cancer, faith, Holley Gerth

The “C” Word

Cancer. The word no one wants to hear. I was in the vehicle with my husband when the doctor gave me the news. My first thought was “Poor Nick,” because his previous wife had died from cancer. Fear hit sometime the next day, after a night of tossing and turning. I reminded myself that fear is not from God and asked my husband to pray with me.

Much of this past year has been about prayer as I reveled in my first year of marriage with Nick, and for good reason. It was prayer that initially connected us. We began each of our dates with prayer and have continued to pray together daily. I credit that practice, along with our daily Bible study, for a marriage relationship that is unlike anything we could have hoped for or imagined at this point in our life.

I began praying in all things, big and little. approximately ten years ago, involving prayer and discernment in what books I read, movies I watch and even what journals I use. I get a little thrill choosing a new journal from the huge stack I store in a cupboard; little journals, big ones, wire bound, hardcover, paperback, colorful decorated pages or quotes interspersed throughout. Always lined, sometimes with a ribbon marker to keep my place.

Which journal do I pick? I asked on September 1st. It would be journal #14 since I began utilizing expressive writing as a healing tool in 2012. I caressed each cover lightly, flipping through pages, before landing on the colorful hardbound journal with Proverbs 31:25 She is clothed with strength and dignity on the front cover. Nick and I had just begun a Bible study of Proverbs a few days before. We were learning about wisdom and listening as it applies to marriage. What better journal to begin my second year of striving to be a Proverbs 31 wife to Nick?

I don’t journal every day. I’d only gotten a few pages in when I was diagnosed with cancer on September 13th. Writing out a prayer the next morning, I took great comfort in the bible verse at the bottom of the page.

I read the intro to the journal for the first time a couple of days later, in awe of how fitting it was for the situation.

Let His presence cast out any weakness and guide you through every circumstance and decision you face. Be strong in the Lord, and may His unfailing love guide your heart into a fearless future. I turned to the back cover and noted the quote by one of my favorite authors, Holly Gerth. God’s love is what we need to carry on and will carry us when our strength feels small. Ah, yes, this spoke to my heart too.

I’ve journaled nearly every day since the diagnosis, as I waited to see an oncology doctor, facing a surgery that will determine the stage of the cancer. God already answered two appeals I dared to convey; instead of the 5-12 days I was warned I could expect before hearing from the oncologist, the call came in just three days, when I was informed the consultation would be September 30th. September 30th, a day we would be in Iowa City anyway for an appointment my husband had made with a rheumatologist two and a half months ago. My oncology appointment in the same town scheduled for the exact same day, and with enough time between appointments? What are the odds? I will tell you; not likely.

God went before me. God knew in July when Nick’s appointment was scheduled that I would be diagnosed with cancer and need to see an oncologist. He orchestrated events so that the timing of our appointments would coincide. While I thought I was choosing a journal to help me be the best wife I could be for Nick (with strength and dignity), God knew better. Months before I would need it, God drew my attention to the colorful journal on the shelf of a thrift store. Yes, God goes to Goodwill with me. Because I ask for his guidance even in the little things, of all the journals I had to choose from in my cupboard, he knew which one I would need for this journey with cancer. He knew which bible study Nick and I would need right now. And if God cares about those little things; the timing of appointments, the right journal or bible study, I have no doubt God cares about me in this big thing, this cancer. God is in this too. He will use it for good. He may have work to do in me, in Nick, or in our marriage. I will face this cancer with strength and dignity. I will be strong in the Lord.


Hope of a Ragged Sort

Despite the pile of books on my end table to read,

endtable books 005I requested Cynthia Ruchti’s newest book, Ragged Hope: Surviving the Fallout of Other People’s Choices  for review.  Why? Because I gravitate towards anything with the word “Hope” in it and any book by Cynthia Ruchti.

ragged hope

HOPE was the word I’d chosen to concentrate on at the beginning of this year. Hope is what I hang onto today, sixteen months after the death of my husband, and in the midst of watching my eight-year-old grandson die.

Jeremiah 29:11  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

A year ago, still reeling with the loss of my best friend, I could not even imagine what God had in store for me. I had an agent but no book contract, for a book that my husband had encouraged me to write back in July of 2009. Today is the official release date of that book, Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America’s Extreme Obsession. (Familius) Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage, a book I had written in 2006/2007 and had abandoned in a file cabinet, will be released in April 2014. And Refined By Fire: A Walk in Grief is slated for publication in the fall of 2014.  If God can do all that then it is no wonder I still cling to hope these days.

But that hope and joy in the triumphs of the book world are all wrapped up in a dust jacket of sadness in light of my eight-year-old grandson’s obvious decline.

Working on Refined By Fire right now has been cathartic for me. Chronicling the clear path of grief I followed in the last sixteen months, I maintain hope for the path my daughter and son-in-law will soon trek down.

Knowing that his grandfather waits there for him helps me in the saying good-bye. Truly believing that Jacob will be going home softens the blow of impending loss.

Still, some days~most days~my hope feels more like that in the book of Job;

Job 17:15where then is my hope? Who can see any hope for me?

That is why Ruchti’s title, Ragged Hope appealed to me.

Unlike the true stories in Ruchti’s book, I’m not living with the fallout of other people’s bad choices. David did not choose to leave me. Jacob did not choose cancer. But oh, how ragged and worn thin my hope feels in the darkness of the night. Those are the moments I fall down to my knees and feel closest to God.

Ruchti’s book did not disappoint. (I don’t think she could disappoint. Her writing comes from deep within a loving heart)  “To the wounded, the worn, the wondering. And to those who let us see their scars so others can discover Hope’s hideout,” Ruchti writes in her dedication.

I am wounded. (I lost my mother and my husband in the space of sixteen months. I am losing my grandson sixteen months later)

I am worn. (I never wanted to be a single mom. I don’t like making parenting decisions all alone. I am so tired of grief.)

I wonder. (Why would God allow cancer in a little boy?) 

I am scarred.

But I continue to hang onto HOPE. Hope means I believe there is a reason for everything, even a little boy living, and dying, with cancer.  The Facebook page we set up more than two years ago chronicles Jacob’s journey. Thousands of people have been following Jacob in his journey. One day in early July I checked the statistics for the “Jacob’s Ladder” page and noted that more than 15,000 people had looked at his page.

15,000 people.

As an author struggling to build my audience, I have repeatedly pleaded with friends, family and “fans” (and I use that term loosely) to “Like” my Author Page on Facebook.  I have managed to acquire a bit of a following, but not even a small percentage of the following that our precious Jacob had on the day the hospice team informed his parents he didn’t have long to live.

15,000 people, viewing a little boy’s journey, and nearly that many prayers lifted to the heavens for healing, comfort, and strength.

An eight-year-old boy with eyes that speak volumes and a kind heart that speaks for all of us,  is dying. And just like Ruchti details in the examples of her book, there is “grace in every situation, even in those we did not cause but now live.”  There is grace in this. There is HOPE.


Finding God in the Shadows

From Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage, Familius, April 2014:

“On the way home David leaned back in the passenger seat, glancing over at me as I drove. “Why would God allow a little boy to have cancer?” he asked quietly, and I just shook my head in response.

“If I could go, and Jacob could stay, I’d go in a minute.”

“I know you would,” I whispered hoarsely as I patted his leg. The ramifications of his declaration were too painful to ponder. David would die for that little boy he loved, I had no doubt, just as he would give his life for me or for any one of his children. That was the kind of person he was. I reached over to hold his hand and we rode in silence the rest of the way home.”

Sometime during that night, David’s heart stopped, and I thought mine had broken in two. I’d lost my best friend, the man who had become the wind beneath my wings.


David didn’t live to see me sign a book contract for the book that had been his idea in the first place, Coupon Crazy, a book he encouraged me to write. He had to have been pulling some strings up there for Chemo-Therapist to also become an upcoming reality.

It was a bittersweet moment to approach a Barnes & Noble bookstore yesterday and spot this in their window:


I wondered at the overwhelming sadness I felt as I wandered the aisles of the store that now displayed my book. The heaviness of grief still descends upon me at unexpected times, and in unexpected places. David did not live to see this.

He also did not live to hear the terminal diagnosis bestowed upon his beloved grandson, and for that I am grateful. Because now we are losing eight-year-old Jacob. Jacob is dying.

Each morning I wake up wondering if this will be the day we say good-bye. Some nights I can’t sleep and I drive past my daughter’s house at 3:00 am, looking to see if the lights are on and she needs me. I help where I can; baking the occasional loaf of banana bread, cleaning now and then, and taking the other grandchildren away for an afternoon so Jacob can sleep in peace. But there is so little I can do in the face of this. I cannot take the pain away from my daughter Elizabeth and the son-of-my-heart, Ben. I cannot help Jacob through this lone journey. With pain, with trouble breathing, it is his mother he asks for.

I rise early every morning and spend a good hour searching for answers to the hard questions. Questions like “Why would God allow a little child to suffer?” and “How can we bear to live a life without him?”  I pray. I read devotionals. I cry. I sit in silence and listen, and then I pray some more. Some mornings, I fall to my knees, only to return to them by nightfall. I am reminded of last July, when for a few weeks God took away my writing so that I would learn to be still, learn to hear HIM. I search for God in all of it.

I think about the little boy who has been a gift to us; his quiet demeanor, his giving spirit. I contemplate what he has brought into the world by his very being, despite his short time on earth. How his little body has fought this cancer for more than two and a half years. I think about the tremendous strength in those thin limbs that now tremble with weariness, that tiny heart that has stretched so many other hearts. One day a posting on his Facebook page reached 16,000 viewers. 16,000 people saw that posting, and nearly as many people were praying for him. 16,000 hearts were touched by a small child! Most of us will be lucky to touch that many people in our lifetime. Yes, I see God in all of this.

And I am writing. And writing. My work-in-progress is a chronicle of grief; Refined By Fire. By working my way back through that first year of widowhood, I can clearly see how God walked with me down the path of loss. My prayer today is that my daughter and her family feels HIM too.

“I have refined you but not in the way silver is refined. Rather, I have refined you in the furnace of suffering.”  Isaiah 48:10