Joseph and I sat in the exam room of the oncologist’s office that January day. It was a check-up after finishing his treatment for neuroblastoma ten months earlier. That had been quite a year, after discovering our beautiful, precocious two-year-old had metastatic cancer in his bone marrow and bones. We learned what Jesus meant when he said, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). Days like the ones spent getting a three-year-old to consume eight ounces of fluid, only to have him vomit it up again the next morning, or days like the ones with dangerously low blood counts and a high fever.
We learned to treasure every day; after all, that’s really all we have. We treasured Christmas that year in our little family. Upon opening his gifts Joseph remarked, “It’s just what I always wanted!” “Oh, my sweet boy,” I thought, “you are so precious. You are just what I always wanted.”
Dr. Bostrom peeked into the exam room and asked, “Is Steve here today?” Even as I answered his question, my mind asked and answered my own question—“Why do you need Steve here?” Immediately tears filled my eyes. When the nurse retrieved Steve from the waiting room, he saw my tears and remarked, “I was wondering why it was taking so long.” That was a dark day as we learned that our now four-year-old son had cancer once again ravaging his body. Dr. Bostrom said to us that Joseph needed two things—to be free of pain, and to be with us. We went home that day to make the most difficult decision of our lives. Considering Dr. Bostrom’s words, our belief that God could miraculously heal Joseph, and the consultation of other parents in our position, we decided to pursue no further cancer treatment for Joseph, whose prognosis was poor.
The next Sunday in church we sang, “Jesus, Lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly, while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high. Hide me, O my Savior, hide, ‘til the storm of life is past; safe into the haven guide; oh receive my soul at last! Other refuge have I none; hangs my helpless soul on thee. Leave, ah, leave me not alone; still support and comfort me. All my trust on thee is stayed; all my help from thee I bring. Cover my defenseless head with the shadow of thy wing.”
I was sobbing halfway through the song. Pastor Veum stepped down from the pulpit to tell me, “I chose this song for you today.” It was the prayer of my heart for myself and for my defenseless child. God’s gift of music was able to touch my spirit in a way words alone could not.
In case we had decided to return for more testing and treatment, the hospital had sent us something for Joseph to drink on our way down to Minneapolis for a CT scan. He came running to me after opening it with Daddy. “Mom, mom! Look what came in the mail—medicine to beat my cancer up!” My heart sank. I explained to Joseph that we weren’t going to have him take any more chemotherapy; we were going to let God heal him. One day as Joseph sat at the kitchen table I asked him what it was like to have cancer. He answered, “It’s no fun to have cancer…waiting for healing.”
I was tempted to blame myself that Joseph did not appear to be healed. My unfaithfulness in Bible reading and prayer was glaring in my mind. I obviously did not have enough faith for this. But Hebrews 12:2 (NIV, 1984) said to me, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Joseph’s healing did not depend on my faith, but on the One who wrote that faith into my heart, the One who would perfect it. Pastor Veum also gave me comfort one Sunday when he recalled the words of his father-in-law: Does it take more faith to demand healing, or to trust God when the answer is not healing this side of heaven?
Those bright blue eyes did close in death that summer of 1994. We had his coffin lowered into the grave so that our children could see what was going to happen to it. Our two-year-old, Sophia, stood at the edge of the grave saying, “Good-bye, Joseph. Good-bye, Joseph. Good-bye, Joseph. Is Jesus down there?”
Yes, indeed. Jesus is down there. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23, NIV, 1984).
My favorite Bible verse is also the shortest: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). I have come to love the story of Lazarus perhaps more than any other Bible story because it shows me that Jesus is full of compassion. He was well aware of what he planned to do within a few minutes—turn their sorrow to joy!—and yet he saw and felt deeply the pain around him. It’s as though in that moment he allowed himself to feel the pain that sin brought to our world through the curse in Genesis 3. He knew the whole plan—that he himself had come to bring victory over sin and death, and that he would redeem the world. Hallelujah! And yet, there at the graveside of Lazarus where he proclaimed himself the resurrection and the life, Jesus was deeply moved by the effects of sin.
In this life there is pain. I find great comfort in knowing my Savior acknowledged that, and grieves with me.
We sat at a Christmas concert that first Christmas without Joseph, and watched as the choir lined the aisles of the church. They sang a beautiful lullaby in honor of Baby Jesus. Since there was no choir to watch at the front of the church, I gazed at the cross hanging there. The thought came to me: Here we are, looking at the cross, listening to beautiful music. Joseph, you are in the presence of Jesus, listening to and singing in heavenly choirs. I am so happy for you.
Lois Undseth lives in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and attends Bethel Lutheran Church.