It was nothing more than a simple loaf of bread, but its message was powerfully unique to each of us. For the downtrodden, homeless man, it symbolized hope and life. For me, it represented humility and submission. Worlds apart, he and I, yet as we sat on a cold bench in downtown Ogden, we became one. The only difference between us was the gift we would receive.
Gift exchange was a fun tradition in our Utah neighborhood. Days before Christmas, our front porch became a breeding ground for homemade treats, tins of cookies, chocolates, and bags of caramel popcorn. One afternoon, I came home to a beautifully wrapped loaf of bread. The tag identified it as one of Great Harvest’s holiday staples: orange marmalade swirl. I smiled as I picked it up and carried it to the kitchen to join the rest of the treats. Such a lovely tradition, however, the number of treats always surpassed my husband’s and my ability to consume them. I never told anyone, but every year, I set aside a few goodies for us, then took the rest to the James V. Hansen Federal Building, where I shared the bounty with my co-workers.
Located on the corner of Grant Avenue and Historic 25th Street, the “Federal Building” was home to thousands of employees serving in multiple agencies. Parking around the six-story building was strictly reserved for visitors; therefore, us Feds parked across the street. Not a big deal, it was a short walk in the spring and summer, but in the fall and winter, when daylight hours were few, the walk seemed longer. I dreaded it.
Lampposts along the street and throughout the parking lot were intended to shed light on the darkened city block. Their illumination, however, produced a shadowy-infused ambiance. This created opportunity for ill-intended street occupants to engage in inappropriate behavior. As I walked to and from my car in the early morning and evening hours, I was accosted by men who emerged from the shadows. Some wanted money, others wanted sex. Refusal of either resulted in verbal attacks of profanity. It was an ongoing ritual; one that hadn’t broken any laws. I learned to simply ignore it, which is why I crossed the street without so much as a glance at the downtrodden man on the bench.
Clutching my purse and the loaf of marmalade bread, I hurried passed him and entered the safe confines of the Federal Building. My stomach was churning. By the time I made it to my office on the fourth floor, I was sweating profusely. As I took off my coat and mittens, I stared at the loaf of bread I placed on my desk. My heart began to pound wildly as these words entered my conscious: “Give him the bread.”
“No,” I said aloud to nobody in particular. I was not going to place myself in an awkward or potentially dangerous situation. Besides, I had already taken off my coat; I was not going back outside.
“Give him the bread.”
The prompting became stronger the longer I resisted. I could not concentrate. I could not get my heartrate down, nor could I stop sweating. After about 10 minutes, I reluctantly submitted. I put on my coat and mittens, grabbed the loaf of bread, and headed outside.
His head was tilted down, but he wasn’t asleep. I hadn’t noticed before, but he was an older man. His long gray hair was curly and stuck out from underneath a red crochet hat. He had on a waist-length black coat and brown boots. Looking at this man, my heartrate settled down. My stomach stopped churning. My fear immediately subsided.
“Hi,” I said. “My name is Vivian. Would you like some orange marmalade bread?”
Instead of looking up and accepting my gift, he shook his head ‘no’ and continued to stare at the ground.
“Do you not like orange marmalade?” I asked, sitting down beside him. Again, he shook his head, still refusing to look at me. “Me neither,” I confessed.
He had nothing to say to me and I didn’t know what else to say to him. I was confused at the prompting. Why go through all of this just for him to refuse my gift? We sat in silence for a few minutes before I stood up to leave.
“Well, I better get inside so I won’t get into trouble,” I said. He still would not look at me.
“I hope you have a blessed day. Merry Christmas.” As I turned to walk away, the man yelled at me. “Hey, get back here!”
From the tone of his voice, I expected confrontation. I cautiously turned around and for the first time, I saw his face. Tears were rolling down his rosy cheeks into his untrimmed beard. His expression softened. “Thank you,” he said. “Merry Christmas to you too.”
I nodded and smiled. Now I understood.
It was just a loaf of bread, pure and simple, and though neither he nor I consumed any of it that cold December morning, it nourished and filled our bodies. It was never my gift to give to a homeless man. Rather, it was a special gift intended for both he and I. It was never about the bread.
“I’m too old for this,” I said to myself as I added more acne cream to my nose. The stubborn red blemish that took center stage on my face showed no sign of ever leaving, despite the plethora of facial scrubs, creams, ointments, and acne treatments I tried. I was becoming quite frustrated; the unwelcomed nuisance had been there for months – it interfered with my vanity – I wanted it gone.
Little did I know, it had to be there. It had to grab my attention, for without it, I may not be here today.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s – a time where kids spent hours playing outside. I don’t recall lathering up with sunscreen before heading out the door though, despite my blonde hair and pale skin. It just wasn’t something people did back then. I burned a lot as a kid. As a teenager, I spent the weekends laying on a towel in the backyard, slapping gobs of baby oil on my arms and legs in an effort to tone down my pasty white skin. The oil was supposed to attract the sun so you could tan faster. It attracted the sun all right, but I never tanned – I burned. Same outcome in my twenties and thirties when I traded bottles of baby oil and natural sunlight for bronzers and tanning beds. I was caught in a vicious cycle: lather, burn, repeat.
I figured the spot on my nose just needed a strong, acne prescription from Dr. Neuenschwander, a local dermatologist in town. In a matter of days, I thought, it would be gone, and I would go about my business, never to think of it again. Boy, was I wrong. I am reminded of it every day.
“That isn’t a pimple,” Dr. Neuenschwander told me as he inspected my face with a dermatoscope. “It is a broken capillary. It won’t go away with medicine, but you can have it removed with laser treatment if you would like.”
Darn. Not the quick fix I hoped for, but an easy fix, nevertheless. As I stood up and thanked him for the diagnosis, Dr. Neuenschwander suggested he do a full body skin scan. He could tell I had sun damage and wanted to look to ensure there were no other weird spots. I was happy to oblige; I was there anyways, might as well get my money’s worth.
The blackish-blue spot on my left shin had been there for years, I told him when he inquired. In fact, I had it looked at a few years ago during a routine exam and was told to simply watch it for changes. It never changed, so I dismissed it. The look of concern on Dr. Neuenschwander’s face alarmed me. When he insisted on doing a biopsy, a slight rush of fear entered my body. When the biopsy report came back two days later, I dropped to my knees.
“Superficial spreading malignant melanoma, Stage III/IV”, that is what the pathology report said. The blackish-blue spot on my shin had been classified as the most dangerous and deadly type of skin cancer. On the surface, the spot had not changed or grown, however, it had penetrated deeply into my skin and was branching out. I was at risk of the melanoma invading my internal organs if it had not already.
To say I was shocked at the diagnosis is an understatement. In a matter of days, I went from being a healthy woman with plans and aspirations, to becoming Dr. Elliot Asare’s newest cancer patient at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Dr. Asare is a surgical oncologist who specializes in melanoma.
The first two surgeries were quite invasive. To ensure no cancer cells remained, Dr. Asare had to take an exceptionally large chunk out of my shin. To determine if the melanoma spread, he also had to perform a sentinel lymph node biopsy. In ten business days, he informed us, we would know whether the cancer had spread. We would discuss treatment then, if necessary. In the meantime, he ordered me to remain immobile and heal; I would undergo reconstructive surgery and a skin graft to put my leg back together in five weeks.
Ten days. It felt like 10 years. The emotional pain of not knowing my fate was worse than the physical pain I was forced to endure. I worried. I prayed. I cried. I even begged. Once I exhausted myself, I finally trusted. I remembered my faith and recalled all the answered prayers of my past. Suddenly, my thoughts circled back to that annoying red spot on my nose. Had it been strategically placed to where I could not miss it? Would I have seen the dermatologist if it had not been there? How long would I have gone without knowing I had melanoma? Could it be the red spot was a blessing and not a curse?
I got the call on the tenth day. By then, I had Huntsman’s phone number memorized, so when the number popped up on my phone, my heart pounded wildly. This was it. This was the call I waited for. I had come to a place of acceptance; no matter what, I would put it in God’s hands.
“Mrs. Cumins, this is Dr. Asare’s office. We received the results of your lymph node biopsy. The results came back benign. We have no reason to believe the melanoma spread. You are incredibly lucky; it was caught early.”
For the second time in two months, I dropped to my knees. I managed to thank the nurse and confirm my next set of appointments before disconnecting the call and bursting into tears. This time, my tears came from a place of gratitude, not fear.
Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States every fourth Thursday in November. It is a day to which we give thanks and count our blessings. Though it was a difficult and challenging time, I learned valuable lessons in trust, gratitude, and humility. I am thankful for that unsightly red spot on my nose. To me, it symbolizes mercy; I have no plans to remove it.
What are you thankful for this year? Share in the comments or hop on over to the Forum and tell us about it! Happy Thanksgiving my friends!
I asked to go last. There were two adults before me, a man, and a woman, both dressed in the same thin, light blue gown. I was only 10 years old, so my gown was a little big and went all the way to the floor. As I watched them take two steps down into the waist-deep tank of warm water, I suddenly questioned my decision.
I should have gone first, I thought to myself – get it over with. I wanted to turn around and leave, but that was impossible. My mom was in the way. Standing in the shadows with a big smile on her face, she held a fluffy white towel in one hand and a bag of dry clothes in the other. She was proud; she had no idea I was having second thoughts.
Panic invaded my senses as I watched my born-again brother and sister lean back trustingly into the arm of our pastor, Brother Gene Strother. Slowly, Brother Gene guided their bodies into the water until they were completely submerged. Shouts of “Amen!” and applause could be heard coming from the congregation as Brother Gene quickly snapped them to their feet. No doubt, I would receive the same reaction from the congregation when it was my turn, that is, if I had the nerve to go through with it.
Aquaphobia is a fear of water, often developed from a traumatic event during childhood. For as long as I can remember, I have had a fear of water. This is the reason I never learned to swim. You read that right: I can’t swim. I have, however, taken swim lessons – twice. Unfortunately, I was kicked out of class – twice, and my registration fees were refunded – twice. I suspect I am partly to blame. I refused to put my face in the water. The thought of it gave (and still does!) me anxiety. I begged my instructors to teach me to doggie paddle instead. Dogs were great swimmers, and they didn’t put their heads in the water! Neither instructor was impressed with my observation and neither complied with my request; one even told me I was “unteachable.” Now that was a little harsh, don’t you think?
I don’t remember the incident, but I learned years ago that I did, in fact, experience a traumatic water-related event when I was two years old. It was a sticky summer afternoon and my dad, mom, sister, and I were out on a boat on Lake Chickasha. My sister liked to lean over the side so the waves could slap against her bare hands. As is typical for a little sister, I wanted to do what she was doing, except I was at a disadvantage. My arms were much shorter. I ended up leaning too far and falling overboard, face-first into the lake. I was only underwater for less than a second before my dad immediately sprang into action and grabbed me by my life jacket and pulled me out. Less than a second, but the damage was done. From that moment on, I feared water.
I didn’t think about being immersed in water when I walked the aisle of Maranatha Baptist Church in search of salvation. All I knew was I loved Jesus and wanted to go to Heaven someday. Nevertheless, Brother Gene informed me that the act of baptism followed salvation as a public expression of one’s faith. I understood and agreed it was the proper thing to do; however, I was afraid. Brother Gene promised he would hold me tight, and I could even hold my nose if I wanted to. I reluctantly agreed.
As my turn inched closer, I realized there was no turning back. I decided to go through with it even though I was afraid. Brother Gene was waiting in the middle of the baptismal with his left arm extended. I grabbed ahold of his hand as I stepped into the water. I was shorter than the two who had gone before me. Instead of my waist, the water came up to my chest and caused my heart to beat wildly. Brother Gene leaned down and whispered, “You are doing great! You ready?” I nodded my head, pinched my nose with my left thumb and forefinger, and closed my eyes tight.
I don’t remember going under, but I remember coming up because my foot slipped, and Brother Gene had to grab me to keep me from going under a second time. Once I regained my balance, I turned my head towards the roaring congregation. People were on their feet clapping and cheering for me. Brother Gene offered me a ‘high-five’ before helping me up the stairs and out of the water. Praise the Lord, I did it!
Aside from the obvious, this memory has a special place in my heart. Throughout life, there have been times when I needed or wanted to do something, but fear incapacitated me. As I grow in faith, I find the strength necessary to take steps forward – to do it anyway – to do it afraid.
I still have a fear of water. I still can’t swim. But, I have driven a jet-ski. I have waded in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I went on a 5-day cruise across the Caribbean for my honeymoon, and crossed the English Channel from Germany to England on a ferry. I have learned that faith plus courage often produces the most precious memories. My baptism 39 years ago is one of them.
I am not sure if I heard it rip or if I merely felt it rip. One thing was certain, the 35-pound kettlebells I held in each hand as I ran around the gym had just contributed to tearing something in both of my shoulders. Being new to the world of Crossfit, I was still learning the limits to which I could push my body. Apparently, I had just exceeded that limit.
Not wanting to overreact, I nursed my injuries with aspirin and a heating pad for a few days, but the pain in my right shoulder was intensifying. I made an appointment with Dr. Watson, an orthopedic surgeon, who ordered an MRI.
The MRI showed nothing. No tear or damage—literally, nothing. Dr. Watson informed me he could do exploratory surgery to see what might be causing the pain, but he couldn’t guarantee anything. It was a risk, he said, and one I needed to decide if I was willing to take.
I left that appointment confused as to what to do. I didn’t want to deal with the cost or hassle of an unnecessary surgery, but then again, maybe the MRI was wrong. I decided I needed to seek wisdom from God on this one. I prayed silently all the way from the clinic to an overpass bridge approximately two blocks from my office. Typically, I don’t ask God for signs; I just say a prayer and go about my day. But this day, I was so conflicted about what to do that I blurted out, “God tell me what to do—give me a sign if I need this surgery or not!” Just as I was descending the overpass, there was a big, bright orange sign in the middle of the road. I had to slow down and swerve to avoid hitting it straight on. It said, “Shoulder Work Ahead.”
Road crews use those kinds of signs all the time to notify the public they are working on the streets, but I have never noticed them before. But this day, there was no ignoring the sign. It was in plain sight. I began laughing out loud at the way God had chosen to answer my prayer. He literally gave me a sign!
As soon as I parked my car, I walked to my office and made the call to Dr. Watson’s office.
The surgery revealed I had a labrum tear where the bicep tendon attaches and a rather large bone spur. I would find myself hanging out with Dr. Watson a year later to perform the same surgery on the left shoulder, but that time it showed up on the MRI, so no sign was needed!
What I love so much about this memory is it is not only a great lesson in faith, but it also shows God has a sense of humor. Have you ever been given a “sign”?