It was dark outside-after ten o’clock at night. I had been sitting at home waiting for news-any news about Ian all day long. Just that morning we had been told that he did not, in fact, have mono or an odd strain of the flu—he had cancer. Wait until we call you to come, my Mama had said. And so I sat alone in the brown chair and stared at my silent cell phone all day long, willing it to ring.
It only needed to ring once. We’re at UNC Hospital and Ian wants pizza. He’d listed off the toppings that he wanted, and shaking, I ran to my car to race to a local pizza joint on my way to the cancer center.
My voice trembled as I stammered the order. Pepperoni, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, green peppers. Please, please hurry. Black-aproned college students were wiping down tables and stacking chairs, so I stood outside waiting. A gray-haired manager noticed me, lip-quivering and wide-eyed, and walked out to the sidewalk to ask me if something was wrong. It all came spilling out. He’s only 21 years old. Just diagnosed this morning. I don’t know anything except he wants a pizza. I think sometimes angels must be disguised as sweet gray-haired pizzeria managers, because the man gave me his card with a note scrawled on the back that said “Good for one free pizza at any time.” He wrote a note to Ian on the front of that pizza box—We’re rooting for you buddy! Fight hard.
I parked in a massive concrete parking garage and ran towards the hospital. Glass doors welcomed me to “UNC Cancer Center”, and whitewashed halls grew blurry as tears filled my disbelieving eyes. My heart could not understand where my legs were taking me. He can’t have cancer. How is this possible?
He was on the third floor, with our Mom and Dad. I wiped tears away and then burst through his door with a wide grin. YOU DRAMA QUEEN. You couldn’t just get the flu—you had to get CANCER.
Ian rolled his eyes and slowly grinned back, then reached for his pizza.
I would spend the next five months doing my very best to make him laugh. I refused to cry around my little brother, and I didn’t let anyone else do it either—going so far as to tell my own Mother to step out into the hall and get it together. The big sister in me desperately didn’t want Ian to be scared. I would tease him, goad him, demand that he stop being so lazy and let me ride in his wheelchair for once. But never did I let him see me cry.
When Ian was admitted into the ICU for the last time, I had the flu and was not allowed to see him. For days I sat a fifteen second walk away from him in the waiting room, asking my parents to remind him over and over again that I was there, just steps away, and I loved him. One bleak midnight I staunchly refused to leave and Kellan had to pull me, sobbing, towards his waiting car.
When I was finally allowed to see Ian, he had already been intubated. A ventilator breathed air into exhausted lungs that were too weak to do the job any longer. As I stepped into his room alone, the heavy door closed and clicked behind me and I stared at my pale little brother. Tubes masked his gaunt face. Cancer had left her calling card, and the kid lying on the hospital bed in front of me looked nothing like the one that just months before had picked me up and done curls with me in the kitchen. He looked so small.
My brave façade crumbled, and I grabbed his hand, laid my head down beside him and wept. Voice breaking, I told him for the umpteenth time that I loved him so much, and with tears streaming down my face whispered that if he needed to go, that was okay.
Sitting there beside my little brother, I begged God to let me take his place. If I could have crawled into that hospital bed and shoved the tube down my throat instead, I would have done it. Given the chance, I would have joyfully handed Ian every last second that I had left to live. Jesus, He’s too little! I can do it. Let it be me. Crushed, I begged, and as clearly as I have ever heard anything I heard Jesus say Ashley, I have already switched places with Ian.
This Thursday, Ian will have been gone for one year. His friends are doing all sorts of things to remember and honor him—from raising money to fight cancer to going dancing in his memory. And while those things are great, this big sister would just love it if today, you would remember that Jesus switched places with you too. Jesus took the full weight of death into His body so that you and I and Ian would only ever need to experience its shadow. If Ian could tell you one thing today, I know that He would look you straight in the eyes and promise you that there is nothing in this world more valuable than knowing Jesus. Our deepest need is not for a healthy body or a head of curly hair or Christmas with six instead of five, our deepest need is for Christ Himself. One year later as I stand amidst the wreckage and tearfully survey the damage, I, with Ian, am adamantly convinced of that too.