By Ellen Nimmo
It must have been around the year 2008 or 2009, no way of knowing for certain without some sleuthing. Or I guess I could just ask my parents, but I haven’t. The year itself isn’t of much importance anyway. Like so many families, ours was touched by cancer. And while I can’t remember the precise dates, I’ll never forget the season that followed the news: my mom diagnosed with stage four uterine cancer. Like so many families, we were shocked. How could this be? Like so many families, we struggled to know how to navigate this strange news. What do we do?
That fateful summer we watched time tick and felt uncertainty loom. In some ways, it activated us. We started communicating more. We worked as a unit. And, we waited.
Doctor appointments came and went as the gods (or devils) came for a portion of my mother’s body and part of our minds as well, reminding us we weren’t at all in control.
Last Thursday I read and listened to the words of a couple of friends, wise friends. Teaching, shepherding friends. Their wisdom illuminated in a single post, in a single phrase: weary yet hopeful. Using the biblical story of Ruth (and Naomi) my friends put their finger on the experience I had those years ago. Calling it to mind, the hardship and the togetherness. The struggle and the perseverance. The unknown and the known.
If you don’t know the story of Ruth and Naomi, I would encourage you to check out my friends’ summary of it last week. You can also read the story of Ruth and Naomi yourself, it’s a short four chapter Book in the Old Testament, there’s a PDF below if you want to start. I don’t want to overstate it, one way or another, but that summer each member of our family became “Ruth” and “Naomi” at different times, during different stages.
My sister and I were working at a café in small town Alaska as sous chefs in a country kitchen. Comfort food, giant portions, and gravy for days, we rode our bikes to work or, before they were sold off in a garage sale, we had the occasional 4-wheeler commute. When we weren’t chopping, flipping, frying, or fileting we were home. And often, we were waiting. There were days that flew by noisily, like dark, shiny ravens across a cloudless sky. Other days crept by bit by bit. The hours tiptoeing slowly, like a cautious mother moose crossing a stream newly filled with icy mountain snow. Her awkward baby calves following closely behind. It was as though time was rocked into a strange sensation, a new consciousness, dragging on and soaring by all at once. It made no sense. And yet, for things to have gone on just as before wouldn’t have made much since either. That’s what cancer can do.
A few years prior, our parents had purchased a sturdily constructed one-level home in Sterling, AK: their forever home. Additionally, my mother had opened her own clinic, serving as the community’s only Nurse Practitioner. There she saw everything from the common cold to chronic-pain management and a lot of in-between, including, during peak fishing season, many the fish-hook-removal patient. The clinic and home were something both my parents had worked hard to make a reality. They were proud of what they’d been able to achieve and believed in the path they were creating for themselves, for us. But with my mother’s cancer diagnosis arose a looming question mark surrounding it all. And soon, the debt, the uncertainty, the weight of trying to hold it all together became too much.
The decision was made to sell. Everything.
We began the purge. Going through the house, we marked what was sellable. Exercise equipment: sell. Bicycles and 4-wheelers: sell. Antique wood stove: sell. Chainsaws, propane heaters, pressure washer, various tools: sell, sell, sell. Medical equipment only recently purchased: sell. Forever home: sell.
There was also the emotional purge.
Sadness, anger, hope, determination, worry, appreciation, disillusionment, gratitude, and more came spilling out of our hearts and within our actions. The external pressures became internal ones and vice versa. A quote from the written part of the post I mentioned put it this way, “If you don’t come apart for a while, you will come apart after a while.” – Dallas Willard
We did. Each of us in our own way. We came apart. And, we held together. Together we held.
Between the doctor appointments, between the shifts of butterflying shrimp and batter dipping pork steak, between incoming bills, and the fear and fights brought on by stress, we took turns being Naomi, the bitter and hurting, and Ruth, the steadfast and serving.
Where one stopped, another pressed onward. When one worked, another rested. Where one fell down, another lifted up.
Looking back it could have been the recipe for a family fallout. The stress levels were so high. Past hurts surfaced. Differences in opinion, frustration, confusion, loss, and a host of other things could have driven us apart. But it didn’t, thank God. Then, my brother called. He was the only one of our family of five that wasn’t up in Alaska that summer. For good reason. He and his girlfriend Jodi were expecting. A baby. A baby girl. Gwen.
The juxtaposition of present insecurity and future hope, became flesh.
Months later, after the surgery, after the first few rounds of chemo and radiation, after the hair shaved, after the clinic closed for good, after the bank came to claim possession of the forever home, after my parents belongings traveled via Uhaul up Alaska Hwy A1, down through British Columbia, and into Oregon (my right eye twitching the entire journey), I can remember sitting in the waiting room of an Arkansas hospital with my mom. We weren’t in the hospital for her, not that day. No, by that time, my mother had made the decision to stop what remained of the chemo and radiation treatments her doctors had recommended. Her steadfast belief in a life of quality over a life of length steering her. This belief both scared and impressed me. But my mother’s demeanor was that of understanding and experience.
So there we were, waiting again, weary too, but hopeful.
In another area of the hospital, watching in wild wonder as the doctor pulled my niece from the emergency caesarian was my brother, her son, Gwen’s father, Justin.
If you end up reading the story of Ruth and Naomi, you’ll notice the striking similarity. The story ends with the birth of a child. And, despite all their trouble, struggle, and loss, Ruth and Naomi are restored to a position of hope and family. Things probably didn’t play out at all like they would have guessed at the beginning and no doubt they had other seasons of loss and uncertainty, but there is a thread of faith that didn’t unravel.
Like so many families, cancer brought with it a reality none of would have chosen, but even amidst those months and years of uncertainty and discomfort, wonder remained. Like so many families, from ancient times to present day, life brought with it the extraordinarily common mix of emotions: exposed fragility and precocious joy. Reminding us, the story isn’t finished.