Learning to Treasure What You Didn’t Want
Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way. — 1 Corinthians 12:31
A deep breath and a huge, slow eye roll. That was my immediate reaction. A family member had just said to me, “You get to.”
This was her attempt at reminding me of the holiest of postures — gratitude — so I’d do something I absolutely did not want to do: clean my child’s vomit off my dress and new suede shoes. I can assure you there was no feeling of gratitude in this moment as I stood covered in vomit at my cousin’s wedding.
“Honey, you get to clean that vomit.”
You get to.
If you’re not familiar with this worldview, it’s an idea espoused by pretty much every pastor, women’s conference speaker, and all-knowing aunt I’ve ever encountered: to truly enjoy life the way God wants us to, we must be grateful 24-7. We should be grateful for the little things, the big things, the smelly things, the happy and the sad — in all things we should be grateful.
The truth is this: that annoying family member was right. And I do believe it now.
Finding joy in the messy, tedious tasks of our everyday lives is darn near impossible sometimes. Driving the kids to school, going to your job, helping with homework, keeping up with sports, meals, and exercise, feeling miserable about what you just ate, and wearing an underwire bra when all you want to do is let those puppies loose — every single day, life is hard, ladies. I know. The tasks seem never-ending, and it can be so difficult to find joy in the tedium.
Until one day, when everything that makes your eyes roll is taken away.
Overnight those tasks and routines can become the precious little places where joy is birthed.
The struggle quickly becomes the gift.
My youngest daughter, Ellason, was four years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Makenzie, my oldest, was married and out of the house, tending to her own family about an hour away. My husband, Craig, was in a dusty tent in the Middle East. It was just Ellason and me at home, with a lot of love and support from family and friends.
During the biopsy on my right breast, something went wrong, and they burned the skin, leaving a half-inch, black, circular burn at the incision point. Believe it or not, that burn turned out to be one of the best things to happen to me. That burn became something visible and tangible I could use to explain cancer to a four-year-old little girl. We called it the “booby bug,” and it made sense to her sweet four-year-old mind. The booby bug made mommy sick.
Getting rid of the booby bug was a lot harder than I imagined it would be.
Chemotherapy was a wild beast, and it kicked my butt. The plan was six rounds of a chemo combination called “red devil” (because one of the drugs was red in color), and I would receive those treatments every two weeks. The next phase was a different type of drug that I would receive weekly for twelve weeks, totaling six months of chemotherapy treatments.
My chemo weeks looked a little like this:
Day 1: Chemo infusion. A nurse covered in protective gear — large plastic mask and all — inserted IVs into the port in my chest and changed them every hour until my body was filled with what I like to call “the poison drugs.”
(Side note: Someone should give you a heads-up that your nurse is going to look like the hazmat dudes in ET when she walks in to give you chemotherapy drugs. That image sort of shakes you up. I mean, if the nurse is covered three ways to Sunday so she won’t touch the drugs, why is it a good idea to put them inside of my body? Food for thought.)
The entire process lasted about four hours, and then someone would drive me home. Off to bed I would go, feeling tired but otherwise alive.
Day 2: The poison drugs hit. Nausea meds and painkillers were a must, but this wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that I had to go back to the cancer center for a bone marrow stimulant injection that increased my white blood cell count so my body could fight infection.
I hated it. Imagine feeling so nauseated, with pain seething through every inch of your body, and knowing you have to go back to get a shot that’ll make you feel substantially worse. From a mental perspective, Day 2 was always the hardest for me.
Days 3–4: The crescendo of suffering. The poison drugs battled with my body. They were pure misery. I prayed, cried, and begged for God’s mercy through them.
Day 5: A hint of hope. A small flicker of light appeared at the end of the tunnel, and I began to feel a bit of relief from the process.
The first five days are followed by nine days of recovery and desperately reaching for normalcy until the cycle ends and I am shoved back to the starting line all over again for the next Day 1.
The more rounds of chemo I had, the longer the miserable part of the process would take. The effects of Day 2 would stretch over two or three days. And the effects of Days 3 and 4 — my rock-bottom days — would sometimes last almost a week. The overwhelming pain, nausea, and discomfort were constant, and so were my pleading prayers.
But I can’t write honestly about my chemo days without adding this: it was in the agony and sickness that I found God on the most beautiful and intimate level.
Nothing has pried open my raw, aching heart like having my body and soul assailed by that disease and its horrific treatment. In the depths of my pain, I came to know Him best. I believe it is often at our most helpless, our most vulnerable, that we are most primed to hear and see Him.
Anyway, back to the vomit at my cousin’s wedding. Yes, it all comes full circle.
I’m sharing the not-so-pleasant details of my chemo routine to paint a picture of what life was like in that season, but also to give you some background on how I learned to embrace the “you get to” philosophy.
While I was undergoing treatment, there was no driving Ella to school, no making her lunches or picking out her clothes. There was no playtime, no homework together, no running and tickling.
I wanted to play an active role in my own life, and I couldn’t. Chemo was a prize-fighting boxer, and I was on the ground slamming my hands against the floor to tap out. I wanted to be done; I begged for it to be over. I wanted to be a mom, and I didn’t want to be sick a moment longer.
Despite how hard I was fighting, I was still riddled with guilt over the kind of mother I was to Ella. I think women are the only creatures who can be gripping the ring of a toilet in sickness and still feeling guilty that they can’t drive their babies to school.
We are crazy, beautiful creatures, aren’t we?
As I fought through weeks of chemo, I found moments of joy and laughter with Ella. Not on a playground or in a car drive, but in the sweet, quiet moments lying in my bed with her snuggled next to me, close to my belly and wrapped in my arms.
I am not sure if I comforted her more or if she comforted me, but Ellason was my saving grace at the end of each day. When I felt well enough, I would make up stories, starring her as the princess, me as the queen, and daddy as the king. (The queen was always very beautiful, of course.) The stories would change daily, and she loved it.
After months of treatment, I remember the day I was finally able to pick up Ellason from school. I was elated that I’d been given a two-week break from chemo, and I finally felt well enough to drive. It was something so small, but it meant so much. When the normal, everyday pieces of life get taken away, you realize they make up a beautiful and wonderful existence.
Before cancer, I had taken so much of this for granted; I even thought of some of those activities as the burdens. (What do you mean, you need lunch again? Didn’t we just do that yesterday?) In reality, these mundane activities were the sweet blessings of life.
When cancer took away the mundane, I finally understood driving my daughter to school was a gift.
Chemo was teaching me how to fight for moments of joy and hope. I was learning to look for them, and I was realizing all those things I resented were actually things I got to do. In fact, I eventually reached a rather revolutionary level of “you get to” mastery.
Remember what Days 1 through 5 looked like during my chemo treatments? The beast of chemo was destroying me and my life; I hated the treatments and all that came with them. I hated walking into that cancer center and being poisoned each time. Chemo was the enemy — that is, until I learned my hardest “you get to” lesson.
Every time I arrived to get chemo, nurses took my vitals and drew my blood to make sure I was “healthy enough” to be poisoned. My body was weaker each round, and my white blood cell count needed to be more than one thousand. When I walked in for my fourth round of red devil, I was fighting with all that I had — but this time I was also battling a fever.
After a few minutes, the nurse walked over and with pity in her eyes said, “I’m so sorry. We can’t give you chemo. Your white count is too low.” My body wouldn’t be able to fight the infection.
I actually couldn’t get the thing I hated getting most. This was the beginning of a big mind-shift for me. At first I was a little relieved. They gave me a shot of white blood cell booster, hoping to increase my white count overnight, and sent me home.
The next day I arrived, and I was ready. My vitals were taken, blood was drawn, and soon I would be heading back for the red devil.
But wait. “Dawn,” the nurse said, “your counts are too low again. I am so sorry. We will try again tomorrow.”
The tears fell so fast and so hard and wouldn’t stop for hours. I needed this chemo to fight cancer; I had to have it. How could I want something I so intensely loathed?
That’s when I realized:
I needed to change the story in my head.
Chemo was a gift. I get to get chemo.
Chemo gave me the ability to fight cancer and live. It was a gift that generations before me did not have.
Three days later I was able to receive my gift again.
I would love to tell you that my view on making lunches and driving to school has remained in a place of gratitude, that I do it daily with a skip in my step and joy in my heart, but I would be lying. I am human.
I complain. I get overwhelmed and annoyed. I grow tired of driving back and forth to school. I roll my eyes at a busy schedule. I loathe going to the grocery store.
But I do have a gift that many don’t. When it all seems like too much, I have the gift of remembering what it felt like to have it all taken away. I remember what it felt like to desperately want to drive a little girl to school and go to a playground with her. I know that feeling, and I am grateful for it. I get to make those lunches. I get to clean her vomit off my shoes.
Never in a million years would I have dreamed the diagnosis of cancer was a gift. But I can tell you unequivocally it was. A crazy, wild, precious gift. I got to battle cancer.
In that battle I learned to love my family more, and I met God on a whole new level. So whether it’s a life-changing battle or one of those mildly irritating or gross parts of life, they don’t look so bad when that story in your head changes. When you realize that the gifts you’re being given are right there in that unattractive packaging. You get to open them, and you might find out that God designed them just for you — for your good and His glory.
Excerpted from Laughing Through the Ugly-Cry and Finding Unstoppable Joy by Dawn Barton, copyright Dawn Barton.
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What do you get to do today? Do you get to work from home? Supervise kids’ distance learning? Clean the house? Do the laundry? Deal with frustrating co-workers? Shop for an elderly neighbor? How are the get to’s changing your perspective? Come share with us on our blog. We want to hear from you about what you’re grateful for! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full