The song Live Like You Were Dying is sung by Tim McGraw, and it is about a man in his forties who gets the news that his father has a terminal illness and doesn’t have much time left to live. The son asks the father what he will do with this type of diagnosis. The father tells his son all the ways he would live his life and this inspires the son to change how he treats people and motivates him to finally pick up the Good book and read it.
This song has a familiar title and a simple message but it struck a chord with our country as it hit No. 1 on the country charts in July 2004 and sold over 2 million copies. I would imagine that almost every person who has listened to Live Like You Were Dying knows or has heard of at least one person who was given a terminal illness diagnosis. My sister, Joanne, is the person I think of when I hear this song. She was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer in May 2015. This blog post is dedicated to her.
Joanne is 1 ½ years younger than me, and we shared a bedroom our entire childhood until I left home at 18 to attend college. We were close buddies through a lot of difficult times that followed my parent’s divorce that occurred when I was 8 and she was 6 years old. My mother raised her two daughters and son in the upstairs flat of my grandparent’s two flat brick apartment building on Chicago’s Northwest side. We grew up in a Catholic family and attended catechism regularly throughout our grade school years. It was in high school that Joanne and I started to drift apart, and it wasn’t until this past year when we learned the truth about what was going on in each of our lives during those tumultuous teen years.
My sister married Gary Clark 10 years prior to my wedding day and her sons, Joey and Gary, were 12 and 13 years old by the time I became a mother for the first time in China when Kevin and I adopted our daughter, Lian. My sister and I were separated by many miles ever since I left home at 18. I have lived in Seattle, Southern California and now Bend, Oregon while she has lived in Chicago and Northern Indiana. The most we would see each other is every two years.
Joanne is a brilliant artist, good mother to two energetic sons, faithful wife to a very sick husband with diabetes and was a nurse to him until his death in September 2013, hard worker and top sales person at JCPenny, but like many of us, we have vices and smoking was hers. She smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day for around 35 years. The smoking kept her skinny and was also a distraction for me to have a close relationship with her.
I’ll never forget the call I received from my sister on May 22, 2015, the day my daughter and I were flying from Los Angeles to New York city for a mother daughter trip. She told me she was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer. Even though we all know there are risks to smoking, the diagnosis was still a surprise to her and triggered emotions of fear, anxiety and deep sadness in me. I was relieved that Joanne was on Obama Care at the time. She was eager to do whatever treatment they gave her no matter how scary and uncomfortable it may be. This attitude and the insurance paying for her expensive treatment saved her life.
Joanne has a childlike heart so when she was first diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer she was very excited that she had a chance to survive. Most people would be bitter and fatalistic, but she was optimistic and so very brave. I believe the life-threatening situations she experienced with her husband’s diabetes and his three amputations have trained her character to face adversity with hope. At the beginning of her diagnosis she often spoke to me about Mother Mary but not of Jesus. These conversations sparked in me the desire to share with her the Jesus of the Bible, but first she had to make it through grueling treatments. I prayed to God I would get that chance to study the Bible with her.
To say that Joanne’s treatments were uncomfortable is a gross understatement. She had to be tortured to survive. First, she had to be fitted with this hard mesh face mask that was placed over her face and chest and bolted down to the table while they administered the radiation at the exact location on her throat where the cancer lived. Next, she had to endure weeks of the strongest kind of chemotherapy possible, and this was followed with a tube inserted in her stomach so that she could receive nourishment for many months after the treatment since for a time she could not swallow and eat. Through all this torture, there was only one short period that my sister’s will to live started to falter. She was so fortunate to have her sons and their wives to stand by her during her recovery, and I prayed and prayed for her to keep her hope.
The chemotherapy and radiation killed my sister’s cancer but it did a number on her body. The radiation made it extremely difficult to get food down her throat so her weight dropped dangerously low. The chemotherapy triggered peripheral neuropathy in her hands and feet so that it became difficult for her to walk and pick up objects and hold them. Somehow, she kept a sense of humor through all of this. She would get me laughing hysterically about the ridiculous situations she would find herself in because of the condition of her hands and feet. For many, many months it did not look like she would ever paint or draw again.
The past two years since my sister’s diagnosis has been nothing short of miraculous in her physical and spiritual recovery. Joanne did not just focus on her physical recovery, but she also took the opportunity to examine her life against the Bible and make changes to please God. She believed God saved her physically so that she could be saved spiritually. We started to study the Bible together via FaceTime in March of 2016. During this time, I also contacted the Northwest Indiana Church of Christ that met in Merrillville, Indiana and asked them to reach out to my sister. Pam Stewart and several other sisters started to visit her and study the Bible with her and drive her to church on Sundays. Pam was the perfect example of the verse in John 15:13:
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Joanne’s faith grew exponentially with each Bible study and I was deeply touched by her response to how much pain Jesus suffered on the cross so that her sins could be forgiven. With each FaceTime call, we each revealed more and more about our lives. All the secrets we kept from each other were laid bare. The grace of God was recreating the friendship we had in our childhood when we had an innocent trust and love for one another.
Because of what she had learned in the Bible, in March 2017 she told me she wanted to be baptized in the ocean across the street from my brother’s house in Indian Rocks Beach. We were planning a trip to Florida in April 2017 to visit my brother and his family and my mother who is in a nursing home. My brother and his wife are faithful Christians, and she asked me if Michael and I could baptize her. On Friday, April 7th, 2017, my brother Michael, Joanne and I walked into the Gulf of Mexico after she made her good confession that Jesus is Lord and we baptized her!! My Aunt Dee flew to Florida with my sister so she could join us for this glorious event.
My sister has a new lease on life. She has gained some control in her hands so that with difficulty and determination, she can draw and paint again. God has granted her precious time with her grandchildren, her sons and their wives. She is an avid reader and has grown in her emotional intelligence and wisdom. She is the most grateful person I know. She loves her church family at the Northwest Indiana Church of Christ and has overcome shyness and social anxiety because of her love for God, the Bible and the very loving disciples at that church.
I love this verse in Psalm 39:4-5
Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing to you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.
The words sung by Tim McGraw resonate the spirit of this verse:
Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.
My sister got that chance, and she lived to tell the story.
Please scroll down to the bottom of the page and enter a comment of what you would do if you were to get the chance to live like you were dying.