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No Guarantees

My husband's tumor reminded us that the future is uncertain. How would we find hope and confidence to move ahead?

At my husband's 40th birthday party, friends offered him condolences, commented on his gray hairs and, in response to his complaints over the past two years about back pain, gave him an exercise video and hints to "toughen up." We all laughed.

But a week later, when Kurt walked into the house in severe pain after moving a pile of wood chips, we weren't laughing. As he collapsed on the couch and called for ibuprofen, I realized that yet another physical task something a healthy 40-year-old should be able to handle—had triggered unbearable back pain. Kurt couldn't even pick up our two-year-old son without wincing in pain. And at night, he could hardly sleep.

That afternoon, as I reached for the painkillers, the label warning hit home: "If pain persists, see a physician." Even more alarming was the rate at which my husband was gulping down the pills. He took four tablets at a time—more than triple the recommended amount—but got only minimal relief. We called the next morning to make a doctor's appointment.

Worst-Case Scenario

Kurt came home from seeing the orthopedist with two pages of test orders. Thinking so many tests were overkill, he got a second opinion from our internist. We began to take the situation seriously when our doctor recommended the tests be done without further delay.

The MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) of Kurt's upper spine was scheduled for that same evening to rule out, as the doctor put it, "the worst-case scenario." Although Kurt isn't claustrophobic, he cringed as they laid him flat on his aching back and slid him into the dark MRI chamber for the 30-minute test. As the machine-gun cacophony of the MRI beat in his ears, suddenly Kurt was less than comforted at the thought of "ruling out a tumor."

After an hour and a half in the MRI tunnel, they rolled him out and the radiologist explained that he would have to give Kurt an injection for better resolution.

"Can't you tell me what's wrong?" Kurt demanded. "We just spent over an hour on a test that was supposed to take 30 minutes!"

The radiologist reluctantly explained that they had found a "rather large growth" inside my husband's spine. Then they rolled Kurt back inside the tube. For another 30 minutes, he suffered not only more physical pain, but now growing panic. "A growth? Does that mean a tumor? Will I die from this? Will I be around to raise my boys?" Lying there, alone and in despair, tears ran down his cheeks as he tried to control his sobbing.

"Try to remain still," came the voice of the radiologist as it resonated within the long tube. "There's too much chest movement."

When the test was over, Kurt called home with the news. As I gripped the phone and realized he was crying, I desperately wished I had gone with him. I raced to the hospital, and together we sat before the physicians, shocked to hear that our worst fears were becoming a reality.

While we didn't understand all the medical terminology used to describe Kurt's condition, we had no trouble comprehending the physicians' warning that his body functions would begin to shut down and paralysis would take place in a matter of weeks. The following week was spent seeing world-renowned neurosurgeons, praying, crying and trying to sort out our options. But there weren't any. It was either go through with a complicated surgical procedure that carried the risk of paralysis or face a slow death.

"Our life is returning to normal, but we know it will never be the same.

We always suspected we would hit a crisis in our marriage. We've seen too many misfortunes among friends and family to believe we were immune. As children we always heard, "Lord, teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom." We knew our days were numbered; it's just that we assumed we'd have a larger number of days. And we naively thought our crisis would come in the form of a job change, life direction reassessment, or some other controllable circumstance. This was clearly a crisis beyond our control.

Our fears were assuaged a bit when four neurosurgeons assured us that the tumor looked like a neurofibroma—a benign growth. But it was the size of a cocktail sausage and nestled in just the wrong spot in Kurt's spine. We had no choice but to go through with the surgery, realizing it was our turn to learn how to walk in peace, believing that we were being held in the palm of God's hand regardless of the outcome.

A week later, Kurt endured seven hours of neurosurgery. And while he went into the procedure calm and trusting the Lord to carry him through, I sweated it out in the waiting room, praying there would be no permanent paralysis and awaiting the results of the biopsy. As I sat with Kurt's parents, watching the sunny sky disappear into night, I wished for the day to quickly end. Just as all small talk was exhausted and our conversations were starting to repeat themselves, one of the surgeons came out to pronounce my husband "stable."

I stayed with Kurt in the ICU watching his swollen face, looking at his body hooked up to various tubes. I prayed. His elevated fever was not responding to the strongest antibiotic available, and I was losing hope that he would survive. The thought of losing my husband and raising our four boys alone overwhelmed me. Periodically, I'd leave to go sit in the waiting room and cry. When I felt in control again, I'd return to his bedside, wait for him to awaken and force myself to speak words of encouragement. When he'd fall asleep, I'd return to the weeping room.

At three in the morning, Kurt's fever broke. This time I cried with joy and finally had enough peace to go home for a few hours of rest. It had been a long week, but I knew the worst was over.

Permanent Changes

The past two years have been a long, slow road to recovery. At first, our sons didn't understand why their once-strong father couldn't walk. Not knowing what to say, they looked away and prayed for him. At home, they fashioned a sapling they cut in the woods into a cane and then waited for the day their dad could use it.

Within two weeks of the surgery, Kurt took some steps with the aid of a walker and eventually was able to stand tall. Before long, he was striding happily along with the aid of the boys' cane. The few months of physical therapy were easier to endure knowing that Kurt was preparing to resume an active life, rather than learning to live with paralysis.

Today, my husband can mow the lawn, and he can once again pick up and carry our youngest son. Soon he'll be able to row a boat. Our boys are delighted that their father can join them in a game of hoops—an activity formerly off-limits because of the pain it caused. Our life is returning to normal, but we know it will never be the same.

After we faced the prospect of death, Kurt and I realized that no matter how tightly we hold on to things, someday material possessions will slip away. When our world shook, we were glad our foundation was a shared faith in Christ.

Our priorities were rearranged as a result of our ordeal. Whenever possible, Kurt works fewer hours, and he has started turning down jobs that require nighttime work. His priority is now his family, not furthering his career.

We were also reminded that people—like our network of friends who supported us with meals, child care, cards and weeks of prayer—are far more important than projects or plans. Prior to our crisis, I was the one with the time to help others. Now we make time as a family to send meals to the sick or rake leaves for someone who isn't able to do it.

We are trying to streamline our life, devoting ourselves to endeavors with eternal rewards, like building better children rather than bigger bank accounts. In fact, our bank account has dwindled somewhat as we find we're no longer consumed with a big financial plan for the future. Now we're not reluctant to spend money on family outings and vacations. Through adversity, we've been challenged not to accumulate, but to experience.

Our brief stop at death's door reminded us there are no guarantees. When I hug Kurt, I'm thankful for his very presence. We lie next to each other at night knowing we've been blessed with a few more years together. And we start each day determined to make it count for eternity. Our life is not without problems, but now we face each problem as a unified team.

Not long ago, as I watched Kurt paddle off in a canoe with the boys to go fishing, tears came to my eyes. I knew they'd be back just as the sun set, but I was reminded of our recent fear that Kurt wouldn't be here to model the compassion that is now magnified in his life. Indeed, we have been blessed and given another chance to bless others.

Paige Jaeger is a free-lance writer living in Mahopac, New York.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Disease; Health; Illness; Marriage; Marriage Struggles
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 1997
Posted September 12, 2008

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