It was 8:30 when the phone rang. Our whole family was laughing and joking. Tomorrow was going to be my fortieth birthday — the BIG FOUR-O. My children were teasing me about my dire need for Geritol. And they, along with my husband Harold, were recommending different hair colorings to cover the gray. The ring of the telephone was so innocent….
I lifted the receiver. It was the thoracic surgeon who, a week before, had performed a biopsy on a lump growing beside my breast bone. There was no small talk, his tone was deadly serious. “Bette, is Harold home? I want him to get on the extension. I have something to tell both of you.”
“Honey, it’s Dr. Gaines. He says he has to talk to both of us….” The room grew still. Harold nodded and ran upstairs to the other phone.
The doctor spoke slowly. “It’s a tumor… it’s, ah, it’s cancerous. It’s called malignant thymoma. The lump you can see is only the tip of the tumor that has grown up through your ribs. It’s actually about the size of a grapefruit. I’m afraid I have to recommend immediate surgery.”
It was hard to breathe…to think. Finally, some words came. “What are my chances? Please be honest with me. I want to know.”
I could hear his intake of breath…and then a pause. “There aren’t many statistics on this kind of cancer. A few months…maybe.”
Harold spoke then, asking questions about the surgery, finding out the doctor’s exact recommendations. I knew how difficult it was for Harold to ask those questions. I couldn’t ask them. I couldn’t even think in complete sentences.
It was like listening to gossip. Who was this person they were talking about? It couldn’t be me. The doctors wanted to cut open that woman. Wanted to rip out her breast bone and left ribs…slice off her breast and anything else the tumor had touched. Just a body — an unknown character in some ghoulish play — lying on a stainless steel table, draped with sheets to hide her identity.
Pain and dread for that other woman overwhelmed me, that woman who could not be me…but was. I wiped my wet cheeks with hands too numb to feel the tears.
While the doctor continued his commentary, Elicia, Michele and Adrian gathered around, encircling me, putting their arms around me as best as all three could at one time.
I just wanted the call to end. Would he talk forever? Hadn’t he said enough? I didn’t want to hear anymore. I needed a place to hide. Finally, the doctor finished predicting my painful future…he had spilled all his death words upon us.
Our family huddled together like small animals in a cave seeking protection from a storm. We held each other and cried…and prayed…and cried. I felt suspended. How is one supposed to feel when she is told she is dying? Pictures of my father’s last days in his battle with cancer crowded into my mind. That long ago grief poured over me once again. I gazed with yearning at our three children. Elicia, the oldest at 17, eyes swollen from crying. Michele, barely 15, quietly staring ahead with empty eyes. Adrian, 13, the family optimist, shaking his head in disbelief. And Harold, dear, dear Harold…steady like a rock Harold, with tears streaming down his face. “Oh, God, how can I put my family through this?”
We were exhausted, our minds and bodies drained by a great dread. Harold and I clung to each other in the middle of the bed, not believing we would fall asleep that night. Wondering how we would ever sleep again — ever. “I love you,” Harold whispered as we both drifted into sweet, dreamless sleep.
We didn’t know it then, but many friends had been called by our Pastor and were praying for us all night. Finally, at four a.m., they felt at peace and were able to sleep. They carried — literally carried — our oppressive burden all night so that we could rest. We awoke refreshed at four o’clock.
We began to sing praise songs, one after another, as they popped into our minds. Songs of strength and hope and faith. Harold reached for the Bible from the head of the bed and began to read Psalms. “The Lord will bless you…He will preserve your life…He will bring you through trouble…He will comfort you.” Great and true promises made by a loving God. The words washed like balm over our sore hearts.
“The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me” (Psalm 138:8). A promise written for millions of believers through the ages, but that morning it was for us alone. Only two years before, we had begun a ministry to couples called Growing Toward Oneness. It was our niche, our calling, and we knew it. Was this the end of that? It couldn’t be. Not if helping couples was His purpose for us. By faith we knew that somehow… somehow, we were going to make it through this. How? We didn’t know. But the terrible dread that had overwhelmed us the night before was gone, and in its place was peace.
Peace. A difficult thing to keep in the days that followed — days filled with doctors, hospitals, tests, second opinions, third opinions. Seven days later, Harold and I sat in the office of the director of the Cancer Research Center at the University of California in San Diego. It was such a relief to be there. These doctors were the first who were not afraid to say the word, “cancer.” They didn’t whisper it or look down at their feet when they said it. Of course, they dealt with it every day. I was no oddity to them. They also won in the fight against it sometimes…not often, but sometimes. So they had hope—and they communicated that hope to us. Harold and I squeezed hard on each other’s hands as we waited for this new doctor to give us the results of his tests.
He looked at me and then Harold, “We don’t think you have Malignant Thymoma. We believe you have Hodgkin’s Disease. And, Bette, you have a good chance of living. We don’t recommend surgery. The best treatment for this kind of cancer is chemotherapy and radiation. And I must warn you both, the year ahead is going to be very difficult, even agonizing, but we’ll do our best to make it worth it.”
I looked at Harold. I could see his blurred grin through tears, as he could see mine. I turned back to that much admired doctor, “Well, let’s get started!”
After another week of painful tests to determine the stage of my cancer, I at last was lying in University Hospital, awaiting my first chemotherapy treatment. I gazed out over San Diego Bay from my tenth story room. “This hospital has the right idea. The sicker you are, the better view you get.”
Harold reached out from his vigil in the chair beside my bed and squeezed my free hand. The other was hooked up to two IV’s for the toxic chemicals to trickle into my defenseless body throughout the night. My stomach, already queasy from nerves, was now getting down to some serious nausea. But the drugs that the nurse had injected earlier were beginning to have their effect, and I was growing drowsier by the minute.
When I awoke the following morning, the IV’s were gone and my gown had been changed. Maybe this was just a nightmare after all. My memory of the night was vague and dream-like. I could remember people around me in the fog, holding something under my chin — speaking soothing words in slow motion. But my stomach soon reminded me this was no dream — this was all real. Terrifyingly real.
By noon, Harold had me home and tucked into bed. I was surprised when I tried to walk, at how weak and lethargic I felt, and how my arm throbbed. The doctor had warned me about how toxic the chemicals were that I would be getting. But I was not prepared for their effects so soon.
During the next week, my stomach stayed in my throat, sometimes escaping, sometimes lying in wait. By the seventh day, I could function rather well. I was anxious to do even the smallest things around the house that made me feel useful. The absolute first thing I wanted to do was fix my family a hot breakfast. I knew they had been eating cold cereal all week.
“But, Mom, I really like Capt’n Crunch!” Adrian screwed up his nose at the oatmeal before him.
“It was kind of a nice change,” Michele attempted to say the same thing more kindly.
But I felt it my duty to repeat what the kids had heard a million times before, “Breakfast is your most important meal. And you know my being sick doesn’t change that.”
“I think what your Mom’s trying to say, kids,” Harold was always on my side, “is that we’re going to try to keep things as normal as possible through this. A lot of things are going to be different these next months, but we’ve all got to do our part to keep our family on an even keel as much as possible. O.K.?” There he was again, solid, steady Harold. But I knew his smile hid as many fears as my own.
With each chemotherapy treatment, the nausea worsened, as did the aches and the weakness. And then my hair began to fall out — by hand fulls — until even my face looked bald. Dull eyes, with almost lash-less lids and ever-expanding dark circles below them, stared back at me, mocking my attempts to look feminine, or, at least, human. The wig helped. The stranger in the mirror smiled at my feeble efforts. ‘Remember, Bette…remember God’s promises. This is not a pit, it’s only a tunnel. And you will be whole again at the other end.’
But the seemingly endless routine continued. Every two weeks, just when I was starting to feel a little better, we would go back to the hospital. It became my trading post where I would regularly barter some of my personhood for another bout of something like the stomach flu. But this I did willingly — buying back my life on the installment plan.
I had so many feelings inside, bouncing around like old tennis balls, too tired to bounce high, but too elusive to catch easily. Tears had been threatening all day; and when Harold got home that evening and took me in his arms, I couldn’t hold them back any longer. He held me tightly and let me weep my hurt and frustration out onto his shoulder. “What’s wrong, Honey?” He sank into the lazy boy, pulling me down on his lap.
“Oh, Harold, I’m so ugly! How can you still love me? I’m bald…and… and bloated.” A new crop of tears ripened, this time into his handkerchief.
We clung to each other and rocked in the big, overstuffed chair. “I don’t love you just for what’s on the outside. You’re beautiful to me, Sweetheart. You’ll always be beautiful to me.” We talked a long time, as we had so often those past months. Keeping each other sane. Helping each other live day by day.
Four months had passed since that terrible night we had first been given my diagnosis. I became weaker with every treatment. The very medicine that was saving my life was making my life almost impossible to live.
One night, when the pain was too persistent to allow sleep, I wrestled with my mortality. Depression had hovered over me all that day, and I was too weak to fight it any longer. My fifty-fifty chance of living became my fifty-fifty chance of dying. All those months, Harold and I had clung to God’s promises, especially Psalm 138, where He said that I would go through trouble, but He would preserve my life. But what if I had wanted that promise so badly, that I took it when it was not meant for me? What if I had felt confident that God was healing me because I wanted so badly to get well?
I tossed and turned all night — the pain in my body eclipsed by the pain in my heart. By morning, I was entombed in my own self-pity. It was almost soothing to not feel brave for awhile. Self-pity is like mud — sometimes it feels cool and good. But I couldn’t live in it anymore than I could live in a mud hole. I knew I had to wash it off. I had to get back to firmer ground. But not yet. My tired mind cried to indulge in the wallowing a little longer.
I did not get up and fix my family a hot breakfast that morning. I let them pick at cold cereal while I nibbled on my self-pity. By 11:00, I was too hungry not to get up. Pity is not very satisfying, and my stomach was becoming increasingly nauseated from being empty. I knew I couldn’t let these feelings keep building up — I had to face them squarely. And I had to do it now.
I could stay there in the mud. Or I could climb out and stand on solid ground. I could let my mind continue to dwell on the negatives and sink deeper into depression. Or I could steer my mind to the positives — all the good realities of God’s help and healing so far. I knew the choice was mine.
The Lord and I had a long talk that morning. Feelings I did not even know I had, finally burst from me. “How could you, God? If You really love me, then how could you let me get cancer? How could You let me go through all this suffering, when You could heal me with the snap of Your fingers? One little zap — and I could have been spared all this! Why…?”
Slowly, the words to a song permeated my mind. Tentatively, I began to sing….
Oh, I want to know You, Lord.
Deep within my soul I want to know You.
And I would give my final breath
To know You in Your death and resurrection.
Oh, I want to know You….
The Scripture from which the song was taken was a familiar one. “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death” (Philippians 3:10). Strong, hard words. Did I mean them? No. Oh, all my life I had wanted to know Him in His power. But I didn’t really want to fellowship in His sufferings. And I was afraid to be like Him in His death. But could I know one side of Him without knowing the other?
He did not speak out loud, but He answered me. “You have been made soft through this suffering, Bette. Soft enough to be molded and shaped into the character of My Son. This is what really knowing Me is all about. I see in you the potential only this can bring out in you. And I love you so much that I have already suffered with you through it.”
“I still don’t understand all the reasons, Lord. I can’t reach far enough to grasp them.” I sat on my bed, my mind going over all that had been happening these past four months. The closeness that had broadened and deepened between Harold and me. The sensitivity I had seen blossom in our children as they began to realize the preciousness of life in the imminence of death. The hope in my neighbor’s eyes when she knew there was someone who could really feel her pain. The realness of God’s presence and constant comfort. The beauty of even small things I had never noticed before. The wonder of each moment, each day.
Was I willing to trade all this for a few months of wellness? If I had been given the choice four months ago, would I have chosen this higher plane? Or would I have said, “No — no pain, no scars — give me status quo. Let me live life at a distance where it doesn’t hurt.” I was glad that I had not been given the choice, for I would have chosen wrong. I would have missed this.
“O.K., Lord, I think I’m beginning to understand. And You’re right. It’s worth it. You are worth it. I’ve never felt life this up-close before. It feels good. Thank You.”
Laughter exploded from deep inside. I felt I would burst with the swelling of a great feeling of freedom. I wanted to run and jump and roll in new grass. My body couldn’t run or jump, but I could ease downstairs and stir up some hot oatmeal.
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