Skimming Across the Surface

“The value of my life is not dependent upon the degree to which I realize it.” – James Finley

They have this bell that hangs on the wall of the nurse’s station in the chemotherapy infusion pod.  When patients finish their regimen of chemo, they’re invited to ring that bell.  On July 7, I rang that bell with all the strength I had left.  About an hour later, I did the same thing in the radiation oncology building where they even gave me a “Purple Heart” certificate.  I’d made it through the process that yields 92-94% success rate!  My sister and brother-in-law in Virginia sent me a huge bouquet of flowers.  Friends left balloons on my mailbox.  Texts dinged repeatedly: “YOU MADE IT!!”  YES!!  YOU’RE DONE!!!

Ringing the bell in Radiation Oncology immediately after my last radiation treatment!

It is indeed a cause to celebrate, but my doctors had warned me: my symptoms would actually get a little worse in the week or so after treatments ended.  That has been the case.  I still don’t have salivary functioning, no sense of taste, and the pain in my throat at this point is even more acute.  Swallowing is just as much of a challenge as ever. It still hurts to speak and the hearing loss in my right ear has spread to my left.  (I have acquired a profound sympathy for my late mother and a measure of guilt for my lack of patience with her frequent queries, “Ehh?  What did you say?”) 

In fact, it could take up to a year for me to arrive at a “new normal,” the docs say.

“New Normal.” I know what they mean. How acute will my sense of taste be?  How much salivary functioning will return? Will my hearing be restored?  Will I get back to my pre-cancer averages on my bike?  Will I be able to preach again? When will I be able to return to my work at UAB?  After my last blog post in which I spoke about “scaffolding,” several of my dear friends rushed to reassure me that I’ll be just fine, that when this is all over I’ll go right back to where I was.  I know what they mean, and I love them for wanting to reassure me, but to tell you the truth, I don’t want to go back.

Don’t get me wrong!  I want to taste, hear, swallow, speak, and ride my bike, all with abandon and gusto.  I want the confidence that my underwear will stay up.  I CAN’T WAIT to have a BLT (on whole wheat with just a touch of pesto).  I want to savor a filet mignon with a glass of Sangiovese.  Early on in this process, though, around April 28, I reflected on something the Irish poet John O’Donohue said in a blessing entitled, “For a Friend on the Arrival of Illness.”  In it, O’Donohue issued a challenge I decided to take seriously . . .

. . . “Embrace this illness as a teacher who has come to open your life to new worlds.”

I had opportunities every night during this treatment process to listen to the teacher.  In order to manage the pain, I woke up at 2:00 am to take my medication.  Whenever I’d feel the pain of swallowing the pill and water, I made a conscious effort to relax.  I’d remind myself that this experience was teaching me something, although the lesson wasn’t all that clear at the time.  One evening, instead of returning to bed and risk waking Vicki, I went into the living room and laid back on the couch.  I took in a deep breath and just let the thought arise, “I’m here and all shall be well.”

And from a realm beyond words a voice spoke within: “you’ve been skimming across the depths.  Don’t do that anymore.”  All the physical pain was still there, but in that moment, something dark left my soul.

Over the years since I’ve been at UAB, I’ve been busy!  I’ve functioned as if the universe itself depends upon my success.  Then cancer interrupted what I was doing.  You know what? The universe went right on without me.  Most of what I was doing was important, substantive, needed, even beautiful, but to a degree greater than I care to admit, it still stemmed from an insecure ego in need of accomplishment, acclaim, and affirmation in order to feel loved, needed, and important.

The fact is, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.  That might sound really odd to a lot of people, and the pain and discomfort are real, but I’ve encountered a Presence in the midst of these days that has become precious to me.

You see, there is a Solidity beneath all the busyness, a Presence holding us and enfolding us.  In my own preoccupations, I’ve simply lived over it, as James Finley has said, “skimming across the depths.”  When this interruption peeled away the scaffolding, in other words, made it impossible for me to do all those things I was doing to gain recognition and credit, I could grasp better what is essential – that nothing I do can make me more loved.  I’m already there.  I really can let go of the craving for recognition and security because I’m already known and already held.

There really is nothing else but to live out of love.

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.

12 replies on “Skimming Across the Surface”

Thanks Drexel for sharing your journey with me. Your words and experiences bring back a reminder of a similar journey I walked…peace to you dear friend


This shows a depth of truth and spiritual maturity that few of us ever achieve. Treasure and I were talking yesterday about how God uses pain to purify our motives and make us a more fit vessel for Him to pour His love through us to others. You are that vessel!


Drexel, tonight you spoke to my soul and lifted my spirits. Thank you for sharing your journey; the struggles, the revelations, and the joy in the simple things that I take for granted.
LOVE: at the end of the day the love of God, our family, and our friends brings light to the darkness.
Sending my love and friendship.🙏🙏❤️🙏🙏


Thank you, Drexel, again and again! And, CONGRATULATIONS!!! Praying the pain and other ill effects soon subside and a sooner than later arrival of a better new normal.


Drexel, this post came at the perfect time for me. I have felt discouraged the past few weeks because of a persistent physical problem (not life threatening) that is lingering much longer than I would prefer. Your words of the Presence that reassures us that we are loved spoke to me. Thank you! May your recovery continue until you can swallow, taste, hear, and continue to be a blessing!

Dot Coltrane


Thank you Drexel. Your words were just what I needed to hear. I had my first back surgery on July 7. I have God’s miracle of being almost pain free . I can’t even imagine what you are going through physically, yet you are still reaching out wonderful ways. Blessings and my prayers.


Your perspective in this brings to life much of the book of Ecclesiastes. The illustrations that I invision from your experience, in relation to Ecclesiastes, accentuates in an enlightening way, the lessons the book teaches.
Thanks for overcoming the treachery to write us. It’s greatly appreciated.


Wow! From the depths of your soul, these words are a balm to my soul! Thank you. You are a treasure and a gift. I’m grateful that you got to ring that bell and that you received a Purple Heart certificate, but I’m also grateful to know you and to claim you as friend and church family. Praying for strength, peace, and a beautiful new normal for both you and Vicki.


Drexel, I am so glad you have finished your treatments and on your way to more healing. I love the way you write your experiences to us, serious with a little humor on the side. It still reminds me of that saying, “Look for the flowers of joy growing in the rich soil of adversity”


Thank you for sharing. I know you have experienced a lot of pain, but your faith in our Lord has gotten you to this point. What a testimony to all of us. May God continue to bless you.


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