I always hoped God would send a messenger to warn me before he called me back, although I never asked him to. He heard, though, and I had my white-robed emissary and the one-word sentence: Cancer.
People always ask about the pain. Usually I answer that it isn’t bad, or to special friends who want to share and lighten my passing, I confide that even blinking requires untellable effort. Neither answer comes close to the truth. Pain has come to be my friend, assuring me that I am still earthbound.
Ron, my husband, tells me I’ve prepared for years for this illness. I know he refers to the sentence uttered in my nightly prayers: “Please help me to be ready for whatever trials might come.”
I was in my early thirties when the very ease of my life first concerned me. Healthy, with a houseful of children and in love with Ron, I was leading, as the paperbacks say, a charmed life. But my best friend, five years my junior, was fighting a long battle with clinical depression. One day she pulled back the curtain and let me see her pain—as much as another person can. After that, when I asked, “How are you?” she didn’t always have to say “Fine.” She could say, “It hurts,” and then, knowing, we would talk deeply or lightly of other things.
Now it is I who has the pain, and my friend comes in health and beauty and strengthens me as we talk of other things.
The answer to my prayer for aid in future trials came a few weeks later when I was called to teach seminary—New Testament was the course of study that year. I had long worshipped Jesus as my Savior and marveled at His love for me, but that year I claimed Him as my friend and marveled at my love for Him. I wept with Mary as she anointed his head with precious ointment and washed his feet with her tears, foreshadowing the burial they both knew would shortly come.
I cringed behind a pillar with Peter as they scourged my Lord, fearful, yet unable to stay away. Sometimes, almost, I smelled the dust as I walked with Coleus toward Emmaus.
Finally, as I read John’s record in the Doctrine and Covenants, I, too, wanted to stay on earth and serve my Redeemer until He should come again. Feeling as I did, I thought of impetuous Peter, who wished away his world and the chance for more service that he might be speedily reunited with his Master.
It is winter now, and I am propped on a myriad of pillows in the big old recliner Ron bought me when our youngest was born. It faces the big picture window where I can look out and see just the top of the big sledding hill one block over. Every afternoon, two boys arrive with their toboggan and their dog, a big Irish setter.
The dog always reaches the hilltop first, bounding up the steep slope and waiting for his young owners. Then come the boys, the bigger one dragging the toboggan with one hand, assisting the smaller lad with the other. At the crest they look around for a few seconds, then mount the toboggan: little boy, bigger boy, and, at the last possible second, the Irish setter, his ears and tail flying behind him like an echo of the boy’s scarves.
Again and again they make the trip, until the first street light comes on and they disappear from my view. I suppose it is always warm in heaven.
Bishop Johansen came today. He put his hand over mine and sat with me a while, knowing that if he spoke I would have to answer. Finally he asked gently, “Is this mortal body becoming too heavy a burden, Beth?”
“It’s like the burden of great wealth,” I answer. “I never could see it that way.”
He laughed out loud, and the laughter sounded good in this too-quiet room. “I’m sorry you never got to try it for yourself,” he said, glancing around our comfortable but ordinary home.
“I am wealthy,” I insist. He nods and touches my hand again before he leaves.
I shut my eyes and hear other laughter. My son Bryan is again ten months old, a chubby, bristly-haired urchin. He is playing downstairs with his sister. Suddenly she runs upstairs to where I am doing the dishes. “Come quick, Mama,” she says breathlessly. “Bryan has the hiccups, and he doesn’t know what’s happening.”
I dry my hands and hurry behind her. At the bottom of the stairs Bryan sits like the laughing Buddha, a hand on either side of his round belly. His eyes sparkle expectantly, and when a giant hic erupts, he laughs raucously, catching my eye to share the moment.
For some things, modern language has no expression, and only the old phrases of the Bible will do: The fruit of my loins, nurtured carefully and finally plucked in its ripeness. The veil was so thin then. When the pain wrapped itself around me and squeezed until my very breath was gone and I could only form the prayers inside my head, the veil was thinning. When all experience would say, “Resist the pain,” the body’s ancient wisdom urged, “Push through the pain, push through.” The veil was thinning.
Four times I paid the required price to bring a new life into the world, and four times I found myself the debtor. Oh, Father, I can hear the voices still. Mine. Ron’s. “We have a son!” “Another boy! And he’s blond!” “Hair this time!” Such ordinary words, but in my mind I sang and shouted, “Glory to God in the highest. Wonderful! Counsellor! The mighty God! The everlasting Father!”
When Kathryn, my youngest, was born, the nurses didn’t whisk my newborn away to some sterile inner sanctum for twelve hours. Instead, they wrapped her warmly and left us alone together. I watched as she turned from blue to pink to almost marble white. I curled in bed and held her against me in the incubator nature surely intended.
Then slowly her color changed again to the deep translucent rose which foolish people call red. I unwrapped her, wanting to make her mine by right of discovery. Her feet were surprisingly long for her tiny body, but very slender and somehow utterly graceful. They were darker-hued than the rest of her and completely relaxed as she slept. I took one foot between my thumb and forefinger and stroked it from heel to toes. And suddenly it wasn’t a foot at all, but the most exquisite oriental flower, delicate vermilion, and smooth beyond remembering.
But that scene isn’t true without recalling, too, my own spent body, the heavy womb still protesting its loss, the hunger for sleep. They are part and parcel of it—the tangible verifying the ethereal.
Well, at least when I come before the great throne, I won’t be a stranger. “Ah,” the Judge will say, “you have worshipped here before.” And I will thank Him for each time. I will thank Him for the pain.
Shelley, my nurse, is watching me from the doorway of my bedroom. She is very young, but capable, cheerful, and endlessly kind. This morning she told me excitedly about her plans for the evening. The young men in her group have attached the sails from their wind-surfers to their snow skis. A rider can skim effortlessly over the ice, controlling his speed and direction.
Tonight, she says, they will build a gigantic bonfire by the lake and, helmets donned, fly out into the night until fear of darkness or desire for familiar companionship slows them, stops them. Then they will adjust the angle of the sail and fly as swiftly back.
“You make me wish I were going,” I tell her. She smiles and shakes her head. I smile too, imagining the young men helping me to stand while they strap the helmet to my wobbling head.
This is Shelley’s greatest service to me, this acceptance of my condition. My cancer is, after all, the reason for her presence, and it triggers for her no recollections of my former capabilities. My children offer to nurse me, but it hurts them to see me helpless and dependent, and their swollen eyes and brave smiles hurt me in turn.
Instead, I call them on my best days, and they come, these sons and daughters, their youth and strength infusing me with confidence. They are thoughtful of Ron, and he does no cooking, shopping, or cleaning. They visit with me or with each other, and sometimes, when they think I’m sleeping, they form a chorus and sing as they used to years ago, or start one of their punning contests that used to go on until dinner was cold. I see in them the joy of living that has enabled me to enjoy every stage of my life—even this. If that is my gift to them, I am satisfied. Forty-nine is young to die, but I have accomplished much.
Suddenly I remember a scene from early in our marriage. We are as young, fit, and eager as our children are now. While on vacation, driving through the mountains, we stop to walk a bit to relieve our cramped muscles. As we clamber down the steep incline from the highway, the river below is hidden from our view by the lush vegetation until we are almost at river’s edge. We find ourselves standing on a huge boulder, perhaps fifteen feet above a beautifully clear pool. We are soon poised in our swimming suits on the boulder’s rim.
I jump first, toes pointed, arms stretched high, knifing through the icy water, down, down, but never touching bottom, and then pulling myself up toward the sunshine, breaking the surface.
Ron doesn’t just jump. He leaps three feet above the rock before raising his knees and tucking into a tight cannonball that raises a great splash as he hits the water. When he surfaces, he bellows. No words, just a deafening “Arghh!”
“What’s wrong?” I call from the low rock where I bask in the warm sunshine.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he shouts accusingly.
“Tell you what?”
“You know what. That this water is one degree above freezing!”
“Would you have jumped?” I ask sweetly. Ron pulls himself up on the rock beside me. “I would have jumped,” he assures me with great dignity, “but I would have jumped knowing!”
It is nearly five. Soon Shelley will gather her things to go and Ron will be home. Twenty-eight years of marriage, and my heart still quickens at the thought. Admittedly there were years when my primary emotion at his arrival was not pleasure but relief: another adult to battle with me against juvenile hunger and late-afternoon domestic chaos, to comfort a baby, stir a gravy. What is it he brings with him now? He “does” for me, of course. Helps me to get up or lie down, brings water or the medicines that make it possible for me to stay at home. But it is not a servant whose steps I listen for.
No. The answer to my question about Ron is this: We twain have become one flesh.
Long ago there was anger between us so strong we dared not express it for fear of breaking the straining bonds that held us together. Lying in bed, not speaking or touching, the animosity loomed between us, palpable and terrible. That was the first time I knew that feelings were as real as matter.
When we first suspected I would not survive this illness, we held each other so tightly through the seemingly sleepless nights. How long has it been now since I could really hug? Weeks, anyway. Months, maybe. So we held each other gently.
Until that, too, became unbearable.
Now we lie untouching, and again I marvel at the somethingness of the feeling between us.
Oh, my Father. Last night he lay so still, conscious even in his sleep that he mustn’t jar me. Still it was too much. He turned from his back to his side, and I had to stop myself from crying out.
I have resisted for so long. It is time to push through. Is there no way, Father, that I can jump, knowing, this time?
Tomorrow Ron will make a call, and friends will bring the hospital bed I have refused until now.
Tonight I will ignore the pain, and I will whisper, “Do you remember?” and he, too, will recall the icy water, the laughing baby, the hectic child-rearing years—the many mutual remembrances that have bound our lives together so tightly that this premature severance pains us equally.
A few nights ago I awoke to sounds of crying and turned to comfort Ron, but though his pillow was wet with tears, he was asleep. I didn’t wake him. Nor did I ask next morning whether he wept for himself or me. I knew he wept for us.
Tonight I will not cry. I will rejoice in my life and its blessings. Tomorrow I will tell him how Peter’s wish, too, was honorable and wise.
And he will understand.