The doctor’s office called after my annual physical two years ago. “We want to run more tests.” They ran more tests and sent me to a specialist.
The specialist took a history and ran an additional test. It surprised me when, after the test, he sat down face to face with me. Doctors just don’t sit down like that! Unceremoniously he announced: “You have cancer.”
That was a moment suspended in eternity. My mind spun this way and that trying to make sense of the news. I didn’t know what to grab hold of… for five or ten seconds. Then everything became very clear: “If I live, I am in God’s hands. If I die, I am in God’s hands. Either way is okay with me.”
It was that simple. A lifetime of hearing the gospel and feeling its power had prepared me to trust Him when the moment of uncertainty came. Thousands of times I have run into Him on the road of life. Millions of times He has warmed me, encouraged me, lifted me, and pointed me. Why would this encounter be different from any other?
So I went home and told dear Nancy; she is a gem. She held me as we now-more-than-ever put ourselves in God’s hands.
We called my widowed Mom and told her that I might be crowding to the front of the line heading to the spirit world. She was indignant: “No son of mine is going to beat me through the veil.” I laughed. “I’m not sure you get to decide this, Mom. It is in God’s hands.”
The thing that I most dreaded was extended medical torture. I didn’t want months of medical appointments, tests and treatments. I wanted a clear blueprint of what needed to be done to achieve a cure and I hoped for a quick resolution so I could return to life as I knew it. But I didn’t get my way.
We thought the chemical treatment would heal the cancer-it does for most people; it did nothing for me. We thought surgery would be a bump in the road; it wasn’t; it was more of a wreck with damage extending across many months. We assumed that, after recovery, I would quickly return to almost-normal functioning. We were mistaken. For almost two years now we have struggled to get infections and blockages and dysfunctions under control.
Dozens of times we have gone to specialists: urologists, oncologists, infectious disease docs, nephrologists, gastroenterologists, internal medicine doc, etc. Hundreds of times I have been poked, probed, and examined. We expected clear answers, but instead we got uncertainty and confusion. Sometimes we even felt ignored by the doctors.
Every time we went to the doctor, we hoped for some news or treatment that would move us a solid step closer to a return to good health. Instead each visit seemed to give us more bad news: abscesses, blockages, abnormal blood cells, anemia, repeated infections and failing kidneys.
After an especially grueling set of challenges, I collapsed in exhaustion. Sometimes I would weep with sadness.
But the medical confusion and uncertainty are not the meaningful parts of this journey; the meaningful part is what we learn and how we grow. I had thought I was already learning life’s vital lessons. I had assumed that God would grant me two or three more decades to learn more of the same. Instead He enrolled me in a very different school with very different assignments. I take comfort from C. S. Lewis’ metaphor.
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. (Mere Christianity)
What are some of the lessons I have learned?
One of the most important lessons I have learned is that joy does not depend upon our circumstances. Having joy does not require comfort, health or life going in the direction I prefer. It is an inner condition that is relatively unaffected by life’s circumstances. I can choose to be grateful for the magnificent God who presides in my life and all lives. I can look for and appreciate blessings that He extends to me even during this challenging experience.
When our new doctor prescribed an invasive repair surgery, rather than dread the recovery and side-effects, I could be grateful that the surgery is available. Our surgeon, who often visits Kenya to serve the poor people of that country, reminded us: “We have amazing medical resources in the United States!” He’s right. Though I have not gotten a quick and tidy remedy for my cancer, I have received amazing care. If I had been born in Kenya-or anywhere in the world a few decades earlier-I would not be alive.
There are more reasons to be glad. I get to make this journey with my beloved Nancy cheerfully and lovingly at my side. I am amazed by her patience through all the demands of the past two years. We enjoy a devoted family. In one especially challenging 10-day span of my cancer journey, family members built a schedule and took turns fasting for me so that there was never a moment during that time when someone was not fasting for me. Quite by accident I learned of their support and was flooded with gratitude.
I am also grateful for the many cherished friends who are cheering for us. Sometimes when I have posted a health update to Facebook, dozens of people have offered words of encouragement within minutes. It is such a blessing to instantly feel the uplift of a network of gracious people!
I have learned that receiving compassion from others is wonderfully encouraging. So many sweet people have been kind and solicitous. This experience has caused me to want to be more compassionate and softer towards other people.
Some people have shown kindness in wonderfully practical ways. As I languished in bed, our home teacher organized about 30 priesthood bearers to come to our house and tear out our broken-up driveway and replace it with a new one. Everyone from deacons to missionaries and high priests was swinging sledge hammers and hauling chunks of concrete. Our neighbors were amazed! We were deeply touched by their sacrifice of time and effort on our behalf. As a result I am even more motivated to offer service to those in need.
I have learned that the value of service goes beyond the importance of assisting with temporal needs. It also offers kindness, encouragement and a sense of community to those going through hardship which ministers to their souls.
I have learned the importance of being useful. While there are many things I can’t currently do, I delight in the things that I can do. When for example, the bishop asks me to help a struggling family in the ward, I rejoice that God has found a way to utilize me.
I have come to understand that mortal life has less use for some phrases than others. “They lived happily ever after” applies to eternity better than mortality. In mortality “he will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept; and [God] will try you and prove you herewith” (D&C 98:12). That’s part of the glorious plan. I am eternally grateful for the perspective that the gospel offers; it allows us to receive all things with thankfulness (See D&C 78:19).
I was taught a vital lesson in a blessing from our stake patriarch. He told me that it didn’t matter whether I got well or not. (That wasn’t the message I hoped for!) What mattered was that I get brighter and brighter in my testimony of Jesus. I hope I have done that. I know that I have felt His love keenly and have been profoundly grateful for it.
The lessons continue to pile up. Listing them reminds me of what Quentin L. Cook said about peace in General Conference: “The peace to which I am referring is not just a temporary tranquility; it is an abiding, deep happiness and spiritual contentment.”
Abiding, deep happiness. spiritual contentment. In the midst of stormy circumstances, we can experience sunny serenity. I have learned how to reliably get good news: Look for the good in every fragment of news that comes my way. That assures peace.
Whatever courses are part of my mortal curriculum, God presides. He will teach me, advise me, encourage me, and, when the time is right, take me back Home to join the family business.
So maybe these experiences are perfectly designed for me-someone who traditionally has been hopelessly optimistic. Maybe God is expanding my compassion towards others and their challenges even as He stretches my faith and gratitude. Maybe God is teaching me to focus my diminished energy on the things that matter most. Maybe there will be more lessons over the next few months that will further bind me to Him and His purposes.
Surely He knows how to teach me the lessons that I need. I trust Him. And I am grateful to Him.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her contributions to this article.
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