BOOK - CHAPTER 3
Christmas was nearly here and we had missed most of the seasonal banquets and church function. It was traditional for our friends from church to have a potluck dinner, but this year we were hesitant about joining in. Since we had just been informed that Ari was not a donor match for Andrew our hearts felt too heavy to celebrate and we did not want to spoil the dinner for others. But our good friends, Ed and Annette, refused to take no for an answer and so we went.
Being with close friends fed our spirits and when we had a time of prayer after the meal, I felt myself lifted up into that quiet hiding place near to the heart of God. I realized with a start that I needed to talk less about Andrew's situation and be more intent on waiting quietly on the Lord. All my rehashing of medical treatments and statistics simply stirred up fear and anxiety within me. Through the fervent prayers of our friends, God was applying His mercy to me by gently pulling my thoughts back to Jesus, the precious Lamb, slain from the beginning of the earth. His sacrifice was the solace to my pain, His victory over death the foundation of my hope, and His name my tower of refuge in times of trouble.
Christmas Eve, as usual, was spent with my parents opening gifts and celebrating the Christmas story in some special way. All my siblings lived within 5 minutes of each other and though we attended different churches, we would all hurry to Mom and Dad's after the Christmas Eve service every year. The house would be dressed in all its Christmas splendor both inside and out. Outside, the windows were festooned with tiny wooden Christmas trees twinkling with mini-lights. The tables in the kitchen and dining room were laden with food, and in every corner of the family room there lay large piles of packages. With a total of 18 family members the gifts amounted to the size of a small department store. Before any presents were opened though, we spent time dwelling on the true meaning of Christmas. In the past the children had dressed up and acted out the Christmas pageant with Rusty, my brother's pony, making a guest appearance. On one occasion we had visited the farm where my sister and her husband lived, to read the story amidst fragrant bales of hay and watchful calves. This year, however, no one had the heart to plan a special surprise; we were too disturbed by the thought that this might be Andrew's last Christmas with us. I was content just to be with family and to watch Andrew's happy face as he played with his cousins.
Once the gifts had been opened the adults sat down around Mom's dining room table for a late-night snack while the children ate and played in the family room. Looking around the table I was grateful for my supportive family. My sister Liz with her unflappable, calm personality had confessed that she spent the first few days of Andrew's relapse in continuous tears. She and her husband Dale as well as Ed, my hardworking brother, and his gentle wife Linda generously took our other two sons into their home time and time again when we were in the hospital. Ed and Linda’s second daughter, Brittany, was Andrew's favorite cousin and always seemed happy to spend long hours sitting beside Andrew when he was too listless to play.
Rob, my extroverted and lovable youngest brother, gave evidence of his anxious inner feelings with an increased show of affection. Theresa, a friend of the family, who was present at all our family gatherings, often commented that our family had brought healing to her fragmented life. Now, I could understand the depths of her gratitude. A warm, loving, Christian family was a safe harbor in the wild and stormy sea of life. Every small gesture of love refreshed our tattered souls and prepared us to venture out again into the storm.
That night Dad led us in a time of prayer and my spirit was lifted once again as each member of the family prayed for us. Knowing that we were loved and cared for truly helped ease our burden.
Christmas Day was a disjointed day with Harry and me taking turns staying at home with Andrew while also trying to attend an extended family gathering. We all managed to get some Christmas dinner as well as more hugs and love from our many supportive relatives.
On Boxing Day we met with Harry's family in Richmond, and although our visit was interrupted by a brief chemo appointment at Children's Hospital, we were again encouraged by the love and support we received from the family. After my mother-in-law’s superb turkey dinner our brother-in-law, Michael, suggested that we have a time of prayer together as a family. It was another powerful moment of peace for us in the midst of the busy Christmas season.
Our visits to the Hospital continued on unabated over the Christmas holidays. So far they had gone very well. Andrew's new VAD in his chest was the greatest invention since scented felt markers. Or so we thought until the needle, which was still inserted since surgery, had to be replaced. With trepidation we prepared Andrew for his appointment.
"It won't hurt, Mommy?" he kept asking anxiously.
"Well, its not supposed to," I hedged.
"I wish I didn't have to have pokes. I know its going to hurt." We were losing ground. As we parked the car I could tell Andrew was near tears. Harry and Andrew and I held hands as we entered the elevator. Terror was written all over his face. Inwardly, I struggled with a hopeless feeling of anger. How can I help him deal with this? I'm just as scared as he is. This isn't fair!
As the elevator door closed us in I said the only thing I could think of doing in face of our fears, "Let's pray one more time." Lifting up our son to the Lord we asked for His mercy once again.
At the clinic we spotted a new nurse with a familiar face. It was our friend, Carol, from the oncology ward. She had been transferred from the ward, downstairs to the clinic. Distracted for a few minutes from our upcoming ordeal I chatted with her happily. Then it was time to take Andrew into the treatment room. He sat on my lap clutching my hands with his cold ones. Harry leaned against the wall watching carefully as the nurse removed the dressing. It pulled a little and Andrew cried out sharply. His skinny little chest was still grossly swollen on one side with a black bruise covering the entire site where the VAD lay hidden. The two inch cut was a black gash tightly held together with large stitches. As the nurse grasped the plastic wings of the VAD needle, Andrew again cried out in pain. With a tough tug the needle was out. Slowly the pain subsided only to be aroused afresh as the new needle went in. Andrew screamed. The nurse looked anxious. Why wasn't the needle going in? She pulled it out. More screams!
"Please not again," Andrew cried. "Don't poke me again!" My stomach started its familiar ascent into my throat. I prayed fiercely. The nurse readied the needle for another assault. It went in part way and then again reached an impasse. Opening the valve on the attached tubing she tried flushing the needle to see if the saline solution would enter Andrew's body. Nothing happened. She could not draw blood out or push in a flush. The needle had not found the opening to the VAD. Meanwhile my heart shrieked its anguished echoes to Andrew's cries of pain.
Harry tried to calm Andrew while throwing questions at the nurse. She became more withdrawn and as I watched her face I couldn't decide if it was determination or fear that formed the lines on her brow. Without a word to us she readied the needle and plunged it a third time into the bruised flesh. Missed again! Andrew's hysterical screams rose a pitch higher and my heart fell into a dark pit of utter hopelessness. God was not answering. He was not there. He had turned His back on us and all the screaming and pleading in the world was not making one speck of difference. I was betrayed.
"Take it out!" barked my husband. "Andrew needs a break." The grim-faced nurse acquiesced and after pulling out the offensive needle she quietly left the room. There was no calming Andrew. Hysterically he screamed, "Please don't poke me again! Please, Mommy, please!" Tenderly Harry picked him up and held him. I stroked his hair knowing that his pain was not yet over. Arms wrapped around each other we prayed for our son until the cries and pleas subsided to heart-wrenching sobs. Feeling utterly alone in our misery we asked God to send us relief.
Within minutes the door opened and in walked -- Carol! We all sighed with relief. Carol was our favorite nurse, partly because she was one of the few nurses we had known from the beginning of Andrew's treatments, but mostly because she was a Christian.
"Look, Andrew," I rejoiced. "It's Carol. Now everything will be fine."
"Don't assume too much," replied Carol. "That other nurse is the expert on VAD's so if she couldn't do it, I'm not sure that I'll be any better."
"Just do your best," said Harry encouragingly.
"We've prayed about it," I added, "And God will help you." Carol nodded and proceeded to scrub up.
As she steadied the needle I sent up one more quick prayer while Andrew began to whimper in frightened anticipation. This time the needle plunged in quickly and surely, piercing the swollen skin and finding its mark in the buried VAD. Once blood had been drawn and the I.V. pole was connected Andrew's tears subsided. Although the crisis was over, all of us felt weary and battle worn. We stepped out of the treatment room and immediately sensed an unusual hush in the rest of the clinic. No one moved or spoke. The usually busy nurses were quietly gathered together in the nurses' station, while the waiting families sat silently with their sick children. Every eye was on us as we slowly made our way back to our seats. Seeing their looks of sympathy and concern I smiled weakly, realizing that Andrew's terrified screams had unsettled everyone. Later on, as we travelled home my mind replayed the trauma we had experienced that afternoon. I kept reliving the horror of that fateful needle plunging over and over again into Andrew's swollen chest while he screamed, "Please stop! Please take it out! No! No! Not again! Please, not again!" The pain in my heart grew to overwhelming proportions until at last the dam broke and my tears started to flow. At first I cried for our helplessness. Then I cried out of anger--anger at the nurse for being so incompetent, anger at ourselves for standing by helplessly, and finally, anger at God for letting us down. We had prayed before the poke, we had prayed during the poke and it had still gone awry.
Seeing my quiet distress, Harry tried to reassure me of his faith in God's ability to heal Andrew but I was unconvinced. If God would not answer my prayer over a lesser issue such as a poke, how could I be sure that He would answer bigger prayers such as the healing of Andrew's cancer.
For the first time in my life I felt that my faith had been shaken to the core of my being. The Rock of Ages no longer seemed sure and firm, but unpredictable and even elusive. As I allowed my feelings of betrayal to grow, it seemed as though another burden had been added to my already laden heart--the burden of doubt. Yes, God was real, but was He in control of everything? Was He truly interested in the small details of our lives? Why did He sometimes clearly intervene in answer to our prayers and other times remain distant and uninvolved?
For three days my anger consumed me and then God in His fatherly way, laid His hand upon me. Lovingly He convicted me of my anger against Him as I read Psalm 51:
"Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me."
I realized that my anger was unwarranted. God is good; He had already proved it by giving his own son for my salvation when I had done nothing to deserve it. He had also proven it many times in the past by answering other prayers. Just because my son was experiencing pain did not mean that God did not love us. I had to trust Him, just as Andrew had to trust me when I took him to the hospital. Somehow God would make everything work together for good.
As I confessed my sin of anger and self-righteousness to God He led me tenderly through the rest of the psalm:
"Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit with me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your
Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me."
My burdens lifted and as peace once again filled me I was suddenly reminded of Christ's words on the cross,
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" What a solace that was! Christ himself had felt just like me--abandoned by God in his darkest hour. I resolved that in the darkness I would hold on and have faith. Little did I know that the darkness would last several months and that my resolve would be tested many times.
Two days later I got strep throat. I also received my first book on health food alternatives from a concerned friend. Feeling ill myself, I was impressed with the book's claim that a juice fast could cure almost any cancer. More health food literature found its way into our home and I was stunned to read that the big pharmaceutical companies were purposely withholding a cure to cancer for greedy gain. Obviously a cancer cure would eliminate the need for chemotherapies and other medications in the treatment of cancer.
At the time I found these magazines and books to be credible because, after all, I had often used vitamins to alleviate my chronic strep throat. I read the fascinating story of ESSIAC--a herbal tea originating in Canada--which had gone through many legal battles for ownership because of its power to heal cancer. As I read on I became convinced that we needed to seriously consider other options besides conventional medicine. Andrew was already booked for minor radiation to his testicles and I was feeling very uneasy about that decision. Radiation is a big 'no-no' to health food experts because of the damage it does to cells and its propensity to produce tumors. We were also facing the possibility of total body radiation for a bone marrow transplant and I felt that all this radiation was flying in the face of current information I was receiving.
A visit with another couple who had used only alternative treatments to bring their terminally-ill daughter into remission became another argument in my mind against conventional medicine. They had spent weeks thoroughly researching her illness, and then had chosen to fly across the continent to another city where a reknown naturopath treated her with unconventional methods. Her diet was immediately eliminated of all dairy products, white flour, refined sugar, salt, meat, and any processed foods. She was put on high dosages of vitamins and natural food supplements. As a result she regained her ability to walk and seemed to be going into remission. On a brief trip back home for the Christmas holidays she suddenly, and mysteriously, passed away. Perhaps not so mysteriously, for an autopsy showed that all internal organs were filled with leukemia cells. The parents were convinced though that although their chosen method of treatment had not prolonged her life, it had improved the quality of her life.
Feeling very confused, I discussed my indecision with my parents and close friends. Although Harry remained ambivalent on the issue of health remedies, my parents became strong advocates of alternative therapies and urged us to avoid transplant at all costs.
Armed with my new knowledge I decided to make a call to a well-known naturopath and get some real answers. To my surprise he returned my call the same day and seemed pleasant enough at first as we discussed various health products. However when he discovered that our son had cancer he became more reserved about his ability to help us. He closed the conversation by saying, "I can't promise you that I can do anything for your son. Everybody has to die sooner or later.” This left me feeling strangely uncomfortable. That night as I read the story of Hagar and her dying son, Ishmael, in the desert, I noticed God's prominent role in their lives. First, He heard the boy crying. Then He sent comfort to Hagar in the form of an angel. Next, God opened her eyes to see His answer to her dilemma--a well of water. And lastly, scripture states that God was with Ishmael as he grew up. The story touched the deep inner part of my heart that was still crying out for my son. I still wasn't sure which treatment would cure Andrew, but for the moment my inner confusion was held at bay as I claimed this story for my comfort. Surely God could hear Andrew's cries and questions, and surely He would open our eyes to the right path.