It was 2017, the day after Christmas.
The Thir.st team had gathered at my place for lunch, and we were in the midst of playing a game when my phone suddenly rang. It was my friend Aaron’s number. Immediately I knew something was wrong.
Aaron had been in brain surgery a few weeks back, and the last update had not been too good. The voice over the phone was not Aaron’s, as I’d suspected (he had probably never called me in our past decade of friendship).
It was his girlfriend’s or – as it turned out in that few seconds of conversation – now his wife’s. They’d actually registered their marriage a little more than a month ago and were planning to have a proper ceremony in the coming year, when he felt better.
But this wasn’t a moment for congratulations because if I wanted to see him possibly one last time, I would have to come right now to the hospital, she explained calmly. Tell the rest to come too. Aaron might die today.
Most of my JC classmates arrived at the hospital within the next hour and made our way to the NICU (Neuro Intensive Care Unit). The only picture I had in my mind was of Aaron 2 years ago, when we’d visited him in hospital over Christmas, after an operation to remove the tumour that had started to affect his walking.
I had no other point of reference from the 10 years since he’d started having the tumours and regular operations to remove them. We only ever saw Aaron post-recovery, smiling and teasing, talking, eating.
None of which he was doing when we saw him in the NICU that day through the sliding glass doors. Always the tall one, this Aaron was half the size I’d remembered him to be; his body limp and legs propped at an angle to one side. But it was his face, pale and almost frozen from the high fever, that seized my heart.
The tumours had multiplied beyond what could be removed and the latest surgery wound on his head had been unable to heal; the skin had grown too weak from repeated operations over the years. This resulted in an infection that was threatening to take his life. Today.
When it was our turn to go in and see him, we huddled around the man we’d come to know and love for his easy-going nature, startling maturity and impressive smarts when it came to all things math.
We each tried to speak, but the punctuating silence was palpable. Someone started crying. Ever since the onset of the infection, Aaron had gradually lost the ability to move, eat, speak or even smile. What was left of his expression were his eyes.
“Would someone like to pray for him?” his wife asked. I could feel gazes shifting to me before I heard my name. As the only one in “full-time ministry”, I should have seen it coming.
“Okay, I’ll pray.”
How do you pray for someone who is dying? Or when things are dying – dreams, faith, hope, love… What does faith look like in the face of almost certain death?
“If we’re praying for God to take her back home instead of praying for healing, does that mean we’ve given up?” Someone I mentor asked this question recently, as we sat in the ward waiting area after visiting her aunty who was in her final days of cancer.
I suddenly saw myself back in that hospital room, holding Aaron’s hand and pleading in my head for the Holy Spirit to give me the words to pray. I don’t fully remember the words that came out of my mouth, but this is what remains in my memory and still ministers to me, in my own grief:
“Abba Father, even in sorrow and suffering we are thankful that you are so close to us. You understand what my brother is going through more than anyone in this room, because You are the man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3 ESV).
Lord, we don’t understand why this is happening but I know You can do anything. You can heal him completely (Jeremiah 17:14), and I declare in faith that tumours, you have no place in this body. Lord, restore him to fullness of health. Have mercy on him and preserve his life!
But Father, I also know that Your ways are higher than my ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), You are still in control. Be near to Aaron and grant him comfort in his pain, for You are the great Comforter (2 Corinthians 1:3). We give thanks for anything that brings us more of You.
Your nearness is our good (Psalm 73:28). We leave Aaron in Your loving hands.”
This declaration moved me – and still moves me! – to tears as I heard it with my own ears because I realised this was what the Holy Spirit had grown in me over a year of prayers steeped in private anguish. How tempting it is to storm away from a God that feels so distant in the trials of life than to wrestle head on into His Presence.
It is precisely in great trial that we are confronted with 3 things:
1) Who God says He is in the unchanging Word.
2) Who we have come to know Him to be.
3) Who we trust and believe in unswervingly.
I didn’t know if God was going to take Aaron out of that room through a miraculous healing or a call back to Heaven, but I knew without a doubt that He was right there with us in that awful moment (Deuteronomy 31:6). I knew it because He’d promised that to us in the Bible. I knew it because He’d been there in my long season of brokenness.
I trusted Him to redeem beauty from the ashes, joy from the mourning, and praising from despair (Isaiah 61:3). Just like He’d done in my life. With so many lives. And most gloriously, with the resurrected life of His Son Jesus Christ.
I was hoping in His goodness, His power and His wisdom. Hoping in His love for me, for Aaron and all of us in the hospital room who were hurting. Hoping in His promise that if Aaron believed in Jesus as His Lord and Saviour, he was going to live forever (John 3:16).
My hope was not in the miracle we all desired to see, but in the God who held the universe and Aaron’s whole world in His hands. I was hoping in God (Psalm 43:5).
“We’re not giving up on your aunty,” I told my mentee. “We’re just giving her up to Jesus.”
Aaron passed away on March 4, 2018, 68 days after that prayer in the NICU. One year ago on this date.
In those 68 days, we saw him undergo a high-risk operation to close up the open wound on his head, one which the doctors believed would further reduce his ability to communicate and possibly vegetate him – if he even made it through in such a weakened state.
But this is also how we saw him confound the medial team when he somehow regained his ability to verbalise simple words and move his face, had his nose-feeding tube removed so he could eat, and even got out of bed to stand again. It was an absolute miracle. One surgeon even asked his wife which church they attended.
I don’t know why God gave us this brief, unexpected window of grace, but this I do know: We got to laugh with Aaron one more time, his wife got to talk with him for a little while longer, and Aaron got to say goodbye with a smile.
“We’re here walking this journey with you until we can go no further,” I remember telling him during one of our visits. Then, slightly in jest, I added: “And whether you like it or not, we’re going to spend the rest of eternity together. Maybe we’ll even live next to each other.”
See you in glory one day, my friend.