Thursday, July 30, 2015


This essay should rightly be published the first week in September, which will be the 20th anniversary of my successful surgery for cancer. Living cancer-free for 20 years is no small accomplishment. But it would never have happened—or perhaps I should say, it is unlikely that it would have happened—if it were not for two men.

The first was Dr. Graham, a gynecologist practicing in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was referred to him by my primary care physician for symptoms outside the general practice of medicine. Within three months, Dr. Graham did a biopsy and a few days after that he gave me the results: I had cancer; it was the same kind that had taken my mother’s life when I was 15 years old.
I expected Dr. Graham to tell me I should consult a surgeon in his large gynecology practice. Instead, he said he wanted to send me to a colleague of his in Indianapolis. From my house to Indianapolis is between two and three hours, depending on traffic, construction zones on the Interstate, and the general attitude of the driver. I was the driver, and my general attitude was one of fear and trembling, alternating with anger and self-pity.
The second man in this story was the surgeon, Dr. Geisler, who had been in med school with Dr. Graham. I liked Dr. Geisler right away: he was not very tall, had a quiet manner, explained everything in words I could understand, and though he never said how sorry he was to have me go through this, I felt it in his manner. I was on the receiving end of true compassion.
After my appointment in Indianapolis I drove home “in a state,” as my grandmother would’ve said. Fortunately I knew how to get home, because the car had very little assistance from me; I drove on autopilot.
Basically what I had learned was:
A.      I had cancer; it was in the early stages. (We didn’t number them in those days)
B.      The prognosis was good that surgery would take care of it.
C.      I was asked to schedule a date for surgery. (I had the audacity—or maybe the foresight, who knows—to ask if I could go ahead with my vacation, already planned and paid for, and have the surgery after I got back. The answer was yes, and we settled on September 7.)
My vacation trip was to Seattle, a city I’ve always liked. Pike Place Market—featured in the movie Sleepless in Seattle—was a wondrous place to explore: fresh fruit and vegetables and seafood, baked goods like none I’d ever experienced. I walked the city streets, up and down disastrously steep hills; and when the walks got too strenuous, I rode a cable car. A favorite coffee place was the Buena Vista at the end of the cable car line (sadly, I hear the Buena Vista is gone now). But the cable cars are back in business after a lengthy cessation of service.
I won’t say I had a wonderful vacation, though I loved the city and the things I did there; it was a welcome break in my work life, and gave me something sweet to hold onto after I came home and began to prepare for surgery and the time off work following. Surgery was never far from my thoughts.
Eventually the big day arrived. A friend drove me to Indianapolis; my youngest daughter followed us in my car. The other children, their dad, my best bud from college, and my pastor all arrived at different times.

If you’ve ever had major surgery, especially in a large hospital, you know the basic drill: sign in, get undressed and then dress again in one of those goofy hospital gowns, answer 42 questions, let them snap a bracelet on your arm so you don’t forget who you are, hop onto a gurney, and you’re in their clutches. In a little prep room, I was given some meds, then my 8-person cheering section was allowed in to wish me well. (I trust none of them thought of it as good-bye forever.) As I began to lose altitude from the injection, medical personnel stopped by to ask me who I was, why I was there, who my doctor was. So long as I could answer them, I passed the test.
Next I went to a place I call the holding pen—it was a long, long, long room, with gurneys like mine lined up as far as the eye could see. In my dopey state, it reminded me of a warehouse.
A male nurse came by, said he’d be taking me up to the OR pretty soon; asked the same questions everyone else had asked (they don’t share information in hospitals); told me I was doing fine and I was going to do okay because I wasn’t very heavy. I was alert enough, despite my meds, to tell him he was a liar. He said, no-no, most of the ladies who have to have the surgery you’re having are a lot heavier. From that moment I loved him. But I never saw him again.
The time came for me to mosey on up, or out, to the OR. The nurse pushed the gurney along. We stopped in a corridor (there’s no rhyme or reason to hospital corridors if you’re doped up), and my surgeon, Dr. Geisler, stopped us, asked how I was (I was still sort-of alert), and asked if I’d like him to pray with me. I said yes. He held my hand and recited the Lord’s Prayer—rattling it off at a great rate, and ending with “deliver us from evil,” in the Roman Catholic way. I was greatly comforted.
Dr. Geisler’s philosophy about gynecological surgery was fairly simple: Remove everything that isn’t vital, and that might possibly harbor cancer cells. This included organs, soft tissue, and lymph nodes. Maybe other stuff, but those are the ones I remember. Because of his approach (which I believe he pioneered), I needed no chemotherapy, no radiation, and suffered no side effects after surgery. I had pain meds if I needed them. My only reaction was to the anesthetic; I felt mentally ‘way out there for about six months before things began to settle down and I could do my job as efficiently as I had before surgery.
I saw Dr. Geisler every year for five years, at which time he congratulated me and discharged me from his care. His knowledge, his skill, had given me back my life. He would’ve said, it’s my job, not in a put-down way, but matter-of-fact.
Yes, it was his job, but it was a transformation for me. During my convalescence I did a lot of soul searching. Why, I wondered, was I spared? What was I supposed to do with this new life I’d been given?
Those questions still plague me, but I’m more comfortable with them now that I’ve lived with them for 20 years. It’s doubtful that I’ll ever know the why of the equation. Why me, why not someone else? But what I’m supposed to do with my life—that’s something I work on every day. I’m grateful I was allowed to live cancer-free. I’m thankful for people like Dr. Graham and Dr. Geisler who made a huge contribution to my life. And I salute the young male nurse who kept my spirits from plunging to the sub-basement.
Huge gifts, for which I can never repay anyone. But I can search for ways to help other people in whatever way I can. We may never know if we’ve given someone back a life they’d thought was lost, but we can trust any efforts in the right direction will work for good.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


I am 9 1/2 years old. I’ve spent the summer with my dad while my mother went with her new boyfriend to Las Vegas to get married. When she and my new stepfather come home, my dad delivers me to a house in a town I’ve never lived in before; it is the home of my new step-grandmother, a woman I immediately adore. We three, the new little family, live upstairs in the big attic room of Grandma Randolph’s house while our house, one block east, is being wallpapered and painted. In a few weeks we move again, into what I come to know as our house.
Our house, which is rented, has big rooms, with high ceilings. My bedroom is in the front of the house, with French doors leading into it from the living room. It is bright and sunny and with the high ceilings has an open and airy feel to it. I love it from the moment I see it.

Thinking back on that house, it was only four big rooms: two bedrooms, living room, and kitchen, with a bathroom featured by a claw-foot tub; and a side small room I never discovered the reason for, but probably another little bedroom that we used as storage. There was a long back porch off the kitchen. Possibly a basement, but I don’t recall going down into a basement in that house. So, scratch the basement.
I am 22 years old, the mother of three children. We—my husband and the three children—have just moved to a city I’ve never lived in before, though I did visit once for a couple of days. The house is rented, furnished, and it has two astounding, wonderful things about it: an automatic dishwasher and a spinet piano. We can afford beds and pots and pans and clothes; I have never believed I’d have a dishwasher and piano so soon.

That house has a basement and an upstairs, and an attached garage. My son learns to walk in that house and we put up gates to keep him from exploring stairways. The gates do little good.
In that house I watch TV while I iron, and on November 22, 1963, I see our president being assassinated. At that moment I become two people—one watching, and disbelieving, the horror of seeing someone as important as the president of our country being shot while on a campaign trip; the other person observing the children who play on the floor under my feet, keeping the cord of the iron away from interested fingers, answering the telephone when I get a call about the TV story.

I am 36 years old. The organist at my little country church tells me a law office in the county seat has a vacancy for a legal secretary and I should apply. I go to the interview, sort of as a lark, to see what kinds of things people ask when they interview you. It is unlikely, I think, that I’ll get the job—my background is in English and French, I will soon sit the Master’s written exam for an M.A. in English Language and Literature, and I’ve been around the block enough times to recognize the value of a degree in English: You can either do anything or nothing. (Garrison Keillor is right on the money with his jokes about English majors. My mind is considering whether I’ll be better off working at McDonald’s.)

So I go to the interview, trot out my credentials, which look pretty anemic lying there on the polished desk of the new junior lawyer. Experience? (Rearing children, reading, cooking, doing laundry, driving like a madwoman to get to class on time 30 miles from my home . . . .) Can I type? (Wow, something I can do!)

What really got me the job was the fact that I could spell. They didn’t know that for certain, but they assumed I could if I was practically a Master of English. (It’s true, I could, and can, spell well.)
It was the first “real” job I’d ever held. And I managed it for another 30 years.

I often hear people say, “In another life”—meaning, not reincarnation, but who the person was at, say, age 9 or 22 or 36. Do we really remember being that person? Or do we remember things we did? People we knew? Events that happened (perhaps)? (Or did they?)
So much advice is written today about how to keep our memory sharp; how to increase memory (as if we were a computer and could add another 64 Mb in a little chip). How to keep from losing memory (put it in a little bag and tie it to our belt? Put it in our safe deposit box at the bank? Stick it in a box and put on a good tight label telling what it is, and add the date and our initials?).

I’m all for memories. But sometimes, it seems to me, too much emphasis is put on what we remember. Why should I remember every street address and telephone number where I lived during the years from, say, birth to age 20? (An impossible task—I moved 20 times in 17 years.) Or how to make white bread without a recipe? Or who wrote that book I used to read every single year? Or what cupboard holds the cereal bowls?

Maybe it’s about what is personal to me . . . to you.
I remember Grandma Randolph, who treated me like the little 9-year-old girl she never had, always had time to talk to me, even though she worked away from home, and who helped my mother alter the new dresses that didn’t fit my summer-plump body.

I remember people who were kind to me when my mother died—Aunt Dessie, Mom’s oldest sister, took me, her 15-year-old niece, to her favorite dress shop and bought me a tweed suit and silky blouse to wear to the funeral. I wore those lovely clothes for years and years. The suit was a color I now know as mauve, with little flecks of blue and grey. I think Aunt Dessie also bought me a pair of white gloves. (All my clothes had been destroyed in our house fire six months before.)

I remember going into surgery in Indianapolis, nearly three hours from my home, not knowing anyone in that vast hospital except the eight people—family and friends and clergy—who had come to be with me and pray for my wellbeing.

I remember losing a large measure of my innocence when someone shot and killed our young president.
Today we celebrate our memories: personal ones, collective family memories; shared and unshared. Good memories, that we're happy to take out and stroke because they make us remember good times. Bad memories, yes, I celebrate those; they tell us something about who we are, how we coped (or didn't), what we might have learned about ourselves, about life, and living.

We need our memories: They are the stories we tell—to ourselves and to each other—and thereby connect us together.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Isn’t it amazing how what used to be luxuries have become necessities?
Consider: cell phones, computers, TV, cars with minimal bells & whistles (my 16-year-old vehicle has a CD player, power windows, air conditioning, seat position memory, to name a few); microwave ovens, sewing machines with memory and scores of decorative stitches; leaf blowers, lawn mowers that cut, mulch, and bag; ready-cooked meals to store in the freezer (not cooked by me); “grocery” stores that sell everything, including clothes and furniture; ditto hardware and drug stores; catalogs to bring anything your little heart desires right to your door.

With all these possibilities, all these choices, vying for my attention, I find it hard to choose what is essential and what’s merely impulse buying.
So, I looked around my house and came up with a list of what I can’t live without. Some are really basic—they’ve been around our lives for centuries, so we take them for granted (printed books, language, music, tools; knowledge, creativity, caregiving). Others are personal to me. And if you’re anywhere near my age, you may remember a time (or perhaps in your grandparents’ time) when my list of essentials wasn’t common.
Such as:
I like colorful Post-It Notes
·         Toilet tissue
·         Soap
·         Post-It Notes
·         Books
·         Paper and writing instruments
·         Electricity
·         Refrigeration
Other inventions and discoveries have become essential, for instance:
·         Fire
·         Antibiotics
·         Surgery
·         Insulation in our homes
·         Medical discoveries about our health
This topic tends to run away with me—the more I think about it, the more I realize how entrenched I am in the 20th and 21st centuries, and what a debt I owe to all who came before me for their contributions to life.
If I can distill my topic to its essence it would be this:
All I need to survive physically is air, food and water; heat in winter, shade in summer.
All I need to survive mentally is something to read and think about; someone to talk with about it.
All I need to survive spiritually is a faith community and the love that sustains us all.
Make yourself a list and see what’s absolutely essential to you. Don’t need to give up anything—just appreciate all you have and do and are.
Have a Joy-full day!



Thursday, July 9, 2015


I can see right away there’s going to be some confusion here.
After all, who among us is grown up? Or even wants to be?
So my ideas about fun on a rainy day is for the young at heart, the inner child, or just for folks who get bored when it’s raining (again!?).

We’re once more in a round of rainy-days-all-in-a-row. Like Seattle from September to May, so I hear. (I’ve been to Seattle in the summer, July and August, and it’s just a nice place, sunny, not too hot, nice breeze off Puget Sound . . . .) Anyway, here in the upper Midwest there’s a Seattle-feel to the season. Temps rarely get above 80. Rain falls nearly every day, and when it does arrive, it brings several days’ worth of luggage and outstays its welcome. The upside is that everything blooms—and blooms—and blooms—and blooms. Grass grows, and I no longer exaggerate when I say it’s an inch a day.

Thus it is that we have to find things to do that accommodate our temporary (perhaps) climate change. See if any of these resonate with you:

1.       Read the latest bestseller in your chosen genre. If you don’t have it, download it from the Internet—no shipping charges. (You’ll need an e-reader, of course, so if you don’t have one, you’ll have to find some other book to read. Next time the sun shines, go buy an e-reader.)

2.       Clean out a closet/cupboard/garage/boat/car/cedar chest/bookshelf . . . you’ll feel virtuous and hardly notice your lawn is now a lake.

3.       Cook something you seldom have time to make. How do scones sound? With a pot of fragrant tea, a visit with a friend on Google Chat; feet up, shoes off.

4.       Do something old-style: write a long letter to a friend (longhand or typewritten, both count) or bake a cake from scratch. Make up your own old-time activity.

5.       While you’re cleaning out that closet (#2 above), try on those pants and shirts you thought you were going to lose (or gain) enough weight to get into. If you haven’t worn them in a year, share them with somebody else, via Goodwill, Salvation Army, or some other venue. Many churches have a “clothes closet” ministry.

6.       If you’re creative, work on a painting, poem, or clay pot. Cut out quilt pieces or a shirt. Rev up the circular saw or router and make things out of wood. No ideas pop into your head? Give yourself permission to surf the ‘Web for ideas. (Better set a timer—that surfing is addictive, but you already know, don’t you?)

7.       Teach yourself something new—how to tie flies for fishing; how to sand a floor so it doesn’t have ripples in it (harder than you think); how to make wine at home without a lot of expensive equipment; how to build a deck onto your house. If DIY isn’t your thing, look for self-improvement ideas: read about building healthy relationships, memorize a psalm or poem, do crossword or jigsaw puzzles; practice smiling with a mirror. (That one’s scary.)

There’s a whole week’s worth of ideas. If you don’t find any of them to your taste, make your own list. Start with three. Write them down. Give them a title: “Three Things I Always Wanted to Do” or “Three Ways to Avoid Doing Housework” or “Three Things I’ve Learned in My Life.”

You don’t actually have to do any of these things. But you’ve managed to quit cussing the rain for a few hours while you worked up your list. Or read mine. Or actually used one of these suggestions.

These work well for when we’re snowed in as well as rained in.

And if you can’t think of anything to do, there’s always good ol’ napping. Works every time.

Have a nice (even if rainy) day!


Thursday, July 2, 2015


WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES . . . another door opens.
Do you find that’s true in your life? My honest answer would be, “Sometimes.”

Of course, it could be that the answer is truly “Always,” and I just don’t see the other door opening.

Or, I don’t connect the two events.

I tend to see the obvious Cause-and-Effect of happenings in my life. For example, when the youngest child left home after high school for college, the house was emptier than it had been. Obvious, you say. Yes, it is obvious; but  . . . why did I feel that my life was still full?

In most instances, my life is full. So when I’m asked to do “one more thing,” I have to view the full spectrum of my life and decide: What can I let go of in order to do the “one more thing” being asked of me?

The next question—actually, it should be the first question—is: do I really want to exchange the new thing for something already in my life that I enjoy? Or that I feel I have to do?
Here’s another question to ponder:
      How do I know when it’s time to let that door close? Or, to close it myself?
There’s a lot said and written about “going out at the top of your game.” Makes sense, don’t you think? We’ll leave a good impression of ourselves, or our accomplishments, or whatever we represented. Letting “new blood” take over is considered a good thing. “Passing the torch.” “Allowing fresh air in.”
Why do I not feel comforted by those attitudes and platitudes?
Sometimes, I believe, when one door closes, another one also closes. Take the example of the child going to college—even if that child comes home again to live for a while, she will be a different person simply because she’s been away. She’s rubbed shoulders with people from other walks of life. She’s been introduced to new thoughts, new ways of thinking; discovered authors and books that are foreign to the childhood life she’s leaving behind. Many new doors have opened for her.

True, she’s still my child. She always will be. But that isn’t the only identity she has, or will have. And she won’t go back to being the girl she was before she went to college.
Again, obvious.
The new door opening for me can be quite subtle—the child who went away to school comes home an adult in ways I never dreamed. She brings with her a maturity shaped by experiences I’ve not been part of in recent years. The young person is still there, recognizable, but now blossoming into someone new to me.
It’s like making a new friend—the kind you feel as if you’ve known all your life—and in this case, I have known her all her life.
There’s no neat answer, it seems, to the question I asked at the beginning: Do you find it’s true that when one door closes, another opens?
The metaphor itself—a door closing, another opening—is, I find, an expression of hope. The closing door represents something separated from us. The open door, somewhere else, beckons us. The underlying assumption is that what’s behind the open door will be better, or at least, attractive. Perhaps beneficial.
Yet I can’t help remembering the story of the lady and the tiger—if I remember it aright, the young man had to choose a door: behind one is a lady, who would be his wife; behind the other, a tiger who would take his life. And the story ends with the reader not knowing which the person chose.
The lesson in the story seems to be that not all open doors are going to offer us something we want. The young man in the story was in love with the king’s daughter, and she it was who indicated which door he should open—the lady behind one door was going to get the man the king’s daughter loved, but the tiger would devour him.
Think I’ll stick with the hopeful opening of another door. Let the lady and the tiger story be just a story, intriguing to read, but not offering me a lesson to live by.
When a door closes, I’ll look for another one to open. And you never know—it might just be a window!