I Gotcha

I’ve always known I believed in God, but there were plenty of times when that meant little more than an occasional fervently whispered prayer when I needed something. I’d engage in religious debates with other Christians – Christians much more learnèd and devout – and non-believers alike, but I didn’t know much beyond what I’d learned through years of religious classes. I didn’t really seek to know God.

My faith hasn’t grown deep and true in churches or on prayer kneelers. It’s grown slowly, over the course of the past couple of years, in hospitals and on winding mountain roads.

When cancer struck, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t understand how or WHY something so terrible could happen to Casey – to us. I was angry and confused and hurt. So I prayed, but I didn’t hear anything. For a long time after that, I was indifferent. I didn’t hate God. I didn’t turn away from Him. He just wasn’t a priority.

Then things got bad – really, really bad.

Visit after visit we received terrible news. The cancer had spread to his brain. The cancer had grown in his lung. The cancer had spread to the other lung. Shingles covered his right leg and the pain was excruciating; he could barely walk. We were defeated. We were lost. We were broken.

We went on vacation – just the two of us – in an attempt to forget, to heal, and to rest. While we were there, we stumbled on a beautiful little chapel. We drove past, in a hurry to play, and forgot about it. We passed it again on our way back. Compelled to enter, even as a vicious storm brewed, we stopped and walked and prayed. Then we called my dad and shared the photos and mostly forgot about it.

The next week, on our way to an appointment, I asked Casey what cancer had done to his faith. He said, “nothing good.” I asked him if he was angry with God and he nodded, nearly in tears. I wanted to comfort him, to whisper, “I gotcha.” But I didn’t think words would help. Anxious and afraid and desolate, neither of us spoke for the rest of the drive.

That day we got our first bit of good news. The radiation had begun to shrink the brain tumors.

Some of the tightness in my chest eased and I felt a glow of warmth I could barely begin to understand. Though of course I knew this meant the medicine was finally working, I didn’t think it was a coincidence that it was this particular medicine or this particular time.

A few weeks later, a friend from my dad’s church, moved by dad’s prayers during rosary, shared his own experiences with cancer. He gave my dad a bottle of holy water and a container of holy dirt and asked him to give them to us. We could sprinkle it on Casey, blend it as a smoothie, leave it on our mantle, pray over it. It was ours to use as we pleased, but he gave it to us to use in good faith. We accepted gratefully.

Both sat on our mantle for over a week as we thought about it. We finally made the decision to use them. Zoey and I rubbed the water and dirt on Casey’s chest, leg, and head – everywhere the cancer and pain was worst. Then we bowed our heads and prayed together.

A few weeks later, we got more good news. The tumor in his right lung was gone. The tumors in his left were shrinking.

We were overjoyed. Casey danced. I laughed. We both cried.

God was everywhere in this. It was like He’d reached out, wrapped His giant, celestial arms around us, and held us. We basked in His warmth and more of the tightness eased. We were finally able to breathe again.

We started talking about going back to church, something we’d done off an on since we’d been together. Church was tricky for us – I was raised Catholic and he’d been raised Lutheran, but what we wanted was a church we felt comfortable attending together. It was a struggle. I felt comfortable in the Catholic Church, but didn’t agree with or believe in all of its teachings. He didn’t feel at home or at peace there. We argued about it, prayed about it, struggled with it. We knew we needed to find a church, needed to raise our daughter knowing God, but we didn’t know how.

On a whim, one Saturday (after yet another church-related argument), we decided to try our friends’ church. I was convinced I wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t feel comfortable, wouldn’t want to return.

I was wrong.

God was everywhere. He was in the people, in the music, in the sermon. He spoke to me.

I thought it was a fluke, but had nothing to lose so we went back the next week.

I was wrong again.

God’s presence was even stronger this time and I knew, I just knew He was speaking to us. I could feel Him pressing on my heart. I felt safe. Loved. Comforted. Peaceful. Joyful.

I felt like I was home.

We went back to the doctor yesterday and heard more good news. The tumors continue to shrink. The medicine continues to work. The cancer is under control.

God is with us.

All this time, He’s been with us. Even when we didn’t listen, didn’t see, didn’t care, He’s been there. He’s just been waiting for us to hear Him saying, “I gotcha.”

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Amen

The water beating on her upturned face is warm, but far from relaxing. Her thoughts are frantic, jumbled, everywhere – grocery lists, to do lists, replays of conversations, everyday worries, fears for what’s to come, scenes from the day. They jump from here to there, shifting messily, rattling round and round painfully. She rests her forehead against the wall and the cool tile soothes her momentarily. Her thoughts slow, her heart calms, and she breathes. Then she closes her eyes and remembers.

His head was bowed, eyes squeezed shut, fingers locked together tightly. She started to ask a question. “Quiet,” he hushed her. “Can’t you see I’m praying?” She closed her mouth and lowered her own head reverently, stealing furtive glances in his direction, sure she knew what he prayed for. She tried to say her own, but was distracted by the tension in his shoulders. Her hand hovered over his back, not quite touching him, aching to comfort him, but not sure he wanted her to. She wanted to pray, but couldn’t remember how.

She opens her eyes and tilts her face back under the water, allowing it to wash salty tears down, down, down the drain.

“Are you ready to say your prayers, baby?”

“Yeah, prayers.” She clasped her hands together – the little one mimicking her actions.

“Dear God…” She began – the little one repeating after her. They ran through the list of “please bless” and “thank you for” and “watch over” and ended with a simple, “Please heal Daddy.”

“Amen,” she whispered.

“Amen,” the little one repeated. Then they sang a song about building a snowman and she kissed the little one’s smooth, clear forehead. And still she couldn’t remember how to say prayers that were her own.

She crushes her hands over eyes, willing the tears to stop. What’s the use in crying? What good does it do? Her tears obey, ceasing almost immediately. She’s gotten very good at cutting her feelings off before they overwhelm. Her thoughts continue to race, but she manages to quell her emotions. She feels numb. She turns off the water, towels herself off, gets dressed, and brushes her teeth. Her eyes stay dry.

Dinner was ready and she ran back and forth, fetching napkins for everyone, filling tiny water cups, grabbing condiments no one needed. Then they all held hands and said grace. She recited the words thoughtlessly, smiling at the little one who was saying words that weren’t words, laughing at his customary “AAAAAAAAAMEEEEEN.”

She makes sure tomorrow’s lunch is ready and turns off the lights. She checks on the little one and pulls the blanket back up, hoping it protects her from cold temperatures and monsters alike. She kisses him goodnight and picks a book to read, attempting to quiet her mind. She turns off the light at 10:15. She doesn’t sleep.

She lies there thinking, thinking, thinking, until her thoughts have run so wild, have frightened her so much, she starts to cry again. But quietly, quietly, so she doesn’t wake him. She’s mad at herself for crying, frustrated she can’t sleep, worried about tomorrow when she has to function like a human being. And so she wills herself to stop crying again. She begs herself to relax, threatens herself with exhaustion, cajoles herself with the promise of treats.

But she can’t stop crying.

So, she gets out of bed, kneels on the floor, bows her head, clasps her hands together tightly, and begins to pray.

And for the first time all day, the prayers she says are all her own.