That morning I stopped by the school nurse for a Benadryl on my way to class. That night I walked out of an elevator with my Dad on to Providence’s oncology floor for my first chemotherapy. Needless to say, the day was dizzying.
There was no one quite like nurse Nicole to help us transition. The glow of God preceded her. She wore plain scrubs. But her heart wore love like a ball gown. I couldn’t help but find out if she followed Christ. I asked convinced she’d either say an enthusiastic “yes” or admit to being an angel. Her smile answered before she could say a word. “I could tell” I nodded. (She still remembers the day. She says that after our exchange, I ordered a toasted bagel with cream cheese and yogurt.) Nicole continued to work the oncology floor that night with light...with gentleness. Goodness. Kindness. Patience. And all the other fruits of the Spirit. Yes, the Spirit of God wore scrubs that night and helped us settle in with peace...peace and cream cheese.
The next day they removed the tumor on my collar bone for a biopsy. Labs would take a day or two. They continued to monitor me in the hospital while we waited for the results. Meanwhile, I remember meeting more extraordinary nurses. I remember the love of family and friends who visited. I remember being tired from the chemo and the surgery. I can’t recall details from those days of waiting. But I can recall the moment when Dr. Smith came in with the results….
He entered quietly, his expression turned down, his body language hesitant and his voice sympathetic. “You have Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,” he said. He sat down at my bed-side and explained further, “We are looking at about 8 months of treatments. We will continue chemotherapy. We’ll test you and see where we are at...and then we’ll start radiation.”
We had already received the bad news days before - I had cancer… “Something called lymphoma,” the E.R. doctor said. But from what I could tell from Dr. Smith’s demeanor this type of lymphoma was especially bad news. I had no idea how bad though, that is until one day I read a pamphlet that came in the pile of out-patient paper work...
I was at the apartment that my parents had rented to be in town and close to the hospital. I sat in the middle of the old couch as the autumn daylight faded behind me. I turned on the side table lamp and opened the pamphlet. If I had realized the news I would be uncovering that night, I might not have ever opened it. There should have been a warning on the cover. But it was too late. There it was...all the percentages of my poor chances of survival right there printed in pretty pie charts on the matte finished paper. My eyes grew big and I threw the sheet away from me. I shook my head while grunting out rapid denials “no, no...no..I’m not going to do this right now.” I inhaled deeply and exhaled with sarcastic nervous laughter. And then I just sat there awhile, staring past everything into the blank numb.
I looked back at the paper lying under the harsh light of the lamp. I reached for it and opened it again, this time braced for what I’d read inside. I read it carefully with my hand over my mouth, my fingers pinching my lips the way I always do when I’m focused and concerned. Then, with the numbness of it all subsiding, I contemplated my choices…
I had no choice in my diagnosis. But this day I had to choose how I'd face it. I could wait out this mortality-coin-toss, kicking and screaming. Or I could face this with the hope I really had...with all I believed. I realized at that moment, what only suffering can clarify: I really did believe.
I set the pamphlet aside and opened my Bible. The book that told me that no matter how the coin landed, I’d live - either way. “To live is Christ and to die is gain...” (Philippians 1:21). I’d continue on here in Christ for His glory...or move on to life after death to be with my Jesus. Whether through my healing or my death, I’d live...no matter what happened.
While relieved a great deal, my fear did not go away. I still had a very real fear of pain and suffering and all the unknowns. But I knew Jesus, the One who promised a future free from pain and suffering. I knew Jesus, the One who entered all pain and suffering to purchase this future for me. I knew Jesus, the One who was with me in the pain now...with me to comfort...with me to take all these bad things to work them together somehow, for my good and His glory. I didn't know what would happen. But I knew Jesus. And knowing Him surpassed all the glaring statistics I held in my hands.
I squeezed the pamphlet and placed it in my Bible to mark my spot. These stats weren't complete. “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” I live either way.
My beliefs would be challenged in the many months ahead...tested and tried with what literally felt like fire at times. The basement of my soul would undergo a deep cleaning. My heart would be gutted, filled with the sufferings of the cross and stretched by its beams. I’d scream. I’d pound my pillow. I’d leave a puddle of tears. Every hope within me would be taken away, for what I could only assume to be forever. I’d begin learning how to rest in the one and only hope that doesn’t disappoint. And there, I would experience the surpassing value of only having Jesus. The journey would be long. Longer than Dr. Smith had told me…