An Open Heart even when it’s Breaking

[August 6, 2019]

The test results got flagged.  In short order, she was in another city for hi-res diagnostic imaging. The radiologist enters the consulting room.  You could tell the news wasn't good, especially when it starts with "I'm so sorry..."

Within a week she was scheduled for a biopsy of the bigger tumour and within a few days, confirmation - ductal carcinoma - Grade 3.  We were told to expect surgery, at least.

The following day we received a call from the Breast Cancer Clinic some 50km's away with a consultation appointment within a week.

There it is. Our past month.

What this doesn't share is the human stuff... the living stuff.  The navigating in the shadow of a catastrophic diagnosis and the interpersonal and relational aspects which fill the spaces of life to overflowing.  So much so, you wonder if you can possibly carry it or if you will be simply crushed by the weight of it.

I know we are not the first to receive this kind of news, nor will we be the last.  So here, from time to time I will share some of our (my experiences) of walking with my beloved, through this.  There is much that could be shared but today I want to share some of my experience.

Let me start with our walk last week.  We went for a walk  - to talk, share our fears, our hopes and to steal a few chuckles on what I'm sure casual observers may consider fairly dark humour.   In one of the less graceful moments, I said "I feel like my resources are significantly limited. Like I don't have enough.  Like I am a cistern, with a limited amount of water.   I feel like I need every drop to support you (my beloved) and our sons (27, 23 and 13).  I'm afraid...  I am afraid that I don't have enough for the other folks who may also be looking for support from me."

I get it.   This is definitely a place for healthy boundaries.   It is also a place to recognize my own need for self-care and support.  I also recognized something else.  Something far more acute.  In the horror of these circumstances, I had closed my heart in an effort to protect myself and my family  (I unconsciously rationalized). I felt the need to isolate.

This looked like being very careful (can we say strategic?) with whom we tell, and a request that they do not share it widely, and for the love of God, keep it off social media!  I expressed to them that we recognized that each of them had other supports in their life and they were most welcome to share it with them, just that it was not for public consumption.

With each conversation with this inner circle of family, the mulch of my gutted heart was made painfully clear to me, along with how utterly helpless I was to do anything to fix my beloved's body.  The writer to the Ephesians talks about spiritual warfare and uses tongue in cheek analogies to describe such but at the end, he talks about when you have done everything you can - to stand.  To be present.  

It is untenable to just stand when the love of your life is seriously ill.

That sounded too sterile.

Let me try again.

It is FUCKING agonizing that all I can do is stand!

I realize that this hasn't been my M.O. my entire life.  I am learning and working towards surrender, holding space and being present but honestly, I have always tried harder, worked harder, got smarter, negotiated, manipulated, and perhaps cheated some ugly things in life.   I believed, maybe as a necessary lie. that there was always a way through.  And I know from many, many hours with many, many people through some of the most horrific situations of life that there isn't always a way through.  That no matter how smart, hard-working, sincere, loving, clever - there isn't always a way through.

Closing my heart meant I began to isolate.  I realized I was reluctant to tell people outside of those I absolutely had to.  Friends. Good friends, faithful, forgiving friends - I couldn't bring myself to share our news with.  I was afraid.  I was afraid that:

  • our relationship was built on me providing support for them.
  • it would be too much for them and they would abandon us.
  • they would need me to support them in light of our news, and the thought of doing so with such limited resources, I was afraid to share.
  • they would tell me ‘they know how I feel’.
  • they would scold us for not doing what they would do and how they’d do it.
  • news of my beloved's diagnosis would reach our pharisaical critics and they would wave their bibles wildly in the air proclaiming cancer as judgment for my heretical ways (yah... we have some personal experience with this).
  • even my friends would use this situation against us - to dismiss us.
  • oddly, people tell us to trust God and everything will be okay. What the hell does this even mean?  Another necessary lie? For Us or is it really for them?
  • even after I tell people,  I will still feel profoundly alone.

This is a sampling of the rationale for closing my heart. The truth is some or none of the above will happen.  The fact remains that closing my shredded heart is like holding water in a leaky cistern.  Feeling like I'm in a place of limited resources, and out of fear of not having enough,  I hide so I don't have to share - share what perceived limited resource I have but also so I don't have to be vulnerable.  So, I don't have to share my pain. I don't have to risk being vulnerable or put another way trust my self (my beloved and family) to love.

A closed heart produces the ideal context for an inner swamp.  Stinky, filthy, putrid swamp.

In the midst of this cauldron, I became aware of an invitation of the Spirit.  An invitation to trust love and open my heart - even in its shredded, battered condition.  I felt like Spirit reminded me that we were never created to be cisterns holding finite amounts of stale water, rather we are to be conduits, fountainheads of living water.  Living water flows through us. It never runs out.

For me, this was a poignant metaphor for the love energy that is God - that flows through all of creation - the energy that creates, enlivens, sustains all things.  It is the God-who-loves who ultimately makes all things beautiful, making all things whole.  Even ugly things.  Even broken, shredded hearts.

So, just like I have many, many times before, I am saying Yes to the invitation to live with an open heart.  This means that I will be contacting some faithful forgiving friends to share our news.   This means that I will once again admit that I am powerless to change what has happened and therefore free(er) to choose to risk love, again.

A friend shared this quote on his social media today:

Love entails risk. Risk involves fear. That means every act of [genuine] love begins with courage.

- Richard Beck

A reminder to me that to love well, I need to risk and this takes courage.  It takes courage when you have a fairly extensive list of why you shouldn't.  A reminder that love is the Ultimate Act of Faith. To love is to be vulnerable which means risking being misunderstood, abandoned, and being hurt.  And strangely, to risk being loved and supported by good and lovely folks.

I don't know what we'll learn from the surgeon tomorrow.  I am hopeful for the best in a bad situation.  I am scared shit-less.  No more lipstick on that pig - plain and simple I'm afraid.  But I am not alone, even with the irrational fear that I am.

I have repeatedly encouraged my family that we don't have answers, we don't know what is going to happen.  We have pulled them in tight, not asking any of them to be strong - just real... and the comfort that we will get through this together.  The Gods honest truth is I'm trusting the "together" will expand to include some very lovely, faithful forgiving friends.

I realize for this to happen, for the resources we all need, it requires an open heart.  To go all-in trusting love will hold us the way we need to be held and supported - not just for my beloved, our children and family but others who love us too.

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