Bear Hunt


“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…” and in a split second the year 2014 ushered in.  I sighed and squeezed Tim’s hand as he leaned over and kissed me gently.  Our neighborhood ricocheted with cheers and the shrill blare of tinny paper horns. 

Normally, when the ball drops, I am jubilant.  I lift my glass and toast to a new year of life and love and adventure.  But this year, as I watched the ball drop and the confetti swirl, I felt a tickle of dread slithering up my back.

Anxiety doesn’t rest well on my narrow shoulders—I’d rather smile and live in the land of denial and lightheartedness.  If I could only push rewind on the clock and go back about six months to the days of summer bliss—before the tempest hit. I’d fork over my entire piggy bank for just one day of my old normal.

I sing a little ditty in the shower.  My husband quizzically looks at me.  “Sam, why are you singing about bear hunts?”

I guess it’s because I can’t get the song out of my head. So, I hum some more.

“We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re gonna catch a big one.  We’re not scared.”

This little refrain is my new theme song.   It makes me feel brave when life is overwhelming.  The bear represents my fears and I’m Katnis Everdeen hunting them down.  Even when I’m quaking in my boots, I do it afraid.  I chase the bear.  If God is with me, then what bear can stop me?

In the story, the family (a mom and dad and three tots) encounter a series of obstacles while chasing a large and scary bear.

Their journey is difficult and they do everything they can to avoid the roadblocks—the raging river, the perilous mountains and the roaring blizzard.  But there is no way around the storms.

‘Oh no,” they say.  “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, I guess we have to go through it.”

This is me in 2014.  I’m on a bear hunt.  I can’t gloss over it, or avoid it. I can’t stuff the emotions or hide from the inevitable, I must go through it.

I returned to my office last week—quiet and subdued, more melancholy than my normally chipper demeanor.

“How was your holiday Sam?” my co-worker inquired.

 “Well, my dad cornered my brother and step-mom on Christmas day and beat them with a bed post.  I spent an hour on the phone trying to talk him out of killing them.”

Pause.  Friend opens his mouth in horror.

The next day my father jumped off a balcony believing bad guys were chasing him.  It wasn’t suicide, it was paranoia—it’s evil twin.

I was in Burlington Coat Factory when I got the call–a broken back, compound fracture of the tibia and fibia, and a shattered ankle.  Three surgeries scheduled. 

I remember my dad saying only a few weeks ago, “At least I’m not in physical pain like your mom is with the pancreatic cancer.  She suffers brutally, Sammy, I’m just turning into a nutcase.”

I think it’s a toss-up now who’s in the most pain.  At least, my dad is psychotic–maybe his pain is numbed by brain atrophy? 

Christmas was a blur of beautiful and sacred moments with my mom–trying on dresses and twirling before her, watching the kids open presents, and having a Christmas meal on the sofa like a picnic because she was too weak to sit at the table.  Every minute with her, I pack into a mental scrapbook of treasures–knowing this is my last Christmas with her and cherishing every look, tear, and whisper of love.

There were many visits to the hospital to visit my dad.  It was gut-wrenching.  For a week his eyes were locked shut, his mouth open under labored breathing.  When he woke, he cried out in terror and punched nurses believing they were trying to hurt him.  The nurses retaliated by drugging him back into unconsciousness. 

I don’t blame them.  I would do the same with a random crazy guy, but it’s different when the crazy guy is your daddy. 

The family in the story finally finds the bear in a dark ominous cave.  They accidentally wake the beast and he roars a terrible roar and shows his sharp teeth. The family runs like hell back through the raging storm, the treacherous mountains and the wild river.

Finally they arrive home and lock the door.  They hide in a bedroom and hold one another close and sing, “We went on a bear hunt and we caught a big one.  We’re not scared.”  And they laugh in the nervous jittery laugh of those who have survived their worst fears and looked the demon in the eye.

And so when I answered my friend at work, I laughed this same jittery laugh and thought of the bear chasing me. 

While I’ve never been afraid to confront my fears, it seems like now my worst nightmares are chasing me.  The fear of being alone—orphaned without the safety net of my parent’s covering, the fear of watching a loved one suffer (much less two at the same time) and the fear of letting go and confronting death.

And like the family in the story, I can’t escape.  The pain is present no matter where I go and it doesn’t get any better avoiding it.

I have to face the mountains, the river and the storm. 

And one day, I imagine I’ll make my way home again and hide under the covers and look back in wonder that this journey didn’t kill me.  It feels like it should.  But it didn’t.

The bear hunt will be behind me. And I’ll be different because of it.


Two Donuts too Many

Sugar Glazed Donuts

It was a tough morning.  My dad was disoriented. 

It’s been one good day followed by two or three bad, and then a new level of normal is established.  His deteriorating brain condition is a descent into a valley of unexpected challenges and simultaneous sacredness.

We were at church on Sunday morning—the big campus of Mariners—mega Christmas awesomeness on display.

I handed him two donuts.  He looked at me baffled.

“What do I do with them?” he asked.

“You eat them.” I replied sadly.

“But there are two.”

I nodded and braved a tepid smile.  “Let me hold one for you, daddy.”

With one doughnut in hand my dad seemed to understand the idea of eating.  He opened his mouth wide and took a big bite.

Just then, some friends walked up. “Hi Sam.  We’ve been praying for you.  How are you holding up?”

I put on my fake pastor’s wife smile, choked back the tears, and said, “I’m hanging in there.”

And then my dad, who alternates between incoherency and moments of crystal clear clarity, minus a filter, and with the adorable impulsiveness of a toddler shouts out, “Why don’t you tell them how you’re really doing Sammy?”

He winked at me at laughed maniacally.  I stood there floored.

And then I laughed until I cried.

Ok, dad, how exactly do I let it rip?  How do I say, in the midst of church small talk and a gazillion people, that my world is tipping and swaying uncontrollably?  Sometimes I feel like poop and sometimes I feel so blessed.

That my days are spent balancing a big family, work, the chaos of Christmas and two terminal illnesses.  One day I’m decorating a Christmas tree and hanging Barbie ornaments and the next watching my step-dad weep with abandon as he faces a life without his beloved?  I swim in the pool with my toddler and growl like wolverine and then  walk upstairs and cradle my mom’s hands, the hands that raised me and calmed me, as she wince’s in pain as the cancer ravages and steals.  Do I mention the night terror’s that woke me up last night as my dad screamed and cried and slapped my step-mom believing intruders were in the house?  Do I say how hard it is to watch my daddy drift into a veiled world of paranoia, black spells and confusion?

I chewed on my thoughts as we entered the sanctuary.  And then in the mysterious way that only God speaks, we listened to a sermon about Jesus who stepped into the messiness of life.  My step-mom squeezed my hand and we sat back and breathed in the message. 

It felt like God knew EXACTLY what I needed to hear.  That he is with me in this mess.  That he understands why donuts will now forever make me cry and he doesn’t mind that sometimes I babble on and on—half in shock and half in wonder—at the beauty and darkness of my life all jumbled together.

And I knew God was reassuring me as I watched my dad lift up his arms with abandon and worship, punching his fists in the air like a little kid, just waiting for his heavenly dad to pick him up and carry him home.

So, to answer my friend’s question of “how are you holding up?”

I would say, in all honesty…I’m a hot mess.  A teary-eyed, wistful mess—anticipating unexpected lessons in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and both excited (and terrified) to see what the next day holds. 


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