Growing up as a Michigan girl and after living in other lush, green locations across the country, when we moved to the desert, it was quite a shock. At first I really missed all the green I had enjoyed my entire life, but after living in the desert for a while, I began to see that it had a very unique beauty and some incredible plant life. One plant in particular that continually amazed me was the Saguaro.
This classic desert symbol sprouts from the tiniest seed imaginable, grows an average of one inch per year, can live over 200 years, and has the amazing ability to bloom yearly in the spring even in the most severe drought. How can these sentries of the desert bloom in the driest and most barren conditions? I’ve witnessed a Saguaro literally growing out of a rock on a windswept mountain cliff and yet produce the most beautiful, glorious, flowers. Even when the flower fades, it becomes even more wondrous as it transforms into a deep red fruit that attracts and provides nourishment for hungry desert wildlife.
The Saguaro’s ability to bloom and produce fruit is directly related to its incredible capacity to store water: up to one ton at a time! The structure of the Saguaro is like a giant accordion that stores water during Monsoon Season, which then enables it to withstand severe drought and still create a crown of beautiful, fragrant, white blossoms every spring. The root system, which is actually rather shallow, crawls under the desert floor and wraps itself around large rocks to anchor the cactus against the high winds of the desert, while other roots go in search of life-giving water. Truly, it is a display of God’s incredible creativity.
There have been times when my life felt like an arid, sun scorched desert; possessing no apparent beauty or fruitfulness, or even the ability to survive a drought of the soul. I have been desperate, like a woman dying of thirst in the midst of gale force winds, searching frantically for life-giving water and something to anchor my fragmented life to. I have struggled in my wanderings through the parched haze but I also have had the privilege of personally observing an extraordinary desert flower who found the source of this water, tapped into its refreshing, living flow and burst into a bloom of such incredible beauty and sweet fragrance, that it could only be described as supernatural. That exquisite desert flower was my daughter, Jessica.
A number of years ago, in the midst of a busy and happy family life as the parents of two vibrant and fun-loving young children, my husband and I watched in the span of a few minutes, the rich and lovely landscape of our lives become a desert wasteland. We had just returned from a three week overseas mission trip and began to notice some physical and emotional changes in our 5 ½ year old daughter, Jessica. After a day filled with doctor appointments and tests, the words reluctantly and tearfully communicated to us by our daughter’s pediatrician made my blood run cold and my mind go numb. The diagnosis given to us explained our precious daughter’s physical and emotional changes, but did nothing to explain how we would be able to survive the next year.
The doctors discovered a tumor the size of a tennis ball growing in the center of Jessica’s brain.
They gave us no hope for her long term survival except by some miracle. For us, the miracle came in watching Jessica bring beauty and fruitfulness into the desert that became our lives the moment we heard the diagnosis. When we first tried to explain to Jessica that she had a brain tumor, we told her that she had something growing in her brain that wasn’t supposed to be there and she asked, “Do you mean growing like a flower?”
We watched in pain, but also in awe, as God carried our little girl through many painful surgeries and procedures and allowed her to grow more precious and Christ-like. She faced the surgeries, seizures, blood draws, MRIs, scans, IVs and long hospitals stays with a peace that spoke to my heart like nothing else ever had. She didn’t complain about the physical discomfort but always spoke about heaven. She used to say, “The happiest day in my life will be when I get to go up to heaven and see Jesus! When I see Him I’m going to give him a big hug!” She had such joyful anticipation and demonstrated incredible faith in the face of crippling fear. On one occasion when she was scheduled for an MRI to detect the status of the tumor, she was lying on a gurney afraid, but ready to go in for the procedure. All of a sudden she sat up with a determined look on her face, lifted her clenched fist into the air as if grasping something and said, “See Mom, I’ve got my shield of faith right here!” Her incredible attitude and the beauty of her spirit were clearly visible to those around her. After inviting and watching one of her X-ray technicians come to our church, Jessica said, “Just think Mom, if I never had this tumor, we never would have met Pat and she never would have come to our church!”
I learned such selflessness and focused purpose from Jessica. She tapped into the Living Water and spoke to God all the time. She was enduring her own personal desert but truly was a flower, one who bloomed with a lovliness and a vibrancy that brought glory to her Creator. She embraced the challenges that God allowed in her life and became an incredible blessing to everyone that came in contact with her.
After watching Jessica patiently walk the path laid out before her for eleven months, I held her as she went from my arms into the embrace of her Savior. God finally gave Jessica her heart’s desire and took her home to heaven.
I never knew my heart could endure so much grief and pain, but still experience a deep peace that was beyond my understanding. The first days and weeks seemed unbearable as I had to learn to live without Jessica. I was on auto-pilot, mechanically going through the motions. I had a 2 year-old son who needed his mom and a husband who needed his wife.
The lessons I learned as I witnessed Jessica’s life, encouraged me to tap into God’s living water and wrap my roots around the Rock that had sustained us all during her illness and her eventual death. There is no possible way I could have made it through that season without the peace and comfort of God. I remember, on many occasions, pouring my heart out to Him as tears streamed down my face. During that time, I learned to talk to God as my constant Companion as we walked through the valley of the shadow of death together. I experienced God’s abiding faithfulness and learned that He could handle any emotion or thought I might express to Him. He didn’t get mad at me for venting my honest emotions and I began to trust Him as my Comforter, even when I was certain I could never be comforted.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
I lived the truth of that verse in Psalm 34:18 and many others. His Word brought life back into a heart that felt dead.
We also relied on the prayers of our church, friends and family. During Jessica’s illness and for months after her death, I could sense when people were praying for us. It seemed like we were moving through our circumstances in a protective bubble of God’s presence. We still felt the harsh reality of our situation and had to deal with the daily disappointments and fears, but we sensed that a cushion of God’s peace surrounded us and at times, we even experienced joy. I know that sounds hard to believe, but it became more apparent as people let up on their prayers and we felt that bubble of protection begin to wane. As soon as I asked our prayer team to step up the prayer, the blanket of peace would return. I have never experienced anything like it before or since. God’s power to survive in the parched wilderness was poured into us through prayers being offered for us, the Living Word, and through the tender attention of The Comforter.
Close friends and family walked alongside us through that very dark time, allowing us to feel the grief and share our burden, not trying to fix it or give an answer for every question we posed to God. Since we were thinking about Jessica so much of the time, they permitted us to talk about her and didn’t try to change or avoid the subject. Not pretending to know how we felt, they quietly embraced us, loved us, prayed for us and trudged through that desert valley with us. Sometimes they cried with us, laughed with us, held our hands, and even carried us when we felt unable to go another step. I still thank God for those faithful desert sojourners.
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months and I finally began to feel like I would be able to survive. The incredible pain and grief were still there, but I had hope for a time when my heart wouldn’t hurt quite so much. During that time I couldn’t imagine that eventually, God would completely restore my desire to live and fill me with joy.
That was quite a few years ago and I recognize now, the things I learned during that time were preparing me for future desert journeys. What a privilege it was to be able to witness first hand, God at work in one of His precious loved children and to be invited to be a participant as He taught Jessica to embrace the plan He had for her life. I was watching and learning too. Jessica gracefully taught me about simple, child-like faith, joy in the midst of horrible circumstances, and how the life-giving water of God’s Son is truly the very source of life as we make our desert pilgrimages. When we embrace what God allows in our lives, cling to Him for our survival and make the choice to trust Him even though we don’t understand, we can bloom where we are planted – fulfilling His greatest purpose for our lives. This is true joy.
“I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19
I always have the freedom to choose to look for beauty even when my life leads me through the desert. I’m never alone.
They will never again be hungry or thirsty; they will never be scorched by the heat of the sun. For the Lamb on the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Revelation 7:16 and 17.