By Norris Burkes
Posted Jul 16, 2017

I spent last week packing heavy suitcases for our new overseas life. However, they were relatively light compared to the suitcase of worry I had to unpack during a recent dentist visit.

I’d come to check out a bump on my hard pallet, but no sooner had I dispensed my tongue to say “ahh” than he involved an oral surgeon. The surgeon sent me to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor “just to be on the safe side.”

The ENT exam began with a young resident jamming his index finger in my mouth like he was looking for loose change in a couch cushion. As the resident hunted, the ENT doctor joined our party.

The doctor asked how I was doing, but my answer sounded more like a charismatic evangelist speaking in tongues.

“Whaaa up hawk?” I asked, feigning a casual note.

The resident released my tongue from its gibberish desires so I could explain things to the doctor. “I have a bump the size of a pea in my upper jaw.”

I told him that I was looking to get travel clearance for our “four-month European chocolate expedition.”

I had legitimate reasons to worry. During my chaplain training, our supervisor warned us that we’d see enough tragedy to make us honest hypochondriacs.

“Just a professional hazard,” he shrugged.

He was right. I’ve met patients whose story began with a simple visit to their family doctor. Suddenly a specialist sends them to a surgeon and hospice soon follows. When you see this much, it’s easy to wonder, as Hemingway did, “When will the bell toll for thee?”

Confiding in the doctor, I unpacked some personal story. I described how I picked up a limp while running high school cross-country. The limp developed into a bone tumor and, at 17 years old, I was sure I’d lose a leg to amputation. Gratefully, the tumor was benign.

But most of all, my bag of fear transferred from a connecting flight with a friend’s story. In the early ’70s, I lived with my roommate, Roger, in an asbestos-packed flophouse on the edge of Baylor University. Despite a small fire in the house, we stayed in the damaged apartment an additional 18 months.

Twenty years ago Roger made a round of doctor visits and was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer. We never learned the cause of his cancer, but I’ve always suspected the asbestos smoke from our college days.

Gratefully, only a few minutes into my exam, the ENT doc kicked my overweight bags off this flight.

“Actually you have another smaller bump on the opposite side.”

I inhaled. “What?”

“Nothing to worry about, he assured. “Bad things don’t come symmetrically — only good things.”

I squinted, not understanding. He dumbed it down a bit more.

“If that was a tumor, you wouldn’t have a matching lump on the opposite side.”

I sighed. The good doctor had repacked my story, scanned it through security, and found no worries.

All of us try to smuggle our bags of worry onto our flights. But sometimes we need to set those bags down and find someone to share them with. We need the help of friends, family and sometimes professionals to help us unpack and re-examine them.

In other words, we need help finding those good things in life that come in symmetric pairs like faith and family, purpose and direction or travel and culture.

My luggage may have shifted during this flight, but the doctor was on a smooth glide path when he suggested only good things come in pairs. He cleared me for take off and sent me packing to find some of those good things on the other side of the Atlantic.

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