You never contemplate the vaguest possibility of losing a child especially when they have reached adulthood. The parents die first - it's a natural thing - the maternal heart would always be in denial at even the vaguest hint of anything contrary. When I found out my youngest daughter Rachel had cancer it was as though ice had gripped my heart. It froze. I can honestly say I'm not sure it will ever completely thaw out.
However I have a comforting realisation that whatever terrible things happen only one thing allows them to cause irreparable damage to the core of me. That is my continued visitation to the nightmare. In other words should I choose not to press on while at some times more than others, acutely aware of the loss, always in touch with the pain, not move on is to die with my daughter. My vital link with reality then is and must be continual thanksgiving to God my father who has comforted me with his love and amazing grace, day after day, night after night.
It makes me long to comfort other people in the same way he has comforted me, and as I do, it produces a profound joy in me, even in my pain.
Rachel was 31 and in what seemed like perfect health. She had given birth to her second child Amelia (we call her Millie after my Aunt who raised me) She's a beautiful brown-eyed girl, a treasure who has little recollection of her mother. She was two when Rachel died. She's nine now and it takes my breath away to think how proud her mother would have been of her. She has the same deep love of God that Rachel had, a rare devotion and desire to pursue him.
She sings lots of our old Scripture songs constantly, and knows them by heart. What a bonus to have such a creature in my life. Those skinny little arms tightly around my neck, that cheek pressed to mine, is like a second chance for me to know the unparalleled depth and innocence of this little girl's love. I thank God.
I digress but a proud grandmother should be indulged a little don't you think?
Well, with all the reluctance and denial in the world and yet with every bit of resolve and courage I could scrape up I began to set about sorting out my role in this unwelcome saga that would play out in a totally uncharted way.
Mothers, of course are a whole other people group, basically they are survivors, they fix things, they know more (give us a break) they interfere more and after all is said and done they tend to endure more than sometimes their tender hearts can bear.
Yet when they truly engage in the nobility of motherhood they can bring to this complex profession better than best, greater than they could ever imagine and history, as it always was and will be, is in the palm of their hand.
Someone said 'motherhood remains the greatest single preserve of the amateur'. Yep, if only we were professionals when we started out. You learn on the job and your children all know they will do a better job, until they too become amateurs on the job just like us. Yes, it is a God given assignment with little need for reward because it is arguably the greatest privilege of life.
Yet, when you lose a child you automatically wish you'd done so much better. You have to deal with the 'if only's'. Think about it, you inevitably wish 'if only I'd done this or that differently'. It may be singularly the greatest test I've ever faced. Did I tell her enough times how much she meant to me? How I admired her strengths, her courage, how I learned from her, found such joy and affinity with her, for in a strange way she was my alter-ego and by that I mean had I been born 25 years later I'd have wanted to be as fearless and trailblazing as she was.
Did she know I thought that? I can never be sure. Sometimes my consolation is in the fact that she loved gold - gold anything, jewellery, ornaments, whatever. Well, now she walks on streets made from gold. God is just.
Rachel courageously engaged in her battle, naso-pharyngeal carcinoma a ruthless, rampant indiscriminate killer of all it chooses to attack. My role then as a mother, mainstay, grandmother, wife encourager and channel for Rachel's constant and sometimes desperate prayer needs in this contest of life and death, was to be there. To be calm, positive and to do anything and everything Rachel couldn't do. There were other amazing people who did the same. They have my deepest admiration and love.
Then there was her husband Ramon, a medical doctor who could see the possible outcome and was aware of the lethal process we were stumbling into. I'll never know how utterly torturous it was for him, but I know he suffered desperately my heart ached for him constantly.
Then there was David her father who had a unique spiritual bond with her and shared her strong and childlike faith. Together they believed God could do anything. His suffering was quiet and pained.
Her sister Melinda had endured many of her own battles but was always there for Rachel and I know her humour saved us on countless occasions as things escalated out of our control. She was tirelessly kind and loving.
Well, what would you do? What did I do?
By day, I was the mother/grandmother/wife, fighting to maintain a strong and positive attitude. I just breathed in God's grace with every breath. How I longed to take it all for her, all the pain and anguish, but all I could do was be there and pray. To watch your child suffer is to suffer, and while suffering is a great purifier, the process can be debilitating and seems to anything but redemptive in the journey.
I decided, because sleep evaded me constantly, that I would get up in the night and kind of regroup. I've been asked the question 'Did you wonder where on earth God was, you must have felt so terribly alone?'
Here's the thing and if you miss everything else in this little story don't miss this. God lives in the praises of his people. He comes to our praises and inhabits them. They are his home; they are what he made us to do now and eternally.
At night I would often go into my living room and wait, often weeping, to listen, pray and praise. I would know his presence, he was always there. It was like a regular appointment between the two of us. I would come and he would come at just the smallest utterance of praise or thanksgiving, his presence would surround me, shelter me and I would always end up lying face down on the floor lowering myself in respect of his awesome greatness. There I would tell him over and over that I trusted him for that was what I chose to do.
However it was not as though we never postured together over the situation, I plead with him as only a mother can and sometimes it was dark and black but even then the darkness seemed more like the shadow of his wings that covered over my frailty as I rested there underneath those timeless ageless wings.
And there I found my peace.
I knew for certain God, at any given moment could heal Rachel but I had to travail through the awful recognition that perhaps he might not do that and if so would I still trust him?
I can honestly say there was never a moment when I did not trust God and I'm glad I always told him that I did at all of our night meetings. I can't ever take credit for being able to do that, only the grace of God in its sufficiency enabled me to do it, for I was broken, I was fragile and often afraid.
But I tried other stuff on him, the mother stuff. 'Dear God you know I trust you but I have to - as Rachel's mother, remind you God, she has these two children and no-one will ever love them as she does. Please, please, please God spare her. Then God there is the fact of your glory'. I even hinted at his reputation 'You know glory will come to you if she is healed and people will believe in you'.
'Then there's all the other stuff she wants to do for women. The magazine, the influence she has with her peers, it's remarkable God, she can't die there's too much at stake.'
I don't know how long I plea-bargained with God, but I do know each of those nights I was never alone. God was always with me and I think in reality if you go after him he comes running. He's always been waiting through generations to find his home in us
Remember in Genesis the Bible says in the cool of the evening he was walking in the paradise he created for mankind and he called to Adam; 'Where are you?' That's his cry to us: 'Where are you? I'm your father, I want you, I need you, you are my love, my heart's desire'. That's got to take your breath away with the wonder of his love.
The legendary story of the prodigal son seems to be about a rebel teenager who took his inheritance and messed up his life and then repented. But it's really about a father who each day looked and longed for his child and when he saw him coming way off on the horizon, he ran and ran and ran to meet him and when they faced each other the father, his heart pounding held him and kissed him and reinstated him into the family as he said to him, 'You were lost my child and now you are found'.
Our true home is and will always be in the heart of God our father. He longs so deeply to embrace us, to receive us and to lavish his love upon us. I knew that, I know that now, I will always know that. I was never alone; God was never late for me, not for one of our divine appointments.
One night on my living room floor I came to the realisation that in fact God was and is sovereign. It's an almost unquantifiable fact. He is the factual and the quintessential being of our real life and our dreams and aspirations.
When I said to God, you are Sovereign it was not with resignation it was with divine knowledge. When God speaks to us it is on eternal terms. I jumped up and saluted God, you know, hand to the forehead. I capitulated to his infinite omniscience, his divine knowledge and wisdom.
Two things happened. I trusted God in a more profound way as sovereign of the universe and at the same time I had this gut wrenching feeling, a premonition if you like, that my beloved amazing Rachel was God's child not mine and she was going to be with him forever.
No one has ever measured, not even poets, how much the human heart can hold. I held that knowledge, knew the weight of it and at the same time knew God my father holding me with strength and tenderness. It was bitter sweet.
Rachel felt she should prepare herself much as Queen Esther in the Bible did. She was readying herself to make a petition to her God about her situation. In her final days as she scribbled her message to God telling him she could hardly speak, swallow or hear, she talked of her trial and her trust in him and ended with thanksgiving. It was truly heroic.
Her face was unrecognisable; the cancer was so unforgiving and relentlessly rampant. With all her courage and faith she wrote out her finest ever speech - telling God of her travail and of his ability to heal her if he chose to. She would submit.
Rachel finally summoned the faith and pure courage to present that petition to God on July 8th of the year 2000 and she knew just as Queen Esther knew that she would either live or die.
God received her into his divine presence that night and as I sat beside her lifeless body her soft and beautiful hand still warm as I held it, I couldn't reconcile anything, so I did what I had done all the way through, I thanked God as rivers coursed down my checks for the incredible 33 years she had lived and influenced so many and particularly so many young women.
My heart was utterly broken, but I was relieved in a way that her battle was over, though nothing would ever be the same.
Life can only be understood backwards ... but it must be lived forwards.
My dear friend Cindy wrote a song containing these words:
'I press on, I pursue, seize the day, follow you.'