“Momma!” Her two-year-old cry in the middle of the night was instantly recognizable. A stomach virus was making its way through the children. I was up and moving, tired and overwhelmed.
I knew from experience that Clara hated to throw up and would fight it. I braced myself for the battle. She burped, then swallowed to avoid the torrent. As the nausea increased, she violently pushed away the bowl while writhing, protesting, and crying in toddler anger. I forced her to stay in my lap and waited anxiously for the misery to be over. Eventually, the volcano erupted, and she finally relaxed. Spent from the battle as much as the sickness.
Three years later her fight was against a larger enemy than a virus. Cancer had formed and grown around her kidney, and the cure came by way of surgery, chemo, and radiation. Nausea became a near-constant companion, and true to her nature, she fought it. It was breath-catching to watch her pretty, young face close her eyes, breathe deep, and will her stomach to be quiet. I would also take a deep breath beside her, silently praying for peace, comfort, and any big fat calories to stick, stick, stick.
Sometimes when the nausea was more than she could bear, her eyes would go wide. “Distraction!” she would yell, sending me racing for a remote to turn on a movie or grabbing my iPad to generate a round of Angry Birds. During those times, she insisted on my quietness. Don’t ask about it; don’t talk at all. Total concentration was required for her to overcome the sensation in her belly. Would it be enough? Would her mind be able to overcome the chemicals that had destroyed her digestive track? Sometimes. Sometimes not. But she always tried. She never gave in to the chemo side effect that fought to steal her nourishment.
Clara had a different reaction when the chemo took her hair. As my five-year-old little girl sat on the ruby red chair holding the first clump of hair that had sluffed off her head, she said, “Well, I’m glad that the chemo is working.”
In some fights, she knew that the loss was a win.
Her insight came from the Holy Spirit and excellent child life specialists at the hospital. She understood that her job for six months was to focus on surviving (and she did!) and to recognize the temporary loss as a sign that the cancer was being evicted. She could look at the wispy blond hair in her hand and see it as simply a side effect.
Finding that same courage and wisdom took me a little longer.
In the middle of my worst night during Clara’s hospitalization, a code was called in a room down the hall. Nurses and doctors quietly ran to the room and with professional calm, a child was brought from death back to life. That evening as a snowstorm raged, I walked down the hall carrying a deep sadness. Loss was everywhere.
And try as I might to find it, there was no win in sight.
I looked to Jesus with angry fists and tired despair. I told him that this world is broken. I cried out against the cancer cells that multiply and destroy children’s bodies. Against the imperfect cures that destroy healthy cells. Against the detonated peace in my home.
He offered the most surprising response: He agreed.
As I watched huge snowflakes fall from the sky, I realized that my perspective was off. I was equating the broken and trauma-filled world with loss. In my head, cancer was in the “L” column, and I only wanted tally marks in the “W” column. That night, though, God gently turned my gaze a bit. All the losses I saw were not tally marks, rather they were symptoms of a fallen world. I railed against the side effects, and God agreed that the trauma and sorrow and disasters are awful. Like Clara fighting nausea, it was a real fight, but it wasn’t attacking the disease. And God could do more than fix symptoms or patch up brokenness.
Perspective shifts are not easy for me and this one took a while to establish the roots of change to establish in my heart. Slowly, over the next year, I moved from fists clenched in anger against all the losses, to grieving alongside God who saw it all and hurt alongside me.
Over time, I saw myself side-by-side with Jesus, living the side-effects of a broken-down world, and joining the mission to bring his kingdom to earth with every step. My heart moved from anger to hopeful anticipation and my soul cried louder for Jesus to come. To deal with sin and suffering once and for all. We pray “your kingdom come” because nothing less than God’s miraculous kingdom will fix the fallen world.
My daughter’s childhood cancer made me a participant, not just an observer. I could say, “I get it Jesus; I feel it, too. This place is broken and needs a miracle. Your kingdom come, please!” And once my grief merged with his, one question remained: “How can I demonstrate his kingdom today?”
A new perspective never minimized my pain. Quite the opposite. I could still feel the clumps of hair in our hands and rushed to find distractions. To deny the horror would have minimized the miracle of God’s renewal. By acknowledging the losses I came alongside God in his ache for restoration.
Cover image by Annie Spratt.