Anywhere with God is safe.
by JoAnne Potter
June 2, 2009. Two packed suitcases and two carry-ons waited near the door. I’d checked our tickets at least a dozen times and wanted to pinch myself every time just to make sure they were real.
Yep, they were. The next day, we would wake up in Wisconsin but go to sleep in San Vicente, Panama, just outside Panama City. Before thirty hours had gone by, we’d be sitting on a patio at the edge of a tropical jungle listening to monkeys and parrots call to each other.
We had waited more than a year for this. The trip had germinated simultaneously in my husband’s imagination and in my nagging thoughts fifteen months before. That spring, when I renewed my tenth consecutive annual teaching contract, I signed it as I had every year before. But this time, something was different.
A small, insistent voice kept whispering, This is your last year. Get ready. The voice — not an audible murmur as much as my own mind’s echo of emergent thoughts I didn’t initiate — refused to cease. Was this how God spoke?
Quitting a job
By December, I was convinced He did. Seven months had gone by, and the persistent inkling remained. When I told the principal I would not return to work the following school year and that he should begin to look for a replacement, he asked for my reasons.
“I think God wants me to quit.”
“What do you think He wants you to do?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll let you know.” Now I’d done it. Moses confronting the Pharaoh and Abraham packing up for Canaan had nothing on me. I felt ridiculous. Who was I to think I could correspond with the Creator of the universe?
Hand of God?
But before another month had passed, my husband’s employer was purchased by a Dutch firm and by March, he learned that his whole department was being closed and moved overseas. Dave’s last day would be May 25, landing the same week as my own last day at work.
Perhaps the hand of God was directing us after all. Perhaps He had answered prayers we never dared utter.
We’d talked on and off for years about investigating retirement in Central America. We’d considered running a hostel or working as support staff on a missionary base in San Vito, but so far had only bought books and talked about it a lot.
Mostly, we waited. In early 2009, we thought the time had come. With the future looming bright and completely unwritten before us, we booked tickets to Panama City for June 3.
Even though we planned to be gone only two weeks, we spent three months in transition, studying Panamanian banking laws while learning colloquial Central American etiquette and selecting effective sun blocks.
We looked online for houses and found a listing for a pink stucco bungalow surrounded by extravagant bougainvillea settled in the middle of its own coffee plantation. We bookmarked it and called it up every few days just to look, trying to imagine the sounds and smells of it. I started to think about where I would store my bakeware.
Our plan, as far as it went, was plain. During the two weeks we spent in Panama and Costa Rica, we would learn what we had to know to make a decision about what we might do for the rest of our lives. We were sixty and fifty-seven years old and completely free, about to step joyfully off a well-contemplated cliff. Anything could happen.
And then it did.
One of the items on our pre-trip checklist was to make sure we were healthy. I felt fine, but Dave thought he might have a urinary tract infection, so he went to the doctor. He had no infection, and an X-ray didn’t show anything unusual, so he had a CT scan on June 1. On June 2, while I was trying to decide which maps to pack, Dave’s doctor called.
“We found something,” he told my husband. “We don’t know what it is yet, and you need some more tests.”
“But we’re leaving the country in eighteen hours . . . ”
“We believe this may be serious enough for you to postpone your trip.”
What? Dave felt fine. He was sure this would turn out to be nothing. Our tickets weren’t refundable. Katie was coming to house sit in the morning, and Dan was meeting us at the airport.
We couldn’t have been this wrong. We’d listened to God. Look what He had done, making everything fall right into place. We had to go!
But we didn’t. And nine days later, on June 11, Dave’s doctor called to tell us he had cancer — at least one type, possibly two. We barely had time to breathe, let alone sort out our feelings, before the gears of medicine began to turn. Dave underwent tests, heard results, and made decisions, one step at a time, again and again.
He did have two unrelated cancers, liver and kidney, and needed surgery for both. Should he have them done at once or separately? Should doctors remove part of his kidney or all of it? Should he consider chemotherapy? Should he do anything at all?
We knew the odds: Hardly anyone survives liver cancer. Still, fear stalked us less than confusion and a sense of urgency. There would be time to understand later. At that moment, we needed to pray and think clearly.
While doctors developed Dave’s diagnosis and treatment plan, we were absorbed in our own simultaneous research, evaluations, and consultation of second opinions.
A day came, however, when all the planning and deciding ground to a halt. The doctors assured us that the surgery had a high probability of success and that, when they had finished, Dave would likely be cancer-free. They told us not to worry.
Instead of worrying, we began to visualize what would happen if Dave died. At first, we didn’t discuss his potential death out loud. We kept our thoughts to ourselves, neither one wanting to alarm the other, treating the cancer like a guest who has worn out his welcome but refuses to leave. Dave prepared for pain and acknowledged the unknown territory he was entering.
He had considered death years before as a soldier, when combat necessitated it. But back then, lacking the foundation of faith, he faced a violent, bloody blackness. Now God gave him a beautiful longing, a reassurance and hope not dependent on surgery results. Dave still loved his life but no longer held on so tightly. If God wished to take it, Dave could let it go.
I, on the other hand, saw him losing his grip and wanted to shake him. What was he thinking? I was glad he had a foot in eternity, but what about me? He might be ready to die, but I was certainly not ready to be left alone.
I knew that God, however, navigated this journey, not I. So I trudged forward, meeting days with a brave face, but sweating through nights filled with furtive visions of Dave’s funeral and my widowhood. It was during one of those long nights that the small, insistent voice spoke again: “I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5, NKJV).
Then I understood. I had to let God be God. If faith means anything, it means that every single circumstance is the result of either God’s will or His permission. Nothing, including Dave’s potential death, was outside His control, and if that was true, then God had a plan for me whatever happened. I could completely trust Him.
Dave spent the next year in and out of hospitals. During that time neither of us thought about Panama much. By October or November, however, some time following Dave’s second surgery, we saw what had really happened: God had stripped off almost every connection we had forged, then sent us into the darkness where only He could help.
The parrots and the monkeys and the pink stucco house were never intended for us. On that day in June when we canceled our flights, our situation looked as though we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, listened poorly, or just let ourselves be led astray by our hearts’ desires. But we hadn’t.
Today, Dave is cancer-free and we have come to understand his illness as the delivery system for revelation. It took us to a place little else could, a place of shadow and complete vulnerability.
From that darkness, God showed us, one step at a time, how to navigate in faith. He illuminated enough to light the way, hushed our fears, and taught us to trust. He remade according to His plan what we had built according to ours.
How did it turn out? Our experience of crisis and change created a new level of trust in our marriage, gave Dave a healthy yearning for eternity, and showed me that God’s love is not contingent on fulfillment of any preconceived desires. Dave demonstrated how to face pain and potential death without fear, and together we learned that as long as we follow God, we are safe.
The country where we make our home became irrelevant. By keeping us here and teaching us to follow Him, God gave us everything we had been looking for by going to Panama, and more.
And now, we don’t even have to learn Spanish.