Like everyone, my character has been formed by my life experiences. I have had my share of trials, but I can honestly say that, looking back on them, I am thankful for what I learned through each one.
In May, 2012 my son called after visiting the doctor. He announced that the doctor suspected cancer and a biopsy was scheduled for Friday. I told him I’d be there. I was concerned, but over the years I came to expect trauma from Joe. He was an outdoorsman, a mountain man who loved snowboarding, kayaking, river rafting, hunting, fishing – and surfing whenever he would visit the beach. He had been banged up through so many adventures, and had a previous scare that came back benign. He was healthy and strong so I was confident he’d get through this one, even if the tests proved it to be cancer.
The surgeon met us in the waiting room after the procedure and my calm resolve soon changed. I asked if she really felt this was cancer and she confirmed, “The CT scan shows masses in his abdomen that weren’t there a year ago.”
Additional test were ordered and we met with an oncologist to go over the results. He explained to us that Joe’s fair complexion and the high elevation sun, combined with his love for the outdoors, likely contributed to the diagnosis of stage 4 melanoma. “This is not good Joe, but we have a plan.”
Joe often missed family gatherings because of fresh powder on the slopes, or some adventure he was pursuing, or simply because of the distance between us. He had been down for Mother’s Day, but other than that, his visits were spotty. His lifestyle made it hard to pop in and see him as well. In a beautiful way, his diagnosis changed all that. In an effort to avoid intruding on Joe and his girlfriend, I initially commuted back as and forth to accompany him to doctor appointments. But he subtly let me know that he needed and wanted me there, so I moved in.
Preparing for the worst, we drew up a Will and Power of Attorney. We gathered pink slips and listed his assets, including a quad, fishing boat, snowmobile, truck, car, canoes, motorcycle, hunting rifles and bows, and 15-20 snowboards. Joe was divorced with no children, and had all the toys! He told me he had no regrets and had been blessed to live every day the way most people only live while on vacation. If the worst happened, he wanted everything sold to create an education fund for his four nieces and nephews. I gained such respect for him, he was facing the toughest battle of his life with such peace and strength.
One day, as I drove him home from a radiation appointment, Joe assured me, “I’m not afraid to die, Mom. I have great family here, but I also have great family waiting for me. I’ve always worried a little about growing old with all my snowboarding injuries and no insurance, now I don’t have to worry about that.”
It was a mixed blessing cooking for a former chef. Invariably Joe, who had quit cooking and ate out every meal, would join me in the kitchen to micromanage and offer unsolicited advice. We’d banter and laugh until I kicked him out, but I cherished every moment of it. I wishe I could have recorded all the tips he shared!
I watched Joe’s body deteriorate as his father’s had so many years earlier, recognizing the signs. I felt so blessed to share this time with him, so honored to help him through it. It healed our relationship and made me so proud of him. One sunset we sat out on his porch visiting. He was in quite a bit of pain and his legs and ankles were quite swollen. Pulling his feet to my lap, I lightly tickled them with my fingernails until he drifted off to the sleep that had been eluding him. We were such a blessed long way from the distant relationship we had when he was independent and healthy and I was judging his life choices. As he dozed I praised God for his goodness in the midst of tragedy.
Just a week or two later, his brother, sister and I were at Joe’s side as he considered the three options being presented by the hospital’s palliative care doctors. “Joe, we need to determine your goal in order to plan your treatment. Is your goal to 1) continue cancer treatments that we believe are compromising your organs and hastening your death; 2) return home on hospice care where they will attempt to keep you out of pain; or 3) stay here in the hospital where we can control your pain and keep you comfortable? What is your goal?”
Every time I think of his response I smile. “My goal is to start a river guide company on the Truckee River, but that doesn’t sound like one of my choices.” Joe was already on immense amounts of pain medication and still suffering. He opted to stay and hope they could control the pain. The doctor explained that might mean inducing a coma to get him comfortable. “For how long?” he asked. “Until you pass away,” I answered when the doctor hesitated. “Okay, I love you guys,” he answered in total peace as we fell apart.
This memory evokes such emotion, it’s still so fresh. I was so amazed by his sense of humor in that moment, and his peace with this final decision. He knew who he was and where he was going and I sensed no fear. It took days and record-breaking doses to relieve Joe of pain. We pulled together as a family to support him, all camping in his room and responding to any need while surround him and each other with immense love.
On June 19, just over a month after his diagnosis, Joe went to be with our Lord. My pain was overshadowed by the beauty of the love, acceptance, and forgiveness we shared those last weeks. God healed our relationship and used Joe to teach me beautiful lessons about judging.
Romans 5:1-5 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, be we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
I wish Joe was here to take over my carefully laid Thanksgiving meal plans, but God called him home. I rejoice in having suffered through the process with him, honored to have shared the time with him, because God poured out his love through it.