The Call You Never Want to Get

Two or three weeks ago, I called my mom. Maile, the kids, the bus, and I were somewhere in Florida. Maybe Jacksonville. I can’t remember exactly. Within a few seconds of my mom answering, I knew something was wrong.

“Shawn, I have some not-so-good news,” she said in a quavery voice reserved for funerals and personal catastrophes.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Someone very close to us has cancer.

It’s rather shocking, actually, to discover something like this. It felt like discovering there was a traitor in our midst. I found myself wondering which nearly invisible cells in my own body were planning a revolt.Which tree was going to fall on our bus. I started seeing death behind every oncoming car, or hiding in every shadow.

* * * * *

Yesterday I found out that some very close friends of ours are miscarrying their baby. I don’t know the details. But the sadness is recognizable. Reminded me of standing next to Maile at a routine doctor’s visit when she was pregnant with our third child. The doctor looked up with pursed lips and confused eyebrows.

“I’m really sorry to tell you this,” she said. “But something isn’t right.” A few weeks later, Maile miscarried. Friends hugged us. We walked around our house quiet and empty.

* * * * *

There is something devastating about hope unattained. The unexpected diagnosis. The bright candle that turns into a smoldering wick. The “something isn’t right” speech. Sometimes, just sometimes, it makes me wonder if hope is worth it. Makes me want to live a life where I always expect the worst, keep my hand closed, my eyes on the ground in front of me. Too much looking out at horizons exposes one to the possibility of disappointment.

There’s a world we’ve never seen
There’s still hope between the dreams
The weight of it all could blow away
With a breeze
But if your waiting on the wind
Don’t forget to breathe
Because as the darkness gets deeper
We’re sinkin’ as we reach for love

– Jack Johnson, “All at Once”

* * * * *

Tuesday evening I went outside to help Maile’s brother till his garden. He and I took turns pushing the rototiller around, pushing all the old dead grass and hay under the rich brown soil. Then I raked out the dead stuff to the edges and piled it all into the wheelbarrow. The soil went from looking barren and rather unwilling to expectant. Open.

It takes a lot of turning over to reach that point. A lot of pounding and tearing and grinding of the soil. The rototiller grasped at the ground like giant claws. Our shovels bit into the edge of the garden.

As I worked the soil and the sun dropped behind those Tennessee hills, I thought of my friend with cancer. My friends losing their baby. They are being tilled. They are being ground.

But I know them, and I know their hearts.

And while it will not diminish the pain they feel now, I marvel at what rich soil they will become.

* * * * *

Have you ever been tilled? How did it change you?

If you know of whom I speak, please respect their privacy and refrain from mentioning their identities in the comments section.

39 Replies to “The Call You Never Want to Get”

  1. I’ve experienced death on a number of levels: my father, aunts, uncles, grandparents, a 2 year-old who was our friend’s pride and joy, the girl and half of her family who originally introduced me to Jesus and the Church… the list goes on. Death has rattled me good. And in my own life, I’ve seen the brevity of livelihood as my health has waned over the past few years because of a rare, chronic disease (and I’m only 22).

    So yeah, I’ve been tilled a few times. And it feels like a few times too many, but I know it’s barely just begun.

  2. I have to be honest, this was a tough post to read today. I’ve been going through quite a rough patch within the past month or so. Hearing about things like this really puts me losing my job in perspective. I’d take that any day of the week over having to deal with cancer or a miscarriage. With my wife being 20 weeks pregnant right now, the idea of a miscarriage rattles me to my core. I don’t even know what we’d do. I’m sorry you had to deal with that. I’m sorry anyone has ever had to. The truth in this post is great though. God is tilling me and my family. I know this. I’m grateful for this. Thanks Shawn.

  3. Oh I so get this, Shawn. In the wake of grief, we are being tilled right now. There is joy, even in the pain, and always grace.

    I’m so sorry that you have received bad news. It must be even harder to hear while you are on the road. My thoughts are with you.

    1. I was thinking of your family last night as I was writing this, Michelle. As well as the title of your blog: Graceful. Sometimes that’s all there is.

    1. Thanks, Chad. It’s easier for me to see, being somewhat outside of their grief. But I know these people are strong people.

  4. These barren times are what make we look forward to the day God restores creation and sets things straight. This world that we’re living in right now is just a first act of sorts, and it’s so hard to believe that some days. I want my peace and security today, but our hope isn’t in the circumstances of today or tomorrow, but in the God who brings restoration. That is where faith goes to work: the muddy, freshly tilled soil of our lives.

  5. Gardening has so many metaphors for life that help me in the tilling times. Sometimes it feels like all that ever happens to me is tilling, but once in awhile I glimpse a tiny fragile green shoot and know that something is happening underground where I can’t see it.

    Prayers for your friends/family/etc. Look forward to meeting you Saturday!

    1. Joy, the little bit of your story that I know is so heartbreaking, yet filled with courage and hope. I pray that you see many green shoots in the coming days and weeks and months.

      See you in a few days.

  6. Up until last week–when my family and I had a “staycation”–the preceding month felt like tilling: seemingly endless illness, 3 successive Sundays spent in the ER and/or urgent care. Add to that some long-standing extrnded family dynamics, and it weren’t no fun. And as thankful as I am for my job, going back to work this week has been hard.

    Both the Bible, and CS Lewis, talk of a “weight” of glory–as a far more surpassing & eternal thing–that I suppose is what is being worked out in all of us.

    I am sorry for the heavy news you’ve received, Shawn, and for the people in your life thus affected by those tidings. I will pray for the peace that passes understanding.

      1. The scripture is 2 Cor 4:17: “For our momentary light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”

        The Lewis is a bit longer, but I think merits quoting:

        “If we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather the greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch. For you must not think that I am putting forward any heathen fancy of being absorbed into Nature. Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her… Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.”

  7. This is beautifully written, Shawn. I’ve had more tilling than I’d like but I can’t deny how much I’ve grown as a result. I hate getting those phone calls, Shawn, and I’m sorry that you must now walk beside your friends through these situations.

  8. Tilling is an interesting thought around grief and devastating news. When Kevin and I heard the word cancer enter our lives, I can remember that feeling vividly (see here I can remember the feelings, the panic, the disbelief and denial. I can feel it all, I remember falling into Kevin’s arms. He didn’t fall – I felt like he knew it was coming, and if he didn’t know, he was being strong for me, being faithful in that moment when I was breaking into pieces.

    I tilled my own garden this past week. The garden I have with the cowboy, in my new life, after years of toiling through hearing my husband’s cancer diagnosis, watching him succumb to it, then seeing my grandfather taken from Alzheimer’s, my mother’s cancer diagnosis, my father’s cancer recurrence, my grandmother’s death, and my father’s ongoing health issues. We till and till and till again. The ground looks pretty fresh right now – ready to sprout the seeds it holds, but I know that dependent upon the rain, the sunshine, the frost and floods they may not survive. But that’s all part of it…right?

  9. I’m sorry to hear about the bad news, the ’tilling’ being experienced by those close to you, Shawn, and that you and Maile experienced as well. It’s never a fun thing to walk through.

    My husband and I have had our own tillings over the years (and really, who hasn’t?), and while it was no cake walk at the time, we have come through the other side by God’s grace. Cancer, sick parents, unfullfilled-as-of-yet hopes and dreams . . . But hope is still a very good emotion (to loosely quote “Doctor Who” of all things).

  10. This week, there was a tragic school bus accident in my county. Several children were critically injured others walked away with scratches. But its one life, that of a 9 year old little boy that was taken upon impact. His mom is a principal and is known by so many people where I work. In fact it was a boy in my class’s moms best friend. We had an impromptu faculty meeting and we all just sat there with tears streaming down our faces. I had never met him, yet his loss cut very close to my heart and my fears. It’s so hard to see what God is doing when you are being churned up. But I agree that the soil will never, ever be the same.

  11. I found your blog through a link from Mj and let the words wash over me again. We just had another miscarriage two weeks ago ….. on our long dreamed of and saved for tenth anniversary celebration in Jamaica. Sadly, it was one year after another miscarriage / molar pregnancy. The past year has been brutal for reasons aside from lost babies and hope deferred. I never ever want to live through another year like it …. but I wouldn’t in a million years trade the things I’ve learned about God and myself through it all. It’s so much easier to see in retrospect, to deal with the past or even the present when things are rough. But I am still learning about living without fear of the future.

  12. Shawn, in following up on someone else’s recommendation, I found your post, “The Call You Never Want to Get.” You write about the heartache and the hope. Years ago I stood with an expectant couple when a teary-eyed doctor confirmed that 7 months along the couple had lost their unborn twin boys. I think that grief, and others like it, has motivated me to write what I write. My first novel, “Dark Eyes, Deep Eyes” begins with these words. “Dickens got it half right. It was the worst of times–that Thursday afternoon in late May, the day I got the kind of call no one wants to get.” You write about both the pain and the promise.Well done.–Tom

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