Sometimes I feel like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. Andrew is the ring, only rather than being evil, he is simply, "the Precious." And rather than deliver the ring to the Chambers of Fire, our pursuit is Andrew's health. Oh, the journey persists on and on, discouragement, exhaustion, feelings of wanting to give up, and the ever black cancer always pursuing us. Like Frodo, we have a team of warriors to help us safely to our goal. There are Andrew's parents, who are with us most of the time, his mom taking up residency in our house more than in her own home. There is Sam, my right-hand (wo)man, who organizes the church to meet all our needs for childcare, research help, food, any way she can think of to lighten the burden and free us up to focus on fighting the cancer, there's Bob, who accompanies us to decisive appointments and is shepherding us along with our whole church through this overwhelming quest, and there is my sister, who's doorstep I sometimes slump onto late at night, weak, having lost my appetite for all food. Gayle is the beautiful Erowyn who gathers me onto her horse half-dead and brings me back to her people. She and her daughters tend to me like Cinderella's mice and feed me and feed me and feed me. She and Bob speak gentle words of life, while pouring hot tea into my cup to drink. This close team of warriors are the ones who keep carrying us towards the destination when we have no more strength to walk ourselves and are not sure we can make it to the Chambers of Restored Health.
As this trial has worn on and on and on, I keep thinking I'm at the end of my rope, but the next day arrives and off to the doctor's again. How does one get further and further at the end of a rope if there is no more rope? I wonder if any of you saw me during the day to day if you would think I was anything but a waif of a little girl who lost her way in the forest and just wants to find her way back to the familiarity of home, where a warm fire is burning and nothing ever goes wrong.
Yesterday, after a full night of sleep, I woke up still tired. It was an end of my rope morning where I was like a bubbling cauldron about to explode at any moment. Just-(grunt) need-(grunt)-to-get-alone-at-the-park - (grunt) and-have-my-grapple-with-God-time (grunt).
But I had already overslept and it was time to juice for Andrew. And then the kids were up. Since we didn't need to consult with any doctors for questions, I got to take care of the kids, while my mom took Andrew to radiation. I miss the kids so much. Many weeks of meeting with doctor after doctor trying to make informed decisions, sometimes leaving the house at 8am and not returning until after 6 in the evening, it's as if I have a full-time job that the kids did not sign up for.
If what was going on on the inside were going on outside, I imagine it would look like my hand falling off on Monday. Then by Tuesday, my arm had fallen off. Wednesday my foot fell off. Thursday my leg was gone. And by Friday my neck along with my head stayed in bed while the rest of what was left of me hobbled out and made juice for Andrew.
After Andrew and my mom returned from radiation, I said I really needed some caffeine. (I know, I know. Andrew really wants me to get off caffeine and so I go on and off it, but occasions like cancer keep coming back into my life necessitating it. Yes, it is necessary). My mom and the kids came to Caribou Coffee. There is a little table, chalk board, and a little nook with a box full of toys for kids to play at. I can't remember what it was but for some reason Gracie started throwing a fit. And she has such a loud voice she could be a professional singer. Then the two ladies at the table behind us left, of course. Now Gracie kept wanting to sit on my lap. Finally, I found an American Idol toy that sang some song and made Gracie happy. A.J. showed her how it worked. I tried to take a few deep breaths and relax a little. I spilled the scaulding coffee on my hand. "Ahhhhh!!!!" Grumble, grumble, grumble.
The cauldron in my heart was bubbling over.
I went into the bathroom to wash my hands and clean off my pants. When I finished I turned off the water and threw the paper towel out. I found myself not wanting to walk out of the bathroom. I stood in front of the sink.
"Where's mama? Where's mama?" I heard Gracie's voice crying outside the door. Suddenly the door was swinging open and Gracie was making her way in. The one time I had not locked the door.
"No!" I said.
My mom pulled her back out.
"Where's my mama?! Where's my mama!" I hear Gracie crying still outside the door.
"I think she's in there," a man's voice says. Not my mother's.
I swing the door open. My mom is standing a few feet away where she can watch both Gracie and A.J., who is still sitting at his little table. But my cover is blown, and I cannot return to the bathroom.
Later, when we were back home, I found myself escaping to the bathroom again. I had my head in the corner between the two walls. Now, only Andrew and the kids were home. The kids were banging on the door. I began to sob in a way that I had never heard myself do before. It was like an animal in the forest that a tree had fallen on and it couldn't escape to save it's life. I howled long and loud almost like singing, as if every wail were a phrase communicating in some language that I could never articulate in words.
Thus my heart was grieved,
And I was vexed in my mind.
I was so foolish and ignorant;
I was like a beast before You.
Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You hold me by my right hand.
When I finally opened the door of the bathroom, the kids, who still were waiting at the door, fell at my legs. We all went upstairs, I put on some black pants and buttoned the black cardigan I was already wearing. The four of us got in the van, pulled out into the overcast afternoon, and drove to Ann Sweet, a beloved elder's wife's memorial service. She had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer this past January.
When we turned onto the street leading to the church, it was lined with so many cars, I could hardly drive down it. I turned my face away from everyone, concealed my face with my hand, and quietly began sobbing again. Everyone loved Ann Sweet, even people like us, who hardly knew her. I dropped the children and Andrew off at the church. The three parking lots were full as well as the streets. I had to park two blocks away. She was 73 years old, but like most of the older people at church, I hardly thought of her as old. They are all so vibrant, engaging, and warm, they make you believe the 1950s was only as far away as my own college days (which I am convinced really wasn't that long ago).
I remember when we were at Bob and Gayle's the weekend before Andrew's surgery. Ann and Doug, her husband, sat at the table with us for dinner. They told us how a few days earlier, Doug's mom had taken them out to eat at Wilfire, a steakhouse. It had been raining.
"But Doug got the car and picked you guys up from the restaurant, right?" Bob asked.
"Well of course!" Ann said. "His mom is ninety-five years old and his wife is DIE-ing!"
Somehow she could make you laugh about anything, even if she herself was struggling.
When I arrived at the church, I entered through the downstairs fellowship hall. Bright pink tablecloths covered the tables with friendly, yellow flowers in clear vases. I glanced into the kitchen as I passed. As usual, a bunch of ladies were inside finishing setting up. I found myself half-expecting to see Ann Sweet among them, as she always was one of those ladies bringing food and helping some way. Even though Ann's passing felt real, she still seemed so present through all her works. She and her husband were one of the founding members forty years ago. Her fingerprints were everywhere in our church.
Upstairs, I found myself unwilling to enter the sanctuary, though I could see Andrew sitting at the back with the kids and they had saved a seat for me. Instead, I made my way into the baby cry room where they had a window into the sanctuary. I sat in a seat in the back corner where I was mostly concealed in shadow. I couldn't stop crying. I stood up, went to the bathroom in the same room, found a roll of unopened toilet paper and took it with me back to my seat. I needed a lot of tissues. I cried and cried and cried.
And yet, the memorial service ministered so much to my heart. Each one of her three sons and nine grandchildren were able to get up, talk about how they loved her so much, and made it through their speeches without being overcome with sobbing. There was such a strong sense that though they deeply mourned the loss of their beloved mother and grandmother, they were rejoicing even more that she is with her Savior.
I picture the other believers and angels in heaven saying, "Have you seen the new girl, Ann? She is just the sweetest!"
One son told of how during her last day they all were at her bedside in the hospital. They kept asking Doug if he wanted to be alone with her. They had just celebrated their fiftieth anniversary over the winter. He said, "No, no." And then in the late afternoon, all of a sudden, he said he needed to be alone with her. He had the strongest sense that angels were in the room and as if the Lord was letting him know they had come to take her now. Everyone cleared out, he shared his last moment with her, and then, she was gone.
Doug and Ann had insisted many times in the past to Bob that he absolutely must present a bold gospel message at their memorial services. He faithfully did so, despite it taking everything out of him to keep from weeping for the woman who had been as a second mom to him. Tonight, at prayer meeting an older woman at the church praised God for the message and said, "You know, pastor, I would like you to preach the same message at my memorial service." We all laughed. It made me wonder if a lot of people felt like me, that I hope my memorial service one day will be just like hers. She lived a rich and full life serving her beloved Savior.
"A good name is better than fine perfume,
and the day of death better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart."
Death makes you take life more seriously. It makes you contemplate what you want your life to have meant. It makes you want to not waste it.
I thought, well, in the end, if I want to have lived my life for Jesus, well, trials make you more like Jesus. And being more and more like Jesus is the only way to glorify Him. I felt my heart timidly, softly whispering, what it always comes back to saying, Well, okay then, Lord. I suppose I submit if my life must be one marked by trials. Living for you is the only life worth living, I suppose.
"Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish;
You have destroyed all those who desert You for harlotry.
But it is good for me to draw near to God;
I have put my trust in the Lord GOD,
That I may declare all Your works."
One night a couple of weeks ago, when Andrew and I were talking to Bob and Gayle at their house, I said I feel like that Judas character in the Matrix. The one who wanted to go back into the Matrix and return to life within it, even though he knew it wasn't real. Sometimes I wish it were possible to go back to life being carefree and pretending death wasn't the one thing in life that was inevitable.
But you know what this trial has done? It has stripped me of all the things I really really wanted to place my hope in other than God. I remember the Wednesday we went to the Mayo Clinic a few weeks ago, and Dr. Moore said we needed to have surgery again and basically remove Andrew's head. I nearly fainted and the nurse had to bring me to another room and lay down. When we finished our appointment, she asked me if I wanted her to get me a wheelchair. The kids and my mother-in-law were in the waiting room. I thought, Oh great what a sight that'll make. The patient Andrew, walking beside me in a wheelchair! Lot a hope that'll give his mom and the kids. "Uh, I think I just need to walk around and get some fresh air," I said.The next day we didn't have any appointments at all and someone was already planning on taking the kids for the day. We set aside the morning simply to meet alone with God and pray for wisdom. As I drove down our street to pray at Starbucks, I began talking to God about Andrew, and burst out crying at the thought of losing him. I never made it to Starbucks. Instead, I drove around it looking for an empty parking lot to continue praying and crying in my car. I found myself at Hoolihans. Oh, I didn't know this was where it was. I didn't think I had been there in five years, since Andrew first visited me a month after we started dating. I remembered the picture Bob took in the booth of us while we were waiting for our food. We were sitting awkwardly next to each other. Bob said, "Come on! You can at least put your arm around her for the picture!" After that Andrew kept putting his arm around me every time we sat down.
It was so vivid and felt so recent, I looked at the entrance and could almost see us walking in.
Before I was married, Jesus' presence had been so real to me that this life and the next seemed only to be separated by a thin veil. I had no fear of death and the thought of seeing my Jesus face to face was so exciting to me. I never expected to live a long life and always expected it would be me in the very position Andrew is in right now.
And then beloved showed up. My beloved. The day we were married, suddenly I became so anchored to this earth. I must live and he must live for we must live for each other. My pendulum swung the opposite way. And now I feared death more than anyone and was terrified anytime I stepped into my car.
As I prayed for Andrew in the car at Hoolihans, what came to mind was all the suffering that was going on for so many people. Ann Sweet had terminal lung cancer. All kinds of people were physically suffering as well as in many other ways at our church. It made me long for the day when I would see my Jesus face to face and all the tears would be wiped away and death and misery and fear and pain and suffering would all be done away with and finally we would be free to worship Him as those who love Him long to do and finally be unhindered by that corpse of sin we carry rotting on our back.
When I returned home Andrew and I sat together and talked. I told him I was no longer afraid of death again, and felt a sense of what Paul had said:
"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain...But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake."
(Philippians 1:21, 23-24)
Then I said, "And if I'm not afraid of death, then I'm not afraid of death for you. Then if we see death as the Bible sees it, then it's not disappointing if you die at a young age, because it's not your death. It is the beginning of you being able to fully do what we were created for - to worship Jesus with all our hearts and without sin."
I often wonder if life is like an infant in a mother's womb. Maybe she fights and fights coming out, terribly fearful that exiting is her end. But in actuality, it is her birth. But if she realized how much more colorful and real life outside the womb is, she would see how silly it would be for her to remain in the womb forever.
There are other things the Lord settled with me in my heart that morning. There are so many excuses I gave to God about my hope being in other things than Him. Come on, God, who isn't afraid of death? Come on, God, who wants to lose their husband? You're the One who gave Him to me. Come on, God, how can you give me such a sweet gift just to hurt me and take him away? Come on, God, I will die without him. He is my lifeblood. Come on, God, what will happen to the kids if they don't have a father? I can't teach them about You on my own. Oh no, their eternal destiny is at stake, oh, I can't even go there right now. A.J. needs a man to learn how to become a man from. Come on, God, You've allowed us to build a life together sustainable only together. How will I be able to take care of our family without him? But here is the truth I didn't want to hear and I wasn't sure I believed anymore. But He changed my heart and convinced me of it: "My grace is sufficient."
What about our kids, Lord? I don't want them to have to long for a father and be like that kid, Wesley, from Star Trek the Next Generation, who only had a hologram of his father delivering a message, and he seemed so real he could touch him, but then the program ended.
Come on, God, I don't want them to not even remember him or know how much he loved them - My grace is sufficient. You know I will take care of you.
How will I take care of them? You know I will take care of you.
How will I live without him? You know I will take care of you.
After I told Andrew about all the things that came to mind during my prayer time, we prayed together for the next hour. When I didn't have the words to say anymore, I turned to the Psalms and began praying through them.
In the end, I feel in my heart that we are going to get through this and that Andrew is going to live and survive this. Who knows, maybe the Lord will bless our prayers and make Andrew as good as new on this side of eternity. Who knows, maybe he will even grow to old old age.
This morning I woke up after yesterday's end-of-the-rope day. And you know what I found? I found what God has been showing me the past couple of weeks - every day is a new day and his mercies are new every morning. Yesterday I woke up feeling at the end of my rope. This morning I woke up feeling like this isn't that bad. And it was a beautiful sunny day and I got to have my time with the Lord at the park and the children and I got to spend time together outside and moments together feel like a celebration. Andrew wasn't feeling well, but Hale, Sam's husband, dropped by to sit with him during his lunch hour. Then a couple of men came over tonight to clean our gutters and fix some things. Afterwards, since Andrew felt too tired to go to prayer meeting, while we went ahead, these men sang and prayed with Andrew just like they were at church. Yes, God's grace is sufficient. And though I doubted it many times recently, He has shown me that He is truly faithful, just as He said.