There’s a saying for us Orthodox Christians. “You know it’s Lent when…” because the battles spiritually grow, as the enemy doesn’t want you moving closer to God.
Therefore, unexpected travails hit you like a tsunami, and sometimes, they are so impacting, so difficult, you are knocked down, and you scrape to get back up from the dark hole in which you’d fallen.
After Forgiveness Sunday at the start of Lent, two weeks ago, we encountered serious events.
One of these had to do with a seven-year-old boy named Benjamin whose family are members of our church. He was diagnosed with an inoperable, cancerous brain tumor last September. A month or so ago, he began hospice care. Devastating to hear.
This really hit home for me because of my younger son’s brain tumor, and the painful memories of dealing with that when he was a baby and toddler. All the brain surgeries, radiation therapy, therapies, feeding tubes.
We’d stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle while our son went through surgeries and radiation therapy at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital and University of Washington’s Radiology (I think that’s what it was called…it’s been many years since my son is 16 now) Department.
There were many difficult times we went through. When we’d gotten the call from the hospital after a followup MRI a year and a few months after his diagnosis and first surgery, and they told us the benign tumor that was attached (and still is) to his brainstem had grown and we’d have to come back for him to have another surgery, I’d broken down in tears in the bedroom after my husband told me this. I told him I didn’t think I could do this again. Having my own struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, this was very hard to digest and handle.
I told him I wanted this to end and go back to our normal lives. I’ve never forgotten his response, as he kept it together when I was crumbling. He’d said, “This IS our life now, Dorothy.” It hit me hard but sunk in that I needed to accept this current situation as our new “normal”. And so I did.
All the scary moments, frightening news told to us, worries over what would happen to our 2-year-old little boy, were always there.
We lived in a bubble from November 2003 – until sometime in 2008 when Christopher finished up the last of his therapy and the remnant of his tumor stayed stable, unchanged.
While staying at the Ronald McDonald House, we were surrounded by and immersed in the tragic and heart-wrenching lives of other families whose children had cancer. And we’d watch in awe how the children with their little knit caps would run around the community kitchen laughing, smiling, playing with other children in between chemo treatments.
The stories shared by the families there were life changing for us. Lots of thoughts went through my head when all of this first happened. God’s punishing me and my husband for being selfish humans and not paying enough attention to our children. How long would I have to endure this? Selfish thoughts, but also, admittedly, hurting, broken human thoughts. And a misunderstanding of who God truly was. He’s not Zeus, a God of punishment, but a God of Love and Mercy and Peace. But it took me a few years to realize that.
Spending all that time with those RMH families taught me compassion and empathy more tangibly, and taught me there was a segment of the population living their lives inside this bubble of illness and pain. And all through this, my son was stronger than I was, stronger than I’d ever knew he could be.
And we made it through those harrowing times. But now, any time we go back every couple of years for his MRIs, I get nauseous, headaches, weak, and shaky. My anxiety can’t handle the visits well, so I have to pop a 0.25 mg of Valium to deal with the routine MRIs. It seems ridiculous, but it’s just how it is with me.
But my son is doing all right. He has some cognitive issues, such as slow executive speed and problems with executive memory, via his neuro-psych evaluation from this past December. It wasn’t too surprising, but he’s doing so well, probably due to his compensating and adapting to his impairments for years, such as the severe hearing loss in his left ear, the seventh nerve palsy in his left eye (the tumor is on the left side of his head in the cerebellum area), weakness in his left limbs, and some paralysis on the left side of his face that affects his mouth, giving him a crooked (but endearing) smile.
So, with all of these memories that came rushing back to me after hearing about little Benjamin, I was in tears and hurt for Benjamin and his family. I could imagine what his parents were feeling, what they were going through.
Benjamin is still with us today. Our priest took him up to Saint Nectarios Monastery in New York last week to venerate the saint’s relics and be anointed with the holy oil there because many miraculous have happened petitioning Saint Nectarios for prayers to God for healing, for many, many years since his death in 1994.
Over time, you realize the illness of one family member affects all the other members, and the whole family is sick, in need of reconciling and healing. My best friend told me this as she has son with a chronic mental illness and a husband with chronic back problems and has been suffering with the effects of a concussion for a year and a half.
With all the hurt, illness, tragedies, and darkness in this world, we turn to Christ, the Light of the World, to illumine our hearts and minds to focus on him. Lent reminds us to remember Him, strive toward Him, to know we are nothing without Him. When our worlds are falling around us, He is our anchor, Love and Peace that brings our bodies and minds back to a healthy, balanced state.
May Great Lent awaken us to His perpetual, loving presence in our lives, and may we show Him we love Him through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and attending nourishing and spirit-filling church services.