In late November, I bring Jane up the steps to her friend’s house for a birthday party. I’m planning to just drop her off because I need to go to the credit union to deposit some checks.
My friend Karen is inside, dropping off her daughter, too. She’s been traveling. I ask about her trip. Then I ask if she knows how her friend’s son is, the boy who is eight like Jack, who is a twin like Luke and Ben, who has 17 brain tumors.
I have been praying for a miracle of healing for this boy for almost a year now, since last November, when they found the first tumor.
Karen pulls out her phone and finds the most recent email from her friend. She tells me her friend’s son is weakening, that every once in a while he is lucid and able to interact with his mom, with his brothers, but he sleeps most of the time. She tells that he can no longer get up to go to the bathroom, that the muscles in his neck are paralyzed and he can no longer move his head.
Karen tells me that he does not seem to be afraid. She tells me her friend is praying that God will gently guide her boy home. She chokes up and says, “She closes her email with this: ‘but oh, how I shall miss him.’”
Those words stick in my mind. Oh how I shall miss him. They stick in my heart, and my heart hurts as I leave Jane at the party, as I get back in the car, as I drive to the credit union. Those words beat in my brain. Oh how I shall miss him. Oh how I shall miss him.
“God!” The word rises from my gut, rips from my throat. God, why?
I have prayed for this boy, prayed for his health, for his life, prayed for God to fight for him, prayed for a miracle. And I hoped, I so desperately hoped, that God would say yes.
And now this.
Tears fill my eyes and blur my vision. Rain splatters on the windshield, coursing down in little streams. I turn on the wipers. Tears rain down my face, but I do not wipe them away.
I do not understand. I do not understand. I do not understand.
Why are you silent? Why are you inert? Why do you do nothing?
But even as I ask the questions, I know they’re the wrong questions. I know God is not silent. I know God is not inert. I know God is acting every millisecond of every moment in every atom of every creature on this earth and in every distant galaxy.
And I know, too, with sudden and humbling clarity, that this is not about this boy at all. It is about me.
My prayers for his healing were a fleece I laid before God. Show me you’re real, I was saying. Show me once and for all that you’re real. Heal this boy, and I’ll know.
I feel ashamed, horrified.
All this time, all these prayers, was I not really caring for this boy at all? Not really caring for his mother, his father, his brothers?
Was it really all just a plea, a ploy, for God to prove himself?
I pull into the parking lot at the credit union. I lay my head on the steering wheel and weep.
I weep for this family, who is losing a beloved son, a beloved brother. I weep for myself, for my continued lack of faith, and for my prayers that were as selfish as they were loving.
I cry for a long time. I cry until I have no tears left. I cry until I am empty.
Then I dry my eyes, gather my checks, and get out of the car. I walk across the parking lot and into the credit union.
As Advent darkens and turns to Christmas, I continue to pray for this boy, every day, almost every hour. I beg God for mercy. I beg God for healing. I know I should say, “Thy will be done.” But I can’t. He is not my son. That prayer is for his mother to pray. Me, I will pray till the last for healing, wholeness, shalom.
Just after the new year, Karen tells me that she’s heard from her friend again, that she wrote to say her son is not eating, hasn’t eaten more than two bites in six weeks, that he is emaciated and looks like, well, like a terminal cancer patient.
But she also wrote that he is beautiful, that he looks like an angel. And hard as it is to watch him die, she is glad for each day that he is still here, each day she can still touch him and hold him.
I cannot speak for the tears. Oh God. It is all I can manage. Just oh God. Have mercy. Have mercy, have mercy have mercy.
A week later, an email from Karen. I read it, and I cry. Jane asks why I’m crying and I am afraid to tell her. She has been praying, too, faithfully, every day, for this boy. What will I tell her if she asks why God didn’t heal him?
She doesn’t ask. She accepts much more easily than I do that this boy is in heaven, that he is now with Jesus.
I hope it is true. Oh God, I pray, please let it be true. Let all of it be true.
On Sunday, I am crossing the fellowship hall with Luke in my arms when I see Karen. She flew down for the memorial service on Friday, flew home last night. When I ask how it was, she says it was a rich time, that she is grateful she was able to go.
She asks if I would like to see a photo. I say yes. I realize I don’t even know what he looks like, this boy I’ve been praying for and weeping over for more than a year. She pulls out her phone and shows me the cover from the memorial service bulletin.
I bite my lip as tears fill my eyes yet again. He is smiling at me, happy and healthy and beautiful.
Karen tells me his twin brother shared at the service that he got to hold his brother’s hand when he died. I hold Luke tight against the ache in my chest.
A week later, Karen stops by my house. She gives me a copy of the memorial service bulletin. I look at the cover; it is the same photo Karen had shown me on her phone, only larger. He smiles at me again.
And that is when I realize: he is standing on the shores of a lake. Behind him—is water.
Later, I look up the date on the email Karen sent earlier: he died on a Friday, the Friday after the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. During the octave in which Christians remember the waters of baptism, of dying and rising to new life, this boy walked through his own river and crossed to the shores on the other side.
I look at the photo again, and I see for a moment that there are indeed shores on the other side, that he is standing on them, that he is smiling, that he is happy and healthy and beautiful.
I believe this. I do. Oh, help my unbelief.