On December 26, 1998, I awoke uncharacteristically early at about 5 a.m. feeling refreshed and energized despite a late night and a typically full Christmas of family festivities. The house was quiet, with my wife, Nikki, still sleeping soundly beside me. She needed all the sleep she could get—rarely did the kids allow her the luxury of a sleep-in past 7 a.m. It wouldn’t be long, I thought to myself, before they would be older, and a good night’s sleep wouldn’t be so rare. Just a couple more years.
Lying peacefully in bed, reflecting on the joy of Christmas, the great time the kiddies had and how good they’d been amidst all the excitement, my mind flickered then to Christmas morning. I had risen early for the fourth time that week to go jogging around the Panmure Basin.
The double circuit of six kilometers had taken me the usual fifty minutes, not fast by any means, but boy it made me feel great. The morning had been warm and crisp. I was comfortable ambling along, in a mix between a power walk and a jog, at an even pace. No rush. Not like in the old days, when I felt like I always had to break a record or something. No, this had been quite different—cruising really, breathing in the clear air and the beauty of the new day. I felt in pretty good shape for my age.
Deciding to wait another hour until 6 a.m., I snuggled down, lightly stroking the muscles in my thighs with a kind of therapeutic stroke, as if to feel the progress I was making with my early morning jogs. Up and down. Suddenly my hands stopped. What was that? A lump? My heart began to beat faster as I felt the hard plum-size mass in my right groin.
“Uh oh,” I said out loud. “Oh, no. This can’t be good.”
Nikki was awake by then. She rolled over to look at me. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure, honey,” I said. “I found a lump.”
I knew the lump shouldn’t be there, and I vaguely wondered whether it could be a kind of hernia-thing from the recent exercise routine. But deep down I knew otherwise, and I had a feeling it meant bad news.
I got up, made a cup of tea, and tried not to think about it. It was Boxing Day [a New Zealand holiday], and finding a doctor would be nearly impossible. I made up my mind to just try to put it out of mind as much as I could and wait until the next day to get it examined. My hand kept wanting to go to it, to feel the lump. It was quite large really, very hard, but it didn’t hurt at all. I finally told myself that I would just get it taken care of and hope it didn’t mess up our holiday plans.
Cancer itself wasn’t entirely new to me. I had been on immune-suppressant drugs for several years to keep my body from attacking my kidney transplant. The problem was that these drugs also made me very susceptible to skin cancer, so I developed little spots all over my arms, legs, chest, and back that had to be cut out every month. One plastic surgeon bragged to me that I had helped him set a personal record by excising twenty-two skin lesions in one session. I remember counting over two hundred stitches and feeling like a pin-cushion afterwards. I had to get skin grafts from my thighs to help cover the holes. It was painful, but I had still felt well throughout it all. But this lump was different; this could be much more serious, and I knew it.
With all the doctors on holiday, I decided to ask my brother Jonathan what he thought. He was a veterinarian, and just happened to be home on leave from his practice in the U.K. “A vet is better than nothing,” I reasoned.
Jonathan’s prognosis was obvious by the look on his face. “Not good,” he said. “You need a fine needle aspiration done now. “ Trying to make light of the situation, he added, “Try and stay off your hooves.”
“I don’t like the looks of things”
The next few days were a whirlwind of doctor appointments, biopsies, and five days of waiting and worrying about the results. When we finally got the results back, our fears were confirmed: The mass was a cancerous, fast-acting tumor. We needed to find a surgeon quickly.
A day before the surgery, the oncologist spoke to me and Nikki. “I don’t like the looks of things,” he said. “I think before we do this operation, you ought to get your affairs in order, just in case. You never know how things are going to turn out. Get your will sorted out, that kind of thing.”
Get my affairs in order? Gulp.
It’s a strange feeling to spend a day wondering if you’re at the end of your life. My sister was fantastic and took the children off our hands for the day, and Nikki and I spent a very memorable day together. A heavy sadness hung between us as if we were on the precipice of saying out loud that this could be the end. We realized that all we’d come to gain—our great marriage, our three children, our ministry—could be lost.
Overwhelmed with love and thankfulness
But instead, we focused on positive things like our special memories together rather than allowing self-pity or anxiety to ruin our beautiful day. The joy of reminiscing with Nikki and thinking about the wonderful life we’d had together seemed to chase away many of the doubts and fears and gave us an indescribable, wonderful feeling.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was warm, and a fresh breeze was blowing in from the ocean. I had an odd kind of feeling: On one hand, I felt on top of the world, yet on the other hand, a heavy cloud seemed to hang overhead. We went rollerblading around Mission Bay hand-in-hand like lovers and stopped at a quaint restaurant for brunch. I remember feeling overwhelmed with love and thankfulness. I held her hand across the table and just looked into her eyes, feeling such a powerful love for her, and a gratefulness for the years God had given us together. Her hand felt small inside of mine. I realized that I wasn’t afraid of death, but I did worry about what Nikki’s life would be like without me. And I worried about Natasha, Olivia, and Ben growing up without a father.
“I love you, Nikki,” I said, realizing afresh just how much I really meant it. “You’re such an amazing wife and mother. My life means so much more because of you. I’m so glad you married me.”
I think that day had a profound impact on our marriage. Nikki and I know the truth of the cliché that life is short. Anything can happen at any time to change our whole world. We can’t waste our time arguing or taking each other for granted. Every moment we have together is precious, a gift.
© 2008 Andrew Bray. All rights reserved. Published in 2008.