March 14, 2020
Saturday, 9:30 p.m.
Letter #488: Life According to Mikey
My twin planned to visit me today, but visitation privileges have been cancelled until further notice, due to the coronavirus outbreak. Because of the close proximity of our living conditions, with 180 inmates all grouped together in each building, the Powers That Be are trying to not introduce the virus into the prison system. I don’t know … it seems to me that it could both reduce the overcrowded prison population problem and remove societal ills. Just sayin’ …
A couple of weeks ago, I met an inmate named Mikey who just got back from having aggressive cancer treatments in an outside hospital. He originally got cancer when he was exposed to toxic chemicals while stationed in Iraq while he was in the Marines. The cancer went into remission, and Mikey took a position stateside as a recruiter where he met his wife, got married, adopted her kids, and adopted a newborn girl together. Everything was going well until the cancer came back. Mikey drank heavily and then threatened someone in anger, which led to his prison sentence. While his wife and infant daughter were driving here to visit him just a couple of months ago, a semi-truck crashed into them and killed them both.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent hours and hours with Mikey. He was placed in the building I was moved from, so we’ve had to meet up on the yard or in the chapel. My friend, Rich, who is one of the elders in the church here and one of the most genuinely solid believers I have ever met, has also spent time with Mikey since he’s known him for a few months now. I asked Mikey to tell me how he met his wife and what their relationship was like. He brought out his photo album and showed me pictures from his time in the military and pictures of his family.
Mikey’s life seems to be nearly Job-like in its tragedy-after-tragedy circumstances, and he was just told that he will no longer be given chemotherapy for the cancer, since it has metastasized throughout his brain. That determination meant he’ll likely die within the next few months rather than live a year or more with treatments.
I’ve sat quietly next to Mikey as well-meaning acquaintances tell him about every random person they’ve ever known who died of cancer. “My girlfriend’s dad had a rabbit that had cancer … ” Old ladies, high school buddies, that guy on that TV show. Dead, from cancer.
I asked Mikey if he was planning to write The Cancer Chronicles book, since becoming a cancer-story repository. “No way!” he said, rolling his eyes. “I wish they’d stop thinking that I want to hear about dead people!”
As we’ve become good friends, I’ve tried to encourage Mikey the best I can. I’ve tried to see life from his unique perspective, in all of its brevity and meaningless occupations of time—time that is borrowed from a God who can seem distant and ambivalent. I’ve tried to understand what God would want to teach me through my time spent with Mikey, and three primary messages stood out:
- God wants us to trust Him. Rich set up time in the chapel so that Mikey and I could watch the movie Breakthrough together. It is the true story of a boy who [SPOILER ALERT!] survives being submerged in icy water longer than anyone else in medical history. The world expert doctor who attended to him could only write on the boy’s report. “Patient died. Mother prayed. Patient miraculously came back to life.” The family’s faith was stretched to trust God, whether He allowed the boy to live or die. With Mikey facing an equally dire situation, the significance of the movie’s theme wasn’t lost on either of us.
- God wants us to be mindful of Heaven today. Mikey gave his testimony in a recent church service, saying in part how difficult it has been to lie on his bunk and observe so many guys just wasting their time watching television or playing games all day, not mindful that we must give an account to God for what we did with all He gives us. At the end of his speech, he called a few of us to join him on stage, thanking us for giving sacrificially of our time to bless him with friendship at this difficult time. Even though I was one of those thanked, I still felt the gravity of his challenge to remember how short life is and to make every second count.
- God wants to exchange His life for ours. Mikey joined me as I used one of our worship team practice times to work with the drummer. To give him confidence that he could play along with songs he’d never heard before, I had him accompany me as I played keyboard through a few dozen songs in an old songbook. To give the drummer the feel of an actual worship service, I acted as if I was leading worship, flowing from one song to the next. I thought Mikey would either look for me to entertain him or get bored, but instead, he stood right in front of my keyboard or stood next to me as I played and sang. This completely changed the perspective of the songs for me, songs like “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Can Only Imagine.” But the one that hit us both pretty hard says, “I’m trading my sorrows; I’m trading my shame; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. I’m trading my sickness; I’m trading my pain; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord.” Mikey and I both had tears by the end of that one, challenged to be like Jesus who set aside the pain ahead of Him and chose to focus on the joy of doing God’s will. What an exchange is offered us: our worries, fear, pain, pride, goals, hopes, and future for the joy of a future that is sure.
Much is unknown in the days and weeks ahead for Mikey and for me. For both of us, death is a sure thing, sooner or later, but we’re choosing to trust God with eternity in mind as we choose joy in the midst of these momentary trials. Look unto Jesus!