Living Through The Unexpected

Memorial Day Weekend 2000 was supposed to have been a great weekend. Three weeks earlier, we had just had our third child, a baby girl named Paige, and some close friends were coming to Virginia Beach to visit and to see the new baby. Looking back, I can remember the feeling I had as I drove into the driveway and saw Aimee rushing out the front door with our oldest child Caitlin in her arms. Instantly I knew the fun weekend we had planned would be altered, but I could have never imagined to what extent that was true. Aimee quickly put Caitlin in her car seat and told me to drive to the emergency room.

The events at home had unfolded rapidly. Caitlin had just received a new dress, and, like many four-year-old girls, was showing it off by twirling around in our kitchen. She slipped and fell on our tile floor and within minutes was alternating between lethargy and nausea. It’s funny how looking back we are now so thankful for this fall—without it, the tumor would have remained unnoticed and could have grown much larger and more dangerous. Even then God was working in ways unseen at the moment.

After transporting Caitlin to the Children’s Hospital, the trauma team took her and went to work right away while we waited. Within a few hours, the doctors informed us that they had diagnosed her with Wilms Tumor, a cancer of the kidney normally only appearing in children. Our 4-year-old daughter had cancer. The treatment protocol they established was surgery and removal of her kidney, seven days of radiation and six months of chemotherapy.

Awhile back, I looked up the phrases “do not fear” and “do not worry” in the Bible and found 68 occurrences of that theme in the Scriptures. As a Christian, this phrase causes some internal wrestling to take place. On one hand, God’s word tells me not to fear, and on the other hand, the reality of life sometimes makes me wonder, “How do I not?” How do we not fear or worry when a loved one dies, a relationship ends, a job is lost or a child gets sick? How do we reconcile the reality of our emotions with the commands of scripture? How do we face the many valleys in life and yet stay obedient to the command “do not fear”? This is what we were wrestling with through the first month.

My experience in my short 33 years is that God continues to give hope even in the worst of circumstances. After a couple of days, I was finally able to escape from the hospital. I had been staying there with Caitlin in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) from the beginning. I had spent countless hours holding my little girl’s hands, reading her stories, wiping her tears, comforting her sadness, maintaining an exterior of strength and hope. But finally I was able to take a break and headed home. As I drove, I saw a number of families heading to the beach for their vacation weekend. Their faces, filled with anticipation and excitement, pushed my pain and fear to the surface. I literally cried out to God, “Why us? I’m a youth pastor. I work for You! Why us?” For the first time in a couple of days, I was finally able to be real, broken, sad, fearful and honest with all of the pain and hurt I was feeling.

I’ve often been asked how we got through this time. It’s a tough question to answer because in many ways we feel like we just went into survival mode. However, looking back, I’m aware of the many significant things God did and all the helpful things we did as well. In Hebrews 12:3 it says, “Consider [Jesus] who endured such opposition from sinful men so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” It might sound pretty basic, but we did a lot of focusing on Jesus. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced it to this level before, but as I spent a considerable time in Scripture and a great deal of time in prayer, God provided a peace and trust in Him that could not have come through any other method.

The day I drove back to the house for the first time, I sat down with my Bible. I had been reading through the book of John over the previous few weeks, and I picked it up where I left off: John 11, the story of Lazarus. When I came to verse four, I stopped because at this point, I felt like God was speaking to me. In the verse, Jesus says, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s son may be glorified through it.” In the midst of our storm, God provided peace, and it came through His words. Throughout the experience, God proved himself faithful, and that’s how we coped.

Another significant thing I’ll never forget is the understanding I gained of the biblical truth that life is meant to be lived in community. Our family, our small group, our church, our friends played an instrumental role in our ability to deal with all that this sickness threw at our family. People all over the country were praying for her (email is a great information medium), and we received some crucial phone calls at just the right time. Community gave us the strength to keep going even at the darkest of moments. God used our community to keep us strong in our faith and confident that He would continue to work in our daughter’s life.

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In May it will be the three-year anniversary of our daughter’s diagnosis. She survived the surgery, chemo and radiation and throughout the treatment remained healthy, rather than losing weight and hair. She is in remission and will continue to be monitored through blood tests and ultrasounds until puberty, and with every check up, there is relief when the doctor says “all clear.” We’ve learned to trust God with our lives in a way we would never have experienced apart from my daughter’s bout with cancer. As we continue to push forward in this race we call life, we are more than ever reminded and comforted by the fact that while we do have to run with perseverance, we also run under the Sovereignty of God, who carefully marked out the race for us.

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