Three weeks ago I was shoeing horses. Then a routine visit to my doctor changed everything: he discovered that I have widespread cancer. Suddenly I am confronted with death, though not for the first time.
I almost died within weeks of my birth, in July 1938, on a farm in England. A visiting surgeon arranged emergency surgery on my stomach. This left a scar on my chest and, once I was old enough to appreciate how close to death I had come, an unwavering conviction that God had a purpose for my life. It would be my job to discover it.
I grew up on a Shropshire farm, during World War II. We children hoed sugar beets and dug potatoes. At 15, I quit school and became a shepherd. Later, I learned metalwork. The door to my parents’ home was always open. Their love for their fellowmen - especially downand- outs and misfits – planted within me the belief that people are called to brotherhood. But it took a young woman named Hanna to help this belief grow into a living faith in God and Jesus. From the moment we met, we knew we belonged together - not fairytale love, but something God-given. Through her childlike, sunny nature, Jesus began to come into my life.
We married in December 1962. Hanna, a seamstress by training, was a nurse at heart and selflessly spent countless nights at the bedside of a terminally ill neighbour. Her faith meant love in action. In September 1977, Hanna and I celebrated the safe arrival of our eighth child, a girl. Still hospitalised one week later, she complained of a headache and asked for her doctor. I went to fetch him. When I returned, Hanna was in a coma. She died four hours later, of a brain aneurism.
For years, the sight of a mother holding a baby would bring it all back... In time, and through God’s grace, I found Roswith, a woman willing to marry me and be a mother to my children, to help me raise them in the fear of God. Rather than push Hanna’s memory aside, Roswith joined me in keeping the children’s mother alive for them; they set a place for her at the breakfast table each morning. When two children were born to us, we felt that God’s love had closed the ring of our family. Then in 1983 my daughter Esther was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer. Not even the amputation of her left leg could stop its spread. She died six years to the day after her mother, and at almost the same hour. About 10 years later, my daughter Irene faced cancer, too; she had been married hardly four years, and had two children. Thankfully, she survived, and later lived through a brain aneurism as well.
Despite these trials, Roswith and I have shared nearly 28 years together. Then last month, specialists discovered she has non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the same disease that killed her mother. This news hit me like a blow, as I realised I might once more be widowed. The doctors speak of ‘buying time’, but they say they cannot cure her. When you lose your life-partner through death, part of you is torn away. It is not simply that ‘death parts them’; two souls are ripped apart.
All the more, it stunned us to learn of my illness. For both of us, time is running out. “God, take over,” is my prayer. I am grateful for medical help in easing the pain that I know will intensify. But I do not hang on to hopes of being cured. My doctors admit there is little they can do - the cancer is too far advanced. I feel sure, though, that the more I entrust myself to God, the more I submit my will to his, the more he can do with my life. The apostle Paul prayed to God for freedom from physical pain, but was told, ‘My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). It seems to me that I was born for this. Looking back, my best days have been those during which I suffered most, when it seemed God spoke harshest, and I was driven to my knees. Times of suffering stand out like jewels, pointing to eternity.
Death is a bridge that everyone has to cross, but Christ promises everlasting life. It is as simple as that. In a way, to face death is a freeing and a victory. We cling to this earth - and rightly so - and yet we all have to let go of it. God rules over everything in the whole universe, and the victory belongs to him. Looking back on my life, and looking forward, I take courage from the words of an old song: ‘Jesus came to save his children as through storms they roam. Leave the wreckage; look to him, then: He will lead you home!’