In the Old Testament, after a significant event in which God’s hand (and sometimes his voice) was evident, we see people erecting a memorial stone to mark the spot. Over the years, I’ve had friends who did something similar; perhaps they marked the birth of a new baby or an unexpected miscarriage with a piece of jewellery. I always found this nice, but never fully understood it until last summer.
In the next year, our family is marking many anniversaries–some heartbreaking, some joyful. In July, we remembered the loss of our first son, whose birth mother decided to parent, after he had been placed in our home. (For the record, we harbor no hard feelings towards her and recognize that that was completely her right.) After we took him to the adoption agency office, I ordered a thin, silver band, named by the jeweler “Always Present“. We had named our son Micah, a Hebrew name that means, “Who is like our God?” This ring would be a memorial stone, a reminder that there is no God like Him and that He comforts His children in affliction. He is our refuge, our strength, always present and always helping His children. He is completely sovereign and completely good, things that seem contrary to one another in the throes of loss. But He is working all things, even the ones that convince us that our heart will shred into a thousand pieces, for our good in Christ.
This was the first of many memorial stones I would set in the next year.
Today marks an important first anniversary, the catalyst for the stones to come. I had (what we thought was) a rapidly-growing cyst on my left ovary, and my doctor sent me to a gynecologic oncologist as a precaution. My CT scan, done in July, had revealed that the cyst had pushed almost all of my organs out of the way and had filled my entire abdomen. In many slices of the scan, the cyst was all the eye could see.
When I stared, mouth gaping, at that scan and looked at my bulging, non-pregnant belly, I just knew. I never would have admitted it at the time, but I knew I had cancer. The “cyst” had grown from nothing to 22 centimeters long, in less than two months. For reference, 22 cm is the diameter of a typical soccer ball, and that was in my abdomen. Let that settle for a moment. To say I was uncomfortable is an understatement. I had trouble breathing and digesting food and all sorts of other issues that I won’t mention here.
Because I know that have a bent towards planning for the worst-case scenario, I repeatedly told myself that I was being negative. Debbie Downer, if you will. But I knew. I just couldn’t deal with it until it was a solid reality, staring unblinkingly at me. (It turns out that a cyst/tumor like mine is a sign of a specific sort of cancer that usually presents in younger women. More on that in another post.)
Until then, I had to process what the surgeon had told me on August 1. While she could do a laparoscopic surgery (4 small incisions), her gut was telling her to do a laparotomy (one vertical 9″ incision). Her reasoning was wise: To remove the cyst via laparoscopy, she would have to puncture it. If cancer lurked therein, and the fluid leaked into my abdomen, she would effectively spread that cancer. I had anticipated this and was, in all honesty, terrified, despite her leakproof logic. I’d never had surgery, so it felt a bit like diving into the deep end of a pool without knowing how to swim. What terrified me? Anesthesia, for one. I still have issues with this, to this day. The thought of being completely incapacitated while someone cut me open rubs up against my already-established trust issues. To this day, it is a regular exercise to give this emotional discomfort to the Lord. Yes, humans are fallible, and yes, I was being asked to put my trust in someone I’d know for 15 minutes to aptly perform a major surgery. But, ultimately, I was being asked by God, “Do you trust ME?”
The answer had to be yes, but it took me time to fully submit my heart to that truth. For the first time in my life, I dealt with my mortality. I know now that the Lord was preparing my heart to handle a cancer diagnosis, in His great mercy. During this time, I had thoughts of Jacob wrestling with God . . . of Job being brought low by God’s declaration of power and might in chapters 38-41 of that book. God suddenly seemed unsafe to me. For the first time I truly understood this description of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: ““Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”
If I had died on that operating table, God still would have been good. He would have remained steadfast in His love towards me and those I left behind. Actually–as morbid as it sounds–to die on that table would have been a grace, because I would have seen my Lord face-to-face! But I had to pray and to wrestle with fear and death and a desire to grasp for control, and to let the Word inform what I believed about God, His work, and my position before Him. My heart couldn’t be trusted to land in the right place; fear was trying to rule, but the Spirit in me cast it aside. Praying the Word helped align my thinking with truth. Before or after the 23 days leading up to my surgery, I’ve never felt such strong spiritual battle. When I look back on it, I’m almost exhilarated.
But to wake up slowly, in a dark hospital room, my mind foggy, was also grace. So was the first time I stood up and felt like my insides were going to spill onto the cold tile floor. The Lord loves me enough that He gave me more days on this earth to glorify His name, to point people to the works of His majestic hands, and to know His sovereignty and love in a way I had never felt it before. The Lord loves me enough that He continuously passes me through the fire to refine me, to make me more like Jesus. It’s just a bonus that I also get to cherish my family and friends, explore creation, and enjoy yummy food. (That last one is inordinately important to me after not being able to eat because of the cyst!)
As each anniversary approaches, I hope to write about it here. Next up: surgery day!
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
What Scriptures encourage your heart when you are fearful?