I squirm, shift, and cross my legs. I fan out my shirt and glance at my sister who is sitting and sweating in the chair next to me. My uncles stand on the other side of the room, like two immovable rocks. It’s August in Denver, and no amount of hospital air conditioning can ease our nerves.
My Aunt Beverly sits in the padded lounger. This oversized chair is a blessing to a patient who is too weak to stand, but so fiercely independent she refuses to take her illness lying down. Aunt Beverly sits tall, as if tubes were not trailing from her body. Half of her face is paralyzed, yet her smile glows. She sets her watery eyes onto mine and speaks without reserve, “I want you to become my daughter Sarah’s legal guardian.”
The cancer began in Aunt Beverly’s throat and moved into her lymph nodes. She’s been on a feeding tube for more than a year and she’s now fighting pneumonia. The doctor says she has a fifty percent chance of living past two years. “Flip a coin,” is what he actually said.
I haven’t responded, so my aunt continues, “I don’t want to die. But I need to know my daughter will be taken care of if I do.”
I’m still unable to speak, but strange as it seems, I knew this was coming. Weeks before, God clearly told me to be available for Sarah, so I already knew my aunt was going to ask this question. Yet, I’m taken by surprise. My mouth is dry and voiceless.
The clock’s second hand moves incessantly, growing louder with each passing tick. Everybody's waiting to hear my response, including ten-year-old Sarah. She’s been slouching in a dark corner of the room, hovering over her Game Boy. She’s been so quiet and still I’d forgotten about her, until now.
“Well,” my uncle finally speaks up. “This is a huge responsibility. She’ll have to think about it. She’ll have to talk to her husband.”
He’s given me a reprieve. I find my voice, promise to consider Aunt Beverly’s request, and wipe my brow. Days pass, Aunt Beverly’s pneumonia subsides, and my sister and I fly back home to resume our lives.
Denial hits me first. This can’t be happening. Aunt Beverly’s not going to die. She’s already survived much worse. The will of God hits me next. The feeling that I’m supposed to take care of Sarah goes bone deep. I mentally assimilate Sarah into my family, weaving her into my children’s school, my daughter’s bedroom, and our family meals. I marvel at how easily this is done in my head.
My husband’s immediate response is stunning. He hasn’t a flicker of doubt. I marvel at how swiftly he answers No. I listen to his reasons. Our house is too small. The threat of unemployment looms. He doesn’t want to inherit Sarah’s baggage. He doesn’t want the sort of trouble that comes with a grief-stricken child who was raised by a sick mother fighting poverty. He doesn’t want to deal with the sort of trouble that comes with a child whose biological father is a drug mobster presently residing in a Cuban jail.
I am not at peace. I truly believed I had heard God calling me to take Sarah. I also know God would not set me against my husband. Prayerful consultation affirms what I already know. Ultimately, I must stick by my husband. I must have been wrong about God’s calling. But how on earth could I say No to my aunt, to my cousin, and to hope?
Aunt Beverly repeats her request three times. Three times, I answer No. She says she understands.
A year passes. My sister and I are once again sitting in hospital visitor chairs, staring into Aunt Beverly’s pneumonia. She won’t make it out of the hospital this time. The cancer has grown with abandon. Doctors have removed her feeding tube and all we can do is pray and wait.
Five days pass, and Aunt Beverly is gone.
I cannot reconcile my confusion with God’s calling, but I can testify to His grace. Another aunt swooped in during Aunt Beverly’s last days, and took charge of Sarah. My little cousin is now living a semi-peaceful life on the rocky shores of the east coast. I can only imagine it is a better life than I could have provided.
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