By Larry W. Timm
When the sun rose on Thursday, October 29, 2015, my family hummed with anticipation over our quickly approaching family vacation to Florida. After the sun set that cold night, we were stunned and afraid and gathered together in a hospital room in Illinois.
The terrifying journey from happiness to horror started that morning when my wife took our 14-year-old daughter, Jayne, to see a pediatrician.
After struggling through a lingering cold, Jayne had noticed a lump on her neck; if she needed antibiotics, we wanted to get the prescription before beginning our trip.
Her appointment led from a precautionary ultrasound of Jayne’s neck to a CT scan of her upper body. Then, designated as an emergency patient, Jayne was swiftly transferred to the Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria.
Nearly drowning in disbelief, we fought to keep from being pulled down by the ominous whirlpool that churned more powerfully with each procedure and each doctor who spoke in guarded medical lingo. Yet certain words had burned themselves into my awareness as though pressed there by a red-hot branding iron: mass . . . lymphoma . . . oncologist. The more I tried to ignore these scorching words, the more each syllable throbbed.
Later, sometime about midnight, with my battered emotions reeling between pain and desperation, I drove to our house to pack some clothes for my wife and daughter. They would stay at the hospital, but due to Pediatric Intensive Care Unit regulations, I would eventually need to bring our 7-year-old son home.
At home, as I stepped into Jayne’s room to get her clothes to put in the suitcase—the same suitcase we had planned to pack for our family vacation—the swelling streams of sadness, despair, anger, denial, and helplessness merged into a raging torrent of grief I could no longer contain. I loudly implored God to make the scans and X-rays wrong; just one big mistake, easily explained by something harmless.
Something . . . benign.
“God, nothing is impossible with you. I believe you can heal her with your miraculous touch! Please!” I begged.
My assurance of God’s omnipotence was countered by the unsettling thought that maybe my faith was too weak to help my daughter. I became like the father who desperately cried out to Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24*).
No doubt with clouded motives, I reasoned with God that healing my daughter would be a perfect opportunity to bring attention and glory to his name.
Then I bartered with our sovereign God to take the cancer from my daughter and put it in me. If someone had to go through this hideous disease, let it be me. Make me crawl through this fire, all the way to the valley of the shadow of death if necessary. Me . . . not my daughter.
Please, God . . . not her.
I knew my strong and godly wife was lifting up the same unceasing pleas from Jayne’s hospital room.
On that October night, jagged anguish stabbed deeper than anything we’d ever suffered before. And even as we hoped for a less-than-deadly explanation of the early test results, we could still hear the menacing hiss of two of the most venomous words in the human language: “What if . . .”
We cried to God because we knew he was there, listening. We weren’t blindly groping for an unknown, inattentive higher power; instead, we were desperately reaching out to our heavenly Father. We believed he heard our every word, understood our every groan, translated our every tear. My family was agonizing, but we were not alone. Our faith rested on the promise that nothing could separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Not even cancer.
And if God chose to give us endurance instead of instant healing, we could trust him. We held firm to the belief that his sovereignty meant he could do whatever he wanted, and whatever he wanted to do was always right.
The next morning, in a small nook off the hallway outside Jayne’s hospital room, I stared at X-rays of my precious daughter’s upper body. My stalwart wife stood statue-still, distress etched on her pale face. The doctor pointed to a ghostly mass that covered more than a third of my daughter’s chest, just above her heart. The worry engulfing us thickened into suffocating terror when the doctor said, “In addition to the mass in her neck, it appears this is a second tumor. A biopsy will reveal what type of cancer she is facing.” (It turned out to be stage two Hodgkin’s lymphoma.)
Rather than having the doctor inform Jayne, I muttered that my wife and I should tell her.
How do you tell your child that she has cancer?
We went to Jayne’s bed, trying not to allow fear to trample our faith, or sorrow to silence our words. I held my daughter’s hand, just like I’d held her hand when she was a sweet baby and needed to be comforted, or an ambitious toddler and needed help to stand, or my little princess who just wanted to cuddle on daddy’s lap and tell him about her fun-filled day.
Or like the time I held her when I baptized her.
On that Friday morning, we joined trembling hands in a hospital room that existed because sometimes a child’s well-being is assaulted by far worse than an imaginary beast that waits under her bed or lurks in her closet.
Some monsters are real.
And, on the day before Halloween, we told her the name of this one: Cancer.
We cried together, then prayed together for strength and guidance, help and healing.
On that Friday, the elders and congregation at the Morton Christian Church also flooded Heaven with intense intercession. People across the country and the world also prayed for us. Texts and calls lifted us up on waves of love beyond anything words can describe.
My wife’s parents drove from Kansas to stay with us (and their amazing help has continued). The incredible leadership team of elders and staff at our church circled around us, took on the responsibilities of ministry, and freed me to put all of my energies into caring for my family. For as long as necessary, I was on paid leave, with a standing offer that if we needed anything, all we had to do was ask.
That was just the beginning. It was Friday . . . but Sunday was coming.
And Sunday, November 1, 2015, will remain a day my family will never forget, because as part of the morning church service, the congregation came to our house. They stood in the yard, the driveway, and at the edge of the street. And, with my daughter watching from her bedroom window and my wife and I standing out in the yard in the midst of the crowd, the church prayed.
And they haven’t stopped.
Three weeks later, I returned to the pulpit and preached from Psalm 42. I longed to share with those who were hurting along with us that hope still belongs to God’s people, under any circumstances. I confessed my struggle to understand the “why” of this season of our lives. But I shared my conviction that a day is coming in which none of this pain and sorrow will matter.
The psalmist wrote, “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence” (Psalm 42:5).
The bottom line is this: Because Jayne knows Jesus, she wins in the end—no matter what happens along the way.
A Grueling Road
Yes, this road has been grueling. We wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen it. And I’d still trade places with her, if possible. It’s been heartbreaking to see our daughter undergo five multistage rounds of chemotherapy, get sick, lose her hair, and wrestle with anxieties that would drain an adult, let alone a teenager. But she’s handled it all with grace. And I’m so proud of how she accepted the ironic turn of events that led to her finally getting to go to Florida . . . but for 20 radiation treatments instead of a family vacation.
We are not better than others who face trials. We are trying to face this journey with the awareness that, each day, we must choose whether we’ll walk in faith or fear. Frankly, some days are better than others. But we are trying hard to believe that “in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). With God’s help, and the prayers and love of an amazing congregation, and so many other wonderful people, we will not lose hope.
Jayne’s spirits are high, her attitude is inspiring, and her faith is courageous. She is truly one of the bravest people I’ve ever known. I’m humbled and honored to be her dad. Her unquenchable love of life and her relentless determination to find joy and laughter in each and every day continue to teach me that sometimes God’s mightiest warriors are also his most beautiful.
*Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
Larry W. Timm is a husband, father, writer, and the preaching minister with the Morton (Illinois) Christian Church.