Late at night I walk the new oncology treatment center with my friend, Dr. Lawrence. She shows me the new imaging equipment, family rooms, treatment rooms, the beautiful garden outside with a fountain and benches for family and friends to wait while their loved ones receive chemotherapy and/or radiation infusions. In the lobby all is carefully placed for people to feel comfortable: couches, recliners . . . tangible furnishings for intangible emotions. In a corner in the lobby there are four tables with puzzle boxes. Who would want to work on a puzzle when they come here?
Dr. Lawrence says the oncology center would be grateful for a chaplain visit at least one day a week. As we walk toward the front door I notice one of the puzzle boxes contains a favorite picture of mine: a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean, waves crashing against the structure, and one person standing near the rails. I will certainly visit once a week.
* * *
On Wednesday I walk into the oncology center, wave at the receptionist, and notice two people sitting at the puzzle tables: a teenager works on a puzzle with a pattern of roses, and a young boy works on a puzzle with a pattern of cartoon heroes. On an empty table someone has begun the work on the lighthouse puzzle. They already have the lighthouse completed!
“That’s the easy one.” I turn to see the young boy, holding a puzzle piece, looking at me. “They put the easiest part of the puzzle together first because they probably thought the ocean was too difficult.” He returns to his puzzle.
I walk to his table and sit. I flip over puzzle pieces for him. As we work, I tell him the lighthouse puzzle is one of my favorite pictures. He looks at me and asks, “Why?” Let me show you.
With the lighthouse puzzle box in hand, I kneel next to him and show him the details: the waves breaking, the dangerous ocean, and how through the storm the lighthouse is a sign of help and hope. I point at the person in the picture. The lighthouse is a strong structure that can keep everyone safe. He puts down his puzzle pieces and walks over to the table with the lighthouse puzzle and invites me to work together, separating the ocean pieces by color. We do so until the nurse calls his name: Matthew. Oncology treatment. His mother walks in with him. Puzzle pieces in hand, I feel alone.
* * *
For the next two months I visit Matthew. These days his mother joins us as we work on the lighthouse puzzle and she invites me to join them in the treatment room. When Matthew falls asleep during treatment, she is the one I minister to by simply listening to the story of her ongoing storm. The treatment is not working. I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit among our whispered prayers, reading of the Bible, and tears. The Holy Spirit fills the small place with hope, peace, and somehow we comfort one another through laughter and tears. After treatment, Matthew’s father always carries him to the car. A 6-year-old boy, sleeping in his father’s arms.
* * *
Wednesday. I walk through the front doors, wave at the receptionist, but she motions me to approach the desk. I stand and listen. The nurse hands me an envelope: information on Matthew’s upcoming funeral. I sit in the garden, praying, making no effort to hide my tears. I open the envelope and notice something in it: three puzzle pieces.
I stand in front of the lighthouse puzzle. It is missing three puzzle pieces. Matthew worked on the puzzle alone. Carefully I place the pieces. It’s the person! The person standing in the lighthouse! I laugh out loud, run my hand over the completed puzzle, and realize that Matthew was more aware of the lighthouse than I ever knew: a strong structure that can keep us safe.
Help and hope. I take those two precious words and lay them at the feet of God and pray we will never miss the pieces, fail to recognize His gracious strength and outreached hand amid our storm.