My dad was 71 when he was diagnosed with advanced-stage colon cancer. Because he can be a rather grumpy old man who’s anger and temper are legendary in these parts (he was once evicted from his own high-school basketball game after getting so upset about a referee call that he slammed the ball into the floor with such force it bounced up and hit the ceiling) my three sister’s and I were all a bit wary about how this journey would play out. We knew he’d be a miserable patient. We decided to take turns bringing him in for chemo and radiation in an attempt to spread out his hostilities.
This was my first real “go around” with someone battling cancer. Sure, I had come alongside several others with cancer and helped with meals, rides, visits, etc. But that’s different. That’s just peaking in on their lives when it’s convenient for me and feigning understanding. Because, truthfully, I didn’t have a clue what they were going through. With dad, things got real. It was a real, shared walk through the valley of the shadow of cancer.
Chemo and radiation appointments involve lots of waiting – so we spent countless hours in the terrarium-like café that anchors the cancer center in Grand Rapids. Over orange-cranberry muffins and dark-black-coffee-no-sugar, Dad and I would talk about growing-up memories, golf-cart repair issues, sports, and all the “bull-shit lawmakers who have their heads up their asses.”
One day, in that lovely cafe with the smell of cancer thick in the air, I saw something new – a fresh perspective. I saw a well-dressed business man in a tailored black suit – with expertly coiffed hair and his briefcase tucked upright by his feet – sitting opposite his bald mother, hand-in-hand. She was attached to her chemo pump and she seemed to be soaking in every word of her attentive son. I saw a young mom, with her three little children dodging in and out of her legs and the legs of the table, sharing hysterical laughter with her dying sister – a woman of 42 who was losing her battle to breast cancer. I saw two middle aged women – one the sick and suffering and the other the best friend – leaning in as they talked, holding hands, sharing lives and sharing tears.
I was witnessing the holy gift of presence.
Wherever you are (at least in America) and whomever you meet, if you ask them, “How are you?” almost invariably the first word out of their mouths will be “busy.” Or they may respond with busy’s sister, “tired.” It’s pandemic – those are our culture’s predominant adjectives. As I looked around at the many people in the café that day, I thought: These people are busy, too. I’m sure they are just as busy as everyone else “out there”. But then I realized, it is because of this thing called CANCER that they have all chosen to get off the crazy-cycle of life and spend today – this day – in the terrarium café of the cancer center, and be fully present for the person in their life who is battling this wicked disease.
They get it, I thought. They get it that nothing else matters as much as the people in our lives.
For whatever else these busy people had going on in their lives – on THIS day they decided that people matter most. Relationships matter most. And they chose to say ‘’TODAY, I will honor my loved one with the gift of PRESENCE.”
When someone gives you something that you really needed, that you crave and long for, and fills a gaping hole in your life, I would say that is a gift. Even if you didn’t know you needed it – it is still a gift. Might cancer be a gift? Is that what God was thinking??? Please understand – I DO NOT think cancer is beautiful. I think it is ugly and is a result of the Fall and I think God weeps when someone gets cancer. But I do know this – what I saw in that café every time we went in for a chemo or radiation treatment was a beautiful side of humanity that we rarely get a glimpse of anymore: people slowing their lives down enough to really REACH INTO the lives of another and bring hope, comfort, presence and peace. It’s like they bring some heaven to earth.
Cancer gives us the gift of presence.
Until my dad got cancer, I really didn’t want to hang around him much. He can sometimes be down-right mean – and he yells at me when I’m driving. He sometimes makes me feel six-years-old and I’ve just spilled the red Kool-aid on the shag carpet. And he thinks anyone who isn’t a conservative Republican in the Reformed Church of America is an idiot (which causes trouble for me…). But cancer changed all of that – I suddenly didn’t care about his mean tendencies, yelling in the car, and political views. I just wanted to spend time with my dad because I realized our days on this planet are numbered and I wasn’t going to have him around forever. This life is not our own, and we can no more control the beginning and the ending of it than we can control the rising and setting of the sun. I started missing dad even before he was gone – and suddenly, more than anything, I wanted to spend long hours over orange-cranberry muffins in the cancer center’s café listening to his rants about Obama and his asshole neighbors at the trailer park.
I have learned over the years that my dad really does love me, but has a hard time expressing it. I love my dad, too. And I haven’t told him that enough. Cancer gave me a chance to do it.
Sometimes it takes something as ugly as cancer to bring that out in people.
And now I am beginning the journey of my own walk through the valley of the shadow. It may be years before I feel any of the effects of Lymphangeioleiomyomatosis (LAM), but I’ve seen the CT scan of my lungs and it is scary. I’ve lost countless nights of sleep tossing and turning as I picture those cysts on my lungs hijacking the space meant for air exchange. And because there is nothing that I, nor the medical professionals, can do at this point to treat my LAM, I decided the one thing I could do was jump up and down and scream to the world that LAM exists and that it’s evil and ugly and should be eradicated! I joined forces with my sisters and a few friends and organized a local 5K Walk/Run to raise LAM awareness and hopefully raise some money to help find a cure. We decided to set rational expectations, and prayed for maybe 40 or 50 participants and set our financial goal at $2,000.
In mid-August, as the Lord blessed us with the best West-Michigan weather ever, around 275 people participated in our “little” 5K and we raised over $13,000 to help fund the search for a cure! It was nothing short of miraculous and it took my breath away (no pun intended). I looked around at that sea of people that glorious Saturday morning and realized, again, I was witnessing a beautiful side of humanity. The side where all these incredibly busy people slowed their lives down enough – their one wild and precious life – to take part in an event that extended to me and every other woman with LAM the gift of hope, comfort, presence and peace. It was such an amazing celebration of life. Even though LAM is ugly, the celebration that day was beautiful. Truly beautiful.
I hate it that my lungs are slowly giving out on me – but I am beyond grateful and remain totally in awe that I got that little glimpse of heaven come to earth that day through the outpouring of love from all those people running a 5K. Maybe failing lungs is just one of the many tools God uses to get humanity to counter the overbearing “stay-busy-and-tired” message of our culture and instead to slow down and give the gift of presence!
I’m telling you what, even when things seem bad – even ugly-disease bad – God is still good.