Dear friends: Most of the newsy, family-happenings-in-2001 Christmas letters have been written and read by this time. The Lupton's letter may be arriving a bit later than most but it is definitely not because 2001 was uneventful for us. As a matter of fact, it was not until New Years eve, reflecting in front of our fireplace, that Peggy and I made the decision to share publicly what has been the darkest, yet most enlivening year of our marriage.
Rather than attempt to relive and rewrite our emotional peaks and plummets, we decided to share excerpts from my journaling during the past year. Journaling has become my therapy. The tenses and frames of reference do change with the wanderings of my mind but the record is immediate. We decided to communicate in this personal way so that our caring friends could share more intimately in our journey.
Our hearts are over-running with gratitude for dear friends who have stood with us in prayer this year. We feel so blest to have health and vision that invigorate our lives, a calling that orients our days, and supporting partners who afford us the fulfilling opportunity to serve in the city.
Bob and Peggy Lupton
Not once in thirty years of urban ministry has our home been broken into. Burglars and rapists have forced their way into the homes and lives of others around us but we have been spared. Not because we have taken extraordinary protective measures. We have never had bars on our windows and our alarm system is seldom set. Yet, for some reason our home has remained safe. Oh, a couple times the hanging baskets have disappeared from our front porch - infuriating but not frightening. The report of gunfire is fairly common and police sometimes chase perpetrators up our street. But the sanctity of our home has never once been violated. Not until now. I have sometimes wondered if this security that my family has known is a special gift from God, a kind of an invisible hedge of protection placed about us. But then, why would this be afforded us when others whose callings and commitment are at least as strong as ours have endured horrible violations? The uncertainty has kept me from becoming presumptuous - only grateful for the grace of protection upon our home. Until now.
In the most malicious manner imaginable, a predator recently invaded our home, not jimmying a lock or breaking a window, but slipping in silently and hiding undetected. With intent to savage and destroy, this cancerous presence lurked undetected for months as it sought out the most vulnerable staging ground for a deadly attack. It was a routine mammogram that finally detected its dark presence, a medium-size mass by this time, invasive enough to launch its aggressive campaign into other places in the body. For the first time in thirty years our home - our family, our very survival - is at risk.
My lovely bride, the joy of my life, viciously attacked and at the very heart of her nurturing place, where our babies took nourishment - what insidiousness! The hedge of protection is gone. Terror has taken hold. No time to ponder "why us?" Theological questions must wait. There is time only to mount all-out warfare against this adversary, a consuming life-and-death struggle that demands every ounce of emotional and spiritual strength we can summon.
The numbing intelligence-gathering is fast and furious. Alarming mammogram discovery, then sonogram, biopsy, lumpectomy, lymph node excision, endless lab work, bone scan, liver scan, cervical biopsy, echocardiogram, and days of agonizing waiting for the results of each test. With each offensive move comes a whirlwind of confusing new medical terminology and another barrage of data about types of cancer, varieties of treatment modes, and estimated survival odds. We struggle to appear brave, to remain strong for each other, clinging desperately to hope so fragile that a stray thought can shatter it in an instant. When fears become too powerful to contain, we end up sobbing in each other's arms.
Strange, however, amidst the heaviness that permeates our every waking hour and distresses our dreams, there is a discernable calm down deep in the bedrock of our spirits, an awareness of a reassuring Presence that is more pervasive than the ominous force which threatens the life we have known. Though we resist with all of our mental stamina the terrifying worst-case scenarios, holding at bay grim thoughts that constantly prowl the periphery of our consciousness, the activity of another Force steadies our souls. In unexpected ways and at times we can not anticipate, an assurance of Divine care wells up from some deep source, calming and cooling the intensity of the struggle.
A hedge of protection has been replaced by an abiding Presence. Immunity from ill was merely a pleasant illusion. Security, it is turning out, seems to lie less in what we are protected from than in Who is with us in adversity.
Peggy lies back in a hospital reclining chair, drip I.V. running into a port that has been surgically implanted beneath her collarbone. A nurse mixes syringes of potent drugs in the plastic container that hangs on a chrome stand. "Any burning?…feeling okay?…any nausea?…" the nurse inquires again and again. This is the beginning, the major counter-assault on the invader who has turned our world upside-down.
All the test results are back from the various labs. The oncologist has just informed us that no cancer has been detected in the bones, lungs, liver or other vulnerable areas. We hold hands and breathe a deep sigh of relief. He explains that the type of cancer that has attacked Peggy - invasive, estrogen-feeding, non-HER2 - requires aggressive treatment. He has prescribed a cocktail of powerful chemicals to be injected every three weeks for six months. Then daily radiation treatments must be administered for six more weeks.
Now that the analyzing is over and the fight has begun in earnest, we both feel somewhat stronger. The nausea, the tiredness, the hair loss are acceptable costs of tracking down and eliminating the predator from our lives. There are no guarantees of ultimate victory in this battle, we know that, but now is no time to entertain dark thoughts. We must learn how to live, to remain fully alive, with the presence of this spoiler hovering not far from every waking thought.
It is remarkable how normal we feel. The cards, the thoughtful gifts, the phone calls from friends all over the country assuring us of their prayers - all part of an incredible support system God has marshaled for us - have fortified us in inexplicable ways. Our tears are less frequent now and when they do come they seem to have a releasing and cleansing capacity. The fear has become more manageable, losing much of the power it wielded over us a few short weeks ago. When friends inquire how we are doing, we find ourselves responding with a simple "fine." It is neither avoidance nor denial. It is the taking back of our lives, no longer allowing either the intruder or the fight to define who we are.
We no longer romantically fantasize about growing old together, something we often used to do. This is one of the casualties of the war. At least for now, anyway. The immediacy of life that has been forced upon us is surprisingly positive, however. The present has become more precious - reading reflections to each other over tea in the morning, examining new growth pushing up from our backyard flower beds, long talks on the porch swing about life's many details. Futuring is in much shorter increments - the next chemo treatment, the next blood count, a trip up north next month to visit family. That is about as much future as we allow ourselves to venture into.
There is time now to reflect. Surprisingly the "why's" are but a small part of our pondering. Gone are the naïve notions that God, wholesome living and good genes virtually guarantee us long and healthy lives. These were wonderful, youthful, innocent notions that we carried with us into mid-life. Physical ailments - colds, flu, pulled muscles, even broken bones - have always been temporary inconveniences, always cured by a little help from physician and pharmacist and a bit of recuperation time. We have always expected to live. Even in the jungles and firefights of Vietnam I had every expectation of surviving and Peggy fully expected me to return home to her. But our innocence has now died. And there is grief in this. Staring into the cold reality of our mortality, stripped of protective illusions, brings laser clarity to those things in life that are worthy of priority status.
And where is God in all of this? Everywhere. Absolutely pervasive. As present on our evening walks as in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. In our bedroom during dark hours when fears stalk our thoughts, and in our favorite restaurant when we savor delightful tastes and aromas. We continue to pray for healing - had the church elders anoint Peggy with oil - and regularly read scriptures that encourage our spirits. But there has been no torturous struggling over whether or not our faith is strong enough to effect a healing. Even in the loss of our illusions about God's protection there has been no disillusionment with God. There has been no deal-making, no orchestrated prayer campaigns to induce God's intervention (not humanly organized, at any rate), no attempts to force His hand. There have been no new revelations on how prayer works or why some people are miraculously healed while others suffer long debilitating decline. What has grown noticeably stronger, however, is a deep confidence in the essential goodness of God and the dependability of His presence. When all is said and done, this may be all the security we need.
I thought we were getting past the fear. The chemo treatments are the necessary price of dispatching hostile cells and the dread they have brought. I have occupied my mind with work, not dwelling on the dark side. But Peggy, though functioning somewhat normally in her daily routines, has been battling with negative thoughts and losing. She broke down in my arms the night before her third chemotherapy appointment.
Prayer and reassurance did not lift the dark cloud. Why were the doctors and nurses so evasive about a specific prognosis? They all have spoken of chances of survival being good but none has wanted to quantify what good means. And they talk survival, not cure. Survival for five years of constant medication and frequent tests and examinations - that's where their conversations generally go. Peggy, who plans every minute of her life, has been shutting down her cherished fantasies of playing fun games with future grandchildren. She now pores over morose decisions about which of her children and siblings should receive her various personal belongings.
Peggy's torment the morning of her third treatment was sufficient to push for a definitive answer from her oncologist. He told us that he had just returned from an international conference where 20,000 oncologists had gathered to share the latest research, mostly on cancer treatment and much of it focusing on breast cancer. Remarkable new breakthroughs are imminent, advances that will leap forward from the slow, steady progress of the past twenty years. Peggy's next round of four treatments would utilize a cocktail of new drugs recently proven effective in combating her specific type of cancer. Her prognosis was very hopeful, he said. No guarantees, but she should reasonably expect to be completely cured. You should live to be a hundred, he said with a smile.
It was the word Peggy needed to hear. The dark cloud lifted. She immediately put away all the cancer books and made a list of the projects she wants to do - new carpet in the living room, wainscoting in the half bath, a playhouse for grandchildren… For the first time in three months we talked again of growing old together.
The cycles of nausea-to-normal-appetite, fatigue-to-nearly-normal-energy that the chemo sets in motion have become almost routine. The new chemical cocktail this second half of treatment promises to be easier on Peggy physically but her hair loss will likely be total. She looks good in her wigs (cranial prosthesis in medical terminology) but I see sadness in her eyes when she looks into the mirror to apply her makeup.
Peggy has again been having bouts with dread. Try as she will to avoid them or subdue them when they assault, morbid thoughts invade her mind and take her down emotionally. Commercials on TV promoting the latest cancer drugs, news segments on breast cancer, even hearing about another woman whose cancer reoccurred can trigger a barrage of depressing thoughts. Following a long discussion about how to control these downward spirals we concluded that trying to repress them was only giving them more fear-wielding power. Peggy has decided instead to face into them, letting her thoughts travel where they will, in the hopes that her fears will dissipate as she becomes more familiar with the dreadful "what if" territory.
This week at Allen's cottage on Lake Burton may prove to be an emotional turning point. It certainly seems so at this moment. In this restful place, free from human contact and daily responsibilities, Peggy sleeps long and deep, takes leisurely walks and swims without concern about being seen or known. We have long, enjoyable talks while floating in the lake in our vests. We sit on the dock in our swimsuits reading novels to each other, the sun baking our bodies. It is good to see color returning to Peggy's complexion - the tan on her bald head even looks healthy. Several times during the week she has commented that she feels like a deep restoration is going on down inside her. The dread has dissipated. I am hoping that it will not return.
The second round of chemo is much easier physically (and consequently emotionally) on Peggy. The treatments are long (four to five hours) but there is no nausea - just tiredness for a few days and hurting joints. The anti-depression medication may be helping, too. She comments on how good it is not to feel sick all the time. Occasionally a wave of discouragement will sweep over her and remnants of the old feelings of dread will push their way in, but this doesn't last more than a day or so. The light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter and even though nearly every hair on her body has dropped out by this time, it is becoming easier for her to anticipate normalcy. Last night in the mirror she counted two eyebrow hairs on one side and four on the other. But unlike the traumatic first days of hair loss, the grief is past. She easily throws off her wig and moves quite normally about the house. She even forgets occasionally and goes outside with her head uncovered.
Mary Lou came for a visit this week and the two sisters shopped, played and laughed with vigor. They spent the night in a nice Buckhead hotel, ate good food, found lots of bargains at the mall and gave each other pedicures and facials. It was the first time since the discovery of the malignancy that Peggy really felt like her old playful, energetic, funny self again. Joy is returning.
The last day of August marked the final chemo session. The oncologist said she is responding very well to treatment. Only one more blood test to confirm that her body is continuing to respond well and then six easy weeks of radiation. A sense of excitement is building in Peggy. She studies the magnified mirror beside the bathroom sink for signs of new hair growth. A little peach fuzz is starting to appear. Something else is growing too. Spiritual strength. I have never known Peggy to have such a deep security in her soul.
On our trip up North to see family we visited Stoneboro Camp, the holiness camp I attended with my parents most of the summers of my youth. Peggy had never seen the white-cottaged campground nor had she experienced the fervor and intensity of an old fashioned camp meeting. It was like stepping into a time warp. Women in long dresses heaped uncut hair in buns upon their heads. The men wore long-sleeve white dress shirts, some open at the collar, some with dark ties. The Sunday evening service in the tabernacle was as lively as I had remembered - revival songs sung loud from the old Methodist hymnal, special music in four-part harmony, and hell-fire, damnation preaching. It was the preaching that I most wanted to hear again. I wanted to know if the terror that once seized my adolescent heart was a function of oratorical power or the naïveté of impressionable youth. The sermon this night could be fairly compared to Jonathan Edwards's Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. When the sweating little evangelist with a booming voice finished his hour-long oration and invited sinners to come to the front to repent, scores of people rushed forward with tears streaming down their cheeks, filling the alter and all the front pews of the tabernacle.
As Peggy and I drove away from the campground, I was curious how this experience had affected her. I wondered if the service had evoked feelings of guilt or uncertainty in her spirit, given her United Presbyterian upbringing and her somewhat guilt-ridden nature. Not so. It had only served to reinforce her confidence and trust in the One whose constant care she has come to know intimately.
Joy is back, for both of us but most especially for Peggy. Every day is a treasure. It is easy for Peggy to image any stray cancer cells that may be malingering in the area of her surgery being zapped by the radiation blasts she undergoes each morning. The blistering is worse than she was prepared for but she sees it as a small price to pay for the eradication of any holdout hostile cells.
On the way home from church last Sunday Peggy made a momentous declaration. Extracting from me a promise of confidentiality, she said very quietly, "I feel healed!" The confession did not come lightly. She knew quite well that it could be nothing more than a strong wish - a groundless emotional reaction to the end of treatment now in sight. For her to confidently declare that she was healed might cast her with the company of those tormented souls who "claim their healing" at sensational faith healing crusades to later realize that they threw away their crutches too soon. It was a gut feeling, she said, one she had been keeping to herself for some time now. Thirty years of marriage to Peggy has taught me to pay attention to her gut feelings. She definitely had my attention. "I don't know what the future may bring but at this moment I feel whole!" A momentous declaration, I say, because the dreaded word cancer has lost its power to strike terror to her soul, momentous for she is free from the gloomy dark cloud that blocked the brightness of her days.
Sunday, November 18, 2001. Celebration day! We have been living toward this moment for most of a year. The cutting-poisoning-burning assault on the invader has finally come to an end. Every aspect of the healing now feels complete - physically, emotionally, spiritually. Tonight we celebrate with family and friends around a sumptuous meal of shrimp and filet, delicious sides, excellent wine, and rich cheesecake. Peggy has been preparing for this event for weeks. The dining room table is spread with linen and set with her best silver, china and crystal. Every detail has been attended to from fragrant roses, to special placecards that describe an endearing quality of each guest, to individually molded pats of butter. Joyful music plays in the background and candles dance and sway on their pedestals.
When everyone is seated, Peggy begins by telling each one around the table why she has selected their specific quality and how each has touched her life during the past year. She allows herself to weep freely, unashamedly, joyfully. This is the first time she has appeared publicly without her wig. Her new hair, soft as a baby's, can almost be combed to a part with the help of a little mousse. She shares openly how this year that began in terror has turned out to be the most dramatically enlivening year of her life. Her priorities are in order, her faith has stood the test, she has learned how deep is the security in trusting the future to the One who has fashioned her days.
Thanksgiving day has arrived early at the Lupton home this year.