The words stunned me—something like a blow to the back or a terminal diagnosis. Yes—like a cancer diagnosis. And how fitting that they came from a doctor. I now understand a bit better what I’ve always heard—that the patient hears nothing after the words “You have cancer” escape your lips.
His words were not to me, and they weren’t about a medical condition at all. The words were delivered last night to my husband Russell by Pascal—his blogging companion and closest local friend. As he said them, the dining room closed in to the size of a hospital clinic room, and the warm walls turned a dull shade of gray. The table between us disappeared, and his dining chair turned into a black rolling stool in front of a computer. Pascal’s blue shirt faded into a white coat as he turned toward my husband and said “Honestly, I don’t think you’ll ever return to faith.”
“I’m not giving up on you, and we can still be friends,” he continued, much in the way I had once heard an oncologist reassure a glioblastoma patient after delivering the death sentence. I didn’t hear too much else after that. Tears stung my eyes, and I swallowed hard as if the force of the swallow could somehow suck them back behind my eyes. I didn’t swallow hard enough, and a few escaped. I swallowed hard again. I couldn’t cry there. I was sitting across from a wonderful, refreshingly honest new friend who doesn’t understand my struggle—“Just believe or don’t believe, and own it.” I was sitting next to two brand new acquaintances on my right, and this was not the first impression I wanted to make. My husband was to my left, and his hand found mine. He could sense the way my breathing changed, even if he couldn’t see my tears. Pascal was across the table and two seats down, and I couldn’t look at him. I wasn’t angry—I was devastated. And what was my husband feeling? I couldn’t look at him, either. But he didn’t argue with Pascal’s assessment.
It felt like there was a computer screen in the room with a list of abnormal labs. It felt like there was a blood smear demonstrating an army of invading cells or a CT scan revealing an overwhelming tumor burden. We had none of those things—just some convincing symptoms and one man’s prognosis. And isn’t it what we expected? Was it a shock at all? Somehow, yes. Sometimes you don’t realize what you had secretly, even foolishly wished for until someone tells you it won’t be yours.
I understand and in many ways share my husband’s disbelief. My heart has recently been more open to belief, but not the kind of belief I once held, and not in a way that gives me confidence—just in a way that gives me hope. And I suppose I had this fantasy that even I didn’t know I had—that my husband and I would return to faith together. I didn’t recognize that it was something I had looked toward until the fantasy left me with Pascal’s words. I don’t think about breathing until someone shoves my face underwater and I no longer can.
Was it right for him to say? Hadn’t I expected it—even thought it myself? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Would Russell be any more likely to return to faith if someone had hope enough to invest in him and to endure the wearying back and forth for a decade or more?—I think not. Will the friendship continue—was the bond between our families ever more than the fragile thread of this conversation? Oh I hope it was.
How is Russell doing? The prognosis was, after all, his. On one hand, he understands why Pascal came to this conclusion—it does seem unlikely that he will reason his way back into faith, although it’s certainly possible. On the other hand, he doesn’t think that anyone is equipped to draw such a conclusion about someone else. It seems that someone’s confidence in the possibility of God bringing a friend out of disbelief might be correlated with their faith that such a God exists and is willing and able to do so. Wouldn’t it only take a small intervention like Russell mentioned here? He is very open to that. Doesn’t Pascal’s God do miracles? Isn’t a miracle what brought Pascal out of insanity? Russell primarily took the prognosis hard because of my tears, and I hate that this is somehow about me.
Does this change anything? Our friend who has walked patiently with us for almost two and a half years came to my most feared conclusion about my husband—perhaps one I should have admitted to myself long ago. What do we do now that reality has confronted us so abruptly (doesn’t it usually “set in”)?
Nothing changes. We woke up the day after to an almost-five-year-old alarm clock with brown hair and blue eyes. Our hands found each other’s and our fingers intertwined before our eyes were even open. I’ll wake up next to him for the rest of our lives (or as long as he lets me), even if Pascal is right. And even if Pascal’s assessment is fair, I can do what so many do after devastating words. I can keep looking for a miracle. I can wish for an outcome against all odds. Some call it denial. We call it hope.
Image copyright Samuel Micut, dreamstime.com