The Last 5,256,000 Minutes

Ten years is kind of a big deal.

Whether it’s a marriage that has lasted a decade or an object that stands the test of time, when something makes it to the ten-year mark, it’s worth celebrating. And that’s precisely what I’m doing tonight. Wayne is out playing a gig with the Peachtree Jazz Edition, and I’m relaxing in our beautiful home. A fire is crackling in my living room, Debussy is playing on the radio, and I’m curled up in my pajamas, cozy as a cat.

Ten years ago, things weren’t quite so copacetic.

On the evening of January 25, 2004, I was writhing in a hospital bed, suffering from a spinal headache I’d gotten from a spinal tap I’d undergone that afternoon. In the throes of that searing pain, my neurologist came in and told me, “You have MS. It’s not the end of the world. You can find more information on the Internet than I could ever tell you. Good night.” I’m not kidding; that’s all I got from him. After he’d left, we asked the nurse to call him and prescribe a pill for my headache. Both Wayne and I had been too shocked to ask when he was there.

A word of advice—NEVER look up a health question on the web. For Gregory House, M.D., everything inexplicable had to be lupus. For the Internet, it’s cancer and certain death.

Well, we did look it up, and we got the absolute worst case scenario for an MS patient. After an hour of scouring the web looking for a scrap of good news and bawling like babies, Wayne slammed the laptop closed and told me, “That’s enough.” That night, I was convinced that I’d never have a normal life ever again. And in some ways, I was right. I’ve not been the same since that day, and that’s a good thing.

The eight year anniversary, which I wrote about here, was a big milestone for me. It seemed like an unreachable date, and now here I am, two years beyond what once seemed impossible. I’ve since learned to use that word sparingly, if at all. Why? Because, as Matthew 19:26 tells us, “with God all things are possible.” He proves that to me on a daily basis.

The MS was just the first body blow in a five-year boxing match with life. I won’t go into the sad details here, but let’s just say that pretty much everything that could go wrong—short of one of us dying—did. But, as the speaker in Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” says, “I’se still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’, / And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

The Family at Christmas 2012
The Family at Christmas 2012

Today, life isn’t without challenges, but there’s no cause for complaint. It’s not because I’m a saint; I’ve just learned that every difficulty has a reason. I know it because God has used the last ten years in a mighty way and transformed me into a usable vessel. But no matter what hardships happen, I know I’m far more blessed than I deserve. I have a wonderful husband who I adore, a loving family, a comfortable, safe home, an amazing job, and friends out the wazoo. I also recently became an aunt. (See adorable picture below for visual confirmation of the poo-dubber in question.)

Me with the lovely Miss Beatrix
Me with the lovely Miss Beatrix

I didn’t earn these blessings; they were freely given to me by my God. He has bestowed it all on me with a loving, liberal hand, and my life is marked by his loving-kindness. And tonight, as I sit nestled in my home, I can tell you the words of Isaiah 41:10 are true and trustworthy: “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” I can say they’re true because I learned to say it when the prognosis wasn’t as good, when the place I called home was a crummy apartment, and when I basically felt like Job sitting on the ash heap. And if he sees fit to take it all away tomorrow, I can say, “Yes, God is still good.”

I recently watched an episode of the BBC’s Call the Midwife in which the narrator says, “Health is the greatest of God’s gifts, but we take it for granted. It hangs on a thread as fine as a spider’s web, and the smallest thing can make it snap, leaving the strongest of us helpless in an instant. And in that instant, hope is our protector and love our panacea.”

Those words resonated with me because I’ve know what it feels like when that gossamer string snaps and you free fall into the unknown. I know what it is like when your body betrays you and you realize death and decay are eager to strip away what they can with their spiny fingers. However, I choose not to dwell on such things and live a life marked by hope and love instead. I count it all joy.

That’s something God made possible, and that’s the reason why I’m looking forward to the next ten years.

I’m Sick of Praying for People With Cancer…

I know the title of this blog may be a little misleading. I do not mean to say that I’m fed up with people who are dealing with cancer, and I certainly do not want to imply that I am tired of praying. What I am saying is that I pray for no fewer than ten people a week, all of whom are struggling with some form of this disease.

I’ve had enough of it…..Cancer, I mean.

According to the American Cancer Society’s latest data, 1,529,560 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2011. That’s just about evenly split between men (789,620) and women (739,940). For those who have cancer of any system or organ, it is estimated that 569,490 will lose their lives to it. Again, the numbers are fairly evenly split between males (299,200) and females (270, 290). Be aware that this is in the United States ALONE.

Over half a million people will pass away this year because of this malady. Yes, that’s nearly 570,000 people, which is equal to one tenth of the population of Atlanta. Some cases might have been brought on by poor lifestyle choices or work environment, but many more are simply caused by genetic and environmental factors. People who have done their level best to take care of themselves and have shied away from any and all behaviors that can tempt this disease to draw near can feel ill, head in for a visit with the doctor, and come out diagnosed with this disease.

That’s because cancer doesn’t care who you are—male or female, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, conservative or liberal. You can be five, fifty, or one hundred and four when it decides to show up at your door. Whether you worship God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the almighty dollar, cancer can and will take residence somewhere in the amazing body the Lord has blessed you with. It is one of the few diseases that knows no prejudice. It has no agenda other than causing havoc in your body and putting a strain on patients and their loved ones.

Who said equality was impossible?

If you divide the projected number of new cases by 365, you’ll find out that, on average, 4,190 people will find out that they have some form of cancer each and every day in this country. Today, 4,190 people will start a journey that will take them from second opinions to treatment options and from offices and work stations to the chairs where they’ll spend hours getting chemotherapy or radiation. For some, there will come a day when their own comfortable beds, covered with linens still redolent of laundry detergent and their spouse’s shampoo, will be replaced by the stiff confines of a hospital bed and impersonal sheets, starched and bleached until they’re brittle and scratchy.

Life as they’ve known it will be over.

For some people, their bodies will be weakened and their immune systems as vulnerable to attack as a village once was to the war machine of Rome. For others, their hair will do an impersonation of Elvis and “leave the building,” so baldy jokes will be made and colorful scarves bought by the dozens. 5K walks will take place, and ribbons of every color of the spectrum will be donned by friends, families, and co-workers to show support and raise funds for research.

For some, survival parties will eventually be held, and the countdown to the one-year anniversary of the happy date will begin. For others, a more somber gathering is the end result as friends and relations are left to try to understand what happened and to breathe a sigh of relief because the person who came under cancer’s tyrannical grasp and fought so valiantly has gone to a place where it can never harm him or her again.

No soul is safe, no system immune. The tongue can play host to it just as easily as the prostate or the breast. The lungs serve as its dwelling place along with the brain, the skin, the colon, the stomach, and even the reproductive organs responsible for creating life. It travels from system to system, organ to organ, as easily as a family station wagon cruises the highways and byways of the nation on a cross-country vacation. No paperwork is required; no border systems are in place to check its progress.

I’ve lost two grandparents to this disease as well as friends and students. I name some here to tell you they were real people with souls who breathed and walked on this earth. They were not numbers or statistics. I loved them all and still do today.

***

Betty Hill, my grandmother, loved to watch boxing. She cooked a mean plate of eggs, worked harder than any woman I ever knew, and apparently talked as rapidly as I do.

Leonard Hill, my grandfather, fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II and was a deacon, a Mason, and a Gideon. He loved feeding friends and family, had a fondness for dogs, and was an amazingly generous tipper.

Catie Carter, one of the brightest and most beautiful girls I had the privilege to teach, loved pink and took pride in keeping up with her homework no matter what. She approached everything with humor and love, and everyone who knew her is better off for it.

***

Today, people I love continue to fight the cancer in their lungs and their prostates, in their bladders, their blood, and their bones. And I pray. I hate it, but I pray. Why? Because James 5: 13-16 tells me:

Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

Praying for someone who is ill, especially if he or she does not get well, is one of the hardest things to do because it’s easy to feel like God doesn’t answer that prayer, no matter how fervently it’s offered. If you’re reading this and you’re angry with God or feel like He’s cruel and unjust, I can understand. I’ve felt the same way.

However, what I’ve come to understand is that God didn’t intend for this disease to exist. He created a perfect world without sickness and death, and it was we who lost it because of sin. What He does is allow it to occur so that those who are ailing, and those who stand by them through it all, can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and attain the reconciliation that comes with accepting Him as Savior. One day, we can all know the glory of the body we were intended to have. One day, we can see those we lost again in a place where separation is no longer a possibility. One day, cancer will be a foreign concept, an impossibility no longer cause for concern. But until then, it is our burden to bear together.

Reader, I serve a Savior who raised a man from the dead four days after the fact (John 11:1-45). I serve Jesus Christ—He who walked on water, who gave sharp eyes to the blind and nimble legs to the cripple, and who, with His death, tore the veil between me and my heavenly Father clean in two, making it possible for me to be reunited in fellowship with Him forever.

As much as I might pray for it, I know God’s will is not that we all be spared from cancer. Some of us will have to walk that road in order to be brought to a place where true healing can occur. When our bodies betray us, our spirits begin the search for answers and find the Almighty had them all along. As one who God allowed disease to touch for His glory, I echo the words of the apostle Paul, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).

My sickness led to my salvation, and that is why I would not ask for it to be removed from me were it even possible. My thorn in the flesh made me humble, dependent, and wise in the ways of the Father, and I am well in soul though I am weak in body. So I continue to testify to the goodness of God, to worship He who is already in my tomorrow, and to pray that His will be done in all things.

***

If you have cancer (or any other disease that is affecting you physically or spiritually), you are in my prayers. Post a reply, and let me know your story. More importantly, keep fighting! Keep following Dylan Thomas’ advice and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Life is precious, and we have so much to do before it’s over.