For years I’ve welcomed liminal periods, those moments of walking over thresholds in life; of being outside of familiar places. I’ve willingly stepped into new academic programs, away from jobs, into overseas adventures. On pilgrimages, I’ve known that I would face new places and unexpected challenges. With new jobs I looked forward to the first weeks of not knowing exactly what was expected. Somehow I was confident that on the other end I would emerge changed and better able to live into life more fully.
However, recently I was thrust into a liminal time in which I did not want to be. My mother was diagnosed with cancer, again. Once I heard the diagnosis I entered a time between cancer in remission and what? Hovering over this threshold of metastasizing cancer I didn’t know what would happen and tis time the other side did not look so promising.
- I had no control.
- I could not opt out.
- I could not envision what was on the other side of this threshold.
For twenty-five days I walked into the hospital to be with my mom, talk with doctors, wait for the next step. Will nausea continue when a GNT tube is removed? Will she keep down food? What is the source of this mass? Can she get enough nutrition to start chemotherapy? Will a decompression tube in her stomach allow her to eat? Will the surgery for the tube compromise any recovery? Sometimes I felt all I could do was sit and wait in the vinyl covered visitor chair in her room. After weeks of wondering and waiting for the scale to tip in my mom’s favor, we learned there was no way to control this tumor. Her digestive system was so compromised that it was working against her.
Unlike other hospital departures, this was bittersweet and took me deeper into a liminal time. I walked over the thresholds of the hospital and into home hospice care. For my mom this meant life in a hospital bed in the living room and limited mobility. For me this was jumping into daily nursing care. I didn’t know what would happen. Would she be able to digest any food at home? How long would she be here? For how long would she be able to have visitors?
The first days contained some hope in this place without monitors and with the comfort of the sights and smells of home. But each day remained a time of waiting. After two weeks the pain increased and her food intake continued to diminish. She couldn’t do anything that required concentration such as reading or writing. Visits, movies, television, conversation filled the time. It was impossible to plan for anything as her condition might change from hour to hour.
In these times, during this waiting, I so often wanted to yell and cry. To leave. I wanted out, but that was not an option. Sometimes I did leave for a couple of hours to run errands or even to eat out while others sat with my mom. But there was always a tightness in my stomach knowing I had to return. For a season I backed off of work allowing others to keep things going as much as possible. It was time to be with my mom. It was time to pray. To be present in the discomfort.
Slowly I grasped the grace of liminality, of not needing to worry about the past or future, but to fully hold onto the present. These weeks were times of clarity. I knew my mom would be at peace, the peace that passes understanding that Jesus promises. Not necessarily the peace I would like in this world. However, a peace that taught me to enjoy simple things like sharing hot cereal in the morning or laughing over a television show; as well as allowed me to hold her when she was going through pain I couldn’t ease.
Now I’m on the other side of that liminal space. My mother has ended her pilgrimage on earth and is in the ultimate destination – paradise. But I’m still continuing my journey here. What will it look like? There will be different companions and paths. There will be new opportunities to step out – and I want to step out more into new spaces, even those that are uncomfortable. For one thing, I have a new way to think of living a full life – not based on thinking I know what will happen or can control the outcome, but on knowing that God will be present each moment and will walk with me through it.