Sometimes we search for signs that God is there and we are sorely disappointed; when a doctor gives us news that we can barely stand to hear, when a little boy struggles mightily to speak with a breathing tube inserted and his eyes plead for relief. Those are the times when we might wonder if God even cares, we are so alone in our misery and despair.
It has been one week now since the news of Jacob’s cancer and the days have blended into one another. I was with Beth while they poked and prodded this little boy, drew blood, forced him to drink a vile liquid, took a CT scan, and generally turned our world upside down. I was there when the doctor told her it had spread, and I could hardly stand to watch her face crumple when they informed her he would need immediate surgery and then chemotherapy and radiation. I have heard her ask “Why?” and not had an answer. I am not privy to her husband Ben’s innermost thoughts but I have seen the rosary and prayer-book he carries with him and I spotted the little bottle of holy water he used to bless his son while we were out of the room. My heart breaks when I see his face after he returns from a visit to Jacob’s room, knowing that this strong man cannot stand to see his little boy in pain. I pray then that their faith will sustain them during this time.
Can Grandma be there to help him through this? my daughter has asked, and I wonder the same thing. We know so little about the other side. We look for signs that there is an angel watching over our Jacob, and he gives us the answer himself when he says to his mother; “Grandma. Angel.” and pats his own shoulder. Can we hope that perhaps he has felt the comforting touch of an angel Grandma? We do not know, but we like to think there is a comforting presence there for little Jacob, and for us, too. And then we remember that in the doctor’s office, after he’d given us the worst news we could possibly imagine and left the room closing the door behind him, I heard from above our heads the most beautiful voice sing these words;“Ava Maria,” and I gasped in surprise, and turned to Beth to point out this amazing song that my mother had loved so much. Before I could even say the words, another generic Christmas song was playing and I said nothing. Later I would ask Beth, “When the doctor left the room after the terrible news, did you hear a song playing?” and she would reply that she hadn’t heard an entire song playing but only heard the two words Ava Maria. I can still hear that voice in my head, but have been unable to find it on YouTube, despite searching through dozens of clips. It was not Celine Dion or Charlotte Church, Susan Boyle or Beyoncé. And it certainly was not a man’s deep baritone.
The slight whiffs of smoke my daughter has smelled on a few occasions in the last few days seem such a small and dubious sign from beyond as well. There could be so many explanations, and yet we want that smell to mean her Grandmother, my mother the avid smoker, is nearby. I, myself have gotten a whiff only once, on the way back from the tests in Iowa City on Friday, when with a heavy heart, I turned around in the front seat to see if Jacob had fallen asleep and was inexplicably greeted with the slight smell of a freshly-lit cigarette.
We hold onto these small and insignificant reminders of a beautiful and loving woman who is no longer here to comfort us. She would have been praying ceaselessly during all this. Yet I cannot lift up the phone and call her, cannot head to her house for a much-needed hug. I miss her so much.
During these darkest of days we walk around in a stupor, and our faith waivers. Why would God let an innocent little boy suffer?
There are so many people praying for Jacob that our heads spin with the knowledge. My blog postings have gone viral, with over 400 people in one day reading them. 400 people praying. 400 strangers caring.
A woman I know from my college days finds me on Facebook after my mother’s cancer diagnosis, and informs me her husband is dying of the same cancer. He dies shortly before my mother does and now this woman is my good friend, my comforter, my strongest prayer warrior.
A group of women who know Beth and I only through a Facebook group, women who have traded some children’s clothing and toys with us, band together and collect donations totalling over a staggering $300.
Ben’s workplace does the same, and he finds $60 on the driver’s seat of his van. Friends and family bring meals and give them money and gift cards.
A sister who has not spoken to me in over 20 years calls me to comfort me and pray with me.
The small miracles pile up around us like the feathers we keep finding on Jacob’s coat. Light and airy, they tumble-down from the heavens in the form of love and support of those around us.
And still we look for a more obvious sign. We want the heavens to open up and the angels to swoop down and surround this little innocent boy in his hospital bed. We want to see the very hand of God reach out and touch his hot little forehead, hear the voice of God assuring us.
It doesn’t work that way, does it?
Tuesday evening, after a long day at the hospital, and before settling in for the night at the wonderful Ronald McDonald house there in Iowa City, I started thinking about Beth and Ben and their children and how Ben, Becca and Jo-Jo would be spending their Christmas Eve there. I looked around and saw other families suffering their own private hells, I see the Christmas trees there and the gifts underneath from generous strangers. I’m amazed by the amount of planning and organizing that running a Ronald McDonald house must take. Each evening a different family or group came in and made supper for the residents of the house. The closets and cupboards were full, thanks to kindness of others. Volunteers came in every morning to clean, run the dishwashers, put away silverware and organize the toyroom. I knew that the staff promised Santa Claus would visit each room on Christmas Eve.
“I want to help Santa Claus come to Ben’s room,” I blurted out to Emily as we ate supper.
An idea had germinated in my head and started growing. I could make a list of what the children liked so they wouldn’t get a generic gift from underneath the Christmas tree. Santa Claus would know their name when they answered the door to their room. He could give Ben something as well. And I could help make this possible by giving a volunteer some money to do some personalized shopping.
When I told Emily my plan, she wasn’t quite on board with it. “No, Mom,” she said. “You don’t have the money to give. Just let them give the kids gifts from underneath the tree.” She almost looked like she was going to cry.
On the bed that evening, I got out my checkbook and wondered what amount might prompt a volunteer to do some personalized shopping. Ben, Becca and Jo-Jo would be there, but shouldn’t Santa also come to Beth and Jacob at the hospital? Perhaps he could bring a gift for Ben to take to them. I jotted down that Ben was very religious and needed spiritual strength, that Beth loved stationery, Jacob loved Army men and Becca was a girly girl who loved stickers and stationery like her mother. After spending the last couple of days with Joseph, I thought that cars and trucks would suffice. Emily watched as I rifled through my purse for money.
“How much are you going to give them? I don’t think you should do this. You don’t have the money, Mom. You’ve already spent so much at the hospital on food.” I noted the urgency in her voice, the worry.
She was right, of course, but something told me I needed to do this. I hesitantly wrote out a check for $5 less than the amount David and I had agreed on as the amount we needed to discuss with each other before spending. I hadn’t been able to discuss this with David so didn’t feel right spending more than $50.
$45.00. Not a princely sum, but one that could make a significant dent in our pocketbook. I promised Emily I would pray about it and wait until the next morning before giving it to the staff at the front desk. The phone rang right then and it was Beth at the hospital, asking me to pray for Jacob to urinate so that they wouldn’t have to reinsert the catheter.
I fell asleep praying for a little boy to pee.
After a surprisingly restful night my decision was made. I went downstairs with my list and money, laying it on the temporarily unsupervised desk and labeling it “For Santa’s elves.” When I went upstairs and told Emily what I had done, she looked increasingly worried.
“You don’t have the money to do that.” she repeated.
I told her it had been my experience, over and over again in my life, that when I prayerfully give from my heart like that, it comes back to me.
“Don’t worry about it. I want to do this. I need to do this. You will see,” I assured her. “That money will come back to me, and maybe more.” She just looked dubious.
We walked to the hospital that morning and reached Jacob’s room right after the nurses had made him walk for the first time. I knew from experience how painful that is after surgery, poor little boy. I smiled when I heard him on the other side of the door saying “Shut up, old man.” He was well enough to be mad, and from his point of view the ultimate insult was to call someone “old man.” Tears were coursing down his cheeks when we entered the room and I knew he didn’t want us there right then. We left him alone long enough to him to fall asleep and when he woke up he didn’t mind our company, but I could tell he was still in pain. He slept off and on throughout the afternoon but wouldn’t eat the jello and italian ices they were bringing him. He only wanted a cookie. When the doctor came in to check on him he ordered the nurses to get the boy a cookie because “after all, it is almost Christmas.” Jacob got his chocolate chip cookie for supper.
Emily and I left the hospital room before 6:00, walking up the hill back to the Ronald McDonald House to meet my son Dan and daughter Rachel. They were going to eat with us there, then head to the hospital to visit Jacob. Dan called because he must have missed the turn-off. “Do you think Emily could come outside there and flag me down?” he asked, and I told him we both would. We trudged outside in the snow and stood where he thought he could see us. I scanned the highway for his car, Emily beside me. I told her to watch from the direction of the hospital, that Dan had passed the turnoff. We both searched intently, hugging our arms to ourselves to keep warm. In our haste, we’d forgotten our coats. We laughed that we should stand atop the higher decorative garden area and wave our arms. How silly we would look to those passing by that were headed to a game. We didn’t hear a car pull up behind us but suddenly there was a woman standing there. She tapped me on the shoulder and we both turned to her.
“Did I see you come from the Ronald McDonald house?” she asked, and I nodded.
“This is for you,” she said then, as she pressed something into my hand,”Merry Christmas.” Then she was gone, and Emily and I looked down into my palm, only then realizing this woman had given me some folded bills.
“Why would she give you money?” Emily asked, and I could only shake my head dumbfounded.
“How much is it?”
Numb, with shock and cold, it took me a moment to respond and my fingers fumbled with the crisp twenty-dollar bills. One, two, three. There were three $20 bills. A total stranger in a passing car had just handed me $60.
Emily gasped and I looked up at her widened eyes.
“There it is. You just got it back, and then some.”
It took me a few seconds to understand what she meant, and then I felt a chill go down my spine. Never before had God been so obvious in his ways. I had told Emily that morning not to worry, that I would get back my money and maybe a little more, but when I’d said it I hadn’t expected anything so quickly. Or so strangely. I believed I might go home and find out someone had sent me nearly that amount in a card, or my sister would tell me I had recently sold a bunch of stuff in that amount at her consignment shop.
God works in mysterious ways.
Through two words of a song my mother loved. Through strangers, friends and family who pray and help us. By giving us a small comfort in the whiffs of cigarette smoke we smell at the oddest times.
By prompting some stranger in a passing car to stop and hand me money. Money that covered the check I’d written out in faith that morning.
And then some.