Personal Testimony about Death, Cancer and Life
by Monte Sahlin
January 22, 2014
“We haven’t read anything by you recently,” a friend e-mailed me a couple of weeks ago. There is a simple reason. The last year has easily been the worst of my entire life and it has been painful labor for me to write this piece. Hopefully it is not my last.
My wife, Norma, died October 9 and her funeral was the day before our 39th wedding anniversary. It did not come as a shock. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer more than a year earlier and by the spring of last year our two daughters had told me privately, “Dad, Mom is not going to survive this.”
I could not come to terms with that reality. I acknowledged that the prospect was bad, but in my heart I held onto the hope that something would turn things around. Late in the summer, the oncologist told me, “It is only a matter of time.” Norma was accumulating fluid around her lungs and it was drained again and again, only to return more rapidly than the last time.
Cancer is a terrible, terrible evil. Too many of my readers know this from personal experience. Ovarian cancer is a particular evil because so little is known about what causes it. There are no reliable screening or prevention protocols, unlike some cancers. Norma and our family doctor thought that she had some kind of persistent bloating and indigestion when our younger daughter took her to the emergency room one day because she was in such pain. I got there as quickly as I could and I can still see the shock on her face when the ER doctor told her the diagnosis.
If you are ever tempted to think that there is no evil in the world, or that it is not personal, please hear and remember my testimony. I have seen evil in the face. Cancer is pure evil. Whatever your take on anthropomorphizing evil or not, I can tell you evil is personal! Cancer is terribly personal and intimate.
What makes it more evil is that we have not done more to overcome this evil. There are cancers that have been significantly reduced because of what has been learned about prevention, screening and treatment. Why are a number of women's cancers left behind in the science efforts? Despite the stellar competence and compassion of Dr. Thomas Reid and his team at the Women's Cancer Center at Kettering Medical Center, they simply didn't have enough information to save Norma's life. Let me challenge you, if you have any moral compass at all, to give more to cancer research and to vote against any politician who has voted to cut funding for cancer research.
I had promised myself that I would write this piece before the end of year, and I have spent hours at the keyboard attempting to do that. I simply could not grind this out any sooner. It is the most difficult thing I have ever written.
I still wake up in the night hearing Norma’s voice trying to wake me, as she often did the last several weeks when she needed help. Don’t read this like all those old stories about saints tricked into believing the ghosts of their loved ones talk to them. In an instant, I know the reality. Yet, often I cannot go back to sleep no matter that it is the middle of the night and I am exhausted.
I have been an Adventist minister for 44 years. I don’t know how many times I have been to the hospital to pray with people, often dying people, and their families. I have lost count of the number of funerals that I’ve conducted. Nothing from all of that prepared me completely for the deep sense of loss, the overwhelming emptiness.
Please don’t get me wrong! My hope in the promise of Christ’s coming New Earth, the resurrection and victory over the grave is stronger than ever. Perhaps I need it more than ever. Perhaps I’ve paid a higher price for hope than I ever did in the past. I don’t know and I don’t care to analyze it. My hope is in Jesus, our Lord and Savior, the one and only center of our faith. The rest of it—the institutional issues, the internal politics, the bickering among various sectarian factions, even the debates of scholars—do not mean as much to me any more.
I am very proud of my two daughters. They take very good care of me. They are both accomplished professionals and good moms and wives. I am proud of their husbands and especially my soon-to-be-four grandchildren. I want to pass on to them the love and hope that I shared with their “Nana.” They will be sixth generation Adventists, no matter what they choose to do as adults with that heritage.
The paperwork for my retirement is being processed. I have a couple of months to help a new president get started in the Ohio Conference—the 10th that I have helped staff. Then, I expect to catch my breath a bit and I have a long list of things I want to write, including some books as well as pieces that will appear here.
I cannot close without expressing my appreciation to so many of my readers that have taken the time to write me a note (by email or paper, some with a beautiful card, a few with flowers or fruit) and even more who have prayed for Norma and myself over the past 18 months. Your support means more to me than I can ever say. I apologize that I have heard from so many that my ability to respond personally to each one has simply broken down. I feel the support of people who have been friends and colleagues for years, including some I have not talked to in decades. I love you all!