The One You Don’t See Coming: A Divagation,
Including Blood Cell Count, Water, Polycythemia Vera
“The one you don’t see coming” is the title of a West African tale I’ve come to love. Collected by Harold Courlander, the story is about young hunters who, to prove their prowess, set out to kill Sleep or “the one you don’t see coming” as the Old Ones call this mysterious animal that no one has seen. One of the young hunters waits in a tree beside the river. His plan is to ambush Sleep when it comes for a drink. The night is long and the hunter grows tired of clinging to a tree branch and waiting. Though he can’t see it, he suddenly believes that the mysterious animal Sleep has got a hold of him and is scrambling his mind. He cries out for help as he falls into the river. His fellow hunters pull him out of the water. They conclude that the Old Ones are right: It’s foolish to try to kill Sleep. No one can see Sleep. It sneaks up on you and scrambles the mind to forgetfulness. In the morning you don’t remember much, but there you are.
In earlier posts I’ve used the term “the one you don’t see coming” to refer to the unexpected in life’s journey. The unexpected can be a blessing, as when a good Samaritan shows up, patches up your wounds, and transports you to a safe haven where you can rest and heal. The unexpected can be an illness that has a poor prognosis with which you’ve got to live, in the time remaining, with gratitude and love. I’ve been using “the one you don’t see coming” particularly in this latter sense.
Blood Cell Count, Water, Polycythemia Vera
I wrote this piece about six years ago. My final diagnosis at this time was polycythemia, without the vera. This completes “The One You Don’t See Coming: A Divagation.”
Blood Cell Count
One Saturday in early March of this year, around 6:30 p.m. or so, I had a good draft of my sermon in my hand, I had eaten dinner (such as it is when Joan isn’t here and I cook my own food), and I was happily sitting in front of the TV, when the phone rang. It was our primary care physician and my first thought was: “Isn’t it rather late on a Saturday evening for him to call?”
My second thought was that the call was for Joan, who was still in Virginia visiting my daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons. The call, it turned out, was not for Joan, but for me. After my recent physical examination, the doctor had called and, because I was out of the house, talked to Joan about my blood test results. All was fine, except my blood cell counts. They were slightly off, and the doctor wanted me to be retested. He told Joan that I might have a lowgrade infection of some kind.
Earlier that week, I had gone in to have my blood drawn. Later in the week, especially as Friday passed, I began to think, I guess no call from the doctor’s office must mean that everything is hunky dory. The last thing I expected was a calI on Saturday night.
The doctor said my white blood cell count remained slightly low and my red blood cell count slightly high. He wanted to refer me to an oncologist, a cancer specialist, to help him sort things out. I asked him what might be my problem. He said he wanted to be sure that I didn’t have leukemia. He said that his nurse would set up an appointment with the oncologist and call me on Monday.
It’s always shocking to hear such news out of the blue, when you pretty much feel fine, except for an annoying gastric reflux problem which the doctor has been treating. I asked a few more questions, but ran up against my own ignorance of what leukemia was. The doctor said to call him if I or Joan had questions. I told him that Joan was still in Virginia. I said, “I guess I’ll wait till she comes back home before I tell her about this. I don’t want to spoil her visit with my daughter, son-in-law and grandsons.” I didn’t want her climbing into the next plane to come home. The doctor allowed that was a good thought.
I went immediately to our Merck Manual and the article on leukemia. The first words I read were these: “Leukemias are cancers of the blood cells,” initalics. There it was, that dreaded word, cancer. I read on, about the four major types of leukemia, two acute with rapid progression, and two chronic with slow progression. I read through the symptoms, diagnosis, and prognosis and treatment of each, and when I was done I concluded that it was the better part of wisdom not to self-diagnose but to wait to hear what the oncologist had to say.
But I did begin to consider the what ifs. My father lived to be 92, and my mother to 83. What if my time was shorter than either. I began to consider my priorities. What was most important to me? My life with Joan? My life with my children and grandchildren? My life in our church community and in the larger church? My life in the body of Christ and in God?
What about the course my life has taken? Have I not given enough? Must I give more? Do I drop everything and go in another direction? Have I not been living right? Is God trying to say something to me? What does it mean to have cancer?
It is so tempting to think in this way. This terrible thing is happening to me because God is punishing me for what I have done wrong. This wonderful thing is happening to me because God is rewarding me for what I have done right. The devil wants to lure us into this way of thinking: to measure sin for sin, good deed for good deed, so we can work our way out of hell and into heaven.
But that’s not what Jesus tells us to do. Jesus says, “No, I tell you; unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.” The need to repent doesn’t depend on whether good things or bad things are happening to us. The need to repent depends on our thirst as spiritual beings “in a dry and weary land where there is no water,” on our awareness of ourselves as sinners, as creatures who have made other things than God the guiding motive in our lives.
The call to repentance has nothing to do with rewards and punishments. That’s the way of the world, the way of the tempter. The call to repentance has to do with our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As it says in the song, “Come to the Water”:
You said you’d come and share all my sorrows.
You said you’d be there for all my tomorrows.
I came close to sending you away.
But just like you promised, you came in to stay.
I just had to pray.
And Jesus said, “Come to the water, stand by my side.
I know you are thirsty, you won’t be denied.
I felt every teardrop when in darkness you cried.
And I long to remind you that for those tears I died.”
God loves us as a parent and wants us to return from our wanderings to him, so he may take joy in us. He wants to have a renewed relationship with us. It is in God’s nature to shower blessings on us, even the gift of his Only Son, whether we are good or bad, so this reconciliation will happen. He places the goodness of creation at our disposal, so we are watered and may give thanks and return to him.
Of course, when Joan got back to town, she went to every appointment with the oncologist with me. After more blood tests, a cat scan, and a bone marrow biopsy, the doctor ruled out leukemia. That was a good thing, and Joan and I were happy. All my internal organs, especially my pancreas, was fine. My red blood cell count was still a little high and my white blood cell count was low. My diagnosis, I was told, might be polycythemia vera, ” … a [rare] disorder of blood cell precursors, resulting inan excess of red blood cells.” The doctor would see me again in three months. If my red blood cell count went up in three months, the treatment would be to give blood at the blood bank periodically, to get the red blood cell count down.
Three months was last Tuesday. The doctor found my red blood cell count to be normal (hurray!), though my white blood cell count was lower. I have had no infections. I’ve had a busy June, with VBS in Clancy and at Blackfeet United Methodist Parish. I’m on my two month Summer leave right now, and I have been completing a honey-do list, building a fort for two of my grandchildren, and Joan and I are starting a small publishing company, Rice Universe Publishing. Our first book will be a collection of Joan’s weekly columns which appear every Saturday inthe Helena Independent Record.
As we live through periods of uncertainty and questions, this is what I know and believe: I will not live forever, except in God through Jesus Christ. In the body of Christ, no matter how we worship for example, we are one in God. And no matter what ishappening in our lives, it is always a right and proper thing to repent, to turn to God, to come to the water and to stand beside Jesus Christ. It is the water of our baptism that God sustains and nourishes us in the valleys life and in our life with him beyond.