Thoughts from the Hospital

by Jerry L. Daniel

Editor's note: One of our consultants in our work was Jerry Daniel, who had worked with us off and on for some 20 years. Jerry Daniel was diagnosed as having cancer of the liver on June 12, 1992. He entered the hospital in Philadelphia and began the first of a series of treatments on June 30. This article was written by him in August, 1992. We feel the article is useful to those who are struggling with pain and the role of faith in dealing with suffering.

Late night

My thoughts in this hospital aren't always completely rational and coherent. They drift in and out, and sometimes weary and frustrate me by cutting deeper and deeper into the same grooves. I look around me in the dim light: my intravenous-fluid line has been attached so long it seems I was born with it, and it remains hanging onto me like some grotesque umbilical cord attached to the wrong part of my body. I must be very careful how I turn in bed, because it's quite possible to disconnect one of the lines--and that can precipitate a rather urgent problem.

My wife, Lois, is sleeping peacefully in her bed across the room. What a blessing! This wing of the hospital is set up entirely for cancer patients, and provisions are made for spouses to remain with them at all times. This is my seventh admission since being diagnosed with cancer of the liver in June, and she has been beside me during every one. Even regarding physical care she is better than most of the nurses, and nothing on earth could replace the countless other things she does for me, including hours of Bible reading and quiet singing of hymns which are a part of each evening together. We're also reading "secular" books together, have already completed several old favorites, and are now beginning a biography of Byron which neither of us has read before. In any case, her ability to stay with me in the hospital is an indescribable blessing.

Another blessing is that I am not, nor have I been, in a great deal of pain. Though I've had some pain, it has, thank God, so far been manageable. Nausea has been and remains the problem: there are times in which I am nauseated every waking hour. It isn't entirely from chemotherapy, either, because I had the nausea problem prior to the therapy.

Tonight my thoughts seem unusually chaotic ("Is that lump smaller, or is it larger?") but insofar as they are coherent at all, they revolve around prayer. Why do my prayers seem so remote, such exercises in rote discipline? It isn't just that God Himself seems so distant: I rather expected that. I know that such is often the experience of the greatest of saints. Some of the Psalmists bewail the distance of God when they need Him to be nearest (e.g., Psalms. 10, 13, 88); and no Bible reader is unaware of the experience of Job.

So, while it is true that God sometimes feels very distant, even unreal, to me, that isn't exactly what is on my mind tonight. The thing which bothers me is in myself. My prayers seem passionless, dry, more the doing of a duty than anything else. I've had this problem off and on throughout life, but I would have thought that if I were ever hospitalized with a life-threatening disease, such a problem would instantly evaporate. After all, if inoperable cancer won't motivate one to pray fervently, earnestly, feelingly, what on earth ever could? Paul speaks of "agonizing in prayer" (Romans 15:30), and some of the Psalmists (e.g. Psalm. 6) speak of praying in such a way that "every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with weeping."

Not me! It would be relief to pray that way, but I can't. Something is frozen inside me, and the frost-line seems so deep that no real emotion can escape.

Not that I fail to pray. I pray over and over for healing; I pray for the removal of the nausea, for strength to undergo the chemotherapy, for the financial side of the matter, and for a multitude of other details. But my prayers feel so mechanical, more as though I'm touching all the bases than holding conversation with a loving Father.

Perhaps I'm empty; perhaps I feel this way because there isn't anything inside. I cannot, however, bring myself to believe this. I can't believe that my relationship with God is this shallow; there must be some other explanation. I remember the promise in Romans 8 which assures us that the Spirit will aid us in our prayers "with sighs too deep for words." Perhaps the Spirit is speaking to the Father for me when I'm not fully aware of it. I hope so, as I seem to be doing a poor job of praying on my own behalf. But in any case I refuse to believe that my spiritual life is as destitute as it feels this moment.

Next Day

Needles, needles, needles! Why is it that every nurse who enters my room either has some injection to give me or wants to draw blood? Don't they know that the human skin gets weary of being punctured? And it isn't getting any easier as more veins collapse and become useless for the drawing of blood. And why is it that most medicines have unpleasant side-effects? They're now giving me medicines to counter the effect of other medicines--a very unpleasant package altogether.

Not that it's all bad. There's a great deal of good will and good wit, banter, laughter, and sheer fun. There's the impishness of my 5'3" Bulgarian doctor who compensates for his diminutive size with a monstrous ego, but also with a truly innovative approach to cancer research (probably in the top dozen creative researchers in the country). There's the male nurse who works only on weekends, and who is so playfully light-hearted as to appear unprofessional, but who is one of the most competent nurses I've ever had. There's the teasing about various things, including how good I look in a hospital gown. And there's a great deal of genuine care. One of the staff physicians, a Korean lady doctor, literally jumped up and down clapping her hands when one of the CAT scans turned out good. I'm not accustomed to that sort of response from a doctor.

Another great blessing is that the congregation I preach for is standing behind me financially. What on earth would I do without them?

The view out of my window is of a massive brick wall, another portion of the hospital. I cannot tell whether it is sunny or cloudy, so my wife keeps me plied with occasional weather reports. I've been in the hospital almost a month (this time), and what I would give for a 5-minute stroll down the sidewalk, just for a chance to taste outside air! The nausea would preclude that, however, even if it were possible on other grounds.

Night Again

The nausea is much better tonight, and for that I'm thankful. But I have a high fever and, for some reason, find it hard to lie still. Why does this room feel smaller and smaller? Why do the siderails on this hospital bed make me think of the bars on jail windows? Why do my attempts to pray still feel "barred"? Why do I feel cold inside though I have fever outside?

My youngest daughter just called and that, as always, had a strong effect on me. My eldest daughter called a couple of hours ago. The two girls are so different in personality, yet each of them has an almost mystical effect on me.

It is beginning to get late, and I know that both Lois and I need to sleep. Sometimes finding a comfortable sleeping position is one of my hardest tasks, especially when, like tonight, I'm feeling somewhat frenzied and find it difficult to lie still.

Lois picks up a hymnbook, thumbs through it for a moment or two, then softly begins to sing. She will probably sing 10-12 hymns at least, and the more the better as far as I'm concerned.

I can't sing along, but I can relish the music she provides. I have become (first dimly, then vividly) aware that this is my favorite part of each day in the hospital.

I miss the first song or two--thinking more of how I enjoy her voice than of what the songs are saying. Now, however, I become aware that she is singing "How Firm a Foundation," and I feel my spirit quicken in spite of the physical discomfort I'm feeling. I lie with my eyes lightly closed drinking in every sound.

Then I realize something with what amounts to a shock. Up from depths within me come feelings--real feelings. She has just begun the middle stanzas of the great hymn (those drawn from the 43rd chapter of Isaiah):

When thro' the deep waters I cause thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;

Somewhere down inside myself I am singing with her. No, not singing; PRAYING!

For I will be with thee thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

I dare not equate prayer with feelings, but this is prayer! This is coming from my heart and center. It transcends feelings; it is something palpable moving through my being.

When thro' fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace all sufficient shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee: I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

Tears flow freely, but they are not tears of self-pity; they are tears welling up from some region of myself far below the cold and frost. Or perhaps they are the visible sign of the melting of the ice. I open my eyes to peek at Lois as she sings: her voice sweet as a nut, her face wrapped in a peace and showing an intensity that can only come from faith which approaches an absolute.

The experience takes much longer to tell than it did to occur, but, brief as it is, I know it is of immense importance to me. I feel one with the Hebrew prophet who originally, under the spirit, penned the great words; one with every Christian who has sung them through the years; one with my wife who is singing them now; best of all, one with my Father in Heaven and with my Lord Jesus. I consider this a revelation--a revelation about myself. I can feel the fear and perplexity subside as I realize that prayer can't be more fervent than this. I've never doubted the presence of God; only my ability to talk to Him. Now I'm talking to Him. There is something inside me and it isn't frozen. It's warm and free and in touch with the God of Heaven.

This is too strong to be purely subjective. Surely the Holy Spirit is involved. I think again of "sighs too deep for words."

Aided by the great music I sincerely and eagerly pray back to my Father His incredible promises to me--promises that I'll never be alone in this suffering, and that all these fiery trials will in the long run have only a refining benefit. Something inside me has changed: I will never again doubt my ability to pray. The song lasted only a few moments; the insight will last forever. [Jerry died on June 29, 1993.]

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