I can’t see what’s ahead.

The mountain path winds, drawing me deeper into the trees, up toward the sky. The aspens arch and bend, shading the sun and blocking my view. All I see is here, now. Not the miles of path I’ve yet to cross.

If I’m tempted to worry, I don’t.

This is one of my favorite hikes in the Rocky Mountains. I look down, at the path worn bare long before my feet came near. I look up, at the shimmering leaves and cornflower sky, breathed into life by Another. Surrounded by evidence of life’s bigness, reassured it does not depend on me or what I see, I feel safe.

And I keep walking.

But sometimes it’s not so easy. Like last week, when my family turned a bend in our path.

My dad—69 years old, father of two and grandfather of nine, endurer of childhood horrors and the Vietnam War—was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

We didn’t see it coming. Somehow I thought we’d achieved our quota of hard things, as if what we’d already endured would guard us against the unwanted.

Of course, that’s not how it works. You know this. So do I.

*sigh*

So, yes. My dad has pancreatic cancer. A difficult phrase for this girl to type with fingers he helped bring into being.

“How are you doing?” everyone asks.

As you would expect. Stunned. Sometimes anxious. But hopeful. Doctor’s reassured us they caught it early, which never happens. This is one of our miracles. If you have pancreatic cancer, Dad’s is the best-case scenario. That means we’re celebrating.

But, still.

STILL.

Cancer, like any crisis, is as much a battle of the mind as the body. When the diagnosis is leveled, fear multiplies faster than cancer cells. It messes with your mind, steals your appetite, makes sleep impossible. Worries and “what if’s” taunt.

At the same time, a crisis can enhance the hue of every flower and sunrise, enrich the celebration of every birthday and holiday, deepen the joy of an ordinary day with an awareness of the sweetness of life.

And that’s when you discover—standing there with the path winding up ahead—that the struggle isn’t a physical one. It’s the war you rage in your head. The fight to see beauty over fear, gratitude over panic. To keep trusting and walking and experiencing every leaf and branch and smell when you’re tempted to run ahead.

Last week, my parents flew to New York City, where they met with doctors at Sloan-Kettering. Tomorrow, Friday, Dad will have major surgery, one that will leave him hospitalized for at least a week. After that? We don’t know.

We just don’t know.

But isn’t that always the case?

We’re so very good at planning the days, months and years of our lives. We have it organized in iPhones and retirement plans. But life, in all its fierceness and fullness, cannot be contained. It must be experienced:

1. Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Refuse the panic that wells up. Instead, lean into what is. Stop. Rest. Take in your surroundings. Crisis, by definition, is a decisive moment, a turning point. We mustn’t rush through and miss the fact that we get to choose how we walk through it.

2. Talk. Fear, doubt, and loneliness thrive in isolation. Like that used tupperware my son left unwashed for two weeks, it grows fetid and foul when ignored. Relationships cleanse. Tell stories. Laugh. Cry. It is not merely the means to getting to the other side. Relationship IS the other side.

3. Pray.  There’s a scene in the movie Shadowlands (a favorite) in which C.S. Lewis’ character says this: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.” When I pray, the weight of worry and doubt transfers to the shoulders of One stronger. Like climbing a tree, I’m lifted to a new vantage point. I’m changed.

4. Move. A crisis can be paralyzing. When the doctor called with my own diagnosis two years ago, the shock of it leveled me. I hadn’t expected it, didn’t know what to do with it. Fear became a beast that kept me locked in the house waiting for death to arrive. Foolish? Maybe. Real? Definitely. But then I learned something:

A crisis is scenery, not a destination. And it can only stifle life if I stop moving. 

The next weeks and months will not be easy for our family. But nor will it define our family. We are more than our most recent crisis.

So are you.

I look down, at the path worn bare by your feet and mine. I look up, at the shimmering leaves and cornflower sky, breathed into life by Another. Surrounded by evidence of life’s bigness, reassured it does not depend on me or what I see, I feel safe.

And you and I—we keep walking.

[Dad and Mom, we’re with you, tomorrow and all the days that follow! God will not let you go! ~M]

What crisis are you facing? Which of the four—Breathe, Talk, Pray, Move—will you lean into to help you find your way through? 

 

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