Mom and I sat together in the waiting room, leaning toward each-other in whispers, both of us a little sad. We did a lot of waiting on Thursday at Sloan Kettering. Dad had a full day at the cancer center in New York – his home away from home. There’s been some significant developments in the course of his illness in recent days. The doctors continue to see low numbers of leukemia cells in his blood – they say he’s in a “first remission” – which is good news. But the terminology betrays the inescapable reality of dad’s disease. It will return, and in fuller force than the first time. And if he’s fortunate enough to have a second remission, there will be a third relapse some time after. And so on. It is a losing battle, which was blissfully forgotten by us all for a little while this past month as dad returned to his office at the church, and to a somewhat normal family life. It has been too short though. He is getting steadily weaker from the harsh blow of chemotherapy to his body. And even as each blood test comes back in remission, we are not pretending that all is well.
Just a week ago, however, we learned from his doctors that they had identified a blood match. There was no match to be found in the national bone marrow donor database (seven million strong) but several were found in a similar bank of cord blood. It turns out that the blood cells in otherwise discarded umbilical cords are full of potential. They can be collected at birth and frozen for stem cell transplants years later. In recent years, researchers have discovered ways to make cord blood work to treat leukemia in adult patients. Dad’s doctors were excited to give him the news. Statistically, he’s already beaten tremendous odds just to be eligible. And the doctors want to do the procedure soon to keep him ahead of the odds.
The news was received with mixed emotions last week. There was some relief that a match was found – we could have easily been told that there was no possibility of a transplant, after which we could only think of our time with dad in the context of months instead of years. But the procedure is a risk, and no one is more aware of this than dad. Listening to his doctor, dad’s countenance turned introspective and somber, like a soldier in those last awkward moments before being deployed to war.
A bone marrow transplant (or a blood stem-cell transplant, which is what dad will be getting) is, in itself, not a really big deal. It’s simply a couple vials of blood infused through an IV line. But the preparative regimen which leads up to the transplant is an assault. And the months that follow, a battle. Winning means gaining the potential for lots and lots of years added onto one’s life.
Since getting sick in January, dad has continually told my mom that he will do whatever the Lord puts in his path to fight the cancer. If God opens up a door, he’ll step through it. And if He doesn’t, he’s OK with that because he’s in God’s hands. This is not just religious talk from a guy who works at a church. I’ve seen dad living his faith this past month – evident in one of those great paradoxes of God’s design: As dad gets weaker, it seems he is getting stronger.
Mom is perhaps getting stronger too, but she wears her fears a little more outwardly. She cried some between sentences as we spent the long day together at the hospital, talking about everything and anything. “Do you ever wonder,” she asked quietly,“why me?” We were in the waiting room at the pulmonary function testing center. Dad was with doctors engaged in one of many, many tests required before his transplant. It was the first test of the first day of ten days of preparations before six weeks of medical isolation for dad. After that would be six months of recovery at home and an uncertain future. Mom was starting to feel the weight of what was ahead. And I was there trying to figure out how I could help her carry it.
Today, I could only do that by being with her and laughing together. Then, keeping watch and giving mom some time to get away and arrange flowers at the recreation center, sitting together again, sharing a hot chocolate, and trying to encourage her.
Dad fell asleep during a two-hour IV drip and I got a call from Kenya. I walked out of the treatment suite he was in, and over to a hallway with a window. As I looked out over the upper east side of Manhattan, my heart was taken back to Africa. Jim called to tell me the details of an aircraft accident we had in Sudan this past Saturday. At a place I’ve been to many times, in an airplane I know like a friend, one of my colleagues and four missionaries had crashed on takeoff. The plane, destroyed. But the hand of God, evident from the moment the plane came to rest upside down in a ditch. No-one seriously hurt. Grace pouring out like the hundreds of gallons of jet fuel. The missionaries, now resolved more than ever to press on working at that difficult and oppressive place. The airplane, already in the process of being replaced. The team, pulling together because they have to.
It was hard news to hear just days ago when I got the first phone call. An aircraft accident is a really big deal, even if the injuries are only minor, and I know everyone at AIM AIR will be affected by it. Our team was already stretched with flying this season, and my departure in March didn’t help any. While listening to the few, sketchy details last Saturday, my stomach was in knots. And my first thoughts were of the “why” variety that mom had just expressed to me. Why now? Why are we not there to help? I’m sure the guys back in Kenya have been asking the same kinds of questions. Especially the pilot. I’ve been there. At a muddy little strip in Sudan, not entirely sure how the airplane will perform. It could have happened to me.
But after talking to Jim, as I stood there with my emotions stretched between two different worlds, I began to get a picture of God working through the wreck. I wouldn’t claim to know “why” this happened. Or why it happen now as opposed to last year. Or why it happened to someone else and not me. But I could say for sure that I see God has a plan. This would be a lot harder to say if there had been fatalities.
Mom and dad are facing a “crash” in slow motion. It’s inevitable. What remains to be seen is where the pieces fall and how both of them will come out of it. When mom asked me if I ever wondered “why me?” it was because she was wondering that very thing. I didn’t have an answer for her, but she found one in the course of the conversation without my help. She told me that she believed God was doing something through this. And that His plan probably isn’t only for her and dad, but for someone else too. I thought mom answered her own question wisely.
Actually, what she said answers a lot of questions.