Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Life Sentence

Forever young, do you really want to live forever?
Glioma cancer, I know you are serious, but through God, I will beat you!
May 31, 2012
To all those friends who have been praying for me through this difficult time, Thank you SOOO much for your faithfulness in prayers and encouragements!! For I am CANCER FREE!!!!! Praise the LORD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What would you do if you had a death sentence commuted?

Meet my friend Naomi. She has one of the most remarkable stories I've heard in a long time and she has given me permission to share some of it because her life asks some of the Big Questions. All of those questions have an answer; but for some of them she doesn't know what it is yet.

Naomi's story starts back in Kenya. She never really knew her biological father - he left before she was old enough to have a chance; her mother married again when she was a tiny girl and three more children were added to the family through this union.

And then her mother left her too, dying when Naomi was seven years old.

Her stepfather said that as Naomi was not his child she had to leave the family home, the only home she had really known. She had to leave her little sister and brothers. 

She had just lost her mother.

She was sent to her grandmother's house to live. It was always understood that this was a temporary arrangement, however; she was going to have to be sent somewhere else for a permanent home.

As it happened, Naomi's uncle - her mother's brother - was attending college in Alberta and had struck up a close friendship with fellow-student Jonathan. He and his wife and tiny kids were in and out of Jonathan's parents' home. When the news came about his sister, he asked Jonathan's mother to adopt his little niece. "Teacher, you have to take this girl!" he begged. He couldn't take her himself, because he was on a student visa. "Sure!" said Shirley. "If we can arrange the paperwork and God allows her in, we'll take her." And Shirley started the paperwork.

For two years little Naomi lived in limbo with her grandmother as the grinding adoption process went through all its machinations.

And finally, just before she turned 10, she was adopted into her new family. Now she had new parents, a new sister and four new brothers who all loved her dearly, even before they knew her. She remembers arriving in the airport in Canada, a terrified little nine-year-old girl who had been put on a plane in Kenya and had flown all the way across the world by herself to her "new mom and dad." She remembers them all meeting her in the airport, these new parents and sister and brothers. They all surrounded her with hugs and kisses and love. "There was a lot of loving going around in the airport, I remember that!"

She also had a new country, a new culture, a new language and new confusions to contend with.

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I'm loving the purple soft velvety two piece
with the pink helmet that's a little big! I had quite the childhood!"

Language was the least of it. She came to Canada speaking Kikuyu, her mother tongue. At first her uncle and his family were around Three Hills, and she could speak with them. But she quickly caught on to English; and her uncle's family moved away, ultimately ending up in Edmonton.

That last connection she had felt to her mother was now gone. Shirley and Ken, her Canadian parents, loved her beyond a shadow of a doubt and their hearts ached for her to feel like she belonged. They watched her struggle to understand how this western society worked, why she couldn't see her other brothers and sister, although she was forging a real bond with her Canadian family. When Naomi hit junior high, Shirley even learnt how to braid hair the African way. "It would take Mum 16 hours," Naomi marvelled. "But she just didn't give up until it was done. She just loved me."
When Naomi was 12 she went back to Kenya for her first visit. She was overwhelmed. "It was good to be home but a lot of things had changed. You always think that everything's going to be the same from when you leave, but everything in the village had completely changed."

Kungu, Esther, Samuel
Seeing her siblings was very emotional for her because she had to go back to the step-dad's house for the visit. He lived on a big acreage farm with his father, who had two wives and many children; no one had left, including the step-dad. Seeing her siblings, who were still so little, and being in the house that her mom had lived in - memories came back to her like a tidal wave. It seemed like just yesterday she had seen her mom sitting by the fire in front of that very fire place when she collapsed and fainted, right in front of Naomi. A couple of days later she passed away in the hospital - most likely typhoid, or at least that was the cause of death given by the hospital ... 

Her little brothers and sister were painfully shy around her. She realized that they had lost any source of communication with each other because Naomi had lost her mother tongue Kikuyu and the kids didn't speak English. (Just recently her sister tracked her down on Facebook, "the most wonderful thing that's happened in a while," Naomi rejoiced.)
Then in grade 7, Naomi's Dad was offered a call to pastor a church in the little town of Maidstone, Saskatchewan. Junior high was pretty tough - new school; hardly anyone who looked like Naomi in Maidstone! She made a great friend there, though, her best friend to this day: Jillian, a girl originally from Slovenia and with all the pale colouring and blue eyes and light blonde hair that that entails. They were called Salt and Pepper at their school. They were inseparable.  

Naomi and her parents moved back to Three Hills for high school. When she came back she felt like she fit in more, like she was actually coming back home for the first time in a long time. 

But high school proved to be a bit worse than she thought it would be. Naomi still had a hard time understanding that on the surface she looked different to those around her. Her family was white so she self-identified as white and would get very mixed reactions from people who "saw only the outside" of her. She feels that she went into denial about being black around this time, and it was startling to her when people would ask her mother and her if they were together when they went to a restaurant. She was called "Oreo" - black on the outside and white on the inside. All this left her feeling a little lost, a little like she didn't really belong in the town she now gladly called home.

After her high school graduation Naomi went to Red Deer College for a couple of years. "Life-learning lessons, looking back ..." she mused. She learnt a lot about herself, and about other people ... "about who you could trust" ... She had thought she was a Christian, but she discovered that she wasn't displaying any of the characteristics of a Christ-follower. She had given her life to Jesus in an emotional moment when she was 12  but wasn't living like she had salvation, and had no assurance of salvation, until January 2012. 

With her Aunt Betty
Rewind a few months to August 2011. The C word made its presence felt in Naomi's head, in her brain. Glioblastoma. Stage IV brain tumour.

The medical profession's opinion was that there was no point proceeding with treatment, Naomi told me quietly. Her first oncologist "gave all the facts straightforward: 'No one has ever lived from this cancer ... you can try and fight it but it grows so quickly that we won't be able to do anything very soon.' " But her mother and father decided that if there was even the tiniest sliver of hope, they were going to pursue it. The extraordinary Shirley decided that they weren't going to give up; she rallied Naomi and got her on board.  "Even if there was a little bit of hope ... I didn't want to be one of those people who didn't even try ..." Surgery was scheduled for August 4, 2011, and chemo started at the beginning of September.

With her cancer diagnosis Naomi's eyes were opened as to what salvation really was about. There was no real reason or catalyst right then, apart from the cancer - "it just clicked," she said. She became more aware of where she was at personally: "It was God opening my eyes for me." She got baptized in April - her Dad himself was able to baptize her.
April 29, 2012 -
Naomi's Dad baptizing her
Then on May 29, 2012, exactly one month later, the word that you hope and wish and pray for but which you think will not actually happen to you: she got the diagnosis of cancer free. "The oncologist came in and was talking about it all. Talking about the MRI, about what was seen and what was not seen. The fact that there was no cancer there. The results were there. The fact that I had this terminal cancer and it had done nothing for six months. The cancer was supposed to be growing like crazy - between four and twelve months was my anticipated expiry date."

She said those last two words without a trace of irony, like she had long since accepted them as part of the vocabulary of her life story. 

She has to go back every four months for the next couple of years to make sure everything is on track.

What was your first reaction? I asked her. "The thing is," she said, "After the baptism thing, for the first two weeks I was out of it. Spiritual warfare, back and forth, back and forth. I wasn't really feeling much of anything. I had gone numb." 

So when the doctor said that she was cancer free, Naomi didn't even smile. "It was like it was someone else's news. I wondered, Did I hear her right?, as I sat in this place where I had never gotten good news." Most people would be joyous. Shirley was a lot more ecstatic than Naomi was. When the charge nurse, whom Naomi had always had - Molly - heard the news, she was so excited for her - "Oh my goodness Naomi, you should be dancing out of here! Show me some of those zumba moves!" Shirley was dancing and spinning around. "People in the waiting area were wondering what was going on!" 

Naomi was just numb.

As it slowly started to sink in that it was for real, Naomi started to feel profoundly sad about the time she had wasted on wrong priorities. She had wanted to be a high-profile lawyer but she hadn't focused on her studies. She had wanted to be popular and was more concerned about her social life than being kind. She hadn't thought of the cost of going to school - either financial, emotional or intellectual. Now, after the cancer and the diagnosis that she was cancer free, her brain felt like it was smothered in a way and she regretted how she wasted the time when she had been "sharp and bright and heedless."

"It's all so amazing ... fighting through the cancer I was happy, focused, positive. I thought I was going to die so I was living life to the fullest, fast-forwarding friendships and building memories. Zumba classes. Step classes. I went to aqua jog and swimming. So much energy. But I was not really joyful, though, until February when I knew that when I died I was really going to heaven."

Some of her friends in Three Hills admonished her. One said that Naomi "should be shouting [her] good news from the rooftops!" But now that Naomi had been given a second chance at life, she felt dead inside, "like I, me, had gone away."
Oddly enough, after the pronouncement that she was cancer free she lost her joy. She had been running on adrenalin, fighting this foreigner inside her. She had done what she needed to cope. Now she found herself "walking down a road of disgusting depression," which she had been told wouldn't let up until early fall. Although she didn't entirely give up, everything just seemed hopeless; the only hope she had for the future, in those dark days, was in eternity. "But it seems hard to have hope for the day when your mind is against you and you can't seem to control your thoughts at all." She would get up at 9, take her medicine, and then often found herself going back to bed. She felt like she had no strength, and she would ask herself why she didn't have strength now that she wasn't fighting cancer? 
She would lie in bed, trying to battle the waves of anxiety that threatened to overcome her and drown her. She cut herself off Facebook; she turned her phone off for most of the time. Most messages she wouldn't reply to - if she did reply, it would take two or three weeks.  "I cut out all social media and social ties because there seemed to be no point." 

"Is this what cancer-free feels like?" she despaired.

Then slowly, so slowly, things seemed to be getting slightly better. The anxiety, that she felt as a constant physical presence in the centre of her chest, like a weight that she had sitting on her chest, started to shift a tiny bit. Some days were still worse than others. There were more glimmers of light, though. 

She realized that she had seen herself through her friends' eyes when she was going through cancer treatment - "you're so brave, you're so strong, you can do it." But when the cancer was gone, coinciding with the summer starting and everyone's lives accelerating into high gear, she felt like all her friends had gone too, "like I'd had a falling out with everyone. Certain friends seemed to be there for me because I had cancer ... because they felt sort of bad for me ... but now that I was free, they were not there for me any more. They were also physically gone, I know, but oh well."
She started to feel a bit sorry for herself.

She felt the summer saw a lot of problems arising in her relationships because she often took what her friends said, even the most well-meaning, and interpreted it a different way, through the suffocating fog of her depression. She told herself that she needed to grow a thicker skin because she knew that people wanted her best. One friend said to her, "Naomi, I've been praying for you - and asking the Lord to give you wisdom." Just another joyful-advocate, Naomi thought dismissively.

And then something happened to her. In July she went camping in the mountains. Well, she went to help out at a camp, Higher Challenge, that her brother was leading for First Nations kids. Two weeks of work, play, seeing people worse off than herself.

Two weeks of focusing not on herself and her worries but on God and on helping disadvantaged kids.
Katrina, Naomi, Jung - camp counsellors together!
She came back with a new attitude. She came back with a new focus. She came back with no more depression.

She came back herself again.

But it seems to me that it's more than herself she's come back to. She had wanted to be a high-profile lawyer, and she still entertains the thought of becoming a lawyer but what is more important to her now is the people whose lives she will touch. She has enrolled in the local Bible college's one-year Encounter program, an intense immersion into the Bible and into service for others. She commented to me not long ago, "[If I don't become a lawyer],
that would be okay with me too now - I would NEVER have been telling you this a year ago! I've learnt that what you might want is not necessarily what God wants for you."

Kenya or Canada as the ultimate destination? I asked her once. Her response was pure Naomi. She doesn't know how she would react to everyone looking like her, being like her, if she was back in Kenya. She likes the distinction of being one of the few black people in her community! She is still not always comfortable being the only black person in her family; but when she goes to her birth uncle's and aunt's house in Edmonton, she feels uncomfortable because, first, she doesn't understand what they're saying all the time and, second, they are all black! She doesn't know quite where she truly belongs and feels she would be more comfortable at a party at her parents' house. "It goes back to that whole thinking that I'm a white person and not black. The Oreo."

A true third-culture kid.

As far as her family in Kenya is concerned, her grandmother is still alive. Now she's 68, slightly older than her Dad here in Canada. The uncle here bought the grandma some land in the northern part of Kenya and she built a little house. It's not insulated and can get really cold.  Naomi's birth mom's sister has been diagnosed with HIV, contracted from her husband. The last time her Edmonton uncle saw her he said she was doing well.

Her little sister has been accepted into medicine; her brother is studying journalism. Her youngest brother is now in grade 10. They are all super smart. Her Edmonton uncle is supporting the kids, his sister and his mother, Naomi's grandmother. "They're my family. I want to be able to help them too. But could I do more from Canada or from Kenya? I just don't know ..."

She has four elder brothers and a sister here in Canada "who are my fam now. Since I came to Canada. I couldn't have gotten through the cancer without them." She has nephews and nieces to whom she is devoted. She's told me she doesn't know where she'd be without the love and determination of her Mum and the love and support of her Dad.

She is aware that there's always the chance that the cancer could come back. She's sailing in uncharted waters, as no one who has contracted this type of cancer has not died very quickly.

"It's been quite the journey, Kenya to here. I can't wait to see where it ends ..." She paused, and then quickly corrected herself, "where life takes me ..."

And so today - August 29, this shining day! - I say Happy Birthday, beautiful girl! You are one of a kind, especially crafted by your Creator to glorify Him. All the different strands of your life are being woven together to make you the person you are, the person you are becoming. You truly are His workmanship ...

Sun is shining... Woke up to a nice view of the mountains... God is good. 

Happy Birthday, Naomi!

(Pictures from Naomi's FB page, used with permission, and from times we have hung out together.)


  1. Love love loooooove. Thank you dear friend! I'm soooooo excited to see this!!!!!!!

  2. Nice work Karyn. Nice work all around!

  3. Thanks Karyn. I remember sitting in the TH a year ago with Naomi thinking "this is the last birthday tea, EVER..." Praise God that He has had different plans and I get at least one more birthday with my sister. Thanks for sharing her story.

  4. So many of us are different on the inside than on the outside. This pleasant Naomi, now returning from the death valley of Moab to the land of promise, having passed through the stage of Mara - bitterness - to the place of new life, can offer compassion to those like her, who have lost themselves and been found.

  5. Amazing.

    New Sentence: Life.

    Happy New Life Day, Naomi. Every Day.


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