Sometimes, the most meaningful times of your life come when you least expect. I’d like to introduce you to Tio Marcel. He’s my uncle, well great-uncle, but he’s got a story that few do. He’s been on a hijacked plane, preformed surgeries (on animals), and is battling cancer. Tio Marcel is one of the most inspiring men I’ve ever met. Why? Because of his faith.
I said that he has a remarkable story. In some ways that is true, but I’m sure that if you asked him, he would disagree. We saw him last night for the first time in months. I love my uncle, but this time I was a little nervous to see him. Why? Because I didn’t know what to expect. You see, Tio Marcel has just been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. My uncle is dying. So, because of that, I wasn’t sure how I should act or respond to him. I thought that we should talk about it as little as possible, and try to not to offer condolences. But when he walked through our front door, everything changed.
Tio Marcel arrived at around 6:05 pm. We all said hi, but soon afterwards he and my dad left to go buy some steak (it’s sorta a tradition when he comes to visit). After they got home, my dad put the stuff on the grill, and we all stood around the kitchen to talk. One of the first things that came up was cancer.
Something stood out to me that night. It wasn’t that my uncle was dying, or how depressed he was. In all actuality, he was far from depressed. What stood out to me was his faith. Throughout the three whole hours we got to spend with “my favorite uncle” as he likes to be called, what I saw in him was dependence on His savior, a desire to make every. single. moment. count. He has a delight in his Savior that he says was fanned by suffering.
One of the first things he expressed after we sat down for dinner was a thankfulness for his suffering. Not for the fact that he must endure sickness, pain, and eventually death, but for how God was using his suffering. All of a sudden he had to be dependent on God. He had to trust God each day, and rely solely on His strength. As he said, “I really don’t see how any person could go through this without God. I really don’t.” He said that all the strength he had was from God, and recognized that God alone allowed him to keep focus, to not get depressed, and to use his last few years on earth to make a difference. Tio Marcel showed me with every word he spoke that his trust in God and dependence on God was his strength. Without God, he could do nothing. In fact, he said that he wished that he would have learned to trust God earlier. “I’m sixty,” he said, “kids, listen to me, you’re young, learn to love God and depend on Him.” And do you know what else he said? He said that his sickness has actually given him more of a love for God. He realized that he only recognizes the fullness of God’s goodness when he completely depends on God. I want to be like that.
He also explained how the Bible has come alive to him lately. Since he received his diagnosis in February, every verse he has read has spoken to him deeply. We talked about Hebrews, Timothy, James, and the gospels. He told us about verses whose meanings have grown exponentially to him in the past month. One of his favorites was in Hebrews. He explained to us again and again how verses that used to mean little or nothing to him now meant more than they ever did.
Another thing he mentioned was his joy in God’s gifts. He told us a story about a hike that he took with Aunt Nancy (his wife) and their three dogs a few weeks ago. He didn’t say much about the hike. Instead he told us about the conversation he had with his wife on the way back. He had been quiet most of the way home, but towards the end of their drive, he spoke up. “Nancy, I’ve been pretty quiet on this ride home, haven’t I?” She agreed. Then he explained why. It was because he had enjoyed that day so much! “Today was a good day,” he said. He loved the time they spent together on that hike with God, dogs, and nature. After his little narration, he explained the point behind it. He would have never enjoyed that hike as much if he wasn’t thankful that God was giving him that day. He was thankful for the time he had to spend with his wife, and simply for the ability to walk!
Then he had another example for us, and pulled something out of his pocket. Do you know what he showed us? A picture that my little sister had given him right after he arrived. Can you guess what he said? “Last time I was here, if she had given this to me, I would have said, ‘Thanks little one,’ but just thought it was kind of cute. I wouldn’t have kept it too long. Today, it’s different. Today it means so much to me!” He was telling us how he recognized that that little marker drawing was a symbol of my sister’s love for him. He realized that she was trying to tell him how much he meant to her, and that she wanted to see him more often.* He said that his illness has opened up his eyes to see things, and his heart to appreciate things, like he could never do before. I want to learn to enjoy things like my uncle does. In fact, as he said that, I remembered the drawings that had “mysteriously” appeared on my desk the previous day, which I had thrown away. I struggle to love God and the people of God. Do you?
I learned a lot from Tio Marcel just in terms of joy. But the next lesson he taught us surpassed those in a very helpful way.
My uncle is thankful for a slow, painful death. Even the painful part. He is not looking forward to his first round of chemo that starts next week (you can pray for him) or any of the other treatments he will have to receive. On the contrary, he’s dreading them. But he is thankful for the time his cancer is giving him. The very fact that he has cancer does two incredibly important things for him. First, it lets him be used by God to tell others about God. Second, it gives him time. In the past month, he has been able to share his faith every single day. From his coworkers at the college he works for, to his oldest sister who has never been willing to listen to anyone talk about the gospel. My uncle has spread the good news through his illness. In fact, he has been purposely telling people that he is sick with the hope that it would allow them to talk about Jesus. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this. When I asked him for permission, he said that he would love it if I would. Because the more of a difference his cancer makes in the lives of people, the more thankful he will be. He wants his illness to count for something, and he’s only got so much time to make sure it does.
Another reason that he is thankful for his cancer is because it gives him time to say goodbye. Everyone wishes that they would die suddenly, of old age, of course. But now that he has cancer, he sees how amazing the opposite of “quick” can be. Tio Marcel has three kids, a wife, and more extended family than you can imagine (which I’m so blessed to be a part of). Since he has cancer, his goodbyes will be slow. Last night was the first part of ours. And according to what he said, he is thankful. He is glad to have the time to let his kids know how much he loves them. He loves the fact that he has a few more years to grow older with his wife. And from what I can gather, he’s been spending a lot of time talking to my Oma (my grandmother and his sister) and his other siblings. Tio Marcel has the time to say goodbye. When the end comes, I’ll be crying, and so will the rest of his family. But last night, I purposely made a memory. For that, I am thankful. Tio Marcel said that he is willing to suffer through this cancer if only to have more time with his family. He wants to make his death easier on them, so he thanks God for every moment he has, recognizing that every extra moment will help his loved ones prepare for the final goodbye.
Tio Marcel isn’t your ordinary person, or veterinarian. In 1984, he, his wife, and their two kids spent over thirty hours on a hijacked plane. And now, over thirty years later, he is battling cancer. His hijacking was tough. From the articles I’ve read, and the first person narratives I’ve heard, it wasn’t easy. He had to rely on God for his strength. He said to us that God’s grace is sufficient for the time in which it is given. God gives us enough strength for today. He can’t imagine himself ever being a tough guy in a hijacked plane, yet he was. He planned the escape of the passengers while inside the plane. Today they are alive to tell the tale (the hijackers never got the chance to blow everyone up thanks to him). In that time of trouble, God sustained him and gave him wisdom and strength in his time of need. Today, though he never imagined being able to be strong through cancer, he is trusting in God for strength. God will never deny my uncle because he is a child of God, and God never denies his children.
So how about you? How have you suffered? Are you suffering right now? How is God using your sufferings to bring you closer to himself? Are you valuing the time you’ve been given? How is He using you to change the lives of others? How can you learn to trust Him more with your life? As you think about these questions, remember my uncle, and realize that even the most ordinary person can have an extraordinary story.
*Tio Marcel told her that he would hang it up in his office. Today, I found a banner my sister made. It said, “When you said you were going to hang up the picture I made you, you made me happy.”