What if our lives aren't random? What if there is a larger story so beautiful and profound we can’t really understand ourselves outside of it? And what if the Author of this grand story is not distant but present, inviting us to participate in the beauty of His restorative story?
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I was born into a family that had tragically lost a daughter at 9 months old to cancer, but my family chose to move forward- the doctors said this was a rarity. But unfortunately, I didn’t know a normal childhood—whatever that is—past my second birthday when my big brother, Adam, was diagnosed with brain cancer as well. I remember laughing with him, hiding in his closet, playing with him and his friends, and being protected by him. I also remember him being sick.
I remember that he loved strawberry shakes in the hospital and that he wore bandanas to cover his head, which was absent of hair and skull from chemo and over a dozen brain surgeries. I remember that in spite of all this, he just didn't like needles- and neither do I.
When my big brother was sick, I didn't just miss him. I really missed my mommy. When my mom was at the hospital taking care of my big brother, I would climb into bed with dad at night and ask for mom. My dad, of course, told me that she was at the hospital with brother and I would cry and say that I need my mommy too. We would cry together and fall asleep. And when I was 7 and my big brother was 16, Adam asked our mom to stop praying for him so that he could go home. I’m sure she didn't stop praying, but I’m sure she did stop asking for healing and instead asked for mercy for his little body. And Adam did go home.
Still, I grew up happy. Yes, I cried when I missed my brother. And yes, sometimes I would stare into the windows of neighbors’ houses wondering what it must be like to still have brothers and sisters. But still, I had parents that loved me and I had a puppy.
From this point, my life seemed comparatively uneventful. I was a cheerleader and got good grades. But it wasn't long before I stumbled onto a roller-coaster. My mom got breast cancer but they took care of it – a dip in the tracks. Then my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer – that was a drop-off. The whole cancer diagnosis thing was beginning to feel like a routine when my mom was diagnosed with her third primary cancer. In this middle of all this, I met a boy from MN. He was hilarious, cute, and charming. Lots of AIM conversations, literally millions of expensive long distant cell phone minutes, and a few thousand frequent flyer miles later - I realized I had a partner for life and all the craziness it had to offer.
Chris and I were married in 2005 and shortly thereafter our lives took a turn that we could not have anticipated. We learned that all this sickness was genetic and I had it too. My mom, my brother, and my sister all had what I have brewing inside me. So, what do I do with that? Celebrate the answers and my new found knowledge? Mourn my future? Develop survivor’s guilt? Well, I’m a planner and a list-maker. So, I did that first. And then I cried. And so did Chris. We cried for my sister. We cried for my big brother. We cried for my mom. We cried for my dad. We cried for us and our previously-planned future.
Next came my mom’s pancreatic cancer and subsequent surgery and treatment, then my job loss, and then my own breast cancer diagnosis and bilateral mastectomy. I still found time to smile, but it was often hard – especially with the 6 month recovery from my surgery. We found some time to cry but there was more numbness than anything. That was all in one year- one long, tiring, trying year. But it was going to get better, we said. Chris and I believed that the next summer would be ours to enjoy.
It wasn’t so. My mom’s cancer spread and she began to wither away. The doctors confirmed there was nothing else to be done and so we packed our bags for Phoenix. I told my mom how much I was going to miss her, that I didn’t want her to go, that I just wanted my own mommy. My dad, Chris, and I stayed by my mom’s bedside for 15 hours a day for over a week until my mom didn't wake up. Before my mom died and after, I cried with my dad just like I did 20 years ago because, again, we both missed my mommy.
And for the first time in the previous 5 years, I didn't have to bare the anguishing burden of ambiguity, of always wondering how much longer I had with my mom or if my mom would be here next Christmas, but it came at a steep price.
This might seem like a sad story. It is a sad story, but it is such a happy story too. You see, I have hope.
Hope doesn't mean I don’t cry or worry. Hope doesn't mean that I never feel like I got dealt a crappy hand. Hope doesn't mean that I smile all the time. Hope doesn't mean that I always know how or what to pray. Hope does mean that in the midst of grieving I can say with confidence and honesty that I loved my mom’s funeral because of all the people my mom touched in life and in her death. Hope means that in spite of—or maybe because of—wondering if my life will mirror my mother’s, I try to make the most of every day. Hope means I cares about people more than I knew how to before all this; when I see a homeless man and I know he might feel lonely in the midst of people, I’m able to talk with someone about to have surgery for cancer and know that he is anxious, if I learn that someone has just lost a family member and is grieving, I know their hurt and want to offer myself.
Hope means that in the midst of a horrific year I can appreciate what I have and know that there are people who have struggles far greater than my own. Hope means that my experiences have strengthened my faith in Jesus, not weakened it. Hope makes me joyfully anticipate heaven and God’s glorious reconciliation to Himself and to those from whom I am presently separated. Hope means that I am grateful for all that God has blessed me with, including many of you who have upheld and loved Chris and I through trying times.
Hope means I still find time to laugh and dance with my boy in the kitchen. Hope means that I choose joy, acknowledging that God holds my past, present, and future in His capable, loving hands.
About 15 years ago I went through a tough 3-4 years in my life. First I went through a messy divorce, knowing my children were in, simply put, a hellish environment. After a couple of years, and draining my savings, just as the legal part of this was done, I ended up losing a job and having a heart attack over the course of 6 months or so. Then I filed bankruptcy in about another 6 months. As I have mentioned before, one of my drawbacks is that I can be a prideful, stubborn person, thinking that “I” can always do it on my own. Some people don’t come to knowing that God is real until some part of them is broken. I think it took all of these to really break me, for me to really see the light.
I didn’t see God in it until I was pretty far into it. I started going to Church soon after the divorce as my concern for the kids was “getting to me”, I was going through the motions, knowing it was the “right” thing to do. But finding God hasn’t been an epiphany or meteoric occurrence for me. There hasn’t been one thing I can put my finger on that says “This is it when it happened, this was the point in time. There’s a song by Mercy Me called “It’s a Slow Fade”, telling a story that drifting away can be slow small decisions or choices. For me it was a slow awaking, and it’s still progressing, sometimes a step forward, other times 2 steps back. But a few moments stick out.
When my daughter Amanda left her mother’s home and moved in with me and we began to mend. Amanda had been told a lot of lies about me. Amanda needed to find that she could trust me. Talking helped, but it also took a lot of time for her to SEE she could trust me. Another time was the peace I experienced while lying on the gurney having the heart attack. It was if God was telling me, not a voice but a just a deep, deep feeling of “everything will be fine”. And then waking 3 days later, a coincidence? God brought into the company of a couple of gracious men, Dick Jordan and George Iniguez.
They came along side me when I began going to “church”. Early on they accepted me in, they didn’t preach, simply showed a Godly compassion and openness. But seeing God in all of this has been on going. In Amanda meeting a Godly man like Josh, getting married and starting a family. When my son Adam decided to move in with Josh, Amanda and me I finally knew he was safe. And then there’s Gail, Amanda’s mother-in-law. So gracious, a mother Amanda really never had. And now watching Adam growing into a young man with a gentle and caring heart. I also have 3 beautiful granddaughters. How much more blessed can one be? God has shown me that it’s all right, so much of it out of my hands. I might have a little dabble in it, but He’s got it covered.
It was always hard for me to find hope in the middle of all it. Placing my trust in God so early in my walk was hard. Finding hope was a slow process. I spent time reading the bible, got involved is some meal groups. Found a few good people I could share my thoughts with. And I prayed. But being an objective sort, I needed to “see” things improving for my kids, and this brought about more hope, which brought about thankfulness. I saw Amanda getting connected at Crossroads Church in Cottage Grove.
There were a couple of ladies that took Amanda under their wings. I saw her growing in her relationship with God. Adam was very young, but spending the couple days with him each week, I could see his humor and kindness. Slowly seeing my kids come through all the crap they had to suffer through, and how remarkable they’ve become. Maybe it’s not all bad that we experience a little hell, so we can experience our own resurrection with God.
It’s not about me, never has been. I would venture to say that all the parents out there would say it’s not about us. I separate the “worldly” me from the “afterlife” me. I knew the worldly me would be OK when my kids were OK. That finally came about when Adam moved in with Amanda, Josh and I. He was now with people that could give him the care, guidance and love full time that a kid needs. I knew the “afterlife me” would be OK when I awoke from my heart attack. I had accepted Jesus as my savior quite a while before the heart attack. Life is the hard part…death is easy.
I was a Jr. in college. I was questioning my faith, the Church, myself. A guest speaker at my church shared about a similar time in his life and how he decided to read the Bible and take Jesus at his word. He read the verse where Jesus says that when you throw a party you should invite the lame, the poor, and those who cannot reciprocate. So he did just that. I think out of desperation to see God more than out of compassion or obedience, I decided to do the same. I took $100 - a significant about of money for a college student waiting tables for a living- and bought the fixins' for a BBQ. A group of my friends and I went to a park in Minneapolis where a lot of homeless people hang out and cooked for them.
The BBQ went well, people were grateful and we spent time talking with people that we would normally pass by on the street. It felt good, it felt right. But it didn't scratch my itch for some real experience with God. It was a nice thing to do, but I made it happen, not God. It wasn't miraculous.
So the next week I went back to my routine, waiting tables and feeling that strange combination and desire for something and disillusionment with everything. One afternoon during the lunch rush, I waited on a table of one. A large man in motorcycle gear. I still remember he ordered a bowl of soup and iced tea. We had no significant interaction, in fact I remember that he was not talkative at all so I skipped my usual tip-seeking charm and just brought him is food and dropped off his bill. He left money on the table and was gone. When I finally made it over to collect it, I had to do the math over and over. His bill was about $13. I left $115, and one of those cheesy religious tracts. His $102 dollar tip put me $2 ahead from my investment in the BBQ.
I don't think God was trying to tell me that every time you invest in God's Kingdom you are paid back plus some, I've not found that to be the case , at least not in a literal sense. What it meant to me was that I was on the right track, God was in what I did, he saw my little effort at seeing His Kingdom on the earth and He said "Yes! Do that! feed the hungry, spend more money than might be wise on the poor, take a risk, be so desperate to see me move that you spend $100 on hot dogs!"
It's no parting of the Red Sea, but this little event was a pivotal moment in my walk with God and my understanding of how His Kingdom works.