In 2000 I started having back pain and thought that I had somehow strained my back. Having gone through kidney dialysis and several kidney transplant surgeries in the past 20 years, I was well acquainted with pain and discomfort. However, when this new condition became so intense that I had difficulty breathing, I called my girlfriend Catherine—in the middle of the night—and asked her to take me to the emergency room.
After being evaluated by a doctor, I was given a pain shot and sent home. But the pain soon returned, worse than before. I was in and out of emergency four or five times when finally an X-ray revealed the cause of the pain: a liver tumor and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The doctor told Catherine that this was a catastrophic condition and I would need to be admitted to another hospital immediately.
I was rushed by ambulance to the nearby University of California-San Francisco Medical Center. As I was being wheeled into intensive care, Catherine grabbed my hand and said, “When we get out of this, do you want to get married?” I nodded yes.
I spent the next eight weeks in ICU undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments, but my condition gravely worsened. Not responding well to chemotherapy, I lost 75 pounds during the first four weeks. In a kind of altered state of consciousness, I was somewhat aware but not able to communicate well with Catherine and my family members.
Even in this altered state, however, I did understand that I had an opportunity to participate in my own healing. If I didn’t want to continue to be sick anymore, I could choose not to. One choice I made was not to have any more chemotherapy. It was doing a good job killing the cancer, but I felt that if I had any more chemo, it would also kill me.
Having been a health-care worker for several years, I had been with people who were making their transition. I knew one dialysis patient who consciously chose to stop dialysis and die. It took courage to make that choice, and I believed that I needed to respect this person and the path that he chose.
My family was upset with my choice not to continue chemotherapy and sent Will, a good friend, in to talk with me. He asked me if I wanted to live, and I said that I wasn’t sure. I’d been through a lot and was extremely tired. His question was in relation to my choice to discontinue all treatment and go home, but it sparked in me a realization that I could also make the choice to live. There was so much more I wanted to do in life, and I wanted to be with Catherine. At that very moment, I chose to live. Even more than that, I knew that I would live without further chemo. I understood that it would take my body a while to catch up, but I knew that a healing had taken place.
After two months in the hospital, I was sent home to die peacefully. The doctor who discharged me believed that I had less than a week to live. Hospice was called in, and my family made funeral arrangements. Catherine, however, believed with me that I was going to get better. I was so weak and fragile that I could not walk or eat. My sister Jill, a nurse, came from Texas to share my around-the-clock nursing care with Catherine.
Before I was hospitalized, I had been looking forward to my 20-year high school reunion. I had joined an e-mail group of classmates, touching base with people I hadn’t seen in years. When those in the group learned I was sick, they e-mailed others. The prayer support grew daily. It was amazing. Church congregations as far away as Connecticut and Alabama were praying for me. A classmate I hadn’t seen in 20 years wrote to tell me that she and her husband had just returned from Paris, where she had lit a candle for me in Notre Dame Cathedral. Rev. Richard Mantei and some members of Unity In Marin, where Catherine and I attended church, were in constant touch with us.
My friend William brought fresh flowers from his garden every day. Catherine created a healing environment in my room. She called Silent Unity for prayers and kept away any naysayers, because she didn’t want me to be influenced by anything other than love.
My very first night home from the hospital, I was only semicoherent, and Catherine was sitting up with me. I could barely even speak, but I said to her, “Do you still want to get married?” “You remember that I asked you to marry me?” she asked. “I remember.” Her answer was an enthusiastic “Yes!”
In the morning I called her parents. Catherine held the phone to my ear, and her mother held the phone to her father’s ear. He had been diagnosed with cancer the year before and was nearing his time of transition. When I asked him for permission to marry Catherine, “Yes, absolutely!” was his reply.
The next day, I asked to talk with Rev. Mantei. My family thought I wanted to discuss my memorial service. They, along with Catherine, were gathered around my bed. Richard knelt down beside me and prayed. He then read the Daily Word message for that day. Afterward he asked, “Jeff, what is it I can do for you today?”
“Will you help us plan our wedding?” I asked, adding, “Catherine and I want to get married, but it would probably be a good idea if we wait until I get out of bed and start walking again.” My health improved, and eight weeks later, Catherine and I were married.
The wedding took place on a beautiful, sunny day. Richard stopped part way through the ceremony and addressed our families and friends, saying, “Some thought we’d be here for a funeral about this time. Instead, we are here for a wedding and a celebration of life.” It was a very touching moment.
I’m cancer-free now and active. I continue to live with kidney disease and have been back on dialysis for about four years now. I am currently awaiting another transplant. Dialysis is necessary, but I’m alive. Catherine and I are thankful that I am.
My health issues and challenges have been a catalyst for my spiritual growth and unfoldment. I remember the moment I chose to live and was healed. I knew that God was supporting me in whatever my decision was. I knew at that point I could choose to die if I wanted to, and that would be okay because life is eternal. I understood that death, as we know it, isn’t the end. It’s the doorway to the next wonderful stage of life. I live each day with gratitude and in celebration of life.