Personal Journey

Happy Brain Surgery Anniversary to Me

April 6th, 2018. It was the Cleveland Indians’ home opener. I was at University Hospital having an opener of my own. Brain surgery.

Kumquats: Joanna Kosinska

A year later the skin on my head is still tight. I often run my fingers along the dents in my skull. They can’t be seen because my superhero surgeon managed to extract a kumquat-sized tumor without shaving my hair. My jog pace is three minutes slower and hurts worse. I mess up numbers and dates with freakish consistency (just ask my students). But thank you, God. I can write. And teach. And hug. And walk. I can have coffee with my grown daughters, watch my son graduate high school, watch my teenager swim. I live with a new perspective: life isn’t forever. Don’t waste.

Carpe diem, we’re told. Seize the day. I am a Jedi-Master at day-seizing. I climb volcanos. I sled head-first and backward. I slide down the hot metal handrail in swanky pools. I dance the Stanky Leg stone sober and the YMCA without regard for which way the “C” goes. I rock the high dive, the low dive, and any balcony or roof within ten feet of a pool.

Professional day-seizer, right? Au contraire mon frère. That is thrill seeking. To carpe diem is to hug tightly, to look someone square in the eyes, to hold hands like they’re welded together. To carpe diem is to write love letters, make meatloaf, be interruptable, do dishes, leave the dishes, serve a meal, smile, cry, all of it without vanity.

When things go south—not just hiccup south, but kamikaze-nose-dive south—God takes over. It’s magnificent.

But first comes poverty. Blessed are the poor in spirit. I remember going to church and wanting to stop my ears at the upbeat worship songs. I wanted to scream, I had this piano dropped on me! Why are we all singing like it’s standard ops? Where are the thunderclouds? Where is Mozart’s Requiem? I could not sing. Those words weren’t for me. Are you kidding me? Poor? I was destitute in my spirit.

We think we deserve a smooth road. We pray for asphalt, lay down good habits and programs to assure a wrinkle-free trip; we buy apps, sign up for accountability groups. Sometimes we sin for a toll road. And when a root trips us or a bridge is out—don’t we just howl in indignation? How could you, God? How DARE you! Fact is, the Awful with-a-capital-A moment has to come in order for the After to come. Like Jesus. His Awful was the cross. We live in his After. I’m glad he went through with it. He had a choice.

When you know something is very wrong with you, but you don’t know exactly what, or you can’t fix it with diet and exercise…you are meek. You’re at the mercy of your broken body, of doctors, nurses, health insurance policies, lab techs, maintenance personnel (did they sanitize the instruments?), high-tech computers, the unbroken flow of electricity during your surgery. You feel at the mercy of gobs of stuff. But that’s a lie. You’re at the mercy of only one thing: God.

There are no promises of healing. Only: blessed are the meek. This I experienced. I am blessed by the fact that my brain surgery was a success, but even beforehand I was blessed by the way I felt…held is the best word for it. Not alone. Not forsaken. Not punished. I was exactly where God wanted me to be. For other people, the place to be was the baseball home opener. I cannot compare myself to others. Do you think it’s possible I wasn’t jealous of those hotdog-eating fans with their perfect health? I wasn’t. That was my miracle.

In the face of no guarantees, here is my takeaway:


Love however it looks for you. Maybe it means speaking up. Or shutting up. Love can be as easy as smiling at a stranger. But it’s more fun when it’s kissing my husband. Bob taught me what love under duress looks like. The mention of 2018 gives him the willies, but I have fond memories of his arm around me, his hand in mine, his Oscar-worthy declarations of you’ll-be-fine. And he was right. Ever the optimist is my husband. He’s trying to get me to see things that way. It’s less painful to be an optimist. But see, Bob would have said, “It’s more pleasant to be an optimist.” I still have halfway to go. 😉

Today I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to try. (It’s scary and exciting and entirely legal.) What is it, you ask? I’ll let you know if I actually go through with it.

Cheers! And happy brain surgery anniversary to me.





Personal Journey

My Lightning

There once was a woman, a wife, a mother, a teacher, a writer, a child of God. In that order.

She was interrupted. It was a lightning strike.

(Your chances of that happening are like your chances of being stru—)

Lightning: March 8th, in the middle of teaching a class.

A brain tumor.

After the strike and in the singed landscape, the woman noted what remained:

the woman

a child of God

a wife

a mother

a teacher, who sometimes wrote about the lightning.

In that order.

29 days she waited for them to cut open her head. Sometimes she joked about the doctors taking her unwritten stories; mostly she cried and reached for the strong arms of her husband and the stronger arms of God. Kindnesses settled on her like quilts: her family and friends, the prayers of strangers.

45 days she waited to hear the word.


Thank you, LORD.

April 23, 2018, Benign.

Personal Journey

Post Brain Surgery Update

I had brain surgery on April 6th. I spent four days in the hospital, and have been pretty much fused to my recliner since my return home. I sleep there, day and night.

I know God held me together as Bob drove to the hospital. At 5:45 it was still dark. Not many cars were on the road as we passed through the city, but the lights of the baseball stadium were on. My surgery day was also the Indians home opener. It reminded me that life goes on, even when my personal world is having an earthquake. I squeezed Bob’s hand and felt the prayers of my family and friends settle on me. This is happening was a recurring thought. God help me, this is actually going to happen. I was thankful too, that soon it would be over. I wanted it to be over, but I didn’t want it to happen, but it had to happen, so I wanted it to be over…if that makes any sense.

Alone in my curtained pre-op room, I prayed. I will be forever able to visualize that room, that curtain, the scratchy way the overlapping gowns felt against my skin, how the instant I put on a hospital gown, I got brittle inside. I lay in bed and hoped they’d let Bob come back soon. I was glad for the distraction of nurses and the various people who came to put on my compression socks or get my information. My anesthesiologist looked like Clark Kent. Even Bob said so. Dr. Plant radiated confidence, which is a really nice attribute if you’re going to put someone in a near-death state. In order to go to sleep this way, the first thing that happens is you’re given medication to send your blood pressure plummeting. Sometimes it proves difficult to place the breathing tube, which is important since the body won’t be doing any breathing on its own. Then there’s the disquieting statistic that, although operating table anesthesia deaths are rare, 1 out of 20 people die within one year of having general anesthesia, often due to post-operation complications and the trauma inflicted on the body. And I’m not talking about old people, either. For those over age 65, the chances are 1 in 10 you’ll be dead within one year of having general anesthesia.

Of course, I hadn’t looked into those statistics before my surgery. The less I knew about what was going to happen to me, the better. If you don’t mind blood and are curious about how really smart folks dig into skulls, you can watch this craniotomy video.

Whew! Glad to have that part over. Thank you, God, for a successful surgery with no complications. And my scar? I’ve got just about the prettiest brain surgery scar ever. Thank you, Dr. Bambakidis.

During my post-op recovery, I felt a deep body trembling, so in addition to the narcotics I was already getting, they put me on valium. Every so often my drugs would cross over just right and I’d be in my hospital bed saying how wonderful everything was, how groovy…and wasn’t the world just the greatest place? I’d smile lazily and one of my eyes would close while the other stayed at half mast. Other times, when my drugs were running low, things got ugly.

There were so many blessings relating to my brain tumor. One of them was that my missionary sister from Tanzania flew home to be here for my operation. Her presence was absolutely necessary and God-ordained. We didn’t know we needed her, but we really needed her. And I can never thank her enough for making that sacrifice. She was able to visit some supporters and family and was our hands and feet in those critical post-surgery days.

Unfortunately, for most of my hospital visitors I was not good company. I’d be in one of those drug crossover moments and excitedly text friends and family to come. Then, between the time they received the text and the time they actually arrived, I was feeling awful. After that, I tried to be more careful about scheduling visitors, even at home. I’ve been so blessed by friends and family. I’m tempted to start naming people who’ve loved on me in crazy-generous ways, who made this difficult time as sweet as it could possibly be…but I don’t trust myself not to leave someone out, and the outpouring of love has been so overwhelming. I could write a book of kindnesses. And the fact that they abound makes me no less thankful for each one. I lay in bed and remember each kind letter, email, flower, or gift. I think of how God loved me and showed Himself to me in the goodness of people.

My husband was chief in this goodness. He stayed by my side the entire time I was at the hospital. After the first sleepless night spent on that bench, they gave him a cot of his own. His being there gave me great comfort. How I do love this man!

I was reading and came across this quote: “…it is important to know of pain… It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we depend on [God].” – The Chosen

I would not change one thing that happened to me; I would not un-live one moment of it. But it was painful, and my over-and-over prayer is that I will learn the lesson of pain. My brain tumor was my full-on collision with God. I remember praying: You have my full attention now. These days spent in my recliner and, as I get better, ambling about the house, they are slow and quiet. I can read or pray or listen to friends. I have no excuse for not drawing near to God and man because I can do nothing else, go no place else. How can I not be grateful for this time? I must be careful to spend it wisely. Pray I do.

I appreciate you reading my update. It’s been hard for me to think too deeply about the specifics of my surgery, which is why I’m focusing more on how it affected me spiritually. But I welcome any questions about how the process went for me.

Personal Journey

Hello again!

For my blogging friends, I wanted to let you know my tumor was removed. I await news on whether or not it’s benign, but I am hopeful. Next to me is my best friend and newly-appointed nurse. I felt held by God and the love of family and friends. Will post when I feel up to it. xoxo

Personal Journey

Strong Enough

We’re all helpless. Sometimes it’s more obvious. I am Obvious, capital “O.” How I usually fool myself about helplessness is by doing hard things. Doing hard things makes me feel strong. I can overcome the next hard thing and the next…but with my tumor, there is no amount of running, no HIIT routine, no weightlifting regime I can do. There is no strong enough, here.

Somebody smarter than me will have my life in his hands. In fact, (and this DOES make me nervous), a whole lot of somebodies will be swarming all over me tomorrow. I hope they ate a good breakfast. That they washed their hands. I hope their partners were nice to them, that traffic was light, that…

You see the problem? I must only hope in God. There are too many details, even for an overzealous imagination like mine.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5,6

I keep hearing this phrase from family and friends: I can’t imagine what it must be like.

The following are pieces of my journal. I was hesitant to publish them because they’re not combed over a thousand times by my internal editor. They’re my jagged thoughts. What it’s like.

March 9. [first day after the news] Last night I had trouble sleeping. My usual morning schedule is out the window, except the Bible reading and praying part. That got longer. I cried a bunch. I prayed out loud, read the Bible out loud. I paid a whole lot more attention to the words I was reading. For my regular reading, I’m in the middle of Ezekiel. Nope. I wanted to hear from King David. I turned to the Psalms, and the one that fell open was Psalm 118. To explain why this particular Psalm comforted me would probably not make sense, but as so often happens, God gives a word to afflicted people. Afflicted. How I loathe that adjective.

My daughter is freaking out because she has to run long today, seventeen miles. It’s snowing and the ground is covered. She can’t find the thing that covers her ears. Seventeen miles is a long way to run with uncovered ears. I haven’t told her yet. [about the tumor] I don’t like telling people. This is how I’m selfish: I don’t want to deal with the reactions and hold myself together. I have enough to deal with. I wish I had a manager who could give press releases for me.

I don’t know what to do with myself. I will probably walk my dog. I will clean the kitchen and make food. When I heard I’m not ok, one of the first things I thought was that I want to be nice to people. God, help me be nice to people when I’m feeling afflicted, when the gut response is to curl into a ball and focus on myself and the “unfairness” of it all.

March 10. I’m getting “used” to the idea that my life will drastically change. Some people really wouldn’t worry. I’m not one of those people. I have already imagined what I’ll look like with no hair. I imagined myself coming out of surgery incapable of speech (like a relative who suffered a stroke and could only say “four-four” ever after). I imagine many other scenarios too. I start to remind myself of who is already dead, so I don’t feel so bad when I join them.

Why am I getting derailed like this? Yesterday after my post, I called my neurosurgeon’s office and did some online research. From those two sources, I inferred: My calcified meningioma has turned on and grown and is now too complex a surgery for my usual neurosurgeon to handle, so he passed me along to the specialist neurosurgeon. Part of me feels good that I’ve got the best assigned to me, and part of me is petrified that I need the best. My hands shake as I type and I tear up when fears slam into me.

I hold tightly to God’s promises, and sometimes I even have peace. I think those are moments when other people are praying for me. I did tell some people, though not many and no one knows how serious I believe it is except Bob. I can hold this inside until I have exact answers. That’s why these posts are not getting published either. I’m not sure when I’ll start publishing, if ever. But I wanted to document this fearful road. And writing has always been cathartic. If I wasn’t set to paint the house today and get ready for a teen boy sleepover, I’d write a story. What I keep wanting to do is grab onto my husband and melt into his arms. I want to hug and kiss my kids. I want to give compliments and smile at people.

I did take my dog for a walk yesterday. I also walked with Bob in the evening. I did school with Gabe and went grocery shopping. When people greet me with the usual How are you? I am tempted to unload on them that I am most unusual right now. But I smile and tell them I’m fine. I wonder how many other people are unintentionally lying when they answer that question.

March 12. I have to wait three more days until I hear anything [more concrete]. I’ve told people. That’s hard. Speaking the words makes them real, and I’m trying to be brave, but I just cry. I don’t want to cry. I’d love to be strong and unflappable, but my imagination and cynical nature keep ribbing me. Here’s the thing. I trust God to take care of me and my family. I’ve seen Him do it before. Sometimes God comes into a circumstance and heals everything. Sometimes God doesn’t, but He is always God, whether or not my future is the one I want. Jesus asked God to take the cup of suffering away, and we’re all better for the fact that God did not take it away. Because if He had, Jesus wouldn’t have gone to the cross. So…I don’t know if I’m to suffer or be healed, but I pray I can do either for God’s glory.

I am asking God to take this cup of suffering from me, and I know He could say yes and He could say no. And I know my job is to trust Him in either answer. Trust is a funny thing though. It is slippery. One minute I feel ok and the next the ground under me is shaking. Friends have given me wonderful verses and they’re praying for me. I know that. My beloved husband has told me a hundred times how much he loves me. I can’t stop hugging him. If nothing else, this reminded me how much I love my childhood sweetheart. He has always been my best friend and better half. I cling to him at night, and he’s there for me. He rubs my hair and makes me know I am as un-alone as a person can be, that I am most loved. My husband cherishes me like no other, and if nothing else, this valley shows me how blessed I am to have my husband.

…and my friends and kids and extended family. So many have written me notes and prayed for me or offered help. I am grateful and awed, and each act has been a hug to me. Nothing matters to me right now, except being good to people, doing good for the people I love.

March 13. I think I’m going crazy. I can’t stand the waiting, and my thoughts have not been lovely. I just finished Bible, and God is good. I chant this to myself and then I think a thought that is not kind toward someone, and especially right now, I don’t want to think unkind thoughts toward anyone. It occurs to me, this should be my MO all the time. God, forgive me. I hear a duck quacking away outside, most likely hanging out in the pool. It’s terrible when they nest there because we have to kick them out…

It was hard waking up alone. He [my husband] would never want me to feel lonely, and I know I could call him right now and ask him to come home. He would. But we both know that would not be responsible. Still, I wish I could hug him right now.

As I read my Bible, I kept asking God to wrap His arms around me, that I might feel His comfort. That mysterious peace that passes all understanding. I must admit I don’t feel a blanket of peace. I feel afraid and alone. I don’t want to do much anything right now, which is why as soon as I was done with Bible, I started writing. There are things I should be doing. Perhaps if I write them, I’ll get motivated. I need to paint the walls downstairs, grade the book reports, read the workshop stories, fill out L’s financial aid application, and work out.

There is so much I type out and delete. I’m realizing I don’t want a complete snapshot of this mind, this fearful, paralyzed mind that rips back the trust from God the way a child rips a toy. Forgive me my lack of faith.

It was at that point Dr. Goel called me and told me more specifically what is going on. I felt relief and great sadness at my lack of faith in God’s provision. I wracked with sobs because I finally had an answer. Would that I could stand better without answers. What a doubting Thomas I am! God forgive me. I face brain surgery and I am relieved. Relieved! God knew, it took scaring me to get me to thank Him for this result. Things can always, always be worse. But with God, things are always, always better than they would be without Him. Every good gift I have is from Him. Even and most especially the people in my life who love me and are praying for me. I know I am loved by God’s people, His arms of flesh who surround me and care for me. I am so thankful that God led me to Psalm 118. It will become my favorite, no doubt. Just as I said on the day I asked Jesus to be Lord of my life, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” So I still say it today. Help my unbelief. Forgive me for worrying.

March 19. Today’s message at church was about having faith in tough times. Tough times. Interesting timing. My church has a membership in the thousands, so this message was not crafted with me in mind. Except it was because God knew. He knows. God knows I don’t like going forward to pray. God can hear me from my seat. I knew it would be ridiculous and prideful not to go forward and make an outward sign of the inward picture of my heart. It would only be self-consciousness that would keep me in my seat. Bob was doing his ushering duties. The song was playing and I knew I had to go. Nervous. I was nervous like I was giving a speech or something. I believe God wants us to push through our nervousness, that the sacrifice is a heart that cares more for closeness with God than that I be seen as strong. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Bob finally came and I was so relieved. A friend came and put her hand on mine as we were praying. Her kindness touched me deeply.

So many things have touched me since I heard the news. My eyes, every time I think they’re bone dry, I find I can cry some more. And it is exhausting, all this crying. I’m just glad I don’t have to hold it inside anymore, like when I first knew but didn’t know and I didn’t feel I could tell people.

“How are you, Mrs. Griffiths?” asked my student thirty minutes after I got the news.

“Oh, I’m ok, Mikey,” I replied. What can I say? “Not so good. I have a…”

Just yesterday I walked Abbott, and my neighbor put his window down and asked how I was. I was surprised because he doesn’t do that usually. We just wave, kind of a program we’ve got going. When he asked me, I choked out that I was fine, thank you, and how are you? He smiled. I smiled. I said, “God bless you” because the smallest act of kindness slays me. I cried for the next fifteen minutes of my walk. Good thing I had sunglasses on. Abbott distracted me by pooping in large quantities. There is a trash can at the halfway mark. He dumps fifty yards into our walk and again fifty yards after the trash can, ensuring I carry a plastic bag of molten stench the entire time.

“Beautiful dog,” called a teen boy. People often comment on my rockstar dog. He’s a German Shepherd Collie mix, so he has the legs of a figure skater and the nose of Queen Elizabeth I.

Ducks are swimming in the pool as I write this. One of them quacks incessantly. Like he’s yelling at someone. I love the sound, but they can’t stay there permanently. Kind of like us on this earth…there. Another analogy.

I never explained why I was so afraid initially. Well I did. Poorly. Fear has a way of making me incoherent. My regular neurosurgeon called me the day before my appointment with his teacher. I had been stalking his office to get more information, but when I did that, rather than getting some comforting news, I got more scared. The receptionist used the word critical and told me my doctor read my scan at home. At. home. Everybody knows that’s not good tidings. The fact that I couldn’t get into the Jedi Master brain surgeon until Thursday, I figured maybe he didn’t even read my scan. I mean, what if I was a ticking time bomb, what was it to him? Realistically, can a neurosurgeon wipe his calendar every time somebody has a critical scan? Doesn’t it make more sense to hope they make it until Thursday?

So I began marking my children, loving them. I wrote a little love note to Bob before I went to sleep. Just in case I didn’t wake up. In my humanness, I could see no road but the one in which I had a tumor that was so intricate, my own neurosurgeon referred me up. That it was so critical, he put down his golf club to read it. Honestly, I don’t know exactly how “sticky” my tumor is. They won’t know until they get in there. Love the idea of that: get in there. The there being my brain. When it’s quiet and no one is distracting me, I get uncomfortable. I think of God. I love him and remind myself of how good He’s been to me. Every good gift comes from Him. How can I not accept trials as well?

March 20. I walked Abbott again yesterday. It was the only exercise I got, really. After emailing about my situation and doing things around here, I got so tired in the afternoon. The crying, it saps me. This keeps happening. And my chest gets tight. I’m sure it’s stress. But I burrow into my blankets and cover my head with pillows…right as rain in just an hour or two. I thank you, God, that I can take a nap. I feel bad for people who are going through something like this and still have to sit at their desk and work. Bob was to continue to work, and in fact, is working more hours. Help him, Lord.

March 22. Oh Lord. The cry of my heart is to come through this well and whole and able to enjoy life with Bob. Help me see a path. My heart hurts lately. I think it’s stress.

I wonder about the kindness of people. It is a balm. If there is a scale and fear is on one side and the encouragement of people is on the other…is that what’s happening here? Like all the kindnesses of my friends and family counteract the event on my horizon. Like a tidal wave that’s heading straight for me and each prayer or word or act of kindness is a sandbag placed in front of me. I watch as it grows taller, taller. And honestly, I wonder if, when the wave hits me on April 6th, when I go into that room and before they pump me full of forgetfulness, will I feel, finally, the peace that passes all understanding? You know I want to feel it, Lord. I want to feel it so I can tell people it’s real. I know You’re real. I know You can give it. I also know You don’t always choose to. Yes. Jesus knows my suffering and far, far worse. He knows what it’s like to feel, FEEL forsaken. Not to be forsaken. Because none of us ever is. We are all loved by God.

Whether or not it’s unrequited love is up to us.

God, may I love You well through this. If I can love You half as well as I have been loved by people, people made in Your image, then I will be satisfied. If it’s Your will, may I come through this whole and be able to pass on the blessing to others who will travel a valley.

That’s it. My other journal entries eventually got made into posts.

Here’s what I wanted to share with you. During the writing of my last published post, I got a whiff of something. I can only describe it like a smell. You think you smell bread baking or chocolate or coffee brewing. You suck in, and…where’d it go? That’s how I felt with the fearlessness. I could sense it was possible, that it was close. That I was on the heels of catching it. Now, the day before my surgery, I have a peace that passes all understanding. I will be ok. Either way. I’ll be ok. There are, of course, outcomes that are better than others. I hope for the best outcome. But. If God chooses the worst road, (in my imagination the one where the neuro-oncologist comes to my room and introduces himself and says we’re going to be friends) …do I have any choice but to take it? When the sea is calm I can delude myself into thinking I’m the captain of my soul, that I can sculpt myself into stone. But a storm comes along (Psalm 107) and I’m corrected.

Whenever my kids had a fear, I’d use lightning imagery. I’d say, “Your chances of X (or a brain tumor) happening are like your chances of getting struck by lightning.” This was how I’d pet them. How ironic I’ve been struck by my own figurative lightning. God’s storms are intense.

And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being covered with the waves; but Jesus Himself was asleep.  And they came to Him and woke Him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm. – Matthew 8:24-26