The phone rang shortly after 9:00 tonight. I had only been home for a few minutes and, because I was still fighting a headache, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Tim answered the phone and I was relieved it was for him. About 20 minutes into the conversation he motioned for me to get a second phone.
It took me a moment to identify the voice—that of a gentleman I had done business with about 8 years ago, and whose family we had befriended over the period of several years. It was an unusual relationship, in some ways, considering that they are Old Order (horse & buggy) Mennonite Christians and we are, well…. not. As families we are culturally worlds apart but our faith bond was strong from the start.
Several years ago, when Irvin and Alma announced that they were moving 7 to 8 hours North, we invited them to our home for dinner. Tim drove out to their farm to pick them up with their 4 children because the distance by horse and buggy was a bit much. With 9 children in the house, all aged 11 and under, we still managed to have a great time connecting heart to heart spiritually.
Through the past few years since they moved, in spite of distance, the connection has not ended. Irvin called early December 2008 and his first question was, “Are you still pursuing your dream?”
I laughed, “Which dream?” I’m a dreamer, a visionary. I have one undying dream but several other dreams that intertwine with that ‘one’. “If you’re asking about the book, I’m trying, but I’m stuck. If you’re asking about doing conferences on the topic of abuse, I’m still working toward that.”
From the moment I shared the dream of ministry in the area of emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse, Irvin stepped up as a cheerleader. He shared parts of his story and the gift his mother gave him by speaking truth into his life and affirming his manhood. She offered a listening ear and an open door on any topic—every question was welcome and answered truthfully, from the heart.
Alma is more reserved. She has a beautiful spirit, a gracious heart and, while she isn’t one to wear her heart on her sleeve, she welcomes friendship. As a mother, Alma is outstanding. Our daughter Nicole and their daughter, Loretta, developed a close friendship in school and she was invited over for play days from time to time. These days were highlights for so many reasons, not the least of which was Alma’s amazing cooking and the donuts she made for them—donuts I was fortunate to taste test and definitely rate as the best I’ve ever eaten.
That was in the brighter days of Irvin and Alma’s life. There is something to be said for relationships that develop into a level of trust that makes even difficult conversations comfortable. Tonight Irvin wasn’t calling to chit-chat about business, change or even to ask about my dream. Tonight he called to share his breaking heart.
It was not quite a year ago that Irvin called with bitter and sweet news. Alma had been diagnosed with breast cancer and she was also expecting their 5th child. The pregnancy went well—she gave birth to a baby girl almost 8 months ago. The cancer, on the other hand, is stealing Alma’s life. The doctors have done all they can. Only a miracle will save Alma’s life.
In a nearly two-hour conversation, Irvin shared the bittersweet story of their recent months, weeks and days. He told of the grief that accompanies the journey and the sacred bond that exists between husband and wife even in the valley of the shadow of death. He testified of his unwavering faith in God’s goodness that will carry them through whatever lies ahead. And he expressed how he longs to affirm Alma’s beauty and value in meaningful ways in day-to-day life as her body takes the brunt of this disease.
Even in the tragedy of disease, Irvin shared a story of grace and hope. In the cancer treatment centre they made new friends and ‘family’ as he called them. What stood out to me is that these friends and family had a common bond of suffering and grief, even though there were cultural differences, even religious difference, that in other circumstances could have been barriers. He shared how other people cared for them and they cared for others . One particular gentleman who passed away last week spent his final days grieving for Alma and her family’s suffering. He was a 75-year-old gentleman with a wife, daughters and grand children. He had a lot to live for but in spite of this his heart reached out to Alma and her family. At his viewing, his wife shared that after his final visit with Irvin, days before his death, he had returned from the hospital with a heavy heart. Inside the safety of his own home he broke down in sobs and started praying for Alma.
I cried. Not only is the entire story touching to the core. It is also reminiscent of another man who in the face of death, cried out to God on behalf of others. When I hear a story of this kind of love, I find myself able to grasp in a more real and practical way what Jesus did for me on the cross. When all His energy should have been focused on human survival, He cried out to heaven on my behalf. And it is this story that Irvin falls back on in a time when nothing makes sense—in a time when all is lost from human perspective—and he knows that even now there is redemption.
There is something about suffering that opens the door to connections deeper than anything else. There is a beauty in the unselfishness of this type of suffering that speaks love and compassion more loudly than anything else in the world. It is this kind of love that gives us hope when hope itself has fled. Because of this love, even suffering has purpose and brings redemption.