Sunday, March 30, 2014

Let Us Go to the Cherry Tree: A Spring Parable


Come away with me, Darling. Let us go to the cherry tree. She tells a story to anyone who will listen. A love story. Quiet now--she is soft-spoken, barely audible above the drone of delighted, winged insects adorning her head. Look how her nimbus of pink and white locks rustle and curl so elegantly in the spring breeze against a backdrop of azure sky. Admire her with me and listen.

"It was not always so," she says. Only a breath ago, her limbs stood stark and gnarled, as grey as the winter sky--the very picture of death. A blazing Indian summer withered her former glory. The autumn wind tore at her, stealing away what was left until she was a ruin--nothing to look at.

But he looked. More importantly, he saw. Through a haze of ashen mist and a flurry of harsh, winter storms he kept watch. He never forsook her. He was enraged by her loss and grieved by her sadness. He sang to her songs of consolation and bathed her bare shoulders in gentle, yellow kisses. Even in repose she was precious to him.

All the while, he knew what was to come. He knew what he would do. He waited. He made her wait. She knew not his reasons. Was not her mortification complete? She reached for him in desperation, and gathered him into herself.

Unexpectedly, something changed. Congealed blood turned viscous in her veins. Her heart gave a laborious thump. Snow and ice melted, penetrating the hard soil at her feet. The mist above dissolved, and she could see him as he was. Not in part, but his whole! The voice of her lover called out to her in a tone of white light and searing passion--"Come forth!" She leaped at him from her tomb bedecked in lovely hues, smiling rapturously into his glowing face.

She lives! She is his. He is hers. Nothing can touch her now. She does not fret over wind or rain, not even the fiercest tempest. She joyfully offers sustenance and shelter to the tiny ones who need her--the stunning male cardinals who proclaim their grand intentions from her fragrant boughs, the buzzing things which surreptitiously sip the robust wine of one bud and then another until they drift away sleepy and askew.

She tells them all a secret which falls upon my ear--"New! New! I once was dead, but now am living! He has made new!"

There, Beloved. Now count the wounds her story heals.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Art of Tug of War

I am learning the art of tug of war. For two years, I have battled on both sides of the rope. On one side is acceptance of my lot. John Newton once wrote, "Everything is needful that He sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds." For reasons known only to Him, the Lord deems my trial needful. I do not understand, but I trust the heart that bled for me. On the other side of the rope is the full collection of my efforts to be well, which are many and varied. I never stop trying. I don't feel allowed. As much as God wants me to gratefully accept what He has justly and righteously given, He also wants me to want to be well. The only surrender I am permitted is to His plan for my life, not to this illness. It's an exhausting game, but I hold my grip for the grip of Sufficient Grace on me.

After numerous dead ends, setbacks, and advancements on one front as I lost ground on another, I am thrilled to report I am finally, undeniably better.
  • My reactions are not as severe as they once were. This time last year, I was going into anaphylactic shock 1-3 times per week caused by an assortment of triggers. As I write this, I cannot recall the last time I "shocked." I still experience chest tightness, a barking cough, mental confusion and an overwhelming drunken sensation during acute episodes, but these symptoms are not life threatening. We know how to deal with them. And thankfully, I am no longer terrifying my family on a regular basis. I continue to react to a frustrating number of things most people would never consider to be unsafe, but the receding strength of my reactions gives me hope that one day I may live a life with fewer walls.
  •  I have more energy. I continue to experience fatigue, but it feels more manageable now. I don't think it's easier just because I'm used to it. I don't think anyone ever gets used to feeling like standing is the healthy person's equivalent to a half marathon. I just understand it better and can anticipate it with more accuracy, which makes it livable.
  • For the most part, my pain remains manageable. I have good days and not so good days. I can't do everything I want to do, but I can do most of it without pain taking me over.
  • During my check up with Dr. Yakaboski this week, my thyroid, adrenal and liver function all showed improvement! Praise the Lord!
Truly, God has done this. He has heard and honored our prayers. His hand has been so evident, His direction perfectly clear. He has given my doctor wisdom concerning my needs. He has sent people into my life to offer me a helping hand. He has given me the strength and resolve to press on each step of the way. Thank you for "helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on [my] behalf for the gift granted to [me] through many" (2 Corinthians 1:11). Please don't stop praying!

I want you to know where your prayers have led my family and me. So in the spirit of full disclosure, I will share a few key elements which have helped me to heal:

  • Let's get this one out of the way: Daily (and sometimes twice daily) coffee enemas. TMI, I know. Whatever. Let's get over it together, shall we? They have been a huge help in reducing my histamine burden and toxic load. My entire body feels instantly better afterward, especially during acute episodes. Coffee enemas are a key aspect of natural cancer treatment per recommendation of The Gerson Institute. You can read an article about it here. My friend Caroline (aka Gutsy) also has an informative post about coffee enemas if you are curious about the method to my madness. 
  • Stress management. We all know that stress is bad for us, a fact which is doubly true for people with chronic illness. Stress is an actual trigger for mast cell activation disease patients, and can cause anaphylaxsis all by its lonesome. I have been forced to learn to manage my stress. I realize that not everyone can live how I live. Some people work 9 to 5 jobs or are full-time students, some mothers have 8 children and some people have zero familial or community support. Nevertheless, I think everyone can afford to adopt at least one of the following principles:  

    •  Prioritize your life by what must be done today, what should be done today, and what can wait until tomorrow. Guard your "spoons" so you can do the things which matter most. 
    •  Have a plan, but hold it loosely. This helps you to balance rising above your disease and giving yourself permission to be sick. Frustration about your illness only adds to your stress load. Believe me. Holding your plans loosely also gives the Holy Spirit an opportunity to shape your day as He sees fit. His plans are always better than yours. Living life at the ready for Him to sweep through and involve you in something eternal is the most adventurous and fun way to live!
    • If you are able to get out of the home, limit yourself to one event for the day. No more. If you work or go to school, that is your one outside event for the day.
    • If you are running behind on dinner or kids are whining or you feel the pressure of a million things left undone, STOP, BREATHE DEEPLY, AND PRAY. God is eager and able to give you the grace you need to complete the tasks of the day. Running about all frantic and flustered helps no one, least of all you.
    • Smile, laugh, sing and dance as often as you can. Especially if you don't feel like it. Force feed yourself with happiness.
    • Spend time outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine are good for all the bits that make you you.
    • Reserve time every day to do something creative or enjoyable. I learned this one from my Jenny. She was good at knowing what was good for people.
    • Take mornings slowly as often as you can. Sleep in whenever possible.
    • Limit toxic and difficult relationships. Many people would advise you to nix these relationships altogether, which is great advice in very particular situations. But I often find it is neither practical nor biblical to completely sever all ties with the unlovables in our lives. Many of these relationships cannot be escaped for one reason or another, and Jesus calls us to love the difficult ones because He does. But create boundaries. Boundaries are a form of love. No one should be allowed to have a free go at you whenever they please. It's not good for you or for them.
    • Deep breathing and meditation. I recommend specific meditations such as memorized scripture and reflections upon God's character, His blessings, and His history of faithfulness with you. Read and ponder His promises in the Bible. These good, wholesome thoughts nourish and invigorate the soul, which is what stress management is all about.
    • Count your blessings. Keep a gratitude journal. Anger and bitterness (stressors) cannot find entry into a thankful heart.
  • Daily detox baths. I take a 30-45 minute bath every day using 2 small scoops of magnesium crystals and sometimes add either 2-3 cups of organic apple cider vinegar or 1 cup of bentonite clay.
  •  Regular exercise. I have experienced health slumps which have caused brief lapses in the discipline, but if I can at all, I do--usually 4 or 5 days per week. I like a mixture of low impact cardio and yoga. Usually, I use the Wii Fit board as a step, and walk up and down while I watch something on Netflix. Sometimes, I do a few minutes of light rebounding sitting on the side of my bed. I try to do at least a little yoga at the end of every workout. Yoga is my favorite. I like it because it's challenging without being harmful or dangerous for my joints, and it makes me feel oh so good.
  • Twice monthly lymphatic drainage treatments at Dr. Yakaboski's office. My frequent reactions cause my lymph nodes to swell painfully. These treatments give me welcome relief from discomfort and healing support for my body. During the treatment, Dr. Yakaboski also performs acupressure work to balance my emotions using a technique called B.E.S.T. A particular application of this technique, which takes the body out of "fight or flight" mode, has proven to be life saving for me during anaphylactic shock. I have purchased the instructional DVDs so my family can learn to perform it in case of fire ant or wasp stings this summer.
  • Twice monthly chiropractic treatments. I firmly believe chiropractic care is essential for overall health. If the spine is not properly aligned, the body is not operating optimally. My chiropractor specializes in a program called Total Body Modification (TBM). TBM is another form of acupressure work (dealing primarily with the acupressure points on the spine) which can treat specific symptoms as well as support the operation of full body systems. I use the most basic TBM techniques for every acute allergic reaction at home, and have Dr. Frieden do the more complex, fancy-schmansy stuff in her office during my visits. Last October, I told her of my anaphylactic reactions to every little thing. She performed a specific TBM sequence, and since then I have had significantly fewer and less severe episodes of anaphylaxsis.
  • Regular at-home BioSet and TBM treatments. These acupressure treatments slow or stop reactions very quickly. It's like pressing a "reset" button on my body. It's difficult to explain what it is or how it works, but I love my sister's take on it. After having a systemic reaction to Chinese food, she asked me to treat her even though she isn't much into my hippie ways. She came over to the house and after the treatment, she commented, "That is some weird crap, but I feel a lot better!"
  •  Nutritional therapy as directed by nutritional therapist, Jennifer Nervo of the blog 20 Something Allergies. I discovered her blog in September 2012, and have followed her ever since. Her Baby Steps to Better Health series helped me a ton in the early days of my illness. For 18 months, she has assisted me as I have fumbled and bumbled about in an effort to get food safely into by body. She is now directing that effort. We've only just begun the nutritional protocol, but I have been implementing a few new-to-me concepts for several weeks now to which I have responded quite well. Jennifer understands how food works for the body, how the sensitive body responds to food, four day food rotation cycles for allergies, low histamine diets, and how to target autoimmune and mitochondrial disease with a specific nutritional approach. She knows each patient comes to her with individual needs, and she tailors her knowledge to fit those needs. I plan to post about my experience after I make it through the second rotation cycle early next week.
  • Healthful miscellany: 
    • Rest and refusal to feel guilty about rest
    • Sunshine and fresh air as often as weather and health permit
    • Humbly and gratefully accepting help from others
    • Avoiding triggers (i.e. staying away from crowds and uncontrolled environments; avoiding foods which make me sick; letting others handle and wash new clothing; having Brandon screen all of my mail for scents and chemicals)
    • Wearing a double mask any time I leave my home. It's social suicide, of course. It earns me lots of stares--some curious, some dubious--and very few hellos. Children are afraid of me. But it keeps me alive and mostly well. 
I will not lie to you. None of these things have come easily. It's been a slow, laborious process. Each component was implemented during a different season of my illness, and some of them have required a great deal of courage and trust. The battle for my health is costly in every way something can be costly, but it is not waged out of angst, bitterness or desperation. Mysteriously, the God of Paradoxes has created a paradox within me--I gratefully accept my disease as a good gift given out of God's righteous wisdom while I fight the disease like the assault from the Enemy it is.

It's a tug of war. Gratitude and desire. Contentment and fury. Surrender to the Lord and defiance of the Enemy. The rope must remain taut or I fall. It's exhausting and impossible apart from Christ. But through Him, I can do all things. He is the strength of my resolve, the power behind my work, and the song in my heart.

"Unless the Lord had been my help
my soul would soon have settled in silence.
If I say, 'My foot slips,' 
Your mercy, O Lord, will hold me up.
In the multitude of my anxieties within me,
Your comforts delight my soul."
-Psalm 94:17-19

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Drowning and Swimming at the Same Time

"I didn't know--" She tried to swallow the overwhelming sadness caught in her throat. "Jonathan dies in battle." 
The world fell still and cold around me. I am David. And who is David without Jonathan?

 taken November 2012 at the Toledo Bend lake house

When our friendship began in August 2012, Jenny was studying the book of 1 Samuel with her women's Bible study group in Houston. I had known her for about two weeks when she declared I was the David to her Jonathan. What an insightful foreshadowing that was.

"[T]he soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David....then Jonathan and David made a covenant because he loved him as his own soul."
1 Samuel 18:1,3

I am hesitant to use adequate language to describe our friendship because I know it may be interpreted incorrectly by some. It makes me tremble to think there are people who might misunderstand what I want to communicate. So I offer this disclaimer: don't fall into the cultural folly of thinking the only love of great strength is romantic love. It isn't. Today's cheap definition of romance could never stand up to what we had. Stated briefly--ours was a covenantal friendship. To borrow David's words in 2 Samuel 1, "[She was] very pleasant to me; [her] love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of [men]."

Ours was a connection unlike anything I have ever experienced. My friendships are few, long-lasting and miles deep. Normally, I watch a person carefully before I choose them, and I give my heart by inches. But Jenny and I did not choose each other. We were given to each other. Our friendship began fast and furiously--yes, like falling in love--and our souls were irrevocably entwined before I knew what had happened. The kind of love God was calling us to was whole, true, painful, put-your-soul-on-the-line love. 

You cannot protect yourself in that kind of love. No wall you build or shield you bear can stand up to it. And you would not want it to. Not really. It is the kind of love that changes you forever, leaving behind invisible tattoos upon you both with each meeting and conversation. It is the kind of love in which you see the other person's most admirable strengths and gravest sins and love them still--maybe more. You battle her dragons and she battles yours--back to back and swords at the ready. You praise her successes without a hint of jealousy, angst or irony. Without a hint! Even when one of you is dying and the other is beginning to heal. You want to suffer and die in her stead, and would if you could. You can't, but you hurt with her. You pray for her. You offer what little strength you have and hope it helps. You become so connected you melt into her and she melts into you so that you no longer can tell where you begin and she ends. You can boldly tell the truth always because you never doubt how loved you are. You can challenge one another, disagree, say hard things and come out better and stronger on the other side. You don't worry about offending. Pure love cannot be offended. Ever. With the exception of Christ's love for the Church, ours was the purest I have known. I say that because self-service was never a thought, offense never took place and mutual understanding was a reflex--words optional. We were for one another more than we were for ourselves.

And I have lost her.

She passed on March 8, 2014 after two years of intense suffering. It is a great mystery to me that I am standing, walking and talking. Have you ever attempted to tear apart something knit together? It's almost impossible to do and once done, the only thing left behind is a frayed mess of something now unrecognizable. I feel less like myself without her in the world. I am drowning in an ocean of grief. That is what grief is--drowning. When a wave hits you, it takes the breath away. It literally aches and burns in the lungs. Though I have been actively grieving for her for almost a year--for her suffering and in knowing she was slipping away--I haven't gotten any better at the whole "grieving well" thing, whatever that looks like.

Yet I am surviving. (Surviving sucks, by the way.) I stand because the mercies of the Lord hold me up (Psalm 94:18). I am too wounded to walk, so the Lord is carrying me in His arms (Isaiah 40:11). Talking is hard. Writing is harder. But this is a chapter in need of writing, and we all do what we must. Somehow I smile. I smile at the nosegays the kids and I craft from the delicate wildflowers popping up in our yard because "nosegay" was Jenny's favorite word. I smile at my children, my husband and all things happy because she was happy, she is happy and she would want me to be happy. I smile because she is no longer suffering. She is free! She is no longer wearing those "sick rags," but is instead clothed in gleaming white robes of righteousness! I smile because she is in the best place with the best Companion. All the needs, longings and hopes of her soul are entirely fulfilled. That knowledge is precious to me. The loss is sharp and brutal, but I am swimming in a sea of hope because I know I will see her again. And I'm going to be okay--even here and now--because as much as I loved the girl, she wasn't my everything. I was careful about that. Jesus is my everything, and He's not going anywhere. He is actually nearer for the pain.

To my surprise, Jenny was buried about an hour from Jubilee Farm, so Brandon and I were able to attend the burial service. The drive was gorgeous. Life was bursting from the ground in fresh, vibrant blooms. New calves chewed bright green grass near their mothers' knees. Warm sunlight poured from the heavens--a smile of victory from my yellow-souled friend. Wind rushed through the trees, making music in honor of her free spirit. I had prayed for a perfect day. God delivered.

As I hugged her family--each embrace feeling like another difficult goodbye--and gazed at that horrid coffin and that awful hole in the ground, the voice which kept repeating, "It's over, it's over," was drowned out by the Voice of Truth--"It's only beginning. It's going to be more than okay. All this heartache and all this pain will heighten the ecstasy of the reunion to come! Believe Me and rest joyfully in hope!"

 On the way home, budding pear trees reminded me of the reality of the resurrection. When I see her again, my Jenny will not be some ethereal wisp of what she was. She will be a perfected version of herself in physical form. She will laugh, eat and dance. I will recognize not only her spirit, but her face. And she will recognize me. Our dreams will be fully, exponentially realized. We will
"join hands and grin conspiratorially at one another before taking an unbridled, running leap and plunging into the vast, deep waters of endless Jubilee!" (Quote taken from my post "Dreams of Jubilee")
taken 2/10/13 at Juliet's first birthday party

On February 19, the day of our final communication on this side of heaven, I wrote the following tribute to my covenant friend:

The only show of light more precious than the first sun rays of the morning caressing the earth in happy greeting is the glow of late afternoon. With a mustering of effort, an aria bursts forth on golden breath before lapsing into lullaby. There is something glorious about the victory of the moment. It is a final act of  rebellion against the gathering darkness before she fades peacefully into her rest. And nothing in creation is more graceful than her farewell painted in fire and roses on the western horizon. Though we are saddened to see her go, we are filled with unspeakable gratitude she came at all, whispering secrets of her Creator only she could tell and leaving life in her wake. We will weep at the loss, but will take comfort in the assurance we will see her again, renewed and more glorious than we can now conceive.

photos taken November 2012 at the Toledo Bend lake house

Though she appears in many posts written between September 2012 and March 2014, the following are my "Jenny posts" in which she is featured: