This is going to be a long post. It’s not the only thing that brought me to see the world as I do, but it is the most recent, and very personal. Please respect that. For non-believers, I beg your indulgence. My faith has formed me into who I am, and it is a large part of this story.
There once was an old woman. She loved the Lord and tried to do what he wanted. She attended Church every week. She lived an ordinary life.
She and her husband had a house with a big room downstairs. They decided to build a guest bedroom. But when it was finished, one day she looked at that room and said, “I wonder who it’s for?” She asked the deacon at church if there was anyone who needed a place to stay. He said not to worry, someone would come.
Within a week or so, she heard from a friend that there was a homeless woman about to give birth who need a place to stay. She and her husband went to meet her.
She was an Ethiopian immigrant, with no family, who had been working in adult home care. One night she was raped. When she got pregnant, abortion was not an option as far as she was concerned, despite the stigma of her single state. This came at some cost to her, even among members of her church. Yet there was no question of her giving up the baby—it was a gift from God, for she had been told she would never be able to have children.
When her pregnancy was far advanced she could no longer do the work. That left her homeless, living in shelters with the smoke of marijuana everywhere, and worse. She could not bring her soon-to-be newborn into such a place. She cried out to God. And the answer was the old woman and her husband, and their spare bedroom.
They all agreed that she should move in. It was an act of trust for both parties. To share a home is an act of intimacy and of vulnerability. She came cautiously, bringing a friend along to evaluate the situation. The friend said, “Only God could do this!” No one in her community could believe that anything like this could happen. White people don’t open their homes to poor black people with no status, they all thought, and perhaps some said.
But move in she did. There was soon a parade of Ethiopian visitors. They would stare as they walked by the old couple and say, “Only God can do this” in their native language on their way downstairs to the spare bedroom. They did not approach that “strange” white couple, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of awkwardness. And it was true, only God could do this.
Over time the old woman learned about all the ways of government subsidy–food stamps, WIC, subsidized housing, DSHS, Medicaid. She was both impressed and horrified by what she saw. On the one hand, the government gave food, medical care, childcare, cash and even housing to the lucky indigent. Government aid had saved the young woman’s life more than once (that’s a whole other story). But they gave barely enough to live on, and reduced the benefits given according to the amount earned. It was an incentive to earn just enough, but not enough to remove you from the welfare roles. And humiliations abounded. Everything needed documented proof, and petitioners were made to paddle the chartless bureaucratic ocean by themselves, drifting from window to window, that is unless they had a good social worker to help them navigate the waters.
As time passed, the old woman and the young one became like mother and daughter. The little baby girl became like a granddaughter. They shared faith together, finding commonality in their love for Jesus. They learned from one another-- she learned to eat bread and they learned to eat injera, she learned about knives and forks, and they about using injera as a delicate means to pick up a morsel of food and eat it.
But it was mostly the old woman learning from her guest: what it was to grow up poor in Ethiopia—indeed, what it was to be poor in a way most Americans have never experienced. The young woman told of sleeping four or more to a bed in one small bedroom, cooking over a fire outside, no indoor plumbing, walking everywhere, leaving school to care for family at grade eight when her mother grew sick and died. No bureaucracy, but no safety net either.
Eventually the social interventionist government persuaded the young woman to take a section 8 apartment with her daughter. Perhaps they had as much understanding as the Ethiopians did of the arrangement between the old couple and the young woman. It seemed something that must be disrupted somehow. Perhaps they were afraid the old couple would grow tired of the experiment and deposit mother and child back on the street. So the young mother moved out. Still, she would return for holidays and the couple would go to her daughter’s birthday parties. No one knew what was coming.
Then one day the young woman became sick. It got worse and worse. She was in and out of the hospital for 7 months—she could not keep down food. The doctors thought it was first one thing, then another. The young woman was afraid it might be cancer. She had no one to take care of her, she thought. And in her culture, people with cancer just went back to Ethiopia to die. But when the old woman found out what she was afraid of, she said, “We will take care of you no matter what.”
From that time, the old woman stayed by her side in the hospital. The young woman found she was treated better when the old woman was there. The staff, mostly Ethiopian themselves, would say, “Why is she doing this?” The nurses and doctors would ask, “How are you related?” And the old woman would say, “What, don’t we look alike?”
Finally the doctors determined that the young woman did have cancer, stage 4 cancer. It was spread throughout her body. The old woman said she should move in with them again. The old woman couldn’t do otherwise, she couldn’t let her go through this alone.
This time the young woman moved in with a four year old daughter, full of energy and life. The old couple, whose children had recently all moved out, were glad to have the house full of life again. With the support of the local church, they were able to enroll the little one in pre-K. A local oncologist with an excellent reputation agreed to take the young woman’s case. And most stores and doctor’s offices took the government foodstamps and Medicaid.
There still were barriers, though. People in the mainly white suburban town couldn’t figure out why they were together. So they sometimes got strange looks. One time at the surgery suite the whole staff came to see the young Ethiopian woman, so sick and yet so beautiful and exotic to them. This kind of treatment was revelatory for the old woman, who was used to being invisible.
As they settled in, it was different in another way, more than having a child in the house. There was a sense they really were family, truly committed to one another. The old woman and the young one would talk and talk and talk, and they would pray and read the Bible too, exchanging verses. They would sing, and laugh. The old woman found a peaceful spirit, one full of trust in God, in the young woman. Her whole life long the young woman had had practice saying, “I am in your hands,” so saying it now wasn’t hard. They recognized a kindred spirit in each other, though their lives had taken different paths. At least the old woman thought so
It was different with the Ethiopian people who came to visit also. The old woman made a point to sit and talk to these visitors, and pray with them, because she considered them her friends too. She wanted to show them they were welcome, and that her intentions were good. And she wanted to show them that she could pray too!
However, many people in her Ethiopian community tried to discourage the young woman from receiving chemotherapy—they said to trust in God for healing and go home (not in front of the old woman though!). The old woman, when she heard this anyway, knowing how very sick the young woman was, pushed her to start treatment right away.
Deciding to go ahead with treatment was very scary for the young woman. Not only did she have these voices discouraging her, she had her own fears of the unknown. The thing that helped was the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, young men who went through the furnace and were not burned by it—the Lord was with them in the fire. And so she said, “I will go through this fire.”
A week before she was to start treatment they asked for anointing from the parish priest.
They all gathered around her, hands on her shoulders, praying, as the priest anointed her hands and her head, and prayed for her healing. The young woman felt a sense of warmth and power as they prayed. Now it was time to wait and trust.
As the week progressed the old woman noticed a change in the young woman. She no longer vomited and she was able to eat. She was enough better that the old woman thought about asking for another scan before treatment. But she didn’t.
Instead, on a ride home from a doctor’s appointment, she told the young woman to really ask God for what she wanted—complete healing-- instead of continually saying “whatever you want Lord”.
So on the ride home the young woman did just that, loudly and with much emotion, in her native language. Imagine the old woman’s chagrin at the sudden outpouring. She so rarely freely expressed emotion, so she wasn’t expecting it. But it was important!
The young woman began chemotherapy in September. She was scheduled to go every other week.
The chemo seemed easy to bear the first time, aside from having to delay for low blood counts. They removed one of her medications for the second round and pushed it back a week.
The old woman knew that everything the young woman was going through must be incredibly hard. To enter into their house, to go through difficult medical treatment, to worry about her daughter—all of this was very hard. But the young woman never complained, and only sometimes hinted this was a struggle.
Sometimes the old woman and the young one would sit around the table and talk after dinner. So one night the old woman asked, “What has this been like for you?” The young woman smiled and answered, “Before I was lonely. Now I am not. I have peace.”
The thing that stood out most in the old woman’s mind was how they had become family. Others recognized it too.
The young woman’s pastor said to them one day, "Do you realize what you have done? You have broken racial barriers, social barriers, economic barriers, all barriers."
The old woman was embarrassed and thought, “Anyone can do this."
After the third round of chemo the young woman developed a tremendous headache. It proved to be an old subdural hematoma, perhaps from an old fall. That meant she had to have a whole drilled in her head to remove the old blood, and another stay in the hospital. She went home after a few days, then had to go back for a new hematoma. All of this delayed her chemotherapy.
She had another round of chemotherapy and another hematoma. The young woman cried out, “What do you want of me?” and then had her third brain surgery. No one knew why.
Now out of the hospital, it was time for her scan to see how the cancer was. Together the young and the old woman went to the appointment to hear the results. Both were worried that all the complications and delays might have made the treatment ineffective.
“Your scan is clear.” The doctor said it calmly. The young woman first shouted, then wept. First the doctor, then the old woman silently held her. She praised God for his mercy. Suddenly the future the old woman had feared was gone.
What happened next? Well, for one thing the treatment was continued for eight more rounds to try to make sure all cancer was gone. And the scan was clear three months after treatment! The story is not finished. The cancer could return. The young woman will need to be scanned every three months for the next 5 years. By God’s grace, though, the young woman will live to see her daughter married, with the old woman and her husband by her side.
What does anyone do in the wake of a miracle? How do they readjust to having life ahead of them? Who knows? He has brought them this far. By His grace they will continue. Praise God for his abundant mercy on this family! Praise God for the support they have received from both friends and government! Praise God!
Some may say, why give credit to God? It was modern medicine that healed her. Perhaps. It was also the skilled and compassionate hands of the many medical professionals she encountered. And it was the love that brought together the young woman and her child, and the now forever family she has.
Differences of skin and culture can be overcome, but it takes patience, listening, time, and eyes that see the secret soul’s desire.