I have never needed one of those Victorian fainting couches to catch my swooning form. I have no smelling salts in my medicine cabinet. And if you see tears welling up in my eyes, you can pretty rightly assume it’s from hay fever.
My seemingly stoical DNA, you see, derives from a rather chilly blend of tight-lipped Englishmen, hard-headed Germans, windblown Scots, and the kind of rugged, sunshine-is-for-sissies northern Europeans who chiseled out a living from the frozen fjords. Stout hearts and dry eyes—that’s us. As one author put it, “If I were commissioned to design the official crest for the descendents of emotionally muzzled Vikings everywhere, I would begin by looking up the Latin phrase for ‘No thanks, I’m fine.’” Exactly.
But on the evening of August 20, 2012, when my husband carried home the heavy news that our ten-year-old son, Jonah, had been diagnosed with leukemia, I crumpled onto the bottom step of our family’s stairway and sobbed.
All through that evening and for many of the days that followed I learned what it was to go weak in the knees in the most literal sense—no metaphor about it. Each time a doctor would bring new information, I had to take it sitting down. Every time the phone demanded to be answered, my chest felt squeezed in a vice that gripped tighter with every ring.
My child may die. My precious firstborn son may be taken from us. Everywhere I went, I seemed to feel an unbearable weight pressing down on my shoulders—a weight that I could not carry. We were given hefty stacks of informational books and brochures, but I could not open them. I could not allow my eyes to rest on phrases like “mortality rate” and “likelihood of relapse.” These were words too heavy for me to lift from the page.
My child may die. It continues to be a weight that I cannot carry. But I have learned that it is also a weight that I need not carry. That I do not carry. That is not mine to carry at all.
“That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
Believe me, I fully understand the desire to learn more about what causes cancer and what cures it. I had a cancer scare of my own not long ago, and I (like most people I know) have had friends and relatives who have died of various forms of cancer. It's a disease that touches the lives of just about everybody, so it's no surprise that we fear it. But it's also no surprise that there are people out there who are eager to prey on people's fears.
I once read a post, shared by a well-meaning Facebook friend, that said, "Finally! Johns Hopkins Medical School reveals the truth about cancer!" The link offered a numbered list of generic tips (Stop eating sugar!) but also endorsed a number of health products—by brand name—that we should buy. This seemed more than a little fishy, so I checked the sources. It turned out to be a hoax; Johns Hopkins had shared no such thing and had devoted a whole page of its web site to dispelling the misinformation and outright lies. But by that time, the link had already been shared on Facebook upwards of 20,000 times.
The reason I think we are so eager to read all those cancer articles and to believe sketchy posts like the one I mentioned is that it can make us feel like we have the tools to get back in control of our lives. Cancer is scarier than most diseases because it is still, in spite of all that up-to-date information (and misinformation), shrouded in mystery.
Why does one of our children get leukemia while the rest remain perfectly healthy? Why did one of my mom's siblings get cancer while none of the other 8 have? How is possible that a man who smoked his entire life never gets lung cancer, while a woman who never even touched a cigarette dies of the disease? The answer, from what I can tell, is: We don't know. Cancer is a bogy that seems to lurk around every corner, and we feel helpless against it.
Who is more helpless than a small child? And yet who in the world is more carefree? That is because a young child is not burdened with a sense of self-sufficiency or a compulsion to pull himself up by his own bootie straps. He is free to rest and play because he knows that somebody else takes care of his needs.
As we have dealt with Jonah’s cancer, our helplessness has deepened our dependence on God. And dependence on God, paradoxically, has brought independence—a sweet freedom from all the other cares and worries that can so easily take over.
Not a hair can fall from our heads—or a cancer cell form in our bodies—without the will of our Father in heaven. He knows what we need before we ask, which means I don't have to keep tying myself into awkward knots in attempt to keep up with all the latest cancer-dodging advice. Resting in God's care allows me to take a step back from the fears of the moment and to gain some perspective on this salutary game of Twister—and to laugh a little. And a merry heart, after all, "doeth good like a medicine."
Ultimately, our lives are not in our hands. And that truth, instead of scaring us, should allow us to loosen our kung-fu death grip on health, to step away from all those hot-off-the-presses articles about the latest cancer scare, and to quit worrying. Seriously. Quit. Worrying is bad for our health. And which of us by worrying can add a single day to his life? Rather, “Fear the Lord and depart from evil. It will be health to your flesh and marrow to your bones” (Proverbs 3:7b-8).
That right there is a ruby to keep in your pocket.
The truth is that we are all in that place where we will live until we die. But while I will try to push that final day back as long as I can, I never want to spend so much time simply staying alive that I forget to live. As one author friend put it, “Life is meant to be spent.” And not just, I might add, on ourselves.
Long life can be a great blessing, but what good is a long shelf life if our contents are never used up before we reach our expiration date? Better to be a cheap plastic jug of grape juice cocktail—or a boring old cup of cold water, for that matter—that is poured out to quench someone's thirst, than to be a bottle of the finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape that is kept safely corked on a shelf for decades until its contents turn to vinegar.
My grandfather (who died of cancer) did not live as long as many of his peers, but he also lived more within those years than many of his peers. He learned to speak English, served in a war, raised nine children, was faithful to his wife, ran a dairy farm, felled trees (as well as a few of his fingers), worked in the church, owned a retirement home, excelled at bowling, and poured love on his dozens of grandchildren.
When my own teeth fall out, I hope it will make my little grandchildren laugh. And I hope to be laughing with them.
I have watched my son vomiting for hours, writhing in pain while his hair falls out and his wide eyes plead for a relief that is far from coming. But for the record, you need to know that cancer is not the worst thing that can happen to you. In fact, we have gained so much from this experience already that we may one day look back and see that cancer was the actually one of the best things that ever happened to us. And even in the hardest stages of his treatment, Jonah has discovered that a life-threatening illness is not without its perks.
The Children’s Hospital has also done such a great job of creating a welcoming environment for these sick kids that all our boys clamor for the chance to go along with Jonah for his appointments. Jonah himself sometimes laments that his days of staying overnight at the hospital are over. He loves all the nurses and the one-on-one attention from parents and grandparents. His memories of cancer have been so well seasoned with blessings that he has more than once told us he wishes he could start his treatment all over again. And he is no masochist. This was simply the best-worst year of his life.
The reason I say that, however, is that I can’t do it either. I can’t handle it. Not me. Not our family carrying all this trouble on our own strength. We didn’t do it. We didn’t handle it—at least not in some kind of stoical, self-sufficient, inner-strength, “No thanks, I’m fine” kind of way.
O Lord, according to your word.
Teach me good judgment and knowledge,
for I believe in your commandments.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word.
You are good and do good;
teach me your statutes. (Ps 119:65-68)