Yesterday my daughter Elizabeth called her house shortly before noon to inform us that the surgeon had, indeed, found cancer in Jacob’s lung. No bigger than a lima bean, the cancerous growth meant that, just six months after his treatment, Jacob’s Wilms’ tumor had returned. He will now be facing additional treatment that likely involves a stem cell transplant and stronger chemotherapy drugs that will be administered through a Hickman line that was inserted during surgery.
Time stopped as I stood there holding the phone, long after Elizabeth had hung up. I was startled out of my revere by a slight movement from the couch. I looked down at the little boy staring up at me; my three-year-old grandson, Jo-Jo, bleary-eyed from having abruptly woken from a nap by the ringing phone. As if in slow motion, I sat down beside him, pulled him close and sobbed quietly into his back. He struggled a little against my tight embrace, and I loosened my grip, kissing the top of his head. “I love you,” I whispered hoarsely, and a little voice whispered back, “I love you, too.” Then he pulled back to look at my face, and I forced a gentle smile, lightening my tone, “So, how about those corn dogs Grandma promised? Should we go get them?” He nodded his head, jumped from my lap, and ran to get his shoes. Thick with grief, my fingers struggled with the small socks. “Owww,” whimpered Jo-Jo softly when the second shoe refused to go on, so I left them off. As I buckled my grandson in the backseat, (Shoeless Joe, my writer’s mind observed) I thought of Jacob again. And my daughter, Elizabeth. My heart ached for her and my son-in-law Ben. How were they going to do this again? Elizabeth had spent every minute with Jacob in the hospital during his last treatments.
Instead of heading home, I drove towards my sister’s consignment store. I won’t go in unless there is a parking place right in front of the store and no one is there, I told myself. There was a parking space right in front, and I couldn’t see any shoppers through the window. Jo-Jo was quiet as I pulled him from the back seat. Stepping inside the doorway of the store, I saw the two smiling faces of my sisters Denise and Pat look up from their lunch. “Mary!” one of them called out in welcome.
“It’s back. The cancer is back.” I blurted out, and they left their chairs to come hug me. Joseph, clinging to me like a little monkey, was hugged inside their embrace, as well. Joseph, I thought to myself as I buckled him in again. Nearing four years of age, and facing weeks without his mother as she stays in the hospital with his older brother, he’d suddenly become Joseph. It would forever be the first day he’d told me he loved me. It would also be the first time I’d thought of him as anything but my Jo-Jo.
The library was our next stop. Joe still clung to me, uncharacteristically quiet. The stairway down to the children’s room seemed longer than usual, and I prayed my sister had returned from her lunch. Angie, who had become Angela and my best friend after our mother’s death, came around the corner from her office area. She knew as soon as she saw my face. We hugged, and again I began sobbing; poor Jacob. Poor Elizabeth. Poor Ben. Poor little Joe, who silently observed the adults around him crumple one by one.
As I pulled up to the curb, Becca and Abby ran to the car, and I lowered the window. “Where were you? Why did you go somewhere without us? We went to the house and you weren’t there.” Their animated voices trailed off when they saw my face. I looked into Becca’s eyes, and gently stated, “Becca, Jacob’s cancer is back.” Becca’s look of outrage said it all. How dare her brother’s cancer come back! That wasn’t supposed to happen!
Joe ran ahead of me into the house and I faced my husband on the porch. He held his arms out to me, and we clung to each other for a few moments. David~who had been through his own private hell and back, has a special bond with his grandson, Jacob. It is as if they belong to a secret club, are comrades in a war that only those who have experienced cancer have fought.
I just went through the motions the rest of the day, unable to stop thinking of Jacob, Elizabeth and Ben. Katie, at 12, seemed to intuitively know what I needed; she made Joe his corn dogs, and pizza rolls for the girls. Emily kept hugging me. Even Matt, 18, after he heard, hugged me several times. The girls played as usual, and Joe joined them. Several times throughout that afternoon, I picked up a pen and pad of paper to write, but to no avail. The words wouldn’t come. Instead, I began reading Debbie Macomber’s One Perfect Word, recommended to me just that morning by a friend, and coincidentally next on my “to read” pile. The book pulled me in, despite, or maybe because of, the anguish I was experiencing. In it, Macomber discusses how concentrating on one single word each year has become a tool for God to work in her life, and in the lives of others. In 1999, her word was BELIEVE. She uses examples to show how belief can become a lifeline when grief or tragedy strikes. I read those passages several times. Macomber uses the writing of C. S. Lewis as an example. While grieving the death of his wife, Lewis wrote about belief in the face of fear in his book, A Grief Observed;
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it…Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.”
I had to ponder this for awhile. If I believe, truly believe, that God has a purpose and a plan for everything, then this trial has to be for a reason. My marriage has never been as good as it has been since David’s cancer, my faith never as strong as it has been since my mother’s death.
But to know a child, an innocent child, is facing something that knocks grown men to their knees! What purpose could there be in that?
I continued reading her book, searching for answers.
Most of us have heard of Aunt Annie’s Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzels. What I did not know was that the founder of the company, Annie Beiler, had tragically lost her nineteen-month-old daughter in a farming accident when her sister backed a Bobcat over the child. Anne coped with the loss of her beloved daughter as best she could, but inside, something cold had begun to grow. Depression set in, and with it, a crisis of faith. In an article she wrote,
“Had it not been for God’s grace and mercy, and the wonderful godly husband who loved me as Christ loves him, I never would have climbed out of depression. I believe Angela was sent to me and my family for many reasons, but a key purpose was for me to become the kind of person that Christ wants me to be. I experienced emotional pain, anguish of soul and deep depression as a result of her death.” (from the Pentecostal Evangel)
Coming out of that kind of darkness, light became so important to the Beilers that they focused on it as an acronym for the mission statement of the pretzel business they were building; LIGHT~Lead by example, Invest in employees, Give freely, Honor God, and Treat all business contacts with respect.
“I’ve experienced plenty of pain and things in my life that have been unpleasant and I know that God is my Source. I stay focused on Him and He keeps taking me places where I’m forced to depend on Him for my every need-emotionally, spiritually and for wisdom. God has a plan for our lives. We can have confidence in Him that He will take us where He wants us to go. We don’t have to become fearful and wonder what God’s will is. It will come to us and unfold over time. We need to trust Him for our futures. Each day we must do what is at hand and be faithful in the little things.” (Annie Beiler,Pentecostal Evangel)
I centered on the passage that described the coldness that began to grow within Annie and the depression she struggled with after the death of her daughter. I vividly recall the same coldness that began to seep into my daughter, Elizabeth, after Jacob’s diagnosis. After nearly two weeks alone in the hospital with Jacob after his surgery, she came home to her husband and family a changed person. I heard it on the phone that night; the flat, listless tone of her voice. The incredible toll on her body and mind of the previous three weeks had caused her to shut down, and shut all of us out, including God. I wasn’t about to allow the darkness into my daughter’s soul. I rushed to her house, took her hands in mine and prayed with all my might.
It was only by God’s grace, the love of friends and family members, and my daughter’s incredible strength in the face of adversity, that she came back to me a stronger, faith-filled woman. I have delighted in watching her husband, the son of my heart, grow in faith as well. Throughout the months of Jacob’s treatment, the goodness and love of others was revealed to them repeatedly. They both felt blessed that Jacob had done as well as he did through a sometimes grueling treatment.
And now? They face the enemy once again; not just the evil of cancer, but the other darkness. The bleakness could sink into their very souls, closing them off to God. Searching deep within myself, I know that is what I truly fear through all of this; losing my daughter or the son of my heart to the darkness of despair.
“What can I do?” The e-mails are already arriving in my inbox, and I think of that rope that C.S. Lewis mentions, the one that Elizabeth and Ben must hang onto through the coming days. I think of the friends, the loved ones and even the strangers who care about this little boy and his family. I think of the little boy himself, who wakes from surgery, pulls out the IV lines, and even amidst his pain, asks when he can buy his sister a toy from the gift shop. This little boy who trusts with a childlike faith, whose life is the epitome of the goodness we all search for. I look to my family for assurance that they will be there, and they protectively circle around me, embracing. I turn to friends, and their answering prayers are lifted to the heavens. In the darkness of these days, I reach out and feel the rope. It feels thick and strong. I tug tentatively. Why, Lord? Why this little boy? Why?
I step out in faith, and the rope holds.