Most people don’t like to be sick.
Oh, there are those for whom “How are you?” is a question, not a greeting–a question to be answered in gruesome detail (regardless of how close to mealtime it may be,) the response buttressed with medical statistics, lists of practitioners and drugs, and perhaps the occasional offhand reference to this morning’s obituaries. We all know people for whom a clean bill of health would be cause for profound distress and precipitate a desperate quest for a second opinion.
But that’s not what this post is about.
When Donna was diagnosed with stage four metastatic pancreatic cancer in October 2015, we didn’t seek a second opinion. We assumed–and rightly so–that this disease would be difficult for a medical expert to mistake for something else. And although we prayed early on for a miracle and accepted the recommendation of chemotherapy to slow the monster’s advance, we both knew this is what would be recorded as Donna’s “cause of death.” It was only a question of when.
I have enjoyed robust health all my life–something for which I have thanked God often. We have traveled to many places and eaten many strange things, from iguana eggs to lamb’s heads to guinea pigs, and in some unscrubbed environments. I don’t recall ever getting sick from something I ate, unless I ate too much of it. (Once, in Ecuador, our hosts asked us if we liked our chicken rare or well done. We opted for well done.) The last time I had the flu was over 30 years ago.
There’s a downside to good health: it can make one less than sympathetic with those who don’t enjoy it. This has been true of me, though I am ashamed to confess it. I have no patience with the kind of people I described in my opening paragraph–people I view as caricatures of the truly needy. But when my darling was told she had cancer, we both had to embrace the truth.
For me, this meant not only that I would lose my wife, but also that I would be her primary caregiver during that arduous journey. I felt intense sadness for my impending loss, but I also felt unprepared for my new role. I did not know the pain my wife’s illness would cause in her body. I did not understand the emotions of a person whose earthly life is soon to end. And I did not know how to adequately meet her needs.
My ignorance was irrelevant.
Our souls groaned within us. Many times during Donna’s illness we reminded each other that we had vowed before God and several hundred friends “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance.” When I said those words in 1977, meaning them sincerely, I had no idea that I would be awakened at night by my wife’s cries of pain. That I would see her abdomen distend grotesquely with fluid as she slowly starved to death. That I would watch the final feeble rising of her chest in a time when we were enjoying life immensely. That I would bid “so long” to a mere husk of the woman who just four months before had been beautiful, vivacious, mischievous, energetic, and a delight and inspiration to everyone who knew her.
But I knew that if I was to embrace God’s sovereignty, I also had to embrace Donna’s sickness. We embraced it together. Donna’s sunny disposition and indomitable spirit sometimes made it hard to remember that she was dying. Up until she lapsed into a drug-induced coma three days before her homegoing, she was laughing and cracking jokes. One night, as we were arranging ourselves on the double recliner where we slept together for her last few weeks, I rubbed against the PICC line in her arm (the catheter used for administering drugs) and she said, “Careful, buddy–don’t pull that out, or they’ll think you knocked me off.” I’ll never forget it. Just days before meeting her Saviour, with the weight of her impending death heavy upon her frail shoulders, she could still face her situation with the confidence and humour that endeared her to us.
Donna’s illness gave me a reason to serve her in ways I had never had to before. I did all the household tasks, except when our children came and pretty much took over the place so I could spend as much time with their mom as possible. I prepared her ubiquitous high-calorie smoothies and filled her water bottle. I woke her up twice a night for her morphine. I went to the pharmacy for her drugs and the other assorted items she needed. I prearranged all of her medications for the following day and night in a caddie I had labeled for that purpose. I gave her injections. I recorded all of her doses, meals, and medical events in the binder our daughter-in-law had designed for us. I arranged the cartons of equipment and supplies before the daily nurse’s visits. I helped her in and out of her chair and took her to the washroom. I read to her and played the music she requested. And as much as I hated the reason for doing all these things, each task gave me immense joy because I was able to serve the precious woman I loved and the Saviour Who allowed me to love her, enabled her to love me, and loved us both with a steadfast love neither of us could begin to comprehend.
I cannot accept the ideas that faithful believers will never get sick or that Jesus’ death provides physical healing. I believe these convictions are based on faulty hermeneutics, and have been proven false countless times as godly, faithful saints of God have been struck with disease and have, in some cases, lived for decades with chronic pain before going to meet their Saviour.
One of our most treasured passages of Scripture since Donna’s first cancer diagnosis in 2000 has been Romans 8. Paul’s words are especially poignant when one is staring death in the face:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” (ROM 8.18)
The Apostle goes on to explain that groaning–the desperate, anguished cry of the soul–is common to humanity. The universe itself groans in a mysterious way under the weight of sin’s horrific consequences:
“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (ROM 8.22,23)
The encouraging thing is that God Himself groans with us.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (ROM 8.26)
Even when I struggle to articulate the turmoil inside, when I can’t classify or quantify the wave of emotion crashing over me, even when I don’t want to pray because my soul is dumbstruck with shock or disbelief (all very real experiences for me now) the Spirit who occupies my pitiful heart presents my case before the throne of God in a manner so profound and impassioned that it defies verbal expression.
Paul ends this astonishing chapter with the truth that enables the believer to embrace something as horrible as pancreatic cancer and face its inevitable outcome with confidence:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all [the groaning] creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (ROM 8.35, 37-39)
Who am I to argue with that?