Being a father is one of the highlights of my life. From a young age I looked forward to becoming a parent, and because I’d worked with children since I was 17 I thought I knew what it took to have a family. By the time my first child was born, when I was 28, I was ready for scrapped knees and childhood illnesses. But I never imagined having to fear for my child’s life.
In August 2015, my son Nick discovered a lump under his arm while showering. He described it as golf ball-sized, but by the time it was surgically removed, just a few days later, the lump had morphed into the size of a grapefruit. Doctors analyzed the mass and diagnosed Nick with a rare form of lymphoma known as Burkitt’s. Because of its aggressive characteristics, if he’d waited a few weeks longer to consult a doctor, there would have been little chance of him surviving the disease. Nick was 29, married and father to a three-year-old.
If the bad news about Burkitt’s was its rapid growth and potentially fatal outcome, the good news was that science had zeroed in on an effective method to fight it in its early stages. Shortly after Nick received his diagnosis, we learned his only viable option: four months of chemotherapy in massive doses. Research showed that this intense attack on the disease offered an excellent chance for full recovery. Within a week of discovering the lump, Nick was in the hospital, starting his regimen.
Those mega doses of chemotherapy did exactly what they were supposed to do. Just weeks after beginning treatments, there was no sign of Burkitt’s in Nick’s body scans. We rejoiced, forgetting that he still faced another three months of the drugs. Originally, it was thought that Nick would spend a few days each month in the hospital receiving chemo, then return home to recuperate. But once the powerful combination of chemicals began battering his body, Nick ended up hospitalized for nearly his entire treatment.
Most days I’d show up at Nick’s hospital room to find him in bed. For a few weeks the TV filled the long hours, but soon that stopped. Slowly, but persistently, the drugs caused Nick’s near complete shutdown. No eating, no talking, and seemingly no interest in the world. As we moved into autumn, heading toward what we thought would be a Thanksgiving celebration, Nick took a turn for the worse. He confided in a nurse that he didn’t feel he could go on. He had thoughts of ending his life.
Nick’s despair made no sense. Tests confirmed no sign of Burkitt’s return. He only needed to complete his treatment, then rebuild his life. Easy for us to accept. But for Nick, with daily vomiting and diarrhea, and confusion due to clouded thinking—doctors called it “chemo brain”—he lost his will. For his safety, the hospital instituted a 24-hour suicide watch. Medical staff would need to be with him at all times. This continued for six weeks.
It’s a 35-minute drive from my house to the hospital and those trips in rush hour traffic became the start and end of my worrisome days. Often riding alone, I relied on music to sooth the stress. I’d listen to joyful music, pumping myself up for the day; I listened to songs that reminded me of Nick’s childhood; I listened to songs of faith, hoping mine would remain strong.
One particularly dark day, both in atmospheric conditions and where Nick was in his depression, I brought along a Judy Collins album, knowing her gentle voice and thoughtful lyrics would be a comfort. The CD had me singing along with each familiar song, feeling like I was releasing stress along the roadway. Then Judy offered “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Click here to listen to the song.
Her guitar creating a rolling, childlike melody, Judy’s graceful version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” honors the Bible verses that inspired it. I learned the song at summer camp, back in the late 1960s, and thought I understood its circle-of-life message. But it wasn’t until that autumn morning, with the natural world around me dying as I drove to my son in hopes he was ready to live, that I truly understood its meaning.
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
there is a season (turn, turn, turn)
and a time for every purpose, under heaven.
A time to be born, a time to die…
It was the song’s reference to death that made me consider something I’d been afraid to think about: Nick will one day die. In the natural order of things, his death shouldn’t have been something I needed to think about in my lifetime, but his inevitable death had come uncomfortably close.
The song was still playing when I reached the hospital parking lot. I shut off the car and gave Judy my full attention:
A time to plant, a time to reap,
a time to kill, a time to heal,
a time to laugh, a time to weep…
My tears that morning were a surrender. Not just to Nick’s current depression; I knew he had a lot to live for and I would continue helping him see that truth. It was a surrender to all deaths: those I loved who came before me and those who will follow.
A time to build up, a time to break down…
On January 1, 2016, Nick received his last dose of chemotherapy. He remained in the hospital two more weeks, and as the drugs left his system, he rediscovered his will to live. It would be a slow climb to normalcy, with the drugs’ residual effects remaining in his system for months.
As I write this, in April, 2019, Nick has had several clean body scans. He’s “in remission” now, rejoining the rest of us living our days. But I look at my son’s life differently now, as I do my daughter’s and everyone I have come to love. I no longer think of death as something to fear, but rather, as Judy Collins taught me, as something to accept.
To everything, turn, turn, turn,
there is a season and a time…
When you’ve had to confront the delicate balance between life and death, what song helped you accept it?