A while ago, I mentioned briefly that I had a friend who passed away on the day that I moved to South Dakota nearly 2 years ago.
Joyce was the secretary of my church and everything she did was done out of love. She poured herself into the people around her. She was heavily involved in ministry at church, and I had met her at one of those ministries. She prayed for me, and I instantly knew that she was the real deal. She wasn’t just putting on a religious mask.She was safe.
I don’t even know why I met with her one day shortly after that. I wasn’t the kind of person who did those things. I was more like a hermit crab. Ok, so maybe not the crab part, but most definitely the hermit part. I didn’t say much and I had to be talked into doing things with other people. For a while I made a small effort relationally at college, but I got nowhere with that endeavor, so I just gave up.
For some reason that I can’t explain, I went to talk with Joyce one day.
And my life has never been the same.
Joyce took me under her wing. She wanted to hear about everything that mattered to me. She wanted to spend time with me and she let me know that the things that mattered to me mattered to her.
Often, I would go to the church office and help her fold bulletins and we would talk about all the things that matter most. And often, I would end up crying and she would say something funny and we’d laugh until we were both crying.
But the beautiful thing was that she always talked about God’s faithfulness. She always reminded herself (and me!!) of where we had come from and how amazing it was that God had done such a work in us. We would cry — and then we would laugh, because Joyce could find something to laugh about, no matter how terrible the situation. Every word she said was positive and encouraging.
Sometimes she put her finger on things that just hurt. And we would cry. She would pray that the areas that were so painful would be fixed and healed and…. just, made better. She had so much empathy. So much compassion.
I like to say that anything good, beautiful and honorable that anybody sees in me is a reflection of Joyce. Because in those years after leaving (I’ll talk about that more one of these days), I became bitter and ugly. But Joyce took what was there and determined to love it, just as it was. She saw beauty and worth where others only saw garbage. She gave me a sense of humanity. She helped me see that I mattered.
Just over 4 years ago, Joyce was diagnosed with cancer.
Cancer is wicked. Awful. Terrible.
Words can not describe how I hate cancer.
I took Joyce to several of her treatments. I watched her begin to get sick as the chemo began the poisoning process. I watched her lose her gorgeous red hair and I watched as her skin was burned by the radiation treatments. I watched with glee as she slowly regained her strength, her hair grew back and finally, the tumor shrunk enough that they could remove it. I was so stoked the day we found out that she was cancer-free. I was shocked and awed when it was revealed that the type of cancer she had usually killed a person in a matter of months — and here she was, 6 months later, completely free of cancer.
Five months later, the headaches came.
I happened to be at the hospital the day she had surgery. I saw her shortly after she came out of surgery. She cried when she saw me. And then she asked me if I’d stopped at Lange’s for a cup of coffee on the way (the only decent cup of coffee on the planet, if you ask me) and we both chuckled a little and then I started bawling because I was so grateful that having brain surgery hadn’t changed her. She was still her goofy old self. And then all of a sudden, she said, “Oh, it hurts!”
I probably can’t fully describe what happened that day. It totally messed me up — in a good way. Because when she told me she was in pain, I began to literally feel her pain. It was like this big weight was on me and I cried and I prayed because that was the only thing I could do. The nurses told me they couldn’t give pain meds because of the nature of the surgery and the only thing I could do was cry out to God to bring peace and comfort. Joyce was hanging on to my hands and we were both crying and sputtering and all of a sudden, I could feel Jesus in the room with us. After a few minutes, Joyce began to pray for the people in the rooms around her. She knew some of those people were dying. The way she saw things, she couldn’t focus on her pain as long as the people around her were in worse shape than she was.
Several months later, the pain phase started. Debilitating pain. Incomprehensible pain. Pain that would not be relieved, no matter what was done. I watched her slowly grow weaker.
I saw Joyce for the last time on a Thursday afternoon in late March. I don’t know what I expected to see, but what I saw did not match my expectations. The hospice nurse told me that even though she was unconscious, she could hear me, so I should talk to her. When Joyce heard my voice, she squeezed my hand. It was like she was saying “I love you” one last time. Like she was repeating every uplifting thing she’d ever said to me. Like she was saying, “My part is done. You have what it takes to get through whatever comes.”
I think I have an idea of what Jesus’ disciples must have felt like in those days after He ascended into heaven. Their closest Friend, their biggest fan, their encourager, the source of love, support — the one Person who affected their whole world — was suddenly gone. They were left to try to figure things out on their own.
It’s hard to believe when the person who helped you believe suddenly leaves. It’s hard to know how to proceed. It’s hard to know what to do, where to go, what to think. It’s hard to pray, to feel and to express those feelings. It’s hard to process things. It’s hard to make yourself take the time to listen for the Holy Spirit. It’s basically just hard to believe.
It’s been almost two years and I still struggle. I struggle a lot. I’m not going to be one of those strange people who says she is so fixated on Joyce’s absence that a day doesn’t go by without thinking about it. I don’t think about it every day.
But I do doubt. I doubt every day. Sometimes I ask how some people get healed and people like Joyce, who had more faith than anybody I’ve ever met, suffer and die. I wonder how it is possible that God was not willing (because He’s certainly able) to completely heal her. Sometimes I wonder why the one person on earth who made me feel unconditionally loved could be taken in such a terrible, painful way. How is it even fair?