My husband, John, and I sat up straight when the surgeon entered the waiting room the morning of January 17, 2004. He had been operating on our nine-year-old daughter, Rachel. We eagerly searched his face for word of her condition.
The surgeon wasn’t smiling. “I wish I had better news,” he said slowly. “We found a tumor on Rachel’s spine. I’m afraid it’s cancer.”
John, a physician himself, turned pale. A searing heat coursed through my veins. Just a few days before, Rachel had been playing football on the lawn with John and her brothers when she fell down onto her back, which later brought on back spasms.
Eventually, she had no feeling in one leg. The operation was supposed to remove fluid buildup that they speculated was causing the problem —not find cancer.
The doctor let us absorb the news for a moment, then spoke frankly to my husband in medical terms. John took it in as best he could, these words every doctor dreaded delivering, every parent dreaded hearing.
“When do you think the tumor started growing?” John asked, his voice cracking. “From the size, I’d estimate sometime in the early fall.”
Early fall, I thought, piecing together what I’d written in my journal since then. On October 5, I saw Rachel sitting on the big porch swing that hung on a limb off the tree in our front yard. I had seen her transfixed, looking up, her eyes wide and her mouth agape.
I ran out to her, thinking she’d had a seizure or something. But by the time I got out there, she was smiling. “Mommy,” she said. “I just saw an angel!”
It was incredulous enough to hear the first time. But even more incredulous was that she made this announcement several more times over the next three months. Sometimes she said it was one angel, sometimes two, sometimes too many to count.
One afternoon Rachel and I were heading home in the car, driving across a busy bridge. I happened to check the rearview mirror and saw her looking out the window with the same expression. “Rachel,” I said. “What are you looking at?”
“Can’t you see them?” Her eyes were wide with wonder. “See what, Sweetie?” “They’re everywhere. All around us. Angels, Mommy!”
She described the angels as male beings with shining faces, wearing white robes with gold cords around their waists. “Not cords of cloth,” she carefully explained to me, “but real gold. And Mommy, their feet don’t touch the ground.”
I was in awe of the angelic visitations and grateful for the peace she said they brought her. But it also troubled me. What was going on? Why Rachel? Why now?
Rachel had long had a heart for the Lord. At around age five, she got wind of the fact that we were considering adopting a child from the Ukraine, where Rachel’s grandparents had been missionaries. John and I both had adopted siblings, and we always knew that someday we’d adopt too.
But John Mark was nine, Josh was seven, and twins David and Nathan were only three. Maybe the timing wasn’t right. But for Rachel, no time seemed better than the present. “Go to the Ukraine!” she lobbied. “But please don’t bring back another boy. Four brothers are enough!”
“We can’t control that,” I told her. “In the Ukraine, you have to accept the child they give you.” Her persistence compelled us to move forward. We traveled to the Ukraine where, lo and behold, we were presented with a beautiful two and-a-half-year-old we call Lizzie.
To further her cause, at about seven or eight years of age, Rachel spent all her allowance to buy Bibles for her neighborhood friends. She also sewed pillows, which she sold to John.
“Daddy,” she insisted, “make sure you give these to the patients who are really struggling.” Then she donated all her proceeds to the same orphanage in Odessa, Ukraine, where her little sister had come from.
Lizzie, and the boys—John and I had to find a way to tell them. We weren’t alone: I thought of the angels appearing so mysteriously at the apparent onset of what we learned was Ewing’s sarcoma.
I thought of my devotions the day before her diagnosis, when I’d been strongly led to Job 23: “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” We would come forth together, as a family, at home. Rachel was discharged from the hospital.
I held this passage close as Rachel began chemotherapy. The cancer had already metastasized to her lungs, so Rachel’s prognosis was poor. But her face was full of joy, and her deep-dimpled smile ever at the ready, even as her body grew puffy from steroids, and she lost all of her beautiful blond hair.
It was the radiation treatments that challenged her the most. The sickness was bad enough.
But by now Rachel had turned 10, and since the areas to be radiated required parts of her body to be exposed, she was always self-conscious and embarrassed during her treatments.
My heart broke as I watched her through the private observation window, lying on her back and quietly crying.
Before radiation the morning of May 21, I put my arms around her. “Remember that God is always with you,” I said. “It doesn’t matter that you haven’t seen the angels since you got diagnosed. God never leaves us. You know that, right?”
Rachel nodded and prepared to endure another session. I prayed silently from my vantage point at the window, my eyes locked on her face as she got into position. The technicians set about their work, and I braced for the tears I knew I’d see.
But this day, tears didn’t come. In fact, Rachel looked serene.
When I went in to get her after, she leaned close to me. “The angel came back,” she whispered. “He was there the whole time I was on the table, and this time he smiled at me. Then, when you opened the door, he left. Mommy, he was so comforting.”
That evening her cousin and inseparable best friend, Katie, spent the night at our house. The two of them were upstairs in Rachel’s bedroom reading the Bible, and John and I had settled into the living room, when suddenly Katie came flying down the stairs, trembling with fear. All she could blurt out to us was, “Rachel!”
We raced up the stairs, dreading something terrible. When we got to her doorway, there Rachel was, transfixed like she’d been on the tree swing and in the car—wide-eyed and looking up, her mouth parted.
Then our daughter turned toward us and began to cry. “Mommy and Daddy,” she said, “the angel said my name! He said it like no one’s ever said my name.”
She tried to catch her breath in between sobs. “I asked him to please thank God for sending his angels to me, and to tell God I love him—and to ask God if he would please heal me.” She wiped her cheeks with her hands.
“And then…and then…” she stammered, words tumbling over each other, “he said in a loud, clear voice, ‘The Lord is with you, Rachel.’”
She began to weep hard, and by now, all of us were crying. It was the only time Rachel reported that one of the angels had spoken to her. Katie told us that she hadn’t seen the angel herself, but that she had started trembling when she felt the presence in the room.
Over the next 11 months, Rachel continued to see angels—often during the most difficult times in her treatment. “They were with me today,” was all she would say. “And they make me feel so peaceful.”
On her eleventh birthday, April 28, 2005, Rachel stopped walking and became confined to a wheelchair. We had taken pains to prepare her for what was ahead, reminding her to thank God for his presence with her, telling her the truth about her prognosis in man’s eyes, but always leaving room for a physical miracle from God.
On the night of June 16, our family was gathered around the table playing board games. I could see Rachel was uncomfortable and suggested we move to the sofa to watch a movie together.
When it was over, instead of the quick “love yous” before going to bed, Rachel purposefully took the time to address each one of her siblings: “I love you, John Mark…” “I love you, Josh…” “I love you, David…” “I love you, Nathan…” “And I love you, Lizzie.”
No one anticipated that this would be her last night with us. Soon after the kids went to bed, Rachel’s pain intensified. Throughout the night, I stayed next to her, my hands on her body. “Jesus,” I whispered, “please take away this pain…give it to me, not her.”
I didn’t think Rachel was even aware, but suddenly I heard her speak: “No, Jesus, don’t give it to my mommy. Just take me to be with you.”
Those were her last words. By 8:00 a.m., John could tell there had been a turn for the worse, and we woke the family to gather around her bed. By 8:40 a.m. on June 17, 2005, Rachel’s beloved angels had carried her safely to the arms of Jesus.
In the early years following her death, my daughter’s visions and faith gave me tremendous hope. But that didn’t assuage my terrible grief. I didn’t feel God’s presence at all, the very presence I had assured Rachel she would never be without.
I had hoped the angels were going to bring healing to her, and I was angry with God. I felt cheated. The Job passage was right—I could “catch no glimpse of him.” No angels had come to me in my time of need.
A close friend gathered a few other women together, and they came over every Monday for over two years to check in on me, help out around the house, and make sure I got some fresh air. Eventually I acknowledged that they too were messengers of God’s presence, and that God hadn’t abandoned me at all.
Slowly, the crying jags became a little less frequent, and the place inside where I was so broken began to heal. I could at least imagine that, one day, the last line of my Job passage just might come true: “When he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.”
Another of my sustaining quotes is from Joni Eareckson Tada: “God will permit what he hates to accomplish that which he loves.” Two of the things he loves the most are bringing fruitfulness from our sorrows, and going to great lengths to remind us that we are never, ever alone. Just like our Rachel knew all along.
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