Monday, March 23, 2015

Building a Healthy Soul

(The following is the text of a talk I gave a couple of weeks ago. It isn't as polished as I would like, but the concepts are something I have pondered a great deal over the years.)

Join me on a walk in a lovely garden, the Garden of Eden to be precise. You remember the story: God creates a beautiful garden and places Adam in the garden. He gives Adam a commandment. Genesis 2:15-17 describes that commandment:

15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Commandment given, God creates Eve, and the first couple go merrily on their way, enjoying their innocence and the beauties around them. Satan tempts Eve, who eats of the forbidden fruit and shares the fruit with Adam. And thus the plan of salvation is born. Adam and Eve become mortal, subject to both physical and spiritual death. They know good from evil and can now experience both sorrow and joy. For the first time, they have agency because they have both opposition and knowledge. They bear children, and God provides a Savior so that Adam and Eve and their posterity can have the opportunity to once again live with God.

I find it interesting that God uses a commandment that is essentially physical (a commandment about what to eat) to introduce His plan of salvation for the entire universe. Not only is the first commandment a physical commandment, but the consequences involve a mix of the physical and spiritual. I have thought about this a great deal. We tend to consider the spiritual as more Godlike than the physical, as if our bodies hold us back and limit us in some way, but I doubt that the Lord sees it that way at all.

One of my favorite scriptures illuminates for me how God feels about the relationship of our physical bodies and our spirits. In Doctrine & Covenants 88:15, we read “And the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” To me, that means that our eternal soul requires both the spirit and the body, that both components are critical. Additional scriptures bear that out. Daniel refuses to eat the king’s rich food, and he is blessed with great wisdom. The Savior fasts for a long period to prepare Himself to begin His ministry, and so forth.

Back to Adam and Eve. Do you remember the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit? Adam and Eve became mortal, of course, and they had to leave the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3:17, God says something curious to Adam. “Cursed is the ground for thy sake.” For thy sake! As if the thorns and weeds were a blessing! But they were, just as Eve’s pain and sorrow in childbearing were a blessing. Somehow, those physical challenges were critical for Adam and Eve and for us in our quest to become like God. They help us to grow and learn, and they help us to understand God and what it means to be godlike.

Think about it from an exercise perspective. Unless I literally rip my muscles, I will not grow stronger. And in order to build that muscle, I have to push against something. I have to have opposition. God created the physical and spiritual experiences to run in tandem.

How does that apply to me?

My patriarchal blessing includes a phrase that I return to again and again. In my blessing, God counsels me that as I keep my body in good condition, I will be more responsive to the Spirit. That promise is not unique to me. Think of the Word of Wisdom, our famous code of health. We are commanded regarding what to eat and what not to eat, and then God spells out the promises.  We will receive health, we will run and not be weary…and in verse 19, we learn that we will “find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.” I think God cares a great deal about what we do with our bodies, as well as with our spirits. He even refers to our bodies as temples, and if you have ever had the chance to visit one of our LDS temples, you know how beautiful they are and what care is taken to keep them beautiful and pure.

In his October 2014 General Conference talk, Elder Jörg Klebingat outlines six tools to help us reach the point where we can approach the throne of God with confidence. I find it instructive that the first two suggestions he gives us are rather bold directives to take responsibility for our own spiritual well-being and to take responsibility for our own physical well-being. “Stop justifying and stop making excuses,” he says, reminding us that Heavenly Father knows each of our circumstances perfectly.
Elder Klebingat continues, “Feeding the spirit while neglecting the body, which is a temple, usually leads to spiritual dissonance and lowered self-esteem.” I think we can safely say that the reverse is true, as well. If we focus on our physical health and neglect our spirits, we will also suffer. But if we feed and exercise both body and spirit, then our potential is great.

What have I learned about spiritual things from physical experiences?

  • I learn that I can endure and that if I push myself, I can grow stronger.  I have started to run more over the couple of years. I am not a great runner, but I find that I quite enjoy it. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to take those first steps or to keep going after a few tough miles on not quite enough sleep. When the wind chill is -15, I struggle to put on my shoes and open my front door. But I can tell you that the exhilaration I feel after running a 10K in that kind of cold is amazing! I feel like superwoman. So then, when faced with something in life that is pushes me to my limits, I tell myself, “If I can run 6 miles in sub zero weather, I can absolutely meet this challenge I’m facing now.”
  • I learn that opposition is necessary. I want nicely sculpted arms, and I want to be strong enough so that I don’t need to call my husband every time I need to move something heavy. But I will never build that muscle definition unless I push heavy weight. The same thing is true in my spiritual life. Brad and I have been through some years in our marriage that took us near to the breaking point. We dealt with some heavy opposition, and because of that, we grew closer together. We learned a great deal about God about faith. I have experiences that brought me to my knees again and again, and I would not trade them for anything. The apostle Paul learned a similar lesson. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, he tells about a thorn in the flesh that he had to endure and what he learned from that: 

7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

  • I learn that I need to exercise every day. Intense, but sporadic, exercise does little to increase my strength or endurance. By the same token, we need to read scriptures every day, pray every day, go to church every week, and so forth. Elder Klebingat says that we need to “apply the atonement of Christ daily.”
  • I learn that I have to take care of myself with nutrition and rest. The scriptures remind us not to run faster than we have strength. In both physical and spiritual pursuits, we need to pace ourselves. A couple of years ago, I made the astonishing discovery that I like to run, so I fairly quickly built up to five mile runs. Predictably, I developed tendonitis, and I had to pull way back for a time. I learned that I need to build up my mileage slowly and let my body adjust. By the same token, if we try to live all of the commandments perfectly all at once, go to the temple three times a week, make fresh bread for everyone in the ward and read scriptures for hours each day, we will quickly burn out.
  • I learn that I have to obey certain laws to get certain results.  If I eat more calories than I burn, I will gain fat. If I eat too much sugar, I will be sluggish. On the other hand, if I eat healthy foods and get adequate rest, I will have energy and think more clearly. Likewise, in D&C 130: 20-21, we learn that when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. 

But, wow, it’s hard!

The reality is, we are going to fall a lot. We’re going to fall out of the habit of reading scriptures, or we are going to eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in one sitting. We are going to deal with addictions or struggle with our callings. We are going to have crises of faith and physical ailments that stop us in our tracks. Heavenly Father knows that. Elder D. Todd Christofferson said the following in the October 2014 General Conference:

“I am under no illusion that this can be achieved by our own efforts alone without [the Savior’s] very substantial and constant help. ‘We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.’ And we do not need to achieve some minimum level of capacity or goodness before God will help—divine aid can be ours every hour of every day, no matter where we are in the path of obedience. But I know that beyond desiring His help, we must exert ourselves, repent, and choose God for Him to be able to act in our lives consistent with justice and moral agency. My plea is simply to take responsibility and go to work so that there is something for God to help us with.”

That is our challenge, to go to work so that God has something to work with. Take the next step. That may involve reading a verse of scripture a day or walking around the block, or it may involve getting the help you need to overcome an addiction. Do something, take a step down the road to a healthy soul.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Control Freak on a Tightrope

My husband stayed home from work today. I love my husband, truly I do. But today I needed the house to myself. I needed the inside of my brain uncluttered, without the rest of the world crowding in. I intended to exercise myself into a good, stinky sweat, then shower and settle down at the computer with a lovely pot of herb tea and write. I intended to ignore both phone and email, rebel against my incredibly annoying "to do" list and try to pull something profound out of my head. Ta da! In a week of appointments and work and children home on holiday, today was the one day that offered a clean slate and an empty house.

Sigh. Did I mention that I love my husband?

Did I also mention that I'm currently suffering from a temporary case of writer's block, seasoned with a dash of ongoing limbo and served up on a dish of winter that stubbornly refuses to give way to spring in quite the timeframe I had hoped? And there you have the crux of the matter, if I am to give way to perfect honesty. I have run smack against a bit of life I cannot control, and I find myself thoroughly cross with the situation.

It's a bit of a tightrope, this tension between control and delicious surprise. On one side of the wire, I plot my life hour by hour on a calendar, depend on my grocery app and keep a detailed "to do" list, sorted by priority and date. As backup, I refer to two white boards in my kitchen: one for those things I really, really need to remember in case I forget to look at my task list and the other for chores the children need to accomplish before any fun ensues. I assume the overflowing junk drawers (not one, but two) in the kitchen help to offset the rigidity of the white boards.

On the other side of the wire bubbles an insistent need to escape the list app, pull out of routine and allow myself the luxury of the unknown, the unplanned. Sometimes I long to hang on to the boat and ride the waves, ready to gasp in delight at the breathtaking view around the bend. I find that the best moments usually lurk outside of my orchestration. But to surrender to another conductor requires a trust that I find difficult to muster with any frequency. So I long for order and crave random and find myself attempting to balance between the two.

When Nick Wallenda crossed the Grand Canyon on a tightrope 1500 feet above the canyon floor, he held a 30-foot-long, 43-pound flexible pole in his hands. The heavy pole held his center of gravity toward the safety of the steel cable and kept him from leaning dangerously far in either direction.

And me? I have that husband (whom I love), four wonderful children (whom I also love), and a dog (which I tolerate). They require meals at regular intervals and rides according to schedule. We have a comfortable routine of morning prayer and bedtime hugs. And when the routine leans threateningly toward monotony, I can count on the unexpected to pull me back to center. The dog will vomit on the carpet just before company arrives. Snowmen will require building after a spring storm. Impromptu chats with a teenage son will last for hours. Calls for service will shatter my schedule. And sometimes, on a quiet winter day when I had other plans, my husband will stay home from work.

Monday, January 12, 2015

When the Cup Does Not Pass

"We became acquainted with (God) in our extremities"
Like many LDS children, I began each school year armed with a priesthood blessing of counsel and comfort from my father. Invariably, that blessing promised me "learning experiences" during the course of the year. I soon realized that those experiences generally came accompanied by an uncomfortable amount of pain and frustration. 

True to Dad's inspiration, I have had many opportunities over the years to learn through trials. Those difficult periods have taught me bits of empathy and a degree of humility. Scriptures have come alive as they suddenly felt more applicable than ever before. I understand more about unconditional love now, about the blessings of suffering, the purifying role of sacrifice, the freedom of forgiving and seeking forgiveness. I rarely seek for learning experiences, but I do appreciate them (sometimes through gritted teeth). I appreciate that the process of feeling stretched to the point of breaking makes me stronger and allows me to see the hand of God and the compassion of others in my life. I love the epiphany moments, even if they come in the pit. After all, a light shines brighter in a dark cellar than in the light of noonday.

But what about those times when we hit bottom and keep going, or when we hit bottom repeatedly without the hoped for relief, without the brilliant light of understanding? Christians of all faiths (my own included) love to quote 1 Corinthians 10:13 and point out that God will not give us more than we can handle.  I agree that God is faithful, that He will provide a way to escape temptation. I have less confidence saying that God will never allow us to be submitted to a trial beyond our own capacity to "handle it."

Purging Experiences

And so we arrive at what I see as the difference between learning experiences and purging experiences, experiences that help us to become new creatures. Sometimes, the bottom keeps dropping. Sometimes, the relief and the insight fail to come. Sometimes, we cannot handle the pain or find the answers. The trial continues unrelenting, and we feel our spirits crush under the pressure. We stand before God, naked and head bowed, and say, "I can go no further. This is all I have to offer." And He gently hands us the bitter cup. It feels cruel, like a cosmic joke at our expense. We may feel abandoned. But I think if only we could see the love in God's eyes as He extends the cup, we might begin to change our perspective..

Long ago, Elder James E. Faust gave a talk about the refiner's fire. In the talk, he used the example of the Martin handcart company, an ill-fated company of Mormon pioneers that ran into harsh conditions crossing the plains. Fully one quarter of the members of the company perished on the way West, and all endured great suffering. And yet, not one of that company abandoned the faith. As one survivor said years later:

"Everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities. ...

“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay.’”

Elder Faust explained: "Here then is a great truth. In the pain, the agony, and the heroic endeavors of life, we pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and the unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. In this way the divine image can be mirrored from the soul. It is part of the purging toll exacted of some to become acquainted with God. In the agonies of life, we seem to listen better to the faint, godly whisperings of the Divine Shepherd."

President Harold B. Lee said something similar: "There is a refining process that comes through suffering, I think, that we can’t experience any other way than by suffering. … We draw closer to Him who gave His life that man might be. We feel a kinship that we have never felt before. … He suffered more than we can ever imagine. But to the extent that we have suffered, somehow it seems to have the effect of drawing us closer to the divine, helps to purify our souls, and helps to purge out the things that are not pleasing in the sight of the Lord. ... We must be refined. We must be tested in order to prove the strength and power that are in us."

Purging Helps Us to Transform

I have noticed lately that these purging experiences seem to occur most often in conjunction with a commitment to a new phase of discipleship. One friend recommitted to her faith after several years apart and almost immediately experienced debilitating health problems. Another finally relinquished an addiction of decades and found unexpected trials that rocked his confidence. Positive transformation does not always immediately result in blessings. Occasionally, a purging accompanies such a transformation. I believe there are at least two reasons for this.

First, as we become new people, we must necessarily shed our former lives, slough off the trappings of the people we used to be. As Elder Faust suggested above, the refiner's fire melts away the dross, and we experience a rebirth.

Second, at times we doubt our own transformation. Have we truly repented? Are we strong enough to hold to this new commitment we have made? Will our conversion stick? Abraham made a covenant with the Lord that would shape the world for generations to come. God promised that he would be a father of many nations. And then God asked Abraham to sacrifice the miracle son, the very posterity He had promised. Elder Hugh B. Brown said of that sacrifice that God knew perfectly well that Abraham would sacrifice anything He asked, but that "Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham." Likewise, when we come through these purging experiences, having made the sacrifice asked of us, we, like Abraham, can know that our transformation is real, that we are truly committed to God. We need that confidence that comes with knowing ourselves.

Is There No Other Way?

My husband posed an intriguing question as we discussed these purging experiences recently. "Is there no positive way to become a new person? Why does this refining process always have to be painful and negative?" I pondered that question for some time. The refining process seems to work best through pain that brings us literally and figuratively to our knees, that forces us to acknowledge our nothingness before the Lord. I thought about why that is, about what the refiner's fire accomplishes in us. The process seems to accomplish several key purposes:

  • We come to recognize our complete dependence on God. We feel a great need.
  • We accept God's will unconditionally.
  • We relinquish everything that gets between us and God: every sin, every wish, every bit of our own agenda.
  • The Spirit burns within us. (This is where the true purging occurs.)
  • We see things from an eternal perspective.
  • We are willing to sacrifice whatever God asks of us.
  • Our prayers become true communication.
President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of the process of revelation, and as I listened to his words, I was struck with how closely that experience of a prophet desiring revelation resembled the experience of a person going through transformation. The counsel President Kimball gave in the context of seeking critical revelation seems to apply here. He said:

"Do you want guidance? Have you prayed to the Lord for inspiration? Do you want to do right or do you want to do what you want to do whether or not it is right? Do you want to do what is best for you in the long run or what seems more desirable for the moment? Have you prayed? How much have you prayed? How did you pray? Have you prayed as did the Savior of the world in Gethsemane or did you ask for what you want regardless of its being proper? Do you say in your prayers: “Thy will be done”? Did you say, “Heavenly Father, if you will inspire and impress me with the right, I will do that right”? Or, did you pray, “Give me what I want or I will take it anyway”? Did you say: “Father in Heaven, I love you, I believe in you, I know you are omniscient. I am honest. I am sincerely desirous of doing right. I know you can see the end from the beginning. You can see the future. You can discern if under this situation I present, I will have peace or turmoil, happiness or sorrow, success or failure. Tell me, please, loved Heavenly Father, and I promise to do what you tell me to do.” Have you prayed that way? Don’t you think it might be wise? Are you courageous enough to pray that prayer?"

In short, are we courageous enough to truly stand naked before God and acknowledge that we are nothing without Him? Can we give it all up in order to become what God has designed for us to become?

Thorns That Heal

The ancient Apostle Paul spoke of a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) that he had begged the Lord to remove. "For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me," he said. God did not remove the thorn. Whether that thorn represented a physical malady, an addiction from which Paul craved to be healed, an enemy who refused to back down, or some other trial, we do not know. But we do know that Paul eventually accepted the thorn as a part of his mortal experience, as a gift from God to help him to be strong.

If we accept it, God will offer deliverance through our refiner's fire. We may not find the trial removed. In fact, the fire itself may become our deliverance if we can develop the ability to trust God enough to hand our trials over to Him.

James E. Faust said, "Out of the refiner’s fire can come a glorious deliverance. It can be a noble and lasting rebirth. The price to become acquainted with God will have been paid. There can come a sacred peace. There will be a reawakening of dormant, inner resources. A comfortable cloak of righteousness will be drawn around us to protect us and to keep us warm spiritually. Self-pity will vanish as our blessings are counted."


  • April 1979 General Conference, Elder James E. Faust, "The Refiner's Fire"
  • Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, Chapter 21: "Striving for Perfection"
  • Power from Abrahamic Tests, by Truman G. Madsen, Meridian Magazine,
  • Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball,Chapter 22: Revelation: “A Continuous Melody and a Thunderous Appeal”

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Highlights

Christmas 2014
We have just celebrated our smallest Christmas since 1999. Last year we had a glorious houseful for Christmas, with nine of us laughing through a flurry of wrapping paper around the tree. This year, Jared and Kristina jumped into our room at precisely 5:00 a.m. (the earliest possible moment, according to parental decree) to deliver hugs and demand our presence by the stockings. The four of us still managed to make plenty of noise, aided by Jared's new harmonica and the mini bike that Santa somehow shoved down our nonexistent chimney. We ate ourselves silly, played new games, napped with reckless abandonment, motored around (and around and around) the house, and chatted with both Devin & Mattea (in Utah) and Alec (in far off Lorient, France). All in all, it was a splendid day.

Elder Wallace in Paris
Shortly after Christmas last year, we got up early one January morning to send Alec off on his two-
year mission to France and Belgium. So far, he has served in Cergy, France (just outside of Paris), in Nivelles, Belgium (not far from Brussels) and now in Lorient, France (in Brittany, on the Atlantic Coast). He loves his mission and has grown immensely already.

Over the next few months, Jared finished up eighth grade and grew an inch or two. He's now officially the tallest member of the family and is working hard to rival his brothers in the gym. He had another great football season, and now piano and trumpet keep him busy when he's not studying or working out.

Devin and Mattea's Wedding
Kristina turned eight in January, and Brad was able to baptize his last child. She has started tumbling, stopped and re-started piano and held her singing debut in the ward talent show. Both children are brilliant, of course, and ready to take over the world at a moment's notice.

A high point of Kristina's year (and all of ours!) was to add another girl to the family. In June, Devin married Mattea Andersen. We thoroughly enjoyed their beautiful wedding in Brigham City, Utah, and Jared loved hiking in real mountains during our stay. Devin and Mattea are living in Logan this year while Devin finishes his degree at USU, after which they will leave for the mystical world of graduate school. (Stay tuned for location!) We love Mattea and are thrilled to have her in the family.

Wales with the Norm & Kris and Sylvia & Gary
Brad and Juliana ended the summer in Wales, compliments of Juliana's parents. We boated down the River Thames, attended evensong at St. David's Cathedral, walked in the footsteps of my ancestors, and watched a magical sunset on the Irish

With the start of school, life ramped up to lightning speed, it seems. Football for Jared gave way to basketball for Kristina and Coach Brad. Brad and Juliana plug away at their jobs and unwind with piano (Brad) and exercise, books and the occasional house project. Life is good!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Advice to Myself

For the past few months, I have served as the president of the women's organization in our congregation. I watch over roughly 200 women. Many of these women remain a mystery to me, names on the rolls but unresponsive to our efforts to reach out to them. Others are women I love, women I have counted as close friends for years and with whom I have served and laughed, worshipped and wept.

Somewhat of a recluse by nature, I appreciate that this calling forces me to seek out other women, moving beyond the comfortable routine of my life and away from my favorite spot on the back row. Often, I am privy to both the minutiae and the momentous in the lives of my sisters, feebly offering counsel when they request it, as if by virtue of my office I have somehow stumbled upon a store of wisdom previously beyond my reach. I observe as they offer service to one another and as they discover their own talents and power in that service. Those moments inspire me.

There are other moments, too, when I walk into the darker valleys with these women. Because I work with the bishop of our congregation in order to lift the families and the women we serve, I learn much about their struggles. And herein lies today's dilemma. Perhaps the grey clouds this week have filtered my vision, but I begin to see primarily pain and illness, disappointment and sadness in the world around me. Jobs refuse to materialize, bank accounts fail to balance, illness stubbornly clings to those who are weary of its presence, children flail against the enormity of all that life expects of them, parents and friends stand by helpless. And I, it seems, have nothing to give them. I offer an ear or a prayer but little of any tangible value.

At the same time, my perspective shifts, and I have yet to determine if the shift is a positive one. Like those I serve, I chafe at a reality that often fails to match up to my expectations. I want to live within my means. I want to eat more responsibly. I want to reach toward my potential and achieve something wonderful, instead of slogging through each day just to accomplish a couple of the "must dos" on my checklist. But as I look around me, I begin to tell myself that to dream about that potential is foolhardy. I have a good life, a wonderful family, so many blessings that others will never have. To want more, to expect more, out of life would be ungrateful, perhaps even unkind, and certainly selfish.

At times like these grey days, I find I have to give myself the same advice I would give anyone else:

  1. Keep dreaming. Dream big and don't apologize for it. Be willing to sacrifice lesser things for your dreams. Family and faith are not lesser things.
  2. If something about your body bothers you, you probably already know what you need to do about it. Stop making excuses and do it! If there is something beyond your ability to fix, learn to love it.
  3. Illness happens. Depression happens. To everyone. Remember that God gets it, that He knows exactly how you feel and that He cares. He may not take the burden away, but He can make you strong enough to bear it, and He will truly help you to shoulder the load. Remember that others also struggle under burdens of physical and emotional illness. Reach out to them with the empathy your struggles have given you. That empathy is a gift to be used.
  4. Love those around you. Truly love them. Remember that God loves them way more than you do, and that He will watch over them just as He watches over you. You do not have the responsibility or usually the capability to solve their problems. That's OK. Just be there for them when you can and pray for them when you cannot.
  5. Ask for miracles. Expect them. Understand that they may not appear exactly according to your design or in your timetable, but know that the miracles will come and in a way and a time that are best suited for you. Look for them and express gratitude for each and every miracle you see.
  6. If you are trying your best to do the right thing, to be in tune with the Spirit, to find the path God wants you to be on, then keep moving forward. It will all work out, even though right now you walk through a fog.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Living With Dignity

This past weekend, two women faced death. Both women had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. Both were young, beautiful, vibrant, with loving families and the world at their feet. Both chose to spend the remaining months of their life fighting for something bigger than themselves. For many, these women stand out as courageous examples of heroism.

On New Year's Day 2014, Brittany Maynard received a staggering diagnosis. 29 and recently married, she now contemplated brain cancer. Surgery proved ineffective, and by April doctors told her the tumor had grown into a grade 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that would likely claim her life within six months. Brittany and her family researched the options, none of them pretty. Treatment could prolong her life but not save it, and the side effects of the treatments themselves would drastically reduce the quality of what little time she had left. The tumor already promised a terrifying decline. Adding side effects of radiation and chemotherapy seemed unpalatable.

Have watched a loved one die from a grade 4 glioblastoma, I claim some experience with the indignity of the death the disease inflicts. I have watched a once handsome and athletic body grow puffy and weak with steroids. I have wept with frustration as the honor student struggled to pass classes that once came easily to him and finally struggled even to remember how to tie his tie. I held his hand as he recovered from yet another seizure, and I injected morphine to control the awful pain. I fought with insurance companies, propped a bowl under his chin while he threw up blood, and talked long into the night with him about what it might feel like to leave this life. In the end, I changed the diaper of a man who no longer recognized me. No one deserves to die that way.

While Brittany struggled with her own illness, another young woman also contemplated a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Lauren Hill, a high school senior and standout basketball player, had just signed on to play basketball for Mount Saint Joseph University in Cincinnati when she was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare form of brain cancer. 90% of children with DIPG die within 18 months of diagnosis. Like a glioblastoma, this cancer offers no pity to its victims.

Brittany and Lauren both took their fight to the next level, although they chose very different paths. Brittany began to research "death with dignity," or physician-assisted suicide, hoping to die on her own terms and spare her family the pain of watching her decline. She lived her last months deliberately, cherishing time with loved ones and building memories. At the same time, she joined forces with Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life nonprofit advocacy organization, to share her story, one that has sparked a national debate. She allowed herself to be vilified by those who disagreed with her choice, feeling that her cause was worth the cost. She ended her life on November 1, surrounded by love and still in control.

The day after Brittany's death, Lauren Hill played her first college basketball game. Mount Saint Joseph games usually draw a crowd of 50 people. For this game, 10,000 tickets sold out in 30 minutes. Lauren had chosen to spend her final months raising awareness of DIPG, in the hopes that increased research could help those who come after her, children and families who need a voice. For the past several months, she practiced with her teammates and worked tirelessly for the cause that hit so close to home, all while undergoing painful treatments and suffering the debilitating effects of her disease. In the opening seconds of the game, she scored the first basket of the NCAA season, and the crowd erupted into cheers. Doctors say Lauren has weeks left to live.

I have thought a great deal this week about these two women. I find Lauren's story incredibly inspiring, much moreso than Brittany's, if I have to be honest about it. Fighting to the end always makes for a better story, especially when that fight includes two basketball teams and 10,000 fans coming together to make a dream come true for a girl who has decided to use her last weeks to help make possible the dreams of other children. One would have to be heartless, indeed, to find fault with Lauren and her end-of-life choices.

At the same time, I cannot quite bring myself to condemn Brittany. While I have watched a loved one suffer the agony of death, I have not personally felt the pain, the nausea, the terror, the disorientation, the loss of mental and emotional competence that comes with an illness such as hers. After 9/11 I told myself I probably would have jumped from the tower rather than allow myself to suffer death by fire. And I tell my husband that if I ever face severe dementia, I want to die alone in a nursing home rather than have my family see me in such a decline (although I have a feeling I would change my mind if that scenario ever became my reality). Is that really any different than Brittany taking a lethal dose of barbiturates only weeks or even days before the cancer would have claimed her life anyway?

I know so little about death. But one truth I have learned is that regardless of how many loved ones or journalists surround us, we each face the end privately, in the quiet moments of faith or fear, in the contemplation of our lives behind us and the possibilities ahead, or simply in the day to day struggle with illness and pain. Most of us get no rehearsal for our meeting with death, so it's game on when he turns his attention to us. We cannot with any certainty know how we will react or what path we will take, so perhaps we should spend a little less time condemning the end-of-life choices of others and a little more time following Lauren's example by living with dignity.

When asked what her daughter's epitaph might say, Lisa Hill responded with, "She never gave up, not even for a moment. She never strayed from her goals. She lived and loved with passion and desire." That is how one lives with dignity. Death will take care of itself.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Late Summer Reflections

An errand took me into WalMart the other day, and I noticed with surprise the rows and rows of binders and crayons, pencils and spiral notebooks. I flipped through my mental calendar and realized with a shock that my children start school in just nine days. Decades ago, I measured the end game of summertime by the progress of back-to-school sewing. Sometime around midsummer, Mother would take us downtown to the fabric store and let us pick out patterns and fabric for our new school clothes. (Fifth grade included a particularly nifty pair of gouchos, light blue denim with a matching shirt. Oh, but I felt stunning!) After a trip to the laundromat and some time spent pulling the fabric to line up the grain, out came the patterns and the interfacing and the black Singer sewing machine. Many seams and zippers later, the fabric began to look like a wardrobe. And in the last days before school, Mother hemmed and added the finishing touches. I eagerly planned my back-to-school outfit, counting down the days.

Somehow, I failed to catch the sewing bug myself, and without the whir of that ancient Singer, summertime meanders along at its own pace, leaving me rather shocked to find myself at the end of the ride, not quite prepared for autumn and falling far short of the lofty goals I set for myself ten weeks ago. The biography I started writing in 2011 remains just short of complete. My blog suffers from neglect. I half-read several books and completed none of them. I never ran that 10K I intended to run this summer.

However, while the writing fell by the wayside (again), we built good memories. I watched while Son #1 married a wonderful woman, and I smiled at the delight of Son #3 as he hiked with me along the edge of a mountainside. I ran dozens of miles and biked hundreds more, clearing my head and finding my endurance. I dated my husband and discovered downtown Springfield with my daughter. I even enjoyed the state fair for once, despite the rain that soaked us while we screamed and laughed on the rides.

The next few days will find me wandering those school supply aisles with a list in my hand and an excited third grader by my side. Perhaps on my way out of the store I will casually drop my list of summer goals in the garbage can and start fresh for autumn, buoyed up by good memories and the warmth of summer on the wane.