Life is hard.
Life is messy.
But life is also beautiful.
At the end of the day, it becomes a series of choices. And these choices determine the quality of our existence. Whether we will submit to trial or push through like the strongest iron that has been forged solely by enduring the most intense fire.
Cancer patients and Vets alike, are such an arsenal. They are an elite collection of weapons that have been formed after enduring the highest of heats. The hardest trials that life has to offer.
Our family is currently being tested. By the most critical of situations. A seemingly bleak and hopeless time. But the beauty of this particular story is that we have an additional secret weapon.
Faith that can move mountains. That writes the most miraculous of stories. And so that is what we are believing for. A miracle. Because the God that we serve is the Greatest Physician of all. And he is sovereign.
Kevin Johnson is my stepfather. He has been married to my mother for nearly two decades. And I would be lying if I said it has been smooth sailing. Instead, they are more like two skilled sailors that have navigated the roughest of seas. Learning how to find each other after each storm has hit. Love has been their compass. Not circumstance. Just love. The most graceful kind.
A former Vietnam Era Vet, Desert Storm Era Vet, and Fireman for the city of Mahtomedi, Kevin has endured his share of trauma. Losing close friends in each. Life has already left it’s mark on him. But he has endured.
And I think that we do a disservice to each other when we sugarcoat life. Try to rewrite history. Only show the world our best side. This in itself is a kind tragedy. It causes people to choose a sort of half life. Not a full one.
So we keep our trials and struggles to ourselves. Especially our failures. And in doing so, we begin to live a portion of our life in the dark. We reject the peace of transparency and truth. A life in the light. Trying instead to share with the world the self that we think they want to see. A shell, really. A fallacy.
And as far as I can see, this is the life of the living dead.
In severe contradiction, I have chosen to live my life on my sleeve. The good the bad and the ugly. Including the stuff that seems like oversharing, makes others uncomfortable. The result has been the lifting of the heaviest weight from my shoulders. And I have watched as others around me have slowly begun to gravitate to this mindset. Find the same type of freedom for themselves. The once faux pas life of utter transparency is becoming more of the norm. It encourages inclusion, not judgment.
Kevin is an enigma to me. He is a walking contradiction. The sometimes rough and tough exterior he presents to the world is his shield. Because underneath his many complex layers, he is one of the sweetest and kindest men I have ever known. And that has not always been the case.
He is evidence that people can change. The same way I have changed.
He is a survivor. Of war, of addiction, of all the ugliness that life can throw your way. And I am proud of him. He has taught me how to love deeper and be more generous with forgiveness and grace. Because everyone deserves that. Everyone. Regardless of judgment. Or deservedness.
And while I question a million times a day if I am saying the right things, doing all I can to help, because of him, I am a better person.
Over a year ago this incredible man began to complain to us of back pain while working on their home. During the following months he endured trip after to trip to the VA, Emergency Rooms, and a family practitioner. All of which told him he was essentially fine. That he had a pulled muscle in his back.
Even that he was overreacting. Crying wolf. Looking for sympathy, even pills. Jesus take the wheel. And so this hurting man did his best to suck it up and keep going. But we watched as every day his pain became worse and his weight began to drop.
Eventually the weight loss revealed a knot on his back and so it was back to the doctors, where they once again misdiagnosed him. Instead he was sent to a physical therapist and masseuse. For exercises and deep tissue massage. On what we now know to be a tumor. I will never understand this.
On the weekend of my 40th birthday, my mother and Kevin came for a visit. It was then that his deteriorating condition became quite clear. And after a long night of vommitting my mother took him to an Emergency Room here in the Twin Cities.
Within a couple of hours, the true diagnosis was finally revealed. Cancer. And over the next couple of weeks we learned of it’s spread. To his lungs, his lymph nodes which are affecting his vision, a deteriorated fourth rib from the tumor. Ad nauseam.
Stage four progressive and supposedly terminal cancer.
And then came the final punch.
Three to six months.
Once again, I would be lying if I said this was not traumatic and infuriating. The questions of why. The failure to understand how his cancer had been missed. At any of his many many doctors visits. There was no blood taken. No scans. Nothing. Just judgment and an inexcusable discarding. Of a human being.
Our value as human beings is not determined by our circumstances or choices. It is innate, inherent and absolute. No one deserves this type of treatment.
Our hearts were initially broken. But as we have begun to embrace this new reality, we have also discovered an underlying strength that our family did not know it had. And with it, a tremendous amount of love.
My mother and Kevin have moved into our tiny unfinished townhouse. We converted a room for them. And we are doing our best to keep them comfortable in between chemo, radiation, counseling, doctors appointments, paperwork, writing wills, getting his things in order, cumulating bills, tears, nervous break downs, church services…
Yes, church services. Prior to this Kevin did not go to church. But that has changed. We have long, deep and sometimes heart breaking conversations about faith, life and death. These are the moments that you pray you will never have to endure again. Moments that make you lose your breath. Like when Kevin went up for prayer last weekend after the service. He asked the Lord to give him two more years so he can have more time with his grandkids. He asked his doctor the same thing at his last appointment.
“Can you give me two years?”
It’s hard to describe the look on her face. A mixture of tenderness, strength and overwhelming empathy. Oncologists of terminal patients deserve a special place in heaven.
So we are doing our best to focus on living. Staying busy with the good. And we are hopeful. That is our choice. In this unthinkable moment. We choose hope.
And while each day right now might feel like a marathon, all of us exhausted both physically and emotionally, we cling to faith. Because this is a roller coaster. And as much as I want off of it, that is not possible. For any of us. So we are digging deep and fighting. Hard.
Kevin and I have not always gotten along. Our relationship has been hard fought for. Truly. For many years he was just the guy my mom married. That changed not too long ago. After an argument where I fully intended to storm out of the room, something else compelled me to stay. Not just stay, but to surrender to my own pride. To choose the most difficult kind of love. The love that you don’t want to give someone.
I walked over, crouched on the ground in front of him on the couch, forced him to look me directly in the eyes, and threw my arms around him, sobbing.
All I could say was, “I love you.” Over and over. That moment was the beginning of a budding Father Daughter relationship. Family. And he was also becoming my friend. Someone that I truly enjoy being around.
That relatively new and genuine love is what has made this all the more difficult. Kevin is focused on his three grandchildren which are the absolute center of his world. And we continue to reassure him daily how much we need him here. He is a father, a husband, a grandfather, and a friend to so many. Nothing can or will ever replace him.
For the last decade Kevin has been mostly single handedly and slowly building the home that my mother and he live in. One wall, one window, one room at a time. It has been a work of love and incredible sacrifice. This house sits unfinished for them. It is my deepest hope that, for their sake and his inability to work now, we are able to figure out how to provide them with the completion of the finishing touches for this home. Where they can enjoy what is left. Whether that be months or years. Preferably years. And many of them.
I am so thankful for the current doctors and nurses that are caring for Kevin, the families from our church who have delivered much needed meals, the unexpected blessing of donations for groceries, gas and medical expenses, the unending prayers, the stories of healing. Just every single beautiful thing that has helped transform our current landscape into a work of beauty.
After a year where the world has done it’s best to show it’s ugly side, politically and culturally, we are currently experiencing the ever present innate goodness of people. Of God. Of humanity. And it means everything.
For those of you currently enduring a similar situation or are on the other side of it, I salute you. A thousand times. This game of life and death is no joke. It shapes you. Changes you. And hopefully for the better.
So welcome. Welcome to our journey. Thank you for coming along side of us during this time. For your prayers, your love, your support. We will take every little bit we can get. Because we are better together. Especially when we are in the trenches.