Exclusive Access

I hate to admit it, but I often feel pretty sorry for myself on the drive to my Herceptin appointments every three weeks.  I try to bolster my self-pity with reminders that it’s not as bad as chemo, my disease is totally managed, Herceptin is a miracle drug, etc.  These thoughts help, but honestly they’re mostly drowned out by the reality of how sick I’m going to feel for the next few days and that I have to do this every three weeks FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE.  So I drag my feet a bit.

However, I always leave these infusion appointments overwhelmed with gratitude.  Because while I’m there I see the people who are still in the thick of their cancer battles; I see people who are being destroyed by the chemo that is destroying their cancer; I see people who smile anyway and are kind despite their pain; I see people who are longing to be at the stage I’m at.  Self-pity can’t survive that environment.  So I leave with praises on my heart and lips to the God who has brought me to this place.  My current story may include Herceptin, but at least it doesn’t include active cancer and grueling chemo.

During one of my recent Herceptin appointments, I met someone who changed my perception of my treatments forever.

I often have wonderful conversations with the nurses and the other people getting treatment around me.  People in the cancer world are almost always exceedingly kind, because they know everyone around them is living out a very hard tale.  This camaraderie and friendliness is often a big part of lifting my spirit, and I make it my goals to bless the people I speak with and to listen well.

On this particular day, I started off as the only patient in the treatment room.  My nurse and I chatted amiably as she plugged me in, and then I was left in silence to read my book (truly a treat in my life full of boisterous boys).  I was fully engrossed in the female prison system—I highly recommend Orange is the New Black—when a beautiful lady and her husband followed my nurse to the chair next to me.  The woman relied heavily on the cane in her right hand, and I could tell each step was incredibly painful.  But I was taken with her grace and dignity and the way her husband looked at her with love and veiled concern.  There’s no way to avoid eavesdropping in those close quarters, so I soon learned this was her very first chemo to treat breast cancer.  My heart clenched as I remembered my first appointment, the uncertainty and fear mixed with relief at being able to tangibly fight back.  I couldn’t help but noticing this woman and her husband were a lot like Ryan and me, just a couple decades older.  The husband cracked jokes all throughout the chemo orientation, making the woman giggle and the nurse smile uncertainly.  Ryan often made me laugh during the most dire moments, breaking fear’s hold and making the nurses uneasy.  

I didn’t want to interrupt anything and my treatment was almost done, so I wrote my name and information on a piece of paper, planning to hand it to her on my way out.  After the nurse came over to unplug me, she paused and said, “Caitlyn, do you think you could speak to Kathy about your experience with your port?”  My heart leapt at the opening, and I turned to the women eagerly.

Our conversation only lasted about five minutes.  She had lots of questions, and I had lots of answers.  For good or ill, I was a veteran of this battle and had a lot to share about ports, side effect medication, natural remedies, and helpful foods.  We both smiled a lot as we talked, and her husband smiled at us smiling.  I saw her grip his hand and grin at him, and I could read her thoughts.  They both saw me as a light at the end of their tunnel—proof that there was an end to this cancer tunnel after all and even some smiles to be found there.

I reminded her I truly meant it when I said it was ok to call about anything, and I turned to gather my stuff.  Ryan and the boys were waiting for me outside the hospital.  “Caitlyn,” she said right before I turned to leave, “I believe God sent you here today to give me hope.  You have lifted my heart in a way I didn’t think was possible today.  Thank you.”

 “You’ve lifted my heart too,” I answered.

As I left the building, I was struck with the beauty of her words.  Could it be that these treatments I dread so much are actually serving a bigger purpose?  Of course they keep my cancer at bay, but could God be using my treatment time to give others hope?  These thoughts filled my heart with joy and purpose.  Funny how even painful things become purposeful when I forget myself and realize there’s a lot more at work than my own journey.  

I was overwhelmed at the privilege God gave me in talking to that woman and her husband at the beginning of their chemo journey.  While past Herceptin experiences had made me thankful for my current situation, I was suddenly filled with gratefulness for the hard journey behind me.  Without that road, I wouldn’t have this exclusive access to people’s hearts when they are in a very vulnerable state.

They don’t let just anyone into cancer centers.  All of the ones I’ve been to have had very strict rules about who can come in.  Patients’ weakened immune systems and the desire to minimize how traumatic the experience can be lead to lots of rules about who is allowed.  I have had a heart for people struggling with cancer for many years, but it wasn’t until I was a cancer patient that I got a ticket into their inner circle.  The most humbling part is that this is the way of Jesus.  He became one of the sick, persecuted and needy in order to get access to their hearts.  I didn’t choose this path like he chose his, and yet I feel so thankful to be able to walk in his footsteps in this way.

Talking with the woman reminded me not only am I not writing this story I’m living, I’m not the protagonist.  God is.  He is making me part of his story, and he is weaving my storyline with everyone around me.  I want to be quicker to see my circumstances, especially the hard ones, as exclusive access to the hearts of the people walking alongside me.  

May you recognize the places you’ve been granted exclusive access today.  May you be bold in stepping into the way your storyline intersects and even alters the storylines around you.  And may you focus on the protagonist who is also a most wonderful story-teller.

Wholly Broken

Being loved by my mama was a life-changing, identity-forming experience.  Those of you who were ever the object of her affection—and there are many of you—know what I’m talking about.  She loved me so well and so thoroughly I have always known I am valuable and lovable.  This knowledge buoyed me with assurance even when I struggled with low self-esteem and worry.  When I would wonder out loud if her high opinion of me might be biased since she birthed me and helped shape who I was, she would chide me not to marginalize her.  So I wouldn’t; the way she saw me became my favorite way to see myself.

As she filled me up, she modeled how to fill others up, and I would imitate her.  I learned from her the beautiful phenomenon of how my capacity to love grows the more I give love away. She welcomed new people into her circle and heart without hesitation, proving that love is a renewable resource, never scarce or diminishing for those who lavish it on others generously.  This example conditioned me to love instantly and without reservation.  

Being loved by her and loving her back stretched my heart and soul to such a grand size, that her death completely shattered me.

Ever since she left, my brokenness has made me wonder who I am.  Thankfully God has assured me throughout my grief that I am his beloved and his treasure.  By his grace, I have not doubted my value or the fact that he is at work in me.  Also, mercifully, I have never experienced a lack of love.  I am fiercely loved by my family, my husband, my boys, and my friends.  This love has held the shattered pieces of my identity together and allowed me to live and love in my brokenness.  

But my new reality has made me a mystery to myself.  Life and even the reflection in the mirror are at times disorienting and unrecognizable without my mama.  It is actually as if my lens through which I viewed the world and myself shattered with me.  I can see reflections of myself in the fragments, but I cannot see the whole picture without Mama's lens to look through.  How do I make decisions without her assurance that I am wise?  How do I handle a difficult day without her confidence that I am capable?  How do I fully celebrate a victory without her happy dance and I’m-not-surprised-because-you’re-my-daughter-after-all smile?

I have found myself in conversations with people who are wonderfully self-aware.  They talk about their introverted or extraverted tendencies, and I realize I have no idea which one I am.  I had always been an extravert, but grief sometimes required solitude.  What am I now?  I sometimes find myself frozen and panicked by an inability to make simple decisions.  I cannot find a firm desire amidst my broken pieces—whether it is about something important like what job I should pursue or small like what to have for dinner.  My mind feels trapped between vague memories of how I would have reacted or felt before Mama died and how slippery my feelings are now, half decisions sliding through my fingers before I can grasp them and move forward.  Decision making feels more impossible when my grief is at its most intense.  Ryan knows when he comes home to me crying in the kitchen because I can’t figure out what to make for dinner, I am really missing Mama and he needs to hug me and order Thai food (things I know I love even when I don’t know anything else: hugs and Thai food). 

This weekend, Ryan and I got to go to the most amazing retreat through our church.  I took lots of personality assessments before we went, and on the first morning Pastor Jer handed me a binder full of my results.  Pages and pages of proof that I have a formed identity.  I read each page with wonder and surprise.  I knew this person the pages described, and I recognized her beauty and strength.  She was not exactly like I remembered her, but I saw how God had formed her through joy and pain and equipped her to do his work.  She was put together and developed by the creator of the mountains and oceans.  The binder reintroduced me to myself with kindness and care.  That night, Jer asked us to fill in the blank: God thinks I am _______.  The answer jumped to my lips from God’s heart: “God thinks I am WHOLE.”

The next morning, though, I woke up and my heart immediately throbbed with pain.  It was my mama’s birthday.  Her birthday without her presence hurt so much I felt reduced to that old picture of myself: loved by God—sure—but mostly just hurting, grieving, shattered girl.  The leftover remnants of a beautiful love and a terrible loss.  

And yet I felt God pressing the concept of wholeness into my identity.  I was flooded with the understanding that I don’t have to understand for something to be true.  I am absolutely broken AND whole.  Only through God can this be true.  I had believed wholeness would piece me back together.  The reality is actually much more lovely: my brokenness does not mean I am missing pieces of myself; it means I have more room for God and everyone else.  Every wall is penetrable.  Nothing is blocked off.  When pain breaks another piece of me apart, there is less resistance for hope, peace, love, new relationships, and old relationships growing deeper to flow through me.  The scary part is how little protection I have from new pain.  Mama’s absence still breaks my heart.  But when that pain feels fresh again or new pain comes, there’s no place for it to take root and become my identity.  Joanna Macy says, “The heart that breaks open can contain the universe.”

I am humbled and awed by how brokenness can be a strong part of who I am; how it can make me flexible, stretchable and have more room for love and joy to flow freely through me; how it can expand my capacity to follow Jesus.  My brokenness is the very thing that often brings my God close to me, for “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).  Maybe someday, God will piece me together again, but for now I want to fully embrace the ME who is able to let people, experiences, and grace fill the crevices between all the pieces of me.

May you find kindness and acceptance for who you are today.  May you feel formed, held together, and opened wide by the creator of the universe.  May you be challenged to love in a way that expands people’s hearts.  And may you feel joy and love flowing through your broken spots.  



Mama said she knew I was going to marry Ryan after going on a hike with us around Silver Creek Falls near Salem, OR.  We had only been dating for about a month, and my mama was DEFINITELY not in a hurry to see me married off.  But she shook her head as she and I ate chocolate and debriefed late into the night after that hike and said, “You two just laughed and laughed…and kissed..and laughed.  I’ve never seen anyone make you laugh so much.  He’s the one, Caitlyn.”  Tears fell down both of our cheeks, and then we giggled.

I have written about joy many times on this blog.  It is my greatest gift and favorite antidote to use against despair.  Joy has been part of my make-up since I was born.  My parents say I was a super happy kid, and I my relationships with family and friends throughout my growing years fueled my joyful spirit.  But when Ryan became my main person on this earth, my capacity for joy stretched and grew.  Jesus used him to bring me such joy that it had to escape through laughter.  Laughter is a staple of our marriage still to this day. While we have faced some very serious stuff and we take life seriously, we are not serious people.  Ryan makes me light-hearted, which is a priceless gift when life has tried to weigh my heart down.

Last week, I cried like I hadn’t cried in a really long time.  Sawyer, sweet boy that he is, deleted EVERYTHING off of my computer.  He wasn’t being malicious, and I hadn’t protected my writing the way I should have, but his curiosity lost all of my writing.  I haven’t officially announced this yet, but I have been working on writing a book.  I had finished a good chunk of it, which Sawyer completely erased.  I knew I could recover most of it through emailed copies I had sent my friends, but there were final edits and new additions that were now lost in computer-no-man’s-land and my foggy brain.

I was devastated, and I couldn’t stop crying for hours.  And my poor Sawyer-boy was crushed by my tears.  I reassured him over and over that I forgave him, I wasn’t angry, I loved him.  But my sadness squeezed his poor heart and we did a lot of crying side-by-side on the couch.  

Liam came up to me after a while and said with utmost seriousness, “There’s a Daniel Tiger episode  I need you to watch.”  Ryan was working desperately to recover anything on my computer, but he stopped and walked over with us to the TV. Liam had the episode all cued up, and he gravely pushed play.  Daniel Tiger sang, “When something seems bad, turn it around, and find something good.”  Liam pushed pause and turned to us.  “If you turn this around, what good do you see?”

Ryan turned to me and cracked a crooked smile.  “Daniel Tiger saves the day again,” he said.

And I laughed.  All of my tension and loss eased as I laughed and laughed at my sweet oldest son’s earnest wisdom and my husband’s joyful eyes.  Laughter squashed my sadness.

Because there is good in this situation.  I will write more, and I’ll make those edits and additions again.  They might be different, but maybe they’ll be better.  Also, I hadn’t been sure before how to let you all know I was writing a book, and now I have:-)

Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there’s “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”  In my experience, these times often collide into one moment.  Thankfully, laughter and dancing usually win the top spot in my heart.  The wonderful thing about laughter’s power is it catches people’s attention. 

Every time Ryan and I were waiting in a pre-op room before one of my surgeries, our laughter brought people in to check on us.  Nurses and medical staff would pop their heads in and smile.  They would shake their heads and sometimes even laugh with us.  My hope is that they left with the truth from Psalms 126:2 in their heart: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”  Because laughter is not usually at home in those halls.  The pre-op rooms more often see legitimate fear, sorrow, and pain.  Genuine laugher that stems from unshakeable joy and hope does not erase those emotions—it just refuses to let them lead me to despair.  Genuine laughter that stems from unshakeable joy and hope is evidence of something supernatural going on; the laughter is evidence of God’s presence.

I wrote the following poem for Ryan.  For he is my evidence that God gave me sustainable joy.  This is about the day of my first surgery: my mastectomy.  May you read it and believe in the power of laughter that grows from joy.  May you treasure the laughter in your life and the people who foster it (I have MANY people in my life who make me laugh, and I am thankful for every single one of you.  Ryan is the one, though, who married me and therefore gets to make me laugh 24-7…so he gets a poem:-)

Laughter is the best medicine they 


and yet I may die today.

It cannot be the time 

to play.

But there he stands offering me this gift

to lift me from despair

and repair the holes worry can wear

into my soul.

So we laugh the kind of laugh

that buoys up my other half—

the half that shakes and quakes and cries, 

the half that cannot close her eyes

to all that’s been lost and all she

could lose.

This half will continue to refuse

to forget the grief.

But even she feels the relief of laugh’s joy.

For both halves must employ to

make me:

griever, survivor, playmate, friend.

And both halves need him for the

beginning, middle, and end.

Because he is my blend of salvation,

celebration, and hope.

His rope of laughter pulls me high

until I can see my reasons to cry only

far down below,

and my laughter does grow

and me and him and laughter are all that

can be:

with this man in this moment 

for this 


all Heaven sent.