I remember it well. Ten years ago this week I was sick. Not just sick, but sick sick. The phone rang as we were sitting down to eat dinner, much as I didn’t feel like eating. It was the doctor. Can I come along to the office? Now? With my wife? I guess I can. I guess that doesn’t sound good.
I put the phone down, told Jill that we needed to go to the doctor. Now. Well the gastroenterologist, to be precise, because something was going wrong in my stomach that had seen me drop 20kg in three months.
Add to that a general feeling of tiredness, a grey look in my face, followed by an excruciating, and out of the blue, bout of pain that had put me into hospital in agony for a day or so. Then the usual request to get a full internal examination – and quickly.
That involved the unpleasant daylong session of drinking a cleansing liquid that would flush out your system to the point that you’re more than likely to be drinking the last litre of about eight, sitting on the toilet, as it doesn’t seem to touch the sides by that stage.
The pain rumbled on and I got the tests done. Do you think it’s just the stress of work?, I asked the gastro groggily as the anaesthetic wore off. He looked at me funny:
“No, I don’t think it’s stress. Take this paperwork and I want you to have an MRI scan ASAP and I want the results immediately.”
I took the paperwork home with me that I had to give to the doctor. I opened it. I read it. It said “Possible Pancreatic Head Lesion?” That didn’t sound good. But at least it had a question mark at the end of it, almost winsome in its asking. I Googled it. That didn’t look good. In fact it looked very bad. That’s just another way of saying “Possible Pancreatic Cancer?” And when I Googled that, that looked like imminent death.
I had the MRI, organised for the results to be sent off, and then that phone call at dinner.
The look on Jill’s face. The tension in the car on the ten minute drive in the gathering early summer gloom. Phoning a friend to come quickly and look after the kids, at that stage eight and almost two. The not saying much on the drive. The parking of the car. The walking into the practice. The standard government grey paint on the walls. The standard waiting room chairs. The being invited into the doctor’s office. I still remember it all. Still remember that surreal feeling in my stomach.
And then that conversation. Which began as you might expect it to. With a sorry. With an explanation that the MRI seemed to indicate that I had an advanced stage of pancreatic cancer, and that it was one of the latest stage developments the doctor had seen. And then, almost stupidly and in a way that seems caricature, asking that question, “How long?”
Six to twelve months. Who cares or knows too much about your pancreas? Most people don’t know what it is for. But get cancer in it and you have a 5% survival rate over five years. It’s that low because, until you feel the pain, until you find yourself, as I did, sitting on the shower floor, gasping in pain, unable to move, and feeling like someone has speared you in the sternum and through your lower back, and is holding you on that spear, you don’t realise you might have it. And by that stage it’s too late.
It was all a blur. A dream. We told him we were Christians, turns out he was too. He wanted more blood tests. And a biopsy the next week. We wrapped up the conversation. We walked out into the warm night air, the sweet, smoky smell of eucalyptus trees. We drove home in a blur. We were in shock. People were in shock as we told them. The church was in shock as we prayed. Friends met and cried and prayed with us. Jill had a full day in her clinical psychology practice the next day. Telling my family was hard. Phoning England to tell my twin was excruciating. He sent me this song, a beautiful version of a Frankie Goes to Hollywood song:
And then we sat and waited. And waited. Time waits for no man, but Christmas time waits for surgeons and specialists. My bloods came back. Things seemed mixed. The biopsy was scheduled.
I sat in a bed at Royal Perth Hospital waiting my turn, after my friend Simon dropped me off. The man on one side next to me, in his early sixties, with his loving wife sitting holding a big bottle of pills. Advanced pancreatic cancer and they were putting in one more stent to hold things open. To hold death at bay. We spoke. I could feel the despair.
The man on the other side asked me what I was in for. He was well into his eighties and lugging around an oxygen tank. I told him I was waiting for confirmation of whether or not I had pancreatic cancer and that at forty two I didn’t want to die just yet. He told me he was 85 and still didn’t want to die. I lay back and looked out the window at the cross on the roof of Mercedes Catholic Girls’ School across the road from the hospital.
It struck me that I didn’t want to die, but that if I did die it would be okay – for me. It felt like at the critical moment everything that I had said that I had committed myself to, the hope of the resurrection in Jesus, actually made sense. The gospel hope kicked in as I’d hoped it would, but still up to that point in my life – untested by the crucible of possible death – wondered about. So it worked!
Yet it still felt hugely confronting. This may well be the point of death. Of leaving this life and entering through death, and into the life to come that would, somehow – and I haven’t ever figured out that somehow – be fulfilled in my resurrection on the last day. What would be our immediate experience after death? The last day itself, since time is not a category in eternity? No idea then, still no idea now.
My biggest regret now seems silly. Or partly so. My biggest regret was that I just hadn’t had enough fun times and holiday times with the family. Too busy. Too distracted. Next year. Too much church stuff to do. Now? It all felt that that had gotten in the way, and I would be leaving a young widow with a young family and it would be okay for me, but not necessarily for them. Perhaps they’d take that holiday though.
Christmas Day was a mix of tears and joy. You can see the photo above. I cracked gallows humour over the small amount of food I felt like eating. I turned all of the silly Christmas Cracker jokes into something about illness. Go on, try it one year, I know you want to. I slept a lot. I’ve never determined whether the pancreas problems had caused me to lose my appetite, or whether I was kinda withdrawing from life. “Pointing the bone” as would be the saying in Australia. Google it and see what it means.
Summer holidays hit. Surgeons go skiing in Europe. Something had to be done, but no one was around to do it. But there was a glimmer of hope from the biopsy. Bloods seem ok, and the lump on my pancreas hadn’t increased in size. I was eventually booked in to see a surgeon. He looked at all the paperwork. You need surgery soon, he said, scribbling on paper. Good, I said. Tomorrow, he said. It’s Saturday tomorrow, I said. I know, he said, I’m doing sixteen surgeries tomorrow and you’ll be the last one. Not all several hours long, he added, seeing the look on my face which indicated that after about eleven surgeries in a day you’re bound to get blasé.
I woke up after surgery expecting a tiny incision in my stomach. 30 staples holding together a 25 centimetre gash from near my sternum to below my belly button. What was left of my belly button (my best feature gone for good). Lots of pain, lots of meds, lots of not moving or eating or doing anything for two weeks. Lots of being bathed by someone else, and lots of nausea.
Your pancreas is way at the back. They go in from the front. It feels like you’re so compromised physically that you’ll never recover that deep, multi-levelled gut cut. Day ten I managed to walk. In the end I asked to go home. I couldn’t stand hospital. They don’t let you out until you’ve done a poo. That takes a surprisingly long number of days to happen after major stomach surgery. Finally, flushed with success, I staggered back to bed. Get me out of here!
My dad picked me up from the hospital, as I sat in the hospital chemist and waited for the pain killers. Teary, but still awkward as was Dad’s way. I sat crying in the car on the way home in the blistering early February Perth heat, overcome with the emotion of the last two months. The glare, the road signs, the traffic, the people. All getting on with life. I had missed it. It hadn’t missed me. And that’s how it is with death too I suppose.
I sat at home, my daughter staring at me wide-eyed, almost afraid. I looked like Skelator. 59kg of not all that much, bones sticking into the wooden bench I was sitting on, 30 metal staples holding my scar together.
I didn’t have pancreatic cancer. I’d had a bad bout of pancreatitis. I’d left the warning signs go unchecked for a couple of months – including that dramatic weight loss – and things had toppled over domino-like, making me very sick. It took me a couple of months to get over the surgery. A year to get over the emotional trauma. A year in which I felt that God had – in His infinite wisdom – broken me down to the most simple components of my life, and shown me that, in the grand scheme of things, He could keep this thing going without me. I didn’t work for a year. Didn’t want to work for a year.
Jill said it turned me from being a young man who was a little bit too frivolous, into an older man who was much deeper. Facing death will do that I suppose. I never put the weight back on. And I never put the young man thing back on. Sickness changes you, and that sickness changed me for good.
And changed me for the good. It made me appreciate God’s grace much more. It killed off the pride in my own performance and abilities that much more. Not much pride in having your privates washed by a nurse, while you lie there in a certain amount of shame and a good deal of pain. My respect for the nursing profession is super high after that experience.
I got the staples taken out a few weeks later. And the results. The surgeon was matter-of-fact. A bad bout of pancreatitis. Unlikely to recur. Be careful. And try and put some weight on. Go buy a burger and start eating. I walked gingerly holding myself in protective mode through the shopping centre away from the surgery. No confidence, no desire to be around people. Jill drove me home, grateful to have ruled a line under the most intense three months of our lives. A three months that ended our church plant and our relationship with the group we planted with.
She said this a little later, much later in fact, when we were starting the next plant, our current church, Providence Church Midland.
“If I’d seen the last couple of months coming I wouldn’t have wanted them. But now, on this side, I can see we couldn’t do without them.”
And now ten years on, coming up to Christmas 2019, I can echo her words, and thank God that he brought me through the valley of the shadow of death, not having to fear the ultimate evil – being cut off from God – but knowing that He was with me. And still is. And still will be. I may have dodged a bullet back in December 2009, but that bullet will be coming back one day. My prayer is that whatever it is, and whenever, that the same God who brought me through that, will bring me through to the other side of what “that” merely hinted at.
My daughter is eighteen now, about to start some theological study and serve at church. My son is almost twelve and is the kind, gentle soul that I never was at that age. And I finish up on staff at our church plant in three weeks time, overjoyed with what God has done in the midst of all that.
I am convinced that one reason God allowed me to go through that was to soften and break me down a bit, to make me a safer leader to be around as we planted another church. A wise friend told me, “God doesn’t make leaders, he breaks leaders.” It’s good to be a broken leader. It means you won’t break other people. Jesus came for the sick, not the well, and perhaps I was sicker than I had ever thought, even before I became ill.
We’re putting up our Christmas tree later tonight. That’s ten more Christmases than I thought I’d have. I’m truly grateful for them all.