Posted in focus on faith

What does true love look like?

Tammy called in the middle of the night. She was hysterical. Her husband had abandoned her and the baby. I went over to her house and made tea. She wept as we talked and prayed. Just over her shoulder, on the mantle, was a gilt-framed portrait of the couple on their wedding day. They were astonishingly beautiful – like celebrities. Four years later, Tammy was still gorgeous even though she had gained some weight. When I asked her why her husband had left her, through her tears she repeated some of his last words to her: “You don’t look like you did when I married you.”

The night Tammy told me her husband’s shallow, spiteful comment, my thoughts immediately flew to another couple I know. A couple whose marriage, now more than 25 years old, stands as a beautiful example of undying love.

Kyle and Cheryl started dating in high school. Their first date was when Kyle asked Cheryl to be his grad escort. Four years younger than him, this was Cheryl’s first date. Kyle’s too. She was the only girl he had ever been interested in. She finished high school while Kyle was away at college. One year after she graduated, they celebrated a summer wedding. (Excerpt From Faking it to Finding Grace)

Connie, Caroline and Lisa, three (of seven) sisters, sharing some laughs in March 2007

The story of Kyle and Cheryl is really the story of Kevin and Caroline. Caroline was my little sister.

[Kevin] joined [Caroline’s] father in business in their hometown and they bought a house next door to Caroline’s parents. They took to married life like it was second nature. Caroline worked [at the bank] and kept up with her old friends. Kevin played ball and hockey with the men’s teams. Together they camped and fished, went to movies and ate Chinese food at their favorite café. One year later, in the middle of the night, their future changed forever when Caroline had a grand mal seizure.

The tests began and the diagnosis came in. Caroline had a brain tumor. It was inoperable. The specialist told Kevin that Caroline had between two and five years to live. But he added, “I have one patient with a tumor like Caroline’s. She’s still here. It’s been 20 years.” Kevin grasped that hope like a straw and held it.

The doctors recommended surgery, then radiation and chemotherapy, as much as she could stand. Twice, Caroline’s hair fell out and returned. The first time it came back curly. The second time, it came back wispy and thin. Caroline was taking so many drugs to control her ongoing seizures that Kevin had to keep track of them for her. It was all so confusing and very frightening.

The years began to roll by. Caroline stayed home and Kevin arranged his work schedule so he was home for lunch every day. Caroline always made his lunch – a tuna sandwich – by herself. It took her 30 minutes. After they ate, they played a hand or two of Rummy before Kevin went back to work. He made supper when he got home around five. They ate together, watched their favorite television shows and went to bed early.

And the years passed. Eventually, Kevin stopped playing sports and fishing as it got harder and harder for Caroline to leave the house. He taught her how to use the computer and she spent many happy hours playing Solitaire and other simple games. He built her a tray on which to do puzzles and she did hundreds of them. Kevin did all the shopping, even for his wife’s clothes. Years later it was discovered that Caroline’s cancer was completely gone. However the residual scar tissue in her brain required continued seizure-control drugs. These drugs changed her physically, emotionally, and behaviorally. She became forgetful and repeated herself. She had a hard time understanding plots in movies and books. She seldom cried but sometimes laughed inappropriately. She forgot the names of her nieces and nephews. And everything she did was at a snail’s pace.  

After 23 years, Kevin had to put Caroline in the local nursing home when she fell and broke her hip. It was an excruciating decision. She did not want to go but he could no longer care for her at home. He felt like a traitor but he had no choice. The drugs had swollen her body to twice its normal size and she needed the help of mechanical lifts and professional caregivers. Over the next few months Caroline almost slipped away. Kevin thought he was losing her; he was despondent. She could not speak or move, was fed by tubes, and barely recognized him or her family. Every spare minute he had, Kevin was at her side. Slowly she began to rally as her new home became more familiar.

A year later, she was up and around in a wheelchair, joking with the nurses and teasing the staff. She became the classic “teacher’s pet” of the nursing home. Kevin no longer had to spoon-feed her so they ate all their meals together in the dining hall with the other residents. After they ate, Kevin pushed Caroline back to her room or to the common room if she had visitors. Seldom sitting, Kevin hovered near her chair. He would brush her wispy hair, gently caress her arms and every few minutes, kiss her somewhere on her face. Always laughing at her silly comments – some the result of drug-induced confusion, some truly funny quips – Kevin brought sunshine into her world. Careful always to guard her dignity, he answered her every question, no matter how often repeated or how simplistic, with kind clarity and a smile. Caroline knows she is loved. And she is grateful.

Kevin is one of my heroes. He is the best example I know “with skin on” of God’s undying love. Caroline isn’t the girl he married if you compare photos. But she’s every bit the person he fell in love with on the inside. And he has never once forsaken his promise to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health. As God promised the Children of Israel, and us, the children of the new covenant, through His prophet Jeremiah: I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued to extend faithful love to you (Jeremiah 31:3).

Undying love. It is the kind of love that looks past our outward self and sees our inner beauty. Undying love does not abandon us in our wildernesses. (end excerpt)

Caroline took her last breath almost two years ago, held by Kevin and Chelene (their miracle child, now grown and married with two children of her own). She was loved with an undying love.

True love not only looks different, it sees us differently than we see ourselves. Jesus promises us He will love and cherish us, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, and not just “until death us do part” but beyond the grave. Caroline is being held and caressed in the arms of Jesus now. Kevin did a good job of preparing her.

If you have drifted away from God, lost touch with God, feel abandoned by God, are disappointed in God, or just royally ticked off at God please think about this love story. It is both true (factual) and real (possible) and it is a beautiful picture of God’s true love, His undying love, for you.

Posted in focus on faith

Pancreatic Cancer as God’s Canvas

IMG_2724“There’s a mass on my kidney,” our daughter Christine said shakily into the phone. Her dad took the call on my cell because I was paying for some shoes at the mall. He stepped into the hallway, pacing and murmuring, while I tried not to show my impatience with the chatty associate who was handling the transaction. I hurried over to where Gerry was in time to hear him say, “Stay there. We are on our way.”I could tell by the look on Gerry’s face that the report of our daughter’s ultrasound was not good. When he said “mass” and “kidney” I stopped breathing. My mother died from kidney cancer. I was shaking so badly I had to lean on the wall while Gerry said all the smart things: we don’t have all the facts yet; it’s too soon to panic; blah blah blah. Of course he was right but he needed to knock the monster off my chest so I could breathe!

That was almost exactly two years ago and yesterday our daughter had her second surgery to remove tumours from her pancreas — the “kidney” diagnosis turned out to be inaccurate. It has been a difficult and beautiful season in our family’s life. “Difficult” because no mother wants her child (grown or otherwise) to suffer. Every mother wishes to take the suffering on her own shoulders and let her child live in glorious freedom. But trading places is not an option. “Beautiful” because God uses our suffering as the canvas on which to paint Himself. Every time you look at that canvas you see Him and you know He cares, He knows, He is with you, He was ready for this, He’s in control, and so much more as the canvas takes on colour and pattern and depth.

There’s hardly a family that hasn’t been touched by cancer so you know what I mean when I say that the early days of waiting for the right diagnosis, the treatment options, the prognosis, the side effects (and so on) seem to drag on forever. You want answers. But you only want good answers, hopeful answers, dodged-a-bullet answers. If the cancer is rare, as Christine’s is, the answers are even slower in coming. Meanwhile, swatches of colour began to appear. The first was when we realized that the tumours on Christine’s pancreas had no symptoms and would never have been discovered until they had done irreparable damage. However a separate minor medical problem required ultrasound. And in the search for something else, the technician noticed a golfball sized mass and other smaller ones in Christine’s abdomen. The touch of God’s hand was obvious right from the start.

After Christine’s first surgery where they removed the tail of her pancreas that held seven cancerous tumours of various sizes she suffered hideously with uncontrollable pain and severe nausea. On her darkest night when she could not stop herself from crying out a young nurse came alongside her bed, took her hand and began to pray. Christine opened her eyes and saw Robyn Booth, the daughter-in-law of my dear friend Susan. Robyn’s comforting presence and heartfelt prayers as well as her subsequent search for better pain control was a giant swath of colour onto God’s canvas.

It took a year for Christine to regain her strength. She went back to work, taking two casual nursing positions. Two months later an MRI revealed a new tumour on the pancreas. We didn’t see it coming. I was on my way back from speaking in Georgia, enjoying some quiet in the Denver airport’s United Club when I read the text telling me the news. I had to find a bathroom stall so I could weep unseen. I called Gerry, bawling, and told him to tell Christine I would talk to her in the morning since my arrival home would be too late. The truth was I didn’t trust my composure. I packed my computer and iPad into my carry-on and stumbled to my gate in a fog. Someone called my name. I turned to see Patsy Woodard, a friend and fellow ministry associate from BC. She was en route to visit grandkids in Texas(?) and she saw me pass by.

“How are you?” she asked.

“Not good,” I replied, eyes watering. I explained. Patsy wrapped her arms around me and prayed, right there in the crowded airport hallway as people flowed around us. Drops of colour shaped like tears fell onto the canvas. God was present.

There’s so much colour on God’s canvas, I can’t begin to put it into words in one oversized blog. Here are some snatches: Christine, Brad and the kids bought a house four doors down a year before the cancer struck. I have been able to rush over — in pjs! — many times when needed. The kids have come to my place — in cuter pjs — many times. Colour on canvas! Women all over Canada and the US are praying for Christine as I share her story in my speaking ministry and so many keep in touch and send encouragement. Splashes of colour! When Christine arrived in the Operating Room yesterday morning, a woman from her fitness class was a nurse in the adjoining OR. She spoke to Christine assuring her that her attending doctors were the best in the area. Colour!

Two years ago in July, when my husband Gerry had his burnout, I felt God whisper into my ear, “Gerry needs a wife.” Obviously, he had a wife but I was so busy with my speaking and writing that I was very distracted. I stopped writing immediately — look at my blog (or lack of) for evidence. I honoured my speaking engagements but did nothing to get more — newsletters rather scarce! You see, God knew that by the time Gerry had recovered (after our “summer of love”), we would get the call from Christine that changed everything.

Christine called us from her hospital bed last night. Her pain was under control. She had no nausea. The surgeon says everything went according to plan and her pancreas is clear. She is in good spirits and excitedly reported how God had so obviously been adding colour to His canvas all day long.

I booked half as many events as usual these past two years but my husband needed his wife and my daughter, her mom. I answered their call, His call. I am following God one yes at a time and have no regrets. His magnificent canvas, ever before me, is proof that I am on the right path.

What about you? Where has God led you in these last months? Can you see the colours on His canvas of love?