I wrote this title a long time before the infamous ‘toilet paper dash of 2020’. It seems odd now, knowing how desperately short of toilet paper the supermarkets, and many homes, became for a time. But it is my story to tell, and this was the reality I learnt during 2016, when my son had cancer.
A shock diagnosis
The thing with most cancer diagnoses is that you don’t expect them to happen. I think nearly all cases of initial diagnoses of cancer come as a shock. If you knew you had cancer, you’d already be at the hospital seeking answers and treatment, right? As a parent, you hear of kids with cancer, but you never ever anticipate that any of your children will have cancer. That’s what happens to other families. And so nobody is ‘ready’ when a diagnosis of cancer comes. Certainly, when Nathan was diagnosed with cancer, it was a shock to us.
And so, our household was not prepared for the changes that needed to take place.
With one or both parents at the hospital, brains reeling with new information, and absences from home, the reality is that a functioning household is just not initially a priority or even an afterthought.
In our experience, one afternoon, while we were in hospital, about two weeks after Nathan’s initial brain tumour surgery, during a routine echocardiogram, doctors found out that Nathan had a tumour in his heart. I was asked to ring Andrew to come in, and it was suggested that we find some overnight babysitters for our other kids. Andrew drove in, the kids were farmed out to grandparents, and we were moved to a big room where both Andrew and I could stay with Nathan. In the world of overnight stays in hospital in Sydney, this was unusual. Rarely are both parents encouraged to sleepover. I remember ringing my father, who was speaking at a conference, and crying and saying, ‘They found a tumour in his heart. Please come home’. I have never asked my dad to leave a conference before. But it was that kind of news and he came home immediately.
We stayed in hospital for quite a few nights, I don’t really remember how long because in my trauma, the next few days—or weeks—are a complete blur.
The other kids were well cared for; our focus was on Nathan and his needs.
And although a heart tumour in a teenager is exceedingly rare, my guess is that for most parents, the diagnosis of cancer in one’s child is equally as shocking, abrupt, terrifying and something nobody expected.
How can normal life go on?
And on that journey home, after leaving the house at a moment’s notice, when it is time for one of the parents to bring the other children back to their ‘regular routines’, the last thing on anyone’s mind is the household needs. The milk that was left in the fridge a week or two ago, the lack of fresh food for meals at home, the thick layer of dust that has accumulated whilst emotional chaos has reigned elsewhere, the washing that has not done itself, and the bills that have not been paid, because they were not a priority. Suddenly these things will all hit your face when you open that front door and realise that, although it feels like your world has stopped, some things in your life have continued.
And this is where we found our church family stepped up.
And for those of you who know someone with a child with cancer, may I recommend this be an area of life you can help out with?
We came home from hospital with our house dust free and clean, our fridge restocked with fresh food, a meal or two ready to reheat and our washing and ironing pile empty because it was all done for us. It was a huge relief. And it was not a one-off experience.
There was an envelope on our kitchen bench with cash to pay for hospital parking, and a letter with offers and names and numbers of specific things people could do for us if we needed help.
And so began a year of our church being phenomenally helpful and walking beside us with practical, background help.
Support for the battle
There’s a story in Exodus 17 about a battle between Israel and the Amalekites.
‘As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset.’ (Exodus 17:11–12)
As parents, our focus was on helping Nathan and our other children through this epic battle. But we needed help with our hands being held up, and we needed someone to place a stone for us to sit on. Our battle was not with the Amalekites, nor honestly, even with cancer. Our battle was with the temptation to let our thoughts wander away from God’s promises, to let our eyes veer away from Jesus in our crisis. Our problem was cancer, but we needed to be there reminding our kids with confidence that God was in control, that he was always loving and merciful and that he was and always is good, even amidst chemotherapy and cancer, and even amidst the fear of death.
Our church and the wider church in many ways acted like Aaron and Hur, holding our arms up, pulling a stone out for us to sit upon.
And we were inundated with super practical help. We often woke to find groceries left anonymously on our doorstep. We had deliveries from supermarkets that we didn’t personally order, and we were given an abundance of toilet paper. With every bag of shopping, our practically minded friends gave us a pack of toilet paper, and a carton of eggs.
At one time we had almost a year’s supply of toilet paper, and over 80 eggs in the fridge!
I am not complaining. It brought us laughter, and it turned out that of the very limited foods Nathan felt like eating, eggs was one of his favourites. One of his schoolfriends’ grandmothers knew of his fondness for eggs, and she dropped around fresh eggs from her chickens every week. It was so incredibly kind.
I could write pages and pages of praise for the practical and creative ways our church family cared for our household needs during that year. They were consistent, they were faithful and they were highly practical.
The generous are refreshed
When I was younger, I learnt this Bible verse off by heart:
‘A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.’ (Proverbs 11:25)
The church was incredibly generous to us. And what we have been repeatedly told afterwards was how encouraged they were to see us keep the faith throughout Nathan’s illness. This Proverb is not a ‘give so you get’ kind of message. The reality is that we could never financially repay what was given to us throughout that year. We wouldn’t even know specifically who to repay. It was not about a tally of expenses. When Nathan continued to trust in Jesus throughout his cancer, he brought refreshment to others who had refreshed him and our family.
What do 300 rolls of toilet paper and 80 eggs have in common?
‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:34–35)
This article originally appeared at The Bible A to Z.
Ruth Barry was raised in a loving Christian home and has always known Jesus as her King. She's married to Andrew and they have six children, five living with them, and one now safe in the arms of Jesus.
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