Terminal Cancer, One Year In
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
-William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis
Today marks the anniversary of finding out how my wife will probably die.
One year ago, we sat in a room with our oncologist and were told what we had already guessed: that her cancer was back, that it was terminal, and that every medical procedure from that point forward was only a matter of buying time. What the doctor said was clinical, something about “incurable” and “weighing the benefits and costs of treatment.” What we felt was the shadowy presence of the Reaper seeping under the door and through the cracks around the window. His specter has been with us ever since.
What do I say about such an anniversary?
Death is a bastard. No wonder we spend so much time distracting ourselves from it. Human beings dread the silence and boredom of unoccupied time in part because it echoes with the inevitability of mortality. The minute hand clicks with the footsteps of our approaching demise, and so we do everything possible to drown out its ticking. Only when the reality is made inescapable do we begin to confront it.
At the same time, Jesus is faithful. Not “faithful” in the moonshine platitudes of our culture’s pseudo-religion, not some Santa Clause fidelity that pats us on the head and tells us nothing bad will happen to good little boys and girls, not faithful the way some well-intentioned interlocutors seem to mean (“I’m sure you’ll be healed. Just have faith and pray harder.”) Maybe Jesus will choose to spare her life, maybe He will miraculously heal her, and maybe in that day we will weep grateful tears and celebrate. Then again, maybe not. Even if He were to work such a miracle, it would only postpone the inevitable. Something else will kill her if the cancer doesn’t. In my darker moments, I reflect that something could kill her before the cancer gets the chance.
Yet Jesus is faithful. We have taken Him at His promises and found them to be true. He gives us purpose and hope to walk through each day, still Christian, still sane, still living out His purposes in the shadow of the grave. He is faithful through His church, through brothers and sisters who still walk with us a year in, who will continue to walk with me when my sweeter half is torn away. He is faithful through His means of grace, meeting us as we sit in His Word and pray and come to the Table, giving us the strength to press forward even as the darkness grasps at our heels.
Honestly, that doesn’t do God’s faithfulness justice. We have found vivid joys in this last year, many of which would have remained undiscovered in a cancer-less marriage. I revel in the goodness of my wife, my heart burns with an ardor for her unknown in our easier years. Our laughter echoes louder in chests hollowed out by grief. Our passions for ministry burn with the fire of time grown short. I have seen a hunger for Christ and a boldness about speaking of Him in my wife that has only increased as her body has turned against her. I have found a love for God’s glory in my own heart forged from the knowledge that it is the only truly good thing that endures. We have made love born of luminous desperation and wept in a way that intermingles our souls. Here in the blasted wasteland of mourning, sheltered between cracks in the rocks, are flowers with colors undreamed in the green fields of ease.
Elizabeth’s diagnosis has stripped away both our happy delusions and our life-shrinking pretensions. We have had to be honest with each other, honest about the world. It is a bloody and gorgeous and sweet and crooked place, this world. We stomp around in the sewage of mortality as edifices of God’s splendor rear around us. We have learned that we must have it both ways: life is far crueler and far more exquisite than most of us have the clarity to perceive.
In all of this, here are a few things about which my conviction only grows:
- The more our hope rests in ourselves, the more our hope will fail us. The more our hope is in the Lord, the more we will find His unshakeable being below us to support us when life crumbles away.
- God’s ways are not ours. He often does what makes no sense to us, and sometimes what makes only too much sense and leaves us terrified. Yet He does it all while also sharing our flesh, and going before us into death, and indwelling us with His Spirit, and suffering that our suffering might have the prospect of redemption.
- Every human life must be lived in the razor-sharp immanence of the present. We need the past to know who we are and the future to know who God will make us, but we can only live between them in this lucid moment of becoming. We will all die; that is not in question. To squander this moment is to already in it be dead.
- At the same time, God’s story is far grander than we have dared imagine. It creaks with the vastness of eternity. We will live and love and labor and die and awake one day to find that it was all but the first sentences of the prologue of the never-ending novel of God-imaging immortality. Without the resurrection, this brief grasping and wilting we call life is nothing. With the resurrection, it is the first heartbeat of infinite life.
I do not know how much longer Elizabeth and I will have together. The doctors say a year or two. Perhaps the Lord in His irony will make it fifty. Perhaps He will call her home tomorrow. Nonetheless, that leaves today. Today I cry the tears of anticipated bereavement. Today I give thanks to the Lord, for He is indeed good, and His steadfast love endures forever.