Liam and Rex. Their names were tied together for month after month. One with leukemia, the other with a brain tumor. Their stories moved people from across the city to organize vigils and cover them with thousands upon thousands of hours of prayer.
Until Liam died. We’ve talked about that.
In the months since, Rex’s battle has taken center stage. It looked like he had beaten it, thanks to surgery, radiation and chemo, but after several cancer-free months, the tumor returned, this time in a place where surgery would do more harm than good. And yesterday, an MRI showed that the last-ditch experimental treatment Rex had been taking has failed to check the tumor’s growth.
After 10 years of life, Rex has four to six months of it left.
I’m not close enough to the family to know what they’re thinking, other than what they post on CaringBridge. But I’ve never seen a family more committed to the power of prayer – a power that, if we’re judging solely on the basis of the results they requested – will fail them. If I were them, I think I’d be mad as hell, though I hope I’m never in a position to find out.
Instead, I’m deeply frustrated. In the case of these two children about which our and so many other families have been in prayer for years now, cancer is about to be 2-for-2, barring a miracle. Yes, we can comfort ourselves with the notion that they are in a better place, and that death does not have the final word, but I wonder how much comfort that really provides in these dark days as this family watches their son take his final breaths – breaths that may be painful, may not ultimately be taken in conscious awareness, thanks to the tumor that is slowly stretching for his brain stem.
This isn’t about my prayers going unanswered. I’m used to that. I’ve done enough things wrong in my life, and have enough theological baggage, that a large part of me honestly believes that I haven’t met God’s standards for listening to my prayers yet. The rest of me believes that part of me is wrong, but in times like this, I can’t say it’s surprising when it seems like my prayers vaporize into the air, seemingly lost somewhere between my lips and God’s ears.
But you know whose prayers God should be listening to? The prayers of my daughters. When my 2-year-old every night prays for “Wex,” how can God not be listening? How can he listen to those sweet words – said with a trace of her ever-present, spunky smile on her lips – and refuse to reach his hand into the brain of the 10-year-old boy across town and crush that tumor into oblivion?
You know whose prayers God should be listening to? The prayers of the children in our church, who have scrawled Rex’s name in large, all-capital, ransom-note handwriting on the prayer wall, and have replaced it every time the wall has been repainted. How can God look at such faithful service to a boy who doesn’t even attend our congregation and refuse to bathe him with the healing power of his touch?
You know whose prayers God should be listening to? Rex’s. The boy is 10. What has he done to deserve this? We can accept the existence of evil and cancer and death in the world for adults, but that God allows it to happen to children remains not only an unfathomable mystery but a frustrating and torturous one.
Many times since Liam’s death, I return to the prayer of lament Glenn Pemberton delivered at his memorial service. Yes, we know God understands suffering. He watched his own Son die an unjust and premature death. But “at least you got to watch your son grow up.”
That is a luxury God has chosen to deny to the families of Liam and Rex. It is not fair, and it is not right.
Today is a day when there are no answers. Only questions, mixing with tears as we begin anew the painful process of mourning a life ending too soon.