About three years ago, my mom had some weird abdominal pain, went to the emergency room, and learned she had kidney cancer. Six weeks later, the doctors removed one of her kidneys, and ever since, the weight of chronic illness has pressed down upon her. Her regular follow-up appointments have uncovered new spots to worry over and wait, wait, wait for something else to happen.
On one hand are the benefits of technology to catch disease early so it can be treated before it progresses, and on the other is the burden of knowledge, the weight of knowing. Anyone who has been or knows someone who has been sick for an extended period of time, fighting an invisible enemy whose shadow is only glimpsed in CT scans and MRIs or strange aches and mysterious symptoms, knows the heaviness of this burden.
When am I going to be sick again? Will I ever be well again? Sometimes the shadows disappear and for a time, all seems well, there’s peace, life feels normal. And then the shadows return.
I am very close to my mom. We’re twenty years apart and are often mistaken for sisters. She is one of the kindest, most merciful humans on the planet. Not only is she still so young, she’s also my mother, my dad’s wife, my children’s grandmother. When it first occurred to me back when she was diagnosed with kidney cancer that my mom could die—that my mom would die, someday, probably before me—I was a wreck. Not my mom! My mom is immortal; didn’t you know? She can’t ever die. She would miss so much! What about my children? What about my dad? What about my brothers? What about me?
It makes no sense why any of this is happening to her. You know how it is—good diet, lots of exercise, kind and gentle spirit, loving and merciful toward all—it seems incredibly unfair. In a world where we demand justice, what are we supposed to do when things go wrong?
Things are going wrong in our bodies. We have to admit it. Our bodies are built for health and wellness as the default mode of operation, but they are still temporal. They are still made from the dust of stars, bound to return to earth. They are still broken. Some of them break early, even before birth, and some hang on long, longer than anyone would have thought possible, in conditions that seem nearly lifeless. What are we supposed to do with the way disease and death is scattered so randomly across the world’s population?
I can only hope. In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter tells his readers to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” and that hope is Jesus Christ. I don’t mean just in a “She’s in a better place” kind of way. I know God loves my mom, but I’m just not buying that “God needs another angel in heaven” crap. Angels are not dead humans. Angels are frightening and powerful spiritual beings that are entirely separate from humans. My mom might be angelic, but she isn’t an angel.
I don’t believe God is hanging outside of time and space with a stopwatch saying, “Well, it looks like Johnny’s time to go,” and sends a drunk driver to ram into his car at an intersection. These things don’t mesh with God’s nature, God’s everlasting kindness, his mercies new every morning, his unconditional love.
And yet we hope—what is it we hope for? Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”. Peace that passes all understanding. The sense that, as Julian of Norwich said, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Jesus spoke all the time about the kingdom of heaven, a new heaven and a new earth, heaven on earth, life here and life everlasting. What do we hope for? Trust. Peace. Community. Love. Now and tomorrow and forever.
It is this hope that sustains us through these long sufferings, this prayer for healing of body and mind and spirit, this long and constant embrace of the Holy Spirit that carries us through these days of unknowing all the way through the valley into knowing, beyond death into the everlasting. We hope for these things now and we hope for them in the life to come.
This is the only way I know to cope with the anger and the fear and the anxieties about my mom that well up and threaten to burst forth into every waking minute. This is the only way I know to battle back the dread. This is the only way I know to go on living in the moments of today without worrying about tomorrow. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”. We can add no hours to our lives, but we can fill those hours with faith, hope, and love, and let those contents spill over into the lives of those we love. By doing so, maybe we will taste heaven on earth.