CP Opinion

Thursday, Nov 27, 2014

When Sons Suffer and a Nation Prays

May 23, 2013|6:31 am

While sitting in his bed at Riley Children's Hospital, our college-aged son Googled "leukemia," trying to understand his recent diagnosis. Suddenly he read aloud to his friends, "It says here that two general symptoms of leukemia are anemia and being grumpy." Then he looked up, "Oh no! I think all of you have leukemia!" His sense of humor showed through again when a friend handed him a stuffed lion, and Nick immediately named it "Luke E. Mia."

When sons suffer, they still have that precious ability to make us smile.

The day prior I stood to address a crowd in D.C. on the topic of "Life's Big Questions" when my phone vibrated. I was three levels underground and reception prevented my wife's calls, so she sent a short text message: "Nick being tested for leukemia. Tests back in two days. Call." The text arrived as I was about to stand. The world stopped that evening. For the next thirty minutes I stumbled through my speech with the veneer of engagement. I was a zombie manifestation of an unwanted irony.

The next morning while planning a national broadcast on healthcare with Scott Jaschik and Jay Hein, a call came 48 hours earlier than expected – the confirming results. My head spun as my wife shared, and my discomforting garble followed. "Leukemia!?! Our Nick . . . How is he? What is the survival rate? What exactly causes leukemia?" After a blurring interlude and emergency flights, I found myself standing in Riley Children's Hospital four states west. From my engagement at the Washington Grand Hyatt to sleeping in the Ronald McDonald House in Indy, my mind couldn't catch up. Numbness. Extreme love. Fear. Pity. Exhaustion. Big Questions.

When sons suffer, we shed the world's agenda for theirs.

Have you ever cried your way across country? While waiting hours for the first available flight out of Reagan National, I wept deeply. I vacillated between calm and reserved to wet-faced and limp bodied. It had been years since such an episode, since our oldest son's critical bout with Crohn's disease.

When sons suffer, priorities come into focus while the world's headlines blur.

Beyond being a white blood cell disorder, I didn't know the meaning of "leukemia." It was as foreign as "Crohn's" was rolling off the doctor's lips a decade earlier.

When sons suffer we learn their survival language; an odd nomenclature becomes normal.

While still in the D.C. airport, the more I Googled "leukemia," the more I cried. At one point I walked across the aisle in the Admirals Club and interrupted a distinguished gentleman whose conversations had been on medical issues: "Are you a doctor?" He responded, "Yes, but not a medical one." I thanked him and said, "Me too, and right now it's of no help." I cried again with my face hidden by my screen.

When sons suffer, we find a deep boldness that at times supplants sadness and sanity.

After my first all-nighter at the hospital I slipped out at 5:00 AM for what was intended to be a slow cup of plain Starbuck's. The enthusiastic young (20's) barista welcomed her first customer with "Are you having a good morning?" While I hesitated, she said, "Well, what about yesterday – was that a good day?" I appreciated her effort but couldn't help but pause, and eventually say, "It didn't go so well." She politely pushed a bit more and bubbled, "Oh, it can't be that bad – tell me, what went so wrong yesterday." After a longer break, I tried to smile out of appreciation for her efforts. Like a niece to an uncle, she prompted, "You can tell me . . ." Trying to muster a kind face I looked into her eyes and softly uttered, "Our son was diagnosed with leukemia." She froze. The pause was awkward.

When sons suffer, kind people's reactions accent reality.

Around 30 years ago, Carl & Myrna Knupp faced the ultimate reality of suffering sons. The first of their two children struggled nobly with cancer until passing at age 17. Scott lost his foot, and then his entire leg, but still travelled and gave his testimony to other teens. His parents flew monthly with him from Indiana to D.C. for special experimental treatments. That is, until hope faded abruptly when a visiting doctor bluntly stated – "There is no hope." Those last weeks saw the noblest of young men, a remarkable spirit and hero to many, draw silent. Though leaving a legacy in Connersville, Indiana, he passed legless and alone with his parents. When hope left, the dream was no longer stronger than the struggle.

When sons suffer, hope is priceless.

A few years later, the Knupps' second son, Tom, never returned from a short run for a coke with his teen friends – the victim of a drunk driver. Words fail to capture the depth of grief they endured, and the thread of loss stretching to this day. That same arresting grief enveloping the Moore, Oklahoma area this week. Not long after Tom's passing, the Knupps kept a commitment to take in an exchange student from Denmark who was fully appraised of what had transpired. Lars was a rather mature teen and still chose to come. He became their special friend, not a replacement but divinely-appointed refreshment. And in what appears a cruel turn, Lars passed recently from liver cancer. His hardest phone call upon diagnosis was to our dear mutual friends, Carl & Myrna Knupp.

When sons suffer, there is no quota of sorrow.

Not long after the passing of Scott & Tom, and around the time Lars returned to Denmark, the Knupps unofficially adopted me. My parents had abandoned me as a teen and the Knupps had also found themselves alone. Carl had been my first banker and loaned me $15,000 for a modular that served as home during my graduate days at Miami University (Ohio). When I paid the last payment he was teary-eyed and asked, "Well, does this mean I'll not see you again?" That was 30 years ago. They've become grandparents to our kids, and parents to this boy from the woods of Buck Creek. The hardest phone call after learning of Nick's diagnosis was, well you guessed it, to the Knupps.

When sons suffer, we venerate them through shared love.

This past Friday we celebrated Nick's final chemo treatment. Hope abounds, and it's fitting that his wonderful doctor is named Dr. Lazarus. Though the realities of drugs' side effects will remind us for decades of Nick's journey, he'll have a path to trod with that smile that knows no yesterday.

When sons and daughters suffer, their anguish magnifies the joy that had emanated from their young lives. For some Oklahoma families, they're hugging friends instead of their children. There is no joy in any foreseeable morning and their pain surpasses our capacity for empathy. As a father who has navigated years at sons' hospitals, I still feel a world away from the pain piercing parents in Moore. But along with the nation, and with those like the Knupps who have taken this long walk twice, our paths will never outrun our capacity to love and pray.

Jerry Pattengale is Executive Director of the Green Scholars Initiative (based in Oklahoma City), the research arm of the largest collection of ancient biblical text and artifacts in private hands. He also serves as Assistant Provost at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) and holds research appointments at Baylor University, The Sagamore Institute, Gordon-Conwell Seminary at Charlotte, and Tyndale House, Cambridge. His new release is Buck Creek: True Stories to Tickle Your Mind (where a version of this story appears).
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