Our hearts beat on

notes

Cleaning out closets and drawers is a necessary evil. Especially when you are preparing to move. I make notes on scraps of paper and stick them in drawers and forget about them. Some are mundane: an address or phone number; a note about work or a household chore.

These notes stopped me cold. Seeing them again nearly two years later made the tears flow. I had jotted them down in a  tiny notebook I carry in my purse, a habit from many years as a journalist.  They were made in May of 2015 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lexington, Ky. while talking to a very honest and somber doctor who tended to my father when he came into the ER for shortness of breath.   Fluid. Infection. Cancer cells. An oncologist. Neurologist. MRI.  

“I can’t tell you it’s cancer, but all signs point to it,” he told us.  

At that moment, all our lives shifted to focus on our patriarch.  When the official diagnosis came a few days later it confirmed the early suspicions: stage 4 lung cancer. The kind that strikes non smokers. Non-small-cell lung cancer that had spread to the bone.

My father did not want to know the prognosis in terms of time. The doctors respected his wishes.  They ran tests, treated a mass on his spine with radiation and developed a treatment plan that included Tarceva, an oral medication taken by some patients if they are fortunate enough to be a genetic match. Thankfully, my father was a match. As a result, he was spared the suffering and side effects that often accompany chemo.

Watching my father died was like witnessing faith in action. For decades, he’d been a Sunday School teacher, a deacon in his church and an attentive husband and father.  He prayed daily and studied the Bible often. He openly shared his faith with anyone who would listen, including a chaplain who came to his hospital bedside to offer words of comfort  the day before he died.

As he dealt with cancer, he continued to be the leader of our family — constantly calling or texting to check on how we were doing. After he and my mother settled into their routine of doctor visits and monthly treatments and tests, they slowly resumed their normal activities: dinner at Red Lobster; church; visiting family and friends, and tending to their grandchildren.

Daddy was not interested in all the internet research my siblings and I were doing about innovative therapies and alternative medicine. He agreed to come to Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta for a second opinion but was opposed to any experimental treatments or trials. In his case, none were offered because he was responding well to the Tarceva.

Fred Duerson simply wanted to live the remaining days of his life as fully as possible. He took great joy in seeing his youngest granddaughter become a pharmacist, the first doctor in our immediate family.  He relished being able to attend my retirement party and one last family reunion in July of last year.

Then one August eveing a few weeks after his 80th birthday —  in the same hospital where we received that initial news — he died peacefully with his family by his side.

Not a day goes by that we don’t think about him, talk about him, miss him deeply. Grief is funny that way. Many days you feel fine. On other days  it’s all you can do to get through. Faith-based grief counseling  helped put my father’s life and death in perspective. Our loved ones are not our own.  I like to picture Daddy in heaven, reunited with his parents and siblings. Free of all pain.

The notes I found in the drawer the other day reminded me of the short, sweet text messages he sent to me during the year after his diagnosis.  Hello Angela, how are you doing today?   On some days, the message was a passage of scripture meant to encourage me. His favorite was Psalm 27.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?”

This Psalm of comfort is a great reminder of God’s love for us. We can rest on his promise that no matter what happens, his presence is a blessed assurance.

For more information on grieving and for a list of classes in your area, go to www.griefshare.org

 

A ram in the bush

cancer-jacket

Lap three. We are sweating, talking and laughing. I’m thinking it’s time for a rest, my legs are sore. Then a stranger, a beautiful brown woman with headphones and an i phone in hand, casually breaks into our conversation.

“I like your jacket,” she says cheerily.  This is the third time since we’ve been walking that someone compliments my jacket.

Several months ago my daughter gave me a bunch of cancer gear: T-shirts, jackets, a shawl, a head wrap, a tote bag — about 15 pieces in all. She picked up these items in the course of her work and gave them to me.  My plan is to donate them to an organization that is promoting cancer awareness or research.  I decide to keep the purple jacket  I’m wearing on the track this morning. It is adorned with colorful ribbons and the words “Hope for a Cure For All Cancers.”

The beautiful stranger tells my friend and I that she has just been diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. We stop our walk and turn to embrace her as she melts into tears. She is afraid. Because her mother is a breast cancer survivor, she has taken a test to see if she carries the gene that causes the disease. The test was negative, making her recent diagnosis all the more confusing. Her doctor has given her medicine to shrink the tumor, her hair has fallen out. She is in her 30s and is the mother of four young children.  Her brother tells her that her diet may be the cause.  She is working out in hopes of losing weight and improving her health. She tells us she suffers from bi-polar disorder and eats to ease her pain.  Sonya and I listen, then do the only thing we know  to do. We stand on the track and pray with her. We touch and agree that while cancer may be the diagnosis, God has the final say.

Then we tell her our cancer stories. Sonya’s husband has been battling cancer for six years. Last year, he received a bone marrow transplant. There are dark days to be sure, but they are survivors, she tells her. I tell her about my father, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer last May.  He survived and thrived for more than a year relying on his faith and aggressively seeking treatment.

Our new friend has four children. She pulls up a family photo on her phone. She has much to live for.  She tells us that God put us in her path. Often when we are at the end of our rope, God places a ram in the bush — something or someone to remind us all is not lost.  As the three of us parted ways on the track, we felt God’s love and presence in our exchange. It’s important to remember that he never leaves us, especially in our darkest times.

 

When cancer comes a calling, nothing else seems to matter

#teamduerson #psalm27 #everydaywefight

#teamduerson
#psalm27
#everydaywefight

Three people died in a Louisiana movie theater tonight. The actions of another crazed gunman are being analyzed on CNN.

A black woman died in a Texas jail cell under some very strange circumstances. People want to know how and why. I’ll leave those questions for others to ponder.

I am sad about these things, but I can’t fully process them.  My mind is consumed by the cancer that is consuming my father. It is moving fast and he is standing strong. Me? Not so much. I cry at the drop of a hat. In a store. On the phone. In the middle of the night.

My prayer is that God continues to strengthen my parents, my siblings, the grands and our spouses for this journey. We are in this together; but some days I feel so alone.

I thank God for friends — old and new — who have been amazing in every way.They have recommended treatments, doctors, brought casseroles, peaches, watermelon, cake, you name it. They have prayed with us and for us. They have delivered flowers and fruit to my parents’ doorstep. They have delivered flowers to me. They have listened as I wailed into the phone. They have texted, sent Facebook and Instragram messages, sent scriptures, books and frames. I am overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness.

Two weeks ago, I had surgery to remove a tumor that turned out to be benign. Once the doctor saw my CT scan, he informed me that part of my thyroid would need to be removed as well. An old friend from college called just as my surgeon was breaking the news.  He stayed on the phone with me, asking the doc a few questions on my behalf.  When Dr. Wilson asked if I wanted to do the surgery in two parts, my response was quick. “No, do it all at once so I can get it over with. My father has cancer. That’s all that matters.”

Thankfully, he is not in pain and his spirits are good.  Like Job, he will trust God — just as he always has.

“Angela, God’s got this,”  he tells me daily. “I’m not worried.”

When our family gathers in Atlanta this weekend for our 57th annual reunion, it will be bittersweet. For the first time in decades, my parents won’t be there. But their grandchildren have hatched a very cool idea.  So get ready Mom and Dad. We will have a great reunion and you will be a part of it.

Family love and unity. Nothing else matters.

Faith: The substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen

emilypix

By EMILY MCMILLAN, guest blogger 

I will never forget that rainy, cold day in October, when my then 3-year-old son and I arrived from Atlanta to the Memphis VA hospital purposed to drive my father back to Mississippi from a doctor’s appointment.The ride was unusually quiet as we always had great talks whenever we were together.

The silence was finally broken when I asked, “So what brought you to the VA hospital?” He turned and looked at me as though I suddenly made an animal-like metamorphosis back to childhood when children were seen, but not heard! “Well you know these doctors tell you things, but they really don’t know,” he responded. Then the silence resumed. Neither of us really said anything further as I actually began to take on the child-like transition during the remaining 90-minute drive. Even my normally  precocious son remained quiet.

We arrived at my parents’ house and quickly, yet nervously, exited the car and made our way to the door, almost in a daze. My Dad asked that I unpack his things while he freshened up. Still wanting to know more, but not sure how to approach the subject, I began unpacking the small bag he had carried with him. Carefully tucked away in a suitcase pocket was a small green pamphlet titled, ” How to Live with Colon Cancer.”

Immediately, my heart sank in disbelief as I nervously thumbed through the brochure. How could this be? Why is this happening? When? Is this his way of telling me this news? All types of emotions raced through my mind. My return to Atlanta began with a new spiritual change in my life. The thought of this “Daddy’s Girl” losing the first MAN she’d come to love and admire was quite devastating.

However, God intervened and let me know that my first love should always be the Love of Jesus Christ. Our carnal hearts and minds would have us to rely on man for consolation and even place our dependency on things or people that we can see or touch.God let me know that His unconditional love will see me through even the hardest things that I will face in life — even Daddy’s colon cancer diagnosis!

Here I am 26 years later still trusting and knowing that God is the author and finisher of our Faith. I still believe Hebrews 11:1 “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen.”

God is still in control.

Emily is a wife, mother and writer living in Atlanta. She is a native of Mississippi and a graduate of University of Mississippi journalism school. Her father, James  A. Gelleylen, died of colon cancer in 1988.

emily's dad

Cancer, meet my father. He is not afraid of you!

kristen

My dad, with granddaughters Kristen and Megan and great grand Lena!

Hello cancer,

You have visited the bodies of my friends and family on several occasions in your many ugly forms.

Bone cancer. Breast cancer. Prostate cancer. Leukemia. You have caused hair loss, nausea, fear and longing for better days. You have brought about destruction, pain and death.  You come and go, creating havoc in the minds and bodies of so many loved ones in so many families.

But guess what?  Fred Duerson, is not afraid of you. It’s true you have invaded his body.  But you will not get the victory over his mind.

You see, my father is a man of great faith and discernment. He will listen to the  oncologists, radiologists, neurologists, pulmonary doctors and whoever else enters his life during this season.  He will hear their prognosis and will begin a treatment plan prompted by your existence. Yet my father, mother, siblings, family, friends and I will continue to speak life into this situation. We will touch and agree that whatever God’s will for his life, it will be done.

Yes there will be tears, fears and uncertain times. But they won’t last because his faith and our faith is deeply rooted in the word of God, specifically Psalm 27, one of my father’s favorite scriptures.  “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is my stronghold, of whom shall I be afraid?”

Let me tell you a few things about this man we call husband, father, Paw Paw,  Uncle Fred and friend. He is loved because of the encouragement, faith and compassion he exhibits daily to family, friends and strangers. He knows that when God is in it, there is no limit to what can be accomplished.

He is a husband of 57 years, a father, a grandfather and great-grandfather who has lived a life of faith and purpose.  He is a Marine, a deacon, an uncle, a brother-in-law, a father-in-law and friend to many. His wife is just as strong as he. Trust and trust and believe, you don’t want to be on bad side.

You can attempt to crush his body but you won’t conquer his spirit.

So, give it your best shot, cancer. Everything will be new again in the morning.

A bittersweet graduation offers hope and healing

bfam

As we drove to Augusta for Bernard Charles McNair Jr.’s graduation Friday, everything was perfect. His mother was in good spirits, wearing her cardinal pin and the beautiful pearls her dear son gave her last Mother’s Day. The sun was shining and we prayed for God’s strength as we departed.

Joanne McNair still doesn’t know how he pulled off the best Mother’s Day ever. She just knows it was wonderful, like her son. Bernard Jr. must have known it would be their last Mother’s Day together. At 24, he nearly always had a big smile, personality for days and wisdom of the elders. On last Mother’s Day, he presented Joanne with a pearl necklace, a card and other gifts.

He orchestrated all of this from his hospital bed at Emory University, where he’d had dozens of surgeries and was preparing for a small bowel transplant at Georgetown University Hospital. Over two years, Bernard Jr. had undergone multiple surgeries as he battled complications from Crohn’s Disease. The disease and its complications caused him to lose weight, have difficulty holding down food and suffer with frequent pain.

Last July, Bernard Jr. lost his battle with the disease and its complications, but he won the war. He touched more people in 24 years than many of us do in a lifetime. He was strong in his faith and his parents believe he got a glimpse of life on the other side and prayed for an end to his pain.

His parents believe God chose to answer Bernard Jr.’s prayers. They have accepted God’s will and maintained their faith, as has Bernard’s sister, Brianna.

The McNairs entered the James Brown Arena Friday filled with emotions and unsure what to expect. They were escorted to their seats by a representative of the political science department, where Bernard was a student, He made the most of his years at Augusta State University, now Georgia Regents University. He was a resident assistant, gave advice to his schoolmates and pledged Kappa Alpha Psi, the fraternity of his father and best friend, Bernard McNair Sr. One of his co-workers named her son after him, and a department award was named in his honor last month. Bernard Jr. planned to attend law school after graduation.

God had other plans. In reality, Bernard Charles McNair Jr.’s graduation was on July 8. That’s when his commencement — his new beginning in Heaven — began.

When his parents walked across the stage to receive his diploma, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation for their son. It was the perfect end to Bernard’s time in Augusta. Continue to rest in heaven my friend. We feel your presence daily and thank God for your life.

bernard joannebernard jr. and sr.brianna

Feeling exceedingly grateful for life, love

Lately when I gather with family members, there is a moment that crystallizes for me just how blessed we are. This weekend,  that moment came around 7 a.m. Thursday. That is the precise time my 75-year-old mother began seasoning the bird. Cecil Duerson is a woman of order who follows her word to the letter.

My husband Joe knows this. He is up and ready to go at 6 a.m. I get up a few minutes later, shower and dress and come downstairs around 6:45. As we go downstairs, we pass our college girl Imani in the hallway. She is up for the lesson. She is eager to learn from the master chef. Nobody gets it done like ReRe.

Downstairs, ReRe has already washed the 25-pound bird and is lining the pan with sheets of heavy duty aluminum foil to wrap the bird up tight.  She gives Joe and I our instructions. Lift the bird onto a cookie sheet. We will season it there. Pour salt, pepper and garlic into my hand so i can put it inside the cavity. Shake the salt and pepper and garlic all over the outside of the bird after you rub it down with plenty of butter.  I’ve seen her do this countless times, yet my turkey is never as flavorful and juicy as hers.  The lesson continues.

I’m not sure this big bird fit into your roaster. I knew I should have brought my big roaster. Still no sign of Imani.  It’s a tight squeeze but the bird fits into the roaster. We pour in a cup of water and Joe hoists the bird into the oven. We’re cooking it on 450 degrees. It will be ready in four hours. Oops I remind her, we forgot the celery. Out goes the bird, the celery is cleaned in no time, and the bird is back in its rightful place. The centerpiece of our meal is on its way to being ready. A half hour later, Imani comes downstairs. You missed the lesson Imani, next time.

It’s amazing how simple things can bring so much joy if we take a moment to slow down and reflect on our blessings. No day is promised, each day is a gift. A few months ago, my mother wasn’t up to making the trip from Kentucky to Atlanta.   Her body was filled with pain from several sources. The pain was constant. She and her doctors were trying to figure out the best treatment plan. Each time I talked with her, I could hear the frustration in her voice. When I talked with my father, he too was concerned. With six grandchildren, three great-grands and a host of relatives and friends, they are always on the go. This was slowing them down.

Suddenly, there is a breakthrough. Life slowly begins returning to normal. Then the call comes. We are coming to your house for Thanksgiving. We will bring the turkey and homemade rolls! Of course you will. Some traditions never change; providing the heart of the meal is one of them.

As three generations of Duerson women busied ourselves in my kitchen Thursday making new dishes and old I know there will come a time when we won’t be together like this. I am thankful for every moment. Their love is all I need.