On October 17, 2021, after a long absence from blogging, I posted “I’m Back” a piece about my experience with severe illness. Unfortunately, I wasn’t back for long. For several months, I have been undergoing chemotherapy for multiple myeloma, an uncurable blood cancer. Multiple health issues, from infections to general weakness, to lack of appetite and inability to taste whatever I could make myself eat, to unstable blood sugar made life miserable. Build up in fluids required tight velcro stockings on my legs. I fell, hard, five times, once flat on my back on a concrete driveway. My son became a pro in getting me back on my feet after watching the EMTs pick me up using a sheet. One of the most unusual issues was that I couldn’t read; I knew what the words were but just couldn’t make sense of what they were telling me. The worst symptoms were a debilitating and constant dizziness and times of mental confusion.
To counteract some of these side effects, I had several changes in medication, to no avail. Finally early in January my cancer doctor took away a pill that was part of a cocktail of medication making up the chemotherapy. He explained that while this would weaken the effect of the chemo, the injection of medication I get would still be effective. Since the two pages that listed the side effects of this medication included “extreme dizziness” and “confusion,” this pill was my top candidate for causing these problems. I was right. After about three weeks without the pill, the dizziness wafted away, as did the confusion. My son celebrated by claiming, “We’ve got mom back.”
I was happy to be back! However, there is still a chance that the chemo will have to be stopped. One number in the test results is getting worse; if that continues, it means the chemo is ineffective and will end. The doctor said there are “more things we can try” if that happens. My mind heard, “and more horrible side effects to be endured.”
In my first “I’m Back,” I wrote about how my life was full of gratitude. It still is, perhaps more than ever! But recently I read a chapter in the book Following the Call, Living the Sermon on the Mount Together, a compilation of writings on the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount by dozens of people, gathered by Charles E. Moore and published by Plough Publishing House. This piece, written by Philip Yancy, quoted a list of the “advantages” to being poor by Monika Hellwig. Here are a few of those advantages: realizing you are in need of redemption; understanding your dependence on God and on one another; being able to distinguish between necessities and luxuries, being able to wait because you have acquired a “dogged patience” born of constant dependence.
I read the entire list of the advantages of poverty several times in the next few days and realized that the same advantages can be found and appreciated by people who are sick. Severe and prolonged illness can result in a grateful acceptance of medication, of treatment, and of a doctor’s words caring words. It can cultivate an appreciation of the days that are still left. It can teach us to cherish the friends and family who steadfastly care for and about us. Illness can bring joy in a card or note, in a phone call, a text, or a visit – a joy that can last for days. It can foster an ability to “wait and see,” to live the proverbial “one day at a time,” to be calm in the face of bad news.
What I am learning is that a way of life that seems horrible – like living in poverty or experiencing a prolonged illness – has its own mercies and joys. We can respond with a certain abandonment to whatever life comes our way if we look for the blessings from God in it.