The seas have lifted up, O Lord,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
It is summer, 1959. An ink-black sky littered with stars stretches over our little neighborhood in rural Maryland. We children have been summoned home from our evening play and are wearing fresh pajamas, our hair still damp from our baths. The windows of every home are open in hopes of catching a cool night breeze. Crickets serenade. A car occasionally passes by. That’s when my dad decides to liven things up by driving a locomotive down our street.
Armed with a new state-of-the-art hi-fi and emboldened by my mother’s absence, my father stretches the wires and positions the speakers, complete with the latest in woofers and tweeters, on our front porch. He places a new LP record of sound effects on the turntable. Then he turns up the volume to the highest decibel and sets a train loose to speed through the neighborhood, choo-chooing and woo-wooing like mad down our street.
Our surprised neighbors fly out of their houses in curlers and bathrobes, although the closest railroad tracks are miles away. They stumble into the darkness, trying to make sense of things as my prankster father oversees the scene from our front porch.
Fast-forward forty years....My pastor tells a funny story that ends like this: Just when you think you see the light at the end of the long dark tunnel, it turns out to be the headlights of an oncoming locomotive. I begin to laugh uncontrollably because that’s what it was like when I was diagnosed with cancer, and there is a fine line between laughter and tears. The long dark tunnel my husband, Pierre, and I had been down was ten years of devastating financial reversal. Finally, we were paying off the last of our bills and seeing what we thought was the light at the end of the tunnel, better times ahead. That’s just when the diagnosis came—advanced breast cancer—like a locomotive coming at us full speed from out of nowhere. Only this time it is my Father in heaven overseeing the scene, and I am the one stumbling into the darkness trying to make sense of things.
Just before I was diagnosed, I dreamed an unusual dream. In it, I am standing in a charming white gazebo perched on a tiny peninsula made of soft sand. I am nearly surrounded by clear, aqua water that spreads out in a great flat expanse to the edge of the world. Relaxed and warm, the taste of salt on my skin, I lean against the handrail and gaze out over the placid sea and feel the deepest peace I have ever known. I vow to stay here, always.
Suddenly my eye is drawn to the south where a towering tidal wave rears up dark and ominous and approaches fast. I run from the gazebo, frantically searching for something to hold on to when the water slams onto the shore, but I can’t find anything. Just as the thundering water is about to crash over my head, I wake up.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I believe this dream is from God. For one thing, the colors in my dream are unusually vivid. For another, the dream gives me a sense of foreboding I can’t shake.
Throughout history God has used dreams to teach or warn his people. Israel’s King David writes, “I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7). An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to escape the murderous Herod (Matthew 2:13).
In my case, I think it odd that I dream of approaching calamity just when our family is nearing the end of our financial debacle. As I think about the dream in the following days, it seems to be asking a question: “What will I cling to when the inevitable roar of trouble breaks over me?” My immediate answer is Christ, although I don’t know fully what that means.
In real life, of course, I don’t wake up in time to avoid the crashing waves of calamity, and I am forced to figure out what I will cling to.
It is a glorious Michigan summer afternoon, and I am a glorious woman in it. I am out of work early and feeling giddy, like a child playing hooky. My car is bathed in golden sunlight; my long skirt hiked up above my knees. I am running late for a doctor’s appointment. I drive with my car windows open. Warm, sweet-smelling air swirls around me, messing up my hair, but I don’t care. I am a glorious woman in a glorious day.
At the doctor’s office, a nurse takes me to a private examination room without a wait. It is that kind of day. Alone, I take off my blouse and put on a flimsy pink paper vest. I sit high up on an examination table covered with white paper and wait for the doctor.
I hear muffled voices outside my door. Dr. Daniel Sherbert enters carrying my file. He is a gentle, tall man with dark brown hair and a bushy brown mustache. He smiles kindly and shakes my hand. He sits down on a stool and rolls close to me. We talk for a minute about the magnificent weather; he examines a small incision on my breast that is healing nicely, then his face changes into a kind of therapeutic blankness. He opens my file and says, “You have cancer.”
Cancer. That most dreaded of all words comes at me now out of nowhere, like a baseball hurled toward a pitcher who is looking in another direction, unprotected. Cancer. It whacks my face full force, and the sting brings tears to my eyes.
I cannot have cancer. I am a young woman. There must be a mistake. Dr. Sherbert shows me the pathology report. I stare at it and try to focus on his words.
“Lobular,” he says, “slow growing. You may have had it a long time. It’s more than six centimeters. That’s stage three.”
Dr. Sherbert is talking, but my head is full of white static. I can’t hear. I clutch my paper vest closed in front. “Surgery,” he says. “Mastectomy. Chemotherapy. Radiation.” They are words with no relationship to me.
The oxygen has been sucked out of the room, and I can’t breathe.
“I did everything,” I blurt too loudly. “I did everything I was supposed to do.”
“It happens sometimes,” he says softly.
I think of my husband and my three sons, and tears roll down my cheeks. Dr. Sherbert hands me a Kleenex, his face no longer therapeutically blank. He looks uncomfortable. Bad news is not his specialty.
He pats my knee. “Do you have any questions?”
Questions? Life as I know it, the life I have greeted every morning of my forty-six years, the life in which I live and move and have my being has come to an end, and I don’t even know the right questions to ask.
I have cried for so many days that my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I have cancer.
A friend had cancer, too. Had cancer; she emphasizes the past tense. A surgeon with a steady hand and a sharp scalpel cut her tumor from her colon. Then they attacked her body with chemotherapy and radiation in case they didn’t get all the cells.
She looks frail when I see her on Saturday.
“You’re in the worst time,” she says, “the very worst time. You know you have cancer, but you don’t have a plan.”
A plan is what I
need....a plan to gather a team of doctors I don’t know, to create a treatment program I don’t want, to fight an enormous cancer I shouldn’t have.
I am like many cancer patients. The very worst time is immediately after the shock of the diagnosis. There are so many unknowns. That is when it is crucial to turn to our omniscient God. He promises to show the way. “This is what the Lord says . . . ‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go’” (Isaiah 48:17).
I am waiting to see a surgeon, sitting high up on an examination table. I hold the front of my flimsy paper vest shut with one hand and dab at the corners of my eyes with a damp Kleenex to keep my mascara from running. Pierre waits with me, sitting quietly in a chair by the door. He hands me a dry Kleenex.
The surgeon enters, a small man, seemingly not much older than my oldest son. He is wearing a white lab coat.
“Let’s have a look,” he says. He doesn’t notice that I am crying. He examines my breasts in silence, kneading them like bread dough, first one side, then the other.
“Your cancer is extensive,” he tells me, as if I didn’t already know it. “The other breast appears clear, but if you were my wife or sister I would take both breasts,” he says. “That is my recommendation.” He is oddly detached as if this is not my body we are talking about.
“What about reconstruction?” I whisper.
“No reconstruction for at least a year,” he says flatly. Bad news is this doctor’s specialty.
Later I memorize Psalm 139:5–10:
You hem me in....behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
During many of the hard times I will recall it, a comforting reminder of God’s presence and control in my life, no matter how things appear at the time.
On this day, however, Pierre drives home with one hand, holds my hand tightly with his other. We don’t speak a word about the surgeon’s unspeakable recommendation.
When I get home I go straight upstairs to our bed and cry into a Kleenex, just tears at first, then escalating sobs. Pierre sits down beside me and wraps his arms around the knot of my body. He holds me tight as we sit on our bed crying and rocking.
“We’ve been through tough times before. We can do this together,” he whispers. “You can make it.”
It will be weeks before I stop crying. And, although he tries, Pierre can’t keep me together, for it is the Lord Himself who holds us together when life feels like it is tearing apart at the seams. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
I have not yet turned to Him.
I read somewhere that babies without fathers have a higher incidence of hearing problems because, when a father tosses a baby up in the air and catches it, somehow the jostling helps develop the baby’s ears.
I wake up at 5:30 a.m., and that one sentence is on my mind. I think about hearing God because I have never needed to hear Him as badly as I need to hear Him now. I ask Him what it means to hold on to Christ, to trust Him when it seems impossible for Him to do anything. To abide. I don’t know what it means to abide, so I look it up. Abide: to wait for, to endure without yielding, to bear patiently, to accept without objection. I think about those definitions and write my own version: To endure hardship without losing hope.
Exactly what is it we hope for? That we will not have to endure hardship?
It is too late for me. I have cancer. Hardship is washing over me and not for the first time. Can I dare to hope that I will endure it without crumbling? Can I hope that the gospel is true, that there is another life beyond this life where all wrongs are made right and every tear wiped dry? That cancer is not the last word?
“Remember,” my friend says, “cancer starts with a lower case c; Christ starts with a capital.”
For nearly twenty-five years I have said that I trust Christ, but now, in the biggest crisis of my life, can I? I have a decision to make. Either I will trust Christ to guide me through cancer, or I will not. This is in many ways an intellectual decision based on what I know the Bible says and what I have experienced so far in my life.
I am driving in my car when I decide. Stopped at a traffic signal, I watch the light change from red to green, and in my mind I give Christ the green light, too. It is that simple. No matter what happens, I will trust Christ and I will not turn back. It is a decision I will have to keep making daily.
Christ, the Good Shepherd, leads His sheep away from the dangers they wander into; protects the sheep from the dangers that wander into them. His sheep follow Him because they know His voice.
“The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:3–4).
My Father in heaven throws me up seemingly out of His grasp, and, like a baby, maybe the jostling will develop my ears a little and I will hear Him whisper, “Come, follow Me.”
Journal Survival Guide
A cancer diagnosis is nearly always a devastating shock. However, today it is far from an automatic death sentence. No one wants to have cancer, but we should all be encouraged by the hundreds of thousands of survivor success stories. There is always hope. Best of all,
our God can be trusted, even with cancer. He is present with His children no matter what comes our way. And, as I later discovered, cancer is an exhilarating journey with God, like no other. Today, when nonbelievers tell me Jesus is just a crutch, I answer them, “Crutch? He’s a whole hospital.”
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.