The First Lesson

As Scott and began to talk about his experience of living with cancer and what it meant for him and for his family, and for me, it became important to try to gain something from it. He valued seeking some meaning, something useful and even redemptive to rise from all the heartache and pain. I suggested that we write a book, with the working title, “Lessons from the valley” taken from the 23rd Psalm. The 23rd Psalm is a text of Old Testament scripture familiar to folks who know nothing else from the bible, because they’ve been to funerals and heard it read. Even people who don’t consider themselves either Christian or Jewish request this text for a funeral, because it is so comforting, so full of hope and peace.
The Psalmist writes, “Even when I’m at my lowest point, most in danger, weakest and most alone in the world, I will not be afraid, because in fact I am not alone – YOU, o God, are with me.” The Psalmist knows by Faith that when he faces death, God is with him. And the belief in that divine presence gives the writer comfort.
Scott could articulate, long before it became clear that he would not recover and go into remission, that this experience with cancer was a “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Death hangs everywhere when cancer comes. All the images from literature, art, and film come flooding in – a grim reaper, robed in black, with his own rod and staff not of comfort but of loss, shepherding the departed soul to the netherworld, never to return. Even when we have a faith story contrary to those myths, the images still hold power for us. The grim reaper, as if from some Charles Dickens novel like the ghost of Christmas future, showing us our own mortality.
So, Scott and I would sit, usually in a hospital room while Cindy and the boys were out, and we’d talk. He’d talk, mostly. I’d listen, ask questions, occasionally pushing for understanding. We were both optimistic in those early days. I think you probably have to be, to get through. It certainly seems to be the case that pessimism will kill, even if optimism won’t save. So I would talk of the future, with him in it, living out and teaching what he’d learned. This would not end like “Tuesdays with Morrie” in a Eulogy for an Epilogue. But it did, and there are lessons there as well to explore.
I don’t know why you’ve picked this up to read. Perhaps you’re entering your own valley, and looking for a traveling companion to point out some of the trail markers along the way. We’ll do some of that. Or, it may be that you are looking back on your valley, trying to make sense of what you’ve been through. You may be the one with the illness or injury, the object of everyone’s sympathy and pity, feeling at times more like a science experiment or med school lab lesson than a person. You may be a traveling companion – spouse, sibling, parent, child, friend – who has nursed and cared and laughed and raged and cried, feeling helpless. The valleys you’ve traveled may have provided numerous lessons for you, and for you to share. Or, it may have left you simply numb.
Not all of us enter into our valleys equally equipped to learn and grow and even thrive in and through them. Scott and I believe that our faith in Christ provides the equipping we need for this journey that each of us will take multiple times in our lives. As others have said, “no on gets out of this alive.” And this is true – death comes to us all. If we love at all, we will loose those we love through illness, injury, or the long passing of time and the natural entropy of our bodies – their inclination to eventually just stop.
I want to speak and write of Scott in the present tense at times – he is still very much present for me, and for others too. Scott is a man of faith and intellect, with a great love for his family and for nature, both of which he knows to be gifts from a loving God. For me this is not just a past reality, but a present one. The valley may have something to say about that too.
Let me say, finally, that most of what follows is mine, though informed by my conversations with Scott, primarily, and others secondarily. This is a result of one of the lessons that the valley has to teach “You never know how much time you have.” “Scott, we started too late, and worked too slow.” I say this not out of guilt, its simply a fact. One of Scotts goals was to die with no regrets – I’m not sure if he made it or not, but I suspect so, or that he came close anyway. The thought that comes to me is something like this: “The best I can do is the best I can do.” Now, sure, not everyone tries their best – Scott didn’t always, and neither do I. But when you realize this and then are able to commit to making a change, then you’ve learned something, you’ve grown, and maybe the journey through the valley hasn’t been a total loss after all.
My prayer is that through all of this, you find what you need, before during or after your valley experiences, to equip you for the journey. For us, Scott and me, that journey only makes sense in and through a life of faith. Most of all, we hope and pray that the greatest lesson from your journeys through the valley is to join Scott and the psalmist in these words:

Psalm 23
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
He leads me beside still waters
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
I will fear no evil.
Your rod and your staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil – My cup overflows.
Surely Goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

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