Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sabbatical's Broken Ending and New Beginning

It has been a summer I will never forget. I know it is not possible to convey in words the what, the where, the impact of 3 very different and very transforming and remarkably intertwined experiences: a month long sabbatical, my brother's last summer, and a broken foot. I need to try for the sake of the process and with hopes that the result is reflective in the slightest way of creation and making and not destruction and dismantling.

At the end of June my husband and I packed our 1998 Ford Explorer to the max with kayaks, bikes, and hiking and fishing gear and left for a month long sabbatical to Mount Desert Island, Maine. We had both been granted a generous and much appreciated gift of a month off by our employers. Over the last few years, we had buried 2 parents, 2 uncles, and one brother. We were both weary and needed to find rest. But, we left with hesitation. My brother Ricky's life with brain cancer was showing signs of turning toward the finish line. A new tumor (his third) had shown up on his June MRI. After Gamma Knife "surgery" for this new tumor, Ricky decided he would not continue with chemotherapy. He had found that the side affects made him question why he was living. When he announced his decision we could read the looks on the doctor's and nurse's faces. Clearly they knew the tumors could only be slowed, never defeated. Without chemo the tumors would have more freedom to grow with abandon.

So, understandably, I was questioning our decision to go to Maine. Should we be so far away? But, we all agreed I could fly and be home in less than a day if it seemed the thing to do. So off we went on our adventure with smartphone apps making the distance seem manageable.

After three days, visiting family along the way, we successfully traversed the 1000 miles up the east coast and celebrated our arrival with a lobster roll from Thurston's Lobster Pound, just a mile and a half down the road from our rented cottage in the back of Bass Harbor. For the next 3 weeks, we would rise with the sun most days before 5am and set out before 7:30 for the day's mostly scripted activity. I biked, hiked, and kayaked over a total of 200 miles and was never disappointed. We took ferry rides to explore off shore islands and Dave fished almost every body of water on the island. The strenuous physical activity rewarded by breathtaking vistas was balm for our weary souls. I'd return after each excursion to our cottage, eat some lunch, and climb in the hammock with one of many books and read until sleep took over. I was tasting heaven. But, deep in the center of myself, I sensed that I was being readied for something, rather than recovering from something. I was pushing hard and training my body and mind and soul for what was to come.

All the while, our heaven in Maine was laced with the reality of my brother's life growing closer to its end. We would text daily and send pictures and songs and readings. His ability to focus was diminished by the new tumor growth and his short term memory loss, declining strength, and failing eyesight were making his world shrink. Daily walks and long loved activities had already been curtailed by the smothering side affects of chemotherapy and Avastin infusions. With the clear signs that the treatments were no longer holding back the advance of the disease, Ricky's twin sons flew from California early in July to stay for the rest of the summer. We were told that Rick might live until Christmas, but I don't think any of us really believed that would be the case.

The last portion of our Sabbatical was spent backtracking the 1000 miles, stopping in Boston and Annapolis along the way to see more family and ending at the family lake house on Lake Norman in North Carolina. We had a couple wonderful days there with our daughter and the grandchildren.

Our lake house, passed on to my sister, my brother, and myself after our father's death in 2010 is only 45 minutes from my brother's house. My sisters and I, with our spouses drove down together for dinner one night. It had been a month since I had seen Ricky. It was as if there was a constant air raid alarm going off outside as we all tried to live out the evening as normally as possible. The next day Ricky's wife Deborah came by herself to the lake and floated with us and we cried and cried. We were looking directly into the beginning of his last days and ours with him..

A couple of days later, I went with Ricky for his appointment with his oncologist. The wait was long. I sensed what was coming next. Ricky did not. He assumed he would see the doctor and then move on for his scheduled Avastin infusion. But, that was not to be. Blood work and other indicators forced the doctor to speak the dreadful news, "Rick, you are no longer thriving with the treatments." All of a sudden, I felt like we were on a fast moving train. No more stop gaps. Hospice and palliative care were called. A different kind of hope was going to be needed.

That same day, I drove back to the lake to pack once again for the final leg of our home bound stretch of our sabbatical. I was rattled and numbed after such a long day. I was not looking forward to leaving, going back to work, and being limited as to the amount of time I would have to spend with Ricky. That changed in a moment. After a brief downpour, I went to load the bikes on the roof of the car. One step onto the doorway of the car with wet shoes and next thing I knew I had fallen and pulled my bike down hard onto my foot. X-rays the next day showed it was broken. Strangely, we all felt it was a blessing. I was freed from working and freed to being with my brother for the next month. Just a few days later marked the last real conversation Ricky and I I would have missed had I not had a broken foot. I climbed on their king sized bed where he spent most of every day and we spent the afternoon exchanging abbreviated thoughts of the hope of the resurrection, eternal life, heaven, and family as we shared memories, pictures and music.

Every day for the next three weeks took each of us to a new place. The train was picking up speed. We could see the end rushing closer and closer. Anytime a group of people are put together and forced to face life and death there is a unimaginable bonding that takes place. My sisters and our spouses, our nephews, our niece joined our hearts and souls with Ricky's wife Deborah as she spearheaded his most intimate and thorough care. We gave our best to one another and to Ricky. Most of the time we felt weak and flawed but nonetheless we gave our all. Those weeks were not glamorous by any means. Dying can never be glamorized. But the love that we felt was in some way redeeming. And we knew Ricky's life had been redeemed. We knew he would pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and receive a new body. And we knew we would be left here without him. When Ricky opened his eyes after 4 days in a coma we knew it was time. We laid our hands on him and encouraged him on his way.

He took his last breath on August 19th and began his ultimate Sabbatical.

You may read of his last days here in the last journal entry on his Caringbridge page:

Rick's obituary gives you a glimpse of his life:

Following are the words written by my husband and read at Rick's Memorial service on August 25, 2012:

He was always Ricky to his sisters, and Uncle Ricky to our kids – a beloved uncle, certainly the tallest.  I’m sure that the nieces and nephews would have felt the same affection towards him, but it helped that it was Uncle Ricky who built that 73-foot-tall diving platform that you cousins used for many years at the lake.  The easy casualness of the label, “Ricky”, seemed so much more “him” than his given name of Moffatt Patrick Witherington, Junior.  Moffatt Patrick Witherington, Junior. Adam, I think he was about the age you are now when the two of you wore Burger King crowns for a combined birthday party.  He loved his sisters; and Deborah and Sibel, my goodness, what a gift each of you were to him – and what a gift he was to you.  What can I say, the man loved being surrounded by his women!  As everyone knows, Rick’s three sisters adored him as they did their dad – the two were so very much alike in look and demeanor, full of gentleness and a perpetually sweet disposition.  My son Mark & I joined Rick & his dad to form a pair of father&son “teams” for dozens of  rounds of golf over the last 20 years (all of them making liberal use of the Grandaddy Rules); 20 years, and the dozens of rounds, now feel like nowhere nearly enough.  I have been enriched immensely by both of those really good gentle-men, the M.P. Witheringtons Sr. & Jr.

Throughout his life, he was quietly interested in a pursuit of what could be called “spiritual understanding”, in that he appropriately viewed life as more than “just” life.  He did not “just” see things around him, he tended to marvel at them, looking for and seeing truth and beauty that went deeper than the surface.  This pursuit included lots of letter-writing (some of you will remember that ancient form of communication) – letter-writing with family and friends that went beyond the nuts & bolts of daily life, along with a good amount of reading and inquiry, from examining various faith traditions to reading about supernovas.  As if in his “wandering” he was looking for…something. Like his sisters, he grew up in the Presbyterian church, but it would be a stretch to say that the church grew in him.  He wasn’t ever abrasive or caustic about it (was he ever abrasive or caustic?), not what one might call “rebellious”, but definitely “on the outside”, looking in but not joining in.  But when he heard of his cancer 18 months ago, a door was opened, and God’s goodness was seen and experienced, as if the rest of him awoke to seeds that had been planted long ago, what his soul already knew.  He became a simple participant in the life of faith.  Much of this was due to the “faith wrapped in skin” ministry of selfless saints both in Charlotte and in Durham, where he came for a good deal of his medical care.  He embraced the offer to be anointed and prayed over.  Members of my congregation in Durham were seemingly everywhere, in the guise of hospital volunteers and medical staff and meal providers.  And he prayed, in a simple, and, in keeping with his character, gentle, manner.

I don’t think it’s demeaning to say that his faith was small; in fact, that puts him smack in the middle of Matthew 13, where Jesus says that all that is required is faith the size of a mustard seed.  In God’s economy, such a miniscule “investment” yields a return of immeasurable size, because the small size and strength of our faith is overwhelmed by the grace of the Lord and by His great faithfulness.  St. Paul was knocked to the ground when he met the Lord; Rick’s experience bore no resemblance to Paul’s, but they met the same Christ.  We surrounded Rick’s bed Sunday evening and sang hymns for 90 minutes as he slowly faded, songs about mercy, soul-healing, and hope.  Years earlier, I would not have expected it, but for Rick on Sunday it was so obviously right.  And in the next moment, he met face to face the One who had known him and pursued him all of his days.

The day before Rick died, there was a wedding at my church in Durham, during which we sang “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” – and all I could think of was my great big brother-in-law, the pleasant wanderer, who had been sought and found by the Lord, finally coming to say, in the words of the hymn, “Here’s my heart, take and seal it”.  The hymn uses the word “Ebenezer” to refer to a point of “arrival”.  Rick’s Ebenezer was the end of his life: by God’s grace, he had come to see that he was loved by the One who made him.  There’s a line in Psalm 34, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” – Rick tasted that truth, and saw that he was loved by God.  Mercy had been poured on him, through a relationship – and, according to many passages in Scripture, a “coming home” or “awakening” moment includes a celebration (which seems most appropriate: make no mistake about it, the Witherington clan LOVES to party).  Mercy, relationship, and a celebration – that sounds like a good definition of what Scripture calls “grace”.

A prominent theme of Scripture is of God’s desire – His habit – to transform people such that they – we – experience restoration and renewal.  Listen to these words from Isaiah 61, words which Jesus would fulfill, words of hope and healing for Rick in his last weeks, for Deborah and the family, for all of us:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives [and didn’t we long for Rick to be freed from the disabled captivity of his final days?], and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s good favor…, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who grieve – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.  Then they will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor.”

Now, we have glioblastomas and chemotherapy and death and the pain of separation; but, from the book of Revelation, we are promised this:
“The Lord will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.”

In each passage, the old has been replaced with the new, the damaged with the strong, tears transformed into gladness, brokenness turned into wholeness.  Death itself has been declared “no more” through Christ’s resurrection – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:  
“Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive…When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
    “Where, O death, is your victory?
      Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s promise to us, through Christ’s resurrection, is that the ultimate defeat – death – is turned on its head, transformed into victory, fully and completely and permanently.

At the very end of the book of Job, after that long-suffering man had had an encounter with God, he says, “I had heard of You with my ears, but now I have seen You with my eyes.”  And so has Rick.  The One he heard of he has now met; he has been made whole, and strong, and new.  His death has been swallowed up in Christ’s victory.  And the party’s already started. Thanks be to God.

                        I will miss him everday.


                                          He was my friend
                                                              He was my brother