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Bringing light to the valley of shadows

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There is nothing like a newborn to light up a room – and we entered with twins. Four months old and in all their identical glory. With three children of our own and two other grandchildren, the usual baby fussing isn’t a novelty. But I must admit that carrying twins around warms even my slightly jaded heart.

But this time, my wife Janet and I weren’t carrying them into just any room – this was the chemo clinic.

Around the perimeter of the big room there are eight reclining chairs – each with a patient connected to intravenous tubes, dripping clear solutions from plastic bags into the battered veins of cancer patients.

Many have spouses, parents, children, or friends sitting beside them to “wile” away the hours. They are usually reading.

It is a room full of powerful emotions. The staff brings a dignified but cheerful competence where confusion, anxiety, and discomfort are the order of the day. The first hookup is particularly terrifying. “Do you know that if a mosquito bites you it will die? Your blood is now corrosive and will burn skin. No one should touch your blood.”

And that warning says it all – corrosive poison that brings the hope of life. “If it doesn’t kill you, it might heal you” is no mere truism here; it is the Rule of Life in this room. Without this poison you will surely die – with it you may live.

The tension between terror and fragile hope defines the chemo clinic.

Every three weeks, 22 times, with breaks for surgery and radiation, this room had been our metronome. By now, Janet was the veteran. After the first dozen, she went alone most of the time. The intravenous painkillers made her dozy, and the initial terror found its equilibrium. But each time I did go, I would look around and nod to the other veterans and relive the pain of the shell-shocked new comers. It isn’t a chatty place.

This was the last session of our chemo cycle and to celebrate it we thought that bringing the twins would be a good idea. After all, their story had also come with us to the room.

It seemed like a nice way to celebrate – and we were celebrating.

We were celebrating the completion of a long cycle. We remembered our first visit here. We didn’t even dare to begin a count down, and now this was the last one! We would leave with the well worn blessing of the room: “We hope we never see you here, again!”

We were celebrating living. I vividly remember the statistics about two-year survival rates and how the oncologist had phrased them so carefully. Every statement had subtle qualifiers. That day marked our two years. We were now on the good side of the numbers game.

We were celebrating two years of life not wasted. During those two years, two of our children were married and four grandchildren had sprung into life. Under other circumstances, those two years would have merely rolled by. But because they were lived in the valley of the shadow of death, we were intensely aware that God had prepared a table before us in that valley (Psalm 23:5).

Those were the celebrations we carried into the room with us that day. It felt very good.

I wasn’t ready for what would happen next, however.

The light that entered the room with those sleeping babies was almost tactile. It was as if, for a frozen moment, every desperate hope was embodied in their tiny forms.

Outside the chemo clinic, life is ordinary. Inside, it is extraordinary. We “know” that everyone will die some day, but that consciousness is confined to special places like chemo clinics.

Birth is reserved for the maternity ward. These rooms don’t mix very often.

But without planning to, we had brought these two realities together. Here the twins were a plant springing from a rock – the great hope of every human heart – longing for the day when swords will be beaten into pruning hooks, when the lion will lay down with the lamb, when every tear will be wiped away. They were extravagant life in a place where everyone lives self-consciously in the valley of the shadow of death.

Some faces shone. Others found it safer to avert their eyes just a bit.

We left, now celebrating the awesome power of life and hope in a zone of fear and anxiety. But we were also humbled by it.

“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” (Isaiah 52:7).

That day those were our feet.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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