Choosing Faith Over Darkness

This post originally appeared on the Jesuit Association of Student Personnel Administrators- JASPA- blog.

Growing up Catholic, my relationship with God was traditional and fear-based. God was a white-haired old man, like the movie versions of Noah and Moses, who would get angry if I did something wrong. I went to church and received the sacraments, but I cannot say that I knew God, or wanted to know God. God was just there, an ethereal being floating in the clouds. I attended Catholic grade school and high-school. So, when it came time to choose a college, most of the institutions I applied to were also Catholic.

It wasn’t until my college experience at Boston College that I really came to know and love Christ and let Christ know and love me. My years in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts were the beginning of my faith journey. While in college, I became a student of my faith. I learned about the church as a human, flawed institution made up of sinners trying to do the right thing. Through service learning experiences, I came face-to-face with my own privilege and my own assumptions about social justice and fairness. I discovered that I wanted to be in a relationship with Christ and that I could. All I had to do was try.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was investing in a relationship that would turn out to be the most important one of my life. I leaned into my faith and I chose to embrace the mystery of being broken by my own sins and missteps, and yet so completely loved by Christ regardless.  It was like saving for retirement. I deposited my faith in the bank.

On December 12, 2008 my three year old son, Luke Ignatius Fochtman, was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Everything that I knew about life and my role in it changed instantly and permanently. I needed the faith that I had deposited all those years before. I needed it like air.

When your child is suffering, there is nothing that you will not do to take it from them. The weight of that and the possibility that he might die were unbearable at times. It created fear beyond anything that I had ever experienced up to that point or since. The 15 months of active treatment were pure terror. There were times when I was weak and doubted my ability to be the parent that Luke needed. There were times when I wondered if he would live.

I am not hard-wired for optimism. I am more of a cautious realist. So, my relationship with hope was a tricky one. But, through prayer I was given the wisdom to let go. For the first time in my life, I put all of my fears and hopes before Christ. Choosing faith over the darkness was the ultimate act of trust. My Jesuit education gave me the courage to do it.

My experiences with my son’s illness made me a more faithful person and a better college advisor. I was not job-searching when I found my current position in the College of Nursing at Michigan State University. It happened to come open and I applied. God works like that sometimes- opening doors and letting us choose to walk through them.

Nurses were an integral part of our son’s treatment; they cared for Luke on multiple levels. Nurses taught us how to administer medicine, clean central lines, and keep Luke safe. Certified Register Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) put Luke to sleep over 50 times. Although the cancer was in Luke’s body, his diagnosis and treatment impacted everyone. Nurse Practitioners cared for us as Luke’s family. They asked questions about Connor, our younger son, and taught us about the cognitive, social, and emotional impact that cancer can have on a family. One of Luke’s favorite nurses, “Nurse Marshmallow,” was there at the beginning of Luke’s treatment. She runs the long-term survivor clinic that Luke will join in April. She will be with us until Luke is an adult.

When Luke was in treatment, I withdrew from my faith account daily. I prayed all the time– in the car, the shower, before falling asleep. The prayers of others helped fill my account also; I was held and comforted by others’ prayers for us. Through my current work as an advisor, I feel like I am getting the chance to make deposits again.

I am honored to be working with young women and men who will be the next generation of nurses. My students are smart, focused, and driven. They also have servants’ hearts. September is childhood cancer awareness month. For the last two years, the nursing student association has invited me to speak at their meeting. In sharing our family’s journey through the darkness, I hope my students learn that they already have within them everything they need to be a compassionate nurse. I encourage and challenge them to see themselves as the nurses who will teach a father how to give his son injections, or the nurse who holds a mother’s hand as she cries tears of joy and relief. I also hope that my students will know that they can face darkness, too. Whatever it may be.

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