Mara, you are going into surgery today. Your mother told me that this might be one of the last things you read on your phone before you visit the operating room.
So before I write anything else, I want to say something important. Even though this is an overused phrase, and you’ll probably think I’m just throwing it around, I’m not. I actually mean this: God be with you.
In the letter, your mother told me how terrified you’ve been after you got your diagnosis. What if something goes wrong with treatment? What if you don’t wake up from surgery? You’re worried about these things.
So I wanted to write and tell you that, even though I am a novice at life myself, I know one thing: it’s all right to be scared.
This life scares everyone. Big and small. Old and young. The brave and the weak. It especially scares me.
This is a poor example, but I remember when I was about to start second grade. I was very scared. We had this teacher who seemed like the world’s most cantankerous, hateful, mean old biddy.
I tried very hard not to be afraid when it was time to go into her class. But the more I tried not to be afraid, the more I dreaded second grade.
Sometimes I would lie awake staring at the ceiling in a panic, thinking about how I would be subjected to the wiles of this madwoman.
She was a short lady, with silver hair, cat-eye glasses, and she barked at students like they were members of a military regiment. Whenever I passed her in the hall she would lock eyes with me, curl her lips, and I would swear I heard a low growl.
The morning before the first day of school I tried faking a terminal illness. When that didn’t work, I finally decided that I would run away. Yes. That’s what I’d do. I would join some traveling outfit. Maybe a sideshow. Maybe sing high tenor in a traveling gospel quartet.
I was sick over this second grade business. I begged my mother not to make me go. But my mother told me to be brave, so I tried.
On the way to school that morning I almost puked. My gut ached. And when my mother dropped me at the curb, I joined the other second-graders who were all milling around like lambs gathered before a slaughterhouse.
We walked the hallway alongside each other as though we’d been condemned to the gallows. Some kids were trembling, a few were sniffling, Billy Terry had already changed his pants twice.
We found our seats in the sterile classroom. We waited for ten minutes until the teacher arrived. My insides had turned to acid.
And here’s what happened:
The classroom door opened. The second grade teacher arrived. To our collective shock, she stood before the chalkboard dressed in a funny costume.
One student began to laugh. Then laughter trickled to the rest of the class.
Yes! That’s right! She wore a costume with a wig and everything! It was hysterical!
She told us she was dressed up as the World’s Meanest Teacher. We had no idea what to think. Was she being serious? Was this legit? Yes! It was! And as it turned out she was a pretty fun old gal.
All those years I thought she was horrible, and here she was the nicest lady you ever met. Granted, she wasn’t warm and fuzzy, but somehow we grew to love her more than all the other sweetie-sweet teachers in the world.
It would become my favorite school year. And to think, I almost joined the circus.
But then I have a long history of being afraid of things, Mara. In fact it embarrasses me to tell you how afraid I’ve been in my life. I’ve wasted years being my own prisoner. I shrank away from life when I should have bear-hugged it. But never mind about me. This is about you.
Here’s something I know: I can promise that today, when this operation is over and you begin to deal with your diagnosis, and all that it means in the months ahead, you will become an even more beautiful child than you are now.
Something inside you is already blooming. Like a pasture of goldenrod in the afternoon sun. The old you will be gone forever, and a new you will be here. A wonderful you.
Does this mean life will always be great? No. Life hurts badly. It’s turbulent and unruly and it stings. It’s unfair, and unjust, and indifferent. But it is also bold, and gentle, and pretty, and so very gracious. And you will know this better than most.
No matter what happens, I promise that you will not look back on these hard years with horror. Even if the bad memories sometimes outweigh the good ones. You will remember instead the sun-filled moments. You will recall all that is vivid, wonderful, and only that which is joyous.
Long from now, when your earthly work here is done, and your hair is gray, if someone were to ask if you’d ever consider going back in time and doing life all over again, even though the experience hurt like fire, you will find yourself saying yes. Yes. You would do it again. Of course you would. And on that bright day you will laugh at yourself and wonder why in heaven you were ever so afraid when, all along, God himself was right beside you.
And still is.
And always will be.