One year, two decks.
I slept on the living room couch for an hour on the morning of July 29, 2016. I would have savored the nap more had I known it would be perhaps the best sleep that I would get for another year.
I had arrived back home on a redeye flight following a conference in San Diego. The previous afternoon at 3:30pm, I had been in the middle of teaching a seminar when I received a call from my dermatologist who instructed me to call her back as soon as I was able. By the time my seminar was over, the clinic was closed and I’d have to wait until the next morning to try her again. The news she had to share would have weighed heavily on my mind if not for shear exhaustion, a rescheduled flight in the middle of the night in Phoenix, and a throbbing left leg. On Monday morning, my dermatologist had removed a quarter-sized spot from my lower left leg. “Keep it from getting wet,” she warned, but paddle boarding on an inlet just off the Pacific Ocean was too much to pass up. Apparently ocean water does not play nicely with open wounds, and my lower leg became so swollen and painful that I upgraded my redeye seats to an exit row.
But now I had arrived home to my family for an exciting day. My wife’s first OB appointment to check on the health of our second baby was at 8:30am. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
“Uh oh” is never a phrase you want to hear in a doctor’s exam room.
After dropping off our daughter at daycare, we drove to the same clinic that had been home to so many of our appointments during the first pregnancy three years earlier. The same frontline person signed us in, the same nurse walked us to one of the same exam rooms, and the same doctor greeted us when she walked in the room after the same lengthy wait. We exchanged many of the same pleasantries, she asked many of the same questions, and she began the same exams. Finally she wheeled out the same little ultrasound machine to get a look at our baby.
“There’s baby and there’s the heart,” she said. “Just one!”
“Whew!” both my wife and I responded jokingly.
Finally two words. “Uh oh.”
Finally two words. “There’s two.”
I honestly cannot recall how long the rest of the appointment lasted, though I know from the amount of reading material with which we left the room that we must have talked for awhile longer.
I find it enlightening how differently others respond when you share news with them than when you receive it for yourself. When the doctor finally left the room, Chelsey and I didn’t celebrate. We didn’t jump up and down. We fell into each other’s arms knowing that are lives had just taken a giant blow.
What are we going to do?
How is Chelsey’s body going to carry two babies?
Where will we put two babies in our tiny house?
How will we afford childcare for two babies?
Is it okay to be unhappy when so many people would give anything for just one baby?
Is it okay to be scared?
We picked up our daughter from daycare and shared the news, then drove home where we sat on the steps of our front deck to make the necessary phone calls and texts. Then we just sat there, staring into a life that we knew would bring unimaginable physical, emotional, and financial hardship.
I needed some coffee.
After returning home from Chelsey’s appointment, I had called my dermatologist’s office nearly every hour on the hour to no avail. The dermatologist herself — not her nurse — had left the voice mail, giving me concerns about what they found in that quarter-sized chunk that they removed from my leg. I was probably over thinking it all, though, and my lack of sleep certainly didn’t help.
Finally at 5pm, just as the clinic was about to close for the weekend, a familiar number showed up on my phone.
I stepped out on our back deck to take the phone call. Again it was my dermatologist, not her nurse.
“Well, I have some bad news. The spot we removed was melanoma.”
What followed was talk of oncology appointments, surgery, skin grafts. What didn’t follow for another several weeks was staging and whether the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes.
I couldn’t possibly go back inside the house, not yet at least. I instead took a seat on the steps to our back deck, let my face fall into my hands, and I sobbed.
“Where are you, God?!” I yelled out. “I’ve given up everything for you. And for all this?”
Minutes later, I collected myself and went inside to calmly deliver the next major news to my family before calling a friend to see if he could get an hour or two away from his family.
What are we going to do?
How is my pregnant wife going to take care of our life while I’m laid up?
What if the cancer treatment is drawn out?
What if I don’t make it?
I needed a beer.
On July 29, 2017, we are not the same people that we were a year ago.
My surgery in August left me with a divot in my leg and six weeks of recovery, but all the cancer is gone. The theological and biblical reflection that I was forced to do in the days, weeks, and months following my diagnosis has irrevocably changed my view of God, the world, and myself within it. I’m also wearing a lot more hats to cover up my pastey bald head.
Chelsey endured a difficult and dangerous pregnancy. She was pulled from work three months before her due date for her health and that of the babies — not to mention in order to accommodate her 5–6 appointments per week. Life will continue to throw us curvballs — especially with twins — but I have no doubt that Chelsey’s pregnancy was the most difficult physical challenge she may ever face. She is the strongest person I know and has only grown stronger and more resolute.
The twins were ultimately born seven weeks early under precarious circumstances, spending two weeks in the NICU before coming home as little peanuts packed into giant car seats. Those indefatigable little girls continue to grow in strength and learning and personality every day.
And then there’s Chloe — dear, sweet Chloe. In isolation and from a distance, you would surmise that the girl has had an excellent year. She started preschool, took gymnastics, made new friends, and embraced the role of big sister. Like any spitfire four year old, she keeps us on our toes, pushes our limits as parents, and nearly kills her sisters on a daily basis. And yet Chloe — dear, sweet Chloe — sat back and watched as ever other member of her family was hospitalized at some point during the last twelve months. Her calm little home was thrown into upheaval and she was merely along for the ride. There are times that she reveals the cracks in her facade and talks about the difficulty of the year that was, but only time will tell how it has truly impacted her. Our prayer is that the last twelve months will only serve to strengthen her faith help her navigate a world full of surprises.
Where does all this leave us. This evening we’re on our back deck, returned to the very place where our world came crashing down exactly a 365 days ago.
And we’re celebrating July 29 like a holiday, for on the date we were no longer promised tomorrow we were given another year.
We are survivors.