The “C” word. Not an easy one to digest. Especially not when the context involves the diagnosis of a friend, a family member, yourself….or God-forbid, your baby.
Dani was 15 months old, fast asleep on her Daddy’s lap when the oncologist first said those words…”your daughter has cancer.” I sunk to the floor. Literally. Sat on the cold, hard, linoleum and stared him like I was in a dream.
“Is she going to die?” I knew it was a loaded question but it was all I could muster as tears were streaming down my face. Not the ugly, can’t-catch-my-breath kind of cry…just stoic, silent, debilitating. He gave me statistics and told me the odds were in her favor…which I understand is about all he could say but of course, I wanted him to look me in the eye and say “NO, of course not”. I mean…your babies aren’t supposed to die…right? Having to bury your child is beyond anyone’s comprehension…you’re just NOT supposed to have to do that…RIGHT!?
But here’s the kicker…I already had.
Our first-born, Savannah Grace Uetz. Her heart stopped beating in-utero about 3 weeks before her due date. I gave birth and buried her all within a few days. It was thee.worst.pain I had ever felt. I don’t think I’d be able to explain it if I tried. I know so many others who have experienced something similar and for some, it’s driven them away from God. But for me, it was the beginning of an even closer relationship. I had grown up in the church but really went through the motions much more than anything. But now…after losing my daughter…nothing of this world mattered to me anymore. I wanted to seek Him, understand Him, know more about who was now holding my daughter in His arms.
So then…there I was…sitting there motionless on the floor of a hospital room…and whether it was the terrifying weight of the word “cancer” itself or the fact that I had already been there…my first thought was, “I’m going to have to bury another child.”
I was overcome with pain…again. But this time I was also really, really mad. God was seriously going to do this to me AGAIN?! Hadn’t I been through the ringer enough? Hadn’t I been a good and faithful servant? I went to church, read my Bible, asked for forgiveness, spent time in prayer, did good deeds, participated in small group, went on mission trips…really committed my life to knowing Him…I was even a WORSHIP LEADER! And this…THIS is what I get. What.the.HELL?!
But regardless of my anger…I prayed anyway. At that point, I simply didn’t know what else to do. I prayed of course for healing, for strength, for answers. But I also prayed for the ability to stay faithful, trust in His promises, be grateful…and have some perspective. I knew that if we were going to get through this – whatever the outcome – my heart would have to soften and I’d have to keep my eyes fixed on Him. I also knew that my kids would have to do the same. They’d be watching…learning…imitating.
And then…He spoke to me. He did. Like He has so many times before. It wasn’t words or anything…but I felt it. My heart became open and I was overcome with a feeling of gratitude. We were still in the hospital upon Dani’s initial diagnosis and 5-day inpatient surgery and chemo induction…surrounded by I.V. poles, biohazard signs, little bald heads, and so much uncertainty. And in the middle of all of it, something took over…
My mind…my heart…went back to an experience from months before when Mark and I were given the opportunity to serve in Haiti. We worked alongside some of the most selfless people I’ll ever know and served hungry, thirsty, naked children who literally.had.NOTHING. I learned more than I’ll ever be able to put into words on that trip but my biggest takeaways were:
#1, trust that God will show up in the darkest places if you look for Him…
#2, life is all about perspective, and…
#3, when you don’t know what else to do…pray.
As I let my heart be overtaken by the humility of my experience in Haiti…I was able to look around and see things so differently. The room that had once seemed so cold and sterile and sad now looked clean and sanitary. I realized the food was plentiful, we had insurance to help cover our bills, we had trained medical professionals to work with our daughter, we had a treatment protocol that’s come SO far over the past several years.
And then I remembered Savannah…her tiny little flat feet and how warm she felt in my arms for the short amount of time I got to hold her. And somehow I.just.KNEW that we would not be burying this child. The journey would be difficult…and it would be scary…but we would be ok.
For those of you who can’t quite wrap your head around that…the feeling of being blessed in that moment…let me paint you a picture. Haiti was amazing…but so, so, so hard. I’ll never forget walking over garbage, broken glass, and sewage along side my husband, holding the hands of dirty, barefoot children in Cite Soliel to bring water to those who have none. Or rubbing the feet of AIDS patients who are refusing food or other care because they’re simply ready to be done. Or baptizing a 12 month old with a fever as she sits in a tub of the only clean water her mother has to try and make her well…I was barely even able to see her through the tears that had welled up in my eyes. Or…the look on the face of a dying, abandoned, deformed, skin-and-bones child…staring at me in desperation as I held her hands and prayed over her at General Hospital in Port Au Prince. That moment defined me in a profound way. As my tears fell onto her almost-naked body, I whispered in her ear over and over…”it won’t be long”…it was all I could do.
Reliving some of those memories is really hard…even typing it right now has tears spilling over onto my cheeks. But those moments, those memories have helped me keep things in perspective. Because after my heart was shattered into a million pieces, it was put back together again in a way that hopefully resembled the heart of Jesus a little more. With grace, mercy, humility, and thanksgiving.
Because of Dani’s diagnosis, we won’t be able to head back to Haiti anytime soon. I realize it may seem strange given my earlier descriptions, but I long for the day I can. I believe life’s ultimate purpose is to find opportunities to be the the hands and feet of Jesus. You don’t get much more “hands on” than a trip like that. Besides that…on a personal level, it’s such a perspective-changer. The concerns of my daily life can’t help but melt away as I focus on issues of a whole new level. Someday…
But in the meantime, I try to be very intentional about putting “perspective reminders” in my path. I’ve adorned our house with important reminders of life-defining moments…mostly pictures…that help me stay focused on how lucky, how blessed, how grateful I am. The first time I met both my wonderful step-daughters. The day I married my high school sweetheart and soulmate. An image of us holding Savannah’s hand just after her birth. My son with his selfless, brave, incredible birth parents. The first moment I held my miracle baby, Cassidy and she made the “love” sign with her fingers. Our family with my baby and her beautiful bald head in the center. The little Haitian girl with the fever in a frame by my kitchen sink…
I still find myself getting upset from time to time. It’s hard not to. I get mad, anxious, nervous, overwhelmed with sadness and grief. Praying with any sort of gratitude in my heart is hard in those moments. So…I look around at my “perspective reminders”, force myself to focus on how blessed I truly am, remember that no matter how bad I have it – someone out there has it worse…and I pray anyway.