Between Life and Death
Esther Chan (as told to Kelly Yu and translated by Philip Yu)
My Broken Family
The family I grew up in during childhood and teenage years could best be described as broken. My parents were always at odds with each other, which made life for us children miserable. We were a poor family and even poorer when my father died as an alcoholic when I was very young. My mother, two brothers, one sister, and I were left to seek early employment without much education. My two brothers became disabled as teen-agers, one from an industrial accident, and the other from a severe mental illness, which continues to this day. My sister had to start working in a sewing factory right after graduation from elementary school. Because of these unhappy circumstances in my life, I doubted God’s love and questioned if there was even a God.
Changes for the Better
But life changed for the better for me when I married my husband Ken. He was a Christian and brought me to church with him. We had two very lovely and intelligent children, and I reveled in the happiness of my warm home, a steady job, and children to nurture. However we were simply Sunday church-goers, nothing more. Our ambitious, busy living provided little time for seeking God as a guiding guardian and knowing his will for our lives.
In 2002 an opportunity came for our entire family to immigrate to America. The first few months of settling in the U.S. did not go smoothly and were by no means easy. It was difficult adjusting to a new culture, and I often felt lonely and helpless. Eventually things improved and I got a job as a cleaning lady in the homes of several kind-hearted Americans, and my husband started a training program in physical rehabilitation.
Over time I worked at various kinds of jobs, some of them very strenuous, which drained my energy and took away my zest for life. My husband also faced hardships in his studies and work. While we struggled with internal and external setbacks from the pressures of life, I began to realize the need to turn to God. Our children were excelling in academic studies and developing good character qualities growing up in America, and for that we were very grateful.
The Ugly and the Beautiful
In November 2006, I was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. This shocking news came after three months of diarrhea and bowel bleeding and almost total mental and physical exhaustion. In January, 2007, I underwent my first surgery, followed by chemotherapy. Unfortunately, the aggressive cancer cells had spread and two subsequent surgeries were performed, ending in removal and replacement of my female genitalia. All three major surgeries, critical in my chance of survival, were done consecutively in 2007.
One beautiful serendipity in my life happened in December 2006. I met a terminal pancreatic cancer patient, a brother by the name of Michael Chan. The first time we met he was moved with compassion for me because we shared a similar affliction—terminal cancer. Now, Michael is with the Lord, and when he died he left a cash gift of $1,000 to me. I shall always remember the love of God expressed through Michael’s loving act during a time of destitution for me and my family.
By July 2008, the PT scan showed that it would be futile for me to have any more surgeries and radiation therapy. The only option left was to do chemotherapies which could sustain my life for a short while. Ifinally decided to do nothing, based on the doctor’s estimation of my life expectancy—about two years. With the realization that my life may be short, I am now thinking I want to grasp every opportunity I have left on earth to witness for God. I want to enjoy every minute of my life, thanking God for everything He gives me, in spite of my frail body. I am consumed with the desire to live completely obedient to God until it is time for me to depart this life and go to my heavenly home.
This Present Juncture
Before I knew I was terminally ill, I had thought many times of suicide as a way out. But now, facing death, life is precious to me. I often cry out to God, “No! I don’t want to die.” But I realize there are millions of people in the world who are more miserable than I. I won’t allow myself to look back with regrets at all the things I took for granted—a wonderful husband, loving children, even a good night’s sleep. Now is the time to have a thankful heart, to live in the grace of God’s loving care, moment by moment.
My illness has given me a renewed understanding of what I should value at this juncture between life and death: to love God and to love people all around me, to share my life story to touch the lives of others, and to nurture my spiritual life the best I can in order to make a positive impact on the broken world in which we live.
A Trip with a Purpose
After my third surgery, I changed my name from Sarah to Esther. Queen Esther in the Bible risked her life when she went before the king to save her people. I am willing to risk my life and go and say anything that would please the Lord.
In October, 2008, I decided to make a trip back home to Hong Kong, with the purpose of sharing the gospel with my family members. I stayed there for two months—longer than I intended due to having to make three emergency visits to the hospital. During these two months, one of my disabled brothers and my mother showed tremendous interest in what I had to share. They also were willing to attend evangelistic meetings and accept help from believers in Hong Kong. I am so thankful I could take advantage of my remaining years on earth to share the gospel with my family because I so desire to meet my dear loved ones again in heaven when we all die.
In Hong Kong, I also had opportunities to witness for Christ, both in churches and individually to many people. Lots of believers were moved to tears and gave me encouraging words after hearing my story. Intermittently amidst such formal sharing time, I also got to witness to many young medical professionals in the Hong Kong hospitals. Many of them were amazed to learn about the innovation and availability of such drastic medical procedures as I had received in America. I was not shy to show them the treated private parts of my body in the hope that someday these Chinese medical doctors can perform the same procedures on other patients like me.
A Heavenly Focus
To be truthful, it is really not easy for me, even as a Christian, to be joyful all the time at this stage of my illness. Nevertheless, many people who know me are amazed that I can still choose to smile, in spite of my maimed body. Naturally, I am fearful, I feel pain, and at times I worry. But with the power of God strengthening me from within, I can calm down by relying on His words and His promises. I firmly believe I’ll be in Heaven after I die, to spend eternity with my loving Jesus forever! And that gives me peace.
Before I departed from Hong Kong, the medical professionals and the believers who came to see me off in the airport all wished me well by saying “Peace be with you. Hope you will be safe all the way!” Indeed, I had a splendid trip back to Seattle, and I know I will arrive safely to my heavenly home.
My encouragement to people who are suffering from any problem is not to focus on their problem, but to enjoy what they have that is good. Just enjoy the simple things we often take for granted—like having a job, having a meal with family, being able to sleep, eat and use the bathroom. May we all live each day like this might be ourlast day!
(Esther Chan is now bed-ridden most of the time with no food or liquid intake. She is only sustainable on intravenous therapy and waste bags. She is very weak, and is losing weight gradually. Her husband, 2 children and brothers and sisters from Church support and pray for her. Last month, in an effort to make one of her wishes a reality, a kindhearted and devoted Christian nurse took her out to the scenic Snoqualmie Falls with Philip and Kelly. Please pray for her to endure the pain of the present time and to remember her faith in God as she puts herself in His hands for now and eternity.)