The morning began strained. I was feeling a lot better by noon, so I was embarrassed my Dad drove three hours from my hometown just to go to a doctor's appointment with me. We arrived at urgent care together and sat in the waiting room. I read and studied for class...spying on the clock every 15 minutes, anxious to get back to the dorms to start my written homework. Two hours later, when the nurse called my name, I exhaled in relief.
My feet dangled from the examination table, I swung them back and forth as I dug in my pockets for the list I prepared. I straightened my crumpled paper and tried to explain my symptoms, “When I take a deep breath it hurts right here...like pressure. And um, when I bend to pick something off the ground my head feels like it’s 12 feet underwater, ya know, like when you dive in the deep end? And I’m swollen…as you can see…”
The doctor took down a few notes. He left and we waited some more. I swung my Nikes back and forth again. Waiting was a sport.
When he returned he explained I had something called “angioedema” - swelling of the tissues. I would need to take medication for it for the rest of my life but otherwise it was fairly manageable. I shrugged. That didn’t sound so bad - I was relieved I wasn’t allergic to Portland. I liked it here. The doctor left with his clipboard and as the door shut I looked up at Dad. He smiled back. The answer deflated the apprehension of the unknown.
The doctor returned. We were talking further about my symptoms when all of a sudden his face fell flat. I frowned and paused confused, what did I say? He sought clarification and I confirmed that, “yes the swelling is only from my heart up...my stomach, legs and arms haven’t changed at all. And then, yea there’s this lump on my collar bone...” My Dad gasped, "Lump?" The doctor's cheeks grew pale and he paused. While examining the lump, he frowned with concern. His mouth all pursed with sympathy said so much but I needed words. I waited for him to break the silence…
“This is serious.” he spoke with gentleness, “I won’t need to call an ambulance for you, but you will need to go to the emergency room right now.” Everything he said after that was a blur. I signed paperwork. I walked down the hall. My Dad opened the door for me. The cold damp air slapped my face, reminding me that I was alive...and that life faces death. Walking the parking lot, I started thinking of things I wanted to do before I died. All through high-school I had grown to love the people of Romania. I followed the missionary journeys of some of my closest friends who had gone. I wanted to go too. “Romania,” I wrote on the top of my mental bucket list.
We arrived at the emergency room within 10 minutes. They had called ahead of time, so our wait was short. The nurses prepped me for a chest x-ray. We waited for the results in a small, cold, white room.
To pass the time, we made phone calls. My Dad called my Mom. He explained only that she would need to drive the three hour trip with my siblings...that she would need to be here. And I called my dear friend Alicia who was on her way to Portland to visit me on campus for the weekend. I didn't know how long I’d be at the E.R. but I was pretty sure she’d wouldn't be able to meet me at the dorms.
The doctor came in with a clipboard. She stood with her back against the sliding door, her body about as far away from bed-side as possible and her tone farther - just as chilly as the room.
“You might have something called Lymphoma,” she said.
She kept talking, but I only remember that sentence, “You might have something called Lymphoma.” I replayed the words over and over in my head til they made some kind of sense. I remembered from my high-school anatomy class that “-oma” meant we were dealing with cancer. I had heard of lymph nodes but I couldn't remember where they were or what they did. My mind spun with all I could associate with cancer. I thought of my Grandma...
When I’d hug her, I would smoosh my face into her soft tummy. She usually wore yellow and smelled like cherry-almond Jergen’s lotion and dryer sheets. She made the best oatmeal in the world. We’d make it together...hot oatmeal islands surrounded by milky shores with the raisin people all laid out on the brown sugar sand. I can’t remember the day she fell into the coma. But I remember passing time in the waiting room, staying up late watching marathons of “I love Lucy” with my uncles and aunts. She was dying. My Dad prayed he could have more time with her that night. But time kept sliding downward. Death rattling. Cataracts. The hospice nurses prepared everyone. Then the prayer team came. My Dad told me the story.
They prayed and asked for God to heal her, that she would stand up and walk out of that hospital. The prayer stung. The family waited for them to leave. But an hour later, my Grandma...well, she started getting better. When my Dad noticed her cataracts were going away he called the nurses but they just patted him with pity. Moments later, when she woke up from the coma and said, “hi” they couldn’t ignore him anymore. She "scolded" everyone for not believing she'd walk out of the hospital, like she had said. Everyone was hysterical with joy. Everyone except the doctors and nurses...they were terrified. They kept their distance and looked at her like she was a ghost. They couldn't explain it. A couple days later she was released from the hospital. They offered her a wheelchair but she turned it down and walked out strong. Alive. It was a miracle.
Her tumors were not gone. But God had given her more time to live with those who loved her. We had the whole summer to watch the nest that rested in the grapevine over her porch. Sometimes we’d catch sight of the momma robin feeding her two little babies in the morning. She’d squeal, and ohhh the sound of her delight could heal a heart. But her healing would not last. Hospice moved in.
I was playing Monopoly with my brother and neighbors when my uncle Brian arrived to pick us up. His eyes were bloodshot and we walked to Grandma’s house in silence, confused. The whole house was tear stained when we walked through the doors. I shoved past their explanations and ran downstairs where her hospice bed was set up but nothing was there. Everything was gone. The bed. The machines. The side table. And my Grandma. Gone. I was mad...so I yelled. I was sad...so I cried. Then I remember thinking that angels were probably there in the room too...so I danced with them.
She was 54.
I was 9. And I never played Monopoly again.
The doctor left the room and I rested my head back on the examination table staring up at the harsh fluorescent lights. “You might have something called Lymphoma” still echoed in my mind. Silent tears fell from my cheeks.
My Dad reached over for my hand, “let’s thank the Lord,” he said. So together we went to the Lord’s comfort. “Thank You Lord...” I whispered. “Thank You for promising to never leave us or forsake us. Thank you for all that You will do in and through this season ahead...” The peace that came at that moment did not make sense. My breathing steadied and the air I took in smelled like...like Jesus. Like the warmth of light...like hope. Like love. Like life.
The Prince of Peace, He was so near in that broken hearted moment. This must be the “peace that surpasses all understanding” that I read about in Philippians. It did surpass. His peace strong and baffling, surpassed all my understanding - surpassed the doctor’s news, surpassed the threat of pain...it surpassed the glaring unknown.
The news was overwhelming.
But God’s presence was more overwhelming.
We waited, overwhelmed by the One who overwhelms even the worst of news with a peace that baffles understanding.
They brought in the x-ray.
They explained it to us...
The lump on my collarbone was a tumor. They would biopsy it the next day to see what kind of cancer I had. There was also another tumor. It was “the size of a small potato” they said. It was wedged up against my heart, blocking my veins and not allowing bodily fluids to drain. With all the pressure it was causing, they feared it might cause a stroke. So they admitted me into the hospital that very night...the fifth floor: 5K oncology. I started my first chemotherapy at 1am...a little less than 12 hours from arriving at urgent care that afternoon. Now, with my biopsy still a day away and results even further, I could only pray and wait for what would come next...