We were just getting ready for bed when my brother-in-law Hugh called. He was in graduate school at the time, and I assumed he was calling Mark with an idea for their next wilderness canoeing adventure. Mark gasped and motioned to me to pick up the other phone. Hugh was shaky and emotional as he related to us that his visit to student health services that afternoon for flu-like symptoms ended up instead with the diagnosis of leukemia. Out of nowhere.
Life is a wilderness of unexpected challenges, of things that burrow in and deposit a twisting terror deep in our marrow. None of us could know all that lay ahead for Hugh…dropping out of school and moving home, not one but two body-slamming bone marrow transplants, the agonizingly unfruitful search for a donor, the enrollment in clinical trials for new drugs, the knowledge that nothing again would ever be the same. And it all hit him, and us, out of nowhere.
Death is often referred to as passing. We liken it not to an ending but a transition from here to somewhere else. Not many people like to talk about the process of dying, but the notion that it is like a water crossing is a biblical one. Israel crossed the Red Sea into freedom, and again the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Jesus and his disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee in a killer storm. * All relate to the idea of passage from an old life into a new one, from chaos into calm, and from death of the old self into a new, better one.
When you stand along any river, whether the water is sluggish or swift, your mind automatically looks both across and downstream. What’s over there? What delights are just around the bend? What threats are hidden under the surface? The waterman learns to read the currents and the shoreline, but the only real way to find out what’s across the water is to go there. For Hugh, the far shore of the river was closing in, and it felt like he was being swept away. For us it became a 10-year exercise in the power of prayer. Hugh’s positivity was amazing, and he never did cross that water and leave us. Instead, he turned into the downriver swifts, and ran the rapids of experimental cancer treatments for 9 long years until he reached the calm waters of a cure. He has been in remission for 14 years.
Hanging on for dear life is not easy. Your physical self is decimated, your finances often ruined, and the loss of all control intensely frustrating. The drugs make you crazy, and the loneliness cuts deep. But God is in that despair with us. Jesus crossed the water before us, for us. Even if the cancer grows unabated, Jesus stays with us, and promises no more tears, no more suffering. And if the treatments are successful, we are reborn into a changed life. Because you cannot be unchanged by cancer.
Bad news will come calling out of nowhere. That’s just how life works; suffering is as much a part of life as is joy. We must be brave and prayer-full, and accept a lot of help. What’s more, God is always here in the boat with us no matter the destination. He does not come out of nowhere. So when bad news calls, get ready to ride.
* I highly recommend Leslie Leyland Fields’ book, Crossing the Waters, Philip Yancey’s book, Where is God When it Hurts?, and Kara Tippets’ & Jill Buteyn’s book Just Show Up: the Dance of Walking Through Suffering Together.
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