To say it was a busy day in a frantic week in a chaotic month might be an understatement. My daughter had just turned 1, and we had just hosted a modest but nice party for her. My 7th wedding anniversary was a few days away. My wife was actively starting an exciting and new consulting business on her own. My preschooler son was asking hundreds of insightful questions on all topics as he continued his quest to learn everything there is to know. It was Wednesday in Holy Week, just before Easter, and my involvement with our parish choir was at its peak level for the year – the final rehearsal night before 4 consecutive days of the different Triddum Masses and Easter. Easter would bring not only music and Mass but also egg hunts for my kids and packing up the car for family gatherings.
At work, there was chaos. I had a new team member on his third day who needed training and was actively recruiting two more. I was frantically preparing for two back-to-back weeks of business travel with two different customers needing large amounts of work from our small and overburdened team. I was giving a presentation to our company of 25 people that day, and I was caught in a cycle of never-ending meetings and a calendar that refused to give me a moment’s break. This constant bombardment had me expecting to be working the coming Friday even though it was scheduled to be a paid day off.
At the same time, my grandmother lay dying in a nursing home, having not eaten for 5 days. After a good 93 years of life and a recent series of strokes, it was clear that her time had come. As one of my biggest life cheerleaders and best pen-pals (as well as the one who had always made sure I had plenty of cookies and pie), I was already mourning her even thought I knew that she would soon be free of the earthly suffering she was enduring.
This was April 17, 2019. It was in the midst of this daily-life chaos that my phone rang. Though I had put it off for nearly two years, in February I had finally decided to act like a grown-up and had gotten established with a family doctor. The routine blood testing he had ordered showed abnormalities with my immune system levels, so he had referred me to a hematologist. As all good hematologists do, she had picked and poked and tested me and my blood over the course of several months. Up to this point on April 17, she had found nothing. When my phone rang, it was my hematologist on the other end, and this time she had news. The results of the final blood test she had ordered had identified something that explained why my immune system was lower than normal, and its name was hairy cell leukemia.
I learned a lot about hairy cell leukemia in that short phone call. It’s a rare disease and the treatment is usually very successful. It is slow growing and not aggressive, but it is cancer. Because it grows slowly, it doesn’t require immediate treatment, but treatment will be required, likely more than once in my life. Treatment means chemotherapy. There is no cure, but the treatment should put it into remission. She wanted to refer me to a hairy cell leukemia specialist at Ohio State for a second opinion. I needed to get some additional tests and scans done to see what it was doing to my insides, but the prognosis was good. I hung up, somehow both retaining this information and keeping a straight face in front of my coworkers as I walked out of the building and to my car in the parking lot to be alone.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do next, so I called my wife Meghann. I hated to deliver this shocking news by phone, but I knew that she’d soon be picking up our kids from school, and I wanted to give us both time to start to face this without an audience. She was as unsure as I was about how to react to the news. I pondered. She cried. We prayed. We were scared. Our future suddenly looked the most uncertain that it ever had. We agreed that we needed to work through this more before talking to anyone else about it, and then we both did our best to finish out the rest of our day as normally as we could. She went to pick up the kids. I went back to my office and dove into my last meeting.
Over the next several weeks, we grappled with the news of April 17, responding in faith as best as we were able. We celebrated Easter with joy, albeit tempered joy. We buried my grandmother a couple of days after Easter, entrusting her to God, even though I mourned extra with the weight of hairy cell on my mind. Meghann and I prayed together and separately. We decided that rather than try to suppress the scary thoughts floating around in our heads that we would acknowledge them openly together. We carried on with normal life as best we could – I did my business travel and she continued to build her company. We told the kids that daddy has sick blood but that daddy’s doctor would help it get better. After much discernment and discussion, we decided to share the news of hairy cell with both our immediate families and our small church community — 9 of our closest friends in faith to lean on as we worked through things. I got the additional tests and scans done, and we saw the doctor at Ohio State. We felt fear, grief, sorrow, anxiety and a wide range of other emotions.
I felt myself crying out to God through this time, and what I got back was largely silence. “God, I want to live to see my kids grow up!” Silence. “God, I want to be here to take care of Meghann, and I want get old with her!” Silence. “God, please heal me of this cancer, and please help us as we deal with this.” Silence. “God, I miss Grandma, and that makes me sad.” More silence. Yet, this silence never once felt like the silence of someone who is ignoring you. It was the silence of someone who is a good listener, letting me say what I needed to say and waiting their to speak. That subtle confidence that it wasn’t an empty silence, a blessing in its own way, kept me praying, kept me going to Mass and kept me from getting angry at the silence I was hearing.
Finally, one Sunday about six weeks after April 17, I stood in church, and two things happened almost in the same moment. First, I heard Grandma’s voice in my ear say “I’m fine, Matt.” At nearly the same moment, I heard a voice that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit say “I’ve got this cancer thing.” In this moment, the anxiety, fear and deep spiritual mourning that I had been wrestling with for weeks was gone. Gone was the sadness I felt at Grandma’s passing. Gone was the fear of not seeing my kids grow up. Gone was the anxiety of not being around to grow old with my wife. Gone was the terror that cancer would win this. Best of all, gone was the silence.
My life changed forever on April 17. It is still unclear where this journey will lead, but once again I know deeply in my heart that I am not walking this path alone. God is walking with us, too, and He’s got this cancer thing.