Although the death of one’s child has been called the most devastating loss a parent will ever experience, Jeff and Belinda Lams have found that God is still walking with them a year after losing their daughter, Aria, to leukemia.
Ten-year-old Aria Lams lies in her hospital bed. Nearby are her parents, Jeff and Belinda; her brother, Jordan; and a few friends. Aria was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 3 and a half. In the seven years since, she has won many victories, surviving two bone marrow transplants and numerous infections. But now the cancer is back, and her organs have shut down. She won’t make it the two months to her 11th birthday. Her parents and friends are praying, but it is 15-year-old Jordan who finds the strength to send her to her final victory.
“Go be with Jesus, Aria,” he says to his little sister. The praying stops and the room is silent. “You’ve suffered long enough. It’s your time to be with Him.”
Within moments, Aria is gone. “I can see her running,” Jordan says, his teenage voice filled with awe. “She’s strong. She has long, beautiful hair. She has a crown, and she’s throwing it off at Jesus’ feet.”
It has been just over a year since that day, Sept. 9, 2004. Jordan, now 16, has his driver’s license and is a junior in high school. Belinda is working on a fund-raiser for families in crisis. Jeff continues to play the keyboard for the Tommy Coomes Band, performing often at Franklin Graham Festivals. But the faith the Lams carry with them now is a proven faith–one that carried them through their darkest day; one that promises peace, whatever the storm.
“We say a lot about who we are in respect to our relationship to God and our faith,” Jeff says. “But what we say is nothing compared to being in a trial and being faced with it every day for seven years and not having any answers, outside of just falling on God’s grace and mercy every day, asking Him for wisdom and direction for the care of your child and your family. You can say, ‘This is what I believe in,’ but it doesn’t become a reality until you’re faced with that cross to bear in your life.”
In June 1997, Jeff and Belinda were traveling out of state when Aria became ill. She’d been having aches and pains for several weeks, but doctors couldn’t find anything wrong. When she started screaming with hip pain, Jeff and Belinda jumped on a plane and headed back to California.
Doctors took a sample of Aria’s bone marrow and found that she had leukemia. That day Jeff and Belinda followed the doctors around in a daze, sure that any moment they would wake up.
The next year was filled with chemotherapy treatments, infections and countless hospital stays. After an additional year of oral chemotherapy, Aria went into remission, but relapsed a month later. Doctors suggested a bone marrow transplant, and Jordan, then 11, was a perfect match.
Six months after the transplant, Aria relapsed again. The family had moved to a tiny New York apartment so Jeff could work on a Broadway musical. When Jeff and Belinda broke the news to the children, Jordan fell to the floor, crying.
“He thought that with what he offered with his bone marrow the first time, she would go on to live a very healthy life,” Jeff says. “So he felt to a certain degree that he had failed. We cried and cried together, and then we cried out to the Lord and prayed.”
Then, suddenly, Jordan–who would tease Aria when she was healthy and embrace her when she felt bad–started talking about hope and heaven and how everything was going to be all right. He knew that, whether on this earth or in heaven, God would take care of his little sister. A peace fell over them. Aria started thinking about the next step.
“Dad, what do you want me to do?” she asked, her blue eyes searching.
“Well, Aria, what have you done your whole life that you can remember?” Jeff responded.
“I have fought this,” Aria said.
“Well, we’re going to continue to fight it,” Jeff replied.
“OK,” Aria said. “Let’s go get pizza.”
Aria had always been strong. She had a keen sense of what was going on around her. When doctors mentioned a second transplant, she was ready, although she knew how slow and painful it would be to first eradicate her body of her own bone marrow.
“At one point she was on three IV antibiotics 24 hours a day for a month,” Jeff says. “Several times the doctors came to us and said, ‘We don’t think she’s going to make it.’ But she’d rally, and the Lord would heal her. She’d show up at school, and she’d get back into life again. She didn’t care if she was bald or sick. She just wanted to be a normal girl.”
After the second transplant, Aria was normal–for two and a half years. She grew her brown curls again, learned ballet, watched movies, performed in plays and dreamed of hosting a cooking show. Then–another relapse. There was no talk of a third transplant. She was too weak.
“Where are you at with things?” Belinda asked her. “Do you want to keep fighting?”
“I think if God were going to heal me, He would have done it already,” Aria said.
“Do you want to live?” her mom asked.
“Not like this.”
So, at Jordan’s soft command, that September day in the hospital, Aria went home to be with Jesus. She left the family with a stronger-than-ever grip on their faith and a clearer picture of God’s overall plan.
“When I think about how much I miss her, I can barely stand it,” Belinda says. “But when I walk in God’s bigger story–that we’re all going to die, that we’re all going to be with Him at some point–then I can function. I had to face leukemia. God picked that journey for our family, and my entire perspective on everything has been undone. God is undoing how I think, what I’ve made important, how I view today, how I view tomorrow, how I view eternity.”
From Aria, the family learned how to face fear and disappointment. “Strength is in being broken and dependent, and finding God,” Belinda says. “In the flesh, I feel exhausted. I feel despair–I feel undone. And in that, He’s there. In that, He holds me. In that, He loves me.”
Jeff adds, “When we live in authenticity, to God and each other, that’s when the Body of Christ can rise and be everything that Christ has called us to be to one another. And that’s what we saw time and time again during Aria’s illness.”
When Jeff and Belinda were overcome with tears the night Aria was diagnosed, they were comforted by a minister down the hall whose daughter had the same condition. Friends constantly came to sit and cry with them in the hospital. When Aria needed her second transplant, Jeff’s Broadway friends produced a CD in two weeks that raised $65,000, which covered the $64,000 they needed for the procedure.
“God has kept me in a place of complete brokenness before Him,” Jeff says. “He’s always in the process of tearing down the ideas and the paradigms that we’ve built to show us what the truth is. The process of transformation is not my process–it’s His.”