An Excerpt from Chapter 8
From the moment I laid eyes on Phil and Euretta, I sensed there was something peculiar about them. They stopped me after church, introduced themselves, and asked about the little Bible Study we held in our basement on Sunday nights. Halfway through our conversation I thought I’d figured it out. There were smiles on their faces, and yet they weren’t really smiling. It was like they were keeping a secret. Phil said he heard I had an extensive collection of Ohio State football memorabilia. I told him about my authentic 2002 National Championship helmet. It’s autographed by Coach Jim Tressel. From that point on, we talked Buckeye.
We all know people who conceal their pain and sadness. They mask it over with empty smiles and small talk. I invited Phil and Euretta to visit our Bible Study. But I also invited Phil to meet me for coffee. I felt a connection with him. A desire to go deeper. To maybe see what he was hiding. To see if he needed some help. Phil showed up at Starbuck’s the next morning wearing the same peculiar smile. I leaned back in my chair and asked him how he was doing.
“You don’t know about Euretta, do you?”
“I guess not.”
“Euretta’s dying. She has terminal liver cancer. She’s got about two or three months to live.”
His words landed on me like bricks. I gulped and scrambled for something to say. But Phil wasn’t done yet.
“To tell you the truth, we’re both good with it. In fact we’re really, really good.”
For the next hour Phil talked and I hung on every word. It turned out the peculiar smile was concealing something. But it was the opposite of what I expected. It was joy, not sadness, I saw leaking through his face. Phil and Euretta were living between two worlds. And they had found something I’d been looking for all my life.
I laughed at myself when I realized Phil didn’t need my help. I needed his. So I did the logical thing and asked him to lead our Bible Study the following Sunday.
I’ve heard Joe speak about his little brother’s death many times. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like on that doorstep with the State Troopers. Phil and Euretta’s pain and loss were similar to Joe’s only theirs was suspended in time. Almost in slow motion. And it was unfolding right before my eyes.
I have never personally experienced that kind of life-changing pain and loss. At least not yet. I know my time is coming. Almost no one gets through life unscathed. It’s very rare to hear of anyone living a comfortable, secure life from beginning to end, and then dying in their sleep with a little smile on their face.
Many people go through tragic events and never recover. The pain and loss destroys them. But for others it’s just the opposite. Intense suffering becomes part of a process that makes them stronger and more alive. I want to be like that. That’s why I lean in close and listen hard to people like Joe and Phil and Euretta.
* * *
Sunday night came and the basement was packed. Phil and Euretta were the last to arrive. He had to help her down the steps. By the time she got to her seat, Euretta was exhausted. It had been one of those “bad days” where she was weak to the point of being limp. She cradled the right side of her belly with both arms. Euretta was in obvious pain as I opened with a prayer and introduced our guests. Phil started off by telling the group about Euretta’s condition. He choked back tears as he described how close they were and how much he was going to miss her when she was gone. As his words sputtered out of his quivering lips, I noticed it again. Phil was smiling. I looked at Euretta. Underneath the tears welling up in her eyes was an unmistakable joy.
Phil took a cloth handkerchief out of his hip pocket, blew his nose like a foghorn and carefully cleaned out his nostrils. If he was trying to provide a moment of comic relief, it worked.
Then Phil opened up his Bible and got down to business. He talked about the glory of the Christ for a solid hour. As the evening progressed, it was as if Christ emerged and Phil and Euretta disappeared. But the message between the lines was crystal clear. The two of them had begun to see Christ as the infinitely glorious Person whose presence overshadowed all their pain and loss. And the result was joy.
To our amazement, Phil asked Euretta to speak. She took a deep breath, stood up, and slowly made her way toward the front. Pain leaked through her smile. She could barely speak. We all leaned in. She told us that after she was diagnosed they went through weeks of the normal emotions and struggles. But then someone gave them John Piper’s little article, Don’t Waste Your Cancer. And that’s when everything changed.
“As soon as we read it the lights went on. We realized that life is not our all-surpassing treasure. Christ is.” Her eyes brightened as she spoke. “He’s your treasure too, whether you realize it or not.” You could hear a pin drop. She continued, “Phil and I cherish each other. We really do. We are soul mates. But we cherish Christ more. We have found Him to be our goal and our reward. He is not a means to an end. He is the End.” She was talking about a person, not an idea. “Cancer is hard, but not really. Living without Christ, now that’s hard.”
Euretta was out of breath. But she wasn’t done yet. “God’s gifts are great, but we treasure the Giver above the gifts.” That was her way of saying she wanted the Father, not just His stuff. Phil got up and stood by her side. Somehow he knew she had one more point to make. He stalled while Euretta recovered. She picked up her Bible and opened it.
Her voice was weak but her words were strong, “Two verses explain this better than I can.” She did not need to look at her Bible. The words came out slowly because she didn’t want us to miss a single one of them. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord . . . To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Euretta’s eyes were ablaze as she spoke the sacred words a second time. And then she sat down.