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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The story of J

This is the story of J, who was only a year older than me. She had one eye that she couldn’t open, and legs that she could barely move. Cancer had made her numb from the waist down too. Chemotherapy made her bald, and radiotherapy made her memory poor. She gave frequent smiles, but she also let off frequent sighs. With her poor memory, often she asked for “everything” to be explained to her again. Then she would break down and cry when she was told that she was in hospital, that her breast cancer had spread.

She had a 4 year old son, who had been under the care of her ex-partner. Her little boy became the focus of her thoughts, and she kept telling us everyday that she wanted to spend as much time as possible with him. “I don’t want him to forget me,” she told us, “I want to make many good memories with him, take many nice photos, so that he can remember me. I don’t want him to forget me.

But they had not visited her very often when she had been in hospital. Her ex-partner’s car had been deregistered, so they had to take public transport to visit, which was difficult. She felt lonely in the single room in the hospital, isolated because she had antibiotic-resistance bugs. As much as she missed her little boy, she didn’t have a photo of him to keep by her side. She didn’t even have a camera that works. She lost the charger a long time ago. The house that she wanted to return to wasn’t hers too. It was a crisis centre run by the Salvation Army for the homeless. Sometimes my heart would break with hers, and I would ponder how it came to this stage for her.

One day finally her ex-partner and their little boy came to visit. I knelt to say hi to their son. He was running around and trying to climb up the hospital bed. I shook his hand and he said to me, “I wum getting my ears fixed!!” while pointing at his ears. She explained that he was getting grommets inserted soon.

Together with her ex-partner, she asked if she could go home on the weekend. “Hospital is prison,” she said, and I understood well. But as much as I wanted to, the physiotherapy team had declared her unsafe, when she could barely transfer from chair to bed with her weak and numb legs. The hospital couldn’t lend them a wheelchair, and they couldn’t rent one because they had no car.

I felt so sorry when I said I couldn’t authorise her weekend leave. Once again, she felt the whole world was against her. Her heart turned bitter by a little more.

Later he wheeled her downstairs to the hospital lobby. He said she was going to have a smoke, but silently they caught a taxi headed home. And so together, in these last periods of her life, they made a little adventure and escaped hospital.

* * * *

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Every time she visited her newborn nephews and nieces, and her relatives asked “when is it your turn”, her heart broke a little. But she couldn’t tell them just how much she wanted a child too, and that she and her husband have been trying so hard. They made visits to an infertility and IVF clinic, unbeknownst to her relatives. But every nervous telephone call in half-whispers to the clinic for results of post-implantation serum BHCG levels were met with sad answers, and her heart broke a little too each time. Another embryo missed its chance… She found a room to cry a little, even at work. And a week after each call, every discharge down below she noticed herself having reminded her sorely of the failed attempts, and her heart broke a little more.

She took a month or two off to escape the people she knew. The small oncology department became one nurse short, and she was missed. When she returned, it had been three years or four since she and her husband first started trying, and several thousands of dollars given to IVF clinics (and they weren’t rich by any means) — but she was resolved to try again.

One year after I left, when social contacts had slowly and unknowingly been replaced with new ones, on a random day when I was dry coughing quite badly, I got told she had given birth to a healthy baby girl. What joy!! The child was given a beautiful name to celebrate a yearning of many years met. I remembered the box of chocolates she once gave me to thank me for helping out with some medical certificates and prescriptions (and listening too, probably), which I was embarrassed to accept. I’m so very glad it all worked out in the end, truly.

But how many desires, how many yearnings in this world — legitimate as they may seem — continue unmet? Even when years have passed with no return, and we grow weary and our lives made bitter, who is so strong to still be able to comfort and satisfy?

Here I know God is a God of recompense, and He is mighty enough.

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