I loved her for her heart. From the first February 14th of our courtship, I knew that Valentine's day was a big deal to the girl I would marry. Heart shaped notes, cards filled with x's and o's, poems, Valentine cookies in my dorm mailbox…my Bobbie bubbled over with love and spilled her Valentine excitement over me.
We've been married almost 43 years and the love gifts keep coming from My Valentine…smiles, happy morning hugs and goodnight kisses.
But Valentine's Day 2012 we were handed a gift we neither asked for nor expected. Although it was mercifully wrapped in the love of God, this gift was presented to us from the voice of an oncologist at MD Anderson hospital in Orlando. Dr. Veronica Schimp's words were straightforward, yet somehow gentle and kind. "Your Bobbie has Stage IV ovarian cancer."
Tingles raced from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. I tried to breathe. Would I lose the love of my life?
After a few hours, I was standing next to Bobbie's sleeping form in ICU. I leaned over and kissed her.
"Hi, honey," I whispered.
She pried open sleepy eyes and squeezed a smile, repeating the same words to me through her drowsiness. Then almost immediately she seemed to grow more alert.
"Do I have cancer?"
"How bad is it?"
Waiting an instant and wondering if I should tell her right now, I decided to go ahead. "Stage IV," I sighed.
"How many stages are there?" she asked, the little furrows across her forehead begging for reassurance.
"Only four," I said.
"Bum," she replied.
Thus began an amazing year-long journey – and a path of deepening love for one another. So amazing, in fact, that a few weeks ago Bobbie said, "If I had it to do all over again…I would."
How could a catastrophe have become a catalyst for joy? How could something so perplexing produce an ever deepening love for each other?
Leading up to the Valentines Day 2012, Bobbie and I had invested more than two years researching and drafting and writing a manuscript. Although we have both authored and co-authored other books, we had never written a whole book together…just the two of us.
Married tennis players joke about the challenges – perils – of partnering with your spouse when playing doubles. And do-it-yourselfers strongly discourage wallpapering your kitchen – or any other room in your house – with your spouse. But Bobbie and I accepted a writing project and tackled every sentence of a 130 thousand-word manuscript entitle Couples of the Bible (Zondervan, April 2013)…together.
She did most of the research and the first draft alone. I embraced the second sequestered in my upstairs office. But the third and fourth drafts, we did side by side on the dining room table. We read the sentences aloud and fixed them. And this editing, reading, and centering on God's dealing with couples in the Bible became the backdrop to our adventure with cancer that was about to begin.
As we wrote and rewrote, every couple we studied convinced us that there is an overarching plan to history which God directs – and that we are part of it. We learned to look at the character of a wise and wonderful God who worked in the past on behalf of those who trusted Him. And we believed that God continues His sovereign plan for a larger work than we may be able to see. That His purpose is always to show love and mercy and bless others through our lives.
So, how can we possibly claim that last Valentine's Day we received a gift that was more valuable to us than any colorful bouquet or box of sweets? Here are five things we learned about facing a trial as husband and wife:
1. When your Joy is on Trial, Guard your Thoughts.
We used music and Bible verses to sing and settle our mind. We decided not to complain. What we have is what we have. And we chose not to compare our situation with any other people or to read about survival rates on Google. Believing that God had in eternity past already mapped out the day of our births and the day of our deaths gave us confidence that our future was in His very capable hands.
We used the lyrics of songs and sang our favorite hymns to keep our minds focused on what really matters – faith, hope and love. We read aloud every morning, allowing our voices and our ears to speak and hear Scripture. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. The guard was stationed at the door of our minds every moment of the day.
2. We're in This Together.
It was after two chemo treatments and the morning of our 42nd anniversary. I walked into our bathroom to discover Bobbie crying. She wrote about the experience that week in her journal:
On Friday my hair began to fall out and it has been a difficult and revealing experience for me. Even though I knew it was coming and I tried to brace myself for it, there is a certain sinking reality and sadness over the loss of my identity. From the time the girls were small, I have enjoyed styling my longish hair and they used to call it my "Tea Party Hat" when I'd wear it up in a bun. To stand at my sink and watch it come out in handfuls as I brushed was overwhelming. Robert walked in and stood behind me as I cried and held handfuls of my formerly thick hair. He leaned over and kissed my head and told me I was still beautiful to him. "We are in this together" he said, "and nothing will change my love for you."
We are teammates. All of life's journey is to be shared, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health...with or without a headful of hair. The smiles we offer each other and the love of Jesus in our hearts is the beauty that encircles our marriage. I'm focusing and trying to remember that this week for my downcast heart. And that will continue to be my prayer for my marriage...two strong hearts for Jesus, bound together in selfless love that will go the distance.
3. Accept the Love Gifts Offered
From the first phone call to family and church friends, we were the grateful recipients of more love than can be contained in any Valentine cards or candy hearts. Bobbie's Bible study circle brought meals and signed up to pray hourly for her. The women set their cell phones to ring and later told us that their children joined in praying for "Miss Bobbie" when the alarms went off. Neighbors visited with chicken soup and warm get well wishes. Cards, calls and emails streamed steadily into our home and encouraged our hearts when we became faint or fearful. A circle of friends near and far become a bastion of strength for our hurting hearts. There's no better Valentine than friends who surround you with prayer and love. They are among God's finest gifts.
4. Put It in Writing.
It helped both of us to journal the journey. Bobbie wrote early morning entries into her diary while sitting on her red chair. Almost weekly, I sent out a blast e-mail to extended family and close friends, updating and posting what we were experiencing. Sometimes I would attach a photo documenting Bobbie's progress. Because words force you to be exact, the process of putting thoughts and emotions down on paper gave us both a powerful chance to process what was going on. Pouring feelings onto paper made a dramatic difference in our ability to identify and validate what we were both going through.
5. Welcome Suffering as a Teacher
The strongest steel and the purest gold have something in common. They are both perfected by fire. What we've wrestled with and experienced since our last Valentine's Day has been both perplexing and precious. Yes, God allowed cancer to come to our home and we have learned that God provides more than enough grace to cover any circumstance.
J.R.R. Tolkien coined the word "eucastrophe," translated "good catastrophy". There were lots of eucastrophes in Tolkiens stories, where a terrible event viewed in terms of overall Providence turns out to be something good – when it looks like everything is going to collapse, something wonderful comes out of it.
We have learned that "All things work together for good to those who love God and fit into His purpose" (Romans 8:28).
Because Bobbie's not much of a chocolate girl, I've never given them to her for Valentine's Day. But even if she loved the dark, tasty stuff, the gift we've been given this year is even sweeter. More precious.
One more day…together. Gratefully.