I run by HER at least a couple of times a week. The very first time I saw HER, I was taken. She is exactly what I want to become. She stands with HER hands framing HER heart. You can see HER openness facing the fjord, ready for whatever the future holds. She faces east and when I have stood next to HER and watched the sun rise, I see the possibilities of a new day and future.
I met Erica two years ago.
We were supposed to meet under very different circumstances, but something happened. That something was cancer. It changed the course of HER life and unexpectedly impacted mine in many ways too.
One bitterly, cold day in January 2016, around the time when the sun returns to northern Norway, I flew to Tromsø to visit my friend Ann Christin, her husband Darin, and their three children. The purpose of my visit was to see my friends and together attend the International Film Festival, immersing ourselves in movies from every corner of the world over the course of a few short days. When I arrived at the airport I was greeted by Ann Christin who smiled and laughed when she hugged me. It felt so good. I had just landed on my own personal runway and it was here in Tromsø I would get fueled up. Good friends will do that to you.
As we exited the terminal, I looked off in the distance and noticed the sun’s rays hitting the mountains turning them pink at the very top. Since the sky was clear, Ann Christin suggested we head out and drive a ways to see if we could spot some whales. “Wow, OK!”, I said. On the drive I peered out the car window noticing the tinted blue sky was brighter with snow covering the earth and they seemed to meet as if they somehow just belonged together. Stunned by the view, I took blurry car-moving pictures, but they never did justice, until later when we stopped and I captured a few beauties.
After a long drive, we came to a fork in the road. Which way shall we go? Ann Christin looked to the right and said, “I haven’t been down to the end of this road in a long time. My aunt used to live down here. Let’s go this way.” We drove to the end, where a small hytta and lighthouse greeted us. We parked the car with hunger in our bellies and ate homemade bread with brown cheese, and snacked on almonds, and slices of red peppers sitting in the front seat. We sipped Freia hot chocolate from our thermoses as we gazed out the windows at the ocean blue.
“Oh! I see them! Out there!” said Ann Christin. We shoved the remaining sandwiches in our mouths, sloshed down the hot chocolate, and quickly dressed in snow pants. It was the kind of cold that numbs your fingers as you are zipping up zippers and buttoning buttons. We hopped over a fence and walked the trail to the lighthouse and water. You could see whales spouting and enjoying themselves as they were feasting on herring below.
On our walk back to the car, Ann Christin shared about her American friend, Erica, married to a Norwegian, and mother of three children. Erica was an artist, and lived further north of Tromsø, in Honningsvåg. Long before the cancer was ever discovered, or doing is stupid mutating thing in Erica, the original plan was for three couples to meet; Ann Christin and Darin, myself and my husband, Joel, and Erica and HER husband, Onar. Our mutual connections were around the places in which our lives intersected; our Christian and Lutheran seminary training and background, shared cultural insights and experiences from living in both America and Norway, and the commonality of what it means to be raising our families in this particular Nordic country we all live in. The plan again, was for the six of us to get together, watch movies at the film festival, eat super food, drink wine, laugh, and fill our souls with good conversation for a couple of days. That was all before Erica had gotten cancer.
Erica’s lung cancer, a rare type, spread into her lymph nodes. She was currently in Tromsø for her treatments for a number of weeks and Ann Christin said we would probably see her, if time allowed. I immediately got quiet and like every other time I hear about cancer, hardly can think of what to say. As we walked on the crunchy snow past the lighthouse and up to the car I could see my breath and inhaled through my nose, feeling sadness upon hearing about Erica, happiness I was in Tromsø looking at whales, and gratitude for friendship, all at the same time.
The first two days of the film festival were filled with intense movies, which managed to stir wide and deep conversations about the world, politics, the current refugee crisis, teenagers, and a park in China during the summer. The third morning, on Soldagen (The Day of the Sun’s Return), we watched a film which followed the stories of the elderly in a nursing home in Norway. Being a pastor, I’ve been in many nursing homes before so it was a comfortable film for me to watch, but it also brought tears to my eyes as it reminded me we are mortal beings. With reflective minds and hungry stomachs, Ann Christin and I decided on a local lunch/coffee shop for a bite to eat. As we sat around retro coffee tables, the main door opened and ushered in several cold blasts, so we defended ourselves by sipping lattes, and listened to friends chat away, us included.
Ann Christin leaned over and quietly mentioned that Erica had just finished a round of treatment that morning and would be joining us for lunch.
Suddenly, this slim, tall woman walked in with a very thick down Fjallraven jacket, fur hood, framing her gorgeous blue eyes and long lashes. As she laid her woolen mittens on the table, pulled off the hood, unwrapped the scarf tied underneath, and proceeded to shed numerous layers, she mentioned her new short bobbed haircut. She wasn’t quite sure what the chemotherapy would do long-term, so it was much shorter than it had been. I thought to myself, “Wow, she is really honest about where she is at.” She smiled, shook my hand as we were introduced, and I knew at that moment, Erica and I would be friends. I just knew it.
Erica began by sharing about how positive and grateful she was trying to be in the midst of the diagnosis and HER plan of attack. In the next breath, she told us about HER latest yoga class experience, where they were just beginning the session with quiet and meditation. The instructor told the participants to put their hand on their heart and it was at this point that I heard the crack in Erica’s voice when she said, “I put my hand on my heart and the tears came. I couldn’t stop crying.”
Because I am a person who feels so deeply, I could picture the scene as the grief overwhelmed her. I believe our minds and bodies are always in tune with what is going on, so when we stop to listen to our hearts, they often gracefully release the truth.
Erica continued to process HER cancer journey, telling us about HER children, who were trying to understand what this disease was doing and will to do to their mother. Their child-like power and understanding has given Erica insight into the warriors they will be. One moment they are doing whatever kids do and the next, they are figuring out and grieving the loss of what Erica was, to the reality of who she is now. Like all of us, we are evolving creatures and beings, letting go of what we once were, growing into the unknown future. Change is inevitable.
I listened and listened and listened. I wanted to have some kind of insight or word or something, but I found all I could do was listen. I had nothing to give, for I had not been on this road before. As Erica reflected on stupid doctors and the dumb things they say, we shook our heads, pissed off for HER. And yet, one doctor cried with and gave HER permission to get angry. “You can go into the woods and scream and yell and cry. It won’t affect the treatment at all.” I could hear the rally within Erica as she felt someone else understood and connected at HER very core.
As the three of us sat, ate, listened, talked, and cried, I felt moments of holiness like I’ve never experienced before. All I could think of was Exodus 3:5, when Moses takes off his shoes and is standing in the presence of God.
“Then He (God) said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Listening to the unfolding story of cancer in Erica’s life was like standing on holy ground. My friend Ann Christin and I were allowed into holy space where one rarely ever gets to go. I felt this immense vulnerability, deep sadness, fear, pain, sorrow, terror, and anger. It was if a waitress served us a platter of raw-ness and that was something none of us had ordered, but sat in front of us waiting to be delved into. In order to really look at it, it required something of us: openness. We needed to take off our own stuff, our own sandals and go there with her into the holiness of what lies before us in both life and death.
By the end of the conversation, I wanted to call up my own husband and children and tell them all I loved them. I thought about all the dumb things I’ve said and done and realized, I really don’t need to get mad about all the clothes and Legos left everywhere and the fact that the boys pee on the floor in the bathroom once a day. Do these things matter all that much in the long run? Probably not. Erica reminded me life can change in an instant and this moment is all we have. This moment, right now, is ALL we have.
The joys of watching my children sleep and smile and fight, and do homework, and climb rocks and discover starfish is exactly what I need to be soaking in. The joys of being with my husband and feeling the hug at the end of the day, holding a hand when we watch a movie, and hearing the words of “I love you.” are just moments, but they are the most important ones I need to pay attention to.
Blessed. That is the word that I heard Erica say most. Ah, we are so blessed. I didn’t doubt for a moment that the cancer would change and bless her in some way. It would change and shape and mold her family and somehow and in some way God would work through it. But, it still doesn’t make sense and I was angry for her. I still am.
With a grateful hearts, we said our good-byes, gave big hugs, and I told Erica I would meet HER again. I would stay in touch. I would pray for HER, think of HER, and support HER from Oslo as best I could. Erica had settled on my heart and has never left.
That afternoon, Ann Christin and I hurried to the next movie, which were short films by young directors from all over Scandinavia. We watched two hours of snipets of life; from a day on Svalbard, to a Russian boy shipwrecked on an island, to young girls and their body image. It took my mind off of our conversation with Erica, but still she was there. Seeing the mid-winter darkness from the theater lobby, we snuggled into our coats and headed to the store to buy ingredients for a sushi dinner. After long conversations with Ann Christin and Darin which went well into the late evening, we fell into bed exhausted.
When I awakened that night to go to the bathroom and the nights after, I thought about Erica. What are HER nights like? How is she feeling and is she up right now, sick from the treatment? Is she crying? Is HER hair thinning? Does she look in the mirror and wonder how this happened? Does she see a strong, beautiful woman with life or does she see the cancer, or both? Is this the battle between good and evil? Where is God in the midst of it all? Does she know how loved she is? How does her husband deal with this? Her parents? Sibling? Friends? The list of questions went on and on and on…..
At the end of the week, I left Tromsø, tank filled. When you spend time with good friends in the winter darkness of northern Norway, you get your fill in the light they provide with food, laughter, conversation, and just be-ing together. I was blessed in so many ways.
I have kept my promise and Erica and I have stayed in touch. This past fall she visited me in Oslo and we had a couple of good lattes and a really good conversation. Our time didn’t seem long enough, which is how it always is with good friends.We mostly chatted about our families, the challenges and great things about living in Norway, our disgust for Donald Trump and the situation in the US, our church lives, and the struggles of raising kids. Cancer didn’t hold the conversation, as it wasn’t allowed, but it did have a presence.
Erica’s cancer has spread to her brain and continues to be an on-going battle. She lives with it every day, as it the unwelcomed guest who has come to stay. It has shaped and will continue to shape HER, in ways she never imagined. She is a different mom, wife, friend, and artist because of it.
At the end of our coffee conversation, those gorgeous blue eyes filled with tears across the table. She shared, “When you are first diagnosed, everyone seems to know and reaches out, but after awhile people just move on. They know you have cancer, but they forget that you are living with it every single day. I don’t want to be forgotten.” In some small way, I wanted her to know she is not forgotten, so I reached across the table and grabbed her hand, my own tears spilling over, to tell HER I think of and pray for HER daily. The prayer team at our church has also prayed for HER every single Wednesday night for the last two years, so no, you are not forgotten, Erica. You are not forgotten.
If I had met Erica under the original circumstances for which we were to meet, our relationship would be very different. It is because of faith we have connected. Erica has taught me that in life and in the face of death, we must become open and hold the moments we have. For in these moments, lies the grace of God, waiting to be claimed as reminders of love. My friendship with Erica is a matter of life and death. We need each other. God is a part of what we have together and for that, I am so deeply grateful and blessed. She has taught me about my own heart and vulnerability. She has taught me that my moments here on this earth REALLY matter, and it is my job, my call, and blessing to be loved and to love others. I think I would be less if I hadn’t met Erica, but because of the cancer, I am more.
When I go running down to the water now and see HER, I see Erica, who gets up and faces each day with those hands framing her heart, for this is the time that she has, whatever the future may bring. When I see HER now, I see myself, remembering when I am open, God works through me in ways I never imagined. When I see HER now, I think of all the possibilities that await each one of us every single day. When I see HER now, I feel how blessed I am and am filled with gratitude. When I see HER now, I am reminded how important it is to be community with each other, for we belong together.
When I see HER now and look down the fjord to the east facing the sun, I feel the present moment and nothing else.