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Ordinarily Extraordinary

It was a birthday party. January 26, 2014 was a celebration of life. More than four decades of friendship was shared between my parents and their friends that weekend. They took to the Adirondack Mountains for some fun, fellowship, cross country skiing and a good ‘ole 57th birthday party for my Mom. The day began with sips of hot coffee and chatting about family, work and the ways of the world. It was a picture-perfect Adirondack day; blankets of fresh fallen snow, clean, crisp mountain air, clear blue skies, and majestic mountains surrounded the group. The design of the day was ideal for recreating the same magic of exploring, relaxing, and frolicking they had enjoyed as teenagers. Life was good. Life was normal. This day was ordinarily extraordinary.

Nine hundred miles away, my family was going about our typical Sunday routine. We were behind schedule, trying to corral two kids under 5, wrestling to get clothes on, all in an attempt to make it to church on a Sunday morning. Through the hustle and bustle of the daily grind, we were living in the real, ordinary times of life, lacking feelings of extraordinary anything, save the occasional bit of extraordinary frustration and exhaustion. That being said, life was good. Life was “normal.”

After the skiing birthday party concluded, my parents headed home to find out that one of their beloved cats had fallen ill and was going to need medical attention. My mom’s cats are truly children to her, so her descent into distress upon finding one ill was inevitable. She rushed around, frantically looking for the phone number to call the emergency vet. As she grabbed the phone, the day that began as ordinarily extraordinary quickly did a 180. When the veterinarian’s receptionist picked up my mom’s phone call, my mom found her speech to be jumbled and her ability to communicate almost non-existent. Like a light switch flipping from on to off, my mother transitioned instantly from perfectly healthy one minute to unable to speak coherently the next, changing our family’s world in the process. Life would never be ordinary or normal again.

Back in South Carolina, my family was enjoying a post-worship treat. As we sat in the drive-thru waiting on our milkshakes, my cell phone rang. On the other end was my dad’s voice. With me as their only child, it was difficult for my parents to hide anything from me. I didn’t have to listen to the words my dad spoke to know that something was terribly wrong; the tone of his voice said it all. “I’m here with your mom in the Emergency Room, he said. They have done some testing and found a mass on her brain.”  My ice cream appetite vanished and was replaced with an overwhelming nauseated feeling. I was consumed with emotion, yet paralyzed. What had my Dad just said? I just talked with my mom a few hours prior and she was completely fine. I was in shock, utterly perplexed. The phrase “mass on brain” does not belong in a sentence with “my Mom” as the subject. My husband and my kids knew something was wrong, but I tried to keep my composure in front of them, as my Mom is the center of my children’s universe. How was I going to be able to tell them? Hell, how could I convince myself that this was real? Our day began so “normally.” How could the day be ending in such an unsuspecting, horrific way? In the blink of an eye, life was forever changed.

In a high-speed ambulance ride, my mom was immediately transferred from our local community hospital to Albany Medical Center, a 57th birthday present she never wished for. No one could have ever dreamt up this story plot – if anything was going to strike suddenly, based on our family’s health history, a heart attack would’ve been her golden ticket into the Pearly Gates. A brain tumor was on nobody’s script for my mom’s story.

I was emotionally distraught, mentally over capacity and feverishly trying to wake myself up from this nightmare. As I began to call family members and close friends, I found myself having difficulty speaking and putting together coherent thoughts. Is this what my Mom felt like? How could I expect my family and friends to understand me when there was no part of this situation that made any sense? My husband’s birthday was just hours away and instead of celebrating, I found myself alone in the airport, waiting to catch one of the first flights out of South Carolina. The flight was brief, yet it seemed like eternity had passed me by. My mind was racing simultaneously in 10,000 different directions and my thoughts were deafening. I just needed to get there. I yearned to feel ordinary and “normal” again.

When I got to Mom’s room, I felt relieved. She looked like herself, other than her being in a hospital bed hooked up to a few monitors. I was convinced this was all a big mistake. Soon after I arrived, my mom’s neuro-oncologist entered the room. We made small talk, as if we were at a birthday party. Then, he dropped the bomb that shattered this newfound pseudo-reality of mine. The tumor in my mom’s brain was 4 cm in diameter, located in the parietal-temporal lobe of the left side of her brain. Surgery was a necessity and his gut feeling (pre-operatively) was that it was a life-threatening brain tumor. That being said, he could not be certain until he operated. He prepared us for a less than ideal outcome, but remained cautiously optimistic that there was still a chance this mass could be benign. Desperately, I held on to that worldly HOPE for dear life while my soul clung to my HOPE in Jesus Christ.

It was January 29, 2014. We were sitting in the waiting room surrounded by many other families. Looking around the room, one might have thought we were all waiting for our number to be called at our favorite local buffet, not waiting for brain surgery updates. You could feel the tension and see the anxiety as though it were smog settling down from the atmosphere. The surgery was supposed to last 5 or 6 hours, so my family and I were surprised to see my mom’s neurosurgeon emerge after only 3. He approached us with a misleading smile as we sat anxiously in that cold, sterile waiting room, surrounded by complete strangers and grossly unprepared to receive the news that came next. I still clung to that HOPE. Certainly, I told myself, if he is approaching us in this public space, filled with other awaiting friends and family, it was going to be good news…right?

The surgeon told us that he was almost certain that the mass was a glioblastoma. “I’m sorry, a glio what?” we stammered. Everything else that came out of his mouth after that was muffled, falling on deaf, stunned ears. My dad and I fell to our knees and wept as everything went silent and time stood still. I had an out of body experience, becoming a spectator of my own life playing out like a movie on the big screen. Then, reality pierced through the dream. In that moment, my family and I had a choice: to live each day, fighting like our lives depended on it and not letting cancer define our story, or to cower in fear and merely survive for whatever time remained.

I remember hearing my uncle say to me, “you have just as much time with your mom now as you did before this diagnosis occurred. Tomorrow is not promised to anyone. This diagnosis does not change things just because the journey has been labeled.” From that very conversation, we chose moments over minutes, electing to live, not just survive. We chose love over fear and purpose over pain. We chose HOPE over despair, anchoring our lives in the promises of the Lord and putting our faith in His Sovereignty. We were not going to be defined by the statistics. We were going to run the race set before us with HOPE, purpose and endurance.

Over the next 8 months, my mom went through chemotherapy and radiation like a true warrior, never once complaining. She faced each day with renewed strength, grace and determination. But in September 2014, that Goliath that we refer to as GBM reared its ugly head again. With the help of my Mom’s phenomenal medical team at the Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University, however, the news of this recurrence did not come with a grim death sentence but with the HOPE and encouragement of a Plan B, C, D, E, or even F. My mom’s team was not giving up on her and neither were we. On October 17, 2014, my mom’s brain cancer journey continued on in a different direction. She became a participant in the Phase I Polio Virus Clinical Trial at Duke. The Lord can work through anyone or use anything.  Polio, a crippling disease that once devastated lives, was now being used at Duke to bring hope to a community that so desperately needed it.

Almost four years post-diagnosis, my mom, who was not statistically expected to be alive today, is thriving. Never once did we allow our journey to be defined by medical books or scary statistics. Our life is definitely not “normal,” but then again, what is normal anyway? Our days are full of HOPE and we have a tremendous sense of purpose and responsibility for this precious gift of life that we have been given. The Lord Jesus Christ is using brain cancer to transform our lives for His glory and purpose. He is working in us and through us and it is our family’s prayer that He will continue to use our journey and our faith testimony to reach others for His Kingdom.

Our story began with a 57th birthday celebration and the Lord continues to write this story with a celebration of life with each gifted new day. Today, life is GREAT and every day is ordinarily EXTRAORDINARY!