Good byes and Good Friday

I was born on Good Friday.

In 1971, Good Friday fell on April 9th, which was the day I was born.  For this reason, even before I understood the beauty and the message of the Easter season, I was intrigued by Good Friday. And by the time I was 13 or 14, I finally stopped making the joke, “you know why they call Good Friday good? ‘Cause I was born on that day”.

Yup. I was hilarious.

But even when the laughter died, I still asked myself what makes Good Friday good? It’s like the saddest day ever, right? Taken at face value, it is the remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion and death- not even remotely ‘good’. More like Horrible Friday!

(Disclaimer: I am aware that theologians have long explained the assignment of the name Good Friday. I am also aware that no one reads this blog for theology- or even facts, for that matter.)

Driving around seeing patients today, I was thinking a lot about Good Friday and Easter and all that its message does to restore me. The rain, and the acute sicknesses of todays’ patients, however, had put me in quite the Good Friday funk. Looking for a perk, I scanned Spotify and put on John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulder”- an all time favorite that makes me feel warm. After singing along loudly, the playlist moved on to another John Denver classic, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” (Also famously sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary...coincidence, I think not!)

“Leaving on a Jet Plane” is one of those songs that will send tears to my eyes and put an immediate lump in my throat after just the first few bars. Ever since it was popular when I was very young, and up until now, I can sing all the words but it will always ALWAYS make me sad.

When I was growing up, my beloved grandparents lived in Arizona and we only got to see them twice per year. “Gummy and Pop-pop” would fly east to visit us at Christmastime and the four Lanes would travel west to visit their home for April break. Gummy and Pop-pop were the absolute best- loving, giving, fun- and they would, bless their hearts, turn themselves inside out for our visits. It was my ABSOLUTE favorite time of year. From the moment we landed at Sky Harbor in Phoenix and Katie and I would SPRINT off the jetway to tackle them with hugs, I would have a permanent smile on my face for the entire visit. I can not remember ever being happier than I was on those trips.

My smile would, however, immediately and dramatically disappear on departure day. The routine included getting out the suitcases, packing our airplane “fun bags”, stripping the sheets and cleaning up the bathroom as Gummy insisted we not bother. Mom would make sure Katie and I were dressed in appropriate “flying outfits” (my how times have changed) and Gummy would spray one of our stuffed animals with her “Youth Dew” perfume so we could drink in her scent during our months apart. And through this entire routine, I would be battling to not cry. I hated- absolutely HATED- leaving Gummy and Pop-pop’s house.

Inevitably, every year, I would lose the battle to not cry just as we would get close to the airport. Big tears would start to spill over as my Dad would double check his sport coat for our boarding passes. In those days, anyone could go right up to the gate, which Gummy and Pop would, of course, do and they would even wait until the plane took off so they could wave through the window. And I would cry and cry. Not a “waaah waaah waaah” kind of cry like a baby, just a silent and sad hiccuppy cry that usually subsided somewhere over New Mexico.

So I am not sure if “Leaving on a Jet Plane” would play on the car radio in my grandparents’ Tornado (tore-nah-dough) or the Jet plane part reminded me of the annual Phoenix back to Newark flight, but the melancholy song is still an arrow through my forty-eight year old heart.

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go,

I’m standin here outside your door

I hate to wake you up to say goodbye…”

For me, whether John Denver or Mary from Peter, Paul and Mary is singing, the image of the singer standing at the threshold of the bedroom next to their packed suitcase brings me right to the feeling of deeply regretting an obligation that is making me leave this comfortable place.

But the dawn is breakin, it’s early morn

The taxi’s waiting

He’s blowin’ his horn

Already I’m so lonesome

I could die.”

The taxi. That damned beckoning taxi. Don’t you know the singer doesn’t want to leave?!  ENOUGH WITH THE HORN ALREADY!

And it was in that verse, sung by someone deeply in love who doesn’t want to leave the one they love, but answering obligation despite the tax on his heart, was what brought me back to Good Friday.

Easter has songs. Christmas has songs. And yeah, yeah Good Friday has a famous song, but I submit that “Leaving on a Jet Plane” is a song with the Good Friday message.

(And I mean NO disrespect or sacrilege by comparing dying on a cross to a business trip- really, I get it.)

Imagine for a minute if the singer of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” is Jesus. Jesus, at the time of his death, was a young man with a deep love for his people. Scripture tells us that even though he accepted his fate, he was afraid. Jesus took time to say goodbye to his friends and let them know how much he loved them. Jesus implored them to stay focused on the future he had promised them, despite the sadness they might feel from being separated from him.

Now the time has come to leave you,

One more time, let me kiss you,

Then close your eyes

I’ll be on my way…

Dream about the days to come,

When I won’t have to leave alone

About the times, I won’t have to say…..”

Obligation and necessity push the singer’s goodbye, but there is no question where his heart remains.

Oh, Babe.. I hate to go….”

Just like I hated leaving Gummy and Pop-pop’s house, just like parents hate leaving their too soon adult children at college or just like my hospice patients hate saying goodbye to their loved ones and vice versa, Jesus’s heart broke as he took up the cross and began his trek to Calvary.

Saying goodbye to someone you love can be the hardest thing we ever have to do in life. Sad. Painful. Gut wrenching. Heart breaking.

So I am back to the question, What in the “heck” makes Good Friday good?

Of course, people that remember Good Friday know about Easter Sunday. Jesus’s “goodbye” was short, not permanent and transformed into a magical and everlasting “hello again” that is the greatest story ever told.

Resurrection is cool. Way cool. And you can’t have Easter and what it gives without Good Friday, right? But is that enough to make it ‘good’? Because I still can’t stop thinking about the man- on the cross- who died- and was wrapped and buried in a tomb- that was blocked by a large stone.

We didn’t want to say goodbye to what went into that tomb.

Or did we?

Scripture tells us Jesus died for our sins. He died so that we, his beloved people, could have everlasting life.

In the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter, followers of Jesus are asked to make sacrifices during this time. Give up something or give of yourself in a way that brings you closer to God and more mindful of his sacrifice. Some people give up broccoli like that matters at all. Some people give up meat on Fridays during Lent which is cool if you consider tilapia, salmon or lobster a sacrifice. Others, however, are more deeply called to embrace the spirit of the season: they may give up something that tries to hold power over them like an addiction, a compulsion or a resentment.

And I believe it is in those sacrifices, those offerings, those gestures that move us closer to Jesus, that we find the good in Good Friday.  When Christ died for our sins and was buried but on the third day rose again, guess what didn’t follow him out?


All. That. Stuff.


I’ve written before about the virtues of Holy Saturday, the day in between hope lost and hope restored that mirrors where so many of us live every day. Between diagnosis and treatment, devastation and relief, Holy Saturday is where we hold space. And of course I’ve written about Easter- my blog is called HOPEspot, after all. I’ve praised its gifts and reminded us that they’re there for us only if we roll back the stone in front of our own tomb and rejoice for what we’ve been given.

For those that have spent Lent praying and striving to be a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend, or a better person in ways that made them get uncomfortable and dig deep within themselves, Good Friday is for you, my friends. Good Friday invites us to throw it all up there with Jesus- put your sin, your weakness, your anger, your burden up on that cross and let it die. Jesus is resurrected but your sins are not. They die today. On a cross. In Calgary. With a man who was willing to assume them all so that you could be saved.


That, to me, sounds pretty good.




Help in Humboldt

Why do I spend my Sunday mornings like this?

HOPEspotters, most of you know I am a devout lover of sports. I follow all the major leagues and teams at both the college and pro level and really put the “fanatic” in the fan for the teams I love. And while I may not be an expert at the X’s and O’s for each game, I study all the players and the coaches in order to keep current.

I am genuinely not a competitive person, by nature, which is probably good since my own career in sports forced me to get pretty familiar with the “L” column. Sure, I like to win, maybe even love it, but the thrill of the kill isn’t the thing that sports feeds me.

Following sports, from pee-wee softball to the NFL, fulfills my love of stories. Stories that provide the most fascinating allegories for life. So many stories, so many lessons.

And no one- I mean no one- tells those stories better than the team at ESPN that produces “E:60”.

On the busiest of days, I have found myself stopped in my tracks, suddenly captivated by the tale of a legless wrestler, a deaf football team, a college basketball player who survived TWO plane crashes, presented by Jeremy Schapp and Bob Ley.  And at the end of each story, I’m usually crying, often breathless, and always reminded of the resiliency of the human spirit. There’s gifts, there’s hardships, there’s redemption and there’s inspiration. Sometimes, it is better than church.

I had the chance to meet Jeremy Schaap at an ALS Fundraising Gala in Atlanta two years ago and  I went kind of ‘fan girl’ on him. He was a true gentleman and asked why I was attending the event. When I told him I was generously asked by a family who lost a loved one to the awful disease, and I had participated in her care, he was effusive with praise for the role of the hospice nurse. A table turn I did not expect. What we agreed upon in the course of our conversation was this: we loved our jobs. The people we meet inspire us and their stories never leave us. Sometimes it can be very emotional to listen to their stories, but when we allow ourselves to be open to them, there is always beauty.

So me and Jeremy… ya… peas and carrots…

Anyhoo, Mr. Schaap and his team just produced another doozy, “Humboldt Strong”. While unloading the dishwasher this morning, I turned on the TV which was already tuned to ESPN from last night’s Final Four games.

“Humboldt Strong” is narrated by Wayne Gretzky and tells the unbelievably tragic story of the horrific bus crash involving the Junior Hockey team, the Humboldt Broncos, from Humboldt, Saskatchewan. On April 6, 2018, on the way to a play- off game, the Broncos’ bus was hit by a semi- truck that ran a stop sign. This catastrophic and devastating event led to 16 deaths. There were 13 survivors, two of whom were paralyzed and two with significant traumatic brain injuries. The number of hearts broken by the incident is immeasurable. The accident sent the community, the country, the hockey world reeling. It was the worst mass casualty auto accident in Canada’s history and it was another example of the unbelievable and incomprehensible fragility of life.

The story of the Humboldt Broncos can be dissected on so many different levels. There’s loss, there’s grief, there’s anger, there’s determination, there’s community spirit. There’s a lot in the mere 60 minutes allowed to the story. A story, I am sure, that only one year later, isn’t over yet.

But there was one detail, a fairly small one, in fact, that has stuck with me today- resonated, perhaps.  During this. season of Lent, this detail seemed to illuminate a timeless and often redundant question that has to do with feeling forsaken and seeking healing.

In classic E:60 fashion, the narration gets slower as the recounting of the inevitable accident approaches. The bus is shown traveling a two lane highway that seems to be in the middle of nowhere.

“At 4:58 PM, the charter bus carrying 29 Humboldt Broncos players and coaches, crossed the intersection of…. and was hit by a semi truck driving at….” “The top of the bus was literally ripped in two….” “The cargo that was carried by the truck had been spilled all over the landscape..”

“At 5:16, the first batch of emergency responders arrived…”


4:58.


5:16.

18 minutes.


1,080 seconds.

Impressively fast for the middle of nowhere. And yet… 18 minutes. E.I.G.H.T.E.E.N minutes. One thousand eighty seconds.

As I watched the rest of the documentary, I was utterly distracted, fairly haunted, by those eighteen minutes. What was it like for the people who survived the initial impact to wait 18 minutes? And I bet 18 minutes seems a lot longer when one doesn’t know if it will “only” be 18 minutes? And you’re in pain, and scared? And I think it is pretty cold in Saskatchewan, Canada in April, eh?

Eighteen Minutes.

And then I started to think less about the length of time those poor young men, and a few women, had to wait for help and more about if they wondered if it was coming at all. When your life gets literally blown apart by a semi truck going at full speed, I would imagine it would be normal, understandable, in fact, to question or even lose faith. Maybe in their panic and pain, they felt forsaken.

And then, of course, I started to think of all of us, who at times have been lying in a cold field, in pain and scared, and wondering when help is coming and if it will come at all. And sometimes, in the metaphor, we sit in that cold and in that pain for a hell of a lot longer than eighteen minutes.

“Mr. Jones, there were some unusual findings in your colonoscopy. We’d like you to schedule an MRI but it looks like the next available appointment isn’t available until next month.”

“There are clearly some abnormalities on the fetal ultrasound but things might change throughout the course of the pregnancy and the severity won’t really be clear until…”

“We won’t know how quickly this is going to progress and while there are some medications that might slow things down, statistics generally show that at Stage IV…”

“You’re leaving? Just like that? You’re leaving me?”

What about the people who love someone with an addiction and wonder if he or she will ever get “clean” (I hate that term, by the way) and sober?  Or the poor people who have a loved one that has gone missing, been taken, run away- and they lay on that metaphorical field in Canada wondering when the HELL help is ever going to come? Waiting out the storm can seem unbearable…

And maybe, sometimes, the wait is so painful, the thought of just surrendering to death seems inviting. Case in point, the recent suicides by the Parkland shooting survivors or the father of the Sandy Hook shooting victim. That man, Jeremy Richman, lay in that cold Canadian field, in apparent acute pain, so profound that the help he waited for for 6 years and 3 months, seemed for him to never come. And he couldn’t wait anymore.

And that, is terribly sad.

Just like some of the Humboldt Broncos, some bodies cannot stand the injury any longer and they cannot survive the wait. I pray that help has arrived for him, and others who’ve suffered like him, in a more peaceful and less tormented place.

My faith, my life experience and everything I stand for has taught me that help will always come- some way, somehow, some day a first responder will arrive. Sometimes it takes an excruciatingly long time. Maybe we’re not ready for them when it does arrive. Often times it isn’t in the form we expect, but I believe to the core of my soul that help always comes.

16 Humboldt Broncos died that day, but 13 survived. And after seeing the footage from the actual wreckage, that is 13 undeniable miracles. Because help showed up. It got there and it did what it needed to do.

Last year, I was giving a few remarks at our annual hospice bereavement service- an hour of remembrance for the loved ones of those who died in our program the previous year. My remarks included my “go to” phrase “I know it is never anyone’s best day when I, the “hospice girl”, shows up.” I understand the gravity of the situation if I have been called in. I was pleasantly surprised, however, at the end of the service, when a family member of a former patient came up and told me, “You should stop saying that. I was thrilled when you came. I felt like we were finally at a place where Mom wasn’t going to suffer anymore. I was so relieved. Throughout the course of her terrible illness, I think it was my best day.”  

Huh. Help- in a form other than expected- but help, nonetheless.

In my limited experience talking with people who’ve battled addictions, they are often very open about their rock bottom day. In trusted conversations, they share the circumstances that caused them to throw up their arms and cry, “Mercy” and most bless that day, because when they courageously surrendered their substance abusing ways, that was when the help came. And that was when they let the help in.

Ryan Leaf, former NFL quarterback, known for being a big time ‘bust’ with a bad attitude fell deeply into substance abuse after his career ended prematurely and he wound up in prison. His life is now turned around completely and he is devoted to helping others battle addiction and prevent drug abuse, through regular speaking engagements and one on one counseling. He’s taken his painful past and given it grace by sharing his experiences with others so that they may avoid similar pitfalls. On April 1, 2019, he tweeted, “7 years ago today I woke up on the floor of a prison cell.. I had nothing to live for, or so I thought. If I had known the size of the blessing that was coming, I would have understood the magnitude of the battle I was fighting. I got up, there is Hope!! #7yearssober”

Ryan’s 18 minutes played out of the course of a very scary and lonely and painful decade, but help did come. (And look at that, I am back to sports…)

And, oh yeah, there is another really good story about fear and pain, waiting and praying, wreckage, loss and redemption. Some people call it, in fact, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and it’s final chapter is coming to churches near you in just two short weeks.

Spoiler alert: help comes. Not before sadness, not in the absence of fear, but it shows up BIG TIME.

Back in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, there is a large memorial at the site of the crash that occurred just over a year ago. The documentary shows how each of the featured ‘victims’ and their families are getting on with their lives. Clearly, there is still a lot of grief work to be done. No one is lying by the side of the road anymore, but there is still a lot of pain. The wounds are deep and large and the fractured hearts and hope and dreams are extensive. It is clear as the survivors and the family members of those that didn’t survive speak, there is a longing for help- or better said for healing- to arrive.

I hope they know that it will.


It absolutely will.

What do I say?

Today I heard from my oldest and dearest friend. We’ve been sisters from other misters since kindergarten. Friends like us have NO secrets. Friends like us have a history that allows a conversation to pick up midstream that may have been paused three months ago. When she calls, I am delighted to talk to her and always relieved that there are no evident gaps in the time lapsed. And as is often the case, friendships like these continue to teach life lessons.

When she called today, she had a specific question. “Jen, I’m having lunch tomorrow with ‘X’. I haven’t seen her in awhile and I need advice about what to say. You do this all the time and I need your advice.”

Oomph.

Sometimes I say Oy. Sometimes I say ugh. This one was an Oomph. A gut punch.

I’ve met friend ‘X’. I love friend ‘X’. She’s awesome, hilarious, in fact. We were in the same sorority at different schools. Friend ‘X’ has two high school daughters. Friend ‘X’ has no sordid past on which we can blame her stage IV disease. Friend ‘X’ was six months late on her mammogram because she was busy dealing with some health issues of her husband.  Friend ‘X’ now, after double mastectomy, has disease in her brain and liver.

Friend ‘X’ is going to die too young.

Oomph.

But I am focused on my  friend’s request for advice. What do I say? I am always humbled when asked for advice because most people that know me intimately barely trust me to pour coffee. This is a big ask and I want to deliver with a quality answer.

I have spent the better part of the last 17 years dealing with hospice patients and families. It is not entirely clear to me how, yet I feel blessed that it is true, my role has been one of first responder. Doctors, hospitals, families call me and say, “It may be time…” “I’m afraid we need..” “Could you please come describe…”  I can honestly say for all the years I have done this, I have yet to lose my sensitivity for the gravity of that call and the importance of its response.

So you’d think, with all these years of experience, I’d be ready to call my dear friend back with explicit instructions for her conversation with friend ‘X’.

But do you want to know what I did when I got her message, asking me this question? I cried. Yup. Punched my steering wheel and cursed LOUDLY that we are still having these conversations with young Moms. I cried -a little sad and A LOT pissed.

Then I called my girl back, because if anything, I will never leave anyone hanging. And I share this because a lot of friends ask me this question and I want to be honest and public about my answer.

I don’t know what to say.
 

Brene Brown has suggested in a presentation about empathy that the best response to any declaration of pain is, “I don’t know what to say, I am just so glad you told me.” And who am I to argue with the brilliant Dr. Brown?

I can’t tell you how many times I have walked into a home or hospital room and met a family whose faces stare back at me with a shock and confusion and sadness that say more than words possibly could. I am quick to acknowledge that it isn’t anyone’s best day when I, “the hospice girl”, shows up.

What I want to share with you, the reader, just as I did with my oldest and dearest friend, is, if the benefit of my experience has taught me anything, the desire to say the right thing is overrated. Sick and scared people don’t want our preaching, our advice, or a list of things we are going to do to help them.

I remember with privilege visiting a young woman with breast cancer who was also a dear friend. My only question to her was, “Why am I here today, my friend?” And she was more than ready to detail everything she wanted. It was a powerful, direct, and very clear conversation that was hugely helpful for her family in decision making.

From what I have observed, the very best thing, when talking to, or better listening to, the seriously ill is:

I don’t know what to say

I will listen to anything you want to say

We can “be” any way you want to be-- and that can change based on how you feel.  

These “I don’t know what to say” conversations are happening, or SHOULD be happening all over the country, every day. It breaks my heart to see friends and families, with hearts full of love, afraid and intimidated to address the elephant in the room. And I know there’s volumes of research about these talks and I am not going to proclaim I am an expert, I am just sharing what I have observed.

Like the old man walking the beach, throwing the starfish back in the sea, I believe that my beautiful friend will have a purposeful and hopeful conversation tomorrow with friend ‘X’. That singular conversation makes a difference. And if I can continue to promote more conversations like this, with people that need empathy and solutions, I will believe in the good that can come from listening before talking. And that makes a difference.







 

Our 2016 Decision

Hopespotters, HELLO! You may have heard there is an election today that will decide the 45th President of the United States. Kind of a big deal, you know? If you are a media “watchdog”, you may have heard that the country is very divided about the two presidential candidates; apparently many people don’t even like either of them! Presently, we are a nation chanting “I’m with Her” vs those chanting “Make America Great Again.”

Of course, I am kidding with the light heartedness in my tone. Today is a very big deal in determining our country’s future and many Americans are passionate about their choice. As I write this, results are coming in, but no winner has been declared. On this blog, I have tried to avoid any political conversations or debates. In this space, they are purposeless. What I have tried to do, however, is try, at times, to bring what I learn in my days meeting with and caring for the terminally ill and apply the great perspective that gives me to some things about which we can all relate.

Today’s Election is really a great opportunity for that. And I say that without taking the hospice experience or this election lightly.

When I am called to meet with a patient and family newly referred to hospice, I understand that the call to me may have been the hardest call they’ve ever had to make.  And while each patient and family is unique, I have come to learn the commonalities in the experience after 16 years.

Battling advanced disease, for most people, is an all out, gloves off, no holds barred war. Regardless of whether the diagnosis is cancer, ALS or any other end stage disease, patients come to hospice straight of the battlefield. Since the moment they learned of their illness, patients fight for treatment and relentlessly pursue their goal of cure. Many may argue with specialists, travel far away for “better answers” and become exhausted by their fight. Patients’ families, unconditionally by their side, advise them, advocate for them, pray for them. A groundswell of community support is essential for victory. In war against advanced illness, there is passion, there is rage, and there is a tremendous amount of energy expended. Every person involved has clung to HOPE and faced bitter disappointment, sometimes over and over again.

So you can understand that when the day comes to call hospice and I ring the bell, there is no victory party. Patients and families are defeated. The battle for cure has not been won and the war wounds are deep. All the belief and positive energy that went into envisioning a different outcome goes right out the door at the same moment I walk in it. And that is very, very sad.

I am not here to spin a tale of how the angels of hospice make it all better and everyone lives happily ever after. Because they don’t. Someone precious usually dies and often times way sooner than their family expected. Despite all the good things I can say, and do believe, about the positive impact of hospice, the mortality reality is grim and harsh.

When we do our job to the best of our ability, the hospice team takes the opportunity to surround the patient and family with support and expertise and this critical message:  there are still things to fight for and there are still things to hope for. While cure may not come, we have this day, and hopefully more,  to live well, uphold quality of life, and do some ‘final work’ that needs to be done. We can give and get forgiveness. We can tell stories of happy times. We can be present. Because by doing those things and doing them well, a legacy is created. The final chapter in that patient’s time on earth is marked by peace. And as the narrative of that family’s life goes on, the legacy of this loving time becomes a cornerstone for their ability to go on.

Even if it isn’t easy.

When someone wins this election, someone is going to lose. Those that battled and campaigned for the belief system that didn’t come out on top are likely to grieve. They will be bewildered and they will be angry. Time, money, energy, passion has been spent and seemingly lost. And now the “losers” must live and work amongst the “winners”. Just like the husband who lost his wife to breast cancer yet still walks in the “3 day” with survivors of the disease, the reality will sting. Why did I fight so hard and why didn’t it go my way?

With this parallel, I invite the country to take a page from the hospice playbook. WE have to focus on how WE, as the citizens of the United States of America, want to establish our legacy from this time in history and WE have to go on. It will be our greatest gift to the younger generations. WE MUST remember that despite the outcome, there are always things to fight for and always things to HOPE for. To each side I would say, you couldn’t have fought any harder (maybe nicer, but not harder). With the knowledge that this is the path WE have now been given, whatever that is, WE have to leave the fight for the office of the President behind because that fight is over. What WE have to do is take the opportunity to hold a hand, to give and get forgiveness and to be at peace. And then, WE have to go on.Together.

Even if it isn’t easy.

God Bless the USA!