“Grandy’s arms ached and she felt stone cold and empty. There were no words that could describe the pain she was feeling. What’s more, when she looked out the window it surprised her to see how the rest of the world was going on as usual while her world had stopped.” – An excerpt from Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck Deklyen
A Dreaded Phone Call
I watched Zach tinker with his Legos, oblivious, for the moment, of all he had endured over the past week. The phone rang, and when I picked up, I recognized Dr. Cochrane’s voice instantly. My heart went into an irregular rhythm as I went out into the garden to talk with him.
He told me the results had come in and Zach had a very rare and aggressive tumour called glioblastoma multiforme. He thought the most time Zach had left was one year. One year! I was beyond tears. My heart hurt and my head throbbed. I wanted to scream, but words did not come. Instead, I sat in stunned silence.
Slowly, after putting down the phone, the nauseating realization that I had to go back in the house to share this news with my son dawned on me. How does a mom break such horrific news to her child? I felt light headed and sick. Instinctively, I wanted to buffer Zach, but he needed to know the truth. I could not hide and act as though this dreadful reality did not exist. I knew the silence would scare him even more than my words. I braced myself for the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.
Delivering the News
I went into the house and just stared at him while he played with his Legos, aware that he was still excited to be missing school and thrilled to have endless hours to make his creations. I realized it was the last time I would see him play this freely, without the fear of cancer looming over him. He looked up at me with his innocent eyes and asked, “Who was on the phone, Mom?”
“It was Dr. Cochrane, Zach.”
“What does he want?”
“He wanted to share the results of the tests that came back about why you have been having such severe headaches.”
“What did he say?”
I lowered myself to the floor, and then the tears came.
“Honey, you have a brain tumour.”
“Is it cancer?”
“Yes it is.”
“Am I going to die?”
“The doctors are doing everything they can to find a way to treat this, but yes, there is a possibility you may die.”
He looked up at me in terror and all I could do was hold him. “Zach, let’s pray that God will give you the courage to face this and that he will take away your fear.” We prayed together, cried together, and just sat together in silence. He called his Grandma Laird and wailed into the phone, “Grandma, I have cancer!” She soothed him with her love and gentleness, and he got off the phone a lot calmer.
Zach’s Hope and Peace
“Mom, when am I going to die?” Time stood still as I choked the words out.
“The doctor said you have one year, maybe more.”
He was quiet for a minute and then looked up at me with pain, but also hope.
“Oh, so I have a whole year?” His comment baffled me. To him, a year was a lifetime. He went back to playing with his Legos, thankful he had an entire year. I was astonished. Only God could have given him such supernatural peace.
Unlike Zach, I had no peace. A cesspool of anger churned inside of me. I silently scream at God, I am not planning this child’s funeral! He is only twelve years old. He has his whole life ahead of him. Surely this is not OK with you! I felt immobilized, stuck in quicksand and unable to stop the train wreck that loomed around the corner. I paced back and forth waiting for Doug and Carter to get home from Vancouver, trying to put a lid on the frantic feelings ripping and tearing the inside of me.
When I heard the car pull into the driveway, I had to resist the urge to run and hide. Bone tired, I made my way to the garage and shut the door behind me. I intercepted Doug and Carter before they came into the house, wanting to cushion them from the blow. “Dr. Cochrane phoned three hours ago,” I said numbly. “The news is not good. We need to have a family meeting when we get inside.” I sounded a lot calmer than I felt. Summoning a family meeting was my last memory until I put the boys to bed that night. What we talked about is still buried in layers of grief. I tucked Zach and Carter into bed around 9 pm. Terrified of the dark thoughts that might be circling in Zach’s head, I gave him some melatonin. I prayed sleep would give him respite from fear.
Remembering God’s Promise
On a rare day shortly thereafter, when I was able to push back debilitating sadness, I found an old journal entry between God and I that I had recorded before Zach and Doug had been diagnosed. In it, I shared with God how I had a sense my children were in danger. Doug and I had been in Jamaica in December 2008, and while we were there, I had not been able to shake a foreboding sense that something was not right.
On the way home on the plane, I had silently prayed, God, do not ever let anything awful happen to my children. I would not survive.
As I shared my uneasy feelings with God, he had assured me he loved my children even more than I did and he was summoning angels to fight on our behalf. God had known long before I had what was coming my way. He had promised me beforehand that heaven’s armies would be released to help us endure the hard days ahead.
Although God’s promise to send angelic help gave me strength, his reassurance faded in the days ahead as the ground gave way underneath me, day after endless day. I often found myself whirling completely out of control. The only reason I kept returning to God was because I knew I could not do it on my own. His comfort and love seemed like fantasy in this valley, but the risk of living without him was too high. Without God, this kind of pain would only lead to death.
Remembering Jesus’ Example
Remembering Jesus was not immune to suffering did keep a pinprick of faith alive, protecting me from giving up on God altogether. Jesus had been where I was. In his own body, he had experienced our family’s gut-wrenching emotions. He hurt, bled, cried and suffered alongside us. I related the psalmist David when he wrote about how his strength had dried up “like sun baked clay” (Psalm 22:15). I could not see my way through the valley, but I sensed, somehow, Jesus would make a way for us through the dark, desert land — this I chose to believe. I had recently read Women of Faith speaker Nicole Johnson’s book, Stepping into the Ring, and I tucked her promises close to my heart:
“No one who fights with their hope in the Lord ever loses the last round. Today is only one chapter, not the complete book of your life. You may have cancer, but cancer does not have you. Cancer can take your cells, but it cannot take you. Cancer can have your hair, but it cannot have your heart. When the last bell rings, cancer may stand in the center alone, but it will not be the winner. In order for cancer to win, it would have to be able to follow you beyond the grave, and it cannot. It will be left alone in the ring with a tired, worn-out shell. Your life will be with the One in whom you have put your hope, the author of everlasting life.”
Fighting back ever-present tears and the urge to give up, I continually fought hard to keep bringing myself back to God’s promises, such as these. I knew no matter how ugly the journey got, all would be well in the end. In the present, however, there were no words to fully console my heart.
During this time of trying to cope, I never really knew how I felt about anything. It was as if someone had taken my feelings, put them into a blender, and scrambled them all up, making it impossible for me to decipher between one feeling and another. Did I love God or hate him? Did I resent him? Did I believe in him? Was he my all-in-all? I had talked to people about his love and his goodness navigating us through this storm, but did I really believe it? Confusion distorted everything and life was like trying to walk through a terrifying maze with no sense of direction.
Learn more about this story tomorrow, in Dana’s next post: “18 Treasures…”