Living and Dying Well
Learning about here and eternity — the hard way.
by Marlys Johnson
My cell phone rang at a stoplight. “It’s cancer.”
My body sagged into itself. Though my husband had gotten work, we were still digging out from the financial reversals of a layoff. How would we afford cancer? How was I going to manage this, plus care for my mother, sinking into dementia?
Just like that, things went from bad to worse.
Absorbing the news
The experts said, “Maybe two years” — feeling generous, I suppose, because although it was late-stage cancer, my husband, Gary, was relatively young and in good shape. And prostate cancer is slow growing.
“This did not catch God by surprise,” I said bravely. But then followed too many days heavy with self-pity and despair.
Learning to lean
During those early weeks, a simple verse I had memorized as a child kept crowding into my mind: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). While hiking a trail with Gary one day, I pondered this word lean.
Leaning means shifting my full weight onto another object. It involves trust, I reflected as we hiked past massive ponderosa pines. Now there’s a solid lean, I thought, mentally nodding at a ponderosa. But that manzanita bush over there . . . not so solid.
Which did I really want to put all my weight on: God’s towering knowledge or my scrawny understanding? I repented of my lack of trust. “Father, I’m sorry for not leaning full-heartedly into You.” Hope lit up my heart as I committed to trust God with my husband’s health and our future.
Learning to be vulnerable
Gary struggled with a sense of failure because his layoff triggered selling our home and cashing out our 401(k). The prescribed hormone therapy made matters worse, giving Gary physical and emotional side effects. He withdrew, carrying this heavy load alone.
For a time, my brother in Florida took over Mom’s care so Gary and I could freely discuss cancer fallout in our home. Gary admitted his distress at leaving me in uncertain financial circumstances. I confessed my frequent 3 a.m. anxiety at the thought of widowhood.
“You might not want to care for me if I become a burden,” he said. He was afraid I would compare him in the declining stages of cancer to the successful men I saw at work. “I need your heart to belong to me until the end.”
I cried. This was the man who placed the kids and me first all these years, who kept us laughing with his dry humor and was so easy to be married to.
We made a new commitment to openness, established a standing Friday date night, and held each other a little longer and a little tighter. My heart wasn’t going anywhere.
Learning to give back
With fresh hope, Gary and I waded away from the shifting sand into deeper water. We became proactive and recruited a cancer team. To the treatments, we added better eating, increased physical activity, and finding purpose. While holding down our day jobs, we drafted a tag team message, established a nonprofit, and traveled the country sharing what we were doing to live well with terminal cancer.
Managing a nonprofit, booking speaking engagements, standing on platforms with distinguished physicians in the audience — Gary and I had never attempted these things. There was no touching the bottom of the ocean out here, but choosing to give back was worth the challenge.
Learning to be grateful
It’s one thing to be grateful when circumstances are going well and quite another when they are crazy. Gary and I learned we could count all that was lost or we could focus on what remained, and what remained was significant: people to love and people who loved us, air to breathe, the splendor of a sunset, hiking near the sound of water tumbling over rocks, another day of freedom.
As he sat chained to a Roman guard in a damp, dark prison, Paul wrote, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).
Contentment isn’t natural. Fear, despair, self-pity, anger, discontent: These things are natural. Contentment must be learned.
The secret to contentment is not in having more. It doesn’t come from my own determination but from a relationship with Jesus Christ. And a good relationship involves keeping open communication lines: “Father, I don’t understand why these hard things are happening. But I trust that You see the bigger picture, that you cause all things to work together for our good because we love You and You love us.”
Learning to die well
During the last months of Gary’s life, our home was filled with unimaginable peace as my beloved slipped away from me. Part of that peace came from knowing that cancer did not catch God off guard and that if He had allowed it, then He had a purpose for it. In one of my favorite Old Testament passages the psalmist praises God for creating him and knowing him intimately:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well (Psalm 139:13, 14).
On the other end of the spectrum is death, and the psalmist had something to say about that as well: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants” (116:15). From Albert Barnes’ Notes: “The idea here is, that the death of saints is an object of value; that God regards it as of importance; that it is connected with his great plans, and that there are great purposes to be accomplished by it.”
Gary lived ten years with terminal disease, much longer than the original projection. And they were arguably the best years of our marriage. Cancer taught us to sit up and pay attention to the hours and weeks and months that were ticking by, to create more memories and live more fully — peacefully, gratefully, joyfully, purposefully.
With clear hindsight, I see God’s fingerprints beautifying the long, hard wilderness years that began with joblessness and financial reversals. It’s now easier to let go of the cares of this world and rest in my heavenly Father, who has proved His faithfulness. My faith is strong, and I carry more courage these days. I find myself whispering gratitude for all the simple pleasures in life, taking nothing for granted.
With my children’s encouragement, I am living forward and accepting speaking opportunities to help others experiencing life’s challenges. While I wouldn’t wish this journey on anyone, I see the beauty and joy and compassion God carved out of the hard circumstances, and I remain open to what He wants to teach me.
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.