Eleven days after I got married in 2012, my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma, anal cancer. This is an extremely rare cancer, very aggressive and very deadly. And we have no idea how she got it (aka how she could have prevented it), because research says that 90% of cases are caused by HPV, which is not applicable to my mom. Farrah Fawcett had been diagnosed earlier with the same thing, and we read with sinking hearts about her expansive, expensive treatments that did nothing against the disease. It was a death sentence. They gave Mama two months to live and our world turned upside down. She ended up living over two years -- much to the shock of all the doctors. We saw God heal her of the tumors when logic said that was near impossible. And then we saw God allow tumor after tumor until her death in 2014.
Today, September 30, is the five year anniversary of Mama's death. Her experience with cancer was horrifying; on the two extremes of mild to severe it would have been "worst case scenario" severe, by the assessment of her oncological team in Cincinnati. Mama is a Christian and today I know that she is in the presence of Jesus, and that gives me comfort. But in the aftermath of her intense suffering, even five years later, such a day can bring back reminders of graphic scenes that I wish had never happened.
On the one year anniversary of her death, I wrote down what I was thinking and feeling on a tiny blog I shared with a friend. I felt so bogged down by the world's false sympathies and shallow encouragements to put my hope in pure fluff. This is not from our God! I wanted to break free and speak of how God's Word is downright scary when you study His sovereignty within suffering, but at the same time, it is the best resource we have to persevere, the most trusted weapon to live. Not to live by how we feel but to live for the King who cannot be held down by death, the King who lives -- JESUS.
Christian sister, if you are grieving over a loved one, my heart is with you. You are not alone in your ache. The ache still exists within me. One gift losing my mom has given me is that Heaven is so much more real to me now. I ponder the mysteries of Heaven almost every day. When I enter into corporate worship it is extremely sacred for me as I envision my mother worshiping King Jesus to His face. And without fail, it brings tears to my eyes. And over time there was a shift within me; I no longer wish Mama was here, I wish I was with her worshiping Jesus at the throne. Oh sisters, what hope we have because of the Cross!!
Something to note about me is that my family is mostly Scottish, and so when you see me wearing my clan's plaid it is my symbol of seeking strength in the Lord, a reminder of where my armor lies. It means my heart is scared or hurting, and I am remembering how God has provided in gracious ways before and His grace will carry me through in the next season. As my clan's crest declares, I remember how those who have gone before me have lived. And because of their testimony, I am changed. I see proof that God is real and that I have earthly examples of His faithfulness. Even when I suffer.
"Grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me Home."
-John Newton, Amazing Grace
As much as you try to prepare yourself emotionally for the death of someone you love, there is no effort so great as to be able to control the grief that comes both before and after. There is nothing that can relieve what hits you. It is like seeing a wave in the ocean begin to build in height… as it gets closer, it gets bigger and bigger. You coach yourself as you swim through the choppy waters and finally acknowledge the reality that there’s nothing you can do to stop it. And when the wave crashes over you, no amount of strength can prevent you from plunging beneath the surface of the sea. And then the waves hit over and over and over.
One year ago today, God had mercy on Mama’s suffering and brought her Home to His arms. There are so many memories of 2014, specifically September, that will stay with me forever…
I remember my uncle in Sumter praying for me over the phone a few times through the month of September, feeling real comfort from his rich Southern accent and the God that we served. Friends showing up without being asked and sitting with me almost every day. Going to the eclectic, home-like College Hill Coffee Company every morning for an autumn blend coffee and to spend time with God before the day’s battle against cancer began.
I remember the night she said goodbye to us. My cousins from Sumter drove up and all the family was together. One by one she hugged them, whispering in their ear her goodbyes. My cousins, the fiances/girlfriends, my brothers. Finally, my turn. But when I put my ear to her mouth, she was silent. I was later told that she didn’t know what to say; how do you tell your only daughter that you are leaving her?
I remember watching Mama take her last breath. Putting my head on her sternum, hard from the lack of fat flesh, and shrieking to God like a wounded animal at the departing of her soul. Listening to the anguished cries of Mama’s friends as they said their last goodbyes to her after she had passed. The friends who drove three hours just to hug me at the layout. I remember that there were not enough chairs at her funeral for all the people who attended. Feeling surprised to see my pastor from Lafayette in the parking lot afterwards. When speaking at her funeral, I ended it by saying, “screw you cancer; you won the battle but lost the war.” Wondering later why I used the phrase “screw you” in a church.
At this exact time last year, a Scottish friend brought his bagpipes and played tunes of lament on the hill as friends said goodbye; my brothers and I stood outside in silence and watched him honor Mama. We watched him stop piping in the middle of a song and break down into full sobs. We watched him, unable to do anything but exist.
In September, I opened conversations with some of my friends on the topic of God. We would sit next to Mama in her hospice bed, and I asked them what they thought of God. Over and over I heard, “I’m angry. She loved God more than anyone I know. Why is He doing this to her?”
We can brush over life’s trials and say that God doesn’t plan for us to suffer, that that is the work of the devil but God picks up the pieces and makes something beautiful out of it. There’s some truth in that, but we need to dig deeper. I appreciate my friends’ responses because they didn’t believe in any fluffy theology just to make themselves feel better. This sounds harsh, but it is good for people to wake up to the truth of what God is actually doing in suffering. Only then can we trust Him.
If you believe that God is sovereign, meaning that He is in control of everything (including Satan)… then you have to believe that God was in control of the situation that caused suffering. Let’s take my own life as an example. Satan threw a lot at my family, and many things God protected us from. However, when Satan threw cancer at my mother, God opened the gates and allowed Satan to attack. In the end, if it was anyone’s “fault,” it was God’s and not Satan’s.
“Look now; I myself am He! There is no other god but Me! I am the One who kills and gives life; I am the One who wounds and heals; no one can be rescued from My powerful hand!”
“Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
1 Peter 4:19
God decided that Mama should suffer. God decided that it would be cancer. God decided to not give the doctors wisdom when she had tailbone pain for years while the cancer grew undetected. God decided that it would be a rare cancer. God decided that it would be physically tormenting. God decided that a husband would lose his greatest love, that four kids would lose their mother so young. God decided that I would go through my first pregnancy without her. God decided that she would be healed when the doctors said she would die. And it was God who decided when He would take her Home to true healing.
Then why would anyone trust Him? Mama’s oncologist at UC Hospital said after her death that she had suffered more than any patient he had ever seen. How can you watch the horror story of last year and say that God is good?
“You are good and do only good.”
God’s plan for Mama was so much bigger than what anyone of us could see. He placed her in the dark, hopeless world of suffering cancer patients and made her smile shine bright and beautiful to those who only saw ugliness in their existence. He placed her in the care of nurses who needed to see someone suffer and say, “I trust my God.” God wounded her over and over, and just when the devil thought he won, Mama would lift her hands in worship at church or tell those who came to the hospital that she would go through it all again if it meant they would give their lives to the Lord. If this world is all there is, then yes this whole situation would be the most tragic event. But God has a bigger plan. He needed someone who would suffer without complaint and continue to trust in Him. And He chose Mama.
Last night I went into the nursery of my unborn baby boy and wept tears into the carpet. I remember how frightening the last night of her life was, watching her suffer to the point that I begged God for mercy on her life, how I wanted to run out into the woods and scream… scream without words because there were no words to release all the turmoil within my soul. I remember September. The God that I love wounded me deeply many times last year, and the September wound hasn’t healed. It probably won’t ever heal, and I’m ok with that because it reminds me of the blessing that I had a Mama who was worth such a wound.
My husband told me that as he watched my life unfold over the past few years, he felt like he was watching a rubber band being stretched farther and farther, but that when it releases it will shoot far. The “stretching” aspect hurts, but I wait in anticipation for future ministry opportunities because of my experiences. I know that God’s plan was, is, and always will be good — because God Himself is good. I look at what He has done in my heart over the past few years and it makes the struggle worth it. I have new strength that I never would have had if I hadn’t walked through the fire. He gave me grace to make it through every day, even when I told Him “I’m not sure I can survive another day of this;” the next day I had just enough strength to not run away or turn back towards my old self-destructive lifestyle, strength to love on my parents as they went through the worst days of their lives.
As I pray for my unborn son, my temptation is to pray that God shields him from all things painful. But I see what God has done within me, and I don’t want to deprive my children of that gift. I boldly approach the throne of grace, pray that God gives my son the grace to trust Him when God wounds him.
But now thus says the Lord,
He who created you…
He who formed you…
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are Mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God… your Savior.”
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