“Reconciling” childhood cancer and my faith

The anxious perfectionist in me hesitates to write most days. I think. A lot. All the time. All day. But, I post very little. I think a lot about why that is. Fear, anxiety, wanting to be liked, time, energy, laziness. Insert excuse here. Trying to find my voice on this blog is interesting. I am not entirely sure of who my audience is, or why those who have read before come back, or don’t. I am sure there are analytics about that somewhere. Maybe some techy blogger will help me figure that out.

Then, there are days like today where the universe send me multiple messages and it feels like I am being hit over the head with a baseball bat and the message is “Write, Monica!” You have something to say, write about it. Tell a story. So today my story is about the messages that I receive/see/choose to see about our journey with childhood cancer and trying to reconcile that with my faith.

I am following Saya Hillman on Twitter. She is a fellow Boston College alumna (Go Eagles! Women and Men for Others!) who is living with purpose in Chicago. She runs Mac and Cheese Productions, which is a company that helps people “live a life of yes!” Anyway, today on Twitter, she sent a link to this piece by Nate Pyle about the lie of God not giving you more than you can handle. I can’t remember how many times people said this to us, or about us, or near us, while L was in treatment. I have always hated this phrase. Detested it with the fire of a thousand suns. It has always rung false for me. Trite and condescending. And, in my experience, it is usually uttered by people who had experienced very little suffering. I know. It’s all relative. But, when your kid has stage four cancer and is being pumped full of poison, and you fear for their very lives, well, your perspective is different. My perspective is different.

I clicked on Nate’s blog and read through some of his posts. So far, I like what I have read. He is a man of faith, partner, parent, trying to do the best he can. He is also a Reformed minister. S and I met 13 years ago at Hope College in Holland, MI. We were the two Catholic people on staff at a Reformed institution, who after six weeks of intense Residence Life training decided we had crushes on each other and we should start dating. So, although I am not Reformed, my experiences those three years in Holland are very near and dear to my heart. They brought me my best friend, which brought me to my journey as a mother, and as a momcologist. See, signs everywhere.

I really love Nate’s raw honesty in his post. He is grieving, hurt, angry, confused. All of these things are okay. They are good. They are real. You have to go deeper into these feelings if you are ever going to heal. He recognizes this. He shares it publicly and in so doing, gives others permission to do the same. That rocks. That is what sharing your faith is about. I think. At least, that is what I look for and appreciate in others and their writing. I also love that he calls out “bumper-sticker theology” and challenges people of faith to ask tough questions. Yes. This. Asking the tough questions eventually leads to emptiness. In the emptiness is where the “answers” come.

S. and I talk almost daily about what it means to be blessed. Is there a difference between a gift, good fortune, a blessing, and just plain old luck? As a person of faith I sometimes think that I am supposed to think I am blessed. That all the good things I have, create, am, or will be, are from God. Okay. If this is true, then as a person of faith, I am bound by this tenet’s logical opposite, which is that all bad things also come from above. Does God have a curative and causative will? Is God a puppetmaster up in the sky pulling strings? Yikes! I sure as heck hope not. I personally don’t believe this.

I continue to stay involved in the childhood cancer community on Facebook and Twitter and my volunteer work with St. Baldrick’s. Some days this is harder than others. I see posts about “God answering prayers” or “Yes! God healed my grandson” or “believe in miracles!” juxtaposed with posts by my Momma friends who are missing their babies, grieving for lives cut too short, for miracles that didn’t come. Did God take their children to save others? Did they get chosen to walk this road because God believed that they could “handle” it? Are my friends who lost their babies more or less blessed? Are the same people who praise God when they get good news also praising them when they are hurting? No. I don’t believe this.

I can only speak for myself, but when my son was diagnosed, I felt totally and completely unprepared. I was a full-time PhD student, mom to two very young boys- still breastfeeding one of them- a wife, and part-time employee. At that time, my life was about me. Was I being punished? Or, did God send L. to me and S. because God knew this would happen to him and God knew that as L’s parents we could “handle” it?

I don’t have answers to most of these questions. How I see myself as a Christian has evolved over time and been deeply changed by my experience as a wife, mother, and momcologist. I grapple with these tough questions almost daily. I think, I pray, I (sometimes) write. So far, this is what I have come to believe:

The universe is random and chaotic. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. God did not give my son cancer. God did not take my son’s cancer away. My son wasn’t saved because I prayed harder, better, or more faithfully. If anything, I doubted more then (2008-2010) than I ever have before or since. God didn’t give my son cancer because he knew I could handle it. We are blessed. We are lucky. We are fortunate. All of them, none of them? We have health insurance. We have an amazing team of nurses and doctors at a world-class hospital less than 100 miles away from home. We have supportive family and friends who rallied around and behind us.

The God I know, love, wrestle with, and shout at, and thank, that God laughs when I laugh and weeps when I weep. That God holds me up and gently helps me choose to search for meaning and to embrace mystery.

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