When my 8 month old son developed a cancerous tumor 8 years ago, my wife and I were in complete shock. We had 3 older children (ages 6, 4, and 2) and Caelan was a our fourth – our third son. We didn’t really know how to process it and, while we prayed and cried out to God, it was a horrifying and frightening time. We went through a massive surgery with our son to remove the tumor and then we went through a year of chemo and 30 days of intense radiation. It was very difficult with constant trips to the hospital 90 minutes away, multiple other surgeries to put in and take out infected ports, and an emergency trip on Christmas Eve when he ran a fever. Through it all we prayed and trusted God and we had high hopes that all would be well.
Quite a few people tried to work out their theology on me by telling me how this was all God’s plan and how it would make me stronger and how God was sovereign. I held my tongue, but I wanted to tell them to shut up. Their theologizing was often not helpful. Other people just avoided me. It was a lonely journey. People helped with the kids and the house and brought food and they asked what they could do in different ways from time to time. Our church was fantastic as I had just become the pastor 7 months before. But, overall, I think that people often just didn’t know what to say.
I was young in my pastorate and saw it as my duty to soldier on and put on a brave face. Inside, I was coming apart. I had to keep preaching and leading and ministering to people and God gave me grace, but, looking back, I realized that I needed a lot more ministering to than I knew how to ask for. One time at the beginning, a chaplain at the hospital came to visit us when we were there with Caelan and he had brochures about different hospital services. I was so relieved that a chaplain came by that I began to open up to him about what I was feeling. I was really struggling. He stopped me after I got a few sentences out and told me that he didn’t do that kind of thing and he wasn’t a pastor and I should probably talk to someone else. I was embarrassed at showing weakness and quickly agreed and said that yes, of course, this is not the time and I’m sorry to bother him and a bunch of other hemming and hawing as I tried to save face. Then he left my wife and I there in the hospital room staring at each other.
The next day, our son had a third of his chest removed.
Family came and our youth minister visited with us to pray. A pastor friend in Birmingham showed up and prayed with us before the surgery. It was so needed. One of the hardest moments of my life was seeing my little boy go back to the operating room in the arms of a nurse. He had no idea what was coming. After the surgery, my friends from my hometown in Mississippi and their wives/future wives came to visit us in Birmingham and stayed a couple of days and spent time with me and took us out when we couldn’t be with Caelan and we spent some time together not talking about how my son was hooked up to tubes in the NICU. It was needed. I got phone calls and emails and lots of people said they were praying for us. That was helpful. He recovered from the surgery and we went home and we learned to live life with a baby going through cancer treatment.
Two years later on a routine check up after the chemo was over, we got life-altering news. The oncologists thought that the tumor had returned. If this particular kind of cancer returned, it would basically be fatal. We asked the oncologist what to do and she said that they would begin a series of tests that next week leading to a biopsy and we would come back then. Then, with tears in her eyes, she told us to go away as a family that weekend, treasure it, and take lots of pictures. We walked out devastated and scared and fairly certain that our son was going to die. Words do not express what I was feeling. The next month of tests, scans, and an ultimate biopsy would be the worst month of my life. I remember holding all four of my children on the couch one day and I broke down crying because I thought my youngest son, now two, was going to die and that this would be the last time I would hold them all again on this side of heaven.
I cried a lot. When no one was around, of course.
But, God healed. Miracle! Answered prayers! The biopsy came back as nothing. The oncologist had no explanation, but our son was fine and they sent him home after several days in the hospital. We still had several more years of scans, but he is now 8 years old and cancer free. Lots of other kids with cancer that we knew during that time did not live. It is a devastating disease and I hate it.
There were a few things that stuck with me from those days:
1. God is not surprised.
2. His grace and love are sufficient
3. This life is not all there is
It might not sound like much, but those truths gave me a place to stand. The first thing that I say to people in these situations is that “I am sorry.” Then, I just try to listen and tell them that what they feel – the helplessness and fear and confusion and being out of control – it is all what anyone feels and God is near in the midst of the storm and you don’t have to be strong.
I decided to write this post because I wanted to stare back at the past and face it. Last night, a man in our church asked me to pray for a child that he heard about who had cancer. He thought I’d be able to pray because I had gone through it. I said something decidedly not pastoral and I told him that the opposite was true and I wasn’t able to pray very effectively for situations like this. I can pray and grieve if I personally know the person or child or family because I love them and hate what they are going through, but I cannot take on the burdens of those I don’t know. It overwhelms me and I want to run away. It was a horrible thing to say. I told him that I could not deal with the cancer of someone I didn’t know and that it was all still very painful and that any time I saw a kid with cancer who had lost their hair on television, I had to look away and turn the channel – not because I didn’t care but because the whole thing is so horrible. I don’t want to remember. Even though my son lived (and I am so grateful to God), other children didn’t. Why Caelan? Why is he still with us laughing and giggling and playing jokes on his brothers? Why is he still here for me to fuss at because he forgets to bring his plate to the sink or because he constantly puts his t-shirts on backwards and doesn’t comb his hair? Why do I get to see this little boy grow up to become a man when other parents who prayed just as hard as I did do not get to see their kids grow up?
It all seems so unfair and arbitrary and when I hear about another child with cancer it reminds me that my own son is with us only by a thread of grace that I can’t understand or control and it scares me to death and I can’t stare into the face of what happened without shaking. Yes, I am grateful, but it is the kind of gratefulness that plants my face firmly into the ground and I don’t want to look around out of fear that if I twitch the wrong way something will be lost.
I realize I have to get past this. That is why I am writing this. I need to be able to pray for others and not be afraid to stare back into the abyss of losing my son and not being sure why I didn’t except for the fact that God obviously had other plans. All of my best works and intentions and promises did nothing to save my son. It was only God’s mercy and I had no control. I don’t like that. It reminds me too much of death.
What I did when my son had cancer is what I need to do now in the aftermath of almost a decade later. I still have scars on my heart and I still shiver when my kids go to the doctor or when we see a bump somewhere or there is a pain that we can’t explain right away. What I did then was throw myself into the God that I cannot control or fully understand and cling to the fact that He is not surprised, His grace and love are sufficient, and this life is not all that there is. There is victory in Jesus and a Resurrection to come and my hope is in The Lord no matter what happens. My hope is not in doctors or medicine (although we use them) and my hope is not in the strength of my prayers or my goodness. My hope is only in Jesus both in this life and the life to come.
So, I am praying for that child that I heard about last night. I am presenting that baby to God. Please pray with me?
What do I tell people when their child gets cancer? Or, when they have cancer? Or, when some other tragedy happens or when their dreams are dashed and every form of prosperity gospel fails them? I can only say “Look to Jesus. He is all that matters.” I don’t have a lot of answers except that all that we can do is throw ourselves into God and trust Him no matter what happens – either good or bad, no matter how hard that seems. This life is not all there is.