Nirvana

Nothing like a plane trip to shake a slither of emotion out of a cold heart. The Laputa-like views of the day, or deep blackness of the night, and the remote but real possibility of falling out of the sky altogether, is a humbling reminder of how small and limited we are. This, with no phone or Wi-Fi signals to distract, creates a few magical hours of altitude, solitude (across longitude and latitude…) and still does, no matter how often I fly.

Is that a few tears, perhaps? Barely enough to wet a tissue. It’s gone. What were they for? So unlike the days past where tears flowed freely, for intolerable stretches, and I knew exactly what they were about. I’m pleased at the transformation. I never want to feel like that again. I never want to feel again. I don’t want to think either. Oh I know, I’ve been told, it can’t be healthy in the long term. But I like the illusion of being in control.

For a brief moment I was stung, by a little sadness and many fears. Quickly buried under a blanket of resignation and indifference. How fragile, how precarious, is love, is life. Fear of disappointment and losing what I have. A greater fear, it sounds so irrational typed out, of losing what I’ve lost or can’t hold onto.

I will be dutiful but distant at home, in case death arrives – perhaps I won’t even have to grieve if I prepare early enough. I will be a friend, listening and caring well enough, but not trusting people with anything of myself – unreliable friends most have been, so who needs them? I will offer affection and commitment in relationship, but cautiously, with a store of apathy for a rainy day – love can hurt, a lot and for a long time. Surely, without exception, the end of all love is separation. Why risk being emotionally attached? It can’t be healthy, but I’m half-hearted in believing that, or wanting to do anything about it.

Inconsistent, isn’t it? On some level I believe a God who is incomprehensible, Trinitarian, self-existent, self-sufficient, eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, wise, omnipotent, transcendent, omnipresent, faithful, good, just, merciful, gracious, loving, holy, and sovereign. Yet I live as if such a God doesn’t care or doesn’t exist. Instead, it’s as if I’m trying to attain nirvana. If not the Buddhist kind of nirvana (I don’t know enough about Buddhism to be sure), at least my own form of freedom from desire, attachment, and suffering.

“For then, though I have forgotten the reason, there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss… This is one of the things I’m afraid of. The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away. But what will follow? Just this apathy, this dead flatness?”– A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis

So wait

Memorable and amusing moments.

1. When my sister was little people often mistook me for a young mum. Now, we’re about the same age, apparently.

“Are you studying medicine too?”
“No.”
“What course are you studying then?”
“Umm, primary school?” Is that a course, she wonders.

I get it that it can be hard to tell – Asians often look young and ageless. But the guy asking was Asian as well.

Around the same time last year restaurants also started to ask us whether we wanted to “pay together, or separate?” I’m always tempted to say separate, quite innocently, and leave her to settle her own bill. Just kidding.

2. After one such meal, I was waiting for the credit card payment to process – both palms pressed down on the counter, leaning forward on tippy toes, possibly staring absent-mindedly into the distance.

“Stand like a lady! Girls stand like this,” she imitates me, “and ladies stand like this.” She demonstrates, standing tall, all prim and proper.

3. Speaking of instructions, before going on holidays with dad, she had some specific ones for me.

“Don’t go out with your friends too often. And you have to be nice to mum.”
“Okay, but I get annoyed easily.”
“Yeah, don’t. You have to be patient.”
“How do you do it? You seem to be very good at it.” It’s true.
“I know, it’s hard,” she replied sympathetically, “sometimes I’m impatient too. I don’t know how. I’m just telling you to do it.”

4. We often say that she sees clearly when it comes to others (in many things beyond her age), but it’s hard to do the same when it comes to herself. If we are honest, that’s all of us, really.

“I don’t know if I will go to heaven.”
“Why’s that?”
“Sometimes I want to be good, but I can’t! I don’t know why,” she lamented.

We talked about relying on grace rather than works again.

“You sounds like Paul, let me read it to you. ‘“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!'” (We read the whole section,  but this is from Romans 7:15, 24-25.)

“Oh yeah, that does sounds like me! Where’s that from? Which chapter?” A few weeks later she told mum about how she struggles like Paul and showed her the passage. Surprising what kids will understand and remember.

5. We came to the bizarre story on the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) and the topic of spirits, demon-possessions and such things. Nothing new. She and her friends have heard all about Ouija boards on YouTube.

“So wait, wait.” Thinking hard. “If you can see that people are demon possessed, how come you can’t see it when they have the Holy Spirit?” What a searching question for all Christians to consider.

6. I didn’t have time to get changed after work one evening. At dinner, she looked at my flowy top, skirt, make-up, necklace.

“You know, you look all strong with muscles in your gym clothes.” But when you wear this you look all…” She paused, frowned and pursed her lips. All weak? She hates dresses and girly things.

“When you wear this, you look all beautiful!” She continued warmly with an unexpected hug.

I miss winter

I miss winter with you fickle feline.

As far as cities go, it was really nothing special. I planned to go there for work and leave, unscathed. Missing cold weather and the cat is just one thing. I seem to have a bit of a trail of people and places I miss, bits of my heart scattered, from all the moving. 

Much of what I’m writing now would have been written already if not for all that’s been happening in my family since I got back.

The five housemates and a house cat. Everyone (except the cat) was Christian, or Catholic, and of the same ethnicity. The odd one out was the Jordanian housemate in the room adjacent to mine. Surprisingly I shared a deeper friendship with this devout Muslim than any of the others.

There was the nearby church, where I ended up staying with the Mandarin congregation, rather than the English-speaking one (I can’t read the characters well, and never planned to attend Bible study in Chinese). Language and cultural differences aside, I found so much more friendship and fellowship there than in some of the churches I’ve been attending for years. There was even a friend there who had the same name as me. We shared lots of stories together too.

I miss them all. But I’m not good at keeping in touch and everyone there feels further and further away. 

My last week there. It was Christmas Eve; a very quiet night indeed. Several of us wandered around the city after dinner but realised that nothing was happening, nothing was open, since everyone was celebrating at home with their families. In boredom we decided to find the stairs up to the harbour bridge (difficult in the dark). We took the long walk across – lovely views. On the other side there was a lovely ice cream shop, and better still, a quaint little church on the same street. Their late night Christmas Eve service was just about to start. We walked in. What a peaceful way to complete our evening of spontaneous adventures.

New Years with a few others, waiting for fireworks to start on TV. I didn’t expect to share an unplanned and genuine time of prayer with this bunch, though they were all from church. One or two used WeChat all the time – during service, during Bible study, and even as they read the sheet music and sang during worship practice. Another few slept in more often than they rocked up on Sundays. A good reminder that we are to scatter seeds generously, on all types of soil. And not be discouraged because even people who seem half-hearted can grow in their faith.

What I saw inside – part one

There’s an enormous gulf between my inside and outside world. When I’m outside, I do all the things I’m expected to do with relative ease, but can’t see what’s going on inside. When I’m inside, I feel, I cry, and am too weary to face the people and responsibilities that come with daily life. But reflecting and prayer becomes easier. Before I am dragged away completely, this is a fairly lengthy account of what I saw inside.

When there is no hope

I am going to contradict my last (outside world) post and say, cancer, specifically mum’s widespread metastatic cancer where there is disease progression despite aggressive chemotherapy, where radiotherapy produced no radiographic change in the targeted lesions, brings about something profound. Still refuse to call it good though.

When there is no hope (or little hope if you’re optimistic) of effective treatment to slow disease, much less bring about a cure, death is no longer an optional consideration. I thought we as doctors, as Christians, considered death more than the average person. And I suppose we do, but often from a safe and comfortable distance.

When God doesn’t heal

It’s no longer you hope to be healed… but there’s always eternal life if that doesn’t work out. Now you either have a hope that lasts beyond the grave, or you don’t have a hope at all. Oh wait, what about miraculous healing. Of course this is our heart’s desire and prayer, and if God is God he is able. But I’m honestly irritated when people tell me this is surely God’s will for her illness – why the emphasis? Surely God does not miraculously heal all the time – Christians eventually die like everyone else, don’t they?

When God doesn’t heal from terminal illness, just considering the first few Psalms, what are all his promises of blessings (Psalms 1), his refuge (Psalms 2), his salvation (Psalms 3), his peace (Psalms 4), his protection (Psalms 5), his deliverance (Psalms 6) for his people all about? Is having our sins forgiven such a big deal when what we are after is physical healing? Is sin that bad, why does the watcher of man concern himself with it, and why do we need to be saved from it? Does God love us and (anticipating the answer) how is the cross relevant as a mark of God’s love?

 

Big days and expectations

From time to time I consider the question to be a genuine one, so instead of being as closed as a clam I try to give an honest answer. I regret it soon enough, when the person starts squirming in an uncomfortable silence. Okay, I too expected something more in exchange for this cancer. Certainly you get some valuable insights about life when facing morbidity and mortality as a doctor. Surely something good has come out of this too? Sorry, there’s just nothing profound to speak of.

Mother’s Day was a big day of sorts. The thought that escaped my young sister’s mind but was on everyone else’s – will there be another one? So we spent a little more effort with the presents, card, going to church and sharing a meal together. And it was nice, but ordinary. Ordinary not unlike most ordinary days, where life revolves around the next meal, what to eat or not to eat according to Chinese medicine (or quackery), petty disagreements. We talk, we pray, but often there is more time spent scrolling through devices and on screens than meaningful conversation.

Today is also going to be a big day of sorts. So they say. As a patient, there are awfully big expectations that comes with each appointment, each test, result, treatment and discussion. But I doubt any of these will do away with the uncertainty, of prognosis, of where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing in the months to come. That’s my pessimistic take but mum says what is life without hope. I smile wryly and make some remark about hope beyond cure.

The day I…
When I…
If only I…

We seem to eagerly await many such big days in life. In vain. Some aren’t what you anticipate them to be and others don’t eventuate at all.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” – Proverbs‬ ‭13:12‬