The clothes dropped to the suitcase in a flurry. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone, so I just kept piling them in. Clean, dirty, do I even have a bra to go with this? Doesn’t matter. I barely need one anyway.

Zip. Lift. Roll.

In the next room, Ryan searched for a hotel.

“Which Scripps hospital is he in?”

“I have no idea. Let me call the number Austin gave me.”

The last time I dialed the hospital, I spoke to my dad, only it didn’t sound like him at all. It sounded like organ failure. Confused. Slurred. Adrift. Something was wrong.

“Scripps GREEN. La Jolla.”

“Got it. You’re booked for two nights. We’ll figure out the rest once you know what’s going on.”

Ryan left to attend a funeral; I pulled the kids out of school early.

“Something’s wrong with Grandpa. I need to drive to San Diego right now to help him. Dad will be home in an hour. Stay here and don’t worry. Things might not be good, but they’re going to be okay.”


Like the Santa Ana winds charring my hometown a few hours north, he didn’t know I was coming until I was there, and I was coming in hot.

I see your stubbornness, Old Man, and I raise you one tank of gas. Hand over your medical records, sign this power of attorney and watch me get to the bottom of this.

Two days later, doctors performed an ERCP to stent a liver bile duct blocked by a 3 cm mass on his pancreas while I sat outside with my friend Jesus.

Eventually, my ears heard what my browser history had already made plain.

“He’s out of surgery and will be ready to go home in a few minutes. We’ll have an official diagnosis in two days, but I can tell you now that your dad has pancreatic cancer.”

He’s 61.

I took a breath, then a step, and then another (it’s how I always get from place to place). I got him home, tucked him in, and drove through the night back to Arizona—coffee in hand, Jimmy Eat World on repeat.

May angels lead you in
Hear you me my friends
On sleepless roads, the sleepless go
May angels lead you in


It’s been a month since the initial diagnosis and a couple of days since receiving a concurring second opinion from UCLA (where my dad had a liver transplant in 2010). My brother Austin and his family are in Oregon, I am in Phoenix, my mom and her husband are in Utah, my dad’s siblings are in Iowa, my in-laws are in Minnesota and treatment (chemo) is in San Diego.

Alexa, please tell everyone my word for 2018 is ‘complicated.’

I started a CaringBridge site to, at the very least, simplify communication once we know his next steps. When the site asked me for a page title, everything in me wanted to call it “Shit Happens.” Some of you are laughing because you know that no person has used that expression more than one Gregory Joseph Carstens. If any occasion called for its use, surely this would be it.

Shit does happen. Anyone who tells you otherwise has never rolled around in manure. Figuratively in most cases, literally in ours.

Growing up at Seamair Farm in Montecito, Austin and I would play in pony stall shavings on the regular. We’d wheel each other out to the manure piles with whatever we’d just shoveled, dump it—and each other—into the shavings and then use the wheelbarrow as a sled, gliding down the poop peaks like a pair of pasty Jamaican bobsledders. On cold days, we’d skip the sledding altogether and burrow to our shoulders in the shavings, relishing their warmth.

Shavings and shit, you guys. Can you even believe it? Those were the days of our lives. Best part was, Dad knew all about it and never once told us to stop.

Shit really does happen, you see. We learned early on that you can either whine about it, or you can grab a wheelbarrow.

So, that’s what we’re doing. We’re reaching for the biggest one we can find and we’re filling it to the brim with a perspective that says there’s a broader scope to this story than the crap we’re shoveling.

Come what may, God has us here and he has our backs. Our response is acceptance, no matter the pile’s size or stench.  His goodness is greater. His plans are better. His kingdom still has no end. Nobody’s cancer has ever thrown shade on his sovereignty. It won’t start with our dad’s.

Jesus is here, we are still his, and by his grace we will ride these piles, full of faith and filled with joy.

Wheelbarrows up!