help. Stews, spaghetti, eggplant parmesan, lasagna, and pizza. I loved them all. But I especially love a good pizza. All of this and any possibility of it came off the menu. Tomatoes turned into nausea inducing rusty metal with a crust of sugar in my mouth. And they tasted that way long after my throat had healed and the chemo was gone. It hasn’t been until recently, now some nineteen months after my last infusion of the life-saving deadly cocktail, that tomato sauce has been tolerable.

So it was that after an impromptu movie date with my bride, I spied the pizzeria across the courtyard from the theater and said, “Let’s get dinner.” “Are you serious?” she asked. “Yeah, I’m game.” I said. Never mind that taking on crust substantially adds to the challenge of swallowing food without saliva. Never mind that often times I eat by memory as how food now tastes frequently bears little resemblance to how it used to taste. Never mind that it was after eleven o’clock at night. It was pizza and for the first time in a while, I really felt like I got the draw on Cancer Bill.

It didn’t taste like it used to, but it came real close. And it only took me three glasses of water to get two small slices down. But I was thankful. Thankful to have come through. Thankful to be alive. Thankful to eat pizza. And thankful most of all for my bride.

[1] If you’re name isn’t Cal, just go with it. It’s a movie, for goodness sake!

West African Journey

“Immunizations: Yellow Fever is mandatory.” For someone none too keen on the entire immunization industry, this notice alone in the information pack should have given me pause regarding my travel plans. Yellow fever is fairly tame when compared to the hemorrhagic fever known as Ebola, but this was long before the current outbreak. Regardless, I wouldn’t be allowed in country without the yellow fever certificate in my passport, so to the clinic I went. Had I know the troubles that Lariam[1] would give me, the yellow fever vaccine would have been the least of my worries.

I’ve flown over oceans, seen icebergs swimming in their natural environment, and gazed over the orderly squares that tamed the amber waves of grain. But nothing gives one that out-of-Kansas feeling quite like the expanse of the Saharan sands. The plane was pointed south and soon we would be in Mali. Our stop there was short and disconcerting. Once most of the passengers deplaned, the flight attendant took her post in the safety demonstration area. Only this time, there was no fake seat belt or unattached air mask. She held up two aerosol cans and shook them vigorously. With the nonchalance of experience, she cracked both foggers open and walked the length of the plane and back. It seems that the dangers posed by the mosquito far outweighed any comfort considerations for the remaining passengers. Definitely not Kansas.

Our next stop was in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso where we would meet up with the missionaries we had come to work with for the next two weeks. Our ultimate destination was the town of Wa in northwestern Ghana. But we would need our rest for that journey, a grueling 220 mile ride on the dirt highways of the interior that would take nearly eight hours. We awoke that morning refreshed and expectant, eager to commence our church planting mission in the upper west territory of Ghana. But first, our missionary guides had to renew their visas.

We stood outside the consulate taking in the sights, smells, and sounds while our hosts sorted out their visas inside. Six of us had come on this short-term mission trip: three women, two men, and one teenage boy. All of us were white except for Jackie, who was an African-American in Africa for the first time like most of us. One of our teammates was a veteran. This was her third or fourth foray into West Africa. And she was sure that French was the lingua franca necessary to successfully interact with natives in this part of the world.

She and I were involved in a heated debate over the usefulness of French over Spanish as we watched the sea of humanity ride by on a kaleidoscope of mopeds. She was right in her assumptions regarding the usefulness of French in West Africa. But I was stubborn and far from a Francophile. Spanish, I informed her, had gotten me by in most places that I had traveled. I felt no need to learn French. Just then, a moped peeled away from the flow of the avenue and steered straight for us. The gentleman dismounted, strode up to me, and asked “Se habla español?” I turned to my teammate and smiled.

We talked for nearly forty-five minutes. He was a Burkina native who had lived and studied in Mexico City for ten years. He hadn’t had any opportunities to practice his Spanish since returning home. The presence of white faces hanging out on the avenue gave him hope that perhaps today was his day. What are the odds? We talked about life in Mexico, the US, and Africa. And we talked about Jesus; how he came to save all and without whom all were doomed. We shook hands and he rode off. The mission had begun in earnest.

The following days were perhaps some of the most intense I’ve ever experienced in life or ministry. I’m not unaccustomed to culture shock, but I was unprepared for its sub-Saharan impact. I watched in amazement as women carried anything from water jugs to large bundles of branches on their heads; just one more on their long list of daily chores required for survival. A mother bathed her young boy in a wash tub outside set in the dirt lot in front of their shack. Fifty feet away, others defecated into the ditch that ran through this section of town. What litter wasn’t stuck in the mud was fair game for toilet paper. Singular encounters turned to thronging audiences without much notice. All music was beautiful and loud.

Regardless of what we told ourselves about our commitment or sacrifice to be there, the fact remained that as Westerners, we were pampered and soft. The Ghanaian workers that had come up from Accra in the south or had signed on from local congregations spent far more time evangelizing on the streets and trails than we did. While we rested in the comfort of the missionaries’ house, they rested on the cinderblock and wood plank pews set up on the dirt floor of the makeshift church. At night, under the single light of a naked bulb, the invited came to sing praises to Jesus, hear the Gospel, and receive salvation.

It was toward the end of our journey when Jackie shared her revelation with us. I remember her fiddling with her Nefertiti gold necklace as she worked to put words to her thoughts. She was old enough to remember the racial tensions of the late 1960s and early 1970s in America and black enough to have experienced any of the numerous slights suffered by her people that white folks are oblivious to. The insult of slavery still brought tears to her eyes. And yet, she confessed, if slavery is what her ancestors had to suffer for her to be born an American; she was grateful.

To deny that ethnic injustice persists in the US is to betray ignorance of the facts. To smash windows in Berkley, California because a cigar robber in Missouri got himself killed while assaulting a police officer is to abandon reason. As a society, we need to continue advancing toward the experiential reality that all men were created equal. We have made great strides in that direction. Let us pray that we may continue to do so and not slide into the darker side of West Africa’s journey.

[1] I took this trip in August of 2001. In 2003, this anti-malarial med was implicated in the psychotic episodes of some returning servicemen.

Immigrant’s Song

“I have been a stranger in a strange land.”
Moshe ben ‘Amram, c. 1440 BC

I was born in America. Well, California to be precise; which is close enough. Strange land indeed. My parents began dreaming of their exodus not long after my birth, if not before. My dad was an immigrant’s son. My mother was tied to the land through a centuries-long, generational thread. But that thread wound its way to other origins that she was anxious to explore. And the traveling man she married was more than happy to oblige. The four minor children still in the home didn’t have a vote.

It was 1970. What belongings weren’t sold we packed and we made our way to the Arkansan Ozarks. Arkansas wasn’t a foreign country, but it was foreign enough. And it was deep country, southern through and through. We were only stopping off for a year, but I didn’t know that at the time. Mom and dad both worked. All four of us children went to school. Life was fairly normal, except for the funny way people talked. I didn’t suspect a thing.

I’m sure that there must have been discussions and family planning. We were a fairly close-knit crew and the folks liked to involve us in the overall efforts. But I was only six when preparations were under way, so I’m certain I missed a memo or two. When dad crated up his rifles and stereo equipment, I should have realized that a big change was coming. But my imagination wasn’t sufficiently developed to envision the grand adventure they had in mind. Even now, with an additional forty-three years of life behind me, I shake my head in disbelief.

What remained of our essential possessions was loaded up in the back of the pick-up truck. Dad drove us to Michigan for a visit with my oldest brother, Ronald. The third oldest boy, Michael, made a surprise appearance. When dad sold him the truck, I should have been worried. But when you’re six years’ old and your family goes on a shopping spree inside a camping store, it’s like Christmas. Me worry? Whatever for? Like the rest of them, I was outfitted with a backpack, sleeping bag, canteen, mess kit, and poncho. Aside from the one instance when I happened to send a fish hook through my hand, my limited experience had taught me that camping was fun. My limits were about to be expanded.

What remained of our essential possessions was loaded up into our backpacks. I don’t know exactly where our walk began, though I doubt it was Ann Arbor. I have no doubt of where we wound up, which was Kennedy Airport in New York. To get there, we walked through a substantial length of Pennsylvania, much of it under the shower of September rains. My father had just turned forty, my mother forty-two. The children they were leading – Eric, Barbara, Timothy, and me – were twelve, ten, eight, and six respectively. As the youngest, I undoubtedly had the lightest pack. Even so, it was an easy twenty pounds. We hiked for three weeks to catch our plane to Spain.

Our trek bears little resemblance to those taken by individuals and families south of the border making their way into America. We weren’t aliens, illegal or otherwise, walking on the rugged trails of this land. We were Americans. I think that most native born US citizens lack a perspective to truly appreciate what that means. We walked through town and country, secure in our persons and belongings. No coyotes led the way. No brigands blocked it. And no one asked for papers or identification until it came time to depart our shores.

After a couple of stops along the way, we arrived on the plain in Spain where the rain mainly came. My folks had settled on Castellon de la Plana as the new place to call home based on a recommendation from a fellow traveler newly met. Their intentions became clear. We were still Americans, but we hadn’t come to Spain to visit. We had come to assimilate. We had come to live as Spaniards. They had no jobs, no contacts, but some capital. None of us spoke Spanish. And we freedom-breathing inheritors of the liberty bought with the blood of the Founders and those they led were living in the last, and longest lasting, Fascist dictatorship in Europe.

By all accounts, assimilation was traumatic. My mother often commented that I did nothing but cry for the first six months, after which I could speak no English. I can recall entering the first grade with much trepidation. One of those early days stands out among the others. My classmates were all lined up to read to the teacher. I followed suit with my book. When my turn came, he looked at me and underlined a word. I had no idea. I couldn’t speak the language, let alone read it. He underlined another word. Nope. He looked at me and motioned me back to my seat with his aquiline nose. Stupid American.

This scene would ironically repeat itself nearly five years later. Francoist Spain had begun to lighten its restrictions on the use of the regional dialects of Spain.[1] During my final year there, my school was offering a class in Valencian, the local dialect, after regular school hours as an elective. My brother Timothy was very excited about this class, not so much for its historic or political implications but mostly it offered him an opportunity to catch up to our older brother Eric who already had a fair mastery of it. Timothy convinced me to go with him, even though the course had begun weeks before and despite the fact that after being in school from eight in the morning until six in the evening, all I wanted to do was go home.

I walked into the class room only to discover that the man teaching was none other than my first grade teacher. The kids stood in line to read. I followed suit. He underlined the phrases I had written in my notebook. I could copy the words from the chalkboard, but I couldn’t read them. He looked at me and shook his head. Back to your seat, stupid American. No worries, Maestro, I’d be back in America sooner than I knew.

Despite the level of assimilation we had attained in five years’ time, the fact remained that we were foreigners in a land in transition. When Francisco Franco died and Juan Carlos reestablished the monarchy, my father decided it was time to leave. This caused no small tension in the household as my mother wanted us to depart together and he wanted her to leave first. Their marriage had frayed somewhat in those years. Not only did she not want to leave; she was afraid that if she left alone my father could sue for divorce under Spanish law and claim abandonment, thus automatically gaining full custody of the children. So when she left, she took me with her as insurance. I was oblivious to of all this at the time. I only knew that we were packing. And I allowed myself to believe it was only for a trip, not a move.

My vacation fantasy came to an abrupt end once we arrived in Arkansas and my mother registered me in school.  School meant move. School meant stay. We were going to live in America, not just visit. The culture, friends, language, and life I had known along with its dreams, aspirations, and loves were now truly out of reach. I wouldn’t step foot back in Spain for another thirty years. Had I realized that then, I would have cried more than I did.

What does the Arkansas school system do with an eleven year old boy that speaks with a Spanish accent and is illiterate in his native tongue? They put him in with the group of kids with learning disabilities. We didn’t call it that in those days. Back then, the term “retarded” was still allowed in polite company. Sit with the pantwetters in the back of the class, stupid Spaniard. I think I may have put up with it for almost three weeks. The morning my teacher found me seated at the front of the class, she asked me why I wasn’t in the back with the special group. “Because I can read better than they can,” I told her flatly. She didn’t argue the point.

The transformation from American to Spaniard was painless compared to the forced assimilation of a Spanish boy into American culture. My early scholastic interests in science and mathematics were overwhelmed by the necessities of English mastery. As I fought with near hatred to become literate in  English, my brain decided to translate five years of memory from Spanish to English without even asking my permission. In my efforts to relearn my native tongue, the one nearest to my heart faded into hidden closets of my mind that took me years to locate.

It was difficult, but eventually I settled in. I even managed to develop a bit of a southern drawl. Those formidable years in Spain had set me, however, as sure as the kiln the clay. I love this country, but there is a part of me that never feels at home here. To make matters worse, the Spain I knew – a time capsule of 1940s Europe – is no more. It will require nothing short of an apocalyptic event for me to finally be at home.

Immigration is full of promise and pain. I lived through it twice before I was twelve and the experience defines me to this day. As I listen to our leaders and pundits argue over the current state of our immigration policy – and even add my voice to the fray – I have to remind myself of the boy I was. Immigrants aren’t a faceless horde swarming like a plague of locusts over amber waves of grain. They are people; each with their own story, each with their own pain, each come to the greatest nation on earth. I pray we deal with them wisely and with compassion.

[1] Spanish in Spain is known as castellano, Castilian. It is actually the dominant Romance language of the central part of the peninsula. Francisco Franco mandated that it become the only official language of the country when he came to power. He essentially outlawed the use of the other regional dialects and languages.

The Right to Die

It was a beautiful butterfly: colorful, mesmerizing, malignant. Try as I may, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the display. “Can we turn that off?” her husband asked the doctor, “I don’t like it.” Who could blame him? What danced on the computer screen was the latest image of the glioblastoma eating her brain. It had already taken her balance, cohesive awareness, spatial acuity, and parts of her memory. Soon, it would claim Johanna’s life.

We listened somberly to the neurologist’s compassionate and frank description of the progress of the disease. She disagreed with the steps the oncologist planned to take next. Whatever quality of life remained would be severely hampered if she signed on for the proposed chemical cocktail. Surgery and chemotherapy had done enough damage. And the butterfly spread her wings across the biological hemispheres that housed the thoughts and memories of our dear friend, defiant to all the drugs thrown at it thus far. In that room we were starkly put on notice that the time was short.

We were near the end of a year-long battle. What had started as bad headaches and an inability to find her way home had degraded to the debility of being wheel chair bound and diapered. Not very dignified. Not pretty. Definitely not romantic. But she was beautiful; wondrously courageous, full of love and grace. And she gave to us all her moments to her last breath. As I stood guard over her body, making sure the morticians handled her with respect and care as she was wheeled from her home, I was certain that I had never seen anyone live so fully or die so well as she.

It is no doubt because of her example of selfless love that I find myself saddened and angry at the celebration and celebrity of a woman who kills herself in the face of this deadly disease. As she had announced she would, Brittany Maynard committed suicide on November 1st with an overdose of barbiturates prescribed by her doctor for that very purpose. In this pro-choice nation of doctor assisted suicide and medical infanticide, the notion of “first, do no harm” is hypocritical not Hippocratic. Death with dignity? I’ve seen death with dignity. I watched it as my father’s life ebbed away. I admired it as my friend loved her family with the last joules of her strength. Suicide with the dew of life still on your cheeks isn’t it.

I have compassion for those in pain from a terminal illness. I understand the need to make people comfortable in the face of their suffering. But I have a problem with the hubris of terminating one’s own life. Our culture is one of convenience. We avoid like the plague the natural struggles of life that add depth to our souls. We borrow for what we can’t afford to keep. We divorce from those we can’t be bothered to love. We hide our disfigured and disabled. We have little regard for the value of struggle, grief or pain. Pop a pill, plunge the syringe. It’s easier that way. No one will have to change my diaper. And I can die dignified. I’m sorry, but to me it smacks of the shallowness of a beauty pageant.

In typical government speak, sanctioned suicide flies under the banner of “The Right to Die”. Newsflash: death isn’t a right, it’s an eventuality. Should the good Lord tarry, we are all going to die. To live, however, is a right; a right and a responsibility. If you are reading this, then I will make the strong assumption that you are alive. And since you are alive, I will make the further assumption that you are loved. And loved ones need to be together in the passing – not an artificially elongated or shortened passing, but the natural passing as the spirit struggles with the body that can no longer contain it. In those months, weeks, days, hours, and moments loved ones can say goodbye, unburden their hearts, forgive old wounds, love generously.

As tragic and traumatic as watching a loved one die of a terminal disease can be, I don’t believe it can compare with the utter shock of a sudden departure. The mother who receives the midnight call about her son’s fatal overdose has little chance to process with him all that is left unsaid. The same woman who nursed her husbands to their dying days took those blows much better. In this sense, a terminal disease is a deadly specter bearing gifts. We are given time to show compassion, engage faith, and learn the real depth of our hopes. It is a pain that bears much fruit. It takes true courage to see it to the end.

Food Fight: Battles in Thankfulness

Traumatic, both physically and psychologically. This is cancer and its “cures”. Pathologically, trauma is a physical wound. Psychologically, it is an emotional shock that creates substantial and lasting damage to the psyche. Battling malignant DNA gone rouge in your own body produces both. The toll of the trauma becomes most telling to me when I must interface with a basic necessity of life: food.

A year ago, I began my treatment for head and neck cancer: a seven-week course of chemotherapy and radiation. [1] The chemo set up a mind-bend on food as it left most smells faithfully resonating with my memory while playing sleight of hand with my taste buds (e.g., looks like potatoes, smells like potatoes, tastes like baking soda). Sights and smells cannot be trusted. No taste is guaranteed. But of the two, radiation has left the most damage in its wake as it wiped out the cancer. My voice is deeper, but my soft pallet is softer; and my throat and tongue are dry enough to strike matches on. The tumor on my tongue made eating difficult. The cure has brought its own host of challenges.

I have grown accustomed to the background tension present at every meal. As I stare at the food and try to determine the appropriate size for my next bite (always smaller than I think, even after I adjust down from memory), I find that my body has folded into a defensive position. My shoulders are hunched over. My brows are knit. My posture is bad. It requires a conscious effort to unwind myself and be open to the experience; to embrace the necessity of the contest. This has become a daily discipline.

Unlike eating, grocery shopping doesn’t happen every day. Furthermore, I am blessed with a wife that manages that function quite well and children who enjoy going along for the ride. I haven’t been bothered with it in a long while. A long while, that is, until a couple of weeks ago when we all headed out together for the grand tour of wholesale clubs, organic food grocers, and traders in tasty treats.

I was honestly looking forward to the outing. Like all growing children, my kids love food and aren’t shy about expressing their discontent when the larders are low.[2] Their excitement was infectious as they discussed what they would sample, buy, and bake. Heedless of eating having been a daily challenge for over a year now, I indulged in a case of temporary amnesia and waltzed into the organic groceries superstore only to be slapped rudely awake by the assault on my psyche in the presence of such beautiful produce and foodstuffs.

“These peaches are huge!” I’m not sure if they will taste like peaches. What if they wind up tasting like prunes instead? “Those spices smell marvelous!” Which of my two tastes will they trigger: salty or sparky? “Look at those baguettes!” Crusty-dusty, death-dealing wads of dough. How much water will I have to down just to swallow one small bite? “Buy this super-blender. You can liquefy your vegetables!” Thanks, pal. Bought one, live on that. Are we having fun yet? And this was only the first stop.

My brain beat on me aisle after aisle, store after store. It wasn’t until the final stop that I started to beat it back. There I stood in the painful recognition that I was not only distressed, but depressed as well. While my family scurried with joy to try treat after treat from the various sample servers in the mega-warehouse store, I barely avoided skinning my knees after tripping over my drooping lip. All I could see were things I used to enjoy that I could no longer eat. That’s when I gave my mind a piece of my spirit.

My counterattack began with a change of perspective. Instead of feeling down because I couldn’t sample the pastrami sandwich, I decided to be thankful that I was even around to look at it. It was a good place to start: I’m alive. Take that, depression! Next, I reviewed several of the items purchased that I consume on a regular basis: all beef hot dogs, coffee, cod, steak. Considering that drinking water was an excruciating experience a mere nine months ago, these were considerable milestones to be grateful for. And then there was the chicken, fresh rotisserie chicken about to come off the spit. No lack of saliva was going to keep me from it.

Like a crack-addict mouse hitting the button for another dose in the lab, I kept going back to the counter to see if they were done. Distress gave way to expectancy, depression to hope. As soon as the cook slid them down the display shelf, I snatched up two of them. I couldn’t get to it quickly enough. We pressed through check out. We pushed out the door. We rolled to the van. I grabbed one of the chickens and jumped into the shotgun seat. While the family loaded the rest of the groceries into the back of the van, I broke open the plastic container and tore a drumstick off the bird. I went after the tasty morsel like the Fantastic Mr. Fox.[3]

As I ate the chicken (chased by copious amounts of water), I reflected on how easy it is to sow the seeds of bitterness and discontent when we decide to only see the ground we’ve lost and none of the ground we’ve retained or regained. Nearly two thousand years ago, Saul of Tarsus wrote to his protégé Timothy that “…we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out…having food and raiment, let us be therewith content.”[4] Simple lesson, tough battle.

Our minds naturally work through a system of references. Intuitively, the measure of our qualitative state is determined through our frame of reference. For instance, is $25 per hour a good wage? It’s fantastic if you currently only make $15 per hour. If you are used to making $24.25 per hour, it only amounts to a cost of living increase. If you are used to making $100,000 per year, it represents a major cut in pay. But suppose you were accustomed to a six-figure salary, but had been unemployed for nearly two years and were facing the very likely prospect of being homeless? How would the $25 per hour job look then?

The answer may seem obvious, but in practice it is not. Taking a pay cut and staying employed presents the options of being thankful or dissatisfied. Resentment is easy in such circumstances. Loss of health exposes one to the same challenge. I’m better, but not as well as I was before cancer. What I decide to focus on determines the state of my soul. I can mourn the loss or count the blessing. Thankfulness is a battle that must be intentionally waged. And battle I shall.

[1] For more background, see “Dealing with a Death Sentence” from my February 2014 posts.

[2] One of their favorite refrains is, “All we have is rotten milk and eggs”; a reference, oddly enough to one of the main staples of my diet: a protein shake made with kefir and raw eggs.

[3] My previous disclaimer stands: no mention of a movie (or movie character) is an endorsement thereof. That being said, The Fantastic Mr. Fox has some very funny moments, this being one of them: Mr. Fox eating.

[4] 1 Timothy 6:7-8 KJV