The next really, really big event was the loss of my grandfather on my mother's side. He died two days before my 18th birthday. His name was Thomas, too. I'm named after him. He called me Tommy. And we were sidekicks when we were together. I think about him all the time really. There was a connection between us that I know the other grandkids didn't have. He loved me, and I loved him. There were lots of brushes with death, lots of moments where we thought "Tonight's the night." At that point in my life, I still had not been saved. I still had no hope. I remember sitting in the bedroom with him one night on one of those close call nights. Lots of people were in the room. I was right in front of him. There was a pastor there who asked if he could pray. The family was willing. But I remember as everyone bowed their heads and closed their eyes, my grandfather and I locked eyes. I don't remember exactly what we were saying to one another, but it was anticipated grief. He was silently saying to me, "All of this is hogwash. Who are they talking to?" I was looking at him echoing his thoughts, adding "Man, don't go anywhere. Don't go yet." So I'll never forget the morning when he died. I was laying in bed. My mom called me to tell me that he had died. I don't remember anything else about my conversation with my mom. But I remember getting off of the phone, rolling over, crying my eyes out, then getting up and going outside for a bit. I cried some more. I was devastated.
It's crazy the things that you remember when you look back. I have lots of memories with my grandparents, especially my mom's dad. Trips to the grocery store to just park and talk and watch people as they walked to and from their cars in the parking lot. We'd disappear for hours. He'd tell me about his life. He'd make me laugh. He'd let me chew tobacco with him. The most painful memory I have, though, is that night I was looking into my grandfather's eyes while everyone else was praying.
Fast-forward to after God saved me and let me just tell you a little about the biggest loss I've had since knowing Jesus Christ. Lesly's dad was diagnosed with cancer. That was in December, a few years ago. The following August he drew his last breath and went into the presence of the Lord.
...You know what? I just hit a block. What do I even want to tell you? What was I trying to get out? Why'd I even write any of this stuff? I don't know. Maybe just to let you know that I'm human too. Maybe to give you a peak into my life. Maybe because you know what's it's like to experience grief and you wonder what happens next....
I remember listening to an interview where someone said, "Because there was that suffering, there was a subsequent strengthening." "Grief is something that you can't avoid. It doesn't go away. It might disappear for a little while, but it's still there. It somehow needs to be lived through." The person who said that was Dave Matthews' uncle, David Matthews. When my grandparents died, I would have echoed those words–somehow it just needs to be lived through. If you would have asked me what the "somehow" was, I wouldn't have had one single answer for you. You just do it. When Lesly's father went home to be with the Lord, though, that was different. It's the difference that over ten years of walking with the Lord Jesus Christ will make in a person's life. Knowing at least some of the "how" doesn't mean it made it any easier per se. It doesn't mean the pain hurt any less. It just means I learned a little more about what it means to honor and please the Lord Jesus Christ while living through it. I had learned a little more about what it meant to give what was going on over to the Lord and allowing him to use our suffering for his good purpose. It meant if he would give us the strength–and he always did–then we would use that strength to point people to him.
I started writing a little book back a few months ago. It's called When Cancer Hits Your Family: Living in God's Faithfulness. I guess I haven't shared any of that with you, at least via the blog before. But maybe today's a good time. Maybe there's a reason for this little break between "getting my work done" that God wants to use. So, here's chapter one and two. It's just a little reflection of our journey and how God's proven his faithfulness to people who say he's faithful, but were dying to experience that faithfulness in a special way at just the right time.
Chapter 1: Writing This Book
This is our story about one of the most difficult times in our marriage. In January 2012 Lesly’s father, Rigoberto Mejia, was diagnosed with cancer. Less than eight months later, he would be in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those were the fastest slow eight months I can remember. In one sense they were like watching a fierce thundershower that just went on and on and on. You know, I can only remember a couple of times in my life where I went to sleep with a torrential thunderstorm outside and woke up the next morning, hours later, listening to the rain trying to beat the panes out of the windows and thunder trying to shake our house off its foundation. In one sense those eight months were like that. Lesly would wake up to the same crazy storm that she fell asleep to day after day for those entire eight months. They were slow, ongoing. But they were also fast. They feel like a blip on the radar. You ever notice how after it rains the sun can just absorb all of that moisture on a hot summer day. It can be soaking wet one moment, and the next time you think about it there’s not a drop of water on the pavement. Looking back on those eight months, Lesly and I often say to each other, “Where did the time go?” I understand I’m taking this verse out of context, 2 Pet. 3:8 that is. But if there’s one verse that describes time during those eight months, here it is—“one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.”So, why this book? I don’t know who you are. I don’t know how you got this book. I don’t know the details of what’s going on in your life. But I wrote this book for you. We found this time in our life to be one of the most trying times. As a young boy I used to like to put things inside a drill press vise and then wind the lever until it was completely smashed. Believe me when I tell you, we felt like we were pressed, squeezed, and squished. But in it all we were close to the Lord. Our faith in Jesus Christ was our anchor. We never felt abandoned. We never felt alone. We never felt destitute. He never once left us alone. When Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20), he means always. From meetings with oncologists all the way to the last time you get to hear a loved one’s voice—your ear laid low to their lips, listening to words you’ll never forget while tears flow off your cheek and roll down theirs—Jesus is there.
Chapter 2: Finding Out the News
I remember where I was when I got the phone call. I had to step outside. I knew that something was wrong. Lesly, deep down, knew it too. We were over 2,000 miles away. We were in North Carolina. Her family was down in Tegucigalpa. We had hoped that her family would visit us for Christmas. They didn't. Part of the reason was Lesly's father wasn't feeling well. Even though I knew something was wrong, nothing could prepare me for that phone call and the subsequent conversation I was going to have with Lesly. The phone rang, and Lesly's sister asked to speak with me. "Hola, Bere," I said. She said hey back. But it didn't take more than a millisecond to realize this was a different kind of phone call. We knew that Lesly's dad recently had an appointment with the doctor. My heart wasn't racing, it was sort of paused.
We had a moment of small talk. She was telling me about how she went swimming at the pool with some of her friends. I was telling her I was jealous. The place where she went is one of my favorite in the city. The pool is located on top of a building and overlooks all of Tegucigalpa. We talked a little more. Then, I asked her, “So, how did the exams go with your father?” Yesterday afternoon he had an appointment with the doctor about some pain he had been having. Bere's voice changed as she said, “About this, I need to talk with you, Thomas.” My heart sunk.
"Thomas, my . . . dad . . . ." [Pause] [Pause] [More pause] "Thomas, my dad . . . he has cancer." There, she said it. Our absolute worst fear. In a time like that you wish someone could take their words back. They can't. When you get news like that, the only way to move is forward. Believe me, though, you're limping at first. It's a blow to the gut. It's a queasiness in the stomach. It's something that puts that little voice in your head into overdrive–What did the doctors say? How are they going to treat him? How long does he have? What's he thinking? What's he feeling? –And behind all of this there's the question Why? with all of its shapes, forms, and variations. I'll never forget that conversation. Berenice was the first person that I prayed with about the news concerning her dad's cancer.
After what seemed like an eternity it was time to walk back to the bedroom, where Lesly was. This is what I was dreading more than anything else. I was thankful that I got to be the one to share the news with her. I was thankful that Berenice had called me. I was thankful that Lesly didn't get a phone call (like she always did at night), only for me to then watch her fall apart on the phone, not knowing and unprepared to comfort my wife. When I think back on that night, I know God was at work. I needed to gird up my mind. I needed those few short moments outside underneath the moonlight to gather my thoughts and to pray. When I walked into the bedroom, Lesly was sitting on the bed. She looked at me. I could tell that part of her was acting like this was just one of those times when her little sister wanted to talk to her "big brother," you know, just to catch up. She was hoping hard because one look at me would have told anyone that something was wrong. "Lesly," I said. "I need to talk to you, baby." Her immediate response was, "My dad? What's wrong with my dad?" And she crumbled. Right then, right there. I hadn't even said anything. It didn't matter. Anything wrong with her dad was wrong with her. I don't know that feeling firsthand, but I know it would hit me the same way. We don't want anything, anything at all, to be wrong with the ones we love.
That night was a long, long night. The only things I think I did with any sort of success were pray, listen, hold my girl, and plan for her to get down to Teguc as soon as possible.
That night the journey started. We weren't alone. Rigo wasn't alone. Judith wasn't alone. Lesly and Bere weren't alone. Neither was I, the adopted son of the family. We had each other. And that's a big treasure. But we weren't alone. Right in the midst of us was the God of all grace. He was there. And he still is.
After having typed all of that I'm asking myself, "Why did you share all that, Thomas?" I don't know. I think I sat down this morning and just wanted to write. But maybe there's another reason. Maybe God's going to use this somehow, in some way. I don't know how. Maybe if you're reading this, you just want to know that someone else might know in a small way just how you feel. We believe that God comforts people. We believe that God strengthens people. We believe that God has a beautiful plan, even when it looks, frustratingly so, the opposite at times. He might have to use dismal and bleak colors to paint the picture, but when he's finished it takes only a flick of his power to turn them into the brightest, most joyful, and most beautiful of colors, the likes of which we've only dreamed about.