They found a tumor in my father’s lung two weeks ago today. When I got the text, I checked in with my wife, AnnMarie, who told me I needed to go. I headed straight from work to the airport, without toothbrush, toothpaste or extra socks. I had started that Thursday morning quite differently -- by thinking about the date, April 26, 2018, the five-year anniversary of the day I got good news: the scans were clear, I had no sign of cancer.
That date is a before-and-after notch on my lifeline.
I had spent much of the past five years in one way or another recovering from the cancer and the harshness of chemotherapy. That anniversary morning, I had decided to deliberately ask life a new question – no longer, how will I get over this? But, what new life did I want to enjoy? If, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “unearned suffering is redemptive,” I wondered, could hard-won health be grace?
I wanted new life beyond the notch.
It was never guaranteed that I would be here now with you. The doctor told me his goal was to cure me and gave me what he believed to be the odds, but this was a cancer you either survived or didn’t, no wimpy-assed, lingering, low-grade, life-changer here. This cancer would either kill me or be coaxed to let me live.
The chemo too could kill me. Each treatment took more than four days to deliver. To launch its healing poison, the oncology nurses pumped it through a port in my chest, into the inferior vena cava, the big vein near my heart, where it could then spread throughout my body, to seek, find, and destroy the cancer. Because of the whole “this chemo can kill you” thing, they would put me in the hospital to make sure I stayed alive.
Six times AnnMarie drove me from Lawrence across I-70 to Kansas City, then up I-29 to see my healers. We would cross the Missouri River in downtown Kansas City, follow its Eastern banks from St. Joe to Council Bluffs, Iowa, then cross the Missouri River once more to enter Omaha. It would take us a little more than three hours each time, if we were lucky. Then, after I had been internally scoured by 100 hours of chemo, we’d head South again, retracing our steps. This journey was not without its moments of beauty, like the time we saw two dozen eagles in a barren tree near the Interstate.
Now, five years later, I was walking into a Houston hospital that held my father. I had told no one in Houston of my plans to come. When Dad went in the hospital the week before, to get tests that didn’t find what was wrong, he told me not to come. It hurt because I felt rejected, but I also could hear that he was sick, and it was all too overwhelming to navigate. So this time, without permission, I decided for myself to simply show up at his side.
Looking back, that moment is one of the markers from this side of my 5-year anniversary notch. Over here I’ll only ask permission if I really plan on taking “No,” for an answer. Otherwise, I’ll take full responsibility for making my own decisions.
When I walked into the hospital room, I saw Dad in the bed and his wife in the chair by the window, both burdened with the kind of exhaustion that comes from too little sleep and too much adrenaline. Our brains prepare us to fight or flee from wolves and tigers, but we get worn out when there is no physical enemy to engage. They visibly relaxed when they saw me arrive. Dad had just then returned from getting biopsied. Guided by x-rays, the doctors had inserted a needle into his chest to take a piece of the offending lung tissue, to be stained and examined by expert eyes. I silently noted that my arrival on the wings of permission-less decision-making could not have been more perfectly timed.
The next few days were a swirl of doctors, family, tests and waiting. By Monday, Dad was talking to a young Brazilian thoracic oncology fellow at MD Anderson, who, after careful, thorough history-taking and examination, told him, “You are a sick man. You need to be back in the hospital.” My Dad, who a few short weeks ago was carrying on a full-time private practice of Christian counseling with a vigor that belied his 81 years on Earth, now needed help to go from the exam table to the wheelchair, from wheelchair to emergency room bed, and from that bed to the gurney that finally took him upstairs at midnight that night.
I spent the night in the Murphy bed that folded down beside Dad’s bed on MD Anderson’s 10th floor, and we were both already awake when Chaplain Grace came in to see him the next morning as he had requested. I felt compelled to tell her that my Dad was once a chaplain too, just a few buildings over from where we were now. I told her of the time when I was 12, and Dad had let me come with him to the hospital one Saturday morning as he made rounds. I drank instant coffee with instant creamer until he returned, then we both went downstairs to the chapel. He led a handful of patients through a little service, and I played “Fairest Lord Jesus” on the piano when it came time to sing the hymn.
I wanted Chaplain Grace to know my father, and not just the sick man who appeared before her. But I was also a little worried, because my father and I had had a bit of a conflict in our religious perspectives that we had never resolved. Once my father had illustrated a sermon that he called, How To Know If You’re A Christian, by saying, “Now take my son, George, for example. He‘s not a Christian because he believes…” and went on to detail our different viewpoints about the divine.
Chaplain Grace asked permission to sit by my Dad’s bed, and began to speak. I guessed she was from Ghana by her accent, and I wondered about her spiritual roots. She asked my dad about his pain, then about his sense of peace. “On a scale of 1 to 5, how peaceful do you feel?” He said, “Five,” and she continued, “I want to know how it works for you, the mechanics, if you will. Where exactly does your peace come from?” He felt God’s presence, he said, felt God was holding him in His hands in fact. So he had no worry. God was his strength and comfort and guide. She fleshed it out further, “But do you see God, or hear Him or just know that he is there?” Dad said in a quiet, reverent tone, “Well, take my son, George, for example. Last night in the emergency room, when they were placing my IV, I got really anxious. I have a needle phobia. George rested one of his hands on my chest and held my free hand in his other hand. In the presence of my son’s care for me, I felt the presence of God.”
My heart still warms, beats faster and expands as I tell you this story now. Tears come to my eyes, and my soul is infused with wordless yet coherent meaning. My cancer, the anniversary notch, asking permission or just showing up, my Dad’s cancer, what the future holds, questions about who or what is God -- it all fits together beyond explaining.
The three of us in that room, Chaplain Grace, my Dad and me, all became chaplains in that moment. We were those beings who touch deepest into the soul when the body may be at its end, who see you as God sees you, and love you as God does. Room G1039 at the MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, Texas had turned into Heaven, with mercy, devotion and loving kindness big enough to hold the entire breathing world.