Not just another day
I am guessing, that for most people, the 30th December is just another day. An ordinary day when the sun rises again, heralding in the second last day of the year. But for me, 14 years ago, the 30th December was not just another day.
It was the day Job’s testimony became my own: ‘The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’
Those words were at the forefront of my mind as the morning of the 30th December 2004 dawned. It was the day our 8 year old daughter, Laura, breathed her last breath, and the machines connected to her, flat-lined. The 12 hours prior had been spent sitting by her hospital bed watching her and watching the machines, begging them to tell a different story. They were hours of reluctant medical acceptance and of passionate prayers.
The 30th December 2004 became the day we walked out of Laura’s hospital room, signalling the last time we would kiss her soft cheeks, hold her little hands and assure her of our love. The last day I would be her mom. An ordinary day for most of the world, was a day when this reality in our lives could not be changed - rather changing us and our family.
That is what death does – it is a reality that cannot be ignored and, no matter where you stand with God, it forces you to face what is real.
The day my daughter’s heart stopped beating, my heart carried
on beating, and I had to find a way to live with that.
14 years ago, I stood on the precipice of a new day where everything was different and new words were being woven into my story. They weren’t the words I had chosen. I hated them and I feared them. But they were mine, and as the memory of that day replays itself every year since, there are some real truths I have come to hold onto. They are not truths about me, but about God, the Author and Creator of life and the only One who has power over death.
There is nothing spectacular about my story except that it is real. It is often these stories, when told with transparency and honesty, which can impact others - their pain, joy and hope - in ways we may not even realise. But it is only when we tell our stories through the Author’s pen, that we all suddenly realise we are not alone and there is immense comfort in that.
It is then that you begin to understand that the God you see at work in my life, through the heartache, weakness and brokenness, is your God too.
I have learnt and come to experience many truths about God in the years since Laura died – but there were a few surprising and beautiful realities that hit me with full force on that day, 14 years ago.
3 specific realities crashed into the darkness of that sad and
no longer ordinary day, making it extraordinary.
Realities which reminded me of who God is and how He works uniquely in my life. His pen strokes are comforting as He has already written the eventual happy ending of my story while I muddle my way through the confusing and often times painful middle chapters.
#1 The reality that, as image bearers of God, we have a soul.
This was not something I had particularly doubted, but it was also not something I had actually experienced. I had not been around death or witnessed it from the front lines. I had been to a couple of funerals and memorial services, but the reality of the dead person was disconnected from the smiling images of their lives up on screens and bound up in beautiful eulogies.
As Laura lay in the hospital bed, sedated and on a ventilator, hooked up to a myriad of machines – there was no denying, that even at that point, there was life in her. She was not dead – she was still alive and as long as there is life, you do not give up hope and you do all you can to sustain life.
She was there and we spoke to her and prayed over her. We replayed memories, played her favourite songs on the CD player and read to her. Her two brothers came to encourage her with their love. As we looked at her hooked up to machines, she was still Laura. We saw her – her unique personality. That had not changed.
But just after 07h00 on the morning of the 30th December 2004 – that did change. Laura’s heart stopped beating and there was no more life in her. It was that radical. I remember panicking, struggling to breathe and telling Andrew, my husband, that I needed to get out of her ICU room because Laura was no longer there. My daughter was gone. It was only her physical body lying there, not her. An empty shell.
Yet amid the overwhelming panic of that moment, there was a strange peace that overcame me. A peace that passed understanding. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that although Laura’s earthly body had no more life in it, she was alive in heaven.
How did I know this?
It was not wishful thinking. Laura had her own simple testimony of God’s grace and love. She loved Jesus and believed He had died on the cross for her sins. She was His child and the eternal life He promised in Heaven for His children, she was now experiencing. Her childlike faith had been tested over 14 months of relentless cancer treatments, oncology visits and surgeries. Yes, her race was short on this earth, and as a mom, I wish it had not been.
But I could rest, knowing that she was being perfectly loved, in a perfect place, by her perfect heavenly Father.
A place of no more tears, sorrow, brokenness, pain or illness. Only unimaginable wondrous joy. I will see her again one day and we will spend eternity worshipping Jesus together.
That is why we joyously celebrated Jesus’ incarnation just 5 days ago. The reality of missing a loved one at Christmas can bring real heartache and pain. But knowing they are children of the Most High points our hearts and eyes heavenward, and we can rejoice through the tears and memories.
The ultimate purpose of Jesus’ coming supersedes the details and sentimentality around His birth. He was born to die, to bring us this wonderful hope of a glorious and eternal future – that we can live forever.
That is the unique hope and unexplained joy we experienced on that day, 14 years ago
#2 The reality that, no matter what God does, He is good.
What God ordains and does may not seem good to us – in fact, it often seems so wrong. But the fact is - God’s goodness is not dependent on His actions or circumstances. His goodness is based on His character – on who He is. God is good and He cannot lie - His reputation and glory are at stake. He is perfectly holy and therefore, logic follows, that all He does must therefore be good – even if we don’t understand it. If we did understand the mind of an infinite God – He would not be God. He would be like us.
On the Tuesday, two days before Laura died, the oncologist had come into the ICU room with the latest CT scan results. So confident was the oncologist in the test results, which indicated no trace of cancer cells in Laura’s body, that she had decided to cancel the last 2 scheduled chemo treatments.
Our testimony on that day was that God was good.
He had healed Laura of cancer. Now we just had to overcome her pneumonia.
Forty eight hours later, Laura died.
If God was good on Tuesday in our rejoicing, He still had to be good on Thursday, in our weeping. It is that simple. Otherwise we serve a fickle and arbitrary God.
This is not a stoic acceptance of circumstances, but rather a humble acknowledgement of God who is behind and in the circumstances.
The practical theology of God's goodness is difficult to get one’s head around and believe at a heart level, as our emotions can be our enemy. But implementing head knowledge at a heart level in times of crisis and pain is what exposes the object of our faith and brings growth.
Do we really believe God? Is He who He says He is and can He do what He says He can do?
It is the answers to these questions which enable us to either stand or stumble and falter. If God is who He says He is, then that is why you can trust. No matter how hard. God is good, no matter the circumstance or pain.
So when God sent His son to be born in a manager, to be rejected and mocked, and then to die a horrifyingly cruel death on a cross - that was good. It was good for me and for anyone who puts their trust in Jesus’ finished work on that cross. God turning His face away from His beloved Son because His wrath was poured out on Him because of my sin – that was good.
Can I understand that? No, I can't.
But faith calls me to accept that and gratefully rest in such a comforting truth. God is good and so all He does has to be good.
#3 The reality that, as our Father, God knows what we need.
God is always at work in the lives of all His children – in thousands of seemingly insignificant and little ways. He is so orchestrating events, that as you look back on them – you can trace His hand, in tiny details that are uniquely personal.
God's providence is always personalised in the lives of His children.
At the time of Laura’s cancer diagnosis, we were living in Kigali, Rwanda. Prior to our departure for Rwanda, we had gone through all the routine medical checks and vaccinations by the Travel doctor in Johannesburg. He was also part of the logistics in us being medevac’d back to South Africa to see a paediatrician and then an oncologist. Throughout Laura’s treatments and chemo protocol, he would visit us in the Paediatric Oncology ward.
On the morning of her death, Andrew and I had been ushered into the ICU waiting area. We sat there, confused and disoriented. We did not know what to do, who to call or what protocol was to be followed. When your child dies, there is no ready to-do list on hand.
This was not an ordinary day.
We had not been there 5 minutes, feeling numb, helpless and overwhelmed, when an ICU sister came to us to tell us there was a gentleman outside asking to see us. When we asked who it was, she told us it was Albie de Vrey, the Travel doctor and his wife.
He walked in and sat with us. We told him that Laura had died just moments before. He did not know that she had died, but at 06h00 on that morning, he said he had awoken with a sense of urgency to drive to the hospital (an hour away) to see the Johnsons. He had no idea why, but he obeyed the inner voice and arrived in time to comfort us as a doctor and explain the protocol and answer some for our questions as a friend. God could not have sent a more appropriate person along our path, at that time, on that day.
This was not just another day. Our big God was at work in little ways.
These 3 realities, etched forever in my mind and on my heart, are what have coloured my story and kept me standing. They made the 30th December 2004, an extraordinary day. A day when God gently wrapped his arms around me amid extreme darkness, heartache and pain. A day when God’s love and compassion overshadowed my sadness.
Today, as I reflect on Gods faithfulness to me since that day, even though I would not have written my story this way, I am learning to trust my Father’s script and to hold onto His hand as He writes it.
That is why I am glad today is not just another day, because today is our earthly reminder of a heavenly reality.