October 22, 2009
What would it feel like to have a doctor say, “There’s nothing more we can do for you. Go home and get your affairs in order.”
Getting things in order is what he’s been doing during this last month since he learned he had terminal cancer. Most of us have categories in our lives we set aside for later, things like redoing an address list or cleaning out old files. We procrastinate at balancing our checkbooks and washing out our refrigerators. If I were to die tomorrow, I’d be mortified to have other people rummaging through my dresser drawers, because they’re not in order.
Nate has been trying to square off with each procrastinated category in his life. It’s been overwhelming, but he’s done valiantly. One of the most difficult parts about setting his affairs in order has been discovering he couldn’t accomplish it alone. He’s had to humble himself enough to accept the help he’s been offered by those who love him, no easy task. We’d all rather be the helpers than the helped.
As he has acquiesced to the efforts of others, I’ve seen a fresh calm come into his life. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Maybe this rest is the relief we feel when we let others help us.
Nate is well aware of time slipping away. Today we drove two hours back to our old church so he could meet with Pastor Colin Smith. Linnea accompanied us, and although no one verbalized it, we all knew it would be Nate’s last visit there. His fatigue is escalating rapidly, and I’d prayed he would be alert and focused during the meeting, able to settle any lingering spiritual questions.
Linnea and I sat on a bench outside the room as Nate and the pastor met, praying for clarity and the Holy Spirit’s power to move within them both. On the drive home, we tried to get him talking about what had gone on during the meeting, but Nate was exhausted and non-communicative. Later, however, during our bedtime conversation, some of his thoughts bubbled to the surface.
“Life has a precarious nature to it,” he said, “but we don’t realize it on a daily basis. I’m realizing it now, because of the crisis I’m in.”
We talked a little more, and then I asked, “Are you afraid of anything?”
He thought for a minute, fingers-to-fingers as always, and said, “I’m not afraid, really. But I’m nervous.”
“About what?” I asked.
“Well, not about what’s going to happen after I die but before that.”
“You mean the cancer? You’re wondering what the cancer is going to do to you?”
We talked about the hospice ladies and their assurance he won’t have to suffer any great pain. He nodded, but didn’t seem convinced. Then he said something that gave a clue about his meeting with the pastor.
“I guess eventually God takes everything away except faith. That’s the one thing that can’t be taken.”
We looked up the verses about God shaking everything that can be shaken to identify the things that can’t be. I sensed a little-boy nervousness in Nate, completely understandable, and thought it would help to quote a biblical promise for unshakable reassurance. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.”
“That’s you,” I said. “This whole mess is going to work out for good … for you. You’re going to beat me to heaven, and heaven is about as good as it gets.”
He smiled and said, “Do you think you could squeeze into this little [hospital] bed next to me?”
It was tantamount to a comedy routine, but it was worth the effort. He was asleep in a few quick moments. Moving my hand across his chest, I could feel the small tumors that have erupted randomly on his skin, like dime-sized boils. I’m nervous, just like Nate, and must remind myself nothing can separate us from God’s love, nothing in life, and nothing in death. But a dark thought invaded anyway: what is this cancer going to do to him before the end?
Guest contributor Margaret Nyman chronicles the 42 days after her husband Nate, a patient at Rush University Medical Center, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Read more posts by visiting the Coping With Cancer section or subscribing to the RSS feed. Her personal blog is at www.GettingThroughThis.com.