Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Valley

Friday started as it always did: a morning run through the breezy March air followed by a hot shower and work, then some errands before transitioning into the beginning of an enjoyable if unremarkable weekend. And there was no reason to believe it would be otherwise.
Three days before I had visited my endocrinologist for a routine diabetic checkup when she noted a small nodule at the base of my throat. Wanting to be cautious, she completed an ultrasound that revealed the nodule to be barely large enough to justify a biopsy, all the while giving me the practiced nothing-to-worry-about attitude that came with ordering medical tests like most order appetizers. I agreed not to worry while trying to conceal my aggravation, my mind too consumed with more important matters—my wife’s pregnancy, my daughter’s soccer team, the sideshow carnivals of humanity I babysit for the courts system—to bring another issue into the equation. Quickly my mind reverted back to the minutiae of my everyday life and I was the happier for it until that Friday afternoon as I stood in a friend’s hospital room, eyes panning across the monitors and tubes, trying to make concerned small talk about his health and hearing a sobering voice regarding my own.
You have cancer.
My initial disbelief quickly turned to dismissal, poo-pooing the thought as the fatalistic ramblings of a newfound hypochondriac. I was fine, I told myself. To think otherwise was silly.
The voice came one more time, soft but insistent.
You have cancer.
I bristled, accepting the statement as an open challenge. Okay, I thought, mentally purchasing Livestrong bands and revving up about hair loss and chemo vomit, vowing to impose my will on the horrid disease in such a way as to leave no doubt my imdominability.
“You will know my name,” I declared, sprinting through the hospital parking lot in the rain to my car. “You will know my name.”
And it did. Knew my name and body, in fact, specifically my thyroid. I received the news by cell phone later that day as I stood in Concord Mills Mall, families passing by devouring Cinnabons and lugging oversized shopping bags, my heart sinking in their traffic. Don’t worry, my doctor advised, trying to mitigate my fears. Surgery and a medical prescription and you will be good as new. Great, I mouthed, suddenly suspicious of optimism, suddenly suspicious of everything.

On May 1, Jennifer and I awoke in the dark and quickly dressed and drove to the hospital for my surgery. We met with the surgeon who made me laugh as she walked in brushing spilled coffee from her clothes, reckoning either she was so relaxed that the idea of cutting my throat open paled to her own appearance, or such a nervous, clumsy mess that I was a complete goner. I kissed Jennifer goodbye and they wheeled me off, put me out, and woke me up a few hours later, my neck bandaged and my throat dry, my body fighting through the white haze of anesthesia to reclaim normalcy. A success, the surgeon pronounced, the thyroid, two parathyroid glands, and thirteen lymph nodes containing malignancy removed. We went home shortly thereafter, Jennifer remarking on the quickness of my recovery, my wit and sarcasm returning to validate the truth of her words. I was back, as if I never left, the only things departed a few infirm body parts and the unwelcome specter of my own mortality that had been hovering over my health for the past two months.
And this is where it should end. Where I should wrap the story with sunlight dancing on my face amidst eternal thanks and a newfound perspective on life, proffering endless “I love yous” to God and giving more time and attention to family and being fundamentally more decent. It should, but it isn’t. The education born from this experience became rooted quickly not in the appreciation of things past but in the search for contentment in things present, regardless of their prospect.
One week after surgery, I met with my surgeon for a follow-up. In the week since the surgery my natural thyroid hormone had ceased to exist in my system and the synthetic variety had yet to kick in, leaving me a fatigued, discordant mess. I did my best to continue my war on the circumstances, rising every morning to work out, laboring in the evening to assist Jennifer with house and daughter duties. But reality was none-too-subtle in diminishing any determination I tried to employ, shooting me down daily with a rueful chuckle.
Know my name. Know my name indeed.
My surgeon brought me into her office and quickly established how well the surgical procedure went, how early the cancer had been identified, my future prognosis, medical words, medical words…and then she hedged. Hedging, in bets or serious conversation, always leads to anxiety. Why pause? What else is there? What are you not telling me? Should I be worried? Should I update my life insurance? Plan my bucket list? Cry? Laugh? What?
She smiled and tried to allay my fears. “There’s nothing to worry about, Mr. Baker. Just that…”
And she lost me.

For the greater part of my life I’ve always prided myself on being as low-maintenance of a human being as I could be. Whether it be health (fruits and veggies) or living space (clean clean clean) or personal responsibilities (I’s dotted, T’s firmly crossed), I have always responded in a proactive, disciplined way, hoping that response would prevent me from being anyone’s headache down the road. The only compensation I asked for in return was to be allowed some autonomy and independence. Jennifer has always half-jokingly referred to me as The Lone Wolf, and while I’ve blanched at the characterization I’ve never been able to convincingly dispute it. Even my spiritual life has been rife with alienation, my dialogue with God more soliloquy (mine) than conversation, my prayers built more around satisfying the proverbial checklist than forging relationship. Because relationship requires work, requires listening, requires unselfishness, requires me, none of which I’ve been particularly interested in giving. Just leave me alone, I said, and no one gets hurt. Despite my efforts, however, life has continued to invite me into its maelstrom, sometimes for good (marriage, children, career), sometimes for bad (parents’ divorce, diabetes, stepfather’s passing), but always manageable.
But in the surgeon’s office that day, as she outlined her concerns about the aggressiveness of the cancer and my need for additional treatment, the hope gave way to despair, the glossy promise diminished into darkness.
My valley.

“Did you like the chili? I had to get creative because of the restrictions.”
“It’s fine. I’m just tired of eating like this.”
“I know. But it’s almost over.”
“Be more positive.”
“I’m tired of hearing that (expletive). It’s so patronizing.”
“But you have to be. The worst part is over. Your surgery went well, the medication—”
“And I get more. This diet and radiation. Now the bills. I’m tired of it.”
“For me, honey. Please. It’s almost over.”
I looked up from my dinner plate to see her cry. My wife, remarkable in her beauty, had been reduced to tears, tragedy defining her in a new, unwelcome aspect. For three weeks in late June, she had dutifully orchestrated my mandated low-iodine diet, crafting healthy meals without the luxury of her typical arsenal of ingredients, and my thanks was a tirade on the inconvenience of the situation. Amazing—the sheer memory makes me recoil even as I write it. To have a wife 8 months pregnant and working extra hours to support our growing medical costs and still finding time to make me home-cooked meals and all I could do was…but it didn’t matter. I was deep in the valley, the shadows abounding with hunger at the reduction of food options, the drag on my energy levels, the lost weight, the problems it created with managing my diabetes.
And the money. By the end of June I was getting the bills from a litany of doctors for services performed (I guess) during the pre-op and surgery. It reached the point where I would hold my breath as I reached the mailbox door, ready to exhale only when I found magazines and coupon mailers. Then, with the need for radiation, I was required to take two Thyrogen shots to decrease the thyroid levels so the radiation could attack whatever remained of the cancer. These shots were covered only partially by insurance and required immediate payment, another thing to address right away. Finally, because of the nature of the radiation, I was going to be forced to quarantine myself from young children and pregnant women, both of which coincidentally resided at my house, for a period of five to seven days.
Know my name. Know my soul. Know it all and take it from me now.

On June 24, I awoke early in the morning and kissed Jennifer goodbye, grabbing my overnight bag and heading out the door for the hospital. The appointment was with the Nuclear Medicine Department at Carolinas Medical Center in downtown Charlotte, the last stage in this cumbersome process. The purpose was to ingest an iodine radiation pill and chase it with water and leave. That’s it. The next few days I would be sequestered at mom’s house, watching TV and reading and trying to stay as busy as possible to make the time pass quickly.
After filling out the initial paperwork, I sat in the waiting room tired but ready, my constant petulance numbed by the sight of a young couple holding their baby boy, a prisoner in shackles accompanied by a deputy sheriff, old faces and young faces alike creased with nervousness at this early hour.
In their valleys; I recognized them all too well.
“Mr Ba—”
I was up before the nurse could get it out of her mouth.

They brought the pill in a canister like some uber-secret experimental toxin that, if in the wrong hands, would unleash widespread disease and death across the heartland. Laughing as I thought this, the radiology nurse gently informed me that if I happened to get sick and throw up after leaving the office that I would have to notify them immediately.
“Why?” I asked, chuckling.
“Because the Hazmat team will have to come and evacuate the area for cleanup.”
“Oh,” I replied, chuckles gone.
After swallowing the pill, I was monitored briefly and then released to the wild like an endangered species, keeping a healthy (pun intended) distance from the general public, lurking in shadows and behind doors, tiptoeing gingerly across the parking lot back to the car before anyone could come near. I drove back to my mother’s house and tried to relax, my body soon falling prey not to sickness but…just…not…feeling…right. I wanted to believe it was psychosomatic, but the food I ate didn’t taste right, my skin felt a little manic and pruny, and I was restless. I tried to curb these fits by running in the hot summer sun, which helped on several fronts: (1) exercise; (2) reduction in cabin fever; (3) disposal of sweat fluid containing radiation. The radiology team told me that any sweating I could do would get the radiation out of my system quicker, and running was a good cure-all. These runs were different than my typical jaunts, though, the purpose giving them a gravity and weight that isolated me. Lone Wolf go; it didn’t embolden, just debilitate. By now I was so tired anyway. Tired of the thoughts, anger, planning, expenses, diet, restrictions, doctors, prayers, fears.
Tired of the valley.
Yet there I was, dark profile laboring in the simmering June sun, shuffling down the road in a weary slog toward the end of this ordeal.

On June 27, a Saturday, I awoke at my mom’s house with a more upbeat spirit. After four days of sequestration and the continued low-iodine diet and runs in the baking heat, I was reaching the point where I could begin contemplating a return home. My plan was to come back on Sunday evening after 5 full days away from Jennifer and Avery, plenty of time considering the constant removal of fluids from my system. I labored through an eight-mile run in the unmercifully hot summer morning, completed some yard work at my aunt’s house in long sleeve shirt and shorts (more sweating), then drove to my house to pick up a few things before returning back to my exile. I arrived at my house to find my daughter gone with Mom and Jennifer lying on our bed, the house noticeably warm. Her look was fatigued but resilient, and she made no mention of the issue at hand.
“What’s wrong?”
She continued to watch the game show on TV and answered tentatively.
“The air conditioner quit working.”
Incensed, I ran to the thermometer to verify that on this balmy day it was currently 89 degrees in our residence, the same residence where a late-term pregnant wife and a seven-year old child needed to stay and a husband and father who could not be close enough to help them.
“What the (expletive). I can’t (expletive) belie—”
“Ross, please, stop cursing. I can’t take it,” she said, her voice catching slightly.
“But where are you and Avery gonna go? You can’t stay here. You’ll burn up. You can’t go to Mom’s house because I—”
“We’ll be fine. It’s not that bad.”
“Jennifer, you can’t…and the money to fix the…this can’t be—”
“Ross, we’ll be fine.” And then she looked at me. “Honey, it’s almost over. Don’t you see? It’s almost over.”
I paused. Soaked in sweat, grass clippings littering my clothes, exhausted and hot. No, I didn’t. I didn’t see any of it except what was right before me.
After some discussion, we decided that Avery and Jennifer would move into my mother’s house, with me occupying one section of the house and keeping them at bay from exposure to my radiation. I packed the things I needed and helped Jennifer pack and we drove away from the house in our cars, caravanning to our temporary refuge. I called my brother to arrange for his friend, a HVAC man, to check our unit and determine the extent of the damages, then I shut the phone off and killed the car stereo and yelled at the top of my lungs.
“Just leave me alone!”
The anger echo and faded, then a voice, the voice I had earlier in that hospital room in March, spoke through the silence.
Is that what you want Me to do?
In the time that I had stoked my rage to a full throttle it had dissipated and the words lingered, unnerving me.
Is that what you want Me to do?
I had expected more. Despite the Biblical evidence to the contrary I had expected God’s intercession in my life to be grand and sweeping and profound. And loud. You’re the King of Kings, Lord of Lords: act like it. No need to be coy or elusive. Be Alpha and Omega, Yahweh, Son of Man, Ancient of Days, Abba Father, Elohim, the Great I Am.
Be that.
But He wasn’t. He was what He was (and is and evermore…). Because His deity is not performance theatre or grand design; it is a…being. Sadly, I had never completely reconciled myself to that concept until now as I sat in my car, His question running rivers through me.
Is that what you want Me to do?
The mind quickly canvassed with possible detours: cancer incurable, wife miscarried, medical insurance depleted, job terminated, diabetes worsened, pain heightened, treatment extended, family unconcerned, friends departed, prayers unfulfilled, love unrealized, hope abandoned, sunlight shadowed, darkness uncontained.
And the simple fact that every step taken in this valley in which I now reside would be completed in solitude and ache and yearning.
Is that what you want Me to do?
No guide, no direction, no compass…
Is that what you want Me to do?
No balm in Gilead, no tears for Lazarus, no water at the well…
Is that what you want Me to do?
No voice in the wilderness, no angel in the lion’s den, no road to Damascus…
Is that what you want Me to do?
No loaves and fishes, no healing, no walking on water…
Is that what you want Me to do?
No peace, no sword, no 40 days and 40 nights…
Is that what you want Me to do?
No Judas, no Pilate, no Peter and the cock’s crow…
Is that what you want Me to do?
No garden of Gethsemane, no Calvary, no empty tomb…
Is that what you want Me to do?
No Christ. No Christ. No Christ.
I have walked thousands of valleys. My footprint traces them all.
Tears bleeding from my eyes, I rested my head on the steering wheel. No, I whispered, undone.
No. No. No.

On July 1, the year officially turned the corner as I returned to the Nuclear Medicine Department at the hospital for my check-up. I was taken back for a full body scan to determine any malignancy in and around my throat. Despite being enclosed on an x-ray table in a confined space for over thirty minutes, I did not succumb to claustrophobia or fears regarding test results or the aggravated exhaustion that had been my companion for several months now.
I slept.
Like a dream, awaking shortly before the technician announced that we were finished. I put on my clothes, thanked her, and left, a humid July morning greeting me as I passed the sea of busy and concerned faces walking into the hospital, their valleys awaiting.

“She’s here,” I announced into the telephone, excited and tired. My mom responded with her typical understated nature.
“She is. That’s great. Everything okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. I pulled the phone away and looked at Jennifer in her hospital gown, dazed and elated. Harper Elizabeth Baker, all seven pounds and nineteen inches of her, safely on her chest.
Late July and cancer a world away. The Lord in my valley, as always.
You will know my name. You will know my name indeed.
“Yeah. It is.”

Today started as it always did: a morning run through the breezy September air followed by a hot shower and work, then some errands before transitioning into the beginning of an enjoyable if unremarkable weekend. And there was no reason to believe it would be otherwise.


  1. Thanks for sharing this Ross! You are an amazing writer and I know this was hard to relive as you documented the last few months of your life. God is good! We are so thankful!

  2. Haven't got the words Ross. Thank you for sharing that.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...