The Time My Sister Had Cancer
by JULIE JOHNSON
She had returned to the emergency room the night before with excruciating pain in her lower back. The first time she made the call, the doctor told her it was a bladder or kidney infection. As her little sister, I agreed with the diagnosis. I had told her before she needed to have it checked because those sorts of infections are easy to treat when they are caught early. Run-of-the-mill. Common. Easy. Treatable.
After church the morning of April 1, my parents and I went to the hospital. Not long after we arrived, the doctor came by and began talking with a lot of words. More words, even. So.many.words. She eventually made it around to what she did not want to say and I hesitated to hear. A mass. Pancreas. Cancer.
The words stopped, and my uncle and his family, who had been standing in the hallway, came in. My mom quickly filled them in, and my uncle placed his arm over my shoulders and pulled me to his side. Through all the words and through the news, I was fine. Calm. Strong. I needed to be for my family. But then, I felt the first tear and knew I had to escape the room. My foot hit the hallway, and I couldn’t go any further. John 11:35 says, “Jesus wept.” I’ve heard theories about why He did so. He knew He’d see Lazarus again. He knew His friend was not dead spiritually but alive with our Father. Yet He wept.
I wonder if the reason Jesus wept was because He was human. Fully human. Fully God, yes. But fully human. Grief hurts. It spares nothing. Doubled-over in the hallway, it felt like everything inside me was grieving at the same time. Mourning together. Trying to get out and move from the sucker punch I was just given.
I returned from the restroom and spent the afternoon moving from chair to end of the bed. From one side of the room to the other. From knowing I should play hostess to not caring at all about how others were feeling. When the room was almost cleared out and it was time to go, I made my way to the side of my sister’s bed. She told me to stop crying. “You’re the one who doesn’t cry,” she said. It made me mad. Instead of calling her out on it, I mustered up enough courage to say, “No matter what happens, in the end, I have to know you’re right with God. No matter what happens. In the end, I must know you are right with God.” This had been a prayer of mine for years. I needed to know she was saved, and the countdown clock started flashing red.
I was asleep in my sister's bed when she went into labor with my nephew. I was the first to know. "Go get Mom," she demanded. I didn't believe her. We argued.
She bought me my only two sets of leg warmers. They were supposed to be Christmas presents, but she couldn't wait. One pair was pink. The other was purple.
She always called me on my birthday. Always wanted to know every gift I was given.
I've only ridden a horse once in my life. My sister was the driver; I sat behind her. Until I didn't. For most of the ride, I was parallel to the ground, hanging from the side of the horse. My sister laughed the entire time. "Julie, get back on." I couldn't. I barely could keep myself far enough from the ground to even call it a ride.
She threw me in the deep end of a swimming pool before I learned to swim. "You have inflatables on your arms," she said. I really didn't think she'd do it.
When Brad Bennett preached on relational evangelism, he told the story about his panic attacks. Day after day, my anxiety grew, though I didn't realize to what extent. "What if today is the day she dies?" I'd be at work, trying to make it through some project, praying God would heal her, but I'd be overcome with, "What if she dies before I can talk to her again about God?" I'd sneak out to spend a few minutes with her. People began commenting on my weight loss. "Julie, you look so good." "Julie, what are you doing to lose weight?"
I smiled politely.
Then I'd go home, try to eat, but only swallow a few bites because when food was in my mouth, I felt like I would choke. I chewed everything for minutes. I'd take a drink multiple times during the process. I couldn't nibble on a piece of cheese without a liquid nearby. My sister was dying, and I could not make her eternal life/death decision for her.
The next few weeks brought a quick trip to St. Louis, lots of tests, pain management, chemotherapy and my sister's change in hairstyle. She went from long and frizzy to short and accessorized. For the first time since childhood, she started wearing headbands -- the skinny kind that looks super cute. I'd visit during a treatment, and she'd be sitting up in bed, relaxing, drinking room temperature water and looking oh-so-stylish. The only side effect of the chemo was that it made her sleepy all.the.time. But she was out doing things, eating at restaurants, visiting area attractions. She fought like a champ.
On a Saturday in July, my dad decided to drive and check on her. We had tried calling a few times. Though it wasn't abnormal for her to not pick up, he was going to be in the neighborhood anyway. Might as well see her. Within the hour, she was back in the hospital with a urinary tract infection. No cause for alarm. Treatment was going really well.
She was skinnier, and I could barely figure out what she tried to say. I had to ask her to repeat herself constantly. She became angry. "Why can't anyone understand me?"
Two days later, she was still in the hospital. I went again to see her at lunch. She was supposed to be eating, but she couldn't swallow the food or liquid. The nurse played it off like it was just a something. My parents arrived. The phone rang. The doctor wanted to speak with my mom.
"Her kidneys are shutting down. If they don't start working, she only has a few days."
Two things I knew: 1) My sister and I talked about her Salvation. However, something inside nagged at me. She assured me she prayed when she was little. She even apologized for causing me any doubt. Yet ... my heart was not settled. I was afraid she said what she did because it was me. My mom talked to a couple of friends who agreed they would meet with my sister. 2) Sometime along the way, God and I had a conversation, and I knew He wasn't going to heal her.
My sister died on July 11, 2012. I wasn't there. God forbade it. He had me finishing up some housework. He slowed me down and caused traffic lights to turn red. I arrived in the parking lot and received a call from my mom. "Hurry. Something's wrong." My sister died probably a minute before I arrived. She was holding hands with my mom and my nephew. That's what she needed, and God is sovereign.
God is also patient and long-suffering. My parents' friends went to see my sister a couple of times. The last time being the Monday we found out her kidneys were failing. Carolyn told my sister we were worried about her decision to trust Jesus. My sister said, "I didn't think He'd still want me after all the bad I've done." She prayed with Carolyn, and I know my sister is alive forever with Jesus.
The next day, she lost her voice. She watched everything going on in the room, but she couldn't talk.
In the grasp of death, my sister had a decision to make. She could refuse the free gift of Jesus, the One who died a torturous death for her out of love, and spend eternity/forever/always in hell, apart from all who God is -- beauty, love, sacrifice, healer, protector, Good. Or she could take Jesus as her Savior.
Sometimes the pain is so prominent in my heart. I was shopping the other day, looked up and thought I saw my sister. The woman down the aisle had the same shape, the same hair. It caught my breath. But I wouldn't ask for her back. To know she's alive and healthy and filled-to-the-brim with joy in the presence of our Savior is eternally better than having her here another minute.
Your turn. What is your decision?
Julie Johnson is Creative Design Director at Ridgecrest Baptist Church.