This was written by a writer, a woman named Brenda, a friend of mine, who gives glory to a loving God who was right next to her as she heard the doctors say the words no mother ever wants to hear: "Your daughter has cancer."
Our life was good. Normal. Routine. Mike and I were enjoying the empty nest. I served on staff at North Cleveland Baptist Church in Cleveland, Tenn.; he was in the tire business and actively involved at our church. Stephanie lived in Nashville and was finishing work on her Masters degree at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Amber had married her high school sweetheart, finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and was eager to get a full-time job teaching middle school.
But all that changed one Wednesday morning in the spring of 1998. Amber just couldn’t seem to shake the flu – or so we thought. She called me at work and I took her to the emergency room. We thought she was dehydrated and needed some IV fluids. But the results of her blood work told us otherwise. Leukemia. Acute Myologenus Leukemia.
The next 24 hours were a blur of activity. The decision was made to transfer her to Vanderbilt Medical Center. We left Amber at our local hospital, with her husband by her side, and went home to get ready. We called family members, our church family, and a few friends. Within hours, Amber’s name was on prayer chains here and literally around the world. We moved ahead in a state of shock.
Going to Nashville was the obvious choice. Stephanie was there, the hospital was top-notch, and we had friends there – people we knew from my writing and teaching for LifeWay and my involvement in the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Our dear friends, Bruce and Ann, met us at the hospital on Thursday morning with keys to their house. “As long as you’re here,” they said, “you’ll live with us.”
Immediately, the doctors began aggressive chemotherapy. Amber received excellent care from her doctors, nurses, and care partners – medical care and emotional care. On Easter Sunday, about a week after she was admitted, Dennis, her care partner, asked if he could sing to us since he couldn’t be in his church choir that morning. Amber and I listened as he led us in worship, singing, “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.”
Early in June, she went into remission and was allowed to come home. We had a great summer together – a trip to Ridgecrest, interviews for her first teaching job, gratitude for God’s provisions.
Amber began the school year, teaching sixth grade at the school she had attended as a child. But at a checkup, only six weeks after school started, doctors told us the cancer was back. Once again, we were devastated. She returned to Vanderbilt for more chemo and to prepare for a bone marrow transplant.
God had been so real and so evident to me during Amber’s first round of treatment. I had seen His hand through countless people, through medical technology, and through the prayers of others. But now, I needed His presence and His peace more than ever. I went to the scriptures and the story of Abraham and Isaac. I prayed for an Abraham solution to our situation — that God would provide for us just like He had for Abraham when he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. He gently reminded me that He had already provided a solution for Amber. Years earlier, when she was six years old, Amber trusted Jesus as her Savior one Sunday morning at our kitchen table. God had provided Jesus as the substitute for Amber. He would not abandon her or us now!
We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas at home that year. Then Amber returned to Vanderbilt for her bone marrow transplant in January. But, despite more chemo and total body radiation, the leukemia was never gone. In February, they sent her home. The doctors had done all they could.
We knew our time with Amber was limited. So we spent the next month doing everything we could together. We went to Disney World, one of her favorite places; we had a reunion of sorts with her former youth group, complete with games and a cookout (in February!). We chose to seize the days and savor the time we had left together.
On our last trip to Vanderbilt, Amber was admitted with pneumonia. Cancer cells were raging through her body. Mike and I went to the hospital chapel and read the day’s devotion from Our Daily Bread. The scripture was Psalm 27:14 – “Wait on the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” The devotional thought ended with these words, “God will make a way when there seems to be no way … ”
Late in the evening, on March 9, 1999, we watched as Amber left this world and entered into the presence of Christ. Before we headed back to Cleveland, we turned once again to Our Daily Bread. This time, the scripture was Mark 5:19 – “Go home to your friends and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you.”
Our pastor shared from Amber’s Bible at her memorial service. He noted that she had marked 1 Kings 18, the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. In the margin, she had written: “I believe in the sun even when I don’t see it shine; I believe in God even when I can’t see His face.” We listened as Tim, one of her close friends, played Michael W. Smith’s “Friends are Friends Forever” and we gained a whole new understanding of those words.
Regina, another dear friend of Amber’s, had given her a Scripture that she kept printed beside her bed throughout her illness: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 5:10-11)
Amber wrote a letter to us before her transplant. She shared memories from her childhood and wrote words to comfort us. She reminded us, “Don’t worry about me; I’m not afraid and I know where I’m going!”
Our faith has sustained us during those long months and continues to sustain us today. We hurt, we grieve, and we have what we call our “Amber moments.” But we know without a doubt, she is healthy and whole and celebrating life in the presence of her Savior.
So how do we go on? For me, I know I couldn’t have faced this monumental crisis without my faith in a loving, holy God. Each of the people who loved Amber had to walk through grief in their own way. But, for me, I was reminded over and over of the promises of God. And I was and still am, challenged to rest in the assurance that He is God and He is in control.
I don’t have a secret formula for grief or for survival. But I do know what helped us on our journey:
1. Have an unwavering faith in God. When the storms come, and they will come, there’s no time to figure out your faith. Your faith must be secure and settled before crisis arrives. Even though we were literally scared to death by what was happening, we knew without a doubt that Amber was going to be alright and we would get through this because of our faith in God.
2. Hold each other up. Tough times are not the time to be tough on each other. Be strong when the other is weak; be supportive and encouraging even when you’re hurting. Our whole life was turned upside down. Mike and I needed each other like never before. Our marriage and our faith is stronger today than it was.
3. Be vulnerable with each other. Mike felt guilty about not being able to be here during the week. We both felt guilty about the cancer: What did we do to cause it? Was Vanderbilt the best hospital? Why her and not one of us? Allow yourself to fall apart with each other. Cry, question, comfort; don’t blame, accuse, or put down.
4. Rest. God is God and He is in control. Pray. Read the Bible. Surround yourself with godly friends. Let people help you. And allow God to be God in your lives and the lives of those you love.