When The Worst Happens
by Jana Alcorn with Karen Hardin
I knelt beside the bed in the darkened room with my 12-year-old son, Jordan. Night-time prayer had always been a special father/son event in our home, but now Bill was gone and I was left to fill the huge void that threatened to swallow us both. Overwhelming sorrow seemed to permeate the room as Jordan turned to me.
“Mom, Dad didn’t get to fulfill his purpose in life because his purpose was to raise me, and I’m not raised,” he said in a voice raw with emotion.
We had already been through so much in the last five years, and at that moment I felt completely defeated. To be honest, I simply wanted to die…
Like most people, I had dreams and high expectations for my life. When I was still young and naïve, I believed I could do anything with God’s help. Now almost thirty years later, I still believe that concept holds true, only I never imagined the twists, turns, and difficult circumstances that lay ahead on this journey we call life.
What do you do when the worst that can happen happens? I’ve had to find the answer to that question in ways I could have never imagined. Perhaps you find yourself facing impossible challenges. I can tell you from experience that no matter how hard, how painful, how impossible the situation may look, there is a place of hope and victory in your future if you won’t give up. Let me share with you how I found it.
“Please come to the ticket booth,” came the urgent message over the theatre sound system. The theatre was just one of the various places of refuge that Mom would take my brother and I to escape Dad’s alcoholic outbursts. Tonight was one of those instances. As we stood to make our way to the ticket booth, I caught the look of concern in Mom’s eyes. We didn’t know what to expect, but knew it was bad.
“Your house is on fire,” the manager informed Mom. My heart immediately began to race at the bigger danger that the manager couldn’t know. Dad was in the house.
Without hesitation we ran for the car. With the horn blaring the entire trip, we tore through the city streets reaching our neighborhood within minutes. Dark smoke billowed into the sky from what we knew must be our house. At the bottom of the hill of the final street leading home, we were met by a police officer who wouldn’t let us proceed any further. We learned later that by that time, our house was completely engulfed in flames.
We lost everything that night, except Dad. Somehow he had slipped out of the house in his drunken stupor and had fallen asleep in the woods completely oblivious to the peril.
While our location changed as we found a new home, our family dynamics remained the same as Dad’s drinking continued. The alcohol had the ability to transform his typical even temperament into an angry, out-of-control man which we all feared. We grew accustomed to quick flight, as we had that night at the theatre with Mom, remaining away until the effects of the brew wore off. It was on a similar night about six months later that another terrifying situation set into motion a chain of events that would forever change my family.
Dad had just received his paycheck and as had become his habit had stopped at the bootleggers before making his way home. By the time he arrived, the liquor was already working in his system. We knew the drill and were out the door making our way to the car and escape at the first opportunity. It was already way past our bed time when Mom cautiously pulled back into the driveway hoping Dad would be asleep. Instead, we were met by the biggest surprise of our lives as we walked in and found him weeping on the sofa.
“Betty, I want you and the kids to gather around me,” he said as he lifted his head to acknowledge our return. “I was almost killed in a switchblade fight tonight,” he said with shaking hands and a voice that broke with emotion. “I am making a change. Tomorrow we are going to church.”
True to his word, we were at church the next morning where not only Dad, but our entire family received the Lord in an encounter that was both real and lasting. Our family was amazingly changed that day and by my early teen years, I knew I wanted to serve the Lord in Christian ministry. That would include one day marrying a wonderful, godly man named Bill. Together we labored for God to help others. It was our thrill and our destiny. Life was good, but life was about to change.
The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 marked a significant change in our country and the lives of thousands who lost loved ones in that tragic event. And although our family personally did not lose a family member in the tragedy, I will always remember it as a season that started my plunge into five years of purging in my life. It began just a matter of weeks after that horrible event with what I refer to as a “death call.”
I had been out-of-state at a church for a one-day event. On this occasion my husband, Bill, and Jordan had remained at home.
After the evening service concluded I returned to the hotel and talked with Bill briefly on the phone. We were grateful for the ministry opportunity, but I was ready to return home to be with my family. Early the next morning, I was already packed and walking out the door of the hotel for the airport when the phone rang. With the convenience of mobile phones, I typically didn’t bother giving the hotel number to Bill or my assistant, choosing to communicate more easily via my own phone. As I reached for the phone in the room I wondered who could be calling. It was Mom. Immediately I knew it was a death call.
“Have you talked to Bill?” she asked, an urgency in her voice. “How about your brother?”
Immediately my mind began to catalog who the call might be about. I didn’t have to wait long.
“It’s Hayley,” Mom informed me. “She was killed last night in a car wreck,”
Hayley was Bill’s birth child, but had been in my life for the past sixteen years. I sat down dazed as my mind tried to make sense of the information while Mom continued with details of the single car accident which had claimed our daughter’s life.
“Mom, let me talk with Bill,” I pleaded wishing I was there with him instead of hundreds of miles away. I don’t remember the flight home or the drive from the airport, only walking into the house and into Bill’s arms. We both began to cry.
No parent should have to bury a child. It is an unnatural process, one in which no parent is really equipped to handle. As we drove to the funeral home and began to address the immediate needs in preparation for the funeral, we were simply walking through the motions still unable to process the reality that lay before us. Hayley would never call us again or walk through our door again.
Still reeling from the impact of her death, we were hit with two additional family funerals as six months later, Bill’s mom passed away followed just thirty days later by my dad.
Sitting at the foot of dad’s bed watching his labored breathing, my mind reflected on the incredible transformation of my once alcoholic father into one of the kindest, gentlest, and most loving husbands and fathers you could ever meet.
When it became apparent that the end was imminent, the entire family entered the room and stood around his bed as he drew his last breath and went home to heaven. We had lost three immediate family members in a matter of seven months, but the tragic events weren’t over.
The following year, Bill’s father joined his mother as one more family member in heaven. It just didn’t seem possible. The weight of our loss left our emotions ragged and spent. There had been no time to heal. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come.
It was now January 2005 approximately 21 months later. I was in Nicaragua with a ministry team in which we were feeding the children in poor villages. Many were living in what is considered to be the second largest garbage dump in the world. We were ministering to excruciating need during this outreach, but personally I was going through a horrific battle…a wilderness. With hot tears streaming down my cheeks, I cried out to God.
“I’m so broken, Lord. I don’t know if I have the strength to minister to these kids today.”
Immediately I heard His voice. The only way I can describe it is like a hand of steel on my heart wrapped in a velvet glove.
I had no idea how much I would have to lean on those words in the days to come.
Returning home from that trip, Bill, our son, Jordan, and I were all battling bad colds. It was one of those times in which we tried to make the most of a difficult situation, hunkering down with a bowl of hot chicken soup and a box of Kleenex, choosing to turn our “down time” into family time.
By February, Jordan and I were back on our feet, but Bill was still struggling with the annoying symptoms. He would pass off my concern with a shake of his head in an attempt to put my mind to rest.
“It’s just a persistent cold,” he insisted.
But as the weeks passed my concern grew until finally in March, Bill passed out after an uncontrollable fit of coughing. We rushed him to the hospital where he was admitted and diagnosed with pneumonia. Five days later, after antibiotics and additional tests, we were told that all other tests had come back negative eliminating a diagnosis of greater concern. Bill was expected to make a full recovery. Yet, in spite of the medicines and rest, his energy continued to wane. My husband is a big guy. At 6’1” and 12D shoes he is an individual that fills a room. Always energetic and passionate about life, I watched as it seemed the life was literally being drained from him. Finally he agreed to go with me to another hospital for additional testing.
This time they drained almost three liters of fluid from his lungs and immediately began tests and X-rays. Abnormalities were discovered resulting in a follow-up biopsy. We were sent home to await the results. Although we had put our trust in God, those were difficult days waiting for the unknown. But the words that followed were worse.
“Bill has cancer,” the oncologist explained giving voice to our worst fears. “He has maybe seven months to live.”
Bill had never smoked and was extremely sensitive about allowing others to smoke around him conscious of the dangers of even second-hand smoke. However, it wasn’t tobacco that had become the enemy, but ironically Bill’s sense of patriotic duty. Bill had volunteered to join the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Led by a sense of love for his country, he had inadvertently signed his own death warrant as he was one of many exposed to the deadly Agent Orange.
As ministers, we had assisted numerous people over the years who had faced this same diagnosis. I knew all the words to say, but as I rehearsed them in my mind, they did little to bring comfort. We tried to make sense of the diagnosis that changed our world in an instant, leaving us with many questions and few answers.
Aggressive chemotherapy was started immediately. We also researched the options of a lung transplant in addition to new, less tested treatments — anything that might help us gain an advantage over this new foe.
In the end the doctors were wrong. Bill didn’t have seven months. He had less than twelve weeks from the diagnosis to the grave. When he died so did all my dreams along with my desire to live.
As I knelt on the floor with Jordan that night for prayer, it was as if our world had stopped and there was no way to get it moving again. Tears and heartache had been our constant companion for so long that we had nothing left to give. Yet somehow, as I looked at Jordan’s pain-filled eyes, the depth of his statement exploded in my heart. Bill might not have been able to fulfill his purpose, but I would fulfill mine. That purpose was to raise our son to be a mighty man of God. As I sensed His strength begin to flood through me, He also reminded me of the call I had sensed on my life as a teen…that I was to help others. That was my destiny and no matter what life had thrown my way, I would fulfill it.
For the next six months living was a daily decision. I would drop Jordan off at school and then spend the next five to six hours driving around in my car shaking with pain and talking to God. I screamed. I cried. But I had a purpose as God walked with me through the grief. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am with you.
I have learned that when God says “trust Me,” he has a reason. It is a process in which I am still learning and growing, but in which I can say that I truly trust Him. He has been able to resurrect the dream in my heart and with each passing day restores my joy for living as I press on with the task he has given me to raise a godly son and fulfill my purpose for Him.