Three years ago today, my life changed dramatically. It was the day that my mom was given the fateful diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. It’s not an anniversary so much as it is a scar that appears on my calendar every January 31st. Three years away from the actual day, I can feel the dread closing in well in advance of the actual day. It seems to envelop and overwhelm me like ocean waves at the beach, like fog overcoming everything that stands in its way.
It was a Monday morning and I knew that my mom was in the hospital only because my aunt had alerted me to this fact the night before. She hadn’t been feeling well and after bearing with her discomfort and pain all weekend long, she finally succumbed and went to the hospital. Everyone was expecting something, but I don’t think any of us expected what would actually be spoken.
Cancer. It’s the one word that instills fear and horror in me. I’ve tasted the results of it too many times over the past years. I’ve witnessed to fathers and mothers who lose children, sons and daughters who lose moms and dads, brothers and sisters who lose siblings, and friends who lose friends. It knows no prejudice, it knows no demographic which it doesn’t embrace, it simply invades and takes away.
When I heard the words, “It’s not good” from my father, I expected the worst. I assured him that I would be there soon and held it together while he was still on the other end of the phone. Once we hung up, I let out the loudest wail that I have ever uttered and crumbled like a pile of ashes onto the floor. All I could scream was the word “no” over and over again. In that moment, I could see no hope, I could see no sunshine, all I could see were the dreams that we had of what could be being dashed to the ground like fragile pieces of glass, shattering into pieces that were barely recognizable from what they once were.
That began a long road that we would take for the next nearly six months. Appointments. Consultations. Family meetings. Phone calls. Silent prayers. Tears. I did my best to hold myself together for everyone else. My mom was doing the same thing. I so vividly remembering my brother, father, mother, and me in the back of my aunt and uncle’s minivan driving from one appointment or another. I sat silently next to my mom, simply holding her hand, hoping that some ounce of courage or hope might travel through me to her. As she began to weep, I looked at her and said, “what?” As if I needed an answer, she softly replied, “I don’t want to be a wimp.”
My mom and “wimp” could hardly have been used in the same sentence. I had seen so many displays of strength over the years and heard the stories of strength that had come before me. She would never own that strength herself, she rested in the hands of her Father and she was never one to shy away from the explanation for that. She never failed to have an answer when asked of the hope that she possessed, even as the darkness of cancer began to close in, even when she knew that the future was as bleak on this earth as she had anticipated, even when she knew that she would not hold her first and only granddaughter…..at least not on this side of eternity.
Brutal. That’s a word that a friend, brother, and fellow pastor uses over and over again. It’s the best word that I can use to describe the events of that day and many days following. As I come face to face with this day yet again, the pain cuts me afresh, as if it never left me. My mind drifts off to what could have been and I remember that those are just dreams and visions, not to be realized.
Sure, I know where she is. Her pain and trouble are gone, but you never tell that to someone in an effort to bring them cheer and hope. Chances are, the person who is grieving knows so many of the things that you want to say to them….and they don’t necessarily need to hear them. In fact, that was one of my mom’s greatest gifts, the gift of presence, and the gift of listening.
I miss that. I miss her smile. I miss her wisdom. I miss all that she was, and still is, to me. I can’t wait to see that face again in a place without time, without pain, without death. In the meantime, I will simply wait. I will ache. I will hurt. But I will hold on to hope, a hope that lies in the One who conquered death, who conquered pain, who redeems and restores. That is the only hope that I can find.
So, every January 31st I will see a mark like a scar on the calendar. I will do my best to face it with my head held high. Cancer can conquer life….at least for now, but it cannot conquer hope.