I walked into the apartment where my perfectly put-together aunt was waiting. I would be staying with my cousin while my aunt made a quick day trip to Houston. She showed me the hospice care instructions neatly printed on a note pad. She showed me the medications, the necessary ones and the in-case-of-emergency ones.

I didn’t understand all the big names, so I amended the instructions with my own notes, like “take this one if she throws up.”

I remember when Allyson’s cancer returned most recently. It was August two years ago. I was standing on a curb in Denver outside of my parents’ house when she called from children’s camp. She already had a scheduled surgery. The cancer was raging and moving quickly through her body.

I’ve never seen someone fight so hard like Allyson has—someone who stares down pain even when it steals everything from her. She has some kind of ridiculous determination, a goal invisible to outsiders. And with all of her physical and emotional force, she’s kept moving toward life—a life that was moving farther and farther away from her.

With each round of chemo, she’d dig in her heels, fighting to get 5 more months, 5 more weeks, 5 more days with her three sons.

Allyson’s the best mom I know and she knows how to raise boys.

It turns out that cancer can’t steal your mom skills. .

Allyson’s situation makes me question everything I know about the suffering we’re allowed to endure.

She shouldn’t have to go through this—not when she’s so needed, loving and faithful. And why does the suffering have to be so intense? Why isn’t death the peaceful journey I want to pretend it is?

“Christina,” my aunt said, “If she dies while you’re here you’ll remain calm, right? And then call me.”

I nodded.

Aunt Pat kissed her daughter goodbye while Allyson held her arm.

“I love you with my whole heart,” she says, which she’s said as long as I’ve known her.

Then, after final instructions on the oxygen and bolus, she left.

I sat next to my cousin.

“It’s just you and me,” I said.

“Are you overwhelmed?” she asked.

“No, only because I’m expecting you to take care of yourself,” I said, smiling. “You know more about being on hospice than I do. Now that your mom is gone we can make inappropriate jokes about cancer and dying.”

“I know. I’m excited.  Oh, and after i take a nap, I want you to take me to Chipotle.”

“Your mom is gonna kill me.”

Throughout her struggle, Allyson keeps saying she only has Jesus. And she means it: “Besides you, what do I have on heaven or on the earth?”

I don’t understand how, but for Allyson, the nearness of God is what is good to her. God is her refuge.

Over the last couple years, she has spoken of slats of light in the midst of her darkest days. Now, the days are getting more defeating and discouraging, and yet even in this place of dark, there are pockets of light—somehow little pieces of light still slip in, even here at the end. The dark is overwhelming, but there’s no denying the stubborn nightlight in the corner.

Hope remains.

Jesus is all Allyson has.

Her boys love her. Her family loves her. She has an incredible mom, dad, brother and sister. Friends and church and random people she’s never met are drawn to God through her.

She causes others to thirst for Christ because she lives out of a deep desperation for God.

Jesus is not a source among others—Jesus is her sole source for life and satisfaction.

Allyson’s heart verses are from Psalm 73: My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

There is no promise that our heart and our flesh won’t fail. It almost seems inevitable, whether it is momentary pain or deep devastation. The trauma and angst of pain will come, but in this place of solitary confinement, something happens: strength is accessible. God is near. God is so near that he becomes refuge. God is so real that he becomes our provision. Even when you’re starved and cut off from anything else this world extends, provision is still accessible. God still remains.

There’s always a nightlight in the corner.

And Allyson has found him not only where she least expected him, but where she least wanted to be.

Hope shouldn’t live when life is so terrible. But, water shouldn’t come out of rocks. Blind people shouldn’t be able to see. Dead people shouldn’t be able to live.

And yet, these things happen.

Because flesh and heart aren’t all we have. Love, family, health and stability will never be enough. Beyond what we can obtain or even maintain, we have God. A God who is present to us whether or not we are present to him. A God who always provides hope in surprising places. The pain doesn’t always dissipate, but no pain is strong enough to kill the presence of Jesus.

Nothing puts out the nightlight.

That’s why Allyson has had strength to fight. She fights for her boys, but she is sustained by the strength of God—a strength that often flies in the face of pragmatism.

My flesh. My heart. Any other element on which I’m convinced I can rely—all of these can and will fail.

But God.

God. Both now and forever.

In sickness and in health.

In life and in death.

“But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge.”

Allyson has listened to me as I've wondered if refuge in God even matters. And she's commiserated, but she’s decided that yes—from her experience with such deep losses, yes. Refuge and strength are found in nearness to God.

Take it or leave it.

Lean into God, even in the form of tiny slats of light, or be buried under the darkness.

“You’re ready to go, aren’t you?” I asked her recently.

“YES!” She said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve been telling you that for weeks!”

I smiled.

She wants to go to the place where the refuge is even more tangible.

“Whom have I in heaven but you?

And besides you, I desire nothing on earth.”

Hope is now. Hope is hers. Strength is present.

Even while she waits.

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