When Nothing Was Something
Adam, Jay and I played ping-pong on the upper deck of an ocean liner cruising on the Alaskan Inside. The night was spectacular. Though it was ten PM, the multi-colored twilit sky gave adequate illumination for our game, the sea reflected the sky, and distant hills of pine forest slid by.
Family vacations then were a novelty, a rare period of recovery. This one was especially precious because our family was recovering from Mary’s diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer just a few months before.
Adam was losing at ping-pong. “I’m see two balls,” he said. “I don’t know which one to hit.”
Brain tumor jumped to my consciousness. I had seen dozens of patients with brain tumors whose initial symptom was double vision. But then I quieted my alarm. People get double vision for other reasons, I told myself. And I’m not his doctor; I’m his father. Let his pediatrician take care of it.
It’s probably nothing, I thought to myself.
A week later his pediatrician examined him. He said, “It’s probably nothing, but I’d like him to see an ophthalmologist.”
A few days later the ophthalmologist said, “It’s probably nothing, but I’d like him to see a neuro-ophthalmologist.”
At this point, I no longer thought it was nothing. I scheduled an MRI scan on my own son. The neuro-ophthalmologist found that Adam had an eye condition that always points to a tumor in the pineal region of the brain. A few hours later the MRI confirmed his suspicion.
I suppose it’s possible to have a child with cancer and not pray. Perhaps there are those so convinced of their atheism, or so lost along their way, or so unattached from their child that the impulse doesn’t come. But I suspect those are the rare exceptions. Even those with the thinnest belief in an almighty benevolent power are driven to their knees when their child’s life is at risk.
So I prayed. And Mary prayed, Adam prayed, and the whole family prayed together. Then I sought out the best medical care possible.
If you’ve followed this website, particularly Adam’s posts, you will know that the subsequent road was hard. Many things were lost never to be re-gained. Some dreams folded up and died along the way.
But Adam survived and is cancer free twenty-six years later. This week Adam and I are hiking together in the Smoky Mountains, one way we have of celebrating life and health.
So here is a question I have kept to myself for a quarter century. Did Adam survive as an answer to prayer? Or did Adam survive because of good medical care? The person of faith in me says that my prayer was answered; the doctor in me says that surgery, radiation, and drug treatment cured him.
Both, I want to answer. I have faith that God is real and He heard and answered our prayers. And I have faith that medicine and surgery prolonged Adam’s life.
But is it true? Before neurosurgery and radiation therapy, parents prayed for their children with brain tumors, and they died. I have personally treated a teen-ager with a similar tumor who had no family, nor apparent faith, and he lived. The medical care seems to be the most critical element, at least to my worldly eyes.
Then again, I prayed to the Almighty, the creator of the universe, and He granted my request. Should I say now that the prayer had nothing to do with the outcome? That the radiation would have cured him anyway?
When Nothing Was Nothing
A few months ago, my daughter, Brieanna, called. She had developed a lump in her armpit.
It’s probably nothing, I said. She was nursing her second baby; maybe the lump had something to do with that. Small cuts or infections in the arm could cause a swollen lymph node. Or a viral infection could do the same.
Two weeks went by and the lump increased in size. She had no symptoms or evidence of breast feeding problems, injuries or infections. It’s probably nothing, I told myself. But I wasn’t so sure. This is how lymphomas start. A nightmare scenario played itself out in my mind: my grown daughter with cancer, her two little boys needing her, her devastated husband. Such scenarios are easy to imagine after your wife and another of your children have been diagnosed with cancer.
So Mary and I prayed for healing. Brieanna scheduled a doctor visit and an ultrasound of the swollen node. On the morning of the the ultrasound the lump unexpectedly disappeared.
“What do you think?” Mary asked me. I still have a small amount of credibility when it comes to family medical matters.
The residual doctor part of my brain thought, unrecognized breast infection or cuticle infection or a virus. Probably nothing.
Then I caught myself. When I pray for something and get it, I am sometimes quick to forget the prayer and ascribe the good fortune to natural or manmade causes. Something wonderful had just happened. I should not be so quick with an explanation; I should be quick with grateful praise. The appropriate response is Thank you, Jesus.
“It was probably nothing,” I told Mary. “Or a miracle.”