“They thought she had a fibroid tumor; but the Thursday before her surgery, they called us again and said, ‘You need to come in. It’s not a fibroid tumor. You have cancer.’”
Pastor Mark Portis looked at his 42-year-old wife, Anna. Her diagnosis was a shock. With two teenage daughters and God-given musical talent, Anna was an inspirational ministry leader. Recently, she had felt called into full-time music ministry and was finishing her undergraduate degree before she started seminary.
Anna was an involved mother and supportive pastor’s wife, and her voice was known to other members of the church choir as “the voice of an angel.” Luckily, the doctors caught her cancer early: stage one.
“For a year and a half, almost two years after that, everything looked great,” says Mark.
Springtime two years later, Anna walked in the Relay for Life as a cancer survivor. Her body was healthy, her spirit strong. And in April, she went in for another check-up. But this time, the cancer had returned.
“It was very, very serious,” says Mark. “And this time she lost her hair.”
By October, she had completed six treatments of chemotherapy, and signs were good. When November came, she felt weak from the continuous treatments and started using a cane to walk.
“Let’s keep doing what we’re doing,” the doctors said to Mark and Anna. “Let’s do four more treatments.”
When December arrived, the Portises walked into the doctor’s office for Anna’s next treatment, and they heard a strange response:
“We’re going to send you home,” the doctor said.
“So are you going to change and try something else?” Mark asked.
“No, there’s nothing I can do that’s going to do any good. It’s going to make her sicker, but it’s not going to make her any better.”
That afternoon, December 20, the couple went home, and Anna wrote out her complete funeral arrangements. She knew the songs she wanted. She knew the scripture. She knew where she wanted to be buried, at her home church.
“We didn’t talk a lot during those days,” says Mark. “She was on pain medicine. She would get up and try to eat a little bit. The medicine just made her so drowsy. We thought there was going to be more time.”
On Friday, December 29, she felt stronger and was able to stay awake for several hours.
“The girls and I cooked dinner,” Mark says. “She loved shrimp. We cooked her a really good meal, and she ate very well and had a really good day.”
But then on New Year’s Eve, the pain medicine wasn’t working.
“That morning we ended up having to take her to the hospital just to get her relief from pain,” says Mark. “We were working on transferring her to hospice. They put her in a room, and I looked over there, and she had stopped breathing. It was very quick.”
The church was packed wall-to-wall for the 45-minute service. Music swelled to the ceiling. The funeral was a praise service full of gratefulness to God for Anna’s life. Mark stood to thank those who had come. After that, numb from head to toe, he sat down on the pew. His mind was still. Anna’s battle was finished.
“I never felt anger at God,” Mark says. “And I don’t think Anna ever felt bitter or angry. Confused, maybe.”
Why would God call Anna to use her talents for Him, yet call her home before she felt she had used her talents fully for ministry? She had been awarded a scholarship at the University where she would soon receive her degree.
“I remember at one point,” Mark says, “it was the day or two after they told her there wasn’t any more they could do. She was lying down, and I put a towel on her pillow. I gave her the medicine and kind of tucked her in, and she was kind of turned away from me. And she just said, ‘I’m not afraid anymore.’ So she just had a peace.”
Anna’s peace had come to her, an eternal peace that God would take care of her even if things were not as she had intended–and not as He had intended either. Yet Mark’s journey was only beginning.
“I don’t know if it was denial or what it is,” says Mark. “But I don’t think at any time I thought she was going to die. I really thought all the time that her chemo was going to work, and she was going to be fine. It never crossed my mind as a possibility.”
The church rallied around Mark and his daughters like a family. They felt the prayers of the congregation lift them up through the first stages of realizing what had happened. Mark knew God had sent him to this church to be with these people, whose love carried him, even overwhelmed him.
“After that, I just immersed myself into work. I just took care of everybody else,” says Mark.
His youngest daughter turned 18 and graduated from high school that spring. When summertime came, both daughters were consumed with college and commitments. Church life continued. Mark read prayers, visited congregants, conducted services, served communion, and busied himself with work.
The rest of the year burned up in a fire of activity.
“I thought if I could just get through that first year, then I’d be through it.” Mark says. “But then there’s the second year.”
That spring, Mark drifted lower into a sea of depression. In three weeks, he lost 40 pounds. It was a sign. Grief had stacked up inside his soul. Darkness was weighing him down, weakening body and spirit.
“I remember one day, I was getting ready to come here to church,” Mark says. “I went outside to get in the car, and I walked around in the yard for awhile and came inside and just bawled. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. It was like God spoke to me and said, ‘It is time to do some grief work.’ And I thought, ‘You know, I have not grieved.'”
For a few weeks, Mark dug through the boxes of Anna’s clothes that he had packed in the attic. He took her shawl down from the coat rack. He dumped the contents of her purse out on the bed.
“I just cried like a baby,” he says. “It was my way of saying goodbye. Her eyeglasses were lying there on the dresser. It was all things, and she would never have another thing. After awhile, the things are just things, and what’s more important are the memories.”
It was time for prayer and solitude. It was time to mourn and weep uncontrollably. It was time to search his soul.
“I started thinking, ok, I’m 55 years old. Dad is 85 years old. I thought, ‘If I live as long as Dad, I’ve got a third of my life left.’ So really it was like coming out of the tomb. It was a resurrection.”
Mark took down the invisible barriers he had placed between himself and others in regard to his personal grief. He shed the graveclothes that had wrapped around him.
“I let go and talked to people,” he says. “There were five of us who lost our wives within six months in this church. I’ve been very close to those men that otherwise I would not have been. We were able to talk and experience what it’s like together. And so it was just a process. It was a time of also growing closer to God. It deepened me spiritually.”
Mark got out a journal and started recording his incessant thoughts.
One day, he wrote:
“This morning I read where Paul says, ‘In everything give thanks for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.’ Today, I thank God for my pain. It’s a hard thing to do, to see my pain as a gift from God.
God gives us pain to tell us when something is wrong. And the pain must not be avoided by trying to go around it, over it, or under it. I must walk through it, for on the other side is Him and wholeness.
I recall the movie ‘Star Trek IV: The Final Frontier,’ where captain Kirk and his crew must deal with Zybog, who hijacks the Enterprise in an obsessive search for God. Zybog has the power to take away people’s pain and leave them in a state of euphoria. I remember the scene where Captain Kirk says, ‘I don’t want my pain taken away; I need my pain.’
As Rabbi Harold Kuschner said, ‘Dead cells like hair and fingernails feel no pain when they are cut, but living cells bleed and hurt. When I experience pain and hurt, it reminds me that I am a living soul.’
Though the journey through my pain is difficult, I have never felt more alive.
Thank You, God, for the gift of my pain. But more than that, thank You that with the gift of pain, You also give the gift of Your healing love and mercy, presence and grace, promise and assurance, that out of the shadows come life and light.”
THE LETTING GO
As Mark wrote in his journal, the guilt and regret haunted him again. He and Anna had trusted the doctors, but what might have happened if they had gone through with surgery earlier? What if he had been more aggressive? He faced his anger and regret.
“That was part of the letting go, too,” he says. “Just realizing that we did the best we could do with the information we had at the time. We can’t go back and change that.”
He allowed himself to go back to the memories, to appreciate the good times that they had lived together. Through it all, God’s place of supremacy in Mark’s life was never shaken.
“My experience, at least, was not something that left me bitter or far from God,” he says. “If I had all the answers, it wouldn’t change anything. She would still be gone.”
And so, after two years of numbness, after he had grieved Anna’s death for several weeks full-time, he was ready to move on.
Mark returned to ministry with a new understanding for others. Before, he had never been able to fully empathize with those who were grieving. Now he could grieve alongside them and see hope on the other side of sorrow.
After going through the grieving process, one day, Mark looked at his computer screen and read a Bible verse he had printed out some months before: “I will bless you future and fill it with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
“I thought, ‘I’ve still got a future, and God wants to bless it with all His good things,'” Mark says. “It was a turning around and transformation that I had.”
On July 3rd, an advertisement for a Christian online dating service came on TV as Mark was watching. This was exactly what so many friends had suggested he try.
“I wonder what kind of questions they ask,” Mark thought. Out of curiosity, he visited the website to see all the areas of compatibility. He spent a long time scrolling through the forms and choosing the descriptions that matched him in order to see what the online service was all about.
“I didn’t realize that once you submit, they start sending you matches,” Mark says. Once he understood his profile was online, he decided to go back and update it with his picture.
That was July 4th, the same day a woman named Jan, who had lost her husband to cancer nine years earlier, finished her profile. Within 48 hours, Mark and Jan were able to unlock information about each other and see how much they had in common.
“In your profile, it says, ‘What is the last book you have read?’ and the last book I had read was Jennifer Rothchild’s book, Lessons I Learned in the Dark ».”
It was the same book Jan had just finished reading.
“To this day, I don’t know where that book came from,” Mark says. “The only thing I can think is that Anna bought that book and put it on the shelf. ”
In the coming months, Mark and Jan met each other and began praying about where God might take their relationship. God’s answer was clear that they should be together.
“One of the scriptures for our wedding is, ‘I will return to you the years that the locust has taken away,’ and we just feel like God is doing that,” Mark says.
They continue to plan for their wedding and pray in faith about their life and ministry together.
MORE COMPLEX THAN SIMPLE
While some might say that Mark was able to go through pain in order to grow as a person and meet a wonderful new wife, he disagrees.
“In dealing with Anna’s death, I certainly don’t think that it was for my edification. Or that somehow it was supposed to allow me to be a better person or a more spiritual person,” he says. “I’ve heard that before. But God used it to make me a better person out of the situation and circumstance. I’m not that egocentric to think that events happen just for me and my personal edification.”
Yet how does one understand the will of God in the face of such loss? Tragic things happen every day: storms, unemployment, disasters, accidents, wrecks, disease, abuse, and more. These situations do not belong in the will of a loving God. Instead, they are the result of a fallen world that is living apart from God.
“I believe in God’s omnipotence,” Mark says, “but I don’t think that everything that happens is God’s will. While there’s God’ ultimate will, which will be done, that doesn’t mean that everything that happens is because God willed it or God wanted it.
“I do believe God is able to take any situation and circumstance and out of it something good can happen–even a bad situation, something that maybe is against His will, and transform it. Whenever the plane falls from the sky and everyone is killed, was that because everybody was supposed to die? No.
“Or even just a single accident, I’m not going to say, ‘Well, it was just their time.’ I think it’s called a tragedy for a reason; it’s a tragic thing. If everything is supposed to happen because God willed it, then you can’t call it a tragedy. That’s the reason it’s a tragedy: Because it’s contrary to what we understand to be God’s will for us.”
Death is tragic, and Anna’s death will be mourned for as long as those who love her are alive. They’ve lost a mother, a friend, a daughter, a wife.
And in the end, as Mark has concluded, every person has a choice: to trust God for salvation in the midst of an imperfect world or to reject God’s gift of salvation. Everyone suffers. Everyone dies. Christ suffered and died as well when He lived on this earth.
But through Christ’s glorious resurrection, God offers us His Holy Spirit as a Counselor, hope of life beyond the grave, and the promise of eternity with Him in a place where no tears are shed.
These days, Mark writes letters every week to those undergoing tragedy. He uses the depths of his experience to reflect the hope of God’s resurrection power. And that wisdom is evident in his ministry and prayers.
“When I pray in the service,” he says, “it’s a prayer that comes from the depths of my own being, and it’s a prayer that I’ve already prayed.”
- Fording the River of Grief »
- The Healer of Our Broken Hearts »
A Message by Billy Graham
- Read more about Jennifer Rothschild’s book, Lessons I Learned in the Dark »
- “Do you think we can ever really get over the death of a loved one?”
Read Billy Graham’s answer »