Decades ago, before I was even a teenager, I remember seeing what I believe (it’s hard to remember) was one of those government health awareness commercials that were often on television back in the eighties. This particular one was about smoking and the risk of cancer. Even though I misunderstood and misinterpreted some of the details, the commercial was a faithful and fearful education.
The commercial showed a lady stood alone in an empty room. Her expression was sorrowful, she was pale, morbidly thin and she had absolutely no hair. The fact that it was a lady, made the whole thing even more disturbing to watch. I can’t remember much else about the commercial – if indeed it even was a commercial, though I will continue to refer to it as such – but I still see it vividly in my mind’s eye.
To my memory, that commercial was my first introduction to cancer. Subsequently whenever I heard about this wretched disease in the real world, that upsetting image of the sad, bald lady, momentarily interrupted my thoughts. But it never really infected my world and I still had a lot to learn about that horrible disease. For the longest time, I just thought that cancer was a consequence of smoking; and for an even longer time I didn’t realise that the loss of hair was an effect of the treatment of cancer – not just another demeaning symptom of the disease itself. My schoolboy logic interpreted that commercial like this: ‘If you smoke, you’ll get cancer, which will make all of your hair fall out and then you’ll die.’ Back then, as far as I could understand ‘The Big C’ was simply an interchangeable term for ‘The Big D’; cancer was synonymous with death and death with cancer and cancer with smoking and smoking with death. It wouldn’t be until it began to effect those that I know and love, that I’d really learn more about the extent of how ugly, painful, horrible, distressing, how terrifying – yes, terrifying – the reality of cancer was and is. While that commercial didn’t do much to inform my biological understanding of this disease, its painful honesty accurately introduced me to the horrible reality of it.
Today, while the public information commercials about the dangers of drink-driving, drugs and smoking cigarettes continue to get grittier, there’s a whole new breed of advertising regarding cancer awareness which – I think – not just airbrushes over the ugliness of this disease but does what human beings do best: arrogantly imagines and boasts that we have more control over something bigger than us than we actually have. I saw an advert just the other day for a fund-raising campaign for a late night run. The slogan read: “Hey cancer, I bet you’re afraid of the dark!” I’m left with conflicting feelings about these adverts. I appreciate the importance of raising awareness. I am so thankful for all that is done to raise money and support charities like St. Richard’s Hospice, and the many palliative care hospices and homes around the world which provide a truly wonderful service of care for many people nearing the end of life with a terminal illness. I am not aggressively upset by these adverts. They don’t anger me. But I’d be lying if I said that they didn’t niggle me a little. I’m aware that they are the product of a much wider attitude that permeates, pollutes and deludes our western society.
A few months before my Annie was called home, I remember one of the palliative care doctors sat down with us both for a chat. Of all the medical specialists that we ever met, this particular doctor stood out for his stark honesty. We had been in and out of the hospice for over a year and I know that this doctor knew enough about us to feel comfortable to talk the way that he did. We talked openly for a long time about cancer but there was one thing he said which we really appreciated him saying.
“There’s just so, so much we don’t understand.”
I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I’d bet all that I have that if cancer was a person, it absolutely wouldn’t be afraid of the dark. I don’t need to bet. I don’t need to study cancer under a microscope. I don’t need long conversations with cancer experts. I’ve studied cancer in the dark. I’ve sat through countless twilight hours next to the sickbed and deathbed of my wife and now, more recently, of Mom Ruth, my mother-in-law. I’ve heard the ghastly noises and seen the horrible, disfiguring effects of cancer. I’ve learned a lot about cancer in the last six years (eight if I include Mom Ruth’s) and yet there is far more about it that I still do not understand – and may never understand. Despite this, I am absolutely confident of one thing: cancer is not afraid of the dark. It is dark. It is merciless and unyielding. It is absent of even an iota of care for a person’s dignity and is not offended by name-calling and smart slogans. No matter how weak and vulnerable the person on that bed is, cancer is relentless; cell by cell it will invade even the weakest frame, like a tornado ripping through the body disrupting, dismantling and destroying. And personally, I am not convinced that it will be deterred by any amount of modern scientific research or medicine – much less, debilitated by rhetoric or bravado.
As I’ve been watching Mom Ruth this week, I’ve experienced flashbacks of those last few painful days I spent with my Annie. Don’t imagine that going through it once before made it easier the second time. Far from it. No matter how far I am into my grieving, when my mind goes back to some of those final hours in the hospice, when I picture my Annie struggling for breath, when I replay in my mind the sound of her moaning and groaning, and – perhaps the most painful thing – when I recall those mysterious silent tears that welled up in the corners of her eyes when she was too weak to sigh or moan, too weak to explain their meaning to me: then I am overwhelmed with sadness once again, just as if I had not yet one hour of grief under my belt. Annie’s battle with cancer may be over, but my battle with her cancer is not. In fact, this week, as I have sat helplessly on the sidelines of Mom Ruth’s bedside, I can hardly believe that my Annie actually went through this. It is heartbreaking, gut-wrenching; it is horrifying. Yesterday (Tuesday) evening I found a quiet space in the bathroom and just cried and cried; and the way I felt inside was no different to the way I felt just over seven months ago when I did the same thing behind a bathroom door in the room where my Annie lay.
I know that God has called me to be a good steward of the pain and suffering He has allowed to take place in my life. The events of this week contribute to that responsibility. Being transparent and honest about the reality of cancer is part of that stewardship. If anyone ever read through this blog from the first post until this very one, I am certain that they would never find evidence to the contrary. Annie and I always wanted to be honest about our journey with cancer as we followed our Lord Jesus. That is my continued desire for the duration of this blog. I don’t keep this blog to be recognised or followed. I am often encouraged by those who leave their comments but I am not dependant on attention or approval. Honestly, I really don’t care for blogs that much at all. If nobody followed this blog, I’d still write these posts because I’d rather invest my time on this earth reflecting on the reality of pain and suffering than waste my time trying to escape it by falling for the myths and euphemisms of the masses.
Watching Mom Ruth this week was a little bit like watching that lady in the cancer commercial – only drastically, supernaturally different. Her body showed all the physical signs of cancer’s rampage; but through heavy eyes and shortness of breath, her face and her words expressed she was not alone in this but securely and confidently and peacefully and joyfully in the hands of King Jesus. This morning, as I spent another day with family, sitting around the bedside of Mom Ruth, I was reflecting on these words of Jesus to Peter.
Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. – John 21:18,19
I began to wonder if Peter wondered who the ‘someone’ was that Jesus was referring to. No doubt, Jesus – who knows and guides the future – had in mind a person, or group of people, who would lead Peter to his death – his opponents, his accusers, his executioners.
In the bible, death is sometimes personified. For example in 1 Corinthians death is referred to as the last enemy and in Revelation death is pictured as a man riding a horse and as one who eventually and finally would be thrown into the lake of fire.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death. – 1 Corinthians 15:16
I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. – Revelation 6:8
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. – Revelation 20:13,14
In some ways, the ‘someone’ who Jesus referred to is ‘someone’ we all have to meet during the last days of our lives; that ‘someone’ is death.
As I have watched my dear Annie and my dear Mom Ruth in their last days, that’s just what death has been like. Like that ‘someone’ leading them somewhere they did not want to go; somewhere their loved ones did not want them to go. I never wanted to go anywhere without my Annie. As her husband, I wanted to be the one that protected her, that went ahead of her. It is truly a most horrible thing for a husband to sit powerlessly on the sidelines as his dear wife is lead somewhere he couldn’t go ahead of her first.
Jesus also talked about Peter being dressed by someone else. Three days before my Annie was called home I watched her use every breath and ounce of energy in her body praising Jesus and serving others. In my Annie’s last two days I saw her get so weak that she could no longer dress herself or care for herself. One of the last things I did for her was to wash her hair and clean her body; and I when I was too weary and weak and overwhelmed with sleeplessness, nurses would come in and change Annie when she became too weak to manage her bodily functions. I still have a picture in my mind of her brother – my dear brother-in-law, Tim – lifting and cycling her legs and arms gently, so that she didn’t have to suffer the extra discomfort of seizing muscles that she was no longer able to move by herself. And over the last few days, I have once again sat with dear family, watching the same painful events replay themselves in the last days of Mom Ruth’s life.
Don’t believe the hype. Cancer is horrendous.
For every human being on this planet, life’s story will eventually reach the part of the last chapter that begins ‘But death…’ You may be young; but death. You may be lined up for a great education right now; but death. You may be doing well at school, college, university or work; but death. You may be preparing for marriage; but death. You may be celebrating the birth of a child; but death; you may be nearing retirement and looking forward to plans you have dreamed about for many years; but death; you may be enjoying wealth and health; but death. You may be having the time of your life. But death.
Because of Jesus, there is hope beyond the hype, hope amidst the horror, hope before and after the grave, and it will be granted to all those who place all their hope in Him alone.
Death didn’t have final authority over Peter. Jesus had the ultimate authority over Peter’s life and Peter’s death. The eyewitness accounts tell us that when Peter was told how his life would end, he enquired of Jesus “What about him?” (referring to the Apostle, John). Jesus’ response makes it wonderfully clear that He Himself had ultimate control and authority.
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.” – John 21:22
Jesus speaks honestly to Peter about death – He doesn’t candy-coat it with smart slogans – He speaks the truth with authority because He had conquered death. In both Peter’s death and John’s, Jesus makes it very clear that He is in charge. In response to Peter, Jesus simply asserts that if He didn’t want John to encounter death at all, then that would be His decision and His decision alone; there would be no need for negotiations between Jesus and death. Jesus doesn’t need to debate or duel with death. Jesus has already duelled and conquered death.
Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. – John 19:30
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen!” – Luke 24:5,6
Jesus has secured victory over death. Death is a cruel enemy but it is a conquered enemy. Death does as Jesus says, and no more. And though Peter was going to be lead by someone to somewhere he didn’t want to go, Jesus asserted that ultimately all Peter needed to remember was that He was following his Lord Jesus who loved him, who took his punishment for sin on the cross, who died for him, who conquered death and sin for him, who would go and prepare a place for him in heaven and would never leave him nor forsake him, who would be his Good Shepherd even through the valley of the shadow of death.
On Wednesday evening at 6:35pm, I witnessed Mom Ruth draw her last breath of life on this earth. It was the end of five difficult days and eight long years. For eight years, cancer unleashed all kinds of horror upon her. And it took and took and it took. It took her arm. It took her stamina. It took away her ability to do many of the things she loved to do. It took her precious daughter. It took her breath. It took her away from us. But as cancer did its very worse, Jesus her Lord, Saviour and Shepherd, did better and greater. For eight years and for five final days, cancer could not take away her hope, her assurance, her joy, her peace. It simply couldn’t. It could crush cells but the source of her assurance was far too great for cancer! At cancer’s most rampant, Mom Ruth was most radiant. She had a hope and a peace and an assurance that literally exhausted cancer. As much as it tried, she continued to sing and continued to smile and continued to worship her King. With every inch that cancer took, she drew nearer to the King of Heaven. With every blow that cancer dealt, she flew nearer to Jesus. Cancer might not be afraid of the dark but it was consumed by the radiant light of Jesus Christ. How’s this for a slogan?
Jesus conquers cancer!
Contrary to my belief, perhaps one day they will cure cancer. But they will never cure death.
But He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on Him,
and by His wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5
Jesus has conquered death. And on Wednesday evening, I was a witness of His cancer consuming and death conquering power. There’s so much to tell and testify about what we witnessed over the last five days – with our own ears and eyes! Indeed, there’s so much to tell and testify about the whole of Mom Ruth’s life. I really believe that her incredible testimony needs to be written and submitted as a gift to the church. But until then, this coming Wednesday, some of those testimonies will be shared at her funeral and thanksgiving service. You are most welcome to come and see and come and hear for yourself.
There is hope beyond the hype. Jesus is alive and He is greater than cancer and death. I may have never met you but I can assure you, you need Him. Oh how you desperately need Him! Death is a fearful, horrendous thing to face without Him. How tragic it will be if all you take to your death bed is hype instead of hope.
…we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39
If you’d like to find out more details about the upcoming funeral and thanksgiving service (Wednesday, October 30th, 2013) please contact me or another member of the family and we’ll pass on the details.
In His Arms,