Finding Joy in Sorrow
“The road of sorrow is the road to heaven, but there are wells of refreshing water all along the route.” Charles Spurgeon In September of 2009, I became a Christian. Words and faith that had at one point been rote became vital and personal. Twenty-eight years of God's Word being spoken around me became the truth for which I found myself desperate. There is sweet solace in the knowledge that the Lord is indeed near to the brokenhearted as he says in Psalm 34:18.
In 2009, on July 9th, I delivered my second daughter, Piper Jean Needham. The night prior to her scheduled birth, I settled into sleep knowing that morning would bring a new daughter into my arms - one to parent alongside her four year old sister. I woke in the early hours and felt the expected contractions building slowly and manageably. Within a few hours, Piper was born perfect and healthy and born for a purpose. At that time I did not know what that purpose would entail. What I know today, twelve years later, is that the combination of birthing her and holding her dying body in my arms created in me a need for eternity and a Savior that I cannot fathom having not experienced.
The first few weeks of Piper's life were fussy and sweet - a mixture of newborn exhaustion and exhilaration. I assumed I had many years to rear her and relished that thought. However Piper's birth set into motion such events and fears and sorrows, I would have despaired if not for the nearness of a loving God who was able to uphold me and give me hope. This loving God who was abstract prior to Piper's infantile leukemia diagnosis at ten little weeks, became present to me. He never changed, but he changed me - deeply. This was born from my need for sovereignty that was “for my good and for His glory”. I was desperate for that because the world quickly makes no sense when you hear your infant has cancer. Suffering needs to have a place to land. God's truth was that place. This suffering would include the devastation of Piper's diagnosis, the fear of the days that controlled our meager statistics, harsh chemotherapy, treatment options, and somber-faced nurses and doctors. After two long arduous years of treatment involving weeks in the rehabilitation unit, nights spent with one daughter or the other but rarely both, thousands of port accesses and needle pokes for lab work, blood and platelet transfusions, hours of driving between Athens and Atlanta, fevers, leg braces, a tiny polka dotted walker, nights spent curled around her little self in a shared hospital bed with beeping and checking, well meaning visitors, watching small friends suffer and die, and meeting new friends with new diagnoses. Then the 2+ years of treatment was over. Remission had been achieved, such a hard road, but she was finished. I held this success loosely since Piper's leukemia was known to be aggressive and incredibly hard to keep away on top of being incredibly rare. I knew the chance of relapse was high, but we celebrated what and when we could.
Our family was only able to experience a few weeks of normal. Her relapse was fierce and swift, and if her initial diagnosis was earth-shattering, this was somehow even harder. After Piper's relapse, there was more chemo to get her back to or close to remission, twice daily radiation, a bone marrow transplant, a long stay at the Ronald McDonald house, a second relapse and then a medical transport drive from Atlanta to Memphis, TN where Piper was a hopeful candidate for a Natural Killer Cell Transplant. After just a month of preparation for the NK Transplant, it was very clear that her body was failing. Keeping Piper's leukemia at bay required lots of chemotherapy - and yet that chemotherapy was assaulting her liver, her lungs and her heart. The fine line that the medical team had been balancing on was disappearing and we were told that there was no longer anything left to do. My Piper was dying and she was dying soon. Her father and I though grief stricken and weary were faced with questions and decisions we were not even remotely prepared to answer. But we did. Piper was removed from the machines that kept her lungs functioning. She was carefully, so very carefully, carried to the chair where I sat and had rarely left in weeks. Piper fit snugly in my arms despite all the wires and tubes. Her face was altered and she smelt differently than I had remembered but she was warm. And she was in my arms - the same arms that had held her on July 9, 2009 – and then she died.
I believe and I trust that what the Bible says, “To be absent from the body is to be present with Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:8). I know that Piper knew her mom held her and then her Savior held her and there was no moment of fear. For me the grief was beginning - for Piper it was her eternity and she was perfect and healthy.
When Piper's diagnosis was shared with me in that dark hospital room in 2009, I was aware of the Jesus of my childhood. But I did not trust that Jesus to hand me suffering hand-in-hand with his presence and perfect sovereign plan. The Lord was indeed near to me and to my broken heart. This was the only mercy I needed to walk in then and it still is today. Piper's life and death are crucial parts of my faith and theology. Hardships continue and will continue until my own life ceases and this faith that I cling to becomes reality. But I grieve to wonder how I would walk through hard days if I were to see suffering solely as burdensome not as a means to know the Lord and his character. I challenge anyone to ask themselves, do you trust the Lord when he doesn’t make sense? Are you surrounded by people who will help you hold your sadness and questions while still reminding you of Jesus’ love for you? The sufferings of this world are real, but the Lord's care is the pool of refreshment we so desperately need. Soli Deo Gloria- To God be the Glory.
Photos for Susanna Needham
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