Cancer comes: ‘There will be no more ordinary days’

Ray Giles had tolerated the soreness near his abdomen for weeks. A man who had lived in the back country of Ethiopia for years could handle some discomfort. He thought it might be gall stones.

But one night in July the pain grew so agonizing that his wife, Effie, drove him to the emergency room at the Johnson City (Tenn.) Medical Center. After a battery of tests the next day, the physicians brought bad news.

Advanced cancer of the liver. Also in the pancreas. Inoperable. “It’s not a pretty picture,” said Ray’s physician.

The typical survival rate is about six months, but Ray’s doctors refused to set a time. Some patients live for years, they told him. Chemotherapy was an option.

“This was not an ordinary day,” Ray wrote in his journal the night they heard the diagnosis. “There will be no more ordinary days for me or Effie. Each day is a gift … gilded by the beauty God has made in the world.”

Ray and Effie Giles, now in their 70s, retired to Johnson City nine years ago, following a long career as missionaries in Ethiopia. (I wrote about their work last week.) They stayed active – teaching, mentoring young missionaries, regularly traveling to visit children and grandchildren or back to Africa. The cancer brought that to an abrupt halt.

“I never felt, ‘Why me?’” Ray said last week, sitting in their living room. “I never felt I needed to be exempt. Rather than focus on the problem of suffering, it forced the light to shine on the good.”

Even so, the news hit Effie hard.

“We all know we’re going to die,” she said. “But it’s different if you know the mechanism is already at work. You know one day we’ll not be the ones walking out of the hospital room.”

About two months ago it looked as if that day had come, when the cancer or the chemo pitched Ray into severe nausea, pain and disorientation.

“I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t pray,” he said. “I thought if it’s going to be like this, I don’t know if I want to live.”

He seemed to turn a corner a few weeks ago, however, and he feels good for now. So he and Effie are doing all they can to enjoy these days – “to use the time wisely,” he said – knowing they are not likely to last.

They try to bask in each other’s companionship. They revel in regular visits from family and friends. Ray feels strong enough to restart a few of his old church responsibilities, and he recently taught at a senior citizens rally.

“All we have assurance of is now,” Effie said. “I have a tendency to look ahead to the big event. Maybe it comes from our days on the (mission) field, when we’d look forward to the mail drops or to having the kids home from boarding school. But I’m learning to live as much as possible in the NOW.”

On a recent morning, watching a sunrise from the living room, she found herself thanking God as she mentally traced a list of blessings: Family. Friends. Phone calls and notes of encouragement. A good church. A full life. Time with Ray.

Each day, they agreed, is an answer to prayer.

“We usually think about praying for THE answer, as if there were one thing,” Ray said. “But we pray for good days, and we have good days. I don’t know what the one answer is. I’ll take each day as a gift of God.”

Ray draws comfort from a familiar verse in Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’”

He recalled what the late Anglican priest David Watson wrote before his own death from cancer: “We know the evil will come. We just don’t have to fear it.”

Is that true for him? Ray paused. Yes, he said in a steady voice. Then he looked over at his wife of 55 years and his eyes filled with tears.

“I suppose if there’s anything, it’s thinking about leaving one another, the separation,” he said. “But other than that – no, not really.”

They try not to dwell on fear, Ray said.

“That psalm ends, ‘Goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,’” he said. “And they have. God has blessed us. He’s been there in every time.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 21 Nov 2009.