“To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do – to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst – is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own.”
–Fredrick Buechner The Sacred Journey
Beauty Born from Ashes
“The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.” (Buechner 46). It hurts to be a work of art and is excruciating to be made a masterpiece. In my days, I’ve too often been that foolish lump of clay, wondering why my Maker has allowed me to endure such harsh abrasions and conditions marked by severity…and the questions arise with a longing to be answered, “Why must it hurt so terribly to be formed into Your image? Is there any way for beauty to be born without these dismal ashes?”
I was born with cancer…or at least they assume I must have been. The tumor began it’s tender protrusion before my second birthday, in that “time before time” where innocence kindly veils one from all that is hard and painful in this world. But the harshness of life’s reality hit me before I even knew what the difference was between life and death. Though, of course, that did not stop the fact that a deadly disease was at my doorstep, strong in its ferocity. And yet I was just awakening to gaze through child eyes upon the mysterious world all around me. How could I have understood my mother’s tears that day once the doctor declared my diagnosis? How could I have comforted her pain as she held me tight in her embrace, trembling with heartache’s grief, over her baby who “would not live.” Other than the Christ child, has there ever been any little one who possibly comprehends the reality of pain or grasps the extent of the sufferings his own breath of a life will hold? And yet each and every one of us that is chosen by Christ and grafted into His love, is born with a destiny to be made something so indescribably beautiful. But it is a beauty that is rarely wrought into existence through anything less than the raw presence of pain.
Early in my days, pain became a part of daily life, like Sesame Street and my baby dolls, and though I couldn’t have explained all that was hurting within, the pain was there, hiding below the surface of my infantile vocabulary which was not yet as big as my battle. And though I didn’t have anything but cries to express my pain, neither did I have the words to express the reality of the presence of love that was there residing deeper than my wounds; for there has always been One who has dwelt there with me, me and the sting of my nightmares. Yes, He was there catching the tears as I cried, rebelling at the pain…but more importantly, He never failed to catch the unborn tears that never quite made their escape from my soul. I learned to love the salty taste of my tears set free, but it was the trapped tears that were the most desperate to be held and understood. My parents and nurses could decipher my liquid anguish, as it would stream down my face to pool on the floor. But there was only One who could read and decode with utmost empathy the hidden tears that were bound up inside my child heart.
Chemotherapy and its affects of nausea, the needles and sharp instruments I learned to dread, as well as the scary big people all dressed in matching garb. Then there were the operations and the booboos that were deeper than Elmo band-aids could make all better: that was my reality and all I really knew. I couldn’t have complained to you or felt like God was being unfair, because I didn’t know that my circumstances were anything but typical. How could I have known that all of it wasn’t the norm of every child’s development? And yet they were the stages that made up the becoming of me, and I know I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for each and every prick of the needles I braved. Truly it’s the darkest of traumatic memories that so beautifully offset the colors of life’s glorious sweetness; the hope, the faith, the love.
Children are filled with genius and it didn’t take me long to see that after every finger stick or IV needle, there was a sticker of my choosing. And after every chemo round came a trip to Toys R’ Us. It didn’t diminish the pain, necessarily, but having something to look forward to was wonderful in its capacity to distract and lift my spirit out of the moment’s agony, placing me instead into the joys of expectation. There truly is delight to be found in any circumstance, but you must be willing to gaze through the fresh beauty of childlike eyes. My father had a game we’d play during my days in the hospital, a game that thrilled me to pieces. Up and down the halls of the pediatric ward, Daddy would have me stand on the base of my IV pole, right above the little wheels and then we’d go racing down the corridors on hair raising rides; not that I had any hair to raise, but I didn’t care. I was with my Daddy and he was wonderfully hilarious, hilarious and kind. It was through his infusions of fun that the beauty of hope began to coat my child eyes; proving to me early on that after every good cry there comes a fresh opportunity to dance.
But even with all the happy dances those days contained, the daylight held more than enough afflictions. When the sun would slowly set, my fears would awake and rise. I remember lying in the dark, the dreadful dark which had slowly begun to permeate my imagination with dread. I could handle its consuming blackness if I wasn’t forced to be found all alone in it. But when bedtime came, I would fall apart in all sorts of fits, begging the whole time for escape: “I need glass of waddur,” “nudder bed-time story,” “gotta go potty,” “pleeeeeeeeze!” Many times I would break out of my “dungeon” and crawl into the safety of my parent’s bed. But there was one night I recall, where God broke through my darkness before I had a chance to flee to my parent’s room. I remember lying in the dark, staring up toward the ceiling which I knew was up there somewhere. My bald little head lay on its pillow and I gradually awoke to a powerful revelation. I didn’t hear any words or feel warm fuzzies; I just silently came to understand that in the thick of my room’s dark and scary night, I was not alone. I couldn’t see Him, but I knew with my heart that God was near, so very near. He was right up above me, with my ceiling, and I could tell He was smiling…and then…He held my hand.
I don’t know if that was the night of being reborn, transferred from the kingdom of darkness into His light, but I believe that it was the night God’s love became a reality to me. Not long after, I “officially” prayed, accepting Jesus into my heart and just like the chemo being poured into my little body to heal me of that which was killing me physically, the sweet blood of Jesus came and cleansed me of my spiritual cancer, my cancer of sin. He came and made me whole and beautiful.
They say I really shouldn’t have survived. Some say that I am a miracle, a proof that heaven hears fervent prayers. I do know that I am a tribute to love’s sweet mercies.
Just this past week I looked through the glass of the old, framed photos hanging in our hallway. And there staring back at me was my yesterday’s smile, caught by Kodak and beaming triumphantly from a tiny, bald head. I couldn’t help but stand there in wonderment at the sheer irony of surviving twenty years past that first bout with cancer, just to be back on the battle field once again. But seeing myself in the light of my childhood’s joy placed the same familiar smile upon my now grown-up face. “How very mysterious is this life,” I whispered quietly and then slowly took a step backward from the frame. It was in that movement of shifting out of the shadows – toward the light which was streaming in through the window behind me – that I caught my face’s reflection on the glassy surface of the picture frame, still staring in silence before me. And I could see it more clearly than ever, gazing simultaneously at myself bald both now and when I was a child. Amazing how I haven’t changed that much at all! I still have the same face, though now matured…I still have the same blue eyes, eyes that are lit up with the same sparked soul I possessed yesterday. And yet at the same time, I’m as different as night from day. Every part of me has now weathered a thousand storms and seasons since the little girl eyes of yesterday.
Fredrick Beuchner’s belief is that every little detail of our lives can be thought of as the vowels and sibilants which God uses to speak to us. When our ears are carefully listening to the heartbeat of our loving God, He begins to spell out the beauty of His grace and majesty. Nothing becomes insignificant and mysteries too deep for words begin their melodies right where question marks have thrived. “Why,” we ask, “why would a loving God allow a little child to suffer? Why would He crush a dream, bringing barrenness to her, she who longed for her own children? How could He be truly good if pain is the cup we daily drink of?” And I was tempted, as we each are at one point or another, to harden myself within my unanswered questions.
I know there are many who have pitied my beginnings, thinking it tragic that I had to endure such traumas both as a child and throughout my life, but I confess that I have rather pitied those who have never tasted the bitterness of a trial “too severe.” For how is one to appreciate the contrast of light’s dawning hope if his soul has never trembled through the dark hours of a nightmare’s watch? Or how can one prove God’s faithfulness if he never is granted the privilege of wandering through a barren desert, where only pools of Christ’s Presence can possibly provide survival? It is a great honor to be apportioned pain. Christ Himself, though God incarnate, learned obedience through what He suffered. Dare we assume that we as His children can be taught by any wiser or kinder instructor than the severity of unwanted pain? We dare not steel ourselves against our trials, running away from the fires where our pruned branches crumble to ashes. For if we escape those flames, we will risk barrenness of soul and will miss out on the beauty that only is born through the ashes of yesterday’s grief.
Cammie Van Rooy
August 6, 2002
Quotes taken from Fredrick Buechner, The Sacred Journey. San Fransisco: Harper & Row, 1982.