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Even My Underwear is Falling off!

Oh, how blithely I’ve said it over the years, “You have value beyond what you do!  Your worth isn’t rooted in your accomplishments, or lack thereof.  You’re loved above and beyond your list of credentials, beautiful beyond the appearance of your body, valuable beyond what you contribute to the company!”  I still believe that, but now I discover that I’m a little thin on the skill to live out that wisdom.

Percolating underneath the physical demands of radiation and chemo therapy a recurrent question keeps bubbling up: what value am I to the world I occupy?  When I’m feeling so sick from chemotherapy that I can hardly move myself to the office, when my leg muscles have shrunk so much I can’t ride my bike, when my strength has fallen off so much I can barely help my wife lift a fern to its hanging chain on the patio, when I’m sitting, resting, not producing anything of substance – do I still have value?  Even the hearing in my right ear has faded!

What do I do with the self-image I’ve cultivated through 40 years of serious cycling of a lean, mean cycling machine? (I’ll pause while you laugh.) When my lycra shorts gap on my thinning thighs, what does that say about me?  Shoot, even my underwear threatens to fall off!  When I can’t speak very well, and thus, have difficulty preaching – which defined the backbone of my whole career – what does that say about ME?  I no longer have a functioning right trapezius muscle, so I shrug asymmetrically.  I don’t have functioning saliva glands, so food tastes like mud mixed with metal, as one cancer patient I met described it.  What’s going to be left?  The trapezius loss is permanent.  They tell me the hearing will return, but right now, and for a few more months, I will not have “life as normal.”  In fact, I know I’m heading toward the proverbial “new normal.”

Ville d’Avray by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

Oh, how blithely I’ve said it over the years, “You have value beyond what you do!  Your worth isn’t rooted in your accomplishments, or lack thereof.  You’re loved above and beyond your list of credentials, beautiful beyond the appearance of your body, valuable beyond what you contribute to the company!”  I still believe that, but now I discover that I’m a little thin on the skill to live out that wisdom.

Interesting.  All those things I’ve listed have been taken away, but I’m still here. Those things I listed, then, are not the “original me.”

Well what happens to “me” when cancer treatments shoot a hole in my life?  When my capacity to preach, counsel, teach, and visit gets restricted?  What happens to “me” when I can’t sing, nor hear well the music played by others? What happens to me when I’m dependent upon my wife, when creativity lags, and Lord knows, any aesthetic appeal I’ve ever had sort of melts away?  What’s left?

Henri Nouwen wrote a book entitled, “Our Greatest Gift,” in which he reflects deeply on the reality of his mortality.  Early, he makes the statement, “[this time] calls me to detach myself from the scaffolding of daily life and to discover if anything there can stand on its own when the traditional support systems have been pulled away.”

It is time for a reframing, to ask some serious questions about what “scaffolding” I’ve erected around myself.  Scaffolding helps keep buildings maintained, but they also obscure the view.  Now that so much of my “scaffolding” has come down, what new thing can I see? Perhaps it might be the “new normal.”

By Drexel Rayford

Drexel has been senior pastor of four churches in Kentucky and Virginia, a psychiatric ward chaplain, denominational bureaucrat, and an erstwhile indie singer/songwriter/story-teller and seeker of authentic human vocation. Currently, Drexel is working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center in the capacity of The Support Team Network manager, a hospital-based community partnership aimed at nurturing healing communities for discharged patients. He loves kayaking, road cycling, hiking, and all kinds of photography, but he loves his wife Vicki and blended family of three adult children more. He holds a Ph.D. in the Psychology of Religion and a pastoral counseling certificate from the University of Louisville, Department of Psychiatry.

20 replies on “Even My Underwear is Falling off!”

thank you, Drexel, for this courageous, honest, and fearsome share. Dang! Had me at losing your right trap… for me as a climber, losing use of a trap would be basically losing use of an arm. But, there are one-armed climbers who are incredible in their strength and skill…just wouldn’t want to find out if I’d have it in me to do what they’ve found the grit and grace to do. I’m so sorry you’re having to find out if you have it in you to do whatever “it” is that lies on the other end of this chemo/radiation mess. But, I know you have the grit and the grace, for the mess and for the time ahead of putting yourself aright on the other side. I pray regularly for you and Vicki; I love you. Keep on posting!

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Gary, thank you so much for your very encouraging response. I don’t feel particularly courageous, but I did intend honesty. As for the trap . . . the surgeon and the physical therapists tell me that I have four other sets of muscles that control, support, and guide the shoulder. PT will focus on building those muscles which I’ve neglected because I’ve been letting the trap do all the work. They say with diligent PT, I’ll have as much movement as I’ve ever had – just a weird looking shrug!

And I thank you especially for your prayers for me and Vicki. I love you back!

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Great, Drexel! Glad to hear the encouraging news on p.t. for the shoulder/arm! Weird looking shrug…eh…we’ll call it “endearing” shrug. “That Drexel…weird dude” “Yeah, but his shrug is always so endearing, don’t you think?” 🙂

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You have always been so encouraging and supportive to me and our colleagues. You are our “wise sage” of pastoral care. I can think of numerous examples when you have offered kind words and nuggets of wisdom at just the right time. This is a moment for you to be the one who is on the receiving end of such support. Thank you for your transparency, which is a gift in itself. Prayers and well wishes for you.

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Thank you Drexel for sharing. It is honest and revealing of your struggle with loss. I couldn’t help but imagine how I might respond to similar challenges. I’m sure I’d resort to self pity and despair. The fact is people our age must cope with deminishment of physical aspects as the decades pass,, but your battle is on steroids thanks to the treatments. Your lessons about true value and worth are familiar truths I’ve shared as well.. Your struggle and honesty is a gift to others. I pray for you and hope for recovery. That prayer now includes a request for strength and peace. I am grateful for you and thankful for Vicky’s steady presence in your life. Love and appreciation, Jim

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We’ll Drexel, your writing proves that you still have an abundance of one skill. The physical things may or, in some cases may not, return in time. However, your beautiful mind is just as powerful as ever and, as for preaching and counseling, you are still doing an excellent job through your writing. Hang in there friend. You have great value to your family and friends.

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Drexel you are one Amazing man of God! Even though you have had this time of pain and suffering you have kept your humor and share it with all of us! Hope to meet you soon in the flesh! God bless you abundantly and He is still in control! ❤️🙏

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Drexel, you taught me this lesson long ago and I still reflect upon it: “You aren’t what you do, you are not your illness, and you are still yourself wherever you go.” A light bulb didn’t go off one day to make this transition take place, it was a culmination of little decisions and new reactions to situations. After a while, I thought “Oh, yeah, that’s what Drexel meant.” It’s still a lesson I unlearn and relearn.

Thank you for helping me learn, my friend. I pray that you will give yourself the grace you’ve so freely given others. And if it means anything, I don’t think of you first as a pastor or a cyclist (though thinking of you as a cyclist does make me think about the time you hit that goose). Instead, I think of you as a precious friend who helped me at the absolute darkest point in my life and showed me my life had value through your selfless actions. Helping me to get help, visiting me in the psyc ward and planting the seeds that helped me to learn what I outlined above. And now that I’m a teacher, I try to sow those same seeds of hope in my students, too. Much love and encouragement to you!

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Brandy! How wonderful to hear from you! Thank you so much for these thoughts. They are a gift to me and you’ve truly sent healing into my soul with those gracious recollections. I’ve always celebrated the way you transformed your pain into healing for yourself, and now to so many others. Not only are your words here a gift to me, but obviously to me YOU are a gift to the world you serve.

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John, it’s so good to hear from you – and your words add to my reservoir of resilience. I’ve often thought with gratitude for the opportunity you gave me to do some teaching at Shenandoah. Let’s stay in touch!

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Drexel your words ring true for many souls whose bodies experience chronic illness. The great unknown is “What is my value?”. We struggle to answer this question daily, weekly and sometimes hourly with great physical and emotional pain until we remember God’s measure is not man’s measure. The Bible reminds us that God works through the weak and lowly to accomplish God’s plan.
I feel the pain of my brothers and sisters and pray for comfort and relief. Thank you for being a witness to the power of faith.

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Thank you, Sissy. You remind me of Paul’s poetry, “When I am weak, I am strong. . .”

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What an inspiration your words are! We live our lives thinking we will always be strong, always be healthy and always be able to do what we’ve always done. I think sometimes we are so busy trying to be who we think we are that we forget that God loves us just the way we are at any stage in our life. This article has made me realize that I need to stop feeling sorry for myself because I can’t do what I used to and thank God every day that I am still able to be an inspiration to others as you are. Thank you for the reminder.

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Deborah, it sounds as if you’ve been through a few of those challenges, too, that chip away one’s capacities. And sounds as if you’ve discovered some new capacities, as well. Thank you for inspiring me in your response!

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Dear Drexel, thank you for sharing your pain and progress. You are comforting us with your humor, while it is we who should be comforting you. Humor is a gift. As you have reminded us, times like this revise our priorities and help us discover our strengths. You have always been a masterful story teller and that won’t change. Even if you can’t speak well or sing, writing your stories and songs and playing your guitar will be powerful methods of blessing yourself and others. I still chuckle when I remember your recounting of when you drove your old car into a ditch at a high rate of speed leaving the chassis in the ditch while the passenger compartment skidded on down the road. I also have often retold your joke about the Baptist who went to Heaven thinking Baptists were the only ones there. Your words stick and you have brought truth and rationality to our sense of what it means to be Christian. I keep you, Vicki and your family in my prayers.

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Goodness, I’ll need to revive that particular story about the ’62 Chevy. I wish I still had that car! You’re right, though. Times that challenge us to revise our priorities should be listened to. Thanks for the memories!

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