From Wednesday to Saturday, my stomach pain had been more of a nuisance than anything else. But on Sunday, October 6, that changed. At that point, I still believed I had a stomach ulcer - or something on that level of seriousness. Something that would soon pass. I woke up that morning, and the pain was still there, seemingly more noticeable and present with each passing hour.
Sundays are a whirlwind for me as Worship Pastor at The Bridge. We've got three worship services at two campuses. My sidekick, Sutton Davison, had scheduled a trip to Nashville that weekend, so I had double-duty responsibility that morning. Funny how we get more busy at the worst times, isn't it? I headed to the North Campus first to help The Fryers get ready to lead worship. I remember having to plug in a mic cable under a riser, and as I knelt down my stomach pain became a bit nauseating. I thought to myself, "Am I crazy for trying to do all this today?" But I really felt I had no other option. "I'll worry about my health this afternoon."
I then drove to our Downtown Campus, where we had practice at 9. This was the first time I had sung since the pain started, and it wasn't pleasant. Pushing from my diaphragm and depriving myself of oxygen really aggravated the issue. Rather than the hollow ache I'd been feeling, my pain morphed toward severe heartburn. I thought there was a pretty good chance I'd vomit on stage right in front of the congregation. I've been embarrassed publicly before, but never quite at that level.
We had about an hour between rehearsal and the worship service, and I did something I'd never done before: I went home. I told myself I needed some Pepto for my heartburn, but I really just didn't want to have to talk to people, because I could no longer focus on anything but my pain. I did take some Pepto at the house - remember, this was all for a stomach ulcer. (It wasn't until later I learned that Pepto Bismol is really bad for stomach ulcers. Oops. Didn't matter anyway, 'cause I didn't have no stomach ulcer.)
I was able to get through the worship service without major incident. The heartburn was extremely distracting, and I silently burped between most every line of most every song. Praise the Lord, I didn't vomit on stage, although that would've been extremely rock-n-roll. We picked up Cane's Chicken for lunch. What was I thinking?!
Sunday afternoons are generally a great time of decompression and relaxation for me and my family. But this particular Sunday, Karen and I were going to an Ice Cream Social at church for kid's ministry volunteers. Funny how we get more busy at the worst times, isn't it? I probably didn't need to go anywhere that Sunday, but I certainly didn't need to be eating a wonderfully delicious and unhealthy Ice Cream Sundae. That really put the proverbial cherry on top of a lot of other bad decisions I'd made that week (pun intended).
Needless to say, I wasn't feeling any better when we left the church late that afternoon. One of our best friends, Emery Pendergrass, told Karen she had potato soup on the stove and invited us over. I thought, that's probably exactly what I need. Something easy on my stomach like potato soup. We took the kids to their house and I ate the soup - it was delicious. After dinner, I sat on their couch, satisfied, wondering if finally my stomach would settle. Within ten minutes the pain intensified significantly, to the point that I couldn't focus on anything else, or even sit still. We had to go home.
I just wanted to sleep - for days if necessary - until the pain went away. Turns out sleep would elude me that Sunday night. I lay down in bed, and began experiencing pain like I've never experienced in my life. The dull ache was constant - enough to keep my awake. But every minute or two, there would be a contraction. Yes, that's what I said, a contraction. It would spike to the point that I thought my bowels would explode, and then subside back to the dull ache. That night, more than any other time in my life, I wasn't scared to die. Death would've been a welcome relief from the misery. Blinding pain has a way of reorienting our priorities in ridiculous ways. That's why torture works.
I learned some time later that cancer was growing in my small intestine and constricting my food from passing through. The pressure had built up and built up over the week - fried chicken, steak, junk food, ice cream, potato soup - and my muscles were actually doing the same thing that a woman's muscles do during labor. Except I don't have a uterus, or muscles that are supposed to miraculously expand. So I was experiencing the pains of childbirth with no child-birthing organs. It was a terrible thing.
But I couldn't have known that yet. I lay in bed, hoping not to wake Karen, coming up with new theories in my mind. I doubted that a stomach ulcer would cause this type of cramping. But I'd watched Karen squirm through the unrelenting pain of about three different kidney stones. I felt like she looked in those terrible moments. I remembered sitting in clinic waiting rooms, helplessly watching Karen contort her body in those miserable chairs in a futile effort to find relief. I remembered her moaning and crying as that little rock tried to make its way through a passageway it had no business traveling down. It was like watching Voldemort perform the cruciatus curse on someone in a Harry Potter novel. That's what I felt like. Maybe this is a kidney stone. I hope this is a kidney stone.
Around midnight, the vomiting began. I didn't really mind. Anything was welcome because it brought the hope of relief. Vomiting is an amazing thing, isn't it? Our bodies are made to violently expel any substance that threatens its well-being. You use muscles that you don't know you have, and that you certainly can't control. It leaves you weak because of its intensity. My body was doing what my mind couldn't do, trying its best to thrust out whatever was attacking it. In a way, I was glad to vomit. I felt like I had stood idly by all week as this invisible enemy invaded my body. But throwing up was something - I was fighting back. That's what I wanted to do: fight back. But I couldn't because I had no idea who this enemy was. So I contented myself with throwing blind punches into the darkness, huddled alone over my cold toilet.
Karen was not aware of my frequent trips into the bathroom. She needed her rest for what she was going to face over the next few weeks. As I groaned through the pain in bed, she turned over and looked at me. "Do I need to take you to the emergency room?" I was too tough: "No. I'll be okay," barely able to formulate sentences - stupid macho man.
I had a doctor's appointment on Monday morning. I just needed to push through for a few more hours.