“I am a little concerned about this mole on your back.” The dermatologist casually smiled, adding that she was 99% sure it was nothing to worry about, but with my family history of melanoma she liked to be overly cautious. She handed me some free lotion samples, reminded me to wear sunscreen and told me she would see me next week for the biopsy appointment.
Next week. How in the world would I make it until next week? My personality is such that I rarely linger on the “I am 99% sure that it is nothing.” Instead, I often cling to the 1% and quickly spiral to the place of chemotherapy and tears, struggle and loss. I often work myself into such a lather that it is all a little anti-climatic when the monotone nurse calls and says, “Your test results were fine. We will see in a year for your annual checkup.”
What do we do when the phone call is different? When the test actually does come back positive and all of the fears that were swimming around on the drive home are suddenly a reality. What then?
When I was in the seventh grade, my dad got a call like that. For years he had some pressure and pain in his head, and no doctor seemed to have a clue that something was terribly wrong. One doctor was convinced that Dad’s issues were related to a deviated septum, and all would be fine once the simple procedure was completed. He was wrong. Things grew progressively worse, and it wasn’t until my dad’s best friend insisted Dad see a neurologist that we realized he had a tumor the size of a grapefruit growing in his brain.
I wasn‘t able to process all of this very well as a 13 year old. I think about it a lot more as a 46 year old and often wonder what it was like for my dad to get that phone call. Did his heart stop for a moment? Did he have to sit down? Was he angry or did he cry? Did he quickly dismiss thoughts of what life might look like for his wife and daughters if all of this didn’t go too well?
I try to write about hope on this blog, but what is hope supposed to look like when you get that phone call? How do we find hope when facing a horrible diagnosis? Where is hope when prayers just don’t seem to get answered, when a son or daughter just won’t stop making destructive choices, when the marriage fails, when betrayal stabs us in the back, when the struggle never seems to end? How in the world do we find hope then?
It is easy to hope as I hang up the phone after another call from the doctor saying, “Everything looks great.” I am just not always sure what it is supposed to look like when you hang up the phone and think you might vomit because of the news you just heard.
Let’s start by thinking about what hope is NOT.
- Hope doesn’t mean that every day will be easy. My dad suffered for eleven years after his brain operation. He had to stop doing things that he loved. He couldn’t remember people’s names, and people weren’t always overly kind to him when he would try to communicate his thoughts. He was stripped of so many things that he loved to do and often the biggest deal in his day was that he took a shower, dressed, and then napped on the couch.
- Hope doesn’t mean that you have to have all of the answers. Dad wanted to get well. He would always tell me how he was going “to beat this thing,” and he really meant that. But he would still have seizures and be sick for days and even though he met with multiple doctors, they just weren’t always sure how to make those seizures stop. Some doctors recommended surgery again, some didn’t. It was difficult to know the best route to take and there weren’t banners dropping down from the sky with step by step answers.
- Hope doesn’t mean that you feel happy every minute and clap your hands because you are so thrilled about the struggle you are facing. It doesn’t mean that you won’t have days where you just cry and scream and want to throw things. I never saw my dad scream and throw things, but he might have and I am sure there were many days when he just had some long, angry talks with God. I know there were days when he sat in his favorite chair and just felt sad and weary. Yet Dad was one of the most hopeful people I know.
- Hope doesn’t mean you have to love pat answers. I mean the ones where well-intentioned people tell you how God is good and that everything happens for a reason and that when God closes one door He opens a window. Sometimes when I am hurting, I just confess that answers like that just make me angry, even if what is being said is true. It is the friend who just sits with me, gently holds my hand, lets me cry and vent and tell her how scared I feel who quietly leads me back to the place of hope.
- Hope doesn’t mean that some days you won’t feel lonely. A friend once told me that she was surprised by how few people came to by to see her when she was ill. She knew the lack of visits wasn’t intentional, but she couldn’t help but feel lonely in the day to day quiet. At the same time, the quiet allowed her to seek God in a way that she hadn’t in months, and His comfort carried her through a difficult season.
I have struggled to finish this post for a few weeks and just reread what I wrote. I cried as I read the sentence about my dad being one of the most hopeful people I have known. As I have mentioned before, I think it is important to pay attention to what makes you cry, and I wondered why this line in particular caused me to choke up. I think it makes me cry because Dad really never lost hope, even on the most difficult days. I have spent a page writing about what I think hope isn’t, but would like to leave with a story of what I think it is.
I never handled my dad’s illness very well. I shut down and wasn’t sure how to handle the pain I was feeling; as time progressed, I just distanced myself from him because it was easier. I know this hurt him more than I care to think about. One memory in particular makes me cringe, but as I look at it as an adult, I see a glimpse of hope. I was probably 18 or so and drove Dad to an appointment. Dad’s pace was slow, he often couldn’t remember words in the middle of a sentence, and he told me the same story twice during the ten minute car ride. I stood impatiently waiting in the doctor’s office with him as he talked to the receptionist at the end of his appointment. While I stood there annoyed, I completely missed the fact that Dad made the receptionist smile because he took the time to see her, to acknowledge her, to try and say something that would make her laugh. Dad was so good at seeing people, and yet I am ashamed to say that as we left the appointment, I walked ahead of him, leaving him to follow me to the car. Dad eventually caught up to me and as he buckled his seat belt, he looked over and said, “I am sorry you are so embarrassed about your ole dad.” I emphatically denied such feelings and turned on the car. Dad could have easily ranted about my behavior. He would have been justified. Instead, he just sat next to me and quietly said, “Well, I just want you to know I love you, Sweetheart.” And he did. In spite of losing so much – his health, his dignity, his memory, Dad just continued to love people. He trusted God with the trial that had been given to him and never stopped trying to make people laugh, never stopped trying to connect, never gave up. I know he was most likely wounded by the fact that his youngest daughter, who once wanted his attention more than anything, now just avoided him and walked three feet ahead.
Hope is taking steps to pursue life and love even when it hurts and even when things don’t make sense. Dad could do this because He trusted that there was something greater, a bigger picture, a God who loved Him and would never leave Him or forsake him. Hope and faith walk hand in hand. Somehow, Dad was able to really see me, not as I was in my own brokenness, but the whole picture. He saw my heart and loved me anyway. Somehow I think he knew that even if I couldn’t receive his love then, I would be able to someday and he didn’t want me to forget.
photo by Jenna Mace