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Today is Father’s day.

Gary has been in bed now for several weeks, mostly sleeping but also looking out the window and tolerating our best efforts at turning, cleaning, caring for him. He is not conversational but does respond with head nods and an occasional word or phrase. His grip is impressively strong (we spend a good deal of time holding his hands), his appetite is good, and he is still mercifully pain free. He never complains and never shows impatience with us. 

He is still the best brother in the world. 

Sincere thanks for your continued concern and prayers.

– – – – – –

Here’s a quick thought about Father’s day  … 

Some background first. A decade or more ago, after lots of thought and for reasons well-founded, i made the decision to decline all requests or invitations to sing at weddings. And then, when Gary got sick about a year ago, i made a decision to cancel obligations already on my calendar and to decline new work until our cancer season was over. 

So … it should have been very easy to simply say “no” when i was asked just yesterday to sing at a wedding scheduled for next weekend, right?

Sheriff Mike Jolley is one of the best things about the county in which i live. He is a good friend, a devoted follower of Christ, a regular participant at the Thursday morning men’s gathering on my porch, a generous man with a veteran sense of humor, husband of Cindy, twice a father and a grandfather several times over. 

One of his granddaughters is 4 year old Ramsey. 

i’m not sure why but Sheriff Jolley is not keen on having pets at his house. Some time ago, apparently to address the “i want a pet” wish that children have, Mike gave Ramsey two pet rocks. Yes, rocks. Stones. About the size of a half dollar. One of the stones, he explained to me yesterday, is named Shania. It’s a girl. The other is a male named Obie. The two pet rocks ‘reside’ at the home of Sheriff Jolley and Cindy.

Well, as often happens in the make believe world of children, Ramsey, Shania and Obie have become best of friends through the magical processes that reward active imagination and childhood innocence. 

But a problem has arisen and must be resolved. 

Mike and Cindy, the caretakers of Shania and Obie and, do not allow Shania and Obie to sleep together at night.They are required to stay in separate containers. Propriety and morality dictate such. The good Sheriff and Cindy, who are trying to teach Ramsey (and their other grands) about abiding in the ways of the Lord, have taught and are teaching her that boys and girls should not stay in the same bed until they marry. 

Ramsey says that Shania and Obie have been best friends for a long time now and don’t like to be apart at night.

Ramsey says that she would like for them to be married. 

Next Sunday is the wedding.

Ramsey sent out invitations. 

A caterer will provide cake and other food.

A superior Court judge (Ramsey’s other grandfather) will perform the ceremony.

Sheriff Jolley will wear his tuxedo.

Ramsey and her cousins — the bridesmaids — will wear new dresses and will have their hair and nails beautified for the wedding.

And yes …

i shall sing at the wedding.

                         So where’s the Father’s day thought in all of this?

It would have been very easy for Sheriff Jolley (he’s a tough law enforcement man after all) to make light of Ramsey’s wish. He could have explained to her that these were merely rocks and that her idea was ridiculous. He could have ignored the idea and let time erase it from her memory. He could have disposed of Shania and Obie long before now. 

But Sheriff Jolley is a good grandfather and a kind man, one who knows all too well that children these days don’t get to be children for long. He is all too happy to make a fuss over one little girl and to honor her vocation of ‘play,’ to the end that her heart can flourish, even as she learns the depth of her grandfather’s  commitment to do her good. He is teaching Ramsey lessons for life — about marriage, about patience, about purity, and about gladness — in ways that her 4 year old heart can handle. And how many times in the future do you guess they’ll talk about the day the Obie married Shania. (i can easily imagine that the “Rock” couple will make an appearance at a wedding about 20 years from now.)

      Speaking of stones …

   You might recall that, in the Old Testament, God would sometimes have Israel take rocks, one for each tribe, and make small monuments to remind them of His providence, of their need, and of the nation’s purpose. Those stones of remembrance were perpetual sermons for the people, with the power to call their hearts and minds back to truths about how to live life and honor God. The ceremony of choosing, stacking, and securing the cairns was meant no doubt to make some lasting impression on the minds of those in attendance.

And as unlikely and far-fetched as it sounds, it might just be that, years from now, Ramsey will still have 2 small stones (and memories of a beautiful wedding with her big hearted grandfather) to remind her of things which ought never be forgotten. 

 So …  for me, next Sunday, three miles from home, i’ll sing at my first wedding in many years. 

 ImageAnd i can hardly wait to write the song.

 

      Following Gary’s MRI a week ago, we have now received the unhappy but not altogether unexpected news that his tumor shows “significant progression.” You might recall that, for about 6 months, the tumor has been stable and has shown no signs of growth. We had been told all along that the tumor was very much alive — merely napping — and that, in all medical probability, it would awake at some point and begin to grow again, maybe aggressively. The past couple of weeks, during which Gary has been increasingly tired, weak and confused, have given us reason to expect that something was going on. Walking is very difficult for him, impossible without assistance, and he is sleeping for many or most hours of the day. His eyes have lost something of their light, he does not laugh or smile quite so readily as he has the past few months, and it is hard to engage him conversationally. He is still very pleasant, always grateful, and totally trusting but we cannot deny that he is trickling away from us and that, barring a miraculous healing from God, he seems to be in the home stretch of his race. It is sad and hard to watch, but we remind ourselves that our assignment as a family is what is has been all along — to love him and one another best we can for whatever time we’re given. It is a privilege and a gift to be at this place.

A couple of days ago, a close friend of Gary’s, whose wife is battling cancer, came by to visit. For the entire day and for most of that visit, Gary communicated with head nods and single syllable replies. As the visit was drawing to a close, i asked Gary if he’d say a prayer, remembering Bill and his wife Beth as they go through their cancer season. Gary bowed his head and, with total clarity, offered an eloquent and grateful prayer, having reclaimed his native tongue for that conversation with God. He ended his prayer with the same words that i’ve heard him intone hundreds of times before, “Lord Jesus, we love You but we pray for grace everyday to love You more.”

Even in his weakness, Gary is teaching us how to live and reminding us what to love.

i played at a gathering in Atlanta last night, one of the very rare times that i’ve left home in the past 9 and a half months. Before i left, i kissed Gary goodbye and went through a sweet ritual that i usually reserve till bedtime:

“i love you,” i say.

“I love you,” he says.

“i’m glad you’re my brother,” i say.

“I’m glad you’re my brother,” he says.

“You’re the best brother in the world,” i say.

You’re the best brother in the world,” he says. …

We’ve been sharing those words, or ones like them, for many, many years. Somehow they feel different now. … And they are the only ones that matter.

Thank you for your continued prayers and kindness. We are humbled and grateful.

Easter Day 2012

The morning — alive, celebratory, hopeful — seems appropriate to Easter Sunday. A hundred shades of green, a slight haze, the call and response of birdsong, blue sky, a sunrise and a moonset, and cool breeze all speak of Life, in bold letters. (The picture to the left was what i saw from the porch when i woke up.) The idea and truth of resurrection have never meant as much as it does this year, and i pray that you have had a meaningful remembrance of The Great Day.

i am still at home with Gary, enjoying a pleasant spell. The brain tumor is still dormant, and my brother’s wobbly/forgetful status is the same as it was back in February.  We aren’t sure if we’re in the midst of a long goodbye or a long welcome back. i certainly hope the latter but have learned to stay firmly in a “day at a time” state of mind. Either way, we’re thankful that we get to celebrate this Easter with him.

Some years ago, i wrote a song for a charitable organization to express gratitude for the work they do to help others. It states what i might well say to so many of you who have made the risen-ness of Christ visible to me through your faces and faithfulness these past eight months. i hope you enjoy it. Thank you again for loving us.

Faces of Easter (click here, on song title, to listen)

Midwifing the immortal

People have said, on a number of occasions recently, that we (Dad, Mom, myself) are doing an admirable job of caring for Gary. And i am grateful that, due much more to their efforts than mine, the statement is pretty much true. But, in a spirit of full disclosure, and to prevent any mistaken sense that our days are somehow bucolic and agreeable all the time, i’ll share with you that we’re all suffering a bit of cabin fever. Tempers can be rather short; the house seems to have shrunk considerably since we all moved under one roof to best care for Gary; and agreement on the extent of his activities is rarely unanimous.

For example, he wants to go for a walk this morning, but it’s 28 degrees outside. It is something that he can’t do by himself given that he is unsteady on his feet and has a tendency to suddenly become deadweight, what we call “going jelly”.

i think the walk is a great idea; it will invigorate him and make him feel good.

The Momster is not so sure. (The word is not a play on “monster”. i promise)

The Dadster is somewhat silent on the matter but leans the Momward way since her wrath is considerably stronger than mine.

We’ll all express our totally contradictory but perfectly correct views on the matter and then, since Gary’s wish trumps all others, he and i will bundle up and go for a walk. If, in the course of doing so, he gets dizzy or goes jelly, so as to require a call for the wheelchair, i can fully expect a few hours of “i told you so” (either spoken or silently delivered).

Just another day in the life of a cancer patient caregiver.

Not to paint a wrong impression picture, though, i can say with grateful accuracy that, for the vast majority of the cancer season, we have been a picture of deference and working together. And i am amazed at the stamina, the kindness, the sheer goodness of my 82 and 83 year old parents.

Their judgment is usually correct.

But not this time …

The goodness of so many others, like you, has made and continue to make the season endurable as there are daily reminders that we are cared for, much so, by a small army of big-hearted souls. In just the past week or so, proof of that fact has come in the form of a book from Dicky and Betsy, a meal from Chris and Jenny, a drawing from Michele, a letter from Dr. Pat, a poem from Brady, a vase of flowers from Denise, a touch of humor from Anna and Bobby. And, knowing the givers as i do, i am confident that their generosity comes wrapped in prayer.

Sometimes kindness comes in the form of well-chosen words, well-timed, lIke those i received recently from a friend in Memphis. Her letter was appropos to where the Levi family is as we celebrate 6 months since Gary’s diagnosis. The friend, who herself cared for two terminal cancer patients (her husband and her mother), wrote knowingly of the emotional and physical fatigue, of the messiness and unpleasantness, of the questions and uncertainties that are part of tending to ones we love so deeply.

She suggested that caring for a terminally ill person is much like a childbirth,  “grossly messy, uncomfortable, and extremely painful.” But more significantly, she opined that the task affords onr like us the privilege of birthing our loved ones into heaven.

It takes considerable effort to keep that perspective in mind but i’m convinced that “death as birth canal” is a redemptive and accurate way to view end of life for a follower of Christ. Caregivers (a category which will probably describe all of us as some point in life) serve as midwives to make the delivery, from life here to life There, as comfortable, joyful, even as welcome as it can possibly be.

i recall reading a passage some years ago in an essay by CS Lewis (“The Weight of Glory”). His simple point, eloquently made, was that, everyday, we are helping people to one of two eternal destinations, toward Christ or away from Him, to heaven or to hell. The  momentousness of that possbility gives meaning to the smallest things that we do day to day. And somehow, whenever we help move a soul, by a word or deed or prayer, from despair to hope, from anger to forgiveness, from heaviness to gladness, from worry to trust, from emptiness to Christ, from self to God, we are, in some degree, moving them from away from death and toward life.

That said, Gary is blessedly well, all things considered. The last MRI showed, as the previous one, that his brain tumor is “stable”. The oncologist tells us that the beast is still very much alive and that, in all medical probability, it will wake up, resume its aggressive growth, and do what cancer does. Why it is stable (the result of chemo and radiation, or an answer to prayer, or both?) is not altogether certain. When it will “wake up” is anybody’s guess.

And at least for the present, Gary, after consulting with our oncologist, has made the decision to forego further chemotherapy. His thinking is essentially “leave well enough alone”.  (The doctor has told us that the tumor is not curable. Chemo would perhaps, or not, lengthen lifespan minimally at status quo. It is obvious that length of life is not Gary’s only concern.)

But for now, Gary has been remarkably well.

For three consecutive days this past week, he did not take a nap. On Thursday, he was able to wake up for our men’s study and take communion with us. That night, he attended an annual event that we do for widows in our community. He even walked on stage, with the help of friends with us to serenade the ladies at the end of the night. (He is the one in the picture with the red necktie.) And last night, he hosted a dinner/house concert that we did here with 10 couples who have been lifelong friends of his. His laughter has been plentiful, contagious, deep down.

And for every day, we are grateful.

Some years ago, shortly after i’d left law practice to try my hand as a full time singer songwriter, i had a conversation with an old friend, a thoroughly suburban fellow who understood the business of music.  He was very encouraging, spoke favorably of my meager musical and lyrical abilities, and gave me reason to believe that, from purely economic angles, i could ‘survive’ as a musician. (While mildly curious in things Christian, he was not a man of belief.) His one concern, a sizable one, was that my songs were not edgy or raw enough, and that the view of life described in my songs was hardly recognizable to 20th century listeners. His critique was along these lines: “even when your words are honest, your chords always go somewhere nice. You need to darken things up a bit so that they feel more like the real world.” My sense was that he believed my songs to be sentimental, a bit (or a lot) out of touch with reality, stupidly innocent, embarrassingly naive.

In short, they contained too much hope, to which i plead guilty.

Last week, in a reading from the Old Testament, i came across an interesting phrase that made me recall that years-ago conversation. In chapter 9 of Zechariah, the enslaved people of God, a ragtag populace of idolators and ingrates, are being told that their years of exile are over and t they are returning to Israel. God, speaking through the prophet, bids them do so with these words:

“Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope.”

“Prisoners of hope,” He calls them.

Regret, illusion, greed, the past — those i might describe as prison. But hope?

And yet, as i look over the past year, i find myself to be an inmate myself, a prisoner of hope.

Because of Christmas.

One could argue that to believe in the Christmas story — that God loved this broken world and gave Himself to it, by pouring Himself into the thimble of a human body, in order to “bring the whole ruined world” back to paradise — is to be captive to a calm certainty that, even amidst the darkness all around us, goodness is at work and, cliche though it might sound, “everything is going to be OK.”

Christmas takes us prisoner, makes us inescapably people of faith, hope, love.

And knowing that to be true, the angel would tell us, then and now, “Behold, I bring you good tidings fo great joy.”

And on this December 25th, that’s where i find myself; gratefully enclosed in a hope that will release me only when i reach the reality — Christ and heaven — to which it looks.

Gary continues to live with and inspire us with his hope, even as he deals with growing weakness and fatigue. We’ve had the recent gift of good days with him that included short walks outside, visits with friends, foodfoodfood and freedom from discomfort for Gary. We laugh like never before, even if we are quiet tired at times. Our next doctor appointment is on January 5, 2012.

Merry Christmas. Your kindnesses continue to be daily reminders of Emmanuel, “God with us.” … Thank you. allen

When i went to Afghanistan for the summer a few years ago, i took a guitar with me, thinking that the unfamiliar, impoverished, Eastern way of life might be grist for an interesting batch of new songs. And i was partially right; there was a trove of inspiration. But what i experienced there was so foreign, so unanticipated, and so far beyond my vocabulary or powers of expression that i returned home with not a single piece of music. To this day, i still haven’t written an “Afghanistan song.”  …  It wasn’t that my eyes weren’t open, or that i didn’t want to capture some sense of the place in lyric and music, it’s just that the task was bigger than my toolbox. Perhaps i just didn’t try hard enough; or perhaps i tried too hard to say too much. But it might just be that there are moments in life that are bigger than words, moments that are to be lived and felt without being

i’ve been asked several times, even today, if the past few months — walking through the cancer season with Gary — have prompted any new songs. The short answer is “prompted maybe; produced, ‘no.’” Especially today, on Thanksgiving, i find myself altogether unequipped to express the range of feeling — the joy and the sadness, the powerlessness and the hope, the emptiness and the fullness — that have been part of watching a friend wither away. i’m standing in a new Afghanistan, the difference being that this one has promise where the other was overwhelmingly despondent, that this one is strangely joyful where the other was understandably sad.

That said, i can only report that this Thanksgiving day has been different, mostly in very good ways, than any i’ve ever known, and i sense a gratitude that i can find no words to describe.

Short update on Gary: his condition is much what it was previously. Most days, he takes a morning nap, an afternoon nap, goes to bed early and is quite tired all the time. We’re not sure if that is chemo-related (he took a strong 5 day dose a couple of weeks ago) or the effects of the tumor. Gary remains in good spirits, still insists on desert after every meal, makes us laugh a lot, but is physically exhausted. His daily exercise is a short walk or two (maybe a hundred yards or so, with someone helping him maintain balance) though there are days when even that is a stretch. …  We visit the oncologist in a few days.

Our list of things to be thankful for today is lengthy. Good chance if you’re reading this, you’re on it. Thank you.

October 31, 2011

I am told that a light year, the distance light travels in a year, is roughly 6 trillion miles. And that the stars overhead on a clear night are hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of light years away. Hard to comprehend.   …  Even without those facts available to him, David the psalmist would look up at the night sky and be struck by his infinite smallness, what Pascal called our “absolute nothingness.”

Tonight, Gary (who rode his bike 50 miles on the morning he was diagnosed with brain cancer) and I took a short stroll (a 200 yard round trip, his new exercise routine) under a very clear autumn sky. We stopped a couple of times, to look up, to ponder, to talk about those stars, all that space, about all the miles that light had to travel to be visible from here. And how big, if there is a God (which we believe there is), He must be to encircle such a vast creation, and how precise He must be to regard the feathers of a sparrow.

We met with the doctors today, to have them interpret the MRI taken a week ago. The short version is a good news/not-so-good news report. The good news is that the tumor has not grown. The not-so-good news is that the tumor hasn’t shrunk. The doctors call it ‘stable’. We are choosing to see the glass half full, consistent with Gary’s comment to the doctors today, “just tell me the truth. It’s all good news to us.”

There is talk of some further treatment – more chemo and a promising new medicine – but we’re in a wait-and-see phase for now. Autumn is colorfully present and we get outside as much and for as long as we can each day. And our sense of reality is bathed in goodness. The Psalms of David, the letters of Paul, the music of Andrew Peterson, the prayers of the saints, the laughter of a brother who has nothing to lose anymore, the tears of a mother who cares with love that “passes understanding”, the constancy of the land that grows and then sleeps and then arises again, the unspoken affection of an old dog, the surprises that come from steel strings on a box of wood, the power of words on paper – oh, the blessing, the fullness, the promise of it all.

I’m not sure that I can say why it is such a consolation to look up on a clear, dark night. Why the bigness, and the reminder it is that we are so fragile and needy, would bring so deep a peace is beyond words to me. But at such a moment, as did the shepherd poet, I know beyond doubt that the Light behind the light, the Bigness behind the bigness, the Word behind the wordlessness, the He Who is over us is the comfort. The comfort that is longer than light years.

(The photo is of Gary and Mom helping me take bird netting off of the blackberry vines.)