There’s a quirky little island in the Bahamas where goats roam the streets and rusty golf carts are the common mode of transport. Bill and I rent a friend’s house on the island for a week every year or so to have some time together with our kids and grandkids. The house is no palace, but the view is spectacular; each morning we sit on the screened-in porch and watch the sun shimmer yellow on the watery horizon.
A few days before Thanksgiving, we packed snorkels and fins and headed for our quirky but beautiful getaway. Fourteen-month-old Mac napped in my arms while we traveled; I was in Nana-heaven. Knowing we’d arrive to empty cupboards, I’d packed a duffel bag of nonperishable necessities. After we took a ferry from the airport to “our” island, we celebrated our first evening of vacation with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Fine dining, Hybels-style.
During the next couple of days, four adults shared responsibility for two wildly active little boys. While on grandson duty, I was back in Nana-heaven. Chasing Mac across the sand, swimming with Henry, tucking them into bed at night and recapping the adventures of the day. Glorious!
But each time Bill or Shauna or Aaron or Todd took responsibility for watching the boys, I entered Twitter world and slid from paradise into the hell of war. Bombs and rockets were crossing the border between Gaza and Israel. I’d just returned from a month in Israel/Palestine, and friends I’d been with only days before were suddenly fearing for their lives. But there was more. In eastern Congo, fighting was escalating to levels not seen for years. Rutshuru, where I’d been in June, had already fallen to the vicious M23 rebels. Now they were headed for Goma, where friends and World Relief staff members lived. While the rest of my family played, I followed live Tweets from Gaza and Goma. How could this be happening? How could two places and people I love be sliding into horrific violence at the same time?
I almost hadn’t gone on this family vacation. Two weeks earlier, while I was still in Israel/Palestine, my father had been diagnosed with cancer. I immediately flew home and joined my parents in Michigan to meet with doctors and plan treatments. But when Dad seemed stable and there was a break between appointments, I was free to join the family on the island. So here I was, physically on vacation, but consumed with wars in foreign lands and missing the goodness right in front of me. I owed it to my family to be present to them, and I could do nothing for my friends in Congo or Israel/Palestine. So I turned off my Twitter feed. In quiet moments, I prayed for my Middle Eastern and Congolese friends—and for my dad. But then I snuggled with Mac, played Super Heroes with Henry, took walks with Bill, and laughed with Todd and Shauna and Aaron. I vacationed.
For a day.
Then my phone rang. It was my brother with bad news from the doctor. The cancer was more advanced and required immediate intervention.
I need to book a flight. I need to get home.
Dad made it through that weekend with no emergencies, but I was glad I was there—just in case. The Monday following Thanksgiving, we had an important appointment with the oncologist. Tuesday was Mom and Dad’s sixty-fourth wedding anniversary. I am not kidding when I say that they have lived the Great American Romance. Everyone who knows them says that. At eighty-two, they are still madly in love. A couple nights ago, I sat with them in their little television room as they held hands while they laughed at their favorite British comedy. The morning of their anniversary, I sobbed while I watched them trade anniversary cards. (And yes, I interrupted their tender moment with my camera.)
Actually, I had to rush them gently through the card ceremony because we had to get to the hospital. Dad was scheduled for a bone marrow biopsy and a chest port insertion in the morning; chemotherapy would begin in the afternoon. Happy anniversary.
Just three weeks earlier, Mom and Dad were still riding their tandem recumbent bicycle on winding, wooded trails. It’s shocking how quickly Dad’s athletic and remarkably youthful body has become thin and frail. And what will the coming days and weeks bring? It’s an aggressive cancer, the doctor says, but one that typically responds well to chemo. “Our goal is to get you back on your bicycle,” she told him. Will that happen? Next spring, when the Michigan winter melts away, will Mom and Dad help each other into their matching chartreuse jackets and hit the trails again?
My world has shrunk to the size of a hospital room. I speak in quiet tones with people whose DNA is in my blood and bones. For most of today my brother, Dan, sat beside me watching the IV drip into Dad’s arm, but Dan just left to teach swimming to a bunch of grade-schoolers. (Better you than me, little brother.) Mom and I will be heading home shortly.
Something in Dad’s IV is making him a little loopy. “Stop by Papa John’s Pizza,” he says. “It’s Wacky Wednesday. You can get a large pizza with five toppings for just $10.59. But you only need four: pineapple, Canadian bacon, green peppers and extra cheese. I’ll call in the order before you leave. Then you can go home and relax with a glass of wine and pizza.” At the end of that little speech, he drifts off to sleep. Mom holds his hand as she has been doing much of the day.
I wrote the previous paragraphs several days ago, at the hospital. Now we’re home, at Mom and Dad’s house. I’ll probably stay here much of December, heading back to Illinois now and then for necessary Nana-fixes. And Bill and the kids and grandkids will come here to visit as soon as Dad feels up to visitors.
I’m slowly moving back into Twitter world for updates from my friends in Israel/Palestine and Congo. My Mom, like any mother, hates it when her only daughter (me) travels internationally, especially since I tend to head for war zones. In October, when I left for a five-week trip to the Middle East, Mom was not thrilled. But she’s a woman of deep faith. “I know you have to do this,” she said. “I know God has called you to these places and to these people. Every day, I’ll pray for you and for the people you will meet.” When I returned early from that trip to be with her and Dad she said, “Okay, tell me all about your trip.”
For me, this is life at its best. A life of extremes. One day my world is as big and lush as the Congo. Another day it’s as small and sterile as a hospital room. One day I’m meeting people so different from me that I feel like I’m on another planet. Another day I’m in a group hug with Mom, Dad and my brother. One day I’m struggling to catch bits and pieces of a foreign language. Another day I communicate volumes without having to utter a word. One day is filled with action and activism. Another day is filled with silent prayer and waiting. One day is mundane. Another day is sublime.
Today? I need to create a chart for my dad’s meds so we can keep everything straight. Compile a list of action steps for Congo (for an upcoming blog). Meet with a visiting nurse. Draft an email to a friend who asks how he can serve Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem. Help my mom put up a few Christmas decorations.
Six years ago, when grandson Henry was born, I was engaged in sub-Saharan Africa, advocating on behalf of widows, orphans, and people suffering from AIDS. As I anticipated Henry’s birth, I feared that my love for him would consume me, would pull my heart away from the children I had seen in Africa. I needn’t have worried. I discovered that when your heart expands to love one child deeply, it enhances your capacity to love all children.
So it is now. As my heart expands to embrace the increasing medical needs of my parents, I feel more deeply than ever the pain of Israeli and Palestinian women who are, even today, caring for family members wounded by weapons of war. I feel more deeply than ever the horror of Congolese women, raped and ravaged by rebels, with limited or no access to the medical care they need.
I think this is what it means to be part of the human family and part of the Kingdom of God. It means standing by the hospital bed of a loved one, weeping and praying and doing what you can to help. It means reading about a war-torn country, or refugees, or victims of human trafficking, or urban gang members, or the working poor, or the neglected elderly, or victims of racial discrimination, or whatever and whoever breaks your heart, and weeping and praying and doing what you can to help.
This is life. I am so thankful I get to live it.