Relationship in Crisis by Jane Lebak

holding handsMy spiritual director was incredulous. “God only gives gifts. Are you saying your husband’s cancer was a gift?”

I responded darkly, “Then I guess it was.”

On our second anniversary, my fiancé and I were in separate colleges, and I could hear his tension over the phone. He’d found a lump the student medical center couldn’t identify and had an appointment tomorrow with a specialist. The next day: cancer. On the third day: surgery. I took a week from school to help. Our friends united around us. Our priest climbed three flights of steps despite painful arthritis, to pray with him and administer the sacrament of the sick. His gamer friends dropped by for an impromptu movie night. Everyone I spoke to said they were praying for him or thinking about him or asking how to help. I could feel the strength of our community.

My mom says that before getting married, a couple should endure one crisis and one ten-hour car trip. Now we learned why. In a crisis, I wanted all the information, continuous updates, and quick decisions: radiation or no radiation? And through which hospital? He wanted to avoid thinking about it at all. When we clashed over our different styles, we realized we needed to work together. His cancer wasn’t usually lethal, but it could be lethal to our relationship. He opted for radiation at Sloan-Kettering. I finished my semester in a fog.

By May, he returned to school, pronounced cured. But my anger at God wasn’t cured. My first prayer after the diagnosis was, “Oh God — f___ you.” God had put his hand on my fiancé’s life. He could take anything I loved. People told me God had a purpose; that meant God had done it deliberately. Hence the above conversation: God gave him cancer. / No, God only gives gifts. The destruction of our security was a gift? This pain, this tension, was a gift? No thank you!

My fiancé and I leveraged our shared vulnerability to communicate better. With God, it took two years before I would talk to him again. In my fiancé’s cancer I’d encountered a face of God missing from our ice-cream and sprinkle sermons. I wanted to know why God had forced our backs to the wall. Or were my attempts to understand just the howling wind of Job? I went to church every week, said and did the right things, but with no spirit. My friends at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship called that “going through the motions,” but in those days, going through the motions kept the empty-shelled armor-hearted me in place long enough for God to break through.

Over time, I began to trust God again. Maybe God had sanctified our suffering, demonstrating the true value of community, particularly the community created by a couple. We’ve been married fourteen years and had five children. We faced the crisis of losing a baby two hours after birth, but that crisis didn’t shake our marriage. We’ve learned to act as a team, that it is safe to be vulnerable with one another. Was cancer a gift? I still can’t say yes. Cancer was the drive-by shooting of a fallen world at two bystanders. But God used that crisis to transform our relationship with each other, and eventually my relationship with him. This story can be read in full in the book, Holding Hands with God, by Rhonda Chervin.  

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