TRIGGER WARNING: childhood cancer, loss of child
It was the day before my birthday and my younger kids and I were visiting with our friends the Chantemerles—Joanna and her two children—in Charlotte, NC. It was hot (it’s always hot in Charlotte in July), so we took our kids to nearby Carowinds to the water park, Carolina Harbor.
It was a beautiful day, but I was not at all in a festive mood. My friend Kim from Oklahoma City was in the hospital due to complications from a recent surgery; her son, Caleb, the same age as my youngest daughter, was at home with the rest of the family. I kept my Nokia flip-phone handy; I did not want to miss her call.
You see, Kim and her family had been suffering through an unimaginably difficult year. March of the previous year, Kim had triumphed over breast cancer. The joy over this victory faded quickly, though, because in April the family learned that Caleb had a rare and deadly form of cancer called DIPG (Diffused Intrinsic Pontine Glioma). By that day at Carowinds, Caleb had lived with DIPG for 15 months.
A month earlier, Kim had gotten more devastating news. She had a new cancer—no connection to the breast cancer—and would have to undergo surgery to have a chance at a full recovery. Around that same time, Caleb’s condition began declining rapidly. Kim had the surgery and returned home to join the family in attending to Caleb’s palliative care. Unbelievably, she soon began experiencing excruciating pain and was rushed back to the hospital for emergency surgery. That was where things stood on that day, July 21, 2009.
Meanwhile, my kids and their friends played in the water park, enjoying new independence at the ages of 11, 13, and 15. Joanna and I pulled a couple of lounge chairs together to serve as headquarters for the day, directed the kids to check in with us hourly, and sent them on their way.
The call came. Kim sounded numb, hollow really.
What do you say to someone who is in the hospital recovering from emergency surgery while her son slips into the hereafter back at home? I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you what I said; I just remember being determined not to lose it emotionally while I was on the phone with her. I held it together for the few minutes we were on the phone, hung up and released the fragile hold I had on my state of mind.
About that time the children stopped by for their check-in and Joanna told them about the call. I was crying, head in hands, but immediately became concerned for my kids who had just heard this devastating news. When I looked up, my youngest was reaching for me. She wrapped the two of us in her towel and drew me close. She looked back at the rest of our group and explained, “She’s sad because this reminds her of when Paxten died.”
She was right. I don’t know if it happens to everyone, but when I lose a loved one, all other losses rush forward into the present. The aunt who passed away when I was six years old, the grandmother who died when I was in college, and yes, my little three-and-a-half-year-old friend, Paxten, who died the previous year, also from cancer. . .those and others crowded into my heart for their share of the sadness, managing to multiply, rather than to divide it.
Yes, my daughter spoke the truth: I did feel a sweeping, all-encompassing grief in the minutes following that phone call. But I also felt a pain piercing past all previous ones, a one-of-a-kind sorrow, instantly and specifically formed by the passing of 11-year-old Caleb Spady.
After a few moments, the sounds of Carolina Harbor seeped back into my awareness: loud music proclaiming “Summertime’s calling me,” children squealing as they waited for the bucket hanging above to dump cold water on their heads, parents calling out, “Walk!” and “How about a snack?” and “Come dry off!” Just another day at the water park.
And a day I will never forget.
(Today, Kim is in good health. She and her husband Ken live in Oklahoma with their sons Seth and Luke. Their son Jacob and his new wife live not very far away.)
And now, dear brothers and sisters,
we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died
so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.
For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again,
we also believe that when Jesus returns,
God will bring back with him the believers who have died.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (NLT)