When I began to know my life wasn't perfect, God told me: I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have drawn you with loving kindness. I will build you up again, and you will be rebuilt. This scripture, Jeremiah 31:3-4, is mine. I will be rebuilt! I will not always be a work in progress; I will be rebuilt!
David was born in July of 1993 amidst the trauma of an emergency C-section. Despite the circumstances of his arrival, he was beautiful and healthy, and as he grew was bright, precocious, exuberant and tenderhearted. I adored him. It was evident from the beginning that the purpose of parenthood is to be taught, not to teach. He was a wise and amazing teacher. We know that children are gifts from God; I knew that this precious gift was an extension of my very soul touching the world and bringing the world to me in untold ways. In September 1996, my daughter was born; David became a wonderful big brother, and a loving sibling bond was forged.
The day that changed my perfect world began innocently enough. A child at play. A mother watching from the living room window. It was December 1, 1997, but not Minnesota's coldest winter. David didn't have on so many clothes that he couldn’t get his hands into his pants. I wondered what he was doing, and finally I had to ask. I called him to the front door. "I'm feeling these bumps," he told me simply. I looked at them. They were two odd little protrusions from his lean, flat four-and-a-half-year-old pelvis.
The chain reaction was swift over the course of the couple weeks it took us to know our world was crashing. Quickly David was at the doctor. The lumps were lymph nodes. He must have an infection. We began an antibiotic. Days later the bumps remained. His dad decided to investigate on his own and gently but thoroughly examined David. Between his legs, the perineal area was as hard as a rock. A CT scan revealed a mass. Sixteen days after David showed me the bumps in his pelvis, a pediatric oncologist sat with David's dad and me on little chairs in the children's playroom on the eighth floor of Children's Hospital and told us our son had cancer—rhabdomyosarcoma. And so began a 2 1/2-year freefall.
Yet, in the midst of David's awful illness I discovered the gentle power of God's grace. Almost from the beginning I experienced an inexplicable calm, a "peace that passeth understanding." Shortly before David was diagnosed with cancer, as the holiday season approached, I found in a store a white yarn angel that I was compelled to buy. It was called the Angel of Peace, and I wished it were the angel of joy, because to me that's what the Christmas season is all about. Even at the time, I noted with interest the fact that I even cared what the angel was called. What did it matter, for Pete's sake? A few days later, when I found out my son had cancer, I knew why I had found my Angel of Peace.
The first year of cancer treatment upended our world. The risks associated with chemotherapy, low blood counts and infections made every day unpredictable, but the good news was that David's grapefruit-sized tumor was gone after only six weeks of chemo. Even so, it was necessary to complete the yearlong course of treatment, and my tenderhearted boy for whom every needle poke was traumatic taught me so much about courage and stamina. When he finished his treatment on December 30, 1998, seemingly in remission, I knew I would live the rest of his life with bated breath. Six short months later David's cancer was back, this time also in his bone marrow. The most devastating day of my life was the day I was told my son had only a 10-20 percent chance of survival.
What would I tell him? I walked that night and imagined explaining to my little boy why he would get cancer again. I thought, "Sometimes God uses children to teach grownups things." How much I had learned from my precious son from the moment he was born; he had taught me my most invaluable, precious lessons of all.
We didn't tell David the day we got the terrible news. He was still groggy from anesthesia. That June night he slept fitfully. Much of his childhood had been plagued by fitful sleep—and night terrors in his earlier years. There had always been something particularly disconcerting for his dad and me about whatever it was that bothered him when he slept. He seemed to wrestle with something. This night, as always, we had the baby monitor on in the room David shared with Deanna. At two a.m. I was awakened to hear David having a conversation. He was talking and listening, saying, "I don't want to die . . . I don't want to die! . . . All right, I'll come."
In the morning I was anxious to see how David was. He was in good spirits and only remembered when his daddy and I had gone in to comfort him; he didn't remember a conversation with anyone. From that day on I saw in him a notable maturity. He anticipated others' needs, was helpful and upbeat. And for the rest of his too-short life, David never slept fitfully again. In the days that followed, it was with mixed feelings that I replayed over and over again in my head David's conversation with what must have been a Heavenly messenger, an angel. I was grateful for David's acceptance and peace, but I feared—desperately—losing my precious son too soon.
Six days after the early morning conversation, David went into surgery to have a new IV line put in place. Before surgery, the hospital chaplain asked David if he was afraid. David said, "No, I'm not afraid; I have Jesus in my heart." This from a boy whose mother modeled a relationship with God, not with Jesus. Our prayers were always to God. David told us he had said a prayer for Jesus to come into his heart and into his friends' hearts. He told us Jesus and God love him even more than Mommy and Daddy do. This was not something we had told David. We were struck by his confidence in this information. We had taught David rote prayers of the "Now I lay me down to sleep" variety. Later that night in the hospital room with me, David took my hand and wanted to say his own prayer. He said, "Jesus please come into my heart and into the hearts of my friends and into the hearts of all the grownups. And guide me and guide the nurses who are giving me medicine. Amen."
At that moment I felt so assured of Something that had come to my precious son. I knew there was much of the wee-hours conversation I had not heard, and I knew David was in the palm of God's hand. And during the months that followed I got to know David's friend, Jesus, who has told us: No one comes to the Father but by Me. (John 14:6)
I couldn't possibly take you through the last two and a half years of my son's life. There were countless blessings, miracles and answered prayers—and there was excruciating pain, pleading and unanswered prayer. And, I won't try to tell you how I felt when I was home alone with my children one night and got a phone call from a man I barely knew telling me my husband was having an affair with his wife and was probably with her as we spoke. Less than two months after my son died in May 2000, my husband was out of the house. But that's not the story I want to tell you. The story worth telling is that of an amazing God who drew me through all of this with an everlasting love and a peace that I cannot possibly comprehend.
And I'm reminded of how God enabled me to foster such peace. I praise Him for the power He bestowed upon me as a mother. What an awesome experience to be the mother of a young child and see his distress dissipate in my arms, his fitfulness subside at the sound of my voice. David called for me to lie at his side in his last days of awareness. The night he died I held him and rocked him and sang my repertoire of bedtime songs, including his favorite, "Lullabye," and "On Eagle's Wings" (“and God will raise you up on eagle’s wings . . .” ) which he had since toddlerhood referred to as, simply, "God" (Mommy, sing “God.”). I felt so blessed to have within my power the God-given ability to calm and assure peace for my dying child.
I'm reminded of a conversation David and I had one night. He confided in me at bedtime that he didn't really feel Jesus in his heart. I told him I wasn't really feeling Jesus in my heart that night, either, but that doesn't mean He isn't there. I told him the story of the footprints. . . . How a man looking back on his life saw two sets of footprints as Jesus walked beside him much of the way. But he noticed that during the particularly difficult times, there was only one set of footprints.
He asked Jesus, "Why did you leave me when I needed you most?" Jesus replied, "The times that you see only one set of footprints are the times when I carried you." As I left his room that night, David said, "Mommy, Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!" I remember his smile, his security assured, his peace restored.
Karl Barth, a great theologian, was once asked if he could condense all the theology he had ever written into one simple sentence. "Yes," he said. "I can. 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'"
God sent a child into my life to teach me all the theology I need. He sent my son to introduce me to His. I have to be honest with you, if God had given me a choice—my son or His—I would have chosen my son. But He didn't give me a choice. He pulled out all the stops to ensure my salvation, and I am grateful to Him for loving me so much. I smile when I think of where my David is. Every Christmas I imagine the fun he is having at Jesus' heavenly birthday celebration; every time I sing in church I know David listens and smiles from his heavenly balcony. John 16:22 says: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. I will see David again, God promises me, and two precious sons have guaranteed it. My David showed me the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. (John 14:6)