Deeper Still
Deeper Still

Deeper Still

Facing fear, chronic illness, and death throughout a lifetime of uncertainty.

October 15 th 2020
Appears in Fall 2020

My life was uncertain before I was born.

The American poet Carl Sandburg warns, “The greatest certainty in life is death. The greatest uncertainty is the time.”

My family wondered if my time on earth would be mere months.

My parents, Henry and Helen Dyck, came to Canada from Russia. Religious persecution had driven them and their families here, to a country that gave them the freedom to worship without interference. They were people of deep faith, but well acquainted with grief. They married in the summer of 1954, and had their first child a year later. At five weeks premature, Leonard was tiny but gained ground quickly, becoming a precocious toddler. In 1957, a second son, Raymond, was born. It didn’t take long for my mother to realize that he wasn’t gaining any weight.

She was fighting a physical battle for his life, but she was also in a spiritual battle for her faith.

In my mother’s journal, she explained, “I carried Raymond day and night . . . and our entire family had joined us in praying for Raymond’s health.” Then, when he was three months old, Raymond was hospitalized with a temperature of 104 and pneumonia. “The next morning, as I was working by the stove, a voice in my head said: The way you have prayed for this child―if he dies you’ll know there is no God.” Without hesitation my mother responded, “Even if this child dies, I will never turn my back on God.”

Very early the next day, their doctor called and said Raymond had passed away during the night. The only photo that remained was Len’s shocked face in front of a tiny casket.

Two more children came, both girls who lived shorter lives than Raymond, and they left in two more tiny coffins.

Lee Strobel’s words “Only in a world where faith is difficult can faith exist” ring true whenever I think of my mother during this time. Her grief was unfathomable, but her faith never wavered.

When she found out she was pregnant with me, a close relative told her to have an abortion because “this baby won’t live anyhow.” My mother wrote, “I was shocked and speechless. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Didn’t she think that God would know?”

“I needed God more now than I had ever needed Him before,” she said. She took out her Bible, knelt by her bed, and told God she wanted to carry me to full term. Then, like the biblical Hannah, she dedicated me completely to the Lord. That week she switched doctors and felt a deep inner peace.

***

Uncertainty brings both fear and hope.

In the midst of fear that I would die, God gave my mother hope that I would survive. I have always felt especially blessed because my parents waited so long for me. They yearned for a healthy child, and so did Len. When I finally made my appearance, five and half years after Len was born, I soaked up all their love. In our family photos, Len has an ear-to-ear grin and is always near me―my protector, my brother, and later, my friend.

The faith of my parents made a huge impact on my life. God answered their prayers, and so I grew up believing he would answer mine.

But there were still those three haunting photos of Len’s sad, shocked face in front of each tiny coffin.

Uncertainty brings both fear and hope.

Not surprisingly, I grew up with a profound fear of death. Len had told me about our other siblings and his memories of their deaths. From a young age, I understood the brevity of life. Whenever I got sick, I panicked. I knew that I had been spared, but I was scared of God’s power. He let them all die, and I realized that could happen to me at any time.

On top of that, our conservative Mennonite Brethren church had many preachers who literally pounded the pulpit and thundered about eternal damnation. Each time that happened, my fear of death and hell grew. When our church showed the pre-tribulation film A Thief in the Night, I had nightmares for weeks that Jesus had come and I was left behind. One day, when I walked home from elementary school, I found our car gone and no one home. I crumpled on our doorstep, sobbing, certain my family had been raptured.

It came to a head on the night Len gave his testimony before the church―a requirement for his upcoming baptism. Now that he had taken this step of faith, everyone in my family had committed their life to Christ but me. Once we got home, I ran to my room and flung myself on my bed, tears streaming down my face. I did not want to be eternally separated from my whole family. My mother comforted me and led me in a prayer of salvation, wanting me to have inner peace. When I went back to the living room, my father hugged me, and Len did too. Now, they thought, I was one of them. But I knew my deceiving eight-year-old heart. This was my only option. I became a Christian out of fear.

As the late theologian J.I. Packer wisely said, “Readiness to die is the first step in learning to live.”

It has taken me most of my life to learn how to live.

***

Though I became a Christian out of fear, the seed of faith within me grew. I was baptised at the age of fourteen, and filled with a love for the body of Christ that is with me to this day.

As we grew up, Len and I became fast friends. He read science fiction to me and introduced me to musical icons like The Moody Blues. I was learning to play guitar, and we jammed together. Because he was almost six years older than I was, and a big guy, our parents allowed me to go with him to Vancouver for concerts, plays, and movies. The year I got baptized was also my first concert experience. Len and I saw the progressive rock group Yes, who did a full laser light show. It was an electric, exciting experience. Over the next fifteen years, Len and I went to over one hundred concerts together.

When I was finishing my zoology degree at the University of British Columbia, I realized I was floundering in a theoretical-science environment and yearned for something in the arts. I told Len about a two-year film and television diploma that UBC offered. He encouraged me to pursue it.

It has taken me most of my life to learn how to live.

I applied for the program in 1984, with fear and hope. There were only twelve people accepted each year, out of close to one hundred applicants. In the summer, I created a movie to support my portfolio. I was certain I was born for this! I loved filming and editing both picture and sound. When I was accepted, the whooping, shouting delight I felt was all the sweeter because it had been uncertain. My life took a dramatically different direction.

The biggest problem was that students were expected to pay the cost of the film, developing, and any extra lab work. Even with two part-time jobs, I was short $5,000 for the first year. I had never earned this much in a summer job before. I told God my needs and asked him to find me something. Within weeks, a research assistant position with Agriculture Canada landed on my lap. I was interviewed, got the job, and was told I would be paid $5,000 for the summer.

I was certain this was God’s blessing. He had confirmed my future plans.

But near the end of my final year, I found myself being plagued with flu-like symptoms―dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, and fatigue that left me exhausted.

On Valentine’s Day in 1986, just after my twenty-fifth birthday, I decided I would drive to my parents’ house in Abbotsford for some of my mom’s tender loving care. But after twenty minutes of negotiating Vancouver’s busy streets, I knew I was in danger. An intense burning sensation had started at the base of my neck. My eyes felt heavy and kept closing. As I came to the Port Mann Bridge, a tingling sensation, like tiny needle pricks, spread over the top of my head. Feeling dizzy, I was scared I might faint. My heart began racing, and the tingling rapidly changed into a progressive numbness that cascaded over my neck and down my arms. I could see my hands gripping the steering wheel, but they felt like cotton balls. “This must be a stroke,” I thought. I began praying out loud, begging God to spare my life. I managed to get over the bridge and immediately stopped the car, called an ambulance, and was rushed to the nearest hospital.

This was the beginning of six years of questions, emergency-room visits, hospital stays, medical testing, and confusion. My symptoms confounded over forty doctors and specialists. I was tested for everything from multiple sclerosis to cancer, diabetes and connective-tissue disorders. The results always came back negative, but I couldn’t sit up for longer than ten minutes without feeling faint.

I never finished my diploma. I needed my family to make meals for me, drive me to doctors’ appointments, and help me take baths.

Before this, my closest friends had called me Wonder Woman. If I had made a commitment to do something, I would do it. My word was my bond. Now, I couldn’t commit to anything. For days, weeks, and then months, I was riding a roller coaster of symptoms that made it impossible for me to plan any activity other than lying in bed. My life as I knew it had ended.

I fully believed God would heal me and invited friends and the elders of our church to pray for me. I expected medical specialists to cure this disease. I couldn’t imagine living like this for years. I was just beginning my professional life; how could I pursue my dreams if I was flat in bed?

I was riding a roller coaster of symptoms that made it impossible for me to plan any activity other than lying in bed. My life as I knew it had ended.

Frustrated that medical specialists could provide no answers, I finally followed the advice of a naturopath and saw small improvements. In September of 1987, I felt well enough to accept the invitation of a friend and move to Calgary. I found a part-time job at a cancer-research facility. Initially, I only managed to work two hours a day, but over the next three years, I improved enough to work five hours a day. I didn’t have my original energy back, but I felt like I was recovering.

I also met an exceptional man with boundless energy. Peter Fleck had started a local Christian newspaper called City Light News. We saw each other at Christian events a few times and then connected again unexpectedly in the summer of 1989. He asked me to interview Walter Penner, a German pastor and leader among the underground Russian churches, and so with my first stab at journalism I went back to my Russian roots. Unfortunately, Penner only spoke German, so Peter came along as a translator, and I taped the interview. I wanted to get word-for-word quotes, so I asked Peter to help translate the tapes as well. He came over for dinner and spent way more time than he ever wanted to on this one story. By the time my first front-page feature came out, I was dating the editor. I quickly fell in love, and when Peter proposed on Easter Sunday in 1990, I hugged him and asked, “What took you so long?”

Peter gave me love and hope. I had a new vocation as a journalist that I was excited about. I was feeling well.

I believed my prayers had been answered.

***

That was before I almost killed my fiancé and had a massive physical relapse.

We were in Abbotsford for an engagement shower. Our tiny car was packed with gifts, so I borrowed my mother’s brand-new vehicle to show Peter the view from the top of Sumas Mountain. On the way down, I took a corner too fast and could feel the tires sliding on the gravel road. I tried to steer the car and remember thinking that God would not let us go over the cliff—just before we tumbled over, rolling the car. With glass shattering all around us and the hood crumpling over our heads, I screamed to God for mercy. Peter later told me he thought, “This could be bad.”

Though the car was totalled, miraculously neither one of us was hurt, but I relived that accident over and over. My trust in God wavered. We could have been killed, and he allowed it to happen. Fear came back again, along with nightmares, and I had a relapse just weeks before our wedding day.

I gradually became more debilitated. A few months into our marriage, I was bedridden. I needed twenty-four-hour care, more than Peter was able to provide. Some friends agreed to take me in for a few months, so on the cusp of New Year’s Day in 1991, Peter dropped me off at their house.

I had only been married four months, and this disease had “separated” me from my husband. Once again, I needed help with every action and could barely walk a few steps. I was so weak that simply turning over in bed would set my heart racing. Even though I was being fed nutritious food and taking an army of supplements, I saw no improvement.

My tightly knit church family took turns visiting me and praying for me. My pastor gave me a book about a Christian couple who had the same bizarre symptoms I did. They were diagnosed with a disease called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It was the first time I had heard of it. The book had taken them five years to write, because they barely had the energy for it. They lived either with their parents or friends, wherever people were willing to care for them.

They gave credit to God for his grace and mercy, but all I saw was a life-long prison sentence. The book was so discouraging that I couldn’t even finish it. If I had CFS, there was no hope I would ever see any recovery. On my thirtieth birthday, I imagined the rest of my life in an extended-care facility. I was in a deep pit that I thought I would never climb out of. For the first and only time, I began to think of ways to kill myself.

In Corrie ten Boom’s famous autobiography, The Hiding Place, she tells the story of her and her family being sent to Nazi concentration camps for hiding Jews. In the midst of her despair, she writes, “No pit is so deep, that God is not deeper still.”

As I read further, I came to the moment where Corrie and thousands of other women were forced to stand outside in the bitter cold for a roll call that started at 4:30 a.m. One dark morning, Corrie said her heart felt desolate; it seemed that God had forgotten her. Suddenly, high above them, a skylark began to sing. This reminded her of Psalm 103: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.” Immediately she knew God had not forgotten her.

These words gave me a glimmer of hope. I knew God had not forgotten about me either.

Her life became a further encouragement to me after I read The Five Silent Years of Corrie ten Boom. She had suffered from stroke after stroke at the age of eighty-three and was mainly confined to her bed for the last five years of her life, but even then, her bright blue eyes shone with God’s love. Corrie’s caregiver, Pamela Rosewell Moore, wrote, “There is a lot we do not understand about why God allows suffering.”

I realized that God could use me, even if I spent the rest of my life in bed. Life is precious, even mine, and I couldn’t kill myself. Though I had begged God to, he didn’t answer that prayer request either (for which I am eternally thankful).

I gradually improved and was able to move back home six months later. I had gained enough strength to enjoy work, life, and the deep relationship I had with Peter.

That fall, I was referred to a doctor in Calgary who confirmed I had CFS. The sudden onset and strange set of symptoms were “normal” for those with severe CFS. Under his care, I saw even more improvement.

Hope became stronger than fear.

***

That was before another year-long crash in 1994.

Though not as severe as the one after our wedding, it left me hobbled, unable to sit up for long.

I realized that God could use me, even if I spent the rest of my life in bed.

Not only was Peter, once again, trying to take care of me and run City Light News, but 1994 was also a tough year for his family. Peter’s teenage nephew was killed in a car accident that summer. His mother was battling leukemia and died in the fall, and his only surviving aunt died right before Christmas. His family was reeling, and I felt completely unable to give Peter the emotional and spiritual support he needed.

I became bitter toward God. He had blessed me with an inventive, dedicated, spontaneous man in Peter but had taken away my ability to be a helpmate in the year he needed it most. I couldn’t cook, clean, or do dishes. (I hated doing the dishes, but promised God I would no longer complain, if only he made me well.)

I should have listened to Billy Graham more closely when I was young. “God is not a bargaining God. You cannot barter with Him. You must do business with Him on His own terms.”

In 1995, I gradually saw greater stability. I still had relapses, but they were more manageable. I had more energy and devoted it to City Light News, interviewing so many dynamic Christian artists and leaders. But in my spiritual life, I distanced myself from God. The 1994 relapse had been emotionally devastating. I could not fully trust God with my health. It became an issue between us that needed to be resolved.

***

That was before I had cancer.

A sudden hardening of my right breast and the rapid growth of a lump sent me for an ultrasound and mammogram in early 2012. The instant diagnosis of breast cancer was unfathomable. I’d just had a mammogram the year before and was given an “all clear.” The only type of cancer that matched my symptoms was inflammatory breast cancer, a lethal form of the disease. My oncologist and I believed I might only have months to live.

With the uncertainty of my life weighing on me, I took a midnight walk under the stars that illuminated the forty acres of land we had recently moved to in Red Deer County. I cried, prayed, and then simply gave up. I told God he could do with me what he wanted. I surrendered all the control I didn’t really have. For the first time since I was diagnosed, I felt complete peace―probably much like my mother did when she dedicated my life to God.

I made it through a radical mastectomy and recovered without having a CFS relapse. My oncologist was amazed with my pathology reports. They just kept getting better. There was no need for radiation or chemotherapy.

I love Larry Crabb’s quote, “Life is a journey toward a land we have not yet seen along the path we sometimes cannot find. It is a journey of the soul toward its destiny and its home.” My soul had been on a journey for decades. I had faced death, and God had taken away my fear of it. In seeing God’s evident care for me, I asked for forgiveness―I was no longer angry at God for my CFS relapses. I trusted him with all aspects of my life. I had been through so much, I didn’t think God could blindside me with anything I could not handle.

***

That was before my brother was murdered.

I was totally unprepared for the news that came last year on July 24. Len’s wife wrote me an email asking Peter and me to call her immediately when we were both together. I braced myself, realizing it would be harsh news. We called in less than two minutes.

She was crying. “Len is dead!” was all she could get out. I had always thought Len would have a massive heart attack. This was my worst fear and such a shock. But when she added, “He’s been murdered!” it stopped me cold.

I had talked to Len for almost two hours on his birthday just a few weeks before. He emailed me the day he left for his short camping trip. He wasn’t supposed to be as far north as Dease Lake, where he had died. Who would want to murder him? I had not been watching the news. There were two teens on a killing rampage? It made no sense.

I surrendered all the control I didn’t really have.

After getting the news about Len, Peter turned on the news, and I ran outside. I was crying and furious. Len wasn’t ready for death. Throughout my life, God had prepared me, but as Len got older, he feared death as I had as a young girl. Moreover, he had been hurt by our church when we were growing up. It bordered on spiritual abuse, and although we both suffered, he was six years older and felt the hypocrisy and manipulation deeply. He was angry at God, and his faith strayed while mine stayed.

In the woods, I started yelling at God. After our conversation on his birthday, I had regretted not bringing up the issue of faith, and I had asked God for more time. He knew I needed another conversation with Len. Yet he allowed Len to be murdered? I couldn’t understand it. This was unjust and unfair!

My whole immediate family was now gone, and I felt utterly alone―as if God abandoned me. I came back in the house and watched, stunned, as my brother’s van burned in Gillam, Manitoba.

The next day my best friend, Wendy, phoned me. She told me she believed Len reached out to God in his last moments. I was sobbing when she prayed that God would give me a personal sign, in the next few weeks, so that I would know Len was okay.

And so it started. First a vision from Len’s former worship pastor: he had an image of Len walking on Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver. Beside Len was Jesus, his arm around Len’s shoulders, talking to him. I immediately related these images to The Chronicles of Narnia. There is a spot near the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Aslan does the same with Edmund. Len had given me those books. At that moment, I knew Len was with Christ and everything had been forgiven.

That first week after Len’s death I couldn’t sleep well. One morning, I woke up at six o’clock to pink light flooding the bedroom. I followed an urge to wander outside. With dew tickling my bare feet, I saw a brilliant rainbow. It was small, much smaller than any rainbow I had seen. As I was soaking it in, I felt so much peace. The rainbow was God’s promise to us that he would never again destroy humankind for their evil ways.

At that moment, I forgave Len’s killers. I knew their justice was in God’s hands. I did not want revenge.

I went in to wake Peter, and he came out and stared at the rainbow with me. We had never seen a rainbow in or over the garden before. In fact, rainbows usually came on the east side, never the west. Peter looked around at all the fluffy pink clouds and said, “Where did this come from? It had to come from somewhere!” I looked up at clouds and clear sky above and murmured, “Yeah . . . it did come from somewhere.” I went back to our house, crawled into bed, and fell into a wonderful sleep.

I now understand C. S. Lewis’s words, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” In the midst of the greatest uncertainty I had ever faced, I became certain that God allowed my brother’s murder for a reason, probably many reasons. And I began looking for the “good” that he would bring out of this.

So what does God have in store for me next? Like Lee Strobel says, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know who holds my future.”

I do not fear the uncertainty. God is just getting started.

Topics: Health Death Faith
Doris Fleck
 
Doris Fleck

Doris Fleck has a BSc and has done work in film and television studies at the University of British Columbia. She’s been a journalist for three decades and has written articles for many faith-based publications across Canada. In that time she has won both a Word Guild and Canadian Church Press award. She enjoys photography, reading, feeding the wildlife in and around their home, being involved with their local church, and working on a novel she will never finish. She currently resides on forty acres of wooded land in Red Deer County with her husband, Peter, a photojournalist.

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