At the age of 40, Karen, a single mother of two, was diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread to her liver. It was a devastating diagnosis. As her parish nurse, I was with her when she was diagnosed and throughout her treatment. Two years later, I was also with her days before she died. This is the story of those last two years of Karen’s life.
This story begins about one month before the cancer diagnosis. Karen participated in a cholesterol screening I was conducting, and while I was taking her blood for the test, she told me that she saw the doctor the previous week, and the doctor had found a large mass in her abdomen. After more tests, she had an appointment scheduled for the results. She asked me to come to that appointment and that is when young vibrant Karen with a 16-year-old teenage daughter and a three-year-old toddler son was told she had stage IV colon cancer.
I groaned inwardly when I heard the diagnosis. I knew what that meant, and I knew what a difficult road Karen was embarking on. And her road was already difficult. She was a single parent without any family support. She had a few close friends, her church family, the father of her children who lived in New York City, and me. Financially, she lived paycheck to paycheck. Unfair doesn’t seem like a strong enough word for this situation.
But unfair or not, Karen began her difficult journey by immediately starting chemotherapy. I kept in contact with her during this time with phone calls and visits, and I was happy to see that she looked good and felt fairly decent. Most important, she was able to keep working and to care for her kids. At the end of my visits, we both prayed fervently for a cure. Karen desperately wanted to get well so she could continue to raise her children.
One Year Later
And then, one year later, I was with her when her doctor told her that the chemo was working and the tumors in her liver had shrunk to practically nothing. All of Karen’s and her medical team’s hard work plus all of our prayers had worked! We were both very excited; I thought that maybe Karen really was going to be the miracle cure.
But our excitement was short-lived as it wasn’t long before the tumors started growing back and started spreading to her abdomen. It was devastating. Our prayers, it seemed, had not worked at all. Not only was the cancer growing back, but Karen’s health began to deteriorate to a point that she could no longer work. Out of sick time and on social security, her income decreased so dramatically, she was unable to pay her bills. She became frantic. I made phone call after phone call in search of money from local charities and foundations and came up empty. And then, out of the blue, a $1000 check showed up to help pay her utilities.
A Spiritual Reset
This mystery check was the beginning of my spiritual reset. Perhaps, our prayers were being heard, and God was walking this journey with us after all. Could it be that I needed to open my eyes to God’s presence? Could it be, I was so fixated on the idea of a cure that I was blind to God actively working on behalf of Karen and her children? So, I opened my eyes, and as Karen got sicker and sicker, God’s presence often seemed very close. He always came so effortlessly. Not like me. By this time, Karen was so ill, it was becoming more difficult to visit her. I kept thinking, “This is too hard. I can’t do this anymore.”
And, even though at times, it seemed unbearable, I pushed my tears and sadness to the side and continued to walk with Karen. During one visit to Karen’s home, she greeted me with gospel music blaring. I entered putting down the McDonald’s bag I had brought hoping to tempt her with high calorie selections.
She said, “Let’s worship.”
“OK,” I said not really sure what she meant.
What she meant was for us to hold each other while she prayed. We swayed together with the music swirling around us as she glorified God and thanked Him for all her blessings. She was crying and I was crying and God was there in the midst of the music and Karen’s song of praise.
And Karen got sicker and was hospitalized. She started telling visiting friends that angels were in the room. She told me about a visit she had with an aunt. I found out later that this aunt had already died. At this point, I knew that Karen had one foot firmly planted in this world and the other foot firmly planted in the next. I knew her time here was short.
God Tiptoed Quietly into the Hospital Room
Two days before Karen died, I visited her bedside one last time. She was barely conscious. As I kissed Karen’s forehead and told her I loved her, God tiptoed quietly into the hospital room and put his arms around us. I saw His love clearly with my own blue eyes. His love for Karen, whose body was so shrunken, it had almost disappeared, and His love for me who had been Karen’s companion these last two years.
Two days later, I got a call to say that Karen had died. It was all so terribly sad and so terribly unfair. And yet, that was only part of the truth. It was also true that it was a period of God’s grace and love. Between the moment of Karen’s diagnosis to the moment of her death, I had glimpses of God’s fathomless love & mercy while, at the same time, I felt fathomless sadness for this young mother dying of cancer. Both were true in equal measure.
It was also abundantly clear that God was ever-present. We were never alone on this difficult journey. Through the unfairness, the pain and the sadness, God was loving us through all of it. Indeed, at times, God’s love surrounded us so completely that I felt as saturated as a pancake in a puddle of syrup dripping and sticky with His love. And, to this day, thinking back on that abundant sticky holy love, it makes me smile and think of Karen.
By Lisa B. Thomas
Every time I see you
You are smaller
Really just a bit of bones with sallow skin
Maybe you will just disappear
Without a trace
But you are still mostly here
With your breath and bones
Your breath weaves
In and out
Up and down
Moving beyond space and time
Seeing invisible angels and aunties
Soon I think you will fly away with them
But for now, your tired bones rest here
Becoming weaker and more frail
While your breath
Begins to swoop and soar
For Reflection (either individually or with a group)
Read the blog. Read it a second time, maybe reading it aloud or asking someone else to read it aloud so you can hear it with different intonation and emphases. Take these questions for a walk in the woods or in your neighborhood, for a swim or a run or for a hot soak in the tub. Invite the questions to join you for tea or coffee.
- Have you ever experienced God’s love in the midst of terminal illness? How did it feel?
- Are you praying to experience the nearness of God? If so, what if you dared to pray, ‘Bring anything into my life or take anything away from my life as long as I get to be closer to you?’ What scares you about that prayer? What excites you about that prayer?
- How do you recognize the presence of God?
Download a pdf including the Reflection Questions to share and discuss with friends, family, or members of your faith community small group.