Little plants

She was from Lebanon, a woman who spoke Arabic as her native tongue, but also fluent English that you can’t fault, and in a high school in Australia she taught French. I guess a little like the backstory of someone you would expect to see in a romantic drama. “I have four children,” she said, “Sixteen, fourteen, twelve, and ten. The first two, they were conceived with IVF, and the two younger ones, naturally. They are like little plants, so precious to me, as I watch them grow,” she gestured her hands upwards with a smile, but her smile quickly dropped, “… I don’t want to die.”

“That is what we’re trying to do,” Joan replied Nora, “to control this disease as much as we can, and give you relief from symptoms, so that you can do the things you want to, for as long as we can… But with how things are going,” Joan said as she looked at the CT scan, “I don’t think I can give you five years…”

A silent gasp. “Five years? Only a minimum of five years?”

Joan bit her teeth. It wasn’t a minimum, but the opposite, rather. “…No,” Joan corrected at a lower tone, “I don’t think I can confidently say even five years…”

“Even less than five years?”

A slow nod. Silence, as what had just been told sank in.

And then she started to weep. Actually weeping. Tissues. Empathic faces from us. She continued to weep. A million confused thoughts fired in her mind.

There in between her sobs, she managed, after a while, to say out loud some of what she was thinking. “Five years…,” she said in broken sentences, “In five years, my eldest son will just be starting university. I want to help him pack, and see him off. And my daughters… I’ll never be able to see them get married?” And she starting weeping again.

Joan reached out her hand to hold Nora’s. “I have a 15 year old daughter. I think I can understand.”

“Oh, may God bless you to be able to live a full life!”

I suppose I’ve held similar conversations enough times to not feel too awkward to be sitting quietly in the room. Of course I might have used slightly different wordings, and surely I don’t have a 15 year old daughter to throw into the conversation.

But just listening in this time, I realised even more profoundly that here was someone with her heart’s desires taken away before her. She can never get them now. They are, from now on, not hers to even daydream about when she so fancies to, anymore. Not ever, forever.

I immediately thought of some of my experiences, and the experiences of my friends around me. They can’t compare with Nora’s, but at least I think I can relate a little, and I think the underlying issue might be similar. Also, what are we assigning saviour-like attributes to?

Recently I met up with a friend who had completed university several years ago, who is getting older, but still unable to find a stable, proper job. Imagine his suffering in this current modern society. And another friend who had broken up only recently with his long-time girlfriend. He had “I’m so hurting” written all over him. And a couple who has had a miscarriage. They were grieving over a lost one that could have been. Flowers from their friends and family graced their kitchen and living room. (I will understand if you conclude that you would rather avoid being my friend lest some misfortune befalls you!)

More and more I am convinced that it is crucial to develop a proper, correct theology of suffering, now. And I wish, somewhere in my subconscious too I suppose, that I could do more of standing by people and say, “It’s okay, I’m here with you,” as Jesus did and does.

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Every moment

“Well it’s good news. Your PSA level remains low, which means your prostate cancer is all under control!” I said to the elderly gentleman in front of me. He was nearing ninety years old, but still amazingly mentally sharp. He smiled at me, but blankly. There was just the moment of awkward pause, and then I’m not sure why I asked, in a much less jubilant tone, “How is everything else?”

“Well,” he hesitated for a little. “To tell you the truth, my wife passed away a month ago.”

My heart sank with his. “I’m so sorry to hear that…” And I was. I’m sure it is excruciatingly hard. To lose what has essentially become a part of you. To be living alone again, to go through life with a pair less of eyes. What does it all mean, and how does everything matter now?

“We would have been married for sixty two years end of this year.”

“…You must miss her a lot.”

“Oh,” he gasped, “I miss her every moment,” and his voice trembled at the end.

On the way out I felt like giving this elderly gentleman a hug. I won’t know fully what he was going through, but sometimes I catch a glimpse, or two, I really do think. Some people and too many pop songs say you don’t know what you have until you lose it — but I disagree.

But sixty two years. I haven’t even lived half that long.

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I lived in New Zealand for about ten years (not that anyone’s interested), so I enjoyed talking to Kate and getting to know her for the short period of time our paths crossed. She was a Maori from New Zealand, living in Melbourne by herself.

Her terminal stage lymphoma wasn’t responding well to treatment though, and she was growing weaker by the day. Her whanau was keen to fly her back to the country to spend her last remaining days. Everything happened so quick, and that morning I made the executive decision to stop her treatment and let her fly home the following day. Not a single day to waste.

The radiation therapists came to get me when her protective elder sister was about to take her home that morning. She was in a wheelchair, so I knelt down beside her and held her hand. I knew I wouldn’t see her again.

“All the very best, Kate,” I said with a pause, “I have really enjoyed knowing you and looking after you.”

It is a year ago now, but I remember the tired smile she gave me. “You too, Joseph, and all the best for your future.”

I almost teared up. Oh I wish you had a future too.

After they left, one of the radiotherapy nurses sighed, “We’ve had a wave of sad events happening to young people recently haven’t we…, just before the Easter season too, when family get together…”

She is right, but thinking about it, Easter is not really about family though. Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus — for our forgiveness, and for a new start, if we believe in him. And through his resurrection, we have a living hope that one day God will also make everything anew, when there will be no more suffering, no more tears and no more regrets.

Would you think about it? It didn’t strike me very hard before, but even as I start to relate a little more to the suffering of the people around me, I know only the tiniest amount of the suffering in this world — yet this hope has become so much more heartfelt to me, and I find my insides yearning for it in this broken world.

Join a church service this Easter weekend, and learn a little more about what Easter celebrates. About what Jesus said about himself and what he did on the Cross, and why that matters.

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