She rolled the dice. A five and a two. Her blue eyes gleamed as she said with great confidence:
“I’m putting my seven in the ONES column, Mama.”
I looked at her, surprised. The highest number you can get in this game is a nine, and the goal of the game is to create a three-digit number that is greater than your opponent’s number. She’d gotten a seven on her first roll and it seemed reasonable – smart, even – to put that number in her hundreds column.
I pointed to the empty hundreds space on her board.
“Are you sure? You haven’t filled in that space yet…and seven is a pretty high number.”
The smug grin that only a seven-year-old can pull off creased her face.
“Oh, I’m sure, Mama. I know I can beat a seven. I just know it.”
That one. She’s like her Daddy. I’m more cautious, always taking the safe road, not taking any chances. But Kevin was competitive. He liked to push the edges, liked to go for it.
He liked to really live.
I remember sitting on the edge of Kevin’s hospital bed, clutching his hand, absorbing the blows of the surgeon’s words.
“I wish I didn’t have to tell you this,” he started, then broke down. This man of God, this doctor who prayed with us and for us, who wanted so much to serve God and heal the sick – he cried for us that afternoon. It was the day before the surgery. The day before we’d remove some colon, remove the tumor, then do some chemo, and get back to our life with our curly-haired, blue-eyed toddler.
“The cancer…it’s already spread into both lungs and the liver. The PET confirmed it. I suspected it after the CT scan the other day, but I didn’t want to alarm you until I knew for sure,” he continued haltingly through his tears.
I’m sure he said more, but neither of us heard it. We sat frozen on the bed as he took our hands and we formed a prayer circle right there in the middle of the hospital room. His words floated over us, circled around us, and we turned it over to God, the only One in control of this spiraling nightmare. And God held us tightly, giving us a peace and strength beyond anything I’d ever felt before.
That night, I curled up on the hospital bed with Kevin and we hugged each other with the urgency you feel after you’ve been brushed by the angel of death’s wings. We whispered promises and prayers and Kevin declared:
“I’m a fighter. I will fight this.”
We met our oncologist and he was hesitant to give a figure, but admitted, based on research and experience, we might have two, maybe three years.
“That would not be unreasonable,” he said, quietly answering the question I’m sure each of his first-time patients put to him: How much time to we have?
“No,” declared Kevin. “I’ll beat that.”
And he did. Nothing spurred Kevin’s competitive juices like hearing cancer statistics. He was going to beat the odds, going to prove that stage four colon cancer did not mean instant death. The cancer fought back, and sometimes it was hard to tell which side the chemotherapy was on. It effectively halted cancer’s stealthy growth at times, but decimated Kevin’s energy. His appetite left, his hair thinned, his face broke out in horrific pustules, but one thing never changed.
His belief that he could beat the numbers.
He was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in June 2008. He took his last breath, with me lying by his side on our bed, in April 2013.
Almost five years. He battled and fought and we prayed and loved for five years.
Cancer did not win. It claimed that three was the highest number we could possibly get, and only that if we were lucky. Kevin shook his head, grinned determinedly, and he won.
He won five years with me and our daughter, making memories, ensuring that she would know him. She was only two when he was diagnosed and he knew he had to hang on longer than the two, maybe three, years suggested. He won five years of showing her what faith looks like and what courage in God offers and how to love and how to fight and how to not back down when it’s all just too hard. She grew up in those five years, faster than a child should have to, but she grew up knowing her Daddy and learning to be just like him.
Her Kevin-blue eyes sparkled as she rolled the dice on her last turn, eyeing the “8” I’d just written in my hundreds column.
“I can do it, Mama, don’t worry!” she chortled, her Daddy’s competitive drive coursing through her.
She shook her hands together again, the dice clicked and clacked. Released in the air, they tumbled across the table, and winked their four and five eyes at me.
Heaven shook with Kevin’s laughter as his daughter beat the numbers.
I worry about her, about us, about how we live without him, about how she grows up without him. But she’s showing me every day that she’s going to be okay, because she’s loving and spirited and curious and determined to beat the numbers that come along in this imperfect world.
Just like her Daddy.