The treatment wing of a hospital is often a bleak area. Large, padded armchairs are full of fragile people; skin looks droopy, hair is thin. Chatter of nurses cover the majority of sound, though people often talk quietly to those sitting with them.
This day, however, it was very quiet; there was reverence, a strange and intimidating air in the room. A man who looked in his late 80’s sat across the room from me. He started coughing horribly; he was clearly very sick. Soon a nurse came over with a breathing mask, oxygen shooting out of it. The old man couldn’t stop coughing. I sat there by myself that day, a Bible laying across my lap open to 2nd Corinthians; my heart began beating as the old man’s struggle became audible. The nurse held his face to the oxygen but the coughing became worse, he started hacking into the mask. My heartbeat accelerated, my stomach turned. The old man’s wife rubbed his back and whispered close to his ear, her face told me that the words she lightly breathed were very important, truths she needed him to hear. But he didn’t hear, he coughed over and over again from deep inside himself, his body convulsing. I looked away, wanting to plug my ears, wanting to be on the beach. I looked back. The old man’s face resembled a defeated collapse, his eyes were cold and tired, his ribs showing through his gown; I’ve never seen someone closer to death. He continued coughing violently, upsettingly loud, forcing the room into extreme uneasiness. It wouldn’t stop, it was a nightmare that kept on as the man’s hacking continued and he clutched himself tightly. He seemed to be grasping for anything, but his body convulsed and wouldn’t let him move any other way. He hadn’t taken a breath for many long minutes. Suddenly the nurse forced his face to the mask once again. His coughing slowed. His wife continued whispering to him. He fell back into his chair, defeated but breathing almost normally.
Sweat dripped into my eyes. My heart was pounding. I looked down and noticed both my hands were squeezing the seat of my chair. I swallowed and looked back to my book.
Therefore we do not lose heart, though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
People look at each other in the treatment center; the chairs face each other. Everyone can communicate without words or expression; it’s not the similarities but the situation, like solders sitting at base camp. The war continues for everyone, the fight carries on and the pain is abundant.
Horrendously potent chemo was flooding into my arm for the first time that day. I didn’t feel nauseous yet, but my stomach felt uneasy, my heart unsteady. Life looked much different than what I had projected. The old man scared me senseless, I thought he would die in front of me. His arms were pale and saggy, his skin bare. I couldn’t ignore my hands that held the Bible; the arms attached to them were more pale than they had ever been. My hair was cut short, it began thinning. I was coughing myself, it was hard to control at times.
Suddenly the reality of my life became apparent. The words in the small book I held stared at me in the face; they demanded that I utilize them. In the light of seeing apparent death and feeling my body may be slowly turning to nothing, it was strange how simple it all became. The small words on the gold-edged pages were all that I had now. I didn’t have to worry about anything else, who I would become, how I would make my way.
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
That day in the treatment center was just me and my little book. It ended up being the scariest three hours of my life, yet one of the most rewarding experiences I’ll ever know. That in itself would prove to be the mantra of my fight with cancer: frightening and seemingly desolate, yet unmistakably moving.
One year earlier I sat in a bleak office, fluorescent lights beaming down on a strange old carpet and fake plants sitting on an aged desk. My mom sat crying next me and my dad was two chairs down with wide eyes as a pleasant man named Dr. Hurton sat behind the desk, explaining the intricately-worded lab report we couldn’t understand. This is extremely rare. He felt obviously tense; his expression had always been reassuring, but today, there was something in his eyes that seemed unmistakably hopeless, as if he didn’t believe in the trust he ambivalently offered us. I had a callouss on my hand and I remember tearing at it with a good amount of my attention.
My mom, the most logical of us all, wasn’t quite sure what to say. This is just so strange. It was strange. How did this happen? I was an eighteen-year old boy, my medical history was flawless. I played sports, I was fit, actually pretty buff if you would’ve asked me. My uncanny yet consistent regimen of surfing over studying burned off the fat, and combined perfectly with my position on the rugby team, which had me doing shoulder presses against linebackers until my arms slopped around like rubber. All this seemed to work perfectly with a whole-food diet of pop-tarts for lunch and endless Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner. It was a fulfilling lifestyle that had worked for pretty much my whole life.
This is devastating, I understand. Hurton pressed on with his comforting words, expressions I felt indifferent towards. It all seemed very dramatic. I tore at the thick callous.
My father appeared to be at a loss for words. Suddenly his eyes grew red and shiny, and whenever the doctor spoke, he added a tense phrase at the end of each sentence. Oh my God. Oh my God.
A strange new journey looked at me in the form of a complicated lab report.
As we walked into our house, my dad’s tears began arriving in full force. We were in the kitchen when he grabbed me and my mom, pulled us close, and we ended up in a small huddle, our hands on each other’s backs. My dad held a defeated posture, slumped into sadness, looking towards our feet with the bulk of himself. He said we should pray, which was interesting; we didn’t pray very often, almost never together, apart from a short prayer before dinner. So when my dad closed his eyes and started speaking helplessly, the grief that he felt revealed itself openly to me. I felt strange about this prayer, thought I shouldn’t participate, as if it was an unknown and forced attempt towards a connection none of us knew, an overdue retrieval of righteous hope we didn’t deserve. I felt strange and uncomfortable. An apparent numbness fell into my mind, and my emotions were stuck in place.
Hearing my father choke through words, the desperate outpouring aimed toward God, was unsettling. He prayed with more than just his speech, his whole being was falling out of him. I opened my eyes because I couldn’t stand it, and stared intolerably at his hopeless and mortified face. I couldn’t participate, it was all too much for me. Once he said amen, the three of us met eyes and hugged for a long minute, then I left the situation as fast as I could.
The air was warm that day, the weather a beautiful expression of God’s propriety. Nothing was missing if trouble wasn’t present. I sat at the counter, staring at the papers Dr. Hurton gave us, trying to read the long words that I didn’t understand. Multiple nodules. Invasive Pseudomyogenic Hemangioendothelioma. The only thing I knew was what I was told about the big words: there was a rather aggressive cancer growing in the blood vessels on my back, some strange form of malignancy that no one knew anything about. They weren’t sure how bad it was, but the overall diagnosis was about the worst one you could ask for at this point. I looked into my lap and at the inside of my arm, feeling like my body had turned against itself, that somewhere in my genes was missing a code that allowed me to live flawlessly like everyone else seemed to be. I was ready to take on the world, and this wasn’t fair.
Then I walked slowly into the backyard, putting my feet in the water of our pond. The water was lukewarm, and circled my legs with a nice comfort that contrasted the unnerving sense in my head.
There I sat, moving my feet back and forth to muddle the water so I didn’t have to look at the reflection. I spoke to God, someone I hadn’t known extensively well; my patterns of living had never been quite conducive to speaking upward. The rugby, the water, the macaroni and cheese, it all formulated a wonderful fate I could wake up to every morning, knowing my adrenaline would flutter at some point that afternoon and my stomach feel a gorging satiation not too long after. There was nothing to worry about in that life. I could sprawl on the couch, and my mind would wander to an imaginary wave in the middle of Indonesia that curled perfectly over my face as my fingers treaded lightly on the water behind me, then I would drift into a cloudless beach where my back felt the magical sensation of warmly temperate sand as the girl I loved laid gently next to me, her hand enclosed in mine, as we smile towards each other; then my vision would spring forward to the man I would be, the famous man facing awards and illustrious praise at his impassioned creativity and unending abilities to inspire, I would stand in front of loud applause as the gleaming faces of admirers swooned over my superior aptness and performance in living. My mind’s eye had focused so strongly on the seeming fact that I would be something unmistakably significant, that my life was meant for greatness, and still I would escape to the water and drape myself on the warm sand when I wanted.
Then, suddenly, the walls of my superbly created world were coming crashing down, trampling over the sand and crushing my framed awards while black clouds covered the sun. The reality of my living drew apart from my projection, standing on its own, feeling naked and unimportant. I was no longer my future great self, I was my present existence, a lonely and scared boy that didn’t know about distress, hadn’t felt the wrath of shattering positions, lived in preoccupation with his own short happiness that was being swept away. My ideals were now only ideals, as if I’d trained lazily for a race I couldn’t start, and was forced to remain an out-of-shape candidate who began too late and watched his dreams run along without him. My head felt stunted by overly-futuristic thought, I was a romantic with no form of action who lived in wonderful ignorance. Then, this day, I looked at the reflective water and stared into my own debilitated eyes as I was taught that the things we do every day have an incredible importance, and that my own ideals had only inhibited my ability to act now, to aid people, to make them feel special, to give, to cherish those I loved, and most importantly to invest in the servanthood that God desires, which breaks out of our short existence and into forever. Realizations came cascading into my thoughts, all wrapped around the perspective of God’s eternity and how blind I had been to it.
Sometimes God grants us the blessing of looking into our own fragility. We are in a place where we seem to have nothing, where it appears our life is stripped from us. Then, as living begins to pass away and we get to look into the eternity that follows, our perspective changes. We realize that we have everything we need. We realize what we put our time into, how unimportant so many things are. We see that God desires for us abundance, but it’s not the abundance we thought. Our abundance is not awards, it is not money or success, it’s not who we make ourselves into by working hard; it is simply granted to us. Then we can rest; we can stop working towards superiority, we can stop worrying and simply love.
The greatness of cancer is the greatness of most hardship. We begin to look at our world with a sense of newness, an urgency that prompts our hearts towards necessary action, then before we know it, we’re living like we have a purpose: changing where we need to change, telling those we love that we love them. I believe tragedy is God’s medium, His wonderful vehicle: He sits with us while we hurt, and when we’re ready, He gathers us and stands us up, and suddenly we’re stronger than we were before, moving towards the glory our souls were made for. The normalcy of life allows us numbness, then suddenly troubles come and we are shown the delicacy of our emotions and the unsteadiness of our world. The numbness is gone, the anesthetized living has worn off, and we have to feel it all. Ours souls desire refreshment, but the means of that refreshment must often be the devastation of our heart and mind: the shell of our soul that protects it from healthy change because it doesn’t want to be hurt. But sometimes it must be hurt; our delicate feelings must be broken and our emotions must be ravaged, then our soul breaks free from the hard shell, taking a deep breath in the new air and preparing a fresh heart that is much more well-built than before it was broken.
Cancer differs, however, in that you are now dying, possibly very quickly. Dreams begin changing, hope begins shifting, and the desires of the future are now quietly irrelevant. The only place to look is deeper, into the vastness of your being, trying to find some indispensable direction your life should go for the short time it’s there. You become frail, actuality appears terrifying; there is nothing left to hold on to, as if you are falling and reach, but find only air; every strong branch is breaking, every street is closed, every option is run out. Our choices are thinned to nothing.
It’s there, with our head down and feeling quite hopeless, that God shows us a new kind of peace, and it’s there that God overwhelms us. We thought we had nothing, when in reality we have only Him; the place where distractions are gone and every ounce of hope runs towards our Creator, the only thing left. It’s the place we should be always, but is so hard to find in a regular life.
My life is often a product of working hard to be someone great, the daydreaming of becoming a man that deserves a ramped standing ovation. I want tangibility, I want awards. I want to see the fruit of my work. Then I bring myself back to the padded armchair where the old man coughed uncontrollably, where my self-absorbed aspirations were dimmed and I found myself sweating uncontrollably, or back to the yard at my parents house where I stared solemnly at the water. It helps me remember. Life is blink before a long eternity, an eternity where our accomplishments are turned to rubble and we are left with how we loved.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Our greatest life is found when we decide that we are not in control; we have passed away completely. Christ is all that there is. Cancer makes you do that; it’s harder in normal life. But when we find it, we find the abundance we so strongly desire, getting to live as people of character, people who cannot be shaken, people who are a blessing to those they love and who flourish when tested. Cancer should always speak this to us. All the pain, all the drugs, all the waiting rooms and traffic, all the bitter tears and the joyful hugs, all the momentous talk, all of the moments we find ourselves yelling towards God, all the times we find life is stripped away from us, all the wordless appreciation and undeniable resentment, and all the prayers that say I need you this instant, all pointing to the unshakable and irrepressible truth:
When we begin dying, finally we begin to live.
I forget that often.