The MRI showed the tumor as a white Rorschach blot in the midst of gray brain. Two words bubbled to the surface of my mind: evil incarnate. Evil had become flesh and dwelt among us.
Clinical jargon quickly took over my thoughts: Large pineal area tumor in an adolescent male presenting with visual signs typical for a tumor in this area. Most likely diagnosis: germinoma.
My mind flips forward to surgical approaches for a tumor like this, the advantages and disadvantages of each, the myriad of complications. Then I stop. This time I am sickened by the violence that is surgery, and I am afraid.
This time the tumor, this incarnate evil, is in my son’s brain.
Eight years before, our family went for a Sunday afternoon family walk on the beach. Although it was Fall, the afternoon turned warm, and the boys (then aged six and eight) started wading in the surf. Soon they were up to their necks, and I jumped in to join them leaving Mary with baby Brieanna in her stroller. The boys and I splashed for what seemed a mere moment in the surf before I realized we were treading water. I looked up and could see the shore only when we bobbed to the top of a wave. It looked a mile away.
I had heard of riptides but never experienced one. Somehow I had to keep us together and bring us home.
At my direction Jay slid over my back and wrapped his arms around my neck as I did a slow breaststroke back to the beach. Adam swam in front of me. I talked and made a game of bobbing in the waves. I didn’t want them to be frightened. If any one of us panicked we were all doomed.
A long time later (thirty minutes? forty-five? an hour?) we made it to shore. I stood at the waterline, relieved and exhausted, Adam next to me, also tired and probably irritated that he had to swim all the way while his little brother got to ride. I congratulated myself that I had concealed the danger from the children and they could still feel safe.
Then Jay ran to his mother shouting, “Mommy, Mommy! Daddy just saved us from a watery grave!”
A few months later I saw a newspaper report about a fellow neurosurgeon who had completed his residency in Boston and took his family for a vacation to Florida before starting his career in Atlanta. He went swimming with his two sons, got caught is a riptide and they all drowned. A reminder–it could have been us.
But we were unscathed.
We learned that our lives could change in the blink of an eye, that our time together is not a given–it is a gift. We also felt that regardless of how hopeless our situation, we were under God’s protection.
Eight years later I looked at Adam’s MRI and had the same feeling I had when I bobbed to the top of the wave and saw the shore a mile away. We had a long swim before us with no guarantee we would ever reach safety.
The next several days were filled with a trip to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, a brain biopsy and shunt, a spinal tap, and an appointment for radiation therapy–all this before Mary’s last chemotherapy appointment (a whole story unto itself). And prayer.
We prayed for healing. And because we knew that each of our lives and each of our children’s lives are a gift, not a given, we prayed for peace and the Lord’s will to be done. But along with these prayers, we also had a sense of vulnerability. Evil had become flesh and dwelt among us. We were scathed.
Adam lost his hair and he lost his strength. The tumor shrank, but a shunt infection caused pain and high fevers requiring another operation and weeks of antibiotics. By Christmas, all he could do was lie on the couch, dozing, warmed by Fluffy the dog.
We continued to pray. Adam regained some of his strength, but never returned to being a gymnast. A few wisps of hair returned to replace the dense blond mop he had before. He kept up with his classes and finished his junior year on time. He could walk and drive and a few months later he could jump enough that his feet actually left the ground. The tumor remained absent on follow-up scans.
But we all lived in fear. A headache could precede disaster, cold symptoms might be the beginning of the end, a phone call could bring tragic news. We felt vulnerable.
So we prayed more.
Recently our adopted son, Peter Ter, was in Jacksonville to introduce his bride to his Florida families, and he reminded me of what vulnerability brings. He spent his childhood separated from his family, wandering through south Sudan and Ethiopia seeking refuge from the violence of civil war. Eventually, he landed in a Kenyan refugee camp where he lived through most of his teen years. He came to this country in 2001, just before response to the 9-11 tragedy closed the borders. Since then, he has worked hard, studied hard, graduated from UF, and obtained two Master’s degrees and has served overseas in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan, China, and the Republic of Georgia. A year ago he returned to the U.S., moved to D.C., got a full-time job at Peace Corps headquarters, fell in love, got married, and is expecting his first child.
He recounted some of the hardships of the refugee camp, the hunger, the physical punishments, the pain, and the loneliness. His hope came from only one thing: a Bible that a Catholic priest had given him. Each day he would read and pray that he would be respected, useful, and not alone, and each day he would feel God’s presence.
Now he has respect, an admirable mission, and he is loved. But now he says that what he misses is the nearness to God that he felt in the refugee camp. He does not miss the suffering, but he does miss the complete dependence on God that is so easy to lose when all your prayers are answered. To be near God now, he must learn a new discipline.
Like Peter, I don’t miss the riptide. And we don’t miss the dark days of our cancer year. Mary and Adam carry physical scars; all of us carry emotional scars. Those experiences forced me to cry out to God in pain and fear.
In response, He gave me a vision. I saw the universe as one part of the mind of God. The universe was so vast, incomprehensible, yet God was bigger than even that. And me? I was just a tiny part of God’s mind–just one of His ideas. But an idea, a thought, in the mind of God! I think my ideas are important. I don’t give them up, I treasure them, use them, sometimes modify them. They are what I am. I might be tiny in the mind of God, but tiny does not mean I am unimportant. I am His idea and part of His mind.
We have been frightened. We have been scathed and will be scathed again. But for now, we have been saved from evil incarnate. And when evil comes again, I know we will never be alone. In the mind of God we will each rest in the peace that comes from being His special idea.