Many years ago, one of my closest friends and classmates in college was diagnosed with the most serious form of cancer. Eric and I had known each other for several years even before our university days together, and so when he phoned me with the news, it evoked childhood memories of riding my bike only to miss the pedal when I stood up to make the bike go faster, hitting my chest on the handlebars. Eric’s news landed like a hard punch, as if I had had the wind knocked out of me. He was so young and so vital. How could this be?
I remembered that raw feeling for many years, and on one of the toughest days of my life – the day my mother died – I received some equally stunning, punishing news: one of my great colleagues at Focus on the Family had been similarly diagnosed with a serious and deeply mysterious form of cancer.
Like Eric, Ashley was young, energetic, and in the prime of life. When I learned the news, I recall feeling a sense of suspended animation, a moment of disbelief, as if I had not really heard the news properly or in full. I had to ask a second time, just to make sure I had heard it all clearly. Alas, I had, and one of the most difficult years of Ashley’s life commenced. Those of us blessed to call her friend entered into those difficulties with her, and we watched her moral and physical courage of a peerless kind.
The thing to know is, from the first, my much-trusted colleague had entered a period of substantial and serious testing, treatments, hospitalizations, and medical attention and procedures that were so various and invasive that even to recall them seems surreal.
When I shared the news of Ashley’s diagnosis with my wife, I pledged that I would do everything I could as a colleague, friend, and brother in Christ to be supportive and of service. A friend gave to me sage counsel: that the most important thing I could do for my ill friend would be to be a constant presence, even at the most difficult hours of the day or night.
Another friend offered equal wisdom: to do I all I could to ensure that her time, attention, and limited energy would be riveted not upon the workings of the office, or the organic bustle of otherwise harum-scarum Washington DC where our office is located, but rather to encourage her to focus like a laser beam on the cancer-fighting process that would prove to be both monstrous and risible. In all of our visits, we rarely if ever talked about business-things, and that proved to be both a boon and blessing to both of us.
Weeks turned into months in Ashley’s battle-royale – those months were defined by major ups and downs and turns and twists for her. She had to find the strength to put up with the exhausting and punishing regime of various times in the hospital, then at home, then in the hospital again, and thence to rehabilitation. Hers made for a brutalizing cancer-fight that was one for the ages.
At one of the nadirs for her, a couple friends gathered to celebrate her 34th birthday. By God’s grace, this gathering could be at her home. There were periods of time during that visit when we found it difficult to speak or conversate because, internally, our hearts were breaking for the trial for life we knew our friend was facing.
But in His divine Providence, God does in fact sometimes clear His throat.
Incrementally, day by day, there was a marked improvement in Ashley’s condition, and in one of the most remarkable phone conversations I am sure I shall ever experience – and experience really is the right word in this context – Ashley conveyed to me that “I am cancer-free.” Once again, I was uncertain that I had actually heard her properly. She had lost a large amount of weight; she had mobility issues that resulted in struggle; and her whole manner of living had shifted, pattern upon pattern of the familiar eviscerated by her disease. Could this actually be the case? Could she really be cancer-free?
By God’s great purpose and design, it was the case. Ashley, who had been through hell on earth, was given a cancer-free diagnosis. She returned to work in August; her arrival that morning was otherworldly for those of us who had witnessed the hairpin curves of the previous ten months.
A year ago at Christmastime, I was speaking with a former neighbor who shares my faith in Christ, and who had stopped by our home to give my wife and me a gift.
In an almost nonchalant way, she said to me that “Christmas can be a season of miracles.” I said to her I was praying for one regarding my colleague and friend who at that time was so ill, and that the road ahead seemed so tough, uncertain, and precarious.
Prayer changes things.
The holiday season, a year later, has arrived, and with it a confirmation that my former neighbor was right: I believe I have witnessed a miracle at Christmas, the cancer-freedom of a colleague and friend. Hers has been a stunning recovery and turn-around.
I know her life will never be the same again; she has lived through something death-defying and brutal. The life of her friends won’t see life quite the same way, either. It is how the shepherds must have felt, too.
Christmas can be indeed a season of miracles. I have witnessed one. It has left an indelible imprint on how I will always remember 2019. There is joy in the world, arising from the life of the God-man who asked those gathered around him, “What did you go out in the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you come out to see?”