I was walking with a coffee in each hand down the winding white hallways. One for Amy, and one for me. After spending days in the hospital, the twisting route to the pediatric unit was seared in my brain and I could probably do it with my eyes closed. My phone started ringing right as I pushed the button for the elevator. I set one coffee on the ground and crouched down to fumble with my purse.
“Amy”, the screen read.
I held my breath for a second and my chest got tight. We had all been waiting to get the results of my one-year-old nephew’s spinal tap and for some reason, I just knew this was the moment that she was calling with the news.
I was right.
Leukemia. A nice way of saying cancer.
My face got hot as I stepped onto the elevator with a crowded group of people and once the doors closed I punched the floor button over and over.
What should I say? What will I say when I see her face?
I prepared the most impressive pep talk that I could muster, running the words over in my head.
When I came into the room, my nephew, Nolan was laying back watching Elmo from his hospital bed that happened to look like a metal cage. My best friend and sister-in-law, Amy, just stood at the side of the bed staring at him, her face all swollen and splotchy red. The pep talk left me. I didn’t know what to do so I just set my stuff down and put my arms around her. We sat down and she just cried. A groaning, snotty, aching kind of cry.
Being a solution-oriented person, I desperately grasped for some kind of control. The words just slipped out of my mouth.
“It’s okay,” I whispered.
She pulled back away from me and looked at my eyes, totally quiet for one eerie moment. When she spoke, her voice was deep and angry. “It . . . is not okay.”
Much more changed for Nolan’s parents that day than for me, but I recently realized just how greatly my lens has changed since Nolan got cancer. So much changed that spring and I think it had mostly to do with him because Amy was right, it wasn’t okay. I was forced to confront that thing in me that wanted to make sense of pain and fix the problems around me. But when you are looking at a little boy’s weak, tiny body hooked up to machines and his pale skin, the dark circles under his eyes, implanted tubes coming out of his chest, it all goes out the window. Control doesn’t exist in that place and nothing can justify it. Even worse, nothing can erase it.
For me, what mattered began to change. Suddenly things that meant everything, meant nothing. Things that meant nothing, meant everything. It weaved its way throughout me, affecting the nooks and crannies of my life. I saw people differently. Relationships changed. Priorities changed. I changed.
At first, I wanted to go back. I wanted to curl up in front of the cozy cabin fire that is blissful ignorance. Out here, in reality, the wind stings. The sun bears down. But I couldn’t go back and I still can’t.
And it’s not something that can be taught. Who knows how many people I’d read about or heard speak about life’s struggles and how it shifted their realities. It’s a truth that inexperienced people hear, nod their heads at with furrowed brow, and then keep living the way that they do. Sometimes it has to hurt you to change you. It has to make you realize just how powerless you are. It’s the humility in our existence that frees us to see the world for what it truly is. It is the reason we can truly appreciate love, beauty, hope, grace. All that is good becomes sweeter in the storm.
Life will change everyone in different ways and you can’t steer it. I don’t pretend to believe that my nephew’s cancer is the pinnacle of my life’s suffering. I have yet to experience the kind of anguish that my sister-in-law has. But I probably will, because that is life. The only thing I can do when that day comes is to put my hope in the One who can see beyond it and then I will have no choice but to stand there and take it. I don’t have to smile. I don’t have to do it gracefully.
But I can let it change me.