Mom’s diagnosis came in late October 2015. Her oncologist told her what a tough disease this one is to fight, but that in recent years they had made great advances. “We used to talk in terms of only months,” she said. “Now we talk in years.” Our frantic Googling revealed that the five-year survival rate for people with stage four kidney cancer is 8 percent.
Eight percent. Eight percent. Five years. Eight percent. My mom is fifty-four. My mom is fifty-four. Eight percent. Eight percent. Five years. Eight percent.
When people complained about the weather, a colleague at work, a cranky child, the busyness of the season—anything, anything at all—It doesn’t matter, my mom has cancer rattled through my brain.
In mid-November we met the oncologists at the Cleveland Clinic to learn her treatment options. We are fortunate to live near one of the best kidney cancer specialists in the country, and the two doctors we saw did not hesitate to answer every question, or at least every question they could.
From that thick fog of grief and shock there is only one question and no answer: Why?
From the cross, Jesus cried, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? From caves and deserts and places of isolation, David cried, How long, Lord, how long? In my own darkness the waves came, and came, and came. Grief. Sorrows like sea billows. My bones felt brittle. Everything could crumble.
The doctors at the clinic told us about Interleukin-2, an immunotherapy for stage 4 kidney cancer with a 10 percent chance of cure. Outside of this intensive treatment there is no other drug that works to eliminate this cancer once it has reached stage 4; there are only drugs to delay the progression of disease.
Even though she knew IL-2 would be one of the hardest things she would ever go through, she had to try. “We bring you to the brink of death to try to make you well,” the doctor who administers IL-2 said.
Her treatment began the first week of December 2015. It caused her blood pressure to drop, her capillaries to leak, her body to tremor, her mouth to hurt, and her mind to confuse the shapes in the room. She spent the fullness of both visits to the clinic in the ICU. When it was over, finally, she came home, days before Christmas.
But it didn’t work.
What do you do when there are no answers, when you are reeling in grief, when your health, your wealth, your child, your parent, your nation, your world is broken and you are helpless—helpless to fix it, at a loss for what to do? At a loss—such an adequate phrase, positioned in loss, located in loss, at a loss. I am at a loss. I am empty of. I am without.
What do you do? You weep. You groan. You wail.
Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.
We see lament throughout the Scriptures as the real-life outcry against injustice, threat, sickness, despair, anguish, and grief. We see it in the Psalms, in Lamentations, in the Gospels. We see the men and women who lament lifting their eyes to the heavens and crying out to the God who promises to hear, promises his presence, promises to be with us. Where are you? Come quickly. Help us. We need you. Heal us. Fix this. Do not be far from me.
December is a thick month, braided with these deep griefs and elations, elevations of moments when we laughed so hard we cried, and cried so hard we collapsed, and collapsed so hard we fell asleep on damp pillows. It is a season we love to bedazzle with artificial lights and artificial trees and ornaments made to resist shattering when each of us is ever on the brink of breaking under the weight of reality.
When one of God’s names is Immanuel, God with us, we can call on him during every season—grieve, mourn, and wail or laugh, dance, and rejoice—and see the contrast between the light and the dark. In times of lament, we cry out This awful thing is happening and I hate it! but we also feel the stillness in our souls—And yet you are good.
How is this possible? I think because broken limbs heal. Because winter turns again to spring. Because if I look, everywhere God is making all things new. In every season I’ve been through previously something beautiful and pure and true has emerged from the manure, and it’s there in the manure where God is working. God is present in times of suffering and times of rejoicing, witness to and breathing the breath of life in every moment of connection and disconnection, grieving with us and laughing with us.
And when I doubt this in the midst of the darkness, I turn to the stories written in the book of my faith. I am reminded again of a thirty-three-year-old man who cried out from a cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and “It is finished.” I am reminded again of a thirty-three-year-old man who died a very real death with very real suffering. I am reminded of how he was able to redeem even that, and how lives were changed because of the depth of that love, the power in that redemption story, the grace poured out over all creation.
How is it possible to grieve, mourn, and wail but still know God is good?
Because dead things come back to life.
All feels out of control, and yet you are God. I feel so weak and yet you are strong. I feel so lost, and yet you are my shepherd. It seems so dark, and yet you are light. I feel so empty, and yet you abide. This grief is so slow, and yet you are patient. I rage and hurt others, and yet you are kind. I feel abandoned, and yet you are here.
For every lament there is an “and yet.”
It has been a year since my mom’s diagnosis, her decision to take the road in pursuit of a cure, Robert Frost’s road less traveled by. It didn’t make all the difference—she is still sick, even if she appears well. She is still dying, still counting off the days to the five-year survival rate, still stretching and reaching toward that 8 percent who live beyond five years. The reality of her disease is ever-present, never far, looming and frightening and real.
And yet our God abides in us. We are his love and his grace made manifest. I love my mom so much it hurts, and to lose her in the hopefully far and distant future will rip a tear through the cloth that holds me together. But still God abides here. Love abides here, in the grieving season and in the rejoicing season.
It is well, with my soul. It is well, it is well with my soul.