Some things just creep up on us and change our lives forever.
Twenty years ago today (September 5th), my wife and I headed off on a quick weekend trip to celebrate her fortieth birthday. We had been married 15 months. At this point we still maintained two households, one a parsonage where I was serving a little church while finishing up seminary, and the other was her house in Austin, Texas. From Austin it was only about a 12 hour drive to a little town called Cuchara, Colorado. Not far out of Cuchara was a campground with each tent site secluded and nestled along a fast flowing and somewhat noisy creek. We loved it. We had camped there several times over the few years we had been in relationship.
We had gotten into the habit of taking a long weekend every once in a while to camp up there and this trip was to be the last before school started for me and our kids, as well as a quiet birthday get-away. Nothing was going to keep us from the camping and hiking and exploring we planned, not even the pain in Vicki’s back that had been pestering her for a couple of weeks.
She was a nurse so she understood what she needed to pay attention to and she had sought the opinion of an internist before going away. That doctor said it was probably just a bowel obstruction. Off we went.
While camping that weekend the pain would, at times, get rather intense; Vicki would take some meds for the pain, we’d relax for a while, and when the pain medication would kick in we would start hiking some new trail to discover a new vista, a new place to wonder at the beauty, or another quiet mountain meadow. On one such adventure we started hiking a trail that lead to the top of the West Peak of the Spanish Peaks, a summit of 14,236 feet. After a couple of hours of hiking we realized that we would never make it in time to get down before night fall; besides the “guide” at the trailhead recommended being back below tree line by three in the afternoon. It was to be our last day before heading back to Austin and Houston so we vowed that on our next trip we would start at 5:00 AM and hike to the top.
Upon returning home and to the start of classes and work, Vicki sought out a different doctor for another opinion. The laxatives had not aided in relieving the pain which was growing more intense. This doctor palpated her abdomen rather extensively and could feel a baseball size “knot.” As he examined her he found additional lymph nodes that were inflamed, and after several probing questions started to show some real concern.
I had just begun a night of reading theology textbooks when the phone rang.
“Richard, the doctor thinks I have lymphoma!” I had never even heard the word or encountered anyone who had that and my reaction was a vague, “What’s that?”
“It’s cancer, I have cancer!” and the tears flowed. “I have an appointment for a biopsy in the morning.”
“I am on my way.” And in an hour I was out the door, having found someone who would come and stay with my three daughters.
Our fifteen months of married life that had never quite left the “honeymoon” state changed. The next seventeen months were filled with doctors, hospitals, tests, waiting, experimental treatments, more waiting and finally hospice (as well as my final year of seminary, my ordination and the move to my first full time call).
The hiking boots she wore on the first hike up to the tree line hung on the door knob, on the IV pole, at the foot of her bed for the next 17 months . . . and served always as a reminder that one day we would hike that trail again. We did hike that trail, her children and I; we carried her ashes up that mountain and lofted them into the wind eighteen years ago.
9-5-54, 9-5-54, 9-5-54 repeated a thousand times at a thousand reception counters to more nurses, to radiation techs, to even more nurses as they would prep her for a procedure. “Birthdate?” each new medical professional would ask as they check their paper work. 9-5-54.
Sometimes life changes in a moment and while I do not long for things to be different today, I love where I am, my wife, the people I work with, the church I serve; I could not dream of a better place to be and I would not be here if she’d lived. Life happens that way. Celebrate the life you have. Celebrate each day as a gift.
Yeah, sometimes things creep up on us and change our lives forever.