When we were kids, we were inseparable. Then real life happened and we did our best, but drifted apart. But when the biggest struggle of Marie's life hit, she called me, and everything changed.
My family and I sacrificed a lot for me to be able to go to her and be a caregiver and friend for 10 separate trips to Minnesota and California over 16 months.
Marie needed a deeper understanding of God's role in her life, and I needed to reconcile deep issues with my view of suffering in this world. God worked all that out, and more, in us.
I wrote out the most important parts of the story and I'm sharing it with you.
Preface: I have been writing this story for three years. At first, it was a way for me to process the things I was facing and experiencing while my best friend battled for her life against cancer, but the more I shared with people the stories that were coming out of this season, the more I received feedback that these stories needed to be shared.
So here it is. I hope you will take a minute to read this, a true story, of how I dared to believe that God could still be the definition of love even when the world is so full of pain and suffering. God used these events to change my life and to rescue my best friend, but not the way you might think.
Here we go.
It was a normal Wednesday when I got the call. My son Isaak and I were having pizza for dinner at Nick ’n’ Willy’s and I was headed to church shortly. We were already rushed, but when her name popped up on my phone, I knew I needed to cut dinner short to take the call. Although our lifelong friendship was a sweet one, the challenges of our friendship were always lurking nearby. Recently, she had told me I had let her down, so I knew I should pick up the phone. I apologized to my son for shortening our dinner and took the call, walking out to my car.
Marie started in right away.
“Hey Kel, um… I don’t know how to say this, so I just have to say it. Um... I’ve been sick, you know, and I had this fever that wouldn’t go away, and well… I went into the urgent care because I figured I could get some antibiotics and still take my trip to Paris for my 40th birthday with Vess in a couple weeks, but they checked my lungs for pneumonia, and found cancer. I have stage 4 colon cancer.”
I retorted back, “Wait, what?!? Are you kidding me? This is absolutely crazy. How could this be? What does that even mean?”
I had no experience with cancer. I was reeling. This is bad, right? I thought. I mean, maybe it’s ok. I don’t know.
“Marie, oh my gosh, tell me what happened?"
At first she said she thought it was a joke, just a bad urgent care experience. She told me she was annoyed at first, then pissed at them for saying something so stupid. How would they know? Then she went to get a second opinion and they found the same result. She had been holding on to this information, processing it and waiting until she had a legitimate diagnosis before telling me. It was now just days away from her tentative departure for France, but she canceled the trip. She decided to focus on finding a doctor, someone who would tell her they could get rid of her cancer.
This was the first day of the next 16 months of a trial I didn’t see coming.
I want to make sure you know I would never intend, In any way, to minimize the trial that she faced in battling the cancer directly, but I can only report on my experience as the best friend of someone with cancer. Outside of her husband and her parents, I was next on the front lines of support for her during this time. I took 10 trips to be by her side, and was able to be hands-on in taking care of her when her husband Vess or her parents couldn’t be there. There were many friends that came from near and far to be there for her, I want to acknowledge them and make it known I was certainly not her only friend. But when I walked into this trial, God had a plan much bigger than I could have ever imagined as an insider, facing cancer side by side with Marie.
I wrestled, day in and day out, for well over 16 months with God, not only begging him to give us answers, good news, or healing from cancer completely, but also for my own soul and my own perspective. I faced a huge question, and actually, a million questions, about who God is if this is how he was going to allow things to be.
This trial revealed to me that I believed things about God that weren’t true. I was willing to face these questions because my best friend needed me. I needed me to lay down everything I was wrestling with so I could be there for the friend I had grown up with.
My biggest question was, "If this level of suffering is real, what does that mean about who God is?
Marie and I spent some time together at my grandfather's memorial in my hometown in 2010.
Marie and I met in second grade, and from second grade until fifth grade, we were the perfect kind of elementary school friends. I remember frequent days of playing at each other’s houses, joining dance classes together, and trying to smoke cigarettes behind her neighbor’s house. We didn’t know why we couldn’t get them lit, but I’m thankful for it now. As we got older, we played handball and kickball together on the playground, walked around the track and talked about which boys we thought were the cutest while they played touch football. We had a close knit group and couldn’t help but feel like we ruled the school. When the new girl moved to our school, we brought her in and had so much fun with the new dynamics. Our sleepovers had new energy, and we laughed more than ever together as a group. But for whatever reason kids turn into the worst version of themselves, they turned on me, one by one, including Marie, throughout the remainder of fifth and sixth grade. I became the aim of their mean comments and they pushed me out of the group. I didn’t even realize I was in the group until I was out, in some ways. I suppose that’s what privilege is like. I eventually learned that it was not my place to talk to any of my old friends. Besides, the silence between us was so much better than name calling, prank phone calls, and the kinds of stares that I received from them.
I thought our friendship was over at that point, but Marie and I were placed in Mrs. Skinner’s 7th grade English class together, and Marie was the one to cross the thin ice of our broken friendship to start over again. This was when the golden age of our friendship began. From seventh grade to eleventh grade, we were practically inseparable. Our lives were so tightly woven together, everyone knew we were best friends. We vacationed together, we had weeklong sleepovers regularly. We dreamt of our futures being on the same block, with our families, having barbecues together, living our best lives. We assumed we would always be together.
But that’s when my family life shifted in ways I wasn’t expecting. Things were getting more complicated for me. I had gone to church camp and decided to focus my life on God, but the circumstances around my mom and my sister’s lives were getting intense. My mom had a baby, but broke up with his dad. My sister had a baby, and left him to move to Arizona to escape his abuse. My parents were divorced for nearly all my life, so I was feeling more alone than ever, and all of a sudden, a mysterious pull came upon my heart. I felt like my only choice, my obvious choice, was to move to Arizona to live with my dad.
I incidentally changed the path of our friendship when I left for Arizona, and my naive little heart had no idea it was going to happen.
Marie and I wrapped up in a towel at a local water park when we were in 2nd grade.
It was everything I hoped for, I was invited to sit at the popular kids’ tables within days at my new high school in Phoenix. The kids were on student council, the football team, and even cheerleaders. I had just left my cheerleading team mid season in California, so I thought we’d have some things in common. I chatted and mixed in, having a great time with them for two weeks. Then something happened that changed probably my life. I was offended.
One girl with the most perfect curly black hair, perfect piano key teeth, and bubbled with energy like a hot tub. We had lots in common and had been talking every day and right in the middle of our conversation on this one particular day, she stopped, tilted her head and asked me “what’s your name again?”. I casually answered, we kept talking till the bell rang, and we all went back to class. But that moment cemented in my head. I just couldn’t get it through my head how she didn’t know my name yet. I really care about getting people’s names right and making sure people feel seen and known when I’m their friend, and this girl hadn’t’ been able to remember my name after weeks of talking to me. That was the last day sitting at the cool kids’ tables. I made a choice to find the few friends that seemed to actually like me instead of the lure of popularity in my new town.
School wasn’t the place I would find my true friends. The church my parents were attending was a very small church and they had just built a new building. This was a church plant and it was still small, but growing. They had the tiniest youth group that was beginning to form, just 5 other kids were in high school at the time. They had hired a youth pastor to start that fall when I arrived, and they were hoping to grow the youth group to reach more teens for Christ.
The first youth events I attended were awkward at best. The 6 of us would play charades and do relay races to try to break the ice, and then our youth pastor sat us in a circle to sing a few worship songs together. Now take that in for a minute, could you imagine 6 teenagers singing a cappella facing one another in a big echoey room? This was another moment that stuck with me.
I couldn’t get over how uncomfortable it was and I had to do something about it. I told my parents I just wished I knew how to play guitar because in California, they would play guitar, we would all sing the songs together, and it had the best campfire feeling in the world, like one of those Coke commercials from the 80s. In contrast, this was more like sitting in a classroom with a teacher who was making us do an assignment no one wanted to do.
I vocalized my frustrations to my dad and step mom and to my surprise, my dad pulled out an old guitar and taught me how to tune it. My step mom taught me 4 chords and I played them till my fingers bled. I was like Taylor Swift, sitting in my bedroom begging the guitar to help me make my dreams come true, but instead of being famous, I just wanted to create a space where I could build friendships that would mean something.
I had lost the majority of my friendships from California, just because of the distance. We all did our best to keep in touch, but it was just a select few friendships that hung on until Facebook showed up years later.
Marie came out to Arizona for my sixteenth birthday, and we talked occasionally, but for the most part, she secretly felt like I had abandoned her, and I simply felt and followed that mysterious tug on my life to go a different way. I didn’t know what else to do but follow that. How were we supposed to stay connected, when everything in our lives seemed to be drawing us away from one another?
Marie came to visit for my 16th birthday in Phoenix just months after I had moved away from Californ
Things didn’t get any easier for Marie and I and our long distance friendship when I met my husband and got married at 18 years old. Our lives just seemed to grow further apart from here. She pursued her master’s degree and eventually went on to earn her doctorate. She coached pilates throughout her college years and found her community among the Southern California foodies, health coaches, and pilates instructors. I was working in retail and started my family at the same time she was graduating with her bachelors degree.
While I was raising kids, she even took her studies even further, studying abroad in England and Paris, for two long seasons. The 9 hour time difference added to the feeling and made her feel even further away. I was worried about nap times and snacks, and she was walking to the library with a view of the Eiffel Tower. I only remember 1 Skype call we made during those two long stents.
In the meantime, I was raising my children, which is hard enough. (Can I get an emoji shout out from my moms with little ones right now?) But in addition to tantrums, boundaries, naps, and teaching 2 children everything they need to know to function in this scary world, my son was diagnosed at 4 years old with type 1 diabetes.
For those of you who don’t know what that means, let me just give you a quick overview. Every person in the world eats carbs. Carbs are mostly demonized for being in all our favorite naughty foods, bread, pasta, candy, milkshakes, etc, but they’re also in the good things, too, oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, and even vegetables. Well, every time you eat a carb, your body produces insulin so those carbs can be made into energy for your body to use. It keeps your blood sugar stable, and allows you to simply live your life. Insulin is the magical ingredient here, and Isaak’s body stopped making it. Without it, your body goes into an acidic state, eating away at your fat stores, and then after that, it devours anything it can to keep you alive. Eventually, you would go into a coma, and your body would shut down for lack of fuel. You cannot live without insulin.
Now that you know that, realize that I was giving a 4 year old boy, my first born, treasured son, injections every time he ate, I was researching and finding new technology to make the needles become less frequent, and waking up through the night for years to make sure I hadn’t given him too much insulin, which could cause him to die of low blood sugars. It’s the most challenging game of ping pong you could ever imagine, with the most precious collateral, my son’s life.
This was actually the first time I had to come face to face with suffering. I was forced to hurt my child day in and day out and watch him become frustrated, irritated, and downright to the end of his rope some days, without being able to stop it. I couldn’t help him, other than continuing to love him through it and be there for him. But I was still poking him, restricting his food, and questioning God through it.
It took me 10 years to get to a point where God and I had come to an understanding. I don’t even remember how it happened. Just finally, after years of crying out to him and begging him to heal Isaak, and never getting any answers, I surrendered. I realized there must be no other way, because if God is truly good, and truly loves us, this must be the only way for his desired outcome; his all knowing, all powerful, completely good character tells me he must know something I don’t.
This peace that I had made with this kind ouffering set the stage for the time that was coming walking with Marie through cancer, but it certainly couldn’t have prepared me for how much stronger a foe cancer would be than diabetes.
Marie, my sister, myself, and Harriet, our youth leader at my bridal shower in California.
As a family, we have been involved in short term missions trips to Dominican Republic for a decade. My husband, Kip, was the first to go. He felt that God wanted him to serve in this way, and signed up for the weeklong trip to serve at the deaf school in the capitol city of Dominican Republic. DR shares an island with Haiti just off the coast of Florida. It’s beautiful, hot, and humid. In Santo Domingo, there was a small school, started by missionary women, who were caring for deaf children, teaching them ASL. By the time our church found this school and the ministry connection with it, it had about 90 children attending. There were a handful of teachers, about 10, and the entire staff was struggling to keep the school going as it continued to grow and they did not have enough workers. The children were mostly outcasted from their families, they were almost exclusively in deep poverty, abuse, and they oftentimes didn’t have food to eat or clean clothes to wear. The burden on the staff was for the whole child, wanting them to have everything they needed, not just school. They needed love, connection, language, food, safety, and clothing. This was a monumental task for them as you can imagine. Kip came back from the trip with a burden for these kids that was unique. He loved them even though he had no language to speak with them. He simply hugged them and played with them, and when he came back, he had the desire to go back again. He did go back, twice, before the rest of the family would go.
Finally, in 2015, our kids were old enough to travel internationally and take on the responsibility to serve others. We embarked on a trip that would change our family forever. It became a focus for our family, leading these trips and serving the staff and students at the deaf school for a week out of every year.
In 2016, we went on our trip, posted pictures to Facebook and my heart gushed with love for these people who lived in a different world, and when I returned, I got one of those phone calls from Marie that would be a major turning point. I am one of the busiest people in my head. Have you ever seen Robin Williams in an interview being completely hyper? That’s kinda how it is in my head, I'm just ping ponging around in there reacting to a thousand different things. I don’t know if it’s ADD or what. (It probably is) But on that particular day, I was driving around, running errands, trying to sneak in one more thing before I picked up my kids from school. Then Marie’s name popped up in my phone. I had to decide whether to skip my errand and get the call, and I did. I parked my car and sloooowed my world down. We casually started the conversation the way you do, with some small talk, with “how’ve you beens” and “good to hear thats”. Then she turned the conversation toward my trip to DR. I lit up and talked about how good it was and how much it filled my heart to be there with the kids. But she shocked me with her response.
She proceeded to tell me that it bothered her. I was so confused. I had to do a heart check. What is going on here? I don’t understand. She said that she had really been struggling, and that she needed me. But she never said so. She had miscarried a baby at 20 weeks (that’s halfway for those of you who may not know) and it’s a big deal. We had talked when it happened, but I definitely hadn’t understood the weight of it. If ever there was a moment I underestimated, it was the moment I did not understand the magnitude of her loss of that baby. But at the time, I did ask her to be clear with me about whether she wanted to talk about it or avoid it, because I certainly felt like I was in uncharted territory. I didn’t know how to help her from long distance and I, for sure, missed the opportunity to go and be there for her in person. Thinking about it now, I suppose I thought her husband was going to be in that role, and I assumed she would want him instead of me to comfort her. I never meant to hurt her, but I had definitely hurt her. She continued on to say that she couldn’t understand how I could go all that way to serve the deaf in Dominican Republic, but I couldn’t be there for her. I was dumbfounded. I took it personally instead of seeing her side. In my heart I became defensive, but I didn’t say anything from that place in my heart. I shut those down as best as I could. I chose, instead, the words that God gives. I said things like, "Marie, you know I love you, I’m so sorry if I wasn’t there for you. I would never want to make you feel that way. Please, forgive me.”
Although the phone call was hard for me, I know it was maybe even harder for Marie, not knowing how I would respond. I am thankful for a God who is accessible to me every moment, because if I had asked God for help in those nanosecond prayers I shot up during that phone call, and he wasn’t available, this story might have turned out very different. Instead, he gave me peace, he gave me the ability to choose words of humility instead of pride and defensiveness. I WANT to be the type of person who lays down my own selfish feelings, instead of using them to slay the ones I love around me. I said those words as a choice, not a feeling, then when the call was over, I took those feelings to God and we wrestled through them together, separately. God was protecting our friendship when I wasn’t even aware it needed protection.
However, when I brought those fleshly feelings to God, I didn’t hold back. "God, I feel like I failed a test I didn’t know I was taking! I am so tired of trying to be there for her only to find out I didn’t do it good enough. We’ve grown so different, God, are we supposed to try to stay friends through all this? It’s so hard." (Keep in mind, my enneagram 7 heart wants to avoid hard things at all costs.) I kept bringing it to him and asking him if I should stay in the friendship. He never answered me, but I knew what his answer was. There’s a line in a song I love, it says, "what if everything in life is just how long you stay". Well, I had to come to the place where I could choose to stay on my own. It took many days of that “wrestling” with the feelings. I was basically choosing between humility and pride, honestly. Would I stay in my feelings of being “right” and toss the friendship of my youth in the trash based on my changing feelings, or would I tell my soul love is a choice, and humble myself to say I am not always right. I eventually got there. Together, Marie and I continued to fight for our friendship. I chose to stand shoulder to shoulder with her, instead of nose to nose. We built on the foundation of our childhood, and strengthened it by our commitment to it, through thick and thin.
The next building block for this season of our friendship would be her wedding. If I am anything, I am a great cheerleader. I came rushing to her side when we talked of fulfilling her lifelong dream of being the most special person in the room, the bride. I think it was my strongest tie to her from our childhood because she was always the more romantic one of us, dreaming of a wedding day, and her Prince Charming at the front of the church awaiting her there. I began leaning into this role, asking her a hundred questions and pressing about whether she needed help designing her day. Little did we know the new tensions that would present themselves just a month before they said, “I do."
Kip, Isaak, our Dominican friend Bernardo, me, Grace, and 3 more friends from our trip to Dominican.
This is the moment where the original diagnosis came in. Return with me to the pizza shop where my phone vibrated my heart right out the door. In these early days of the cancer journey, shock, disbelief, and anger peppered our conversations. I listened and allowed her the space to approach her cancer treatment the way she needed to do it. I was in the position again, feeling completely clueless about the uncharted territory I was in, but I was ready to be there however she needed even if I didn’t know what that was.
Marie decided after two months of keto dieting, and researching the best cancer centers, and figuring out how to make her life work with cancer treatment, she decided it would be best to go to the cancer center at the University of Minnesota Cancer Care Center. It was close to her apartment in Minneapolis, and her husband would be able to take her back and forth to treatment without any additional friends coming from all over the globe to help, or so she thought. Her second choice was Chicago, and that was 6 hours from Minneapolis. Well, she discovered after just a few treatments how exhausted she became and that she was beginning to have quite a bit of pain. Her husband, Vess, is a pilot and flies commercial planes so his schedule was a bit unusual. He doesn’t have a predictable 9-5 job he comes home from every night. He would go on “a flight” and be gone for about 5 days, skipping from city to city until his leg of flying was done, then return home at the end of those 5 days.
By the time May rolled around, it was clear to Marie that she would need someone there with her at those times when Vess was gone. Well, he took 2-3 of those flights every month. He was gone every other week for 5 days at a time, and she didn’t have any local friends, as they had just moved there, and within 4 months, got diagnosed with cancer. God was about to do something.
I was planning on coming out for the first stent she needed me, but I ended up getting a cold and we postponed. Her parents came out and drove her to appointments, helped her grocery shop, and kept her company. She and I shared a phone call where she opened up to tell me she was feeling guilty about asking for so much help. My heart reacted to those words. My heart said no to that guilty feeling. I refused to allow her to think of it that way. She needed the help, and I would be responding to that call. I thought about how, for the last 25 years, we hadn’t been together often, and we weren’t spending money on birthday gifts, parties, dinners out together, or expensive trips, so maybe it was time to just chalk that up to money I was saving up for this moment. I would be catching up on all these expenses in the coming months. So what if I had to buy flights and shuttles, and leave my family, I saw this as a calling on my life from God. Marie needed me. I had been committed to my family, raising my kids well for over 16 years, they would be just fine for a few days on their own while I ran to Marie’s bedside to help her when she needed it. So I told her,
"Marie, you don’t even know what you need right now, but I know I need to come. And if I need to come more than once, so be it. I am coming, and I am coming, and I am coming.”
We both cried. It was a moment that God gave us. It told her she’s worth it. It spoke of our lifetime of friendship. It revealed my surrender to God, trusting him to provide, and sustain my family, and desiring to serve Marie in this "over and above" way. I remember the moment I told her I was coming, and in the strangest way, I felt like I was receiving the message in my ear from behind the scenes from the Spirit, telling me what to say. It just pops up in my head, and it feels like butter, like a smooth, sweet sound your heart needs to hear. The soothing silk of God’s spirit washes over my heart and I know I am in his will. He wanted Marie’s heart and he needed me to show her what that meant.
Marie and her husband, Vess, and I on a Facetime call.
My first trip was at the end of May, 2016. I left for 5 days the week before my kids got out of school. I thought it would be best if the kids were occupied most of the time I was gone. Isaak was driving by this time, so he would drive them to and from school. They were both doing well at the time and I knew they would be fine to take care of themselves until Kip got home from work each day. So I set out on my first trip. I was excited to see her, actually. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my heart loved the possibilities that were unfolding in front of me. I arrived late at night, and took an Uber to their address, arriving in the dark. Marie let me in, we hugged hellos, I got acquainted with my room, and we were off to sleep. In the morning, Vess was leaving for his flight. I said my quick hello and goodbye, then Marie drove him to the airport for the week. I started the day off with a latte from the coffee shop across the street. I was getting my feet wet. I was in a new town, spending time with Marie for the first extended amount of time since more than 20 years prior. It was kind of strange and still familiar. I brought her a decaf blended coffee with no sugar from the coffee shop. Why do I tell you that? Well, Marie’s dietary restrictions were so detailed, I didn’t realize this was just the beginning of the details I would know about her diet.
We reminisced a lot on that first visit. We remembered all our most memorable stories from our childhood.
Marie - “REMEMBER that guy from the LIBRARY!?!”
Kelly - “Oh my gosh, YES! EWWWWW!!!”
Marie - “And what about that time we went to the movies and those guys were sitting behind us and we flirted with them so much!”
Kelly - “Oh, totally! And then they CALLED US! What in the world!? We were crazy! I can’t believe we gave them our phone number!”
Marie - “Yeah, that was the time we were singing ‘Sweet Child ‘O Mine’ in the back of your mom’s Jeep.”
Kelly - “YES, oh my gosh. That was so embarrassing. HA I didn’t know they could hear us!”
It went on like this for hours that first night. She didn’t have a TV, and so we talked and laughed and I cooked dinner. Then we talked and laughed some more. It was good to take this trip down memory lane. We needed it. I could tell she had been focused on the cancer, trying to think positively, but it was hard, and this was a welcome interruption to her new normal cancer thoughts. This was our first real chance in more than 20 years to really spend time talking like this.
I wasn’t exactly sure how to spend my time while I was there. Although we had an appointment to go to, groceries to buy, and I could help with cleaning and cooking, but I was usually busy at a 7 out of 10 on a regular basis. This was a lesson in enjoying the simplest pleasures. Walks, talks, and spending time being present. It was slow, but I knew it was precious time.
I returned home feeling so satisfied. I was just so glad we had a chance to reset and feel like REAL friends again. Everything up until this since I had moved to Arizona had been either too short, or felt forced for me. May turned into July faster than you can say summer break. My kids were home, we were doing all the things you do on Summer break. We went on vacation, we spent days at the pool, and went out to lunch more often than we should, and we were hanging out with friends every day. I was the summer event coordinator, keeping everyone in my sights, with a revolving door of kids always coming in and out of our home.
July was the next time Marie needed someone to come out and help. I was ready for it. I booked my flight, feeling much more comfortable, knowing where she lived and what to expect. I arrived late in the evening, and Vess would be flying out the next morning at 5am. Marie was going to take him to the airport, so I went off to bed to catch up on rest after a travel day.
I woke up the next morning, before dawn, to hear Vess knocking on my door. Marie was in terrible pain and wouldn’t be able to take him to the airport. He asked me to take him and wondered if I would be ok to find my way back. Thank God for smart phones and google maps. I quickly dressed and took Vess to the airport without any issue, but returned to a version of Marie I wasn’t used to.
Marie’s pain lasted all morning but finally subsided in the afternoon. I laid with her all morning, holding her hand, praying for her, not knowing what to do. The apartment was small, so anything I did would be loud, raucous and annoying. I passed the hours, silently begging God to release her from this pain. Eventually, I slipped out and got a coffee from the shop across the street, and came back to find her rousing slowly from her difficult morning. She needed something to eat, but wasn’t sure what to eat. She was too exhausted to even think. She told me that a big challenge for both of them was always trying to figure out what to eat and preparing it. Vess still ate like a bachelor when it was up to him, and Marie was often too fatigued to come up with a plan and carry it through. I feel like that many days, so I could imagine with chemo, it would be unbearable.
We spent the rest of the day, scouring through the recipe books she had, searching for things she could actually eat. Being that she had a tumor in the lowest spot of her intestines, she was getting blockage and near bowel obstructions regularly. She was on a low residue diet so she could have less fiber in her diet, making it easier for her digestion. I am sorry if this is too much information, but it’s impossible to explain the true suffering she experienced without knowing the details. Marie had focused so much on her diet up to this point, eating almost exclusively raw, leafy vegetables, to starve the cancer. She was no longer able to eat that way and it was deeply frustrating to her because she believed, in the depths of her heart, that she could beat the cancer with those foods. Her belief was being robbed from her. She was listless, heavy with the weight of frustration when it came to beating this cancer. She was running out of energy to fight it already. It was now 5 months since her diagnosis and the stamina of fighting the disease was wearing thin.
Marie needed something from God that she had never needed before. She was a capable woman, handling every event that came her way, with grace and strength. Her independence often led everyone around her to think she had it all under control, and she often did, but cancer was proving to be a more challenging foe. Her belief systems were crumbling. If you do all the things right, take the stairs, avoid plastic, eat organic, exercise, the result should be having a cancer free adulthood. At least that’s what she thought. So did I, but I hadn’t put all my eggs in that basket. I found a middle ground, trying to do my best to avoid the things everyone says causes cancer, but knowing God had my days planned out before I was even born. I knew something she didn’t. God was in ultimate control.
Even that thought, though, brought a new tension. If God is in control, why would he let Marie get cancer before she could fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a mother. She had lost her son, just 18 months prior as a miscarriage. She had too many questions and I could see them in her face. She was wrestling with the Most High God. She would pause for a long moment before getting up off the bed. We held that moment for a long time. She had questions she didn’t even know how to ask. She told me she wanted to grow spiritually. She didn’t know how. I guess I take my spiritual life for granted. I guess didn’t realize the how differences in our spiritual lives played out in our daily lives. I had been wrestling with God since consistently I was 15 years old. She has at times, but somehow never got the answers she wanted and walked away from the wrestling prematurely before getting the satisfaction of hearing God speak directly to your heart and landing in a spot where you have more faith than you did when you started.
I remember the conversation well.
“I know I need to grow spiritually. I feel like that’s what this journey is trying to teach me.”, she said.
I asked her questions about her faith, her relationship with God, and her responses were vague. I asked her if God was in this house right now, where would he be exactly? She thought about it and replied he would be in the back bedroom. He’s there, but disinterested, or rather focused on something else that seems more important than her. I was saddened to hear that and surprised, but then after a minute, I realized this showed itself in many areas of her life. I perceived that she would pray to God, asking him to satisfy her longings, but then when he didn’t do it the way she expected, she thought he was just busy. He was more interested in something else, than the deep needs of her heart.
I do find, though, that God often satisfies our needs, not by giving us what we want, but by giving us a new purpose, a new perspective, and a part in his kingdom. He isn’t completely consumed by this world like we are, he has overcome it. His heart is like Narnia. He longs to make us kings and queens of a hidden kingdom, whisking us away to this magical place. That place is his heart.
I laid there, going to the deep places with Marie, and keeping my heart stayed on Jesus. Lord, what do I do next? What do you want to say to Marie? And all I could think of was to share what it was like for me with my Jesus. I shared how when I moved away from California to Phoenix, I didn’t have the friends and activities to fall back on anymore. I was alone a lot at first, and needed God more because of it. I shared how he proved himself to me and how I learned to hear his voice. He showed himself to me because I was looking for him and seeking him out. Then I talked about how he taught me to trust him with my children. With Isaak, especially, living with his diabetes. I told her how he is so faithful, how he never leaves me, and how I felt about life here on earth because of him. My goals in life are so different in light of who God is. I long to be with him, not to live here on earth as long as possible. It doesn’t matter if I’m here on earth, or dead and in Heaven, because either way, I will be with him. I shared that my sister, Melanie, and I would fake-warn each other,
“You are not allowed to die before me! I will be so lonely, and miss you too much! But also, I’ll be super mad that you got to go to Heaven and be with God before me!”
I explained how living is just a means to grow in my relationship with him until I get to Heaven to see Jesus. I told her how he loves her and wants her for himself. I shared all of this through tears. I soaked the pillow as we lied facing each other in her bed. She was so beautiful and open, just listening to my heart spill out. We smiled together and held hands gently. She would rub my hand, back and forth, softly with her thumb. This was truly one of the sweetest moments of my life. I was able to share the most important aspect of my life to my lifelong friend.
I left for Arizona feeling satisfied and happy. God was bringing our hearts back together, not just our bodies. We had fought to get to this place where we could share the important things of our lives, and the way I see it, it may have never happened without cancer. Cancer is a thief in every way, but I hard a quote from Shakespeare in this time that hit me like a ton of bricks.
“The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.”
This became my unspoken mission. I set the intention of my heart to find joy no matter what happened.
But this would be much harder than it seems. The day after I arrived home, Marie had her first seizure.
Marie at the clinic on one of the first trips I ever took to Minneapolis.
The morning after I had left, she and Vess were asleep in the early morning hours and Vess recalled back to me that Marie seized in their bed while he panicked and watched, frozen. He didn’t know what to do. He called 911. They took her to the emergency room immediately.
There’s nothing like seeing someone have a seizure. For the person watching on, you feel so completely helpless, utterly terrified, and every cell in your body screams that it isn’t right. To watch someone you love lose control over their body is the scariest thing. Vess was shaken. Marie was exhausted, frustrated, and helpless to plead a case for herself. She was mentally sound, and in her mind, she was still healthy, capable, and strong. Going to the doctor several times a week and hearing them tell her how sick she was was killing her more than cancer. They told her she needed to be put on anti-seizure medication. She was disappointed that this happened, because it would require even more supervision for her. Vess was not comfortable leaving her alone at all with this seizure under her belt and I don’t blame him. Back in May, she had gamma knife radiation treatment on three small tumors in her brain. I don’t pretend to know anything about how the brain works, but for me, this seemed like a possible link. I asked Marie what the doctors said. She said that the doctors didn’t give her any answers or ideas as to why this happened. Their only solution was to put her on anti-seizure medications. She believes doctors don’t think on their own creatively how to solve problems and promote health, they only know how to mask symptoms with medication. One thing she said to me sticks with me because it reminds me that God is the one who started life.
She said, “Medications can only stop something from happening. It can’t start anything.”
This comment blew my mind. But essentially, she was saying that our bodies are made to heal themselves, and all we should have to do is nourish them, move them, and let them heal themselves. I know Marie is right in so many ways, but she was facing a foe that could not be overcome with her ideals. She hated each new medication they gave her. She struggled being stuck between her belief that they were not good for her, and taking them to prolong her life for her family, husband, and for the hope of a child in the future. Each time she surrendered to a new medication, treatment, or hope for healing, she was softening. She was learning sacrifice. With each surrender, she shared in the sufferings of Christ.
This submission, in particular, felt like a redwood falling in the forest. It’s fall cleared the way for the grand surrendering that was coming.
The hospital that would become all too familiar.
My third visit to Minnesota was in August. I was on pace to visit every other month at this point. When I stepped into the house this time, I came with a happy skip in my step. The last two visits had been so surprisingly good that I didn’t expect anything different. I swept into the room with a boisterous, energetic hello. She was lying in bed, facing away from the door. She immediately put her hand up and resisted my presence. The chemo was seemingly taking a toll on her. I wanted more information, I had a hundred questions, but there was no good way to ask them. And honestly, there were no answers. Not from the doctors, not from Marie or Vess, there was no way to reconcile what was happening. The only response to the questions was this is cancer. It takes what it wants.
Vess left that evening and Marie and I had a quiet day. I made some dinner and we watched some Netflix. We went to bed, talking less than before, but it was ok. There was less and less to talk about. Her life was stalled and I didn’t want to talk too much about all the activity in my life. It was such a stark contrast in the amount of energy in my life compared to hers. She was going out less and less. She was walking slower. She was too tired to go into the store most times. She was forfeiting her desire to eat healthy because it took too much effort. It was one area of her life she could enjoy, to succumb to a craving. If she wanted dark chocolate, she could have dark chocolate. Potato chips? Done. Milkshake? She needed the calories. This was one area she could say yes to something. She was being forced to say no to almost everything. She had to say no to exercise, to entertainment like movies, and eating out, and to most other things that made her happy. No gardening, no work, no parties, no wine, and no child. No purpose is what it equated to in those days. She was sinking into depression. She was completely sick. She had nothing to talk about and it was rocking her world.
Marie asked me if I wanted to have a Pilates session with her. I was actually quite curious about it because she had been so involved with it throughout all these years and I had no experience. I didn’t have any interest in in on my own so I wanted to understand the draw it had in her life. I got my workout clothes on and Marie put me through a thoroughly incredible workout. I was challenged, engaged, and interested. I loved hearing Marie weave me through the different exercises with perfect cues, insightful comments about my tendencies and tips on how to adjust my body to better do each movement. I was truly impressed with the skill level with which she coached me through the workout. Her hair was still long, she had been able to wash it that week so it was clean, shimmering dark henna brown, and she pinned back her bangs. I could see her unique brown eyes watching me with insight. What a gift I received that day.
After the workout, I remember asking Marie if I could clean the apartment and maybe do the laundry if it would be helpful. She agreed that would be great and I washed all the bedding. She rested and we shared meals together as we often did. When I came back from the basement of the apartment with the sheets, I could tell Marie was worn. I began to head toward the bed to put the clean sheets on. She got up and started to help. I tried to tell her not to worry about it, and that I would just take care of it for her, but she began to comment about how she would like it done. Her tension and anxiety was high. She insisted that I wasn’t to step on the bed with my feet while putting the fitted sheet on. Next was instruction on how to stack the comforter on top of the basket of laundry while I put them on so it didn’t touch the floor. She was trying not to tell me how she thought it should be done but she wasn’t able to hold it in. She started to help me with the pillow cases. She picked one up and the other one got stuck to it and fell to the floor. She was pissed.
“Shit!”, she exclaimed.
It didn’t phase me at all. I absorbed her anger like a superhero unphased by a bullet. She sat down with her face in her hands. I got down next to her and put my hand on her shoulder. I asked her if there were any other pillow cases we could use. I then found them in a drawer and I finished the bed while she busied herself getting ready for bed.
We had a few conversations during this visit that were less than fun. Marie was pushing back against me. I know her true intention was to push back against disappointment, against her lack of control, and against losing her life. She was watching the sand slip through her hands and she didn’t know what to do.
If I’m being truly honest, I was worried at this point that the good times were over. I felt like coming back the next time might be the hardest thing I would ever do in my life. I could make every excuse for her and have logical thoughts about her behavior. She had every right to feel the way she was feeling, and to act on those feelings. But, I did have my own feelings and reactions. I felt offended. I felt irritated. I didn’t want to be the object of her frustration. It was an incredible struggle for me to learn how to allow myself to have my own feelings.
I felt like I wasn’t allowed to have any complaints. She never said anything like that, but it seemed like it was a slap in her face that I would complain at all, because of the million things she could rightly complain about.
She called me a few days after I returned home and apologized to me. The conversation was challenging. Thankfully, we were both ready to take on this conversation so we could get back on track. We both apologized, we gave each other Grace. We needed to be on the same page for the days to come. There was still a long road ahead.
I snuck this picture while Marie was on a Facetime call before Vess left for his flights.
September was a slow month for Marie and I. I could feel the pace slow down from her side of our relationship, but for me, it was spinning faster and faster. The kids were back at school, I was still working, and the events of life just kept hitting me like waves on the shore.
Life for me was an invisible chess game. Moving every piece just right so everything worked. I didn’t want to abandon my family and the fun things in life to take care of Marie, this estranged best friend of my childhood that my kids could barely remember, but I still felt called to handle this role of caregiver and supporter at the same time. Stress was my constant companion.
The next visit to Minnesota would be my last one there. I arrived just two weeks before my fortieth birthday. I would leave just 6 days before taking a trip with seven other families to Rocky Point and celebrate in true extrovert fashion. We would vacation and party for a long weekend together, all for my birthday. What a gift that was, and a miracle we could get each family’s schedules to coordinate. I look back and see so many mercies from God in this season of my life. But Marie was not feeling the same. I was doing my best to keep the details of my life quietly hidden until she asked about them. I knew there was a canyon separating our lives, and I could visit hers, but she could never visit mine. She had turned a corner that although I was unconsciously expecting, I wasn’t ready for. She was spending more and more time in bed. She didn’t even really consider going out for a walk although she had been trying to go on a walk every day. She had given up on getting ready for her appointments by putting on makeup and having clean hair. As a matter of fact, this was the trip I washed and dried her hair for her. She sat in the bathtub since she was too tired to stand. This is the type of thing I was expecting all this time. In the first couple of trips we had so much fun, chatting and staying up late. Then for a trip or two, we waded through some of the hard conversations about our frustrations with each other and our weaknesses. But this state she was in, was the type of thing you’ve seen in the movies. This is where it began to change for me. I saw her frailty combined with her mental disposition, and realized she wasn’t the same person anymore. Longsuffering was taking its toll on her. She was contemplating spiritual things. After our big conversation two trips prior, the one where I told her all about how God had been my true best friend all these years, she was trying to figure him out. She prayed every day, all day, it seemed, but was still struggling to see him as anything more than a detached figure who was far off and his role was to answer our prayers. She believed God should help her along, answer her prayers, and she would live her life following her dreams. What she didn’t realize is that God loves her so much that he wanted to be involved in every moment of her dreams, and every step in chasing after them. She was leaving him out and he was jealous for her attention. He wanted her! He wanted all of her. Because she viewed him as far off, he was far off. He couldn’t be near to her, because she wouldn’t bring him near.
On my last day, I was scheduled to leave Minnesota in the early evening. I had spent the day preparing her for my departure. Vess would be home within just an hour or so after I left, but she hadn’t been alone in months. We were both a little nervous about it. She was also in a lot of pain that day. We spent hours lying in bed, praying for the pain to subside. I prayed for her aloud, joining me at the feet of Jesus, begging for relief for my friend. When there were no words left to pray, I simply continued praying silently, holding her hands, begging for answers. My mind raced back and forth, never able to rest.
Through tears, my silent pleading went something like this.
“Why, God, why is this happening? God, will you please flow through Marie’s body and eradicate all this cancer. Maybe the chemo will do it’s work and you will use it to restore her to health. God, why isn’t the chemo working? Are you going to heal her supernaturally? Please heal her supernaturally. She is in so much pain. She’s so young. This doesn’t make any sense. Why aren’t there any answers. Why can’t you even answer our prayers about her pain? God, why can’t she even eat anything healthy? If she were able to eat, maybe her body would have what it needs to fight. Oh, dear God, why is this happening? God, please? What do we need to do? Why is she between this rock and a hard place? ... I suppose if she is going to be between a rock and a hard place, you do call yourself the Rock. (Visualizes Marie between God and cancer.) At least she has you. What do you want from her? God, what do you want from Marie? How… (God answers back and says he wants “all of her”.) My mind stops, then darts around. Was that you? What? You want all of her? Am I supposed to tell her that? I don’t know how to tell her that. What am I supposed to say? ... If you really want me to tell her that, you’re going to have to say it through me because I really don’t know what to say.”
Silence. Waiting. Long pause, long breath, wipe tears and snot. Ok, here goes nothing.
I raised myself up. I had been lying prostrate on the bed, holding her hands. I began by telling her I had still been praying and being completely honest about what filled those prayers. I told her the very thoughts and prayers I had been lifting up to God. I told her about my frustrations and doubts and how I don’t know why God hasn’t answered any of these prayers. I told her I am just as shocked that he hasn’t answered them as she is. I told her about how it seems like she’s always between a rock and a hard place. Then I told her that I think God is telling me he wants “all of her”. She looked at me with a blank stare. She didn’t know what I meant. All I could do was tell her what God had told me. I just reiterated that God wanted all of her and then it was time for me to go to the airport. It seemed so abrupt to leave so quickly after such a time of deep prayer and calling out to God, but looking back at it now, I realize his timing is always perfect.
Our time outside in the back patio were some of the best times during our visits.
The trip to Mexico came quickly. I emptied and refilled my suitcase, and I arrived at the beach, ready for a true fall break. We had massages on the beach, played football, spikeball, and all kinds of games. We ate too much, got too much sun, and had the best time of our lives.
However, I got a call from Marie one morning, and it was more bad news. She had an obstruction in her intestines that had lasted for more than just a day or so. This wasn’t too shocking, as she had been having a lot of blockage off and on, this whole time. But this was a defining moment in Marie’s life. She was faced with yet another decision she didn’t want to make. She was being forced to agree to having a stent put in her colon, something she had been completely against since it first came up as a solution for her issues. Her remaining ideals were crumbling in her hands. She was out of options. The biggest complication, in this particular situation, was that Marie was planning on going to California to live with her parents for November and December because of the challenge of her support team, the people like me, having time to come to help and care for Marie through the busier holiday season. The surgeon was recommending the surgery for this procedure, but after the surgery, she would not be in any condition to travel on a long flight to California. After some discussion and consideration, the blockage opened up and she was able to postpone it after all. She was still struggling to accept this surgery, but just two weeks later, they were back in the same situation. The doctor was now declaring this an emergency situation. If she was going to travel to California at this point, she would need to leave Minnesota that very night, October 26th. She would board the plane late in the evening, and deplane, only to go straight to the emergency room in California, in order to be admitted for surgery the next morning. We prayed together on the phone. It was hard to focus. I was still living a full life with a full schedule. I talked to her between an appointment and making dinner. I stopped, laid on my bed and walked the road with her. I prayed, giving God the admiration he deserved, and the reminder we needed that He is bigger than we can possibly imagine, and has the most intricate involvement in our lives and has worked out every detail. I prayed over Marie’s safety, over the doctors, over the flight, and over her emotions surrounding the entire situation. It was hard for me to relate to what she was dealing with, but I was certainly burdened for her. We hung up the phone and I lingered a few extra minutes before rushing back into making dinner. I prayed for her trip, for her parents, for her strength to make it to California. The three hour flight seemed more like an impossible feat on a trapeze than a normal day for any businessman or woman, but God carried her across the country and laid her into the hands of his trusted ones.
They made it through the flight, checked into the ER at 11pm, and waited until 3am in the ER for a bed to open up for Marie. (Keep in mind they are 3 hours ahead on Minnesota time.) They had been awake for the entire night. The surgery wouldn’t happen for another 5 hours at least, till the surgeon came in for the day to find an emergency surgery on the schedule. She hadn’t eaten at all the day before and now she was sleep deprived. The time finally came for the procedure to happen and this is what God has been waiting for. The drum roll began and all of heaven leaned in to watch. They prepped Marie for her surgery, and before the anesthesiologist gave her the dose of drugs that would put her under, he had a conversation with Marie and her mother. He told her what to expect, and wanted to assure her he and the entire team would do their absolute best, but that with any time one undergoes anesthesia and surgery there’s a risk of death. He asked her if she had any religious preference and she paused. Normally, she guards herself and says “none” because of the annoying process she normally experiences. They send a chaplain, priest, or pastor in to meet with her and she is then subjected to meet another new person with whom she is not interested in being vulnerable. She does not trust people easily, so why would she emote or ask something of a person she has never met? But the pause was an opportunity. She had been ruminating on the thought that God wanted all of her. She still didn’t know what it meant, but in that moment, she broke the silence and said, “Christian.”
The doctor broke into an easy smile and said something like, I am so glad to hear that. I am a Christian, too. He went on to explain the calling he felt on his life as an anesthesiologist. He told them his goal in life was to pray for radical healing for the patients he had come into his care. He asked if he could pray for Marie. Her heart soared at the sound of the words radical healing. Those words rang in her heart like a bell that could shake the world. Those are the words she held onto for hope every day. He proceeded to pray for her. He prayed words that were like honey on her lips. He spoke of Marie’s significance and uniqueness in this world. "There is not one person like Marie and the things she does in this world are unlike anyone else. There is something so special about what Marie brings as an offering to God himself. God had made her for his own joy and to be a blessing in the world." He asked God to radically heal Marie of her cancer, to free her to live long and bless others in a cancer free future. She and her mom cried tears of hope, hearing the words their souls needed to hear. God truly used that doctor to refresh their hope that day. I believe their hope was not the only thing restored. Marie’s future with Christ was solidified. She believed for the first time, and with her whole heart, that God was on her side.
The surgery prep room was a holy place. God was doing his supernatural work in a very regular place like only he can do. He came in like only he can, and moved their hearts. He drew Marie to himself, because she opened the door to her heart, allowing him to come close. All of these experiences we’d had for months leading up to this, were all in preparation for this moment. There was a war going on for Marie’s heart, and God finally won. He got what he wanted. He wanted her. She had to choose him, and finally she had, with that pause, and a moment of faith to say the word, “Christian". I believe there’s nothing God wants more than to have his people reconciled to himself through belief in his Son. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
October 27th, 2017 was the best day ever. And although Marie’s salvation is a highlight of the story, however, is not the end of the story.
Marie spent more time in the hospital than she ever wanted, but this day, it was holy ground.
The stent surgery was successful, and for the most part, it improved her situation. She was able to fear less about what she ate and she was less concerned about blockage in her intestines, but old and new problems popped up constantly. First and foremost were her pain levels. Her pain was still a daily battle.
Daily, Marie and her mom would strive to stay on top of the medications to keep her in comfort as best they could. But on top of the pain medications, they were managing so many other medications. Miralax, seizure meds, chemo pills, pain medications, and about 10 other bottles of pills. I didn’t even know what they were. When she was at the hospital, they managed all of her medications for her, but at home, they handled it all themselves. Marie hated her bedside table. It was her worst nightmare and a reminder of the life she wasn’t living. On it were always the same things: a few half finished drinks with straws in them, several prescription containers, some standing, and some fallen over, several loving note cards from cherished friends near and far, and a framed haiku poem Vess had typed out for her at an adorable bookshop they perused that had an old typewriter. He had sneakily hidden himself away in the book shop, typing out precious words to her. He saved the poem and gave it to her on their anniversary.
Vess was hardly able to be with Marie in these days in California. He would come for a few days and stay there at her parents’ house, sleeping on their couch. If they were in the hospital, he would take his place next to her in the hospital chair, but he had to continue working to maintain their health care and to continue to pay the bills. His presence was intermittent, but his love never wavered for her. He wasn’t always available to her so he texted and called her between flights, and every night before bed, they would video call. They have a special story between them, one that I can only recall bits and pieces of, that includes ladybugs. I recall her telling me about it, but it was so long ago, I’ve lost some of the details. They were on a hike and facing a big decision, they were looking for a sign when all of a sudden, they stopped, looked down, and saw a plant with hundreds of ladybugs on it, HUNDREDS. That was the sign they were looking for, the sign they needed, and ever since that special moment, they always looked at ladybugs as a symbol of their love for one another. For each one of us, especially during this journey, they would show up in the most unlikely places. One day, Vess found one inside the cockpit of the airplane he was flying. Ladybugs were symbolic of love for them and butterflies were a symbol of healing for Marie.
I saw butterflies every day for what seemed like the entire journey through cancer with Marie. I saw them while driving along the road, in my backyard, and even at the beach in Mexico in October. I would see them at all times of the day. When I would see them, I would follow their flight, and I would pray for her. On certain days, I would see several butterflies throughout the day, and I would call her. I would tell her I saw three butterflies that day and that’s why I called. She told me that day they must have been signaling me on her behalf because it was a terrible day. Her voice was becoming weak. There was less and less fight in her. In every conversation, I realized how helpless I felt. That’s how I felt for so much of this entire time fighting cancer. I find that I am always trying to solve problems. It reveals to me that my version of the American dream is to have a life with the least amount of problems.
I think this is fairly normal in American culture. We are all trained by sitcoms to expect a solution in twenty two minutes, and trained by microwaves to expect a meal in one and a half. Everything in America is expected to be fast, but cancer doesn’t live by this standard. I remember sharing parts of Marie’s predicament with friends and hearing their thoughts, their offerings for solutions. It was actually the worst thing people could offer. Marie, Vess, her family, myself, we had all tried to come up with solutions already. There were so few options. I found in this process that to be with someone in their suffering, the best thing I could offer was a heartfelt honest statement of kindness, not to suggest a way out of their situation. I would often tell Marie that I couldn’t believe this was happening, that I was frustrated, and that I didn’t know what to say. What I found was that we were on the same page. She was thinking the same thing. I told her I didn’t know what to say, we could be silent together. I never intend to fight against someone I am trying to help, but often by offering solutions, I am unknowingly doing that very thing. I truly learned to join someone in a way that I never have before this battle through cancer. I kept my mouth shut more times than felt comfortable. I prayed for her more than I talked to her. I served Marie and her family out of my strengths in many ways, but there were so many areas I grew. I had so many areas in my life that were childish, inherent to my personality that needed to be tempered to be a faithful, loving friend. November would be a month that I couldn’t give Marie a lot of attention or thought. I was putting all my attention on getting our short term mission trip to Dominican Republic.
God sent me signals and signs every day that he was present and faithful.
As you may remember the yearly trips to Dominican were a regular occurrence every November. Well, it was time for another trip and I had a thousand details to nail down before we left. I had a team of people to lead, and my attention was clearly a million miles away from Marie. My busyness kept me from being involved in the daily occurrences, but she would call every now and then and let me know she had a fever, had to go to the hospital, and was admitted until the antibiotics cleared an infection, or that she had been vomiting uncontrollably and taken to the hospital. Marie called on one day, in particular, and I asked about all that was happening surrounding one of these complications. I asked more questions and probed about what the doctors had said. She lashed out at me.
“I DON’T KNOW.” I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”, she said.
I apologized and she went on to explain.
“I just feel like I have to report to you and tell you everything that is going on, but I really don’t want to talk about it at all. I hate all of it and there are no good answers, but you just keep asking me more and more questions.”
I realized I needed to change yet another behavior of mine in order to love Marie well. This wasn’t serving our relationship. I have to say I was actually relieved to hear a little bit of fight in her voice. She settled slightly and finished by telling me the best part of our friendship in this time, in particular, was when I would pray for her. She asked if, from now on, we could start each phone call with a prayer before we did anything else. This was one of the best things we ever did for our friendship. Every time, I prayed over her body, for healing, and for repair and restoration. I would pray for our talk, that it would be life giving and refreshing to each of us and to God. Then we would say amen and we would catch up on the rest of life.
I decided to come in December for a visit since she was in California now and closer than before. I could drive there and oftentimes flights from Phoenix to Southern California were very cheap. I decided to fly this time because I found a direct flight from my small town that was cheap. I rented a car and found myself back in my hometown, but for all the wrong reasons. I drove the streets I used to know, but they were so different now. It felt so strange to me. This was the first time I noticed it felt like someone hit the mute button on my life. I went through all the motions, getting showered and dressed, driving through Starbucks on my way to the hospital. Walking the long halls, looking for Marie’s room number, and even finding Marie and her mom, we had our sweet hellos. But it was all blanketed in a numb silence. There was something about living in this reality that made me feel out of place. It didn’t feel real. It seemed like someone else’s story. I never thought I would have a best friend who would have cancer. That’s what happens to someone else in sad movies like Beaches. I always related to comedies. I never even saw Beaches. Life for me, instead, was fast paced, witty, and clever, not sad, slow and pensive. I could never understand why my mom would watch those sad movies and cry. I wanted to be entertained and laugh. This whole season was a recalibration for me.
As I entered the hospital room that I was becoming all too familiar with, I found out the news was that the doctors were telling her they wanted to keep her there for several weeks, right in the middle of December. She was discouraged that her whole month would be defined by those four walls, but she had a new bout of determination. The topic of focus was on figuring out which doctors she wanted in charge of her care, and in addition, the topic of food was on the top of the list. She asked me to go to the Whole Foods nearby and get some things for her and Lana to eat while at the hospital. It was fitting, that even here, 6 months later, I was still filling the same role. I was purchasing food and hoping to nourish my friend’s body and soul by meeting her physical needs.
However, Marie’s health was not improving. Her intestines, were so full of cancer and becoming so compromised, that her digestion was leaking from one part of her intestine to another. She was weighing in at about 100 pounds at a height of 5’6”. Her body was continuing to deteriorate, but her energy and will to live had sprung up for a surprise visit.
While I was at Whole Foods, I saw a small Christmas decoration display and on it there was a little banner. I decided to grab that and a poinsettia plant to bring into her hospital room to make it feel a little more festive. When I returned, we were all focused on getting food put away and I didn’t think it was the right moment, so I tucked it away and waited for just the right moment to bring my secret weapon out. Just 30 minutes later, I sensed a lull and
“You know what we need right now?”, and after a excited dramatic pause, I broke out into song.
“Weeeeee need a little Christmas, right this very minute, candles in the window, carols at the spinnett!”, and I pulled out my decorations.
I tied the little Christmas banner to the tv and to the cabinet handle right in Marie’s main line of sight and came and gave her hand a little squeeze. We shared a loving glance and then I sat down again in my hospital chair, just smiling contentedly. This was the type of thing I felt like I was made to do. Lighten the mood, give her a tiny gift, and be her friend. There was so much I was powerless to change, but I could bring joy with me when I came.
Her mom had been staying in the hospital chair (that turned into a bed) for nearly a week now, so I offered to sleep there and have Lana go home to sleep for the duration of my trip. It was the least I could do to help Lana get some much needed rest. Other than maybe getting some of the worst sleep I’ve ever gotten, the rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. I would occasionally sneak out of the room under the guise of needing a chapstick or a coffee and get outside for a quick walk. I hate to admit it, but I was excited to get home. Christmas was coming quickly and I had a family waiting at home for me. It was a bittersweet thing, feeling like I was happy to go home, and feeling guilty for being able to escape the cancer life and forget about it for a little while. As a matter of fact, I remember one night, in particular, after I got home I had made a steak dinner. I grilled the steaks outside on the grill and I baked sweet potatoes and made a salad. As my family of four sat down to eat, I thought about what Marie might be eating that night for dinner and I began to feel completely sad and somehow felt guilty at the same time. Each bite I took was harder and harder to eat. I was the only one at the table feeling like this. The grief came in and stole all the sound again. It was like everything went silent and I sat there, chewing a bite of steak, wondering how I was going to swallow it because my throat was tightening up like it was wearing a corset. The sadness and guilt tightened their grip on me as I held my breath. I tried to keep silent and not bring all of this out at the dinner table, but the tears spilled out because I had to catch my breath.
I went to my room and cried. I cried for the steaks and salads Marie couldn’t eat. I cried for the lack of energy to cook her husband a meal. I cried for the pain that brought her to her knees, and the mountains of pills she took every day. There was so much to cry about.
Christmas came and went, and Marie’s status was a combination of sameness mixed with daily tragedies. We would talk on the phone and she would tell me of frequent trips to the hospital, constant struggles with the insurance company, mountains of bills piling up, and the emotional struggles she and her family were having, but it was tempered by her nearly deadpan style of reporting it to me. She was so detached from feeling anything anymore that it seemed as if she was a sleepy uncaring newscaster, explaining the week’s events.
A couple of stories I remember from her times at home, she said, “My mom is having vertigo again, so my dad has to take off work on days I need to go to the doctor’s office, but on days I have to go to the hospital, they take me by ambulance so that’s good.”
Followed by, “I am going to run out of colostomy supplies, but the insurance company won’t send me any more because they want proof that it’s medically necessary. I need to get more of them by Friday or we will run out over the weekend, but my mom can’t drive down to the medical supply store to get them.”
And then, “My mom was making me lunch the other day when my dad fell down outside working in the yard. He had a low blood sugar and had a seizure, so my mom had to go out and try to get him back inside, but it was a really bad one. My mom is so tired and discouraged.”
It was truly overwhelming just hearing those stories.
She was not only losing interest in everything, she couldn’t handle much of anything at all, including visits from friends and even phone calls from Vess. She would greet him, close her eyes, listen to him and let his voice wash over her missing the details, too tired to try to understand them. She would agree with mm-hmms and uh-huhs and then tell him she wanted to get off the phone.
I didn’t know how to process anything I was experiencing. My gut told me she wasn’t going to survive this, but my faith said anything is possible. How could I keep going, bouncing between these two thoughts?
I didn't know what to do, so I just did what came naturally to me. I brought flowers and decorations
February came quickly for me and I hadn’t been back since before Christmas to visit. Since it was her birthday on the 16th, I called her and initiated a conversation about it.
“Hi, how are you feeling about your birthday?”, I asked.
“Umm, fine. I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it. Everyday is pretty much the same. I don’t really care about it this year, to be honest.”, she said.
“Oh, ok. I guess I can understand that. Well, would you be interested in having me come out for your birthday? I was thinking that if I didn’t come, I would be missing an opportunity to be with you and celebrate you for your birthday. What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”, long pause, “It’s up to you.” she said.
“I want to come. Are you sure you’re good with it?” I double checked.
“Yeah. Whatever you think.”
I didn’t have a big plan. I just thought she and her mom, especially, could use some encouragement. Any kind of change in the daily routine would probably be a welcome one. So I packed up a bag and this time, I drove to California. I buzzed across the desert in my little white car, doing my best to entertain myself with music and podcasts, and finally, when things began to become familiar, the weird silence came back. It was happening more and more frequently in this season.
This was my first visit that I spent time in my hometown during this cancer journey. Every other time I visited, I ended up spending almost all my time in the hospital. She was able to stay home the entire weekend I was there. I stayed at my aunt Sandy’s house, just a half mile away from Marie’s house. Something about it felt so familiar, but completely foreign a the same time. On the drive in, I approached the 7/11 I used to walk to from my dad’s house to get candy. His neighbor there had a daughter also named Kelly and she and I were inseparable whenever I was at my dad’s house. After picking up a few essentials, probably candy I can’t remember now, I decided to drive down my dad’s old street. I crept up and parked the car, poring over the details of the front yard as the memories flashed, bottled cokes on the front porch with BOYS for my 11th birthday, pogo sticking in the driveway while my dad manicured the lawn (he was a landscaper back then), and riding a big wheel over the sidewalk where it was pushed up into a giant bump by the roots of the biggest tree on the street. They hadn’t kept the house as nice as my family did.
I crept slowly past the other Kelly’s house, wondering if they still lived there. It looked like an oasis on the street, green grass, fresh flowers, obviously well maintained. The door was open. My body rushed with questions and curiosity. I did it. I parked the car, went up to the house and knocked on the door frame. MaryAnn came to the door first.
“MaryAnn? Hi, I’m Kelly Hazel.” I smiled awkwardly with my hands up in the air, like I was saying ‘taa-daa!’.
She responded with such enthusiasm. She welcomed me in and called Pat to the living room.
“Pat! Come in here!", she called
We shared “oh my goodnesses” and “I can’t believe its” and had a blast just chatting and asking how everyone was doing and where everyone lived now. At the end of our chat, they said that Kelly, their daughter, my beloved neighborhood friend, and her family would be over for dinner that night. She just insisted that I come over, but I couldn’t promise anything because I didn’t know what my day with Marie would look like. I took her number, and she kept insisting till the moment I left, and that invitation and persistence was exactly what my heart needed. I walked back to my car, hoping I could find a way back there before I drove back to Arizona.
My day with Marie was not an easy one, but looking back on it now, it was as good as it could be. Her friend Rachel was there too, and the three of us had takeout pizza from the one restaurant Marie’s diet could accommodate and we talked for hours. Don’t forget the energy level is not the kind you might think of when 3 best friends are together. There was no wine, no big raucous laughing, no unrelenting teasing, just three women talking in a living room, avoiding the elephant in the room with as much grace and gentleness we could muster as a birthday gift offering to our friend. This would be her last birthday.
After Rachel had to go, Marie and I took a short walk down the street and back. When we returned to the house, it was getting to be dusk. We watched a movie together and shared a few little laughs together. Then she was too tired to be up anymore. I understood completely, and at 8pm, I walked down the steps of my best friend’s house back to my car. I grabbed my cell phone. I called MaryAnn. It was a mere ten minute drive. I pulled up, walked up to the door, and it felt like a surprise party as I stepped into the living room. Yet another familiar place felt so unusual. They had remodeled, Kelly had grown up, I had grown up, and yet here we were laughing, hugging, and reuniting after twenty five years of being apart. We reminisced of stories from our childhood. For most of the day, I sat, listening and tiptoeing around the sickness in the room. It had been a challenge to find things to talk about. Now, I was here, we were all interrupting one another, laughing and giving each other a hard time about being nerdy growing up. The pendulum was swinging far, but I absolutely needed it. This felt normal, and that’s exactly what I needed, even if it was just for an hour.
The morning light was hazy, the way it often is in my Southern California hometown. I woke up around 8am, and took a few minutes to read my journal. Most of the recent entries were my quandaries to God. I wondered why this was happening and if Marie would make it out. I wrote down the questions as quick as they came, then I anchored in deeply to the truths of God and that he is trustworthy and true. I anchored into his strength when I had no more, and I pressed into his deep love for me, for Marie, and for all humanity. I kept trusting. I read over them and allowed my writing to remind me of the goodness of God and I read the bible. I felt more and more that Marie, Lana, and I should spend our time praying this morning. I stirred hope in my soul, by remembering the stories of God from the bible where he did miracles and how he rescued multitudes of people from leprosy, bleeding, paralyzation, and even death. I sent out a text requesting prayer from my closest friends and family. If God wanted to do a miracle today, I wanted as much backup as possible. I knew I couldn’t perform a miracle, but God could do anything he wanted. I bolstered my faith by reading about the great faith heroes in the bible. I bowed myself before him, I praised him for his greatness, I confessed my sins, my unbelief, and offered myself to him. I prayed that he would heal Marie from cancer that day.
The Silence accompanied me to Starbucks. I ordered a bagel, a coffee, and I sat looking out at Foothill Blvd. Again my childhood stared back and I felt the awkward echo of familiarity mixed with unfamiliarity. I read my bible some more. I hoped that God would leak out of the pages, into my skin, and when I touched Marie, she would sit up and say she felt normal. We would jump on the bed until we broke it and laugh until we fell into a pile together and cried. I hoped with everything inside of me that this would be the story I would tell you today.
They didn’t know I wanted to pray for the entire time I was there today. I had 2 hours, from 9 to 11, so I could ride the pavement through the desert and still arrive before it got too late.
I led the prayer by giving them a road map, we would use an acronym, ACTS, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (which means to ask for what you need/want). God showed up in every step of the prayer, wringing out our doubts, our limited belief, and our hurts, leaving our hearts empty, and then refilling them with himself. I believe mountains were moved in the unseen that day.
There’s no way to really communicate how this day felt and what transpired. I know something supernatural happened in that room that day, but to try to describe it almost feels pitiful. It’s like trying to explain what happened in a car accident. You sort of know what happened, but on the other hand, you feel unable to truly describe it to someone. My best friend’s heart wishes the outcome had been different. I surely preferred my version of the story where we celebrated Marie cancer free jumping on the bed, but God had something else in mind. It hints to me that this world is going to pass away and the supernatural parts of us are so much more important than we can ever know. I can’t imagine the power of the unseen, but this day gave me a whisper of an idea about it.
God gave Marie an intimate time in prayer for her birthday in her childhood home.
The Silence was riding shotgun with me all the way across the desert. I called and talked with Kip, my mom, my sister, but the silence was with me. It was becoming more of a numbness the more it happened. I didn’t know what to feel so I stopped feeling much of anything.
My family welcomed me home with dinner on the table that night and I folded back into their loving arms. Kip and I had a long talk after dinner, mostly him listening to the details of the visit, especially the prayer time, both the highs and the lows. He asked me questions and let me cry. He consoled me with his steadiness. He is the rock I return to each time I come home. The night comes, then the morning, and it’s time to get back to daily life. Each morning I would sit down, read my bible, and write down my worries of the day. I would ask God to glorify himself by honoring our prayers. I prayed he would still heal Marie, that he would be her portion for the day, and mine as well. On paper, I could praise him, adore him, give him glory and ask for the bold requests, prayers of faith, but inside I still struggled. If God is love, my definition of love was under question.
My hidden belief about the definition of love was that I would get what I want. Everyone would. During the prayer time God asked Marie a question, “Will you still love me even if I don’t give you what you want? That was the question I had to answer, too.
At the end of March, I was given a chance to see Marie again. My family was holding a baby shower for a long awaited child that would carry our family name. My sister, my daughter, and I drove to California together to celebrate a new life coming into the family. The Sunday morning of the weekend, I would have a chance to visit Marie and the family for just a short time.
They dropped me off, I walked up the stairs and into the house. There was no sense of activity there. Quietness, stillness, a palpable sense of lack. The hope of Marie being healed from cancer was slipping away. I greeted and hugged Lana, Dennis, and Vess. Then I silently floated into Marie’s room. There was a chair by her bedside. I sat in it. Marie was lying on her side with her eyes closed. Her hands cupped together near my knees. I put my hands on hers gently. She opened her eyes. She was barely there. Her strength was so far gone that she didn’t connect with me right away, even with just eye contact. Finally, through long blinks, she connected with me and barely smiled. She tried to rub my hand with her thumb. I was crying already.
“Hi baby”, I said.
She mustered a tiny smile again and said, “You should have learned not to wear makeup by now.”
I was pleasantly surprised to hear a tiny measure of sass come out. I chuckled and sniffed, wiping the tears away.
I can’t remember what we talked about. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to show her I was there with no agenda. I didn’t need to know anything, I didn’t need to tell her anything, I just needed to be with her. We sat and tried to talk a little, but mostly just were together with no nothing.
Vess came in the room and we sat there together. I talked to Vess, with the strange feeling that Marie was there but also not there at the same time. Then Marie stirred and lifted herself onto one elbow. Vess asked her what she needed.
She was silent for a minute, then said, “I was just fantasizing about a cheeseburger.”
We chuckled under our breath just a little. Then Vess told me that they had been recently fantasizing together about a trip they would take if Marie was healthy. They talked about how they would get an RV and travel the US, pausing in cities of interest, and when Vess needed to go on flights for work, they would settle in for the week, Marie could explore the city and then they would take to the road again when Vess was done with his flights.
I chimed in, “Ooh! You could take Route 66 and come down to Prescott, and Kip and I have been making these cheese stuffed cheeseburgers! We have to make them for you. We would sit in the backyard under the twinkling lights, sip wine, and eat those together. Prescott summers are gorgeous. You will love it.”
I had piqued Vess’ interest talking about cheeseburgers. I think he was hungry. Then Marie looked at Vess and reminded him there was wine in the kitchen from their wedding if he wanted some. It was an odd moment, since it was 10am on a Sunday morning, but I’m sure when I mentioned wine, it reminded her about it. I was surprised to hear about it, too. I got a little nostalgic about it. My heart was attaching to the wedding because those were much better times. Then I had an idea.
“You still have bottles of wine from the wedding?”, I asked. “Why don’t you give me a bottle of it, and then when you two come through Prescott with the RV, we can drink it with the cheese stuffed burgers?”
The talk was a mixture of placating the fantasy for Marie’s sake and clinging to hope for the rest of us. I left the room and met Lana in the hall. I told her what we had just spoke of and asked her to get me a bottle of the wine from the wedding for this future adventure. It brought her to tears. She hugged me and thanked me for holding on to hope when she couldn’t.
Overall, I spent just a little over an hour with Marie and her family. I prayed a prayer over her and gently walked out the door after a few more hugs. I didn’t know how long it would be until we all saw each other again, so I just asked them to remember to be in touch since Marie no longer answered the phone or texted with me. I retrieved my things and the bottle of wine and stepped out the door for the second to last time I would ever see Marie.
You never know what thing might be a glimmer of hope for someone else.
Just a week after I walked out of my best friend’s parent’s house, I was with my family at Bill’s Pizza downtown, having lunch with my family after church. We had ordered and we were chatting and enjoying the view of the courthouse and the sunny spring weather that was finally showing its face. My phone started buzzing. It was Vess. I picked it up. I took the call right there at the table. He proceeded to tell me things were continuing to go downhill every day and that there was no longer anything that could be done to help Marie prolong her life. The doctors had just come in and recommended Marie be put into hospice.
Since I couldn’t know what kind of condition she was in from the vagueness of the situation, I had to ask Vess more clearly what he was trying to say to me.
“Ok, Vess. I can do one of two things. Maybe you can tell me what would be better. I could leave in about an hour or so and drive straight there and I could see her tonight or tomorrow morning, or I could leave first thing in the morning and be there by midday. What do you think would be best?”
Vess replied back very matter of factly, “I think you should come today.”
When I approached the table, the tears were already coming. I told my family what was happening and that we should finish up our lunch and I would have to go home and pack up a bag to go. We did just that. As I was preparing to leave, Kip took my car to get gas. My kids were used to me leaving to go take care of Marie by this point, but this was abrupt. They also hadn’t seen me quite this somber. They all hugged me and told me they loved me and I took off for the hospital on the California coast.
I called Marie’s mom, Lana when I was about an hour and a half outside of the LA area. I wanted to get an update on things and make sure of details before I showed up. They hadn’t been in to see Marie that day and asked if I could pick them up on my way to the hospital. There was no doubt in my mind that I needed to pick them up, but the truth was that I was already going to be driving around 7 hours and this would be adding at least another 45 minutes, each way, to go get them. My tired self was a little put out, but my logic said it was more important to go get them, than to just leave them without a visit and regret it later, in case anything terrible happened that night. I was always surprised to find I had the strength to do the right thing. It was a supernatural strength that sustained me much further than I could have ever gone on my own. It felt as if it flowed from my heart to fuel my mind and body.
I arrived at their house at around 9:00pm that night. I picked them up, and we drove another hour and fifteen minutes to the hospital in Santa Monica. Marie had been napping off and on all day, so she woke to see us. Vess was there with her and he seemed stoic, but steady. He was always strong and present for her. I sat by her bedside, holding her hand again. She made little mumbling sounds. She was listening in to us all talk and mutter details around her. She piped up and tried to tell us a detail we missed or a fact we had gotten wrong. She seemed to be sleeping, but there she was, showing up and setting us all straight. The sass always seemed to cut through at just the right moments. We all chuckled together when she did speak up. Lana leaned in and kissed her, told her she loved her, and asked how she was doing. Dennis came near and did the same. She perked up just enough to notice I was there and say hi, then she heard Vess make a snarky comment and she locked eyes with him with a sleepy smile. We spent just about an hour with her, said our goodnights and swept back out the door. I planned to come back the next morning late to say a goodbye and then somehow, press my foot on the pedal again, taking me back to Arizona.
I woke around 7:30 am, showered and headed to the hospital to arrive around 9:30 or 10 am. Traffic was pretty bad, since it was a monday morning. After going through all the motions, finding parking, getting a visitor’s pass, and walking the long hallways, I finally arrived at her room. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day, but Marie was unaware of all of it. Eyes closed, she laid there quietly, the only sound she made was often a tiny murmur or a cough. I read her letters and texts from loved ones through tears. I held her hand. I talked with Vess. He expressed that things were very quiet. The nurses came in and out, in and out, and Marie hadn’t responded to any of them since we left the night before. He told me his birthday was the next day. I was crushed. His birthday, I would guess, would be marked by the memory of his wife being put into hospice the day before.
Vess and I talked off and on while we sat there, wondering if she would rouse, if she would have the strength to be present with us. She never did. It was nearly 1pm now. I still planned on driving all the way back to Arizona today and was hoping to leave soon so I wouldn’t be driving too much in the dark. I needed to gather my thoughts and say my final goodbye. Vess stepped out to let me have a few moments with her alone.
Honestly, I don’t completely remember what I said to her. If I do remember anything, I remember telling her we were so lucky to have each other. I told her she picked a really good husband. I thanked her for being such a good friend. I told her to try and not have too much fun in heaven without me, since I was gonna be jealous that she got to go there first. I told her we would all be ok and that if she needed to go, that she should just go. There were lots of pauses, lots of tears, and finally I told her I needed to go. Then I asked her if it was ok if I left.
She whispered, “Yeah. It’s ok. Love you, Kel.”
Then she rubbed my hand with her thumb the way she always did. I cried one more time. I gathered my things and stepped out into the hall. Vess was leaning against the wall. He stood up and looked at me. I was a mess. I came to him and gave him a hug. We cried together. I needed to go, but this was such a surreal moment. I couldn’t go back in there, but I didn’t feel like I could just leave. I wouldn’t know when she would pass away, so it seemed so strange to walk away. She was still alive, but I was walking into a reality where I would never see her again, and I knew it.
I walked down to the lobby and went into the gift shop. I looked at all the things, wondering if there was anything I could buy to honor this memory. I would never likely step foot in this hospital again. The silence was with me. I looked and looked around. Am I holding my breath? Are those ladies talking to me? I found a wheel of cards. I bought one that had a perfect message for Vess. I bought the card, borrowed a pen, and wrote a message for him in it for the next day, his birthday. I knew he would still be there. They were just beginning the plans to move Marie to her home and I knew it would be a few days before she was able to be moved. I went up to the desk in the lobby and asked them for a special favor. I broke into tears, covering my face with the card.
“My best friend was just put into hospice, and her husband’s birthday is tomorrow. Would anyone be able to deliver this to him tomorrow?”
They stammered for a moment while I cried. The blonde on the left, took the card gently from my hand and promised to hand deliver it herself the next morning.
The drive home was an extra long one. Not only because it was a difficult one, but also because of the terrible LA traffic. It took me two and a half hours just to get out of the city. I arrived home late that night, around 10:30 pm. Two days of driving, hours of crying, and the harsh reality that this story wasn’t ending the way we all had hoped took its toll on me, but there was no time to rest. I came home on Monday, and we had tickets to go to the Taylor Swift concert the next day. I shoved my feelings down and took my daughter and friend to the concert, driving over an hour and a half each way. Life kept sweeping me up into it like a giant twister. I had no choice, but I kept being lifted off my feet, and flew up into the activity of it all. School was ending soon and that meant my son was graduating from high school in a matter of weeks. I had a graduation party to plan, family coming in to attend the graduation and a party, then we would be leaving for a summer vacation just a few weeks after that. So many things were coming up that I just robotically kept doing all the things I was expected to do, all while waiting for a call from Vess that finalized what I knew was coming.
Vess and I were talking every day. He was mostly alone with Marie, except for the daily visits from Lana and Dennis. She lied in her big hospital bed, with nurses coming in several times a day to keep her comfortable. She hadn’t woken up hardly at all since I was there, and when she did, she no longer spoke at all. I am grateful I was able to see her when I did, so I could receive the gift of a few last words from her. He finally called late in the evening of May 12th. It was only 5 days after I left. She passed away Saturday night before Mother’s Day, 2018.
I believe God must have welcomed her into heaven, holding hands with her little one that she never got to meet, Newton. On her first day in heaven, she would be healthy, complete, and a mother, like she always wanted to be.
You were a good friend. Try not to have too much fun without me in Heaven.
The days and weeks following Marie’s passing and memorial were mixed with the same busyness life was handing me before. Isaak graduated from high school, we went on vacation, then we prepared Isaak to leave for college. Summer vacation was tucked in there somewhere and our yearly trip to the Dominican Republic came shortly after. Preparations for that trip included meetings and planning first, then travel and recuperation after. The minute we got home from DR, it was time to put my focus on Christmas as the family gift buyer. There was no time to process all that I had just gone through with Marie’s passing because there were too many events, back to back to back, I felt like it was all I could do to just maintain the activities. I was so busy, I simply stuffed my feelings down and continued to go through the motions. The memories and thoughts of Marie peppered my days until Christmas came, then New Years’ Day, and unexpectedly, I finally felt the fog lift. The pace of life relaxed and I was able to finally turn my attention to my heart, my body, and my soul. I hadn’t asked myself how I was doing in a long time.
For the entirety of the past years, traveling to Minnesota, sleeping in hospital chairs, foreign beds, and enduring so much stress, my body was screaming at me. I had such restricted movement in my shoulders, I would often have to ask my husband to help me get ready for bed at night. The burden of my soul was manifesting in my body, trying to let me know that it could not go on like this. Something had to be done.
I started scrambling. I went to massage therapists, Bowenwork, and started seeing a physical therapist. The PT said my shoulder joints were out often because my clavicles weren’t staying in place. This sounded like madness to me. Bodies don’t just come undone, do they? I guess they do if your soul is undone. I had some big questions to answer. I called my insurance counseling program. I started an 8 week counseling call program where I began telling my story. I began to unravel every detail of this epic journey I was on with Marie, much like I’ve done here on these pages. As I spoke them to my counselor, I typed them out on this keyboard. Week after week, I had someone witness my story. Someone who had never heard it before, and it walked me toward my answers, baby step by baby step. Then an incredible question came into my life.
In your life scenario, where is Jesus? If you could figuratively pull back, zoom out on your life, and look around the rooms and places you live, where would you find Jesus?
The first time I asked him where he was in my life, when I couldn’t see it for myself, was when I was supporting Marie and helping her all this time. I knew he was with me all along, but where exactly, was the real question.
I focused harder, digging deep to meditate on the hardest moments of the journey. I remembered the moment in the hospital, the last time I would ever see her. I sat by her bedside, looking at her hands, feeling all the sadness of saying goodbye to her and our lifetime of memories together. Tears had been falling into my lap the entire time. And that’s when he gently showed me where he was. He was in my tears. His presence lit up my tears with the brightest colors. Like life itself was inhabiting the tears. Robin’s egg blue and goldenrod yellow danced in the drops like electricity, his presence inhabiting my overwhelm. In his constant companionship, he experienced the sadness right with me. He showed me that day that he was just as sad for the parts of my story that were hard.
Yet he does not stop there. He answered all my questions. He showed me that he’s strong enough to stand up for me when I can’t stand up on my own. And finally, a dream I had, showed me that when I think he’s forgotten about my deepest desires, he’s actually fighting for them on my behalf.
I dreamt I was inside a metal box. It was about the size of a stand up shower, and the walls were thick with grease, inches deep with thick, black grease that when I tried to use my foot to prop myself on the wall to get out, my foot just slipped down. There was no way out. I was trapped in this metal box and the grease represented the suffering in this world. I asked Jesus where he was. Jesus, where are you? And I looked up to grey skies, and no one there to help me, no one to lend a hand down to pull me out. I waited for a time, hoping he would still show up. But that’s when I remembered he was inside me all that time with Marie, inside my tears, inside my heart, and I looked for him there. And when I looked back up, the metal box was gone. He himself is the answer to the way I cope with suffering. Putting my attention on him IS the answer to take my eyes off suffering. After I got out of the box, I was worried about myself as a fifteen year old girl. I thought of how her suffering, her fear, was worthy of rescue. I wanted to help her. Jesus was with me, we soared across the desert in moments, just like a dream allows, and I ended up in my fifteen year old bedroom. She wasn’t there, me that is. I opened the closet, and found her there. My presence with Jesus, bringing my young self out of hiding, was a moment that reframed my entire youth. Jesus was allowing all these things to happen so I could continuously get closer to him, and so Marie could surrender his life to her. The last event in the dream was leaving my childhood home. There was energy, peace, and excitement in our hearts. We were happy to be together. You know, it was me, Jesus, and my fifteen year old self. But this is when Jesus showed off. We stepped out onto my front porch to see my mom and Marie in the front seat of my mom’s old Jeep Cherokee. Jesus didn’t hold one detail back. Marie and I had so many memories in that car. A road trip to Bodie, riding on the windows with our hair blowing in the wind, bringing home a new mattress on top of that car, and on the same day I was having a first kiss with a boyfriend on that same porch, Marie and my mom drove back and forth down the street trying to embarrass me. The memories were sweet, and now Jesus was showing me that all along, he cared about every single moment I had with Marie. He was there. He has those memories with us. He can be the one I recall them with when Marie isn’t here to quote all our inside jokes. That’s one of the things I couldn’t get over. She was the only one who knew all of our shared memories, so now I bear them alone. But I don’t. Jesus shares in every single one with me, and he will never leave me. His spirit is a constant companion.
In the weeks after this dream, I continued to seek out care from Dr. Eric, the physical therapist. He kept encouraging me and telling me what things I could do to continue the improvement of my shoulder pain, and it began to change, to improve, and my life changed. Now that my soul was untethered, my shoulders became untethered as well. The responsibility of Marie’s life was never mine. These lessons took root in my life. The suffering of the world is not mine to bear. I can trust that God will use suffering in the lives of all people everywhere for the good of the world and for the glory of his son. I may not want to look suffering in the face, but now I know I can look at Jesus anytime to feel the relief from that burden. It’s my choice.
Every day, I looked to see where Jesus was in my day. I looked inside my heart, where he said he resides, and I found an even deeper connection to him. My prayer life changed, my ability to connect to his Spirit came quicker, and the depth of insight to the world around me awakened. I couldn’t believe he would be able to take a life experience like this one and use it to bring me closer to him. His ability to teach me through this world opened my eyes to his incredible ability to communicate without ever using words.
After the eight weeks of counseling, the incredible dream, and the incremental improvement of my physical body, I could not believe how much my life was changing. I had room in my life that I hadn’t had for years. My desire to connect with friends increased, my investment in my family and the people around me deepened, and I began to dream again.
Easter was coming soon and I told Kip it was time to make good on a promise I made with Vess and Marie.
God showed me in a dream that he cares about what I care about.
On Easter weekend, nearly one year after Marie passed away, and one year ago, we fulfilled the promise that was made. Marie, Vess and I fantasized that if Marie was healthy, it would be a dream for her and Vess to travel the states together, stopping along to visit friends, see the beauty of the US, and that one day, we would share cheese stuffed burgers out on our patio in Arizona. We would drink the left over wine from their wedding together to celebrate the simple pleasures of life. It wouldn’t look exactly like that, but it was the perfect time to honor this lofty dream we came up with together.
Our family invited Vess out to Arizona for a sunny Easter weekend, to celebrate and remember Marie together.
Vess joined all our regular family activities for the weekend, including moving rocks with us in the front yard. Nothing like being volunteered to do landscaping on a relaxing weekend. But I think he quite enjoyed 3 square home cooked meals because he was living the bachelor pilot’s life, eating at restaurants and airports, so he appreciated it more than he let on.
Saturday afternoon after our physical labor was done, Vess and I sat on the couch, vegging out on our phones and I remembered I have pictures of Marie that Vess had never seen before. That’s one thing you don’t realize about losing someone until it happens. There are no new pictures being taken. The pictures you have are the only pictures you will ever have. I asked Vess if he wanted to see them. The good, the bad, and the nearly impossible to look at. The good, the ones where we were amazingly happy together, the bad, the ones that we were embarrassed of with our bad teenage hair and sunburns, and the nearly impossible, the ones I snapped during the hardest 16 months of all our lives. The images of Marie in the hospital, looking so waif and unlike her normal glowing self. These were the ones I warned him about. They were hard to look at. Vess got quiet. He flipped through the photos and wished Marie was here. We all wished that.
On Sunday, after Easter service, we invited Kip’s parents to join us, and we had quite the dinner party. There were 8 of us, enjoying the sun, preparing food and looking over details to make the night truly special.
We made the cheese stuffed burgers, Vess made the Bulgarian salad dish, he and Marie made together often. Marie called it Christmas salad for the red of the tomatoes and the green of the herbs. I pulled out the engraved champagne flutes Marie had gifted Kip and I for our wedding in 1996. I got out enough wine glasses for all the adults, and we poured the white wine from Marie and Vess’ wedding. The two weddings and a memorial being celebrated at once, intertwined with the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; the ultimate display of power over death and love for all. We could feel the presence of God and Marie with us. I shared glances with each person at different times, all of us knowing the sweetness and the complexity of the feelings at this dinner party.
Every detail was perfectly attended, but it wasn’t exactly how we said it would be. Marie and Vess were not travelling across the US in an RV, taking Route 66 to get to us. But certainly we couldn’t control whether Marie was there with us that day, but by fulfilling the promise we made, that was how we honored Marie that day.
We stood around the kitchen, holding our glasses with the wine Marie had chosen for her wedding and the champagne flutes she had chosen for my wedding.
I asked Vess to start the toast.
“I don’t have anything especially eloquent prepared, so I will let you do the honor of going first, Kelly.” Vess said to me.
“Well, I think everything has been said except I wish Marie was here to share this night with us. But on the other hand, I do believe she is here.” I squinted my eyes and smiled, trying to keep the tears to a minimum.
“To Marie!”, Vess said.
And we all echoed, “To Marie!”
Here we are sitting outside in the backyard celebrating Marie together on Easter weekend, 2019.
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