My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your
ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.
She doesn’t need a lot of introduction on this blog, at least not for my seasoned readers. I have more than a few times detailed her determined fight against the brain tumors that assaulted her again and again, these past four years. For Anne Marie Zook, it was never a question of whether or not she would survive. It was always a day to day struggle in a fierce battle, a tough journey through some really rugged terrain. A quest for some quality of life in a battle to stay alive until she no longer had the strength to remain.
Paul and Anne Marie, and their children, Cody and Adrianna, were among my closest friends for years. Back in 2007, when my world imploded, they quietly stood by my side. They didn’t say a lot. But their home was always open, always welcoming to me. And in time, I took to stopping by on Sunday nights for supper. And to just hang out, comfortable with old friends who provided what shelter they could from the storms that engulfed me.
And late that fall, in early December, the first boom dropped into their lives. I still remember the phone call from Paul as they were on the way to the hospital late that night. Anne Marie had taken some MRI scans that day. For severe headaches she was having. The doctors had just called. There was a tumor on her brain. With desperate, hopeful quietness, Paul told me they didn’t know whether or not the tumor was malignant. They would find out after the operation. They’d do lab tests. He’d keep me updated.
And within a week or so, they did the operation, there at Lancaster General Hospital. The doctors were amazed at her resilience. Within days of the operation, she was back home, recuperating. And we all rejoiced at this marvel. The tumor was malignant, of course. Some vile form of cancer, growing right on her brain. And we all held our breaths, wondering when and if the tumor would return.
For her recovery regimen, she chose the natural route. Rejected chemo and radiation. And within a month, she was back on her feet, at home in her house. This scenario would unfold several more times.
Within ten months, in the fall of 2008, the tumor returned. Again, they operated on her brain. At Johns Hopkins in Baltimore this time. And again, within days, she was back home, her head shaved on one side, smiling with delight to be in familiar surroundings. And again, we rejoiced that she was still with us. And again, we held our breaths.
And every Sunday evening, I stopped by to see them. That became the accepted norm. Unless I was out of town for some reason, or had an occasional obligation elsewhere, that was my time with my friends. And this is my story of that friendship.
My time with them was “normal” time. We rarely discussed her condition, or how she was doing. We talked instead of life as it was around us. Where the children would go to school next fall. Her garden. This and that and the other. My job, Anne Marie told me more than once, was to bring laughter to their lives. To be who and as I was before she ever had cancer. And I tried. We enjoyed many relaxed times, just laughing, chewing on the old jokes. Scolding each other with good-natured humor.
Often, though, as I was leaving, Paul would follow me out to my truck, and we would talk for a few minutes. The heavier stuff. Just he and I. Of what the future might hold for his wife. And his family. Of all the implications involved in being a young single father.
Less than ten months after the second operation, the tumor returned again. Again, off they went, to Johns Hopkins. And again, she was back home within ten days. Smiling, delighted for the life that had been granted once again. And always, come whatever, I drove over on Sunday nights to see them.
It’s not that they were not surrounded by a great many other friends, and I don’t want to leave such an impression. They were. Tons of support, from all around. Anne Marie’s old group of friends rallied around her faithfully. People from their church. And from the community all around. Anne Marie’s parents, too, made the long trek from their home in Vancouver Island more than once. And when they came, they usually stayed a while. A month or more. And I got to know them quite well as well.
And life went on, as life does. A vibrant, spirited woman, Anne Marie lived in the moment. Intensely, with joy. Reveled in her children. Walked the trails in the surrounding woods with them. Built fires in the stone ring in their backyard at night. Camped out in the rain. She loved the rain, somehow it seemed to wash her clean of fear and care. When I came around on Sunday nights, she always greeted me with a smile and a big hug. Welcome. Set and stay a spell. And we settled in, she and Paul and I, and talked of all the little things.
But always, pulsing below the surface, we heard the echoes of that not-so-distant call. Her breath, her time of life was limited. Cancer doesn’t just disappear. We all knew, and yet for her we all lived in the moment. Or tried to, at least.
A trained masseuse, Anne Marie always offered to work on my right arm, which usually has knotted muscles from working at the computer. I probably have carpal tunnel, or something close to it, but she faithfully applied her heat packs and kneaded the knots until I almost screamed with pain. But it helped a lot. It was just a thing she always did. Work on my right arm. And I always told her how good it hurt.
And as the vile tumor slowly regrouped, rerooted and expanded and returned for the final time last spring, we could see the signs. By this time, we sensed her personality changing, as the tumor pressured her brain. As it became increasingly obvious, I told Paul one night as we stood out by my truck. It’s coming back. The tumor. He nodded. He knew. We discussed it briefly before I headed home. We both knew that one more deep and frightening valley lay before them, and that there was no way to go around it.
And that was my last “normal” Sunday evening with my friends in their home.
It all came down a few days later with savage speed and force. Paul called me at work as they were rushing down to Johns Hopkins one more time. And he called me the next day. The cancer had spread throughout her body. They would operate first on her spine, to remove the malignant lumps lodged there. And then they would evaluate whether they even could go into her brain one more time. With all the scar tissue from previous operations, the doctors feared another cutting might paralyze her.
After that operation on her spine, she never walked another step. They kept her there at Johns Hopkins for a couple of weeks, maybe a month. And they never did operate on the brain tumor again. At some point, then, they released her. Sent her home to die, basically. That’s not what the doctors actually said, of course. But that’s what they meant.
The progression of events from that time do not need to be told in minute detail. Paul found her a room at a local nursing home for a few weeks, and I went to see her there. I never did go down to Johns Hopkins. Many others did, but I told Paul I’d rather remember her as she was the last time I saw her.
But after she was moved closer to home, I went. She smiled and greeted me warmly. And as usual, she asked if I needed my right arm worked on.
Eventually, though, after a brief stay at Lancaster Hospice, she was moved back to her home. Hospice provided a real hospital bed, and a hospice nurse came around every few days. Paul cleaned out a section of the basement, and that’s where she was set up. So they could open the garage door sometimes and she could enjoy the fresh air.
And so they entered the final painful brutal stretch. Their friends, and especially many from their church, Rockville Mennonite, surrounded them with unbelievable support, both emotional and logistical. A schedule was set up for volunteers to come and be with Anne Marie during the day, so Paul could continue at least part time at his job. Food poured in, dozens and dozens of dishes that could be frozen. Only in the Christian community, and particularly the Lancaster County Christian community, would I ever expect to see what I saw unfolding at their home. It was breathtaking, amazing, and humbling.
Through it all, I kept my slot on Sunday nights. Drove over with my truck to hang out a few hours. Entered and shared the reality that was their home. A reality that gradually became ever more crushingly brutal.
We always ate at a little folding table set up downstairs, off to one side. So she could share the experience. And from week to week, I saw how much she had spiraled down from the week before. Still, she joined our conversations when she could comprehend the words through the haze of her pain meds. And she always, always asked to work on my arm. So, after eating, I’d pull up a chair beside her bed, and she would weakly massage the muscles on my elbow, the tightest spot. And I always groaned and told her how great it felt.
And then, last month, I was gone over a weekend for a book signing in Daviess. So I missed a Sunday night. The following Sunday evening, I rolled in. I had steeled myself, but still her condition shocked me. She was losing weight like crazy. The tumor relentlessly applied pressure to her brain. That night, as we sat and ate at the table downstairs, she cried out now and then, incoherent ramblings. Paul the the children seemed to take little notice. This was the daily reality of their lives.
We ate, then I sat in a chair beside her bed for ten minutes or so, and just held her hand. She recognized me, and somehow we communicated a bit. And then I went upstairs and watched a movie with Cody and Adrianna. We laughed and had a good time.
I’m no theologian, and don’t pretend to understand why such intense suffering must be a part of life. Anyone’s life. Ever. Oh, sure, it makes some sort of sense in theory. When you hear about it in a sermon. Suffering. It’s almost noble, and certainly an element of the human condition. But it’s different when you know the person. When it’s someone close to you. You can’t ignore the bitter senselessness of it all, not if you’re honest.
I knew her well. She was my friend. A mother, wasting away before her husband and two young children, crying out in pain. Clinging to life somehow, from sheer strength of will, even as the cancer inexorably, relentlessly, sapped her of all she ever was. For days and weeks and months. I don’t know why any of us would be called to endure the cruel indignity of such a harsh and hopeless fate.
And no words, however beautifully crafted, will ever diminish such a reality from what it actually is. This I can say, from what I saw and heard.
After I got home that night, I raged at God. Take her now. It’s the least you could do. She is suffering dreadfully, as is her family. What purpose can you possibly have, by allowing her to linger on and on like that?
I last saw Anne Marie two weeks ago, on a Sunday night. As usual, Paul and the children and I ate at the table downstairs. She lay there on the bed. Skeletal. Unmoving. Wasted away. Eyes open, staring at nothing. She did not recognize me at all. She didn’t even seem conscious. Just there, but not. I stood and looked down at her before leaving. I made no attempt to sit or talk to her. She was beyond the reach of my voice. Or anyone else’s.
We spoke out by my truck as I was leaving, Paul and I. “I’m heading out for Beach Week next Saturday,” I said. “For a full week. She is going to die when I am gone. She just can’t last long in that condition.”
He nodded. “Yeah, it’s definitely approaching fast, that’s for sure,” he said. “Could well be she’ll go when you’re gone. But we’ve thought that before, and she’s always held on.”
“That’s true. But she’s never looked this bad,” I said. “If it happens, I’m not coming back for the funeral. You got a problem with that?”
“No.” He paused. “You’ve been here, all this time. While she was still with us. And I know you’ll be here, when you get back.”
And with that, I left. Last Saturday morning, I drove the eight hours down to Nag’s Head, N.C., with a friend, to join the old crowd at the beach. Like we did last year, when I was working on the book. We settled in for the week.
On Sunday afternoon, I checked my email. A message about Anne Marie. She had passed away that afternoon at 3:30. I felt the jolt of finality. But mostly I felt relief. At long last, she was free of all the pain, the inhuman suffering that had been her life for so long.
That night, I spoke with Paul on the phone, and he told me how it all came down. He’d sensed it somehow, that the end was close. So he parked in a chair beside her bed that afternoon. Settled in for a nap. Suddenly then, her breathing shortened into ragged gasps. Stopped. A few more breaths. He sat there, holding her hand. And then she was gone. Her wasted body relaxed. At long last, she was free.
It had been an eternally long and arduous journey, at least it seemed thus to those around her, but Anne Marie Zook was finally home. And for that, we simply rejoice.
Her funeral was yesterday morning (Thursday, Sept. 15), at 11 o’clock, at Rockville Mennonite Church east of Honey Brook. A great crowd of people gathered, I’m sure, and mourned her passing. I was not among them.
And this coming Sunday night, I’ll head on over to see Paul, Cody and Adrianna. To hang out. Paul will unwrap some burgers and throw them on the gas grill, and I’ll grumble at him for not using charcoal. One of our ancient little arguments. We’ll eat. Talk. Laugh. Remember. And for a few brief hours, I’ll join them in the new reality that is their world.
I’m still in Nag’s Head, at the beach as I post this. It’s been a great week. All it could have been. We’ve chilled. Hung out. I even went out to see the ocean a time or two. We’ve shared the evening meals. Had a hymn sing on Wednesday night. And all too fast, it’s all ending. Tomorrow we’ll head back home.
The book has been fluctuating around out there. Since my last post, it has fallen off the NYT eBook bestseller list once again. And once again, this Sunday it bounced back on, at number 31. It’s all a bit strange. The book seems as unsettled as I was back when I kept bouncing back and forth from home. Now it’s on the list. Now it’s off. And now it’s on again. It would be great to see it settle in and stay a while.
I have two book signings coming up. On Saturday, Oct. 1st, at the Davis Mercantile in Shipshewana, Indiana from noon to 3 PM. So come on out, if you are anywhere close.
Then, the following Saturday, Oct. 8th, I will be signing at the Freiman Stoltzfus Gallery in downtown Lancaster, PA. From 11:00 AM until 1:00 PM.
I’m grateful to all who provide the time and space for a book signing. It’s been a great ride, and a wild one, so far. I hope the journey has just begun.Share