On the 27th of January five years ago I returned to work after the Australia Day Long Weekend as all teachers do. There was nothing particularly special about that day except that my daughter Sam had a teachers’ aide position at the school and had her new staff orientation day. We drove to work together. I didn’t officially need to be there but I was excited to hang my new fairy net in the classroom over the polka dot cushions I had made over summer. I also thought that if I drove Sam that day she would have to follow up on the blood tests the doctor had recommended the previous Friday. She was too busy to bother with blood tests over the long weekend.
Sam had been complaining of feeling dizzy, so I had taken her for ears tests. As a child she had always had complications with her ears but it wasn’t her ears. They were better than ever the ENT said. So I suggested maybe it was time for glasses but the optometrist gave her the all clear. “Maybe all you need is to get to bed earlier,” I suggested, “or join a gym” her dad added when she complained of feeling worn out after moving a small desk from one room to another with him. It never crossed our minds that our daughter could be unwell. Our children were never unwell. Sam had endless energy and a passion for life. She was a leader in our church youth group, a uni student, had a part time job in retail and now a job at school as well.
Sometimes the thing you never expect to happen, happens. You are just getting on with the ordinary mundane events of your life, doing your best to bring colour into your small world with polka dot cushions, fairy nets and a tea party set up for your collection of Felicity Wishes dolls and out of the blue the phone rings. It’s a number you don’t recognise and the first instinct is to silence it. It’s 8am in the morning and the very first staff meeting of the year is due to start. The phone call is nothing but an inconvenience. I remember these events now as if it was someone else’s life. As if I am Alice looking through the glass at something that I am not sure really happened, or whether it was a dream or a nightmare and how I had come to be falling down that rabbit hole that day. Had I fallen asleep by the stream with my book and woken into someone else’s world?
That day is organised in my mind in a series of flashbacks. I remember every little detail like it happened yesterday. I remember that I had no change in my car for the parking meter in the street where I had taken a wrong turn on our way to emergency. I remember the same meter rejecting my card. I remember Sam saying “why don’t you find a park somewhere else and I will walk from here” and her being calm and me wondering what on earth was going on. I remember that Emma slept through her alarm which was something she never did and her being late for work. I remember Reid hanging up on my calls because he was in a meeting. I remember my boss, who is also one of my dearest friends telling me the staff meeting wasn’t as important as me doing what the doctor said and that I should just go. I remember my other friend coming to the hospital to sit with us and Reid eventually turning up too. I remember these events out of order in a haphazard way. I remember the colour of the fluid in the Petri dish when I didn’t want to look. I remember that it was the perfect shade of pink. Quite unlike anything I had ever seen before. I didn’t know that that fluid held the information that would change our lives forever.
Of all the conversations I remember parts of, there is one that I remember in perfect detail. I remember that I was standing holding the last serving of lasagna from the hospital cafeteria. I remember that Sam was lying in a bed with a drip. I remember wondering why they decided to keep her overnight. I remember Reid, my husband, was in the blue Jason recliner. I remember that it was the end of the day but I had lost all sense of time and I wondered if they would give us any indication of what was so wrong with our daughter that they’d decided she needed to be admitted.
I remember that the doctor came in and didn’t suggest I sit down or put down the lasagna or prep us in any way that what he was about to say might be difficult to hear. No, he just nodded at us, her parents, and directed his three sentences at Sam as if we weren’t even there. It went like this:
“You have Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.
If you don’t start treatment immediately you have three months to live.
You will never have children.”
“Do you have any questions?”
I remember his words just hung there like a thick fog swallowing our reactions making our thoughts invisible, inaudible, numb. That fog wrapped its fingers round our throats, we could not answer, we could not breathe.
So he left us in the poison of the spell.
There are times in our lives when nothing makes sense. It’s impossible to speak. The events of your day start out much the same as they did ever other day and every other year but without warning the trajectory of your life has been transformed in a moment. That was our moment. I didn’t know it then but somehow God had prepared us for that moment though I did not feel prepared.
I liken it now to that moment when Jesus met the woman at the well. He reaches into our world when we need him to touch the base nature of our humanity. He reminds us that he became just like us so that we could have relationship with him. Though we are parched, unable to breathe, unable to speak, in need of refreshment; He comes to sit beside us. You might not notice Him at first. I remember that at first I didn’t notice He was there. But He was there on the side of the bed, sitting at her feet, careful not to pull the blankets too tight over her legs. His presence filled the room in that moment and Sam decided that we should pray.
It’s easy to think that maybe our circumstances are too big for God. That prayer is far removed from the problem we face. Even if Jesus turns up, what good is living water when He has no bucket with which to draw? Does He not know that our well is deep and we need a practical solution? (John 4:11)
We did pray. Praying was the only thing we knew to do.
I guess it’s only now, all these years later that I really do understand prayer and all the ways it impacts our world. For me prayer isn’t a religious habit, or something I do at the start of a meal. I’m likely to forget to say grace at the table in the same way I might forget to ask the children how was there day. Prayer is no longer something we do because we probably should. For me prayer is a conversation that is fluid, ongoing, unending. I guess I’ve come to know that he really does lean toward us with favour and regard. (Leviticus 26:9).
He doesn’t use human methods. He doesn’t take our advice. He doesn’t live in our realm. He offers us living water because it lasts for eternity and even if our thirst isn’t quenched initially he stays with us until it is. He prepares us to live with him forever and He wants us to know that He is there for the long haul. He cares for our relationships much more than He cares about anything else. He isn’t overwhelmed by our sin. He isn’t even shocked when we are ill.
Sometimes it seems like He has no idea what it’s like to be us, but His Word reminds us that He was thirsty too. He needed the woman to draw water. Like us, He needed to drink and in everyone who thirsts He sees an opportunity. Silently He slips into our space. I think about that now all these years later, how He gently placed His hand on my daughter. How He sighed. How He cried.
As I was reflecting on all this I stumbled onto these words in the novel I was reading by Alice Munro, “Lives of Girls and Women.” In the chapter titled “Age of Faith,” the young girl who narrates the story records “after the long psalm with the prophecies in it about the raiment, and casting lots, the minister went up into the pulpit and said he would preach a short sermon on the last words of Christ on the cross. The very thing I had been thinking of. But it turned out there were more words than the ones I knew about. He started with I thirst, which showed, he said, that Christ suffered in body just as much as we would in the same situation, not a bit less, and He was not ashamed to admit it, and ask for help, and give the poor soldiers a chance at obtaining grace, with the sponge soaked in vinegar. Woman, behold thy son…son, behold thy mother, showed that his last or almost last thoughts were for others, arranging for them to be a comfort to each other when He was gone (though never really gone). Even in the hour of His agony and passion he did not forget human relationships, how beautiful and important they were.”
Though the well is deep and He had nothing with which to draw water, Jesus has water of a different kind.
“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” Psalm 42
“Let not your heart be troubled.” John 14:1
Sometimes we are completely unable to comprehend that God is able to minister to us in our time of need. We think His resources won’t cut it, that the well is too deep even for Him. We must remember that He is the Almighty God and He is able.
Sam never returned to become a Teacher’s Aide on the 28th of January 2009 but tomorrow she returns as a qualified Primary School Teacher. She did not die. When our resources ran out a complete stranger was found on the ABMDR. Two years previously he had donated some blood in the hope of being a match to a friend of his wife who was also dying of Leukaemia. When his unexpected phone call came, he followed through his commitment, donated his stem cells and saved my daughter’s life. Sometimes our thirst is quenched by a stranger we’ve never met. Just like Jesus was to the Samaritan woman. It goes against convention that she now lives because of his blood. And while it is not without complication because the “Graft Versus Host Disease” affects her eyes, her ears, her lungs, her liver, her joints…it has not affected her courage.
Against all odds, Sam returned to university to become a Primary School Teacher and tomorrow, five years since that horrendous day, she starts at the school where I used to teach.