The other day, I picked up Kellan’s copy of “It Happened on the Way to War”, and began to read. Authored by a marine, he references over and over again the idea that “marines move towards the sound of guns.”
Towards the sound of guns. I’ve mulled it over and played with it in my mind—this idea of running towards what most people sprint away from. It has arrested and engaged my attention largely because I feel like moving towards the sound of guns is precisely what so many people did with my family while Ian lay dying in the hospital.
So often, my parents and I would look at each other gratefully in the wake of someone’s extravagant kindness and exclaim, “I NEVER would have thought of that!” Whether we’re just a special brand of insensitive or simply complete and utter dolts was never determined. What we do know is that the way that we care for people in the heat of battle will never be the same again, thanks to the sweet lessons that we learned from the friends that loved us so well.
This blog comes from a fellow learner. The following are five helpful things that I’ve been taught over the past couple of months—things that might prove to be helpful to you as you step into the messy sea of humanity outside of your front door, and put flesh and bones on who Christ is and what He came to do
1. Move towards the sound of guns. If you remember nothing else, please remember this. I was most grateful for the people in my life that ran “towards the sound of guns”. People that did it understanding that there would be nothing comfortable or safe about walking onto the oncology floor or into the ICU—and that it would only get worse as I burst into tears or ranted or numbly refused to say more than four words to anyone. [It was always a crapshoot.] These were the people that showed up. I think about the first week of Ian’s diagnosis, when his organs began to shut down and he landed himself in the ICU for the first time. [That punk always had a flair for the dramatic.] My apartment was a five minute drive from UNC Hospital, and I’d convinced my bleary-eyed parents to get some sleep with the promise that I would be by his bed the second that the nurses let visitors back onto the floor. There was very little light in that dreary, gray room, and every day sobbing people filled the halls as someone else died. Ian had an angry-looking tube protruding from his pale neck as a dialysis machine filtered his blood, and he could barely move his hand or flutter his eyes. It was the worst place to be.
For me, initially it was always hardest to walk into the hospital. Whether it was into the oncology wing, or into the ICU, there was a curious emotional rush that came with actually stepping foot into the building. That early morning as I steeled myself to go sit with Ian in the ICU alone, my roommate Ashley grabbed my arm and told me that she was going with me.
She was in grad school with ZERO time to spare, and I vehemently insisted that she shouldn’t come. But seven AM found Ashley lugging a cooler of snacks and my computer into the ICU, arm in arm with me. Both of us in sunshine yellow gowns, blue gloves and hair nets, she sat there all morning, praying with me, reading to Ian with me, and simply not letting me be alone. I was so grateful.
I think about Amy, who showed up the night we were told that Ian would probably die—three impossibly long weeks before his actual death. I texted her asking her to pray, and seconds later my phone lit up. “I’m on my way”. Ignoring my stubborn insistence that she didn’t need to come, half an hour later she found me crumpled over a chair in the waiting room, sobbing. She threw her arms around me and sobbed too.
I think about Michelle, who as Ian lay dying in the final days of his life, would watch over him with me as my parents occasionally escaped for an hour or two to debrief. We’d each hold one of his hands, and we’d sing to him, pray over him, chat with him and tease him as the steady rush of the ventilator hummed in a dark room.
Each of those women ran towards the sound of guns. Now, there were days during those last three weeks in the ICU that I refused to step outside to see anyone. There were days that I asked people to stay away, and I sincerely meant it. There were days that I knew friends were sitting at a neighboring Starbucks or parked in the critical care waiting room “just in case I needed them”, and I never even said hello. I STILL have a thousand unanswered texts and emails from friends [we’ll get to those in a moment]. People ran towards me with no expectations placed on how I would respond. They were simply there. [And the night I decided after a week and a half of not leaving the ICU that I couldn't go on without a piece of Tia Maria cake from the Twisted Fork, Ben was ready and waiting to load me into his car.]
2. Release your expectations. My Facebook messages and emails are STILL backed up with hundreds of notes. Over the course of Ian’s illness, I began to pick up my phone less and less until I never picked it up at all unless I absolutely had to. During those last three weeks that Ian was in the hospital, I NEVER responded to a text unless it was imperative. Don’t misunderstand me—it was life-giving every time I heard from someone. Sitting beside Ian’s bed, I listened to every voice mail read every text and email [often out loud to him!], and opened every card. I was so grateful to the people that consistently reminded me that we were not alone. I simply did not have the emotional capacity to respond. And that was okay.
3. If you want to help, there are almost always practical things you can do. I think about the night Ian was diagnosed. Danielle ran home to grab the bedding and pillows off of her bed, so that my Dad wouldn’t be cold and [extra] uncomfortable as he slept beside Ian’s hospital bed. I think about Jess and Ben, who made an enormous dinner [healthy, and in disposable containers! Make it your mantra.] and delivered it with hugs and a card. I think about Haley giving me a hundred dollar bill to pay for parking in a card that reminded me that I was not alone. I think about Gretchen and her chicken pie and caramel latte, Heather and two pieces of cheesecake, Amy and two dozen cupcakes, and a thousand other meals. The people that not only said “let me know how I can help”, but “I’m bringing food, what time should I come?”.
If someone’s world is falling apart, they often haven’t the foggiest idea as to what they need. “What can I do for you?” will garner exhausted, blank stares. “Call me if there’s anything you need” will leave your phone silent. Move towards the sound of guns. While Ian was sick, people:
- Showed up at my parent’s house with groceries.
- Landscaped their yard without ever asking.
- Coordinated dropping off/picking up my little sister from ballet.
- Cleaned their house.
- Texted INFORMING [not asking] that they were bringing dinner to the ICU. [Man can only survive on hospital chili for so long!]
- Texted, emailed, wrote cards and called with no expectation of a response. And said as much. Hallelujah.
4. Offer an escape. I think about Danielle sitting with me in the waiting room and insisting that we watch an entire episode of New Girl and just LAUGH. [And let me tell you, that show is HI-LARious!] I think about Jess, Haley, Gretchen, Ashley, Hartley, Michelle and Danielle showing up at the door of the ICU with a bottle of white wine, glasses, and binders of notes as they planned my wedding and I drank. I think about the friend that snuck wine coolers in to my Mom. [I’m telling you, if you don’t need a drink in the ICU, …well, you’re probably a Baptist.] The point here is, sometimes your friend will need to cry. Sometimes she’ll need to laugh hysterically about the fact that ANOTHER person just died in the room next door. [True story. The vicious cocktail of grief and no sleep makes it difficult to muster appropriate emotional reactions.] Sometimes she’ll need to be really angry, sometimes she’ll need a distraction, sometimes she’ll need you to just stay away because she has zero emotional energy left, even for you. Loving someone in the midst of the darkest time of her life is an art, not a science—but love always implies some sort of action.
5. Pray. I remember walking into the waiting room and seeing Hartley and Michelle on their knees, begging God to heal my little brother. I remember friends that wouldn’t leave without praying with me. I remember texts, emails and voice mails voicing prayers that reminded me that even when my exhausted heart ran out of words, thousands of people were storming the gates of heaven on my behalf. On Ian’s behalf. [It was the only way I fell asleep, many nights.] Get loud. Let them know you’re with them. Pray like it’s YOUR little brother dying in the bed in room 17. Remind them of hope-of mercies that are new every single morning. Scream with them that it SUCKS, and insist with them that Jesus is good no matter what.
There are caveats to this, and I’ll talk about those another time. The examples that I’ve given are a simply drop in the ocean of kindness that was lavished upon my family during [and after!] Ian’s five-month bout with cancer. We are indescribably grateful for the multitude of you that loved us so well in the midst of the battle.
What have you found to be helpful as you’ve cared for people?