I’ve been writing my thoughts and chronicling my experiences at breadandcup.com for over 10 years. Now that my restaurant is closed, my writing will continue on at this site. I am currently working on a memoir of that experience that will be released October 2019. Thank you for reading.
It’s the phone call you don’t want. Its the word you were dreading. It’s the situation you didn’t ask for but were just handed. You just got some bad news and you feel like you just got punched in the gut.
We all have had our share of bad news. Some more extreme than others. Some more often than others. But there is no escaping this life without having to deal with dreaded circumstances along the way. I’d like to share a practice that has helped me walk through my difficult times.
Practice is an interesting word. You usually think of athletes or musicians practicing, but the same is said of doctors and lawyers who practice medicine or law. I like the idea of the basketball player practicing free throws, but do I like the idea of my doctor practicing on me as he removes my thyroid?
Practicing is the repetitive, recurrent action or skill applied to a particular discipline in order to improve or develop proficiency. The basketball player practices free throws to be more likely to make them in important game situations. And the more surgeries the doctor performs, the better she will become. The old saying is true in any field:
Practice makes perfect.
And the single most important practice
that I have engaged in as I face bad news is the practice of
gratitude. Which might sound like the dumbest advice ever, but let
Gratitude is not about giving thanks
for the bad news, being thankful for the cancer, or for the car
accident. We are never thankful for travesties. No one wants to
lose a loved one or lose a limb or good health. Bad news is bad.
But we can never let it lead the way.
The most visceral, immediate and natural response to bad news is anger. Anger is that feeling that alerts us to when something is severely wrong. Anger is an important emotion, but it is also a deceptive one.
Anger is a better beacon than a guide. We do well to pay attention to its signal, but we shouldn’t trust it to lead us forward. Action based in anger won’t end up anywhere good. Anger will try and convince you to put a hole in the wall with your fist, or finish of that bottle of whiskey by yourself. These are not good solutions to assuage anger.
Take note of anger, just don’t obey
what it tells you.
Once anger is acknowledged, turn to a
more trustworthy practice: Gratitude. Anger and gratitude don’t play
well together. They are like oil and water. They don’t mix. As you
move into a mindset of gratitude, anger will decide to leave the
Too often gratitude shows up too late,
after the fact. Then you end up regretting not telling the loved one
how much they meant to you, or taking note of the joy you deeply
experienced because of them. The practice of gratitude is the same
as the basketball player practicing free throws. You spend time
doing it before you need it, before its too late.
Again, gratitude doesn’t mean you are
thankful for the bad news. It does mean you find all the other
things for which you are thankful. And when you count your
blessings, you find you are much more wealthy than you ever realized.
When friends started asking me this week how Karen’s surgery went on Friday, I realized I need to bring an update. There was no surgery, and right now, it appears there may not be a need for it.
Last week was a time of big decisions. We were at a crossroads in her treatment plan, and it wasn’t clear where we should turn, weighing out the pros and cons of each decision. Remove the drain and have surgery? Remove it and wait and see? Remove it, have surgery and continue chemotherapy? It wasn’t a clear cut path.
In the process of consideration, we met
with her oncologist on Tuesday of last week to hear his opinion and
how it might factor into our decision. During the consultation, he
indicated that the CA125 blood test (used to determine activity of
ovarian cancer) had dropped from a high of 1200 down to near normal
levels of 46. In our amazement, we asked what caused that drastic
change. He grinned, shook his head and offered a few thoughts. “I’d
like to think it was my doing, but I doubt that. It could be
everything you are doing, and so whatever that is, keep doing it. It
could also be an act of God.” We both breathed a collective sigh of
And so our next question was, what does this mean? It was agreed that the urgency level has dropped and we have some time to watch and wait. So the drain was removed that day and our new plan was implemented. We would forgo any more surgery, medication or treatment and let her body recover naturally and holistically. Since then she has begun to feel progressively better day by day. Her appetite is improving and her ability to actively work is lengthening in hours. Needless to say we are very grateful and in Karen’s words, feeling a new lease on life.
So what were the things Karen was doing that the oncologist mentioned? She made a pretty big lifestyle change back in November, first beginning with adopting a ketogenic diet, but chemotherapy can cripple the taste buds, and that approach was too limiting. So we morphed into more of a keto-tarian approach, a high fat, high vegetable diet focusing on foods that have natural anti-angiogenic properties. This means lots of color in the food; red, blue and black berries, dark greens, red cabbage and onions. It means fermented foods like sauerkraut and Kimchi. It also means no grains, beans, or legumes.
So was that the key? Was this the
X-factor that led to the precipitous drop in the cancer marker? How
about the kind support from friends and family via reaching out
through phone calls, cards, letters, text and groceries? What about
the prayers offered, many from people we don’t even know? What’s the
cause? What’s the secret? What’s the special sauce?
While I would never discount any of
these things, the one thing I return to over and over again here in
my middle years can be summed up in one word:
My point in mentioning faith is not to
advertise or defend it or try to sell you on it. It’s simply to tell
my story as I know it and have experienced it. It’s my story and it
brings me great joy and therefore I am happy to tell it to anyone who
wants to listen.
Faith is described as confidence in
what you hope for, of being certain of what you do not see. Seeing
it this way takes some of the guesswork out. If I am not confident,
maybe I’m not living by faith.
Here in my middle years, I’m learning that faith isn’t a crap shoot. Its not rolling the dice and seeing what happens. Its not gathering as many friends as possible in hope you reach a tipping point when you get enough people involved. I no longer find safety in those kinds of numbers.
Instead, I am finding that faith is more about engagement and involvement with the One who created me. And when crisis hits, the first thing I do isn’t to pray, because crisis can create panic and I certainly don’t know what to pray for in a state of panic. The first thing I do now is enter into a place of thanksgiving and rejoicing and put my mind at ease in the fact that the One who created me has not changed, even though my circumstances have. It’s in this mindset that I can begin to listen and tune in to the what the Man of Sorrows is praying and how the Comforter is interceding for me. If these two are in accord, it only makes sense that I join in with them.
This is where I find my confidence in
faith comes from.
Thank you again to all who have been
there for us. One of the coolest things has been the generosity of
our church family, where someone every five days brings us groceries
that meet Karen’s dietary requirements. We have a stack of cards and
notes sent the old fashioned way through the mail, some even
anonymous that have special meaning. Thanks to our employers at Blue
Blood and The Mill for being so accommodating of our needs for time
off. These are among the list of things I mention when I enter into
thanksgiving and rejoicing. Even this act has power to heal.
Lastly, we give permission to anyone to
ask us about how we are doing. I learned this years ago in dealing
with the grief of a family who lost a child. They said the one
statement that was the most frustrating was when someone would say,
“Oh, I thought about calling, but I didn’t want to upset you.” I
will never forget what the mother said, “This is our life we live
24/7. How can you upset us?” We want this story to provide hope,
therefore your questions are welcome.
Sometimes the cure is worse than the cause. At least that’s what the last month has felt like. On December 31, we had to admit Karen to the hospital for a persistent fever and severe joint pain. After 5 days of her in-patient stay, the doctors felt she was stable enough to go home. But two days later, she had to be readmitted for another 3 days as they discovered the source of all this fever and pain was an abscess in her lower abdomen and she was dangerously close to becoming septic. To treat it, a drain was placed into abscess to draw away the infection, and so she escaped a very close call. All of this was a complication from chemotherapy. Now the medical priority has become dealing with this issue, while the cancer takes a back seat. Surgery is scheduled February 08 to repair any damage to her colon, on which the abscess has developed.
In the meantime, we are learning to
make adjustments to accommodate the new normal. Dealing with cancer
is an invasion and an unwelcome intruder. But we do our best to
remind ourselves that it need not dominate nor dictate our thoughts
and carry on with finding joy and seeing beauty in the day to day
deeds we tend to.
One big adjustment has been the food we eat. Even before diagnosis, we both began to alter our diet to try and address some of the symptoms we’ve both encountered here in our middle years. Since diagnosis, we have taken intentional measures to study and learn as much as we can about the healing properties of food. As a chef, I am fascinated by these new discoveries and the potential that food holds for helping our bodies heal. I am learning a new way to cook and prepare her food.
I am discovering that its not called
comfort food for nothing. The food we eat represents stability and
dependability. This is why most people eat the same thing when they
go out to eat. Venturing out to try something new can be
intimidating and risky. What if I don’t like it? Then I’ve wasted
my money and should have stuck with what I know.
Karen and I have adopted a whole-food, mostly plant-based diet. Some might call it a keto-tarian diet, a high vegetable, high fat diet. It is already showing positive results, but also has some negative side-effects. One, its not very comforting. Gone are the savory, creamy potatoes and my favorite aromatic sourdough breads and pizza. No more soothing pasta, or ice cream. Sugar is in the rear-view mirror, and its satisfying companions of frozen yogurt and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
This has been an odd adjustment. But
we do it for the desired outcome. Any sacrifice needs to be rooted
in the joy that lies ahead, else we are left to mourn the loss of
comfort and not know if there is anything better left to enjoy.
We are hopeful that better days are
ahead, and the best is yet to come.
It began last Saturday night. Fever,
fatigue, chills, aching joints. All are expected signs of the
punishment of chemotherapy. As it carried into Sunday, her condition
got progressively worse, leading her to sleep all day and eat very
little. By the time Monday morning rolled around, it was unlike
anything I’ve ever seen her go through, with maybe the exception of
childbirth. She sounded like she was in labor; deliberate breathing
through abnormal pain, and there was very little I could do to
alleviate any of it. My job was just to stay present.
In this way, I become a patient. Because patience is needed in large quantities in moments like these.
After an initial evaluation, the
oncologist determined she needed to be admitted into the ER for
immediate observation and testing. Her blood count was way off. Fever
indicated some type of unknown infection. They wanted to keep her
overnight, both for her well-being and to see if they could identify
the cause of her severely weakened condition. This was the beginning
of five days of uncertainty. What was happening in her body that
stumped so many experts?
When the illness calls for patience.,
prescribe it in abundant dosages.
When she was diagnosed in November for
a third time, I resolved to enter into this experience differently
than the previous two. I determined to adopt a mindset that sought
to gain through the difficulty. Whenever it starts to feel
challenging, that is the point that I need to stop, pay attention and
ask myself how I can change my thinking. What am I missing that
otherwise I stand to benefit from?
Caregivers, keep in mind that the
person for which you are caring does not want to be in the condition
they are in. It’s not right. It’s not normal. So if they get edgy,
put yourself in their shoes. It sucks to be them right now. And
remember the importance of your role.
Its no fun to be in need. Whether its a
child, a parent, or spouse in the home, or even if you care for
people professionally, there is a weight of responsibility that you
willingly carry for someone else when they cannot carry themselves.
This is the beauty of the gesture. If it wasn’t beautiful, how many
of us would have raised children? The sacrifice of effort always
gives way to new discoveries of joy.
It doesn’t have to be a burden.
Karen is home now, resting and recovering, rebuilding her strength. Thanks to the many of you who have prayed, called, texted, emailed, brought groceries, cleaned our house, granted time off work. Being in need like this is obviously not preferred, but it is not without blessing either. The picture I have in my mind is of standing on a well trodden path. And in one direction are my problems and undesirable circumstances, and down the opposite direction are my blessings in all their fullness and delight. I can only stare in one direction at a time. And I would rather stare in the direction of the good and absorb everything I can from it. It doesn’t change my circumstances or make the problems go away. But it does make me see in a different light.
What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. Job 3:25
A good friend gave me the book, Band of Brothers, several years ago as a marker of our friendship and to commemorate some of the hard times we had gone through together. But I only made it through the first two chapters before I had to put it down. I was overcome by a sense of guilt as I was given a glimpse of life as a soldier in a war that I could never imagine fighting. I became morbidly reflective. What would I have done if I were in Nixon or Blythe’s shoes? Would I have held up under such circumstances? Would I have caved in, or abandoned my post out of fear? Most of my assumptions were negative, keeping me at a distance from these important and heroic stories.
That guilt ended last year when I finally gave myself permission to watch the HBO film series of the book, thanks to my Amazon Prime subscription. The impetus that helped me over my guilt was another friend’s counsel. He told me, “Don’t make their story your own.” He pointed out to me it was unfair to make that kind of comparison. One, it prevented me from entering into their stories with honor by making it all about me, and two, it presupposes the worst about my possibilities if ever faced with such difficulty.
I realize that some people have a similar reaction when I discuss how I’m dealing with Karen’s cancer. In a recent conversation, I heard these two remarks. “I don’t have the same kind of faith as you.” and “I could never be as strong as her.” I think this kind of assessment must be human nature. It’s easy to adopt a lesser mindset when observing others dealing with any kind of pain and suffering, especially if I’ve never experienced the same thing. Let me offer this bit of encouragement.
Cancer is something I would never wish on anyone, even my worst enemies. It is destructive on its own, let alone the impact of some of the side effects of its treatment. It can rob you of a quality of life and ultimately can take away the one you love. I hope you will never face it in your lifetime.
But if you do, I believe there is a special grace available to you, and the crisis makes it more accessible to you now that you have a new battle to face. Its a grace you didn’t need before. But it’s a grace that can overshadow your new enemy, whatever form it might take.
So I speak with confidence; do not be afraid that someone else’s realty would become your own. It’s not worth the energy. If the thing you fear never occurs, then you’ve not wasted time dreading a scenario that only found space in your mind. If it comes, then receive that grace that will strengthen you beyond what you thought you were capable of. In the meantime, enjoy your special moments today without fear. They will mean more to you as future memories and you’ll find you can savor them more fully.
Cancer is the hand we have been dealt. Karen and I are going to play that hand to the best of our ability. And we have every intention of winning.
As a writer, words are the commodity I trade in. I need to gather words that reflect my voice, but also have the best possible chance of communicating the meaning I am trying to convey. I have my favorite words that I turn to regularly. I’m not sure why, but I like using juxtaposition or superfluous. For some reason I like the way they sound and I can work them into a sentence easily. Yet there are other words I have no idea how to use. Words such as asymptote or tintinnabulation. These would require a dictionary and make my reader feel like I am trying to be the next George Will or Dennis Miller. I stay away from those. Then there are words I refuse to use, simply because they carry connotation and meaning that I would never want to express.
Over time, words change in meaning. To say screwed around my father in law did not imply being put in a difficult or hopeless situation.. The word sucks has certainly morphed over time from how I remember it used in college when yelling the word at a basketball referee.
As we prepare to deal with cancer for a third time, one of the words that has changed meaning and that we no longer use is UNFAIR.
Fairness is difficult to administer because it is often determined by perception, not intention. Parents with small children know this very well. You’ve heard one of them scream,“That’s not fair!.”as your son interprets your action of letting your daughter sit in the front seat on the way home while he has to sit in the back. “I always have to sit in the back. She ALWAYS gets to sit up front. THAT’S NOT FAIR!”
And you may have a thoughtful reason for letting your daughter ride up front, but that doesn’t always matter to the one in the back seat who perceives he is being treated unfairly. This is when you as a parent accept that the child won’t fully understand your motives and intentions.
You love your children unconditionally and your mission as a parent is to make sure they understand this truth. And throughout their young lives, they will challenge you on it. That’s why fairness isn’t your biggest concern.
And this is why Karen and I don’t use that word when describing our circumstances. Our faith is rooted in God’s great love for us, not in how fair we think life is or should be, or why we have to deal with cancer and someone else does not. We learn to discern His good intentions, and not lean into our small perceptions.
The conversations you don’t want to have with a doctor involve the words, “it’s pretty serious.” I heard those words for a third time yesterday as Karen and I sat in the office of her oncologist in Omaha. The cancer has come back.
The first time I heard them was in May 2010 as I sat in a small consultation room outside the surgical ward in St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Lincoln. The doctor had just completed Karen’s first surgery and delivered the news that she indeed had ovarian cancer. I can still remember the shock and despair that flooded my body as the doctor left the room. I sat there alone contemplating what I had just been given. Life has now changed as I knew it five minutes ago.
About a year and a half later, the second conversation with the doctor was a similar message. The tumor has returned and it was serious. Here we go again. Round 2. Punch to the gut. Try to catch my breath and make sense of what was to come. All I could think was this wasn’t what I signed up for. She’s too young. Life isn’t fair.
But yesterday’s conversation was different to both of us. For one, it was less shocking, more hopeful. Why so?
Experience has a grounding effect. She and I have been through this before and we have learned some lessons through previous tests that serve us well today. Here are a few of those:
Despair does not get to interpret the news nor dictate our responses.
Where I choose to go with this news is up to me. When I consider the number of responses I have available, I find I only get to choose one, so which will it be? Panic and fear are eager and ready to consume me, but so is Peace and Hope. And given the two, I would rather be consumed by Peacefulness and imprisoned by Hope than by panic and fear any day.
Karen and I have a beautiful life together.
We’ve been through a lot of hell over the years, and you know what they say about going through hell? Move quickly. In the recent years, we’ve fought her cancer and its recurrence. We’ve dealt with three business failures together, declaring personal bankruptcy in our 50’s. Not the path we would have chosen 28 years ago when we said, “I do.” And despite it all, I have a deeper appreciation for the strength of my life partner than ever before. For this I feel most fortunate regardless of the trials that have forged our marriage.
Our faith is secure.
It’s amazing what happens when faith gets tested. The principles given to me as a child are given an opportunity to become fully real life experiences. Belief becomes real and tangible when it is tested, even though it may not be visible to the naked eye. Its difficult to describe, but in this way, faith comes closer to sight and it makes it even easier to believe.
I have very little information to present here other than the process begins next week of determining a treatment plan. You can follow my blog here as I chronicle the journey. Writing is part of my personal therapy and it helps me process. Feel free to ask us about it when you see us You won’t upset us. Cancer does not get to define us or shape our truest identity.
I don’t know how one would gather data on such a subject, but it appears to me that there is a lot more palpable and visible anger in our culture in the past 10 years, especially when it comes to the arena of politics. Why is this? What’s the root of it? Who is responsible?
The Republicans, Gays, the NRA, Trump; take your pick. We can find anyone on which to pin the blame for our anger, reasoning out that things would be so much better if (fill in name of hated entity) would just shut up and go away. That’s how anger works. It has an uncanny way of allowing for rationalization of an opinion.
It’s easy to point the finger at the supposed culprit and justify our own position against the actions of another. But this is what Jesus was especially good at uncovering. He had a way of showing that the starting point of all inquiry is self examination. Take the log out of our own eye before removing the speck out of our neighbor’s eye. Good advice like this is not always heeded. And there is a simple motivation why?
We are angry because we love being angry.
I do believe there is a reason Jesus spoke of anger as his very first point in his first recorded sermon. Anger is a powerful, natural response. It is a call to personal action. When hurt or wronged, anger provokes the soul to action. But think of it as a starting point, not a destination. Anger should be moved beyond, not wallowed in.
One of the first bits of parenting advice I remember was to never discipline my child in anger. It did not take long until I understood what that meant. When my kids did not do what I wanted, anger would flare. And often it was for very good reason. If one of them showed disrespect, I felt immediately angry, but I had to move very quickly away from that anger into a reasoned, calm response. If not, anger would take over as the ruler.
Anger has a flip side, and it is sadness. Show me an angry person and I will show you a deeply sad person. Their sadness may be buried so deep that it’s hard to detect. This is because its far easier to be angry than it is to be sad. Anger produces a protective sense of power. The feeling that stems from it is compulsive, and therefore indulged. In this way, Anger becomes an addiction. This is why we are angry. We love it too much.
Addiction is nothing more than the exchange of personal control for the promise of reward. Alcohol promises relief and escape, but it ends up stealing a person’s self restraint. Anger can do the same thing. Anger can promise a sense of personal power, but leads to nothing more than unconfined rage if indulged beyond necessity. If you’ve seen the movie Fight Club, it shows this clearly.
Yes, I believe our society is angry because we love it, we indulge it and thus become addicted to it. The only way an addiction is broken is when the addict becomes bored with or sick of the drug and sees that it offers nothing but a false promise.
Break this addiction to anger and you will change the world.
A film that deeply moved me recently is La La Land. It hit me at a critical time in my life when I was filled with overwhelming self-doubt, much like the characters Mia and Sebastian felt when they faced difficulty in pursuing their dream of being an actress and owning a jazz club, respectively.
One day while on a walk, Mia comes out and bluntly tells Sebastian that she hates jazz, the music form that he is ready to commit all his effort to preserving by opening his own jazz club. Incredulous, he takes her to hear a band and invites her into his understanding of the beauty of improv and away from her impression that jazz is just background noise meant to talk over.
I believe this is the most vulnerable part of being an entrepreneur. To invite another person, let alone the entire world, into your idea and so they can experience it from your point of view is risky. What if they don’t like it? Or worse, what if it’s just ignored? What do you do with that kind of rejection?
But ideas can never come to fruition without that kind of risk. You see something. Others don’t. Do you believe the idea deeply enough to seek to change their mind?
If no, maybe the idea wasn’t very good.
If yes, expect it to be challenged.
Either way, you’re going to have to contend with opposition. Craft your story to address it. You will be telling it many times over.