Love One Another! 12/2009 → Suffering and Love
It should not have happened, but it did. One day during the summer holidays Sir Antek came down with a tummy ache.
He had no heart for games either with his older sister Marysia
or his younger sister Rosa; no heart at all for his favorite games
of Knights in Armor and Adventurers. All day long he lay in bed
and cried. But the next day he was up and about, ready for the family
trip to the Mazovian lakes. Neither he nor his parents imagined
that Sir Antek the Fearless would soon be fighting an uneven duel.
For who would have suspected that a five-year-old boy with a tummy
ache actually had cancer?
The holidays passed all too quickly. Marysia started Grade One, and Antek went to kindergarten. He soon took a shine to school and became well liked. Who could resist his winning smile, his imagination, his boundless energy, that impish gleam in the eye, his crazy ideas, big heart, and — as befitting a pint-sized knight — his perfect manners?
Then Antek fell ill again. He cried all day. That evening his parents took him to the emergency ward. The doctor gave him a needle. It eased the pain; but Antek did not like the hospital. It was unfriendly, strange, and had an unpleasant smell. “It was just as well we could be by his side all the time,” recalls his mother Dorothy. She always believed that nothing bad could happen to her children. A cold, a tummy ache, or chickenpox – yes. But never anything serious.
And it seemed she was right. Antek soon felt as right as rain again. He returned home. But after a while the pains returned. Always the same story: stomach pains, hospital, tests, a needle, and the doctor’s decision to admit Antek for a few days and “get to the bottom of it.” Recalls Dorothy: “At first we would assure Antek that he would not be staying at the hospital, but after several such episodes we decided not to say anything.”
And Antek stopped asking. Like a true knight preparing for his next adventure, he would pack his necessaries into a London double-decker tin box: letters, pictures, drawings, photos, and the little gifts he had received from friends. He never went anywhere without them. He began to resign himself to his suffering, but he also became a demanding patient. “Where are you going to jab me this time?” he would ask the nurse. “Will it hurt? What will it do to me?” If a full answer was forthcoming, he would courageously present his arm.
A gift to Jesus
Marysia and Rosa prayed for their brother’s health, as did the other children at school. Dorothy and her husband Sebastian also turned to God. But when Antek knelt down to pray at night, he always had a dozen other intentions, from the most trivial to the most important. Sir Antek knew there were many things in the world that were not as they ought to be; and he believed that God could change this.
In December the doctors made their diagnosis. A trifling matter. Appendicitis. They had to operate. Antek bore it bravely. “I thought it was the end of our worries,” relates Dorothy. “As I sat by his side in the post-op ward while he was still under the anesthetic, I thanked God it was all over. I told Him I could not have taken any more.”
But she would have to, for this was only the beginning. After the Christmas holidays the pains returned with greater intensity and frequency. More days spent in the hospital. Biopsies. Gastroscopies. Colonoscopies. Dozens of little tubes inserted into Antek’s increasingly frail little body. Diagnosis following diagnosis. And all the while more and more pain.
“Why must I be in hospital? Why am I ill?” asked Antek. “Antek, dear,” said his mother, “if Jesus asked you to help Him carry His cross, what would you say?” Antek replied, “I would say “yes!” – “Well then, that is exactly what He is doing.”
Dorothy took her troubles and cares to the confessional. “One day our priest asked if he could visit Antek,” she recalls. The visit brought about a great change in Antek. “Father said every pain I had could be a gift to Jesus,” he told his parents excitedly. “Look, he also gave me a cross!”
A small wooden crucifix clutched in a tiny fist traveled with Antek from treatment room to treatment room. Whatever the purpose, injection, catheter, or probe, Antek would kiss the crucifix and say, “Jesus, I trust in You!” At first this came as a bit of a shock to his parents, for even deeply believing people shy from such gestures of religious rapture. “There was something elemental about his childish faith. We quickly understood that the matter was beyond our powers of comprehension. ”
Today Antek’s parents try not to think what might have happened if the surgeon had followed procedure during the first operation and taken a sample of the enlarged lymph nodes. Would they now be enjoying Antek’s company if the renowned oncologist had not discounted lymphoma, since no child could had borne such a thing for so long? No one knows, nor will anyone ever know.
A tomography finally settled the diagnosis. After the tests, Dorothy allowed her son to run round the ward, while she went for a coffee. Sleepless nights had left her exhausted. She was nine months pregnant. As she slowly made her way to the elevator with a hot coffee in her hand, she heard the young doctor calling after her. “Excuse me! Excuse me!” She stopped to let him catch up. “It is cancer, after all!” he told her.
This time the hospital was quite different. This was no gastroenterological unit from which children were discharged after a few days. Here, at the cancer clinic, death stalked the wards. Here death mocked the doctors’ diagnoses, claiming children who had a promising outlook, while sparing those who seemed to have no chance of survival.
The doctors found an “old” encysted lymphoma in the boy’s stomach. “At least there is no leukemia,” they said by way of consolation. “We will treat it chemically.” Sir Antek had more than he could bear. His hair fell out, his tummy hurt, and he vomited constantly. No end to the sufferings he offered up as gifts to Jesus! The male nurse, a rather obsessive type, became irritated with Antek’s unhygienic habit of kissing his crucifix. Every time Antek kissed it, he would take it away and disinfect it. Indeed, Antek felt so poorly that the article had to be disinfected almost every minute.
“Mommy, what is really wrong with me?” Antek asked one fine June morning. Dorothy explained that he and the other children of the ward had cancer, a serious illness that some people died of. Antek already knew something about this, for his Grandma Theresa was a doctor in a hospice; and there was his Auntie Vera, who was also suffering from cancer. “I would not be telling you this,” added Dorothy, “if I were not absolutely sure that you will get better.” – “But will I die?” pursued Antek. “We will all die some day. Daddy, you, and I. But only God knows when and where.”
Father Jan visited Antek regularly. He helped Antek to prepare for his First Holy Communion. “He is mature enough to receive it early,” he observed. Between one round of chemotherapy and the next, when there was no need for Antek to be on the drip and he felt strong enough, the doctors let him come home for a few days. Those were special days: chapel at the school that he and his sister Marysia attended. Family. Friends. Lots of presents. Antek could now go to Confession and receive Holy Communion. He would continue to do so even later, when he lacked the strength to kneel. Before dying, he would receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. From then on, he was no longer plain Sir Antek, but, as he would often say, “Sir Antek of the Lord Jesus.”
Meanwhile, the tumor resisted all attempts to combat it. Another hospital nightmare. Another operation. Antek had to be alone. The hospital would not allow parents to stay overnight. Antek cried himself to sleep. Although she did not see his tears, Dorothy would not forget them. She would remember them when she came to make the final decision — to have little Antek die at home.
The cancer cells remained very much alive. A tumor, prodded by the scalpel, spreads at dizzying speed. But the family was no longer alone in praying for Antek’s health. A prayer circle had formed and was growing by the day. There was the parish, Opus Dei, and old friends from the scouting movement. Text messages went out every day: “Holy Mass for Antek. Come together in prayer.” Normally reserved, Dorothy no longer hesitated to appeal to strangers. Paying for a taxi ride, she would turn to the driver and say: “My son is dying of cancer at the hospital. Could you say a prayer for him?” Before leaving the store, she would ask the same of the cashier. “At first, I was a bit shy,” explains Dorothy, “but then I thought that asking such a thing could not possibly offend anyone, not even non-believers; and this might help Antek. Besides, it might prompt someone who had not prayed for a long time to offer up a prayer, and so return to God.” And so complete strangers began to pray for Antek.
“Train-loads, truck-loads of prayer! God cannot ignore this!” fumed Antek’s aunt. “He must listen!” Dorothy merely nodded her head. But there was no protest or rebellion in her. She had begun to understand that everything had been ordained somewhere, and that the matter was beyond her grasp. “Do not confuse this with loss of hope,” she is quick to add, “for I was hopeful to the very end, in the hospital, in the final hours, even when my child drew his last breath. But at a certain point I realized that perhaps God in His wisdom was putting us to the test and asking us to see Antek through to the end of his earthly journey.”
Prayer by the train-load
At times Sir Antek felt better, at other times worse. When he felt well, he would run round the ward like a live wire, bow and arrow in hand. When he felt worse, he watched his favorite movies or asked a grownup to read him a story. He was maturing very fast. He would ask questions about dying, eternal life, and suffering. Dorothy and Sebastian knew the answer had to be just right, truthful and understandable to a six-year-old. There was no time for getting it wrong, for there might not be another time.
“What is heaven like?” he asked. “Remember the last tale of Narnia when everyone passed to the other side — to the New Narnia? There everyone could do whatever he liked: ride a bike, speak a foreign language. It is the same in heaven.” – “Why must I be in hospital? Why am I sick?’ Antek would ask again. “And if Jesus turned to you and asked you to help Him carry His cross, what would you say?…”
The doctors treated him with the most advanced medicines. But no use. “Maybe a bone marrow transplant will help,” they suggested. Sebastian and Dorothy took Antek to Wroclaw. The clinic there successfully extracted Antek’s stem cells. But then he contracted shingles and had to spend another three weeks in hospital. Although concerned for the health the baby she was carrying (she was in her first trimester), Dorothy never left his side. By the time Antek was well enough to leave hospital, a bone marrow transplant was out of the question. The tumor had grown substantially. To judge its size, the doctors had only to measure the circumference of Antek’s tummy.
“Mommy, Daddy, I am not afraid of dying. I am only sad that you will cry,” said the boy. The senior clinician told the parents the end was near. When the tumor blocked the intestine, there would be nothing they could do. The parents brought over Antek’s sisters and baby Thaddeus to bid him goodbye. He was delighted and livened up a little.
Dorothy and Sebastian observed their son with growing concern. The oncologist had told them to expect “green vomit.” After it appeared, it would be but a matter of hours. Antek did vomit. Once! And then suddenly the cancer receded. “Train-loads, truck-loads of prayer!” said Dorothy, recalling her aunt’s expression. It turned out that for the last round of chemotherapy they had — more out of desperation than anything else — experimented with a new drug. It worked. After the first doses of the drug, the tumor became noticeably smaller. Antek was allowed to go home for a while. He even went for walks and climbed his favorite tree.
Then came the next round of chemotherapy, and the next. “We rejoiced too soon,” said the doctors. The tumor was growing again. “The boy will die one way or the other. We could try still another drug, but it is so powerful that no child has yet lived through it. If we go ahead and use it, he will die in the ambulance or in intensive care. If you take him home, he will at least have a measure of peace and comfort, and die in the company of his loved ones,” the doctors explained.
The most important lesson
Dorothy and Sebastian had trouble coming to a decision. In the end the father said, “You decide. You brought him into the world.” Dorothy could not bear the idea of Antek dying alone in tears. “I decided we should take him. We promised each other we would never argue over whether this was the right decision or not.”
Sir Antek was frantic with joy. He still had plenty of strength in reserve. “I am going home and not coming back,” he boasted to the nurses; and he gave the doctors a high five. Another great joy awaited him at home. “Wowee! What a great bed. Just right for a pilot. Is it really for me? For always?’ said Antek, beaming. And for a good while he and his sister Marysia romped over the bed. It was indeed a special bed. Brought in from the hospice. Lent to the family for Sir Antek’s final journey. “Yes, darling, it is for you,” said Dorothy and Sebastian, choking back their tears. “It is yours for always.”
Antek had enough energy for just one more day. After that he was confined to his bed. His father took leave from work. But life in the house continued as usual. That is how they wanted it to be. Tomato soup bubbling in the kitchen. Marysia doing her homework. Thaddeus clambering up chairs. Meanwhile, Antek prayed and received Holy Communion every day.
The Last Sacrament. Antek clutched his crucifix and offered up his pain as a gift to Jesus. His parents carried their mattresses into his room. Antek loved to lie between them. They told him how much they loved him.
Antek asked them to bring in Thaddeus, the little brother he had waited for so long. Then he called for his sister Rosa, with whom he had had his share of squabbles. “Rosa, you are so beautiful and so good. I love you so much. Remember that!” he said. And he whispered some private little secret to Marysia. “Son, I would die for you if I could,” sobbed his father. The boy smiled, though he was finding this more and more difficult. “But I will die for you, Daddy,” he replied.
The tumor continued to ravage his organism. With each passing day and hour, the cancer spread to more sites of the body. Antek opened his eyes more and more infrequently. Dorothy began to beg God to put an end to his suffering.
A beautiful April morning, around seven. Daddy lay down to catch some rest. Mommy went out to wake Marysia. Grandma Theresa remained at her grandson’s side and witnessed his last moments. They laid him to rest five days later. Crowds of people attended his funeral. “But it was a peaceful service, calm as a sunny day,” recalls Dorothy.
Antek passed away, but his friends and acquaintances would continue to pray for him. Many attended the thanksgiving Mass that followed later. “We gave thanks for his beautiful soul, his extraordinary life, and the lesson he taught us. He taught us how to bear pain, what faith really meant, and what it was to love God and others.”