I recently mentioned that Annie and I are reading through the latest book by Joni Earekson Tada, ‘A Place of Healing’. I’ve always known about Joni. But for the most part I’ve associated her with the distant, dated image memories of my childhood; that seventies movie on VHS cassette with wobbly audio and the exceptionally thick paperback book my Mom had complete with a section of black and white snapshots including the scene where Joni had her accident and Joni painting incredible pictures with a thin paintbrush carefully held between her teeth. As a kid, I was never much of a reader and so what I learned about Joni I learned through images; mesmerized by her ability and horrified by her accident. My enduring impression of her was someone I felt sad and sorry for.
There were no photos or pictures in Joni’s most recent book, but as we’ve been reading through, it’s felt like Joni was handwriting us a personal letter of encouragement. So much of what she has written has resonated deeply in our hearts and in our circumstances doing exactly what encouragement should do and that is ‘give courage’.
We are so thankful to God for the many Christian brothers and sisters that we have around us. That sentence does not even begin to cut it. I cannot explain how thankful we are for them. Praying for us, practically serving us and pleading to God for Annie’s healing; faithfully praying through the night hours, through the days, weeks and months; in the Word of God and on their knees before Him…for us! It feels like some of them would even be ready to lay down their own lives if it was necessary to restore Annie’s! We love them dearly. Such incredible and generous and precious vessels and streams of the love of Jesus. But when it comes to the subject of healing, God has ministered to us through Joni in an exceptionally helpful way.
She explains that her purpose for writing her latest book was to write it during a new chapter of pain and suffering, not after it.
“I am writing in the midst of my experience, in the violence of a firefight, in the crush of circumstances, and in the vice grip of unrelenting pain. I am recording my combat-zone observations before the smoke has cleared, before the shells have stopped falling, before the guns have gone silent, before the long grass and wildflowers have grown over the scars of war.” – Joni Earekson Tada, A Place of Healing
If you have never heard of Joni (beneath what rock in which ocean have you been sleeping under all this time!?), to keep a very long testimony very brief, Joni became a quadriplegic following a diving accident in 1967; in 2010 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and more recently is suffering the intense and unrelenting pain of a fracture at the base of her spine which has created the uncomfortable and unconducive climate in which she writes. More importantly than anything else, Joni loves and serves Jesus Christ as her God and Saviour, Lord and King and for four decades God has used her testimony, her suffering, her life for His glory throughout the world.Joni has written over forty books but this latest one is the only one I have ever cracked the back of and while I may have missed much blessing from her previous books, I am very glad that this was the first one that I have begun to read. So far, God has used what she has written as a rich source of blessing to us in the midst of our own personal time of pain and suffering. It also resonates with our purpose for starting this blog which was to openly and honestly journal our daily experience following our loving Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, even while we walk through that dark valley of cancer. This blog is in some ways our response to that often asked question which troubles skeptics and acts as a trump card for fundamental atheists: “If God is good and powerful, how come he doesn’t/can’t stop all the suffering in the world?” This blog is one means of our daily witness to the faithful love, wisdom, power and goodness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ who reigns, rules, leads and uplifts in, over and above all things!
Of course, very soon after starting the blog we have realised that ‘daily’ witnessing is not a problem but daily journalling has not always been possible. Just take a look at the title of this post and you’ll see that all-too-familiar coverage of a period much greater than one day!
Sometimes my excuse for not writing each day is because I’ve been spending more time with Annie, more time in other ministries. Sometimes I’ve got no words left in me as I’ve spent most of them on my knees in prayer and talking with others. Sometimes, the fierce reality of cancer is like being in a house-fire; not exactly the time to compose and be composed. The reason for this entry’s delay has been a combination of every aforementioned excuse.
Last Sunday (the one which marks the beginning of this journal’s entry) we learned that for now, as much as Annie would like to be worshiping with her family at Manor Park’s morning worship service, she’s simply not in that season of fitness and wellness. From the moment Annie opens her eyes each morning, it’s getting to be a 3-4 hour process before she is able to get out of bed, to the toilet, undressed, washed, dried, redressed and carefully ushered downstairs for breakfast. Rarely is she eating breakfast earlier than 11:30am. It’s a long, slow, delicate and unpredictable process each morning. It simply is what it is. Trying to get Annie to the morning worship service means condensing that time period into one to two hours. As we learned last week, her body cannot be rushed and within 30 minutes of arriving she had a violent spell of vomiting. She did stay for the rest of the service but it was a real test of endurance.
By Sunday evening you’d never have known she was so sick. She felt so well that we decided to make a surprise visit to Mom Ruth down in Hayes where we planned to spend Bank Holiday Monday and then bring Mom back with us to Worcester. Mom Ruth had gone back home to pick up test results on her cancer’s progress. And last week she received news that it had progressed from a static state to one where it was growing again. This means she needs to decide if she’ll begin a third course of chemotherapy which will most likely commence in the next few weeks.
The trip down to Hayes was one of those treasured classic road-trips with Annie which involved music, singing, and a little bit of air-drumming (Annie, not me, I was driving!) We enjoyed a great day and a half in Hayes. On the evening of the bank holiday Monday we made the 20 minute trip down (maybe it’s up, maybe it’s across?) to Windsor. We found a disabled car parking spot right outside the Bella Italia restaurant we planned to eat at and right opposite Windsor Castle. We’ve been granted use of a new wheelchair (courtesy of the hospice) after we were summoned by British Red Cross to bring the one we were using back; we put the new chair to good use as we took a lovely walk through Windsor together. An almost ‘perfect’ little trip had I not left the camera in the car when we went for our walk, which leaves the memories reduced to this paragraph, our minds and your imaginations!
As we drove back up to Worcester on Tuesday morning it was as if the cancer had been restricted to operate within our county and was now waiting for us on our doorstep like a cruel step-mother wielding a rolling pin with a scornful and threatening look which says “Just where do you think you’ve been!?” and “Just wait until I get my hands on you!” all at once. The next few days seemed like cancer gave Annie a good hiding with bouts of nausea and extreme fatigue that completely betrayed the energy she had enjoyed just a few days before. But it was nothing compared to what she experienced this last Sunday.
From Thursday evening Annie was beginning to perk up a bit and was able to move downstairs again following a few full days in bed. By Friday the long period of wet and dull weather had passed and we were set for some beautiful signs of summer. On Saturday morning I was finally able to tackle our front and back lawns, both of which were looking lush, thick and way overgrown! In the afternoon Annie, Mom Ruth and I went out with some friends from Manor Park to a nearby outdoor museum complete with Edwardian tea-room, clotted cream scones, bottomless amounts of tea and some much needed fellowship in the sun!
Then came Sunday.
On Saturday evening Annie was beginning to experience some pain in her lower back. She described the pain as being like sciatica – something she has been no stranger to, even before cancer. On Sunday morning she was experiencing the same pain but she described it as manageable and insisted Mom and I go to the morning worship service. We had a lovely time there and as we drove home I was beginning to think about what we would eat for lunch because I was ravenous!
Within thirty minutes of getting home, Annie entered a new chapter of pain that was like nothing else I have seen before and nothing like she had ever experienced before. I’ve seen Annie cry a lot. Every time we reach that scene in Anne of Green Gables when Uncle Matthew dies, I look across and those tear ducts are just overflowing with crystal tears! But I’ve never seen Annie cry tears like this before. She was literally under a fierce and unrelenting grip of intense, excruciating and agonising pain. We’ve never experienced the pain of childbirth so cannot compare but in my mind it was the closest thing to it that we’ve ever been through – only it was more like a pain that would end in death, not new life. She was gasping, crying, wailing, sobbing. It was so sickening to watch that I went from ravenous to nauseous in moments.
I prayed over her and tried to remain composed as I called the emergency doctors. You’d think that they’d have our details on some computer but painstakingly I needed to explain everything from scratch including endless amounts of personal information before even getting to the nature of Annie’s illness. I knew God’s peace with me and endured the endless questions while I heard the swelling screams coming from the bedroom. We were told that the doctor would arrive within two hours and so the next thing I did was to call our dear sister, Fran and ask if she might start a prayer chain. Even as I spoke to Fran I could barely communicate, eager to get back to Annie to do all that I could do which was to wince and pray.
The doctor did not arrive until roughly an hour and a half later but within a few minutes of that call to Fran, the pain had been turned off like a switch. The doctor had suggested putting Annie back on Oxynorm – a morphine based oral pill – and that she should call the hospice on Monday morning for further action. The doctor agreed that it could be sciatica but also didn’t rule out the possibility of it being a tumour on Annie’s spine. We are not oblivious to the obvious damage that cancer can cause. It could well be a tumour but it doesn’t quite correlate with some of the other things which would be true of a tumour – according to the doctor. Either way, the Oxynorm has taken the edge off the pain but certainly not eliminated it.
On Sunday evening I was preparing to talk to our young people about the things we have learned so far in our recent bible study series on God’s guidance. I had slides and notes and yet as I got ready to leave I felt increasingly, God telling me to leave those things behind and share one thing and one verse which I believed and trusted the Lord would help me to unpack on the night. It’s almost as if the notes and slides felt to me like Saul’s armour felt to David when he was preparing to go out and face Goliath.
Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. – 1 Samuel 17:38,39
The lesson that God had given me was: “God loves us and He is in complete control.” and this was the verse:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. – Ephesians 1:4
Not only did He help me to unpack that to the young people a little but He unpacked it in my own life a lot as I got back home! During the drive home I felt as if the night ahead was going to be difficult. Not just a feeling but a calm assurance about it because God was preparing me. And it was a tough night. The pain had moved into Annie’s chest and it was so bad last night that before she took the morphine pill and slept she said something to me which I have wondered about sharing or not…but have decided I would, because this is reality.
“Ry, if I die tonight, I want to say that I love you, and don’t be afraid.”
She said those words to me full of pain and yet full of peace. We prayed together and then slept.
The night was difficult but it was not without peace – the peace that transcends all understanding.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:7
Our Lord kept us in peace and kept Annie with me too. There’s more to share but I’ll aim to update the blog for the events of Monday later tonight.
In His Arms,