. . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (Romans 8)
In October, 2011, my son Tobe was diagnosed with stage four bile duct cancer; he was 33 years old. He died in September, 2002 at the age of 34; he lived for eleven more months and one more birthday. As he endured the therapies his oncologist tried, powerful chemotherapies that nevertheless failed to shrink the tumor and prevent its spread, it became clear that nothing was going to circumvent the inevitable: Tobe was going to die before, we thought, he had hardly had a chance to live.
But my brave son determined to live fully the last months of his life.
He had important conversations with his dad and sister. He was visited by two high school “friends” who had enjoyed baiting him and making his life quite miserable, and they were reconciled. He began writing about his disease in a blog before people were blogging (he had an invitation-only readers’ list), and de-mystified cancer for many in his generation. He fell in love with a beautiful woman, who bravely moved in with him and lovingly cared for him, even to the day of his death. And best of all (for me), he let me into his life and final journey, allowing me to be both his mom and his spiritual companion.
I was with him one evening in July when he said, hesitatingly, that he wondered how he was going to die, what would it be like? I asked him if he had asked his oncologist that question. He said he had not.
“Do you want me to ask?” I said.
“No, Mother; I will ask him myself,” Tobe replied.
“Then do you want me to go with you when you ask him?”
“Yes,” he said.
The next day being his usual chemo appointment, I accompanied him. I was with him in the doctor’s examination room when Tobe asked Dr. White, “How am I going to die? What will it look like?”
Dr. White said, “Well, there are two possibilities. One is that the cancer will spread throughout the abdominal cavity, shutting down your organs. The second is that the cancer will metastasize to your brain, and your brain will shut down. Either one will cause death.”
I saw tears falling from Tobe’s eyes as he took it in. For once, I kept my mouth shut, but my heart was breaking. He was quiet on the way home. I offered to go in with him, but he refused. I watched as he slowly made his way to his front door. I realized that his ultimate walking away from me was going to be realized too soon, and that I would not go with him then, either.
In September, Tobe was in the hospital, his family were gathered around him. Dr. White came in and said, “Well, Tobe, this is the day we anticipated. Your organs are shutting down. There is nothing more we can do for you. I am sending you home with enough morphine to keep you comfortable.”
Three days later he died.
I cried all through his memorial service. I was exhausted with crying. I had been crying all autumn, winter, spring, and summer.
Now fast forward to January. I was serving a church full-time and had just closed a bible study class. One of the participants came up to me afterwards and said, “I am so sorry for the death of your son,” as if it had happened just a few days ago. But it still hurt, and probably my face showed it. Then, as if to offer me some comfort, she said, “I’ll bet you prayed every day for a miracle.”
Her comment startled me. I had no words to reply. I had not prayed every day for a miracle.
It had not even occurred to me that I might.
My understanding of God is not that of a miracle-worker, but rather one who knows our griefs and offers comfort and a way forward towards acceptance. However, her words sent me into a tailspin. What if I had prayed for a miracle? Might Tobe then be still alive?
So I took myself to my spiritual director Roseanna, and explained my situation. She was wonderful. She said just the right thing.
She said, “Judy, you prayed the prayer God put in your heart.”
I believe she was right.
I had prayed that God would allow me to journey with Tobe until the end, to hold on to faith in God, and to be granted the power to accept what I could not control or change. I had prayed that I could be a strong presence for Tobe throughout his struggle. I prayed that I might encourage him to resist self-pity and frantic searching for blame or causation (while recognizing that these are normal responses to a diagnosis of cancer). I prayed that he would die without dread and that, at the last, he could find peace.
Today I believe that God put those prayers into my heart. Today I know I could never have done it alone. And that I had not needed to. Ever since, that passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans has had special meaning for me. I know from personal experience how the Spirit prayed for me when I literally had nothing but tears and sighs too deep for words. Thanks be to God.