Monday, April 21, 2008

123 Days

In the spring of 1995 I was given 123 days to begin to learn something very important. I didn't know it would be 123 days at the time, but thats what it ended up being.

Extremely short background: I was married to my highschool sweetheart, on Valentine's Day, when I was 20. On our fifth anniversary he was diagnosed with terminal cancer (malignant melanoma) and given 8 weeks to live. Through a series of clinical trials, surgeries, chemo, radiation, remission, re-occurance, etc., that 8 weeks turned into almost five years before he passed from this life to the next. I was 30, he was 32 and we had three little girls when it finally happened. The Lord's timetable for his passing was nearly five long years of intense suffering for all of us, but also intense joy when we were both converted to Christ a year before he passed away. I learned a lot in that time, but what was coming the final chapter of this event, was far more critical than anything before it.

In the spring of 1995, on April 14th to be exact, he had a regular weekly exam after chemo. In a nutshell, his oncologist told him that the chemo was no longer working. The tumors he had were growing instead of shrinking (which included a brain tumor that was causing changes in him both mental and physical), and all the chemo (and related medications) was doing was making him miserable, not helping in any way. Faced with the decision to either continue chemo that wasn't working, or go on a pain control routine only and wait for the inevitable, he chose the pain control route. We all knew it would eventually come to this, and April 14th was that day. His doctor told him on that day, that he likely had 4-6 months left, at best. The doctor later translated that prognosis for me and explained that the 4 months was the most realistic time frame, and the 6 months was the most optimistic. I remember thinking that I had at best, only 4 months to not only say goodbye to him, but say it right, be strong for the girls, be a good example, and handle it all with grace. I did not have any kind of realistic idea, of what was coming next. I couldn't have, as I had no first-hand experience with anything so monumentally traumatic.

On April 14, 1995, the 123 days of learning began.

I began to learn just how finite and delicate, human beings really are. We all know this, but when the end of a life is staring you straight in the eye, you begin to know it in a brand new way. Especially when that life is one that you are connected to so deeply that the idea of losing them, means losing a part of yourself too. When the finality of all of this hits you, it opens your eyes in a way that might surprise you.

I began to learn that while God can, that doesn't always mean that God will. During that time I had a lot of well-meaning people say a lot of well-meaning things, that really didn't help, but only confused me. Folks wanted me to be hopeful and be encouraged, and in doing that they wanted me to focus solely on God's grace. For stronger Christians that might be possible I thought, but for me it wasn't possible for longer than moments at a time. More than anything it left me confused and doubting my own faith. There is an emotional pain that people can feel so deep down, that infiltrates through our entire being and even blinking or breathing can become almost too much. (This might sound very melodramatic, but I assure you, those who have experienced this kind of pain know exactly what I refer to. It's very real and it's very much out of your control). While God is certainly able to bring you through that, it doesn't always mean that He's going to spare you from feeling that kind of pain, as He brings you through it.

I began to learn what it means to let go of things you cannot control. This is one of the hardest things of all. A person could easily drive themselves nutty by asking rhetorical questions that there are no available answers to. Life events that are desperately difficult don't come with an answer sheet to help you understand them. Sometimes you just have to let the hardest questions go unanswered and find your comfort in the fact that God knows exactly what you're going through and according to Scripture will not give you more than you can bear. (1Cor.10:13)

I began to learn that real Christians can have their faith shaken to the core. Prior to this time in my life I believed (and I'm honestly not sure why) that Christians just sail through life with this sort of attitude that nothing really matters because of the incredible life to come. I began to learn in those 123 days that nothing could be further from the truth. Even when we're dealing with circumstances of life that we want to run as far away from as we can, those circumstances can be so painful that we might privately wonder if the Lord has forgotten us, if we're really His at all, or why it all feels like it's going to suck the life right out of us.

I began to learn what I'm really made of. While there were definitely some days that I walked by faith and not by sight, there were also days that I was so broken I couldn't even walk at all. Scripture says that in our weakness His strength is made perfect. I never understood that until I was so weak I couldn't even do simple things like brushing my teeth or making dinner, without breaking down and crying so hard that I would begin to feel faint.

I began to learn that it's not only okay to break down sometimes, but it's needed. Being super-parent that has it all together may play well in the movies, but in real life it's a sham. Quite unintentionally one day when I left the grocery store and headed home, I took the long way. I stopped at the park I grew up playing in, because for me that park represented days of joy and days of innocence. I parked the van at the water and watched the boats sail through the narrows, and the seagulls on the beach. The contrast of my childhood at that park and the current events of my life was so overwhelming I just began to cry in a way I could never do at home (and upset the kids). That spot in that parking lot became my crying place. I'd often stop there, usually for just a few minutes and collect my thoughts, or cry, or pray, before going home. It was the only place I could go and let things out like that, and I needed it.

I began to learn just how resilient people really are. Maybe it's a built in default button God built into His people, I really don't know for sure. I recall many times being in the very middle of the worst kind of pain, and hearing myself laugh at something funny, or smile at something lovely. Where did that come from? I was never sure, but always thankful for a moment of joy.

I began to learn to try and see God's orchestration in life's events. Someone much smarter than me suggested I try this, and try to focus on the ways in which it was obvious God had orchestrated events in my life that taught me something valuable. It was suggested that I try and look for those important lessons in and during the trials, instead of waiting to look back at them. It was one of the smartest pieces of advice I have ever been given, and during that time, helped in incredible ways. I still do this today, and I'm much quicker to assess the situation and apply this, than I've ever been before.

• I began to understand what "God is sovereign" really means.
• I began to understand really awful things happen to folks because we live in a world filled with sin. It would affect us even if we lived alone on a desserted island - because it's in us as much as it is around us.
• I began to learn how to explain important things to kids, that I never wanted to explain to anyone.

I say that the 123 days of learning began, because they didn't stop after 123 days. That was the time frame I had to have a crash course in these things before the doctor's prognosis was fulfilled, but the hardest lessons I ever began to understand in life, came in those 123 days. (I'm sure there were more things I began to learn, but those were the ones that still come to mind.) Four months and one day later, the prognosis came to pass and Ben quietly slipped from this life into eternity with our Lord. Four months and two days after that prognosis was given, life continued on for me and I knew that regardless of what just transpired, I still had living to do, somehow.

All this came to mind recently after a series of events in my own life and in the lives of others I care about. It's also spring, and this was the time of year that these hard life lessons came about for me, and it's usually hard to shake remembering that time.

A lot of living has been done since those days, and sometimes it's hard to believe it's been 13 years ago already. Part of the reason it often feels hard to believe is because of how much I still need to really understand those things I only began to learn, back then. Again and again the Lord has seen fit to bring about situations that cause me to "default" back to one or more of those lessons, and again and again it's a great big hit-or-miss with me.

I have so far to go, and I'm just so thankful that He is so faithful to see that I get there. Even when it hurts.

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