Grief and Promises

15 years ago today was the day the last cancer cell was sliced from my body. On every February 2nd I go to the beach to celebrate this milestone.  Even the February 2nd of 2010 when my beautiful (and ahead of schedule) Claire was born 48 hours later.  My immense form waddled down to the shoreline because that is where I belong on February 2nd; standing on the edge of the world.

It started the summer after I was healed.  Even though the cancer was out in February I had a follow up surgery done in June to remove my remaining lymph nodes in case any more cancer cells had gone rogue. I was given the opportunity to go on a summer missions trip 10 days post surgery.  On the beach.  So in my airtight 20 year-old thinking I reasoned that staying at home all summer with my parents would make me a cancer patient, but immersing myself in a group of strangers at the beach would make me a normal college student. But I was not normal. I was worn down from the extensive surgeries.  I was leaking heavily out of the hole in my armpit where they had removed the drainage tube.  The thick white gauze had to be changed several times a day.  I could not swim in the pool or the ocean.

The strangers did not make me feel healthy or better because they were…strangers. I was despondent.  While everyone else was making friends and giggling about possible couples, I was withdrawn.  But since it is not my nature to be withdrawn I didn’t do it well and I was awkward about it.  Everything felt hard and isolating and weird.  And I wondered what I had done.

This feeling swelled until it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I needed to escape.  I ran for the horizon, for space to breathe, for distance, but the wound under my arm throbbed so intensely I settled for a fast walk. I passed by tanned surfers and chatting couples as I hurried to the pier.  I didn’t know where I was going or what I was running from, I just knew the beach wasn’t far enough.  I needed to get as far away as I could.

Mercifully, the end of the pier was vacant.  It was silent but for the crashing waves.  The sun was setting.  The weather was gorgeous. And I was miserable.  I sat down and dangled my legs off the end and watched the waves.  Their rhythm calmed my own breathing as I felt them break into the base of the pier.  I regained my breath and realized that I had been clutching my Bible when I left and it was still with me. 

I don’t know how long I cried or what I was thinking. I prayed no prayer, only emotions and thoughts swept over me.  Despair, death, outcast, lonely, sad.  I only remember being grateful I was alone.  I fingered the corner of my bible as my tears subsided and it flopped open.  There was only one verse on the page that was underlined. It was Jeremiah 29:11. I blinked back tears to clear the fog and I read it,

“For I know the plans I have for you’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

I felt my heart ache and my cheeks flame.  I felt God saying that it was true.  But I immediately rejected it because there are no guarantees.  Loving God was not going to save me from cancer.  My theology wasn’t very strong but it was strong enough to know that not everyone who asked for a miracle got one.  I smelled a rat whenever someone tried to tell me otherwise.

But I tried to let it sink it.  I tried to give it room.  And I looked out at the horizon line.  I liked my unobstructed view of the worlds’ end.  It made me feel like there was room enough for my big swollen heart.  Here she had room to breathe.  My mind stuck on the words, a future, a hope.  The craziest thing I could hope up for my future was that I would live, that I would get married, that I would miraculously have children.  That I would be normal. It was so outlandish at the time that the fantasy was hard to conjure up.  But I could almost see them out on the horizon line, a toddler skipping, a husband holding a baby.  But before I could really see them, they disappeared like a mist and for the first time I looked at what was really there. 

I was out above the vast ocean gazing into the most amazing sunset I have ever witnessed.  I had been sitting before it this entire time but never actually saw it.  The colors reached above my head and beyond, every color of the rainbow.  The epicenter halfway past the horizon now, was blazing neon orange, and tinted everything it touched that wonderful hue.  A fantastic sunset is like a work of art.  I could not possibly describe what it looked like; I can only describe how it made me feel.  And this sunset filled me with hope.  Hope in God’s insane love.  Hope for the future.  So even though the promise didn’t match my theology, even though I knew there were no guarantees, even though it was the wackiest thing I could imagine.  I felt my heart wanting to embrace the promise.  Tentatively, like a child testing water.  The perishing sunset gave one last kiss of orange light, and with that I accepted the promise.  I chose to believe. 

Now I function on a daily basis in a way that does not leave much room to sit in the suffering.  I am extinguishing flames all day between siblings and chores and who threw what down the toilet.  Even in my times of stillness before God I don’t enter the grief. The Diagnosis was such a shocking and tremendous event that even 15 years later the earthquake of that grief still reverberates. It is soft and subtle now, but its still there. It only takes seeing the bravest of the brave with no headscarf and no eyebrows and no hair in line in front of me at Target. 

I went to a friend’s funeral.  A friend whose only daughter is 27 days younger than Jack.  I gripped the pew hard and cried hot tears.  I cried because she was gone and I am here- opposite sides of the same cancer coin. I cried because it all seems so arbitrary.  And I cried because of the possibilities. I remember grief and feel the vibrations and even in the remembering a new grief is born because the other shoe could still drop.  It is suspended in the air possibly indefinitely, possibly not.  So I know my time will come and that life is fragile and that every moment is worth living and this is my catalyst to move on.  If I stay in the behind grief or if I project to the possible future grief I rob myself of the joyful present.  I can give my child raspberries or kiss their impossibly tiny toes, but I have to be solely focused on this one thing or else I am not really there. I am performing a raspberry for a hearty belly laugh but it produces no flood of joy in my own heart.  So in choosing to be in the joyful present, to laugh in tandem at the raspberries, I choose to abate grief.  I tell grief, “Shh. You’ll have to come back later.  I don’t have time for you right now.” But grief cannot be suppressed forever; she builds up and needs room to expand. 

I find that room at the end of the world, at waters edge in the sand or on the pier.  Every February 2nd, I gaze at the openness and sheer volume of space and my grief has room to take off like one hundred million balloons. I let them out of my chest one by one until I feel like I can breathe again.  And when I regard the vastness of God’s creation I remember His promise every time.

Today is the first year I will not go to the beach.  The grief has not swelled, there is nothing that needs to escape.  Maybe next year there will be, but not this year.  Today is only celebration, and remembering that yes, God is crazy and yes unexpected and terrible things happen.  I can’t control God just like I can’t control my cancer returning.  But this year is different because God has displayed before me miracle after miracle.  I mean water into wine, raising the dead kind of miracles. I watched His hand move and knew that it was Him.  If there is one thing I have learned this year in the big miracles and in the small is that God is for us. 

This may not seem profound to many, but it is to me.  When I drift from God, I immediately begin to view my life as a list of tasks to accomplish and Him the Taskmaster.  The farther I am from Him relationally, the more burdened I feel and more stoic and detached He seems.  My prayer of late has been for God to show Himself to me, as He is, not as I think He is. Of one thing I am assured, “God is for us” (Rom 8:31).

I don’t want to let fear of the unknown trump that.  God is for us.  Somewhere along the line, I forgot He was on our side. I see the pain and hurt and suffering and seeming chaos and forget that He is working behind the scenes not to make us happy but to draw us to Him, the ultimate source of Joy.  And everything that we fear, everything that has the potential to devastate, every rug that can be pulled out from under us, has all been overcome.  It may hurt, but it cannot destroy.  He has overcome the world and all that is in it, and He is for us.