I fished around in my purse for a nail file. The sign at the reception desk asked for cell phones to be switched off, the magazines were those glossy medical publications that really contain nothing interesting to read and, well, what else do you do when your daughter is having a breast biopsy?
Some days the waiting is difficult.
Some days waiting means so much more than passing time.
Some days waiting is all there is.
I found the carbon black file and went to work at shaping my nails. The sound grated against the relative quiet of the beige waiting room. A giant poster sponsored by the imaging office featured two women, a mother and daughter, smiling huge-orthodontic and digitally enhanced smiles. The caption read: I’m so thankful my mom had a mammogram and found out about her breast cancer early. Now my mom is cancer-free and I get to spend more time with her.
Or something like that. A happy ending captured, poster-ized, meant to be inspirational.
Of course, I sat there wishing it were me in the papery gown, making small talk with the technician, feeling the needles press through my skin and tissue with their numbing serum.
I wish she were in the waiting room, or better yet, off at school or work or eating too many Oreos with her roommates.
I wish she hadn’t felt a lump or spent time searching the internet for possible diagnoses.
I wish cancer wasn’t even a fleeting thought in her beautiful brain.
Of course I sat there praying, giving thanks for the testing, the technology and the medical insurance. I was thankful for beautiful facilities and the hope we have in our clean, western, privileged world of medical advancement.
But mostly I waited knowing I’d have to wait longer. Knowing she’d have to wait longer. The results typically take a few days.
“You don’t have to come,” she had told me, “There’s nothing for you to do.”
“I know. But it’s nice to have someone waiting for you. Nice to have someone else do the driving and parking.”
We had talked about the possibilities and she gave me the names of the benign growths it could be. She told me the statistics were in her favor. The chances were low that it would be cancer.
“But I could be in the five percent.” She said lightly, standing in the kitchen.
Normal or an anomaly? Wait and see.
Statistics count and shuffle the deck, repositioning data like cards dealt on a game table. Statistics mean nothing until the cards are revealed, turned over, exposed. And for that moment, we gamblers can only wait.
After the initial ultrasound we discussed how to proceed and who we might tell, that sort of thing. We talked about it in a way that felt more like talking around it, because it’s safer to do it that way. No use wasting a lot of emotional energy on a what-if, we agreed. We’d talk through it if the occasion required that of us, if it were indeed malignant.
Until then, we would put our hands to the tasks before us, speak of it in generalities (just to relieve a bit of tension), pray without really knowing what to pray for, and wait. She’d do volumes of reading for her literature classes, I’d run the small world of my family like usual, and dad put on his brown uniform every morning and shuttled kids to school on his way to work. We tried to keep the lump in her breast and all of its ugly potential to its actual size, just a mere fingertip, only centimeters.
I thought of the pictures on cereal boxes that magnified the rings of wholesome goodness floating on milk resting in a silver spoon and the words covertly set off to the side: product shown larger than actual size.
That’s what worry can do to a lump. So it took, I will admit, considerable effort to keep it in perspective.
But I’ll also admit that I allowed myself to take greater pleasure in her laughter when she came home to dinner. I allowed myself the space to see the shape and sparkle in her eyes, those eyes that match her siblings, all dark and liquid brown. The four of them circled around our wobbly turquoise table with their dark, almond eyes, joking and squabbling and I pushed that lump into its place and said, not now, you won’t steal this from me. I squeezed it small, compressed it, and enjoyed the largess of the beautiful now.
I told my own mother. Because although my mom can worry like it’s a sport, she is also a rock.
She has this hidden compartment in her spirit that opens into an enormous faith fortress. She has seven kids and nearly thirty grandkids and great-grandkids. She knows how to wait. She knows how to slog through hurt and confusion and the unanswerable and the unfixable and the insurmountable and even when she says the wrong things or fumbles along the way, she knows how to get to that sequestered storehouse of faith. She’s helped me build my own deep fortress.
People call us strong, but we know the truth.
We know how often we run to our underground warehouses of faith, how weak and shaky the knees, how very near the tears come to spilling when we turn our heads, how ragged the breath. But we get there and dive deeply and find it: just enough faith for the moment.
And I see that in Bella. People who know her well see it, too, and value her for it. She knows how live life surrendered to this need to drink in faith like water on a hot day. She knows the strength it gives to the bones of her character, knows the peaceful rhythm it lends her spirit. She relentlessly pursues truth.
There’s a bit of Christian wisdom that says it’s not the amount of faith or the greatness of faith that counts, but in whom you place your faith that matters. I wholeheartedly agree. When I sipped tiny bits of oxygen in an ambulance and waited for my destiny to happen, when I knew it wasn’t about my fight or my faith or my own human force, I simply sipped breaths and waited. I waited for the EMT to help me, waited for the unknown to become known. I waited for my life to continue. I waited to die. I waited and had absolutely no control of the outcome. But I waited with the name of Jesus on repeat in my mind.
I wasn’t choosing to be strong, or weak, or faithful. I was choosing to breathe Jesus. I suppose that could be called trust. Sometimes that’s our only option.
There’s a verse in Isaiah that I love: You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts you (26:3). It’s from a song that will be sung one day in Judah, when the fullness of God’s grace will be revealed and recognized. Perfect peace is from the Hebrew words: shalom shalom. I like to think of it as shalom squared, an exponentially increased peace. The verb for stayed (or fixed in other translations) means unmovable, connected, focused. And the word for trust, get this, describes the action of falling back knowing someone will catch your fall.
Ever free-fall backwards? Who do you trust to catch you?
A few days later the results declared Bella free to live her life as usual. No cancer.
She could pursue her last year of college as planned, maybe travel when she’s done. And sure, we were relieved and thankful. But, this wouldn’t be a bump in the road along the way; instead, it would be a tool to build her fortress a little stronger. The results could have gone either way and the waiting forced her to hunker down and consider in whom she places her faith.
She’ll need it someday, this fortress of faith built deep. She’ll face great unknowns and frightening somethings, those unnamable blights in her otherwise bright future. When she was small I tried to steer her away from danger, because that’s what mamas do. But let’s be honest, my arms are pitifully weak and short and I can’t protect her forever. But I can be a well-builder, a fortress-maker of faith, and I can, like my mom, show her how to plumb its depths and breathe in that hope that is Jesus.
But lately I’ve realized this: she’s teaching me faith and surrender and strength and serenity and resoluteness. I suppose that’s when I knew my little girl is going to make it and this realization crystalized the waiting into something amethystine, resilient and priceless.