[FYI, the yearly wrap-up posts are long. Feel free to skip it. I mostly do these for myself.]
I think it’s about time for an update. This is late, practically a year late. Basically to the point of being ridiculously late, but until now I just couldn’t.
At the beginning of last year, I wrote a wrap-up post for 2016, which had proven to be a really difficult year. If you remember, I have this habit of naming years in my head, and 2016 was “The Year of the Two HMA’s.” I was late writing it, and I didn’t get it posted until the middle of March. I finished up that post with these words: “It is yet to be seen what kind of name 2017 will end up with in my head. But I’ll be sure to let you know.”
I had no idea when I wrote those words that we were just a couple of weeks away from having a bombshell dropped on our family. Because I was about to learn that 2017 was “The Year We Found Out Lacey Had Brain Cancer.”
I’m not going to write extensively about my thoughts on all of that at this point. It will come. Maybe. But for now I’m going to try to at least walk through the events of the year so that I’ll have them written down.
2017 went a little something like this….
In January, we took a trip to Mississippi for my little sister’s wedding. I had spent a couple of weeks trying to round up everything we’d need, because it should come as no surprise that we don’t really have fancy clothes or winter clothes here in Arequipa. We finally made it to the airport on our departure day, only to have the fog roll in. And in Arequipa, fog means the planes are grounded. So we waited at the airport all day long, and they ended up canceling all the flights. So we went back home, went to bed, and tried again the next day. More fog. So we waited at the airport for the entire day AGAIN (which was by this point filled with lots of screaming angry people), only to be sent home that night. On the 3rd day, I was starting to panic, because it was just a few days until the wedding, and I was afraid we wouldn’t make it. But thankfully the fog lifted long enough that a couple of flights got off the ground, and we made it out of the city. It only took us 50 extra hours added onto our itinerary, but we finally made it to Mississippi, and my kids never wanted to see an airport again.
The wedding was amazing. Janie was a fairytale princess. My boys were in awe; it was their first American wedding and they’d never seen anything like it. Lacey and I had the privilege of standing up front with her as her matrons of honor, and we cried as we watched our baby sister take her vows. The reception was at my parents’ house, and we all had so much fun dancing to the amazing band. My boys fell in love with the Pettis girls (whom I’ve known almost my entire life… my boys have good taste), and they had so much fun with their “dates.”
After the wedding festivities, we packed up and drove to Chattanooga to spend a little time with Nate’s mom and brothers. His mom spoiled us with a little overnight date, so we snuck away to downtown Chattanooga while the boys had fun “Mammaw time.” Nate and I stayed at the Read House, which was special because we haven’t been back since we stayed there on our wedding day in 2004. It was neat to be back. After a few days with the family in Chattanooga, we drove back to Mississippi to squeeze in a couple of medical appointments (mainly with Barrett’s pediatric cardiologist) and throw a fun little birthday party for my mom before heading back to Peru.
We left Mississippi on the first day of February, and we even though we always hate the goodbyes, we were excited to get back to Peru. While we had been away for the wedding, the Goots (our teammates, the Gutierrez family) had arrived after their HMA! We’d been apart for months, so it was so wonderful to get to be reunited. They were exhausted from all of their traveling and support-raising, but they were motivated to jump back into ministry after so long away.
We all hit the ground running and started making ministry plans for the year. Now that the whole team was back in one place, we were able to start back with some of the ministry activities we’d had to put on pause. We were busy again with things like “Noches de ROCA” (Wed. night discipleship and prayer meetings), youth group meetings, counseling, and bible studies.
At home, the kids and I jumped back into homeschool after their break from the holidays and the wedding. Barrett spent the month wearing an old-school heart monitor because he’d had a few abnormalities over the past several months, and the doctor wanted to know if the high altitude in Arequipa was affecting it. It drove Barrett a little crazy, but he handled it like a champ.
In March, we continued ahead with our normal ministry events, plus a few special events like a church-wide beach retreat to Camaná (a beach about 3 hrs away) and a New Members class. We also started our Sunday School classes back up and started incorporating a “Children’s Sermon” into the service each week, and Nate and Nathaniel took a trip to Cusco for a presbytery meeting. In the middle of the business, we had a 12-day (!!!) water cut, which was the longest stretch without water we’ve had yet. It was not fun. (Still not as bad as the time we had a 6-day water outage along with our most violent stomach bug to date…that one was worse.)
We also had a couple named the McCalls come to visit our team here in Arequipa to talk more about missions and get a feel for what ministry in Peru might look like. We had a great time hosting them and getting to know them for a week or so, and we looked forward to seeing what God might do in the future through that connection. [spoiler alert: we were excited to extend an invitation for the McCalls to join our team, which they accepted. They’ll hopefully join us on the field when they finish their support-raising!]
And then came April. On April 5, I received a phone call that suddenly shifted everything. My mom called to tell me that doctors had just discovered that my big sister Lacey had a large brain tumor, and they were pretty positive it was cancerous and very aggressive. Everything stood still. The next couple of days were extremely emotional, and Nate and I began making a plan for what we should do. In the meantime, Janie and I created the Love For Lacey Facebook page where we announced the news and asked people to join us in prayer. We knew that Lacey would most likely need a very delicate brain surgery in the next several days, plus weeks or months of treatment. We decided that we would fly back to Mississippi to be present for the surgery, and that the boys and I would stay on in Mississippi for an indefinite amount of time to help out as needed with Lacey’s family. So we packed our bags and I loaded up our homeschool into suitcases, and we flew back a couple of days after receiving the news.
Lacey’s surgery was 2 days after we arrived, the Wednesday in the middle of Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. She went home from the hospital on Good Friday. We celebrated the resurrection as a family together on Easter morning, and it was beautiful.
After the surgery, the biopsy showed that Lacey’s cancer was indeed a stage 4 glioblastoma. She would need aggressive treatment for the rest of her life. Even though we all knew that it was the expected result of the biopsy, it was still hard for all of us to hear the official diagnosis. But we cling to the truth that God’s will is good and right, and that his plan for Lacey’s life is for her good and His glory, however it may unfold. We know this is true, and we believe it.
Nate stayed in Mississippi with us for about 2 weeks altogether before needing to head back to Peru, but the boys and I stayed to help with Lacey’s 4 kids and errands and treatments and anything else that we could do. Plus, to be honest, I just couldn’t imagine getting on a plane and being a continent away, so I was glad that there was a way that I could help. Lacey had a couple of weeks to rest and recover from surgery, then started chemotherapy and radiation.
By May, I was busy helping in Mississippi and missing Nate like crazy, and he was back in Peru getting ready for a short-term team to arrive. Our home church (Madison Heights Church) was planning to send 5 guys to Arequipa to help with a project to install large water tanks on the homes of various members of our congregation who had regular needs for water. (When you live in the desert, the need for water becomes a stark new reality on a day-to-day basis.) I was sad that I wasn’t going to be there to help host. It worked out well though, because since the boys and I weren’t there at our home in Arequipa, there was plenty of extra space and beds for the 5 short-term team members. So instead of staying in their hotel as planned, they just stayed with Nate in our house. They worked hard and accomplished a lot in a few short days, but they were all worn out by the end!
Meanwhile, back in Mississippi, our whole extended family and tons of Lacey’s friends were working together to help Lacey and her family get through all of her weeks of treatment. It was all hands on deck, and so much support flowed in from all directions. Meals were brought every single day to Lacey’s house and to my parent’s house in order to feed the masses. Different people drove Lacey to every single appointment and treatment since she couldn’t drive and needed extra help with some of her day-to-day tasks following the surgery. Friends and classmates helped Lacey’s kids with every single activity, including their schoolwork on their 3 “at-home” days per week. (Her children attend a university-model school where they do their work in class 2 days and at home the other 3, so it is like partial homeschooling in a sense.) There was such love and support and practical help from every corner. Lacey’s community rallied around her like I’ve never seen, and it was an amazing thing to be a part of.
Nate and I were doing the best we could to keep some things “normal” while we were apart. We knew it would be hard on the kids (especially on Luis) for our family to be split for so long. Through Facetime, we tried to keep up with the routine of Nate reading to the kids before bed. They called him often and video chatted every chance they got. Noah and Barrett understood for the most part what was going on, at least as well as they could at that age. They missed Nate, but they knew where he was and they understood why we had stayed in Mississippi for longer. But Luis struggled significantly, and he didn’t quite understand what had happened and his anxiety peaked.
Near the end of May, Nate and I had the chance to sneak away for a weekend. We had been looking at tickets to see if there was anywhere at all that we could get to cheaply so that we could see each other in the middle of our stretch of being apart. Flying from Arequipa to Mississippi is expensive, and we thought there had to be an inexpensive option somewhere, and we didn’t care where. He finally found a couple of cheap tickets to Miami. We met there for a long weekend and it was so nice to get to spend a few days together after being apart during such an emotionally intense and weary time. It was such a blessing, but it was also really hard to leave him in the airport afterwards and head back to Mississippi alone, where every day held such intense emotional weight.
The twins turned 7 at the beginning of June, and we celebrated with a party at my parents house. The boys also had the chance to attend VBS at Highlands Pres (the church I grew up in and that my parents and Lacey’s family still attend). Those kinds of things aren’t really a possibility for them in Peru, so I was glad they had the chance to go! On the 9th, the kids and I headed back to Peru. I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder time saying goodbye than I did on that day. The boys were also more emotional than normal because they didn’t want to leave their cousins that they’d been spending so much time with. Luis, in particular, struggled intensely because he hadn’t seen Nate since the beginning of April and was afraid we would get back to Peru to find that he had left us. Luis’s abandonment fears run deep, and his anxiety that his dad was gone forever came out in full force on that trip back. It was hands down my worst travel experience to date, and I was a sobbing mess by the time we arrived in Arequipa.
We didn’t rest long, though, because I had to jump back into the government process for my Peruvian driving license as soon as I got back (which is a long and difficult and MISERABLE process!). I was also determined to finish out our homeschool year by the end of the month so that we could take July off from school and have at least a few weeks of “summer break.” We finished at the end of the month and celebrated with ice cream! Meanwhile, back in Mississippi, Lacey finished up her radiation, and we waited to hear results from her first scans.
In July, I struggled. I had expected to come back to Peru and be able to jump back in to life and ministry, but instead I found myself getting depressed as I tried to manage being so far away while Lacey continued battling her cancer. I kept feeling myself slipping emotionally, but I couldn’t explain it. We were still busy with ministry, but I just wasn’t myself. I decided to pursue some counseling through the resources with our missions agency, and my amazing counselor helped me process through some of what I was feeling. I continued working with her for the next several months. I also continued on with the driving license process, which felt overwhelming at times. I failed the first time even though I had performed well on the test, because the evaluators wanted a bribe. The second time I took the test, I stalled the car out repeatedly because I was so nervous (you have to use a stick-shift for the test), and I failed AGAIN. I was so frustrated!! But we had some good things that month as well… We celebrated 4 years with Luis in our family, and a few days later he turned 8 years old (although he was sick that day). We also celebrated Nate’s 33rd birthday.
August was busy. Nate finally found a good property to rent for the seminary he’d been making plans for. He was excited to start trying to turn some of his ideas into reality. We signed the lease on the property and started doing some work on the place. We also started our new homeschool year on the 7th, and I was glad to get back into a solid daily routine again. Noah and Barrett started 2nd grade and Luis started another kindergarten-ish year (it doesn’t really line up with a grade since it’s special-ed for his special needs and learning issues). I FINALLY passed my driving test and received my Peruvian drivers license! And on the up-side, since my process had taken so much longer than the rest of the team, the law happened to change in the middle of it and my license is good for 10 years instead of 2. So I won’t have to go through that again for a LONG time!!
We also hosted an MTW Vision Team for our missions agency in August. They brought down a group of people from all over the U.S. who wanted a better view of missions and life on the field. I continued with some counseling, and when Lacey’s birthday rolled around on August 16th, I struggled with being so far away. So I made a big purple birthday cake and we celebrated her from here! Nate and I also celebrated our 13th anniversary with a fun progressive dinner at various stops around town. Nate had to do a bit of traveling at the end of the month to attend presbytery meetings here in Peru, and we wrapped up the month with a big virus that swept through the whole family.
We started September off with a much-needed family weekend away. Well, it wasn’t that far away… we drove to a great hiking place about an hour outside of town, and we hiked up to a really cool waterfall. We let the kids explore, we caught some tadpoles to take home with us (aka homeschool science class), and we stayed at a hotel with a pool. It was nice to spend 48 hours just reconnecting as a family. Nate continued on with plans for the seminary, and we kept working on the property that we had leased. On the 18th, we celebrated 5 years on the field (our “missioniversary”), and we were so thankful for the way that the Lord had continued to confirm to our hearts over and over again that this life of missions is what we are called to. It’s hard being a world away from those we love, but God just keeps reminding us that he holds us and sustains us, no matter what. Later in the month, Nate and Nathaniel had to fly to Greece for a couple of weeks to attend some leadership meetings with our missions agency, and Alicia headed back to the US to see her family. The boys and I stayed here in Arequipa, and I was not a fan of being the only one here! I was so thankful when all of them landed back in Peru again!
In October, we started prepping for another trip back to the U.S., this time for Nate and Nathaniel to attend the Global Missions Conference in order to do some recruiting. While they worked on their plans for the conference, continued on in ministry at La Roca, and moved forward with plans for the seminary, the kids and I continued on in homeschool. We released the tadpoles we had caught and raised, and I took each of the kids on a mother/son date night in order to spend a little non-school time with each of them. I definitely need to do that more often! We also cheered Peru on as the national team played some qualifying matches for the World Cup. We cheered for Colombia as well, and invited everyone from church over for the Colombia vs. Peru game. We were excited when both countries qualified!
In November, we boarded flights for the U.S. Nate and Nathaniel went to the Global Missions Conference they’d been prepping for. They had a booth featuring the various work happening in Peru, and they gave a presentation at the conference as well. They also got the chance to see some of our great friends who were attending the conference, and I was sad I didn’t get to see them, too! But I was thankful that when Nate flew to the conference, the boys and I flew to Mississippi. I was so excited to see my sister again and get to spend time with my family! While we were there, my little sister Janie and her husband announced that they would be moving from Chicago back to Mississippi. When Nate finished with the conference, he joined us in Mississippi, and we stayed there through the Thanksgiving holiday. It was one of the sweetest trips back to Mississippi I’ve ever had because it was filled with such intentional family time . But once again, it was really hard to leave at the end of the month.
At the beginning of December, we were back in Peru and I pulled all of our Christmas decorations down from the storage room. I was struggling with preparing myself for the holiday, because I knew I would have a hard time being away from my family this year. But it wasn’t long before Nate came and told me that my mom had called, and she had offered to fly us back to Mississippi for Christmas if we could manage to get away. I was so thankful! The kids and I flew back about a week and a half before Christmas without telling anyone, and we were able to show up and surprise Lacey, who had said that all she wanted for Christmas was her entire family in one place. (Here’s the surprise video.) Nate finally joined us a couple days before Christmas, and we were all together. It was a really sweet time with my family, and I was so glad to get to spend the holiday with all of them.
We flew back to Peru on New Years Eve, and we were somewhere over the ocean when we said goodbye to 2017. To be honest, much of the year was a blur. I struggled emotionally in a deeper way than I have in a really long time, and I felt like I was split between two completely different worlds. I feel such a strong calling to missions and to life on the field, but I also felt such a strong pull back to Mississippi for the first time. It was hard to figure out how to navigate a consistent longing to be back there with my family, while at the same time being convinced that we were supposed to stay right where we were in Peru. But ultimately, I just felt thankful that God had given us such a peace regarding where we should be. And I clung to his promises that he’s not just sovereign, but that he is good. He knows every corner of my heart. He knows every cell in Lacey’s brain and exactly how many seconds she (or any of us) has left. While this year might have blindsided all of us, it came as no surprise to him, and he will bless us abundantly and show us his mercy and goodness even through this.
And so 2017 was the year that we found out Lacey had brain cancer. And it was also the year where God showed himself faithful and true and good, yet again. And he will do it again next year. And the one after that. For the rest of eternity.