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Hard-earned scars

A Decatur pastor learns to embrace the riches that come from being vulnerable.

Should I pull on the T-shirt?

A vintage rear-view mirror hangs from a bent nail on the unfinished wooden wall. Light filters in through curtains across a small window frame. Clearly visible in the frosted glass of the mirror I see a pale lump the size of a walnut, near my right shoulder, where a port makes its alien presence known just beneath taut skin.

I lean forward to eye the 6-inch trail that travels from the port north to the jugular vein in my neck. If I can see both lump and line in this crappy mirror in a room with refracted rays, then, hey, so can everyone down by the lake in broad daylight.

The sounds of laughter filter in from the lakeside. Everyone else is hanging out, shooting the breeze. I look down at the fresh scars that mark my chest and abdomen. One has turned my belly button from a sexy innie to a sideways outie, stretched into a permanent wink, a knowing expression of a shared secret. The other day my wife Betty patted my muffin top and sighed. Three months after surgery, she and I came to the same realization. My abs might never be the same.

I consider calling out to my 20-year-old daughter for her opinion. Katie is in the adjacent bedroom, changing into her swimsuit. She possesses a keen fashion sense, which is heightened when my clothing choice mortifies her in public, even if the public space is out in the middle of nowhere, like here on a casual family outing in the Catskills Mountains in mid-July.

I ponder my two options, frozen in the coolness of the back bedroom of an A-frame cabin by the lake. In 1972, our family built the A-frame from a kit. “Four Men, Four Days” promised the manual; two months later we were still hammering away, mostly happily.

The lakefront property has been in my family for generations. Bright green ferns, thick maple trees and rolling hills encompass the rustic 1-acre refuge. No plumbing. No electricity. No Wi-Fi. Open campfires. Open-air outhouse. Open expressions of love and laughter.

Now, 55 years after my hardy parents introduced me, their youngest son, to this sacred space, I feel for the first time in our home-away-from-home uneasy and ashamed.

Katie should be just about ready for an afternoon of sunning herself on the dock, having vowed on the flight from Atlanta that she would not swim, just tan.

I need to come to a decision fast.

Hands clammy, unsure what to do, I clutch the T-shirt. I am standing barefoot in a bulky, knee-length bathing suit with its drawstrings pulled so tight the ends dangle nearly to my knees, accentuating legs so thin and fleshless as to be unrecognizable. Not so long ago I had been a runner, a soccer player and coach, a wiry cross-country athlete with strong thighs and a marathoner’s endurance.

I tilt my head toward the sounds coming from the shore, longing to wade out into the clear, cold lake and backstroke to the middle where I might tread water in peace. Between the privacy of the back bedroom and the solitude of the lake’s center, however, is a gauntlet of smiling faces, my network of encouragers, a gathering of loved ones who love me for me.

I pause another second, hearing Katie’s footsteps on the worn plywood floors, feeling alone, lumpy and unsightly. Do I remain bare-chested or pull on the AJC Peachtree Road Race T-shirt?

James (right) with his family: wife Betty (from left) and children Henry and Katie.

2

Healing the healer

“Preach from your scars, not your wounds.”

I sat up and hit rewind. That was good. I looked over my shoulder to glance out the study doorway where I hoped Betty might have overheard the comment. Then I remembered that she had gone to the store.

I turned my full attention to the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s podcast. Bolz-Weber had long been a spiritual mentor of mine. I admired her from a distance, keeping up with her ecclesial lessons through her writings and interviews. Her Lutheran parish was in Denver while I served a Christian Church congregation in downtown Decatur. I turned up the laptop’s volume and listened a second time.

“Preach from your scars, not your wounds.”

Yes, yes, I thought, that is the ticket. Rather than pontificating from wounds that still bleed, ooze and sting, wounds yet to be processed or reconciled, I could do far more good by preaching from my scars, which are bounteous; from my healings, which are blessed; from my learning and wisdom, which are hard-earned.

I jotted some notes for a future sermon.

Folks, allow your wounds time to heal before you expound on the pain and the glory, the loss and the gain, and what you may have learned. Be patient. One day you may give permission for someone else to lessen their own fears and lighten their pain. By doing so you may enable someone else’s fixation on their disease or despair or disappointment to take a holiday, take off, take flight. So before you profess publicly, invest the effort to process internally.

Preach from my scars, indeed.

I leaned back and reflected on the last six months, on the chemo treatments and the many people I had encountered along the way.For decades I had concentrated my energies outwardly, directing them toward loving my neighbors. When offers of relief poured in, initially I hesitated. I had lived in “pastor mode” for so long. But with the advent of cancer, I had to make a change.

Three decades of professional training and pastoral experience had taught me the value of maintaining clear, ethical boundaries between myself and those I served. Critical distance is necessary to offer counsel and spiritual direction. And that fit well with my personal resistance to being vulnerable. Still, what we clergy do and say is open for public comment and consumption; my family and I lived in a “fish bowl” for too long to ignore this reality. How much more did I need to open myself up?

Getting cancer called for a conversion experience on multiple levels. Support was needed like never before; who was I to deny my congregation, friends and neighbors the opportunity to carry us? The sustainer acknowledged he – I – was in need of sustenance.

This wounded healer finally consented to allow his neighbor to love him. Initially this made me uncomfortable, like breaking in new shoes. As I transitioned from healer/helper to patient/receiver, I sensed a transformative spiritual power at work and play.

Neighbors delivered casseroles and prayers that strengthened my body and soul. Cards, calls and chicken soup poured in. My discomfort eased. This minister, this neighbor, this human was grateful.

In return I focused my gratitude outward, onto communal interactions; such was my coping mechanism. In the cancer treatment center I exchanged pleasantries with both the wounded and the healers. Sometimes it was impossible to differentiate who was which. Not that it mattered. Grace connected us with the promise of hope.

“Good morning, everybody. It’s another day of healing,” I would say when I walked into Georgia Cancer Specialists for my chemo treatments every other week. My greeting was always delivered in a clear, loud voice as I attempted to overcome the insistent noise of the large-screen television and a pervasive air of hopelessness. Without fail the proclamation would generate some smiles, a whispered “Amen” and a sideways glance from Katie, who usually accompanied me.

The treatment center was a series of industrial-strength rooms designed for waiting, taking vitals and drawing blood. Patients like me would then be escorted into one of two spacious rooms with reclining chairs surrounding a central nurses station. Beside each chair were multiple IV poles supporting bags of anti-nausea and hope-for-a-miracle drugs.

Throughout that summer Katie and I sat there side-by-side immersed in the aroma of Lysol and despair. She kept the mood light. Sporting rich, shoulder-length dark brown hair that matched her eyes, Katie had a passion for the dramatic arts and was quick to fight for the underdog. She was a breath of fresh air inhaled by healing patients and health-care professionals alike. Her presence kept fear at bay.

3

Like father, like son

My father was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 74. After surgery he was informed he had two years to live. He died 20 months later, having graciously said “thank you” and “good bye” to everyone he could. The Rev. George E. Calvert had ministered for 43 years in East Harlem, N.Y., and after retirement tended to his neighbors upstate. Even though Dad’s middle name was Edward, he liked to say his middle initial “E” stood for Energy. His enthusiasm was boundless, contagious. After his diagnosis he did not retreat; he embraced anyone who chose to walk with him along his journey. He celebrated the knowledge that the Holy Spirit brings people together in times of need.

Dad had been deceased a decade when, during a colonoscopy, a malignant tumor was discovered in my colon. Afterward Dr. Ian Katz sat next to Betty and me in the recovery area. Typically a half-hour session in Katz’s examination room involved three minutes of poking my insides and 27 minutes of swapping temple and church tales.

No funny stories today.

Katz soberly showed us the high-definition color image of the inch-long tumor bleeding inside my colon, a photo he had just taken with a tiny camera affixed on the end of a flexible probe. Betty sat teary-eyed, struggling to take it all in. Katz explained the next steps, but his voice sounded like he was in a vacuum. I choked up and felt the impending onslaught of shock. I was destined to follow in Dad’s footsteps in more ways than one.

In the two weeks between discovery of the cancerous tumor and surgery to remove it along with a section of my colon, I updated my will, had a living will notarized, and said “I love you” to anything that moved. I spoke with my family, church members, friends, next-door neighbors and medical personnel, inviting them to enter into the unknown, the challenges and even the joy with me.

Like Dad, I made a choice to do more than survive, whether I lived for another two weeks or two years. I would thrive with humor, honesty and hope, defined by God rather than by a life-threatening malignancy in my colon. One way or another, I would be healed and made whole, even if there was no cure.

By the time the sun rose on the crisp May morning I was scheduled for surgery, I was keenly aware I might not survive to see another dawn. My mantra “Be not afraid” ran smack into the C-word.

I was wheeled on a gurney into the operating room on the second floor of DeKalb Medical Center. The room was packed with white cabinets and white machines and white lights. But when I looked around the room, my focus was on the figures in blue. I wondered: Is this my last view of earth from this side?

Fear would not have the last word. I was damned if I went down and out and beyond without a fight.

My trust in God and God’s people has gotten me this far and I am all in, I thought.

As two staff members hoisted me onto the operating table, I saw that one had a small silver cross dangling on a silver chain around her slim neck.

“Right now people are praying for y’all from New Zealand to New York, from Atlanta to Paris,” I said.

“That’s nice,” said the masked face. “We need their prayers. Now go to…”

When I awoke in the recovery room six hours later, the first thing I saw by my bedside was an angel in blue, holding a clipboard.

“I am so glad to see you,” I exclaimed, “and so glad to be alive!” Then I passed out.

That night in the hospital room upstairs on the third floor, I turned my head to see Katie standing by the dark window.

“You can go home now. I will be fine,” I said.

She pointed at the lounge chair beside her.

“Dad, I have a change of clothes and this transforms into a bed.”

Her mother was at home, bedridden with a sudden case of sciatica, and her brother Henry was in the Caribbean serving as a Christian missionary. Discussion over. Her intention made clear, Katie curled up with a book to keep watch in that hour of darkness.

The next morning I felt like someone had punched me in the belly. I told the nurse on duty I wanted to get out of the bed. Thirty years of visiting parishioners had taught me that if a patient rose and walked the day after surgery, even if only for a few steps, recovery time would be hastened. I reached out to her for a steadying hand. Both arms remained firmly at her sides.

“Roll over on your side,” she said with a lilting Caribbean accent. “Slide your elbow underneath. Push yourself up.”

“I could use a little help,” I said, and pointed at my stomach. “This really hurts.”

Again I stretched out my right hand.

She stood stock-still and repeated her instructions verbatim.

Miffed, I swallowed my pride and followed her instructions. Slowly I rolled over onto my elbow, wincing at the pain. I took a minute to recover, then worked my way into a seated position, rested and stood up.

“Look at you,” she said, as she reached for my arm. “You can do it.”

The three of us shuffled slowly, carefully toward the door, a portable IV pole clutched tightly with my left hand, the nurse holding my right elbow, Katie beside her. We reached the nurses station 10 yards away by the elevators in glacial speed.

“Good bye. I’m going home now,” I told the nursing staff as I pointed toward the elevator. We grinned at each other across the counter.

“Sir, would you like the back of your hospital gown closed?” inquired a nurse who swiftly came up from behind me. She leaned over to tie the loose drawstrings.

“The first look is free. After that they have to pay,” said a nurse seated at the station desk.

As our party of three ambled toward a pair of double doors at the far end of the hallway, the nurse congratulated me for walking so far and said we should head back to the room. I began a deliberate U-turn when, right in front of us, the double doors yawned open in our direction.

I mentally reminded my legs they had completed the Montreal Marathon in ’82, two Atlanta half-marathons and a dozen Peachtree Road Races. I sent my thighs and calves the distinct message they had darn well better outrace the two doors now swinging toward me.

Katie and I giggled the next day when we recalled the near collision.

“Dad, that was hilarious,” she said, shuffling across the hospital room in a mime of my protracted gait. “The way you were hobbling, holding on to the IV pole, desperate to get out of the way. We couldn’t laugh ‘cause you were so intense. You should have seen your face.”

My daughter could have been doing whatever college sophomores do in the summertime. Instead she stayed all five days and nights with me at DeKalb Medical.

4

Baring it all

I emerge from the lake weighed down by the soaking wet T-shirt that clings to my lumpy form. Shivering, I scoop up a towel and my shoes, ducking my head as I scurry past my family and friends gathered by the shore. I find a shady grove of trees a few feet up the path toward the A-frame and look back toward the lake shore.

Katie gets up from the dock and walks over. She gently tugs on the soggy cloth.

“You don’t need to wear that, Dad. You can take it off, it’s OK.”

Her brown eyes communicated what she and the gathering wanted me to know: We all have scars.

Behind the story



ABOUT THE STORY

I had the pleasure of having James Brewer-Calvert as a student in a writing class I taught last year. He was working on a memoir about his life as a preacher’s son who grew up to become a preacher. I thought his account of surviving cancer was a perfect fit for Personal Journeys. It is a poignant story about how difficult it is for a community leader and healer to allow his vulnerabilities to show.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE WRITER

James L. Brewer-Calvert is senior pastor of First Christian Church of Decatur. Previously, he served congregations in East Harlem, N.Y.; Dallas, Texas; and Jackson, Tenn. James received a B.A. from Hampshire College, a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Lexington Theological Seminary. He is married to the Rev. Betty Brewer-Calvert, director of Women’s Ministries for the Christian Church in Georgia. They have two adult children.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, Sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.