Of course I can’t get through. Mom probably sent the text, as she always does with every text, to everyone in our family: my three sisters, her mom, her three sisters and four brothers, and who knows who else. So I can’t get through because everyone else is trying to call her at the same time, which means no one can get through to ask for the full story, get a sense of the urgency, gain the slightest bit of nuance that’s lost in the fifteen, all-capped words of the text. I begin calling my sisters. No answers. Finally my wife — who is spending the day with friends in Lawrence, Kansas, thirty minutes away from our home in Kansas City — calls me and says she finally got in touch with one of my sisters, who had somehow successfully called Mom. Mom was now driving north on I-35 at only 40 miles an hour due to one long and torturous construction zone, driving from the retreat center where they were spending the weekend with some friends, driving to the hospital an hour away. The Life Flight helicopter would deliver Dad to the ER thirty minutes before she could get there, and could anyone else get there sooner?
This is the image I get when I try to visualize Dad dangling there, realizing he is in trouble, then finding the inner strength to reach up and free himself from the rope, dropping his half-limp body to the ground, where he lies mostly still except for his left arm. He reaches for his cell phone, grabs it, and dials 9-1-1.
During those twenty minutes at home, I finally get through to Mom. I’m scared for Dad and want to know if everything is all right, but for a brief moment I’m tempted to yell at her for using a cryptic text to tell us about the accident. For not communicating clearly how urgent this is. For not explicitly saying whether it is life or death or something less frightening. For giving me the severe and helpless panic that I wouldn’t see my father alive again. For using an emotionless, nuance-free form of technology to hint at this possible death. I bury my anger and ask if she is doing alright.
She’s shaken. She tells me that after breakfast she had just started wondering what was taking Dad so long, so she stepped out on the porch and heard a faint voice calling, “I’m down here! I fell!” She ran down the stairs, down the hill, and crouched down next to him. The ambulance arrived soon after that, and the paramedic decided that Life-Flighting to Overland Park was necessary, in case of internal bleeding. Just in case. I tell her everything will be fine, partly to comfort her, partly to confirm to myself that my father was not dead yet.
Dad can’t move his legs very well, but he is laughing. Partly at himself: He says he is mostly just embarrassed that he nearly killed himself with such a stupid mistake, embarrassed that everyone is so worried that he might be dead or dying. But mostly he is laughing at this: the three-centimeter mass on his kidney, discovered by the CT scan.
I’ve heard Dad retell this part of the story many times. He was born again as a teenager, so he is frequently invited to speak to youth groups. He shares his testimony and gives them a picture of what a personal relationship with Jesus Christ has meant to him. And to him, it has always been not about rules and dogma and safe piety. For Dad, it has always been about a good adventure with Jesus.
For some reason I can never keep straight malignant and benign. I confuse the two, thinking that malignant is the good one, benign the bad. Don’t the names just sound that way? Malignant: magnificent. Benign: bad is nigh! So when Dad calls and says the word malignant, I nearly blurt out words of relief. Oh good! But I catch myself, remind my brain that I always get this one wrong, and try to shift my visceral reaction from relief to sadness. This is cancer. The real cancer. But stage one? What the hell does that mean? He tells me that we caught it early enough that he simply needs to have an operation removing the mass and one of his kidneys, and that should be that. No big deal. A benign malignancy. Makes me feel better, but doesn’t help my confusion.
Because we caught the cancer at stage one, it’s no big deal at all. The original plan with his urologist had been to remove the mass along with the whole kidney, just to be sure that none of the cancer remains on the surface of the kidney and then reappears in the future. But he met with a different urologist who says he could go into Dad’s body with robotic arms, remove the mass and just a sliver of the kidney’s surface, safely getting rid of all the cancer while leaving both kidneys in tact. And anyway, the doctor says, with Dad’s history of adventure, he might need both kidneys somewhere down the road. And Dad, thankful that there at least is a road to keep going down, says okay.
So after my family’s panic and fear from the cryptic texts and life flights and internal bleeding and zip lines and close calls, a little bit of cancer seems like nothing at all. If you have just been submerged in the sea, what’s a little more salt water up the nose?
My parents were teenage Jesus Freaks in the early 70s, then morphed into Reaganite Evangelicals by the time my sisters and I showed up in the 80s. When I was in college years later and struggling through a crisis of faith, I remember asking Dad, Why Jesus? When you were my age, what turned you to Jesus? Because, he said, many of his friends had tuned in, turned on, dropped out, and he had then watched their lives slowly fall apart. Jesus just made more sense to him. Jesus was more attractive to him than anything else being offered.
I try to remember this whenever my skepticism turns its gaze toward the faith of my father. Because for all of my problems with church and dogma and bigotry and magical thinking and theological gymnastics that are part of the Evangelical worldview, I, too, remain somewhat drawn to this obscure carpenter’s son from Nazareth. His teachings, his compelling narrative. But I no longer find it possible to filter every moment of my life through the lens of a personal relationship with Jesus. That part no longer makes sense.
So when I open my inbox a week before his surgery, I’m not surprised to see the subject line: THE TREE THAT SAVED MY LIFE. The email recounts the whole story: zip lining into the tree which led to a random CT scan which revealed kidney cancer in its earliest stages which can easily be removed and thank God. A God who not only saved his life by the tree at the end of the zip line, but who also saved his soul by the Tree made into a cross two thousand years ago.
I groan out loud.
Then put my face in my hands and cry, not only for the gladness that Dad is not dead — not yet, thank God — but also for my own inability to make sense of it all in such simple a way as his. Luck. Fate. Fortune. Blessing. Who can ever really know. But in this small instance I envy the boldness of Dad’s belief. I admire his willful acceptance that this is God’s mysterious love. And for a moment I think I feel that love, but the moment is gone.
So five hours after the surgery, my wife, son, and I are on our way to the hospital to visit him in recovery. As I drive we’re listening to some comedy program on public radio and are laughing at a joke so hard that, once we calm down, we agree it a good idea for my son to memorize it. For the rest of the drive to the hospital, we repeat and rehearse the joke with him, laughing all the way.
At the bedside, Dad is pale and half-conscious from the drugs, but in a decent mood and smiling. He’s going to be fine. So we don’t worry much when my son blurts out, “It was raining cats and dogs outside, and I stepped in a poodle!” Dad starts laughing so hard that he leans forward and grabs his side from the shooting pain and begins to cry and holds himself so tightly and so joyfully and so painfully that he finally lays back, wipes his eyes, and risks a laugh again.