The phone rang.
Phone calls are ordinary events that happen in our lives every day, several times a day. I grew up in a time where our family had a party line, where you had to count the number of rings to see if it was for your family and even if it was not you could pick up the receiver and listen in. Till the 1990s, most people only used the phone at home or at their work or occasionally using the now defunct phone booth. Now we hear cell phones ringing all around us, at the grocery store, the gas station, a social event, everywhere. Ringing phones are as common as the sand at the seashore. Our cell phone use has become as second nature to us as breathing air. So when I received this call at approximately 10 am on April 6th 2010, I thought it would be an ordinary call. Instead it changed my life and the life of my family forever.
“It is cancer,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
They came from my sobbing wife who had been informed over the phone by her doctor that she had stomach cancer. Those words, that phone call, exploded like a bomb on our family. I was shell shocked, frozen in place at Home Depot where I was picking up wood to help a friend build a patio cover. Cancer, a word that brings fear to the heart, tears to the eyes, and anxiety to one’s emotions. It is a word that causes a thousand questions. Is it terminal? What kind of cancer is it? What will it do to the body? What treatments are there? How fast does it grow? The list of questions is endless. This was the second time that cancer had entered our family’s life as I had faced and overcome colon cancer a year before. Now it was my wife Karen’s turn to face this dreaded disease. And that one phone call began a journey for our family that would stretch us and grow our faith like no other time in our lives.
Before this phone call my wife had been having stomach pains which began in Washington D.C. when our family was vacationing there in the summer of 2009. For ten months she had been going to the doctor, trying to find the source of and relief for her stomach pain which was ever increasing. It took several months but she was finally able to get an endoscopy of her stomach. We had prayed about it in general terms thinking at most that she had an ulcer. But we never thought cancer. On the day of the test, I had an elder meeting at church, and I asked for prayer for the results of the testing, again sharing with the men that the doctor thought it would be an ulcer. The doctor did, however, mention that there was a remote chance of cancer.
I immediately headed home to meet my wife, Karen, as the doctor had called her at work. Upon arriving home, we fell into each other’s arms and cried. What else does one do with such tragic news? We cried for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality is was only about fifteen minutes. We then prayed and discussed how we would tell our three children, all of whom were in high school. They were in the 9th, 11th, and 12th grades at Canyon High where I currently still teach. The two oldest were called home and told, but the youngest was spending the day with friends and would be picked up at youth group that night. Telling them was one of the hardest things I had to do. During my cancer battle, I had almost died not from the cancer but from uncontrolled bleeding caused by blood thinners. I had talked with them at that time about death and that God has numbered all our days. But now I was having this talk with my children about their mom…and it was 100 times harder.
For the next seven months our family traveled a road that eventually led to God calling my wife home on November 10th, 2010. We faced two major surgeries and countless hours of naturopath treatments. Stomach cancer does not have chemo for a cure, but rather only treatment for palliative care, treatment to ease the pain. As a result my wife chose a naturopath treatment. Along the way God provided unending support through our church family, my school, the previous school where my wife had worked, and through the college where she currently worked. While this blog is too short to detail the full journey, allow me to share how God caused growth in our lives and used our lives to minister to others.
Prayer – From the first day till her last breath, we turned to God in prayer. In my shallow faith, I often prayed expecting my preconceived answers instead of God’s answers. I learned that God says No and when he does it is for a reason. Did I really want our family’s journey to glorify God? That means accepting a “No” when after surgery the doctor tells us that he had to take out all her stomach, that the cancer was in her lymph nodes, and her hospital stay was a painful 10 days. These were all things we prayed not to have, but God said, “No, my grace is sufficient for you,” (2 Cor 12:9.) Yet in telling us No he was building our faith. We learned that we had to place each prayer request at the foot of the cross and look for his answer. His “No” answer did not mean he was withholding his love but rather that his ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9).
16 Come and hear, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me. 17 I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue. 18 If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; 19 but God has surely listened and has heard my prayer. 20 Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!
Trust – We learned to trust God for provision along the way and rest in the truth of his word. This blog is too short to share the myriad of ways that God provide through our church, through our schools, and through believers and unbelievers alike. He provided food, gift cards, times away for refreshing our souls, and even tuition remission for all 3 children for the college where my wife worked. Most of all he brought comfort to us through his word.
Proverbs 3:5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
Psalm 119:50 This is my comfort in my affliction, That Your word has revived me.
Laughter – God cares so much for us that he even gave us laughter throughout our journey. It came through friends and family and at the most unexpected times. We had fellowship with so many friends and church members in Karen’s hospital room, in the large waiting room, at our home, and at some special places that God provided for us to go. Laughter and smiles brought more comfort than trying to worry about when and if God would call Karen home. We coveted to live one day at a time and enjoy that day and all the blessings that God abundantly provided each day.
Proverbs 17:22 A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
Longing for Heaven – After the second surgery, we knew that God would take Karen home. As a result, she and I read most of the book Heaven by Randy Alcorn. It was comforting and refreshing to know more about a subject that is rarely preached or taught in our churches. We learned more about heaven in those few weeks of reading than in all of our adult life before this time. Eternity compared to our short time on earth is really not a comparison. We will have eternity in a wonderful new heaven and new earth. If this earth is so beautiful and good, how much more so will the new heaven and earth be?
Defining Faith – While I had walked with our Lord for more than 30 years, my children were still in the early stages of their walk with Christ. As a parent, I often wondered how genuine their faith was. God showed me clearly and definitely that my children knew him and that he was deepening and growing their faith.
Abundant Grace – I cannot describe adequately the grace we received throughout the journey of Karen’s illness and the journey with my children since then. It has been abundant and overwhelming and has carried us through our darkest times. His grace has indeed been sufficient for us.
It has been almost five years since my precious wife went home to be with the Lord and I could tell you of countless ways that God has made himself known to my children and me. He has truly walked us through the valley of the shadow of death and has been by our side the entire way. And he continues to show himself faithful even when we are faithless. The journey has not be easy and there have been many tears and trials and we are still growing in our relationship with Christ but our God’s goodness has overflowed in our lives in ways we could never think of.
Our God is good.