When the Camel’s Back Shatters: How Stream-of-Consciousness Can Pick up the Pieces

In the midst of transition to what is, in many ways, a whole other world (yes, China really is THAT different from everywhere else), I got blindsided last month:  I learned that my mother has a rare form of cancer.  So rare, in fact, that no one seems to know how to treat it.  Additionally, a second disease is masking the cancer, so no one knows what stage she’s at.  It’s been a rough road, grappling with all this while adjusting to a new life, dealing with a hundred different stressors pulling me every which way, and also missing all the people I had to say goodbye to.  It was inevitable that sooner or later, the proverbial camel would get one two many straws on his back and break down.  I just didn’t expect that the camel would shatter.

South Dakota
Mom and I prepare to go spelunking on a vacation to South Dakota, summer 2009.

On Monday this week, I reached breaking point.  I’d been battling along, managing not to cry all the times that I wanted to, and never once really letting myself deal with emotion, because I didn’t want to experience the pain.  I didn’t want to think about the possibility of losing Mom.  I didn’t want to think about how angry I am.  I wanted just to be the happy history teacher, making the other faculty laugh and hearing from the students how much they enjoy my class.  I wanted, in short, to throw myself into work and away from everything else.  That seldom works for long.  And on Monday, after countless technology problems and frustration over some students doing inexcusably poorly on my test, I reached the point where all the anger and emotion couldn’t be buried any more.  I took the early bus home, seeing where I was headed, and by the time we arrived at my stop, I was in tears and breathing felt like the most excruciating impossibility.

Yellow Sea
The Yellow Sea is my healing place.

Qingdao, China

I knew that I needed to let it out.  Anger, fear, sadness . . . they’re all like toxins that you just have to pour out at some point, lest they overwhelm you.  I took a long walk along the rocks in the ocean until I found the perfect secluded boulder, and then I just let it out.  Tears, words, thoughts — eventually, I turned to one final balm:  writing stream-of-consiousness.  Although I am not a fan of much of what this style of writing produces, sometimes, it is the best therapy.  What I wrote is no masterpiece; it’s not poetry, or even anything pretty.  But it helped take me through the very raw emotion that I needed to release, until at last I could get up and go inside to do my grading.  And so, in the hope of helping another person perhaps, I’ll share what I wrote:


Can’t breathe.

A swelling gale, a churning cyclone,

A stabbing ache that never ebbs.

How can You let it happen?

Her whole life, she’s waited for now,

They’ve dumped on her at work,

They’ve taken advantage of her,

They burdened her so thoroughly,

That she nearly collapsed at the end of each day.

She’s worked so hard, waited so long

To retire and spend all day in her garden,

Or traveling, or taking up the hobbies

That she had to let go.

She’s worked so hard . . . 

And just when she had earned it,

Just when she could finally stop — 


It isn’t fair.

All she’s wanted, all she’s waited for — 


Is the clock winding down?

Is this how it ends?

Can’t breathe.

Her whole life . . . 

And now she fights something she can’t fight,

Something she can’t even see,

Something no one understands,

A scoundrel disease that only fights dirty.

They’ll pump poison into her body next month,

Poison to fight something that can’t be killed,

Leaving her weak, ragged, small . . . helpless?

And the only daughter that ever says “I love you”

Is thousands of miles away.

Can’t breathe,

Can’t breathe.

The waves swell up and down, up and down,

This poison in my chest swells, too.

Can’t breathe.

These tears will drown me yet.

I can’t cure her,

I can’t fight for her,

I can’t even hug her.

You called me away and I followed,

And now You’ve left her this way.


I want to scream at you, Lord.

I want to hit these rocks,

I want to punch the ocean,

I want to hurl myself down on these rocks

And hurt on the outside the way I hurt inside.

Can’t breathe.

The sobs are shaking my whole body now —

I want to shake You.

I want to yell at You.

I’m angry at You.  So Angry.

I’m . . . 

I’m sitting.

The waves keep rolling by,

This rock I’m sitting on is firm, unmoving.

I could be swept into the sea,

But I won’t be.

You know.

I’m as small as this barnacle,

But you let me be angry,

You’re Big enough to let me be angry with You.

You can take it.

You understand.

I think I can breathe . . . just a little now.

My tears are mingling with the ocean,

But the tide stays out . . . 

Until I can breathe again.

You made this ocean, this very ocean that calms me now,

You made the rock that I’m sitting on,

You hold back the tide until I can move on.

The breeze pushes the hair out of my face,

I’m small still, but not alone.

I see the gold of your countenance,

On the water, on the sky, on the rocks.

You brought me here,

You brought her there . . . 

You could take it all away, 

In an instant.

But you’re giving us a moment.

I can breathe.

It hurts, but I can breathe.

You might take her, 

But I can breathe.

I’m still angry,

But I can breathe.


6 thoughts on “When the Camel’s Back Shatters: How Stream-of-Consciousness Can Pick up the Pieces

  1. It’s such a personal sorrow for you that I know I shouldn’t intrude. But uncle who has been like dad for us has been diagnosed with secondary stage cancer with a lump in the heart too. All that can be done is treat him with palliative – He’s been through tremendously difficult times in life and all through treated us like his own daughters – i don’t know what to think, what to do – and i’m far from them. Take care. M


    Hopkins knew the Lord was just, yet pled
    The justice of his own request for rain.
    The Psalmist’s echoed accents make it plain,
    It wasn’t the first time such words were said.
    Even Jesus wondered as he bled
    Why God had turned His back upon the pain.
    The Spirit’s calculus of loss and gain
    Cannot be quickly figured in your head.

    So when like Job we groan and question why
    And plead our case, but seem to plead in vain,
    We might remember that the Lord’s reply
    Was simply a refusal to explain,
    And then a pure, white Lamb who lived to die.
    It is enough: We follow in His train.

  3. When we don’t understand, we have to trust. Not trust blindly or hopelessly but trust in the character, faithfulness, and pure Love that we know God is. I am a scientist. I prefer to understand; it’s part of who I am! But the times when I have had to trust are the times when I have grown the most. Growth is often painful, but without growth we decay. While the pain does serve a purpose, it is only the side effect of the growth.

    I began treatment for chronic Lyme disease a little over 2 weeks ago. The treatments have similar effects as cancer treatment. They are worse than having Lyme. I have 18-24 months left. But I hope at the end to be Lyme-free. At least, I have that hope. The treatments may not work. But it will NOT all be for nothing. I will not lose from growing. Your mother has the hope of Heaven and it is NOT an empty hope. The gardens there are beautiful! And while we miss our now Heavenly gardeners, we know we will join them one day. My grandma is saving a corner of garden for me. (Though right now I do miss my earthly garden.)

    Long ago, as a child I gave my life to God to do with as He wanted. I was willing to die for Him. Later, after reading “Pollyanna” I told Him I was willing to live cheerfully as an invalid for Him (“but please don’t make me!”; confident that He wouldn’t ask it of me). Now it looks like my worst fears are my present life. Sickness, pain, and dependency. Complete with debt. I hate being in debt. It feels like an added insult. (And what if the treatments don’t work? How do I pay it then?) Yet when each minute hurts so much that I have to take it a second at a time, I KNOW that I am right where I am supposed to be. Doing what I am supposed to be doing. Not alone. There is no peace like this: being in the center of God’s will for me. Shining with His love and grace in the midst of my helplessness. Pain makes us more transparent. It’s God’s way of shining His lamps.

    Love you Steph! & praying for you and your family.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s