The walk through the gardens was too short for our conversation, so we sat down on a bench. A couple days prior, she had received the diagnosis. “You’re experiencing a medical scare, Katie” I stated, with ignorant confidence. “It’s frightening to be told that the doctors don’t know what to do. But you know that God knows what to do.” And then I gave her some obnoxious line about eating the asparagus if they told her to, so she wouldn’t have any regrets. If the cancer did get worse, at least it wouldn’t be from a lack of asparagus.
Quietly, she stared at the trees, and said, “This is a medical scare…I like that.” And she went on with her life. For months and months, she simultaneously received cancer treatment, worked part-time in our college ministry and part-time in an eating disorder residential program.
She refused to despair, even as the “medical scare” became a terminal diagnosis. She had a form of blood cancer that only about 400 people have ever had. How is that possible? Surely the treatment from some other type of cancer would work?
Fear was there, but she gave the best of herself to those around her. She loved to make little gifts out of paper, usually involving encouraging words and drawings of flowers. She was one whom our students would call when they were low or they’d drank too much to drive home. She lived onsite in the residential program, and talked of opening her own center one day. We often forgot she had cancer.
She did feel well most of the time, but there was once when she called me to come and bring over-the-counter medicine for an embarassing problem. She was crying in pain, and I had no idea what to say. She obviously needed her mom.
Not long after that, she moved home, and I didn’t get to see her much. Her parents became what everyone else wanted to be for her. We wanted to soften the blows and shield her from the storm. Her parents became the blankets she lay on and the tarp to cover her. And she clung to Christ to keep from despairing.
To live well through a time like that is to have your heart turned inside out, so the raw, vulnerable parts are exposed. Some may take sleeping pills and watch daytime TV to make it through. I’m sure Katie watched her fair share of The Price is Right, but she remained very clear-eyed and honest. When hope is present, it’s a strange sort of pain, not at all like bleeding from a wound. Her physical life was rapidly wasting away, but inwardly, it was different.
Athanasius, in the fourth century, reported as proof of the resurrection of Christ that fathers, mothers, children, and youth would more readily die for Christ than deny him. How could they face death with actual hope if there were not a living, resurrected Jesus at work in their lives? Some may say that hope is a flimsy thing. Maybe they’ve only seen a shadow or a replica. Real hope is an animal, fierce and growing.
The doctors started a last-ditch effort which entailed a long hospital stay. Chemotherapy can turn a young woman old in a matter of weeks. When I went to see her, her hair was patchy, her face skeletal, and she rolled her head in my direction rather than lifting herself in the bed. I breathed in and tried to hide my shock.
She asked with chapped lips and a paltry voice, “How is Judah enjoying Kindergarten? I bet he’s charming them all.” And she asked after my other kids and my husband.
I had brought her a gift that I’d just made that afternoon. A stack of notecards on a small photo easel. On each notecard, written as large and pretty as I could manage, were phrases from Colossians 1. My idea was that she could put one up each day to encourage her while she recovered.
Instead, she hungrily grabbed the whole stack and began to read them out loud. “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” After each one she would close her eyes and breathe, drinking in the words. “In him all things were created.” “He is before all things.” “He holds all things together.” After this one, she began to weep and wail with longing.
I watched as the truth on those cards fed the hope within her. She seemed to consume the message like a field laborer eats a hearty meal after a long harvest day.
I won’t say that she wasn’t grieved about leaving this life. She mourned the loss of time with her nieces especially, and her parents and siblings and fiancé. But the thought of being with Christ was too precious to her to really regret leaving so soon.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. -Luke 6:21