Urgent, evangelise. With Salt (& Tequila).

“It’s liver cancer.”

“How long?”

“Six months without treatment. 18 months with.”

As she dashed tears from her eyes, I swept this valiant 42-year-old woman into a hug. “I’m so sorry,” I told her, adding some slightly bluer language under my breath for good measure.

Yet like a neon question mark flashing at the back of my brain, there was only this: ‘What does she believe? And how do I ask without sounding like an awful end of days prepper?’

Through business circles, I had known her for years. Not closely, not until the start of 2015 when we ‘just clicked’ as members of the same networking group. We discovered a similar outlook on life. Offered complementary business services. Wicked senses of humour. Some shared emotional baggage that we unpacked over wine as only new friends on discovery can, laughing at each other with a gentleness that said, yes; I understand that screwed up bit of you too.

She was the coolest of cool friends, yet without ego or notion of how beautiful or cool she really was.

“I’m not telling many people about my diagnosis because I want my business to go on as normal,” she told me. “But I’ve seen what you post on Facebook and I see you have faith. I feel ok about it. I’ve enjoyed my life. There’s nothing else I really want to do. I’ve always tried to treat others how I would like to be treated myself. But I don’t believe anything comes next.”

Really God and Jesus? Really?

After six plus years of knowing her around the business traps, we properly connect in the year she is given a terminal cancer diagnosis; her without any belief or faith about what comes after death, and me a scant 18 months after becoming a Christian?

There are no Godincidences.

But, really? Pressure much?

For anyone who doesn’t understand why some Christians behave like shiny-suited TV evangelists, it’s because Jesus said some serious stuff in the Bible about what happens when we die.

“The only way to the Father is through me,” he told his disciples. “The promise of eternal life, the resurrection, the free gift of grace comes only if you are willing to lay down your life and follow me.” (I’m paraphrasing).

If not? Well, it’s not pretty. Too many Christians like to gloss over it, playing safe in the more new-agey pools of God being nothing but love.

Who can blame them? Hellfire Bible-thumping religion has done G&J a huge disservice. In reaction, the pendulum has swung the other way in today’s world of free choice, self-service and freedom.

Standing up and saying, “Well, actually, I do believe that God calls us to account when we die,” is not welcome. Too often the fire ‘n’ brimstone hangover of being called to account overshadows the good news of that Jesus fella.

The good news that through the grace of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, I can stand in front of God as a child in front of her loving Father, and receive forgiveness and an eternal gift of life.

But here’s the kicker: you’ve got to get to know and accept Jesus first.

As I sat in front of my friend, reeling from the news of her cancer diagnosis, listening to her dismiss her Roman Catholic schooling (heavy on the guilt and wrong doing) and what she’d heard from her brother-in-law pastor (I know, I know, the irony), the true punch in my solar plexus was this:

‘She can’t die without sorting out where she stands with God and Jesus. But, on the face of it, she’s lived a good life. She has an amazing moral code and value system. How do I explain that none of that matters? That compared to Jesus on the cross, because of our very distance from God, we are all broken and needing saving? No matter the amount of our virtue and strength of moral fibre.’

I cried a lot that night. And prayed. I visualised the Holy Spirit (HS) firing through that liver of hers so often it was more lighthouse than vital organ in my prayers. I had one of those slanging, bargaining type conversations with God: “Quick zap of the HS and all will be well. I’ve got my prayer warriors on it too. I know You can hear us. She knows we are all praying. C’mon, what better way to prove You exist than a miracle cure?”

I don’t believe slapping people round the head with G&J gets them closer to understanding. Yet the urgency was horrible. Even more as her treatment failed. It got to the point that if another well-meaning Christian had asked, “Has she said the Jesus prayer yet?” I may well have reached over and ripped out their throat in a very unchristian manner. When one of them asked, quite seriously, “Do you think you’ve done enough?” my tongue bled from my biting it. To ask me, tripping around in my flawed way, if I’d done enough, dismissed God’s sovereignty and my friend’s heart. Whilst it was ultimately down to God and her, not me, it still made me feel like hell. I couldn’t make her become a Christian.

So what could I do? I prayed (as did others) and kept on being the sort of Christian I am: irreverent, flawed, and prone to explaining G&J in my own quirky way. It is less theological college, checklist ‘shiny’ and more sweary, eye-rolling ‘I know, I can’t quite believe I’m a Christian either,” reality.

When Jesus told his early followers to be like salt – let their faith stand out, be a well-flavoured advertisement for Christianity – I’m sure he didn’t expect me to pair it with tequila slammers. By my being the least expected ‘type’ of Christian person (ie: not religious), I pray daily that Jesus can be seen in his true light. Which is all I wished for my friend.

So when she asked what I believed, I said God doesn’t promise me a pain-free this life, but he promises me an eternal next one. Told her, no, her cancer wasn’t punishment for wanting to die during her own brush with depression years before.

I said, simply, how we live in a broken world. That we are all more flawed than we  images-1.jpgcould ever believe, yet more loved by Jesus and God than we could ever dare imagine. And that heaven was way, way better. How I dearly wanted to see her when I got there, so could she please get with the resurrection program that Jesus offers. Plus, when my time is up here on earth, could she start lining up the margaritas for my arrival.

Sadly, the doctors were wrong. My friend died just four months after her diagnosis. We didn’t do any shiny ‘I give my life to Jesus’ prayers. But in those four months she humbled me by reading all my blogs and asking questions. She came along to church – which was a touch and go first visit  – but she came back to sing carols with a passion and hold my hand as she did so. She even whispered that I ought not be frustrated by her experience back at church, “because you made sure you explained it afterwards. I get it.” I don’t think she understood just how much she taught me about God and Jesus as I tried to show them to her. Is still teaching me.

In the final week of her life, as she drifted in and out of consciousness I asked how she and God were doing. “He’s really helping me,” she whispered. I went back most days to sit next to the bed and, when the opportunities arose, read her Psalms and gospel verses. “Beautiful,” she whispered over Psalm 121, my voice breaking at verse 8.

Being a Christian is tough. Being a Christian in the hospital room of someone who is dying, surrounded by her friends and family, who may or may not share your faith, is tougher. They needed their own time with her; who was I – more of an outsider with what may have appeared to be a lesser friendship/business connection – to keep turning up at her bedside?

Back to salt: how could I not? On the first night she was admitted, she had whispered to me: “I don’t want to die.” So even if she – and her other friends and family – did not share my faith and hope in Jesus, perhaps they could find some solace in mine. Sometimes it felt like I was sharing him across eggshells. Like sending John 14:27 to her husband – who at the time may have felt least able to let his heart be untroubled – and carefully adding: “Sometimes it’s like tasting nails…but sometimes there is comfort.”

The last afternoon, her barely conscious, a shadow of the woman admitted eight days before, I said one final prayer to this lover of all things bright and beautiful. “You know, I think Jesus is standing right in front of you now, holding out the most amazing technicolour coat. All you have to do is reach forward, take it, and let him wrap you in it.” Her hand under mine gave the faintest of flexes. She died early the next morning. New Year’s Day.

But the tribe of shiny Christians asking about her ‘doing’ the Jesus prayer scared me. I spent the hours after her death proclaiming God’s sovereignty on one hand, and then whispering how I’d love to know He’d got her on the other. “Just a sign,” I implored. “Just so I know. Please.”

What happened next is how I describe God’s personal love for us all. He didn’t have to offer me comfort. He is sovereign and my exhibiting control freakery over the outcome of His conversations with my dying friend totally disses His sovereign bit. Who am I to be asking, “how did You and she go?”

Yet that day, on the drive south of Sydney to grieve on a less-populated beach with waves and my surfboard, every car I passed seemed to have either a fish sticker on the back or a crucifix swinging from its rear-view mirror. I coughed and hiccupped and saline snot-monstered my hope: “Is that the sign? Or am I imagining things? I’m so sorry God. You know how I need it up emblazoned on a billboard so I don’t miss it.”

At the last minute, I changed my mind over the beach I was going to. As I pulled into the car park, the beachside meeting room boasted this red sign:

Beachposter

Praise God for His graciousness. I imagined Him asking, “Now, dear heart, is that literally a big enough sign for you?” I sighed, cried some more, smiled and recalled, Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. – Hebrews 11:1

I have faith He has her. Which means, along with no more pain, sorrow or hurt, I have confidence she’s going to have a margarita waiting in heaven with my name on it.

Not because of anything I’ve done, not because of works, not because I deserve a lemon, salty, triple-sec, tequila cocktail for facilitating an introduction between God and my friend. But because of His love and Jesus’ grace I get to see her again.

Amen.

Keep calm…and press the lifeline button

It has taken one year, five months and ten days for me to write this post. To write down the moment-to-moment experience of the day my Mum died. Mostly because I wasn’t proud of how it went. Somehow I wanted it to be more, show more, have more. So forgive me my delay.keep-calm-and-press-the-lifeline-button

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog that the night before she died, I spent time numbingly distracting myself with the 50 Shades Trilogy. I also cleared out lots of papers and looked through her boxes of photos. Mum drifted in and out of sleep whilst I sat on the floor next to her bed, looking at pictures of trips she’d taken on her trips to Australia.  We didn’t talk. Sometimes I look back and think, ‘Should I have sat down on the bed and awoken her to talk about the good times, get her to look at the photos, remind her of how much we’d shared and experienced?’ Upon reflection, I realised I didn’t want the confrontation. That the end was nigh. Not did I want to disturb her. If Mum was drifting in some pain-free haze, who was I to interrupt the peace?

So I softly said goodnight, gave her a last sip of water, and went to my bed in the next room. I read some more, staying awake so I could hear if she needed me, and eventually drifted off to sleep. Whilst I slept, my husband Tony came down from the guest rooms upstairs and read quietly to her – a book of Australian Poetry. It is our joke now that no-wonder she chose to die the next morning.

I awoke early to an SMS from Australia, a dear friend who I call the ‘great psychic’. Wishing my mum love and peace in her passing. I walked into the lounge room and stood next to the bed. Mum was breathing, but slowly. “Do you want a cup of tea?” I asked. No response. And in that moment I knew. She was breathing still, but it wasn’t going to be long.

I wish I could say I sat down, held her hand and with poise and grace said good-bye. Instead I took two steps back and thought, “Oh shit, do I call someone?” Luckily Tony walked in at that moment. I looked at him and burst into tears. “Should I call Mary?” he asked, referring to one of the carers, who was a short drive away.

Mum was still breathing. Her death was but moments away. Yet we were both looking externally to somehow make it better. No matter how much grace and peace I had come to believe I had around this moment, now it was here every quiet belief failed me. Tony stepped outside to make the phone call.

I stood alone next to the bed, trying to sob and hiccup as quietly as possible because I didn’t WANT her to hear me and hang on. I knew (intellectually) her death was inevitable.  And you know what she did?

She waited. Waited until I was no longer alone. She heard Tony come back in and quietly tell me that he’d spoken to Mary. Then there was one exhale. And her chest did not rise again.

‘But, but, hang on, no, wait’ my brain stuttered. It was so anti-climatic. Was this it?

Of course it was. But then we didn’t know what to do. We looked at each other. It was early, none of the carers were on shift. I’m sure we could have come to an elegant solution, should we have stopped to think, but neither of us could. The carers had said press the lifeline button should we need any help, as it would ring through for assistance. So we did.

Which meant an ambulance was sent over to take a reading of her heart and confirm death – because Lifeline had to follow its own protocol. Not exactly the quiet, peaceful ending I’d so delicately imagined, although it did give me a chance to canvas the two female medics who arrived about what had to happen next. I even asked their advice on local funeral directors – all whilst trying to ignore the piece of paper coming out the portable ECG with one long, flat line upon it.

I’ll get onto the rest of the day in other blogs. But did I learn a lesson that morning? Well, I’ll be better equipped to help anyone in future come time of death!

Mostly, I learnt that no matter what – no  matter how strong, how poised, how prepared, how stoic you think you’ll be – nothing prepares you for the moment a parent takes their last breath. And that’s OK. Because by not being prepared for that last breath, you recognise  you have been prepared all your life. To love and live. Why should we be prepared for last breaths? Last chances? Instead, prepare for first chances, first hopes, new dreams, first kisses, first love (remember that somersaulting tumble in your stomach of first love?). Because all of that, ALL of that, gets you through the last breath.

Time stand still

When someone is in palliative care, there is a lot of  ‘hurry up and wait’.  Death has its own timeline and you just have to relinquish control and  stay in the moment. Difficult in a society like ours when we’re used to filling our houses, lives and minds with stuff to distract us from the present. 5191905033_0b6d5aafb8_m

The arrival on the Friday was a flurry of handover from her carers, a visit from her Macmillan nurse, understanding the Do Not Resuscitate paperwork, plus her medications. Given I held power of attorney, as well as being the sole next of kin, made it both easier and overwhelming. Easier because I did not have to deal with any family member’s competing wishes. I could purely honour Mum’s desire to die with dignity without having to worry about anyone else. Overwhelming because, well, bloody hell, there was a little girl deep down inside who wanted to throw all the paperwork away and just have her Mum well again.

So I tried a few distraction techniques. Mum was enjoying lemonade ice blocks so I ducked to the closest supermarket. England was having an unseasonably warm summer and I decided what I’d packed was too warm. So whilst there I raced around the clothing section buying some t-shirts. Really? Instead of sitting next to her bed and sharing these last precious moments, I dived into some retail therapy, albeit a fast dose?

Grief and denial go hand-in-hand. Being able to control something (my clothes being appropriate for the weather) gave me a modicum of order over the other part of my brain that was reeling from paperwork, medication and simply seeing her lying in that hospital bed, just waiting. It gave me control during a time I felt utterly helpless and powerless to make a difference.

In retrospect, I wasn’t helpless. It was simply that the choice of how ‘to be’ was incredibly hard to face. I had to choose to be peaceful whilst my life was in turmoil. I had to pull on the big girl undies and face up to the reality of death.

It was how we presented the situation to our children that gave me the greatest strength and guidance on how to be. We told them, “just as Mummy and Daddy were privileged to be with you at the start of your lives, we are privileged to be with Grandma at the end of hers.”

I’ve no idea where that line of wisdom came from, but it was how I found my centre, my compass over the final days.  That no matter how confronting, how lonely, how intense it became, it was a privilege to be present with someone I loved at the end of her life.

And so, the end is near

There are many memories of the week leading up to Mum’s death, but none so indelibly printed on my brain as the one when I walked into her home the morning we landed. I had imagined a scenario of her sitting in her favourite chair, perhaps a little pale and tired, but nevertheless sitting in her chair, a cup of tea on a tray close to hand, with Teddy the dog curled up nearby.

It was like watching the slowest sunset, just waiting for the shadows.

This was what the oncologist’s “possibly six weeks” timeframe had given me.

My own imaginary, comforting countdown whereby in the first weeks she’d be sitting, perhaps even well enough to come out with me in her wheelchair for some retail therapy. Then, as weeks went by, slowing down before eventually taking to her bed for her final days. I’d even bought her some duty-free Clarins for a spot of in-home pampering to help pass the time.

Walking into her sitting room and seeing her lying in a hospital bed slammed my comforting countdown into a concrete wall and scattered it into millions of pieces.

Thoughts splintered through my brain in what appeared to be milliseconds.  ‘Don’t cry, keep it together, be strong’ was the first. ‘What the bloody hell were you thinking with the Clarins?’ was another. I even looked over at her favourite chair, sitting empty, because my brain couldn’t compute what my eyes were showing me in the bed.

She looked like she was asleep. An oxygen tube to her nose. On a tray, across the bed, cups with straws. Water, ice chips. Tissues. Lip balm. I crept closer and gently stroked her hair. Ever so slowly she opened her eyes and turned her head my way. It was unlike any other reunion we had had before, where Mum had always showed joy and excitement at my arrival. This time there was nothing in her eyes except a foreign weariness. A diminishing of her living will. “It’s OK Mum,” I whispered. “I’m here now.”

Honestly, it was strangely anti-climatic. No words of gladness that we’d made it. No greetings to her grandchildren or Tony. No emotional outbursts or vital words that had to be spoken before it was too late.  It was like watching the slowest sunset, a subtle dying of the light whilst waiting for the final shadows.

Giving Someone Permission To Die

Only yesterday, I was reminded of a letter I wrote my Mum. A reader of this blog contacted me because her own mother is undergoing treatment for stage three cancer. Her fear is having to watch her Mum suffer ‘at the end’.

Mum’s dying is another post, but I do honestly believe the suffering is on the side of those being left behind. In Mum’s case, she experienced no pain and didn’t require IVs of morphine. She was not in the best of health before the cancer diagnosis. Nothing life-threatening, but a series of symptoms and illnesses that slowly, inexorably, diminished her quality of life. I worried about the impact radio and chemo treatment would have upon her already compromised immune system.

imagesSo what I did, five months before,  was write her a letter saying if, at any point, she decided it was all too tough, too hard, then it was fine with me if she chose to stop treatment. To stop exerting a will to live.

To know my Mum, the disabilities she dealt with for over twenty years, the heartbreaks of broken marriages, was to know how perfectly capable she was of ‘soldiering on’. That was her story. But in March, just in case this treatment didn’t work, I wanted to leave her the other, unspoken path. That if I could show acceptance of the possible worst, perhaps she could accept it too.

It was the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write. I told her how  proud I was of her, how amazing she had been – and would continue to be – but if it ever got too much I would understand if she wanted to stop fighting.

Whilst the treatment went well, better than anyone had hoped, when we received the news that the cancer had spread and Mum was facing palliative care rather than cure, I expected her final days to be very different. She was so stubborn, so determined, I feared her lingering for days and weeks.

I’d forgotten about the letter I had written. Today I believe it made a massive difference to how my Mum faced the end of her life. When we arrived in England, I discovered she had already begun the task of packing away precious mementoes she wanted me to have. Putting a memory box together for her grandchildren. The treatment may have gone well, but she’d obviously, quietly, decided that if the worst diagnosis came, she would be  prepared.

In the three to four weeks leading up to the anniversary of her death, I found myself asking, “Would she have known now?” Even without a diagnosis, did she feel the time was approaching? And if so, why didn’t she tell me?

And then I realise, it was both all about me and never about me. If she had an inkling, she wasn’t going to worry me until absolutely necessary. That’s what Mothers do. Protect their young. It was her death to face how she chose. I find a measure of comfort in thinking my letter may have helped her face it more easily.

What do you say to someone who’s just heard they’re about to die?

The oncologist hung up, after promising me he’d go to the ward and get Mum to turn on her mobile so I could talk to her. I was battling off tears, desperate to speak to her, but dreading the phone call. My biggest fear was her stubborn streak. Would she be in denial? Would I be jumping on a plane to watch her fight to the bitter end? I had experienced so many dramas around Mum’s illnesses over the years, I was almost in giving-fatigue, as callous as that may read.

union_jack_bugger_cards-r7e4aed4c916b4e839bc86a0bfa1ccc2d_xvuak_8byvr_512She answered the phone. “Did they tell you? What did you say?” she asked. No pussy-footing around then.  I answered truthfully. “I told the oncologist, ‘bugger’,” with tears breaking into my voice.  Because it was. An absolutely sh*t, fart, poo bugger. But – and I haven’t studied yoga and meditated all these years for nothing – a small voice inside me quietly added, “it is, what it is.”

“I’ll come over straight away,” I told her. “Do you want me to bring the kids?”.

“Yes, and bring Tony,” she added.

“I love you, we’ll be there soon,” I said from the other side of the world – and ended the call. What more was there to say?

It’s only now, looking back after a year,  I realise she wasn’t asking Tony to come because she wanted to see him one last time. Not really, no matter how much she loved her Aussie son-in-law.

No, she wanted him there for me. I couldn’t see it then, because I was in my role of the strong daughter who always fixed things. A role I had been in for so long, I’d forgotten she could still be a Mom, wanting to help and look out for me.

She knew what was coming. I’d forgotten she had nursed her own mother-in-law through cancer, that her mother had been sick and died of heart disease when I was small, and that she had also nursed Rene, her Father’s second wife, when she died of cancer too. I was the one  untutored in this rite of passage. Now I understand she wanted to make sure I had someone with me.  Unconditional love – even after hearing the worst news you could ever imagine hearing.  Looking back on the phone call, she was already at peace with her lot. Now all I had to do was catch up.