Jeff Schlachtenhaufen is a big-time icon for me these days. His parents are parishioners of mine, and when Jeff developed pancreatic cancer in October I got to know Jeff—though I’ve never met him in person. He lives in Chicago with his wife Susie and their four children. Jeff has a Caring Bridge website—a blog that connects him to all his family, friends and supporters.
This week Jeff wrote a beautiful piece, and I asked him if I could share it with my readers. He’s coming off seven grueling rounds of chemo, beginning to feel the cumulative effects of it all. His results have been incredibly good, but the struggle is titanic. In that crucible Jeff wrote a story—it’s more like a dream vision. Before he tells the tale he writes:
I suppose anyone who finds him or herself slogging through an extended battle or journey develops some coping skills. When the purpose is clear and compelling, it’s easier to endure than when it’s not. Tougher to fight inViet Namthan in WWII. One of the coping mechanisms that has helped me when I’m getting treatment is to focus on my kids.
I’ve had four CT scans so far. One was a bad experience, two were neutral and one was positive. The difference between the best and worst had nothing to do with the equipment; it had entirely to do with my state of mind. In the bad experience I was tired, very cold, feeling sick from drinking two bottles of radio fluid on an empty stomach, feeling like a lab rat and generally focusing on me. In the positive experience I was thinking of my kids and how happy I was not to be watching one of them go through this. It was a helpful ‘new’ perspective for me. A couple days later I wrote a mini story reflecting my thoughts. For what it’s worth, I’ve included it below.
There once was a man who had a wonderful wife and two beautiful children. He was very happy. One day, after the man went to sleep, God met the man in a dream. “I have some very difficult news for you,” said God—and he went on to tell him that one of his children was about to become terribly ill.
“Surely you can change this situation” said the man, his words measured but full of hope. ”You are God.”
God smiled sadly. “I did not come here to take away the illness.”
“Then what good are you” exclaimed the man, becoming angry, “and why have you met me here in my dream to tell me this horrible news?”
“I have come to give you a choice,” said God. ”If you would rather, I will allow you to take the illness in place of your child.” He paused and then continued on. “It will not be an easy road. There will be long drives, flights to meet with the best doctors, seemingly endless needles and procedures, cold hospital rooms, sad whispers in the hallways, and bouts of fear in the middle of the night. All these things . . . . ”
“Yes” replied the man with very little hesitation, “I would rather they happen to me than to my child if there is no other way.”
“Very well then,” said God.
“There is another thing,” God said. ”My ways are not for your understanding, nor are my plans to be known by you—so I will grant your choice, but I will cause you to forget this dream and all that we discussed.”
“But God,” the man protested, “if I forget this conversation, I will forget that you gave me a choice, and my suffering will seem to be without purpose. Knowing that I suffer so that my child does not changes everything. However hard my road, when I consider the health of my children, I will laugh with the doctors and sing away the whispers of the night.”
God was silent for a moment. “Yes,” He finally said, “What you say is true. A man can endure any measure of suffering if he knows that by doing so he removes it from someone he loves.”
The man woke the next morning with no memory of the dream. Several months later he learned he was sick with a terrible disease.
One day the man found himself particularly discouraged. He lay on an operating table preparing to roll into a large hospital machine. It was early in the morning but he had already been at the hospital for hours. The room was cold, the machine looked even colder, twelve hours without food or drink was making him feel nausea, more needles, and where was it all going.
It would be ten minutes before the blood work was back so he asked the technician if there was anything he could read. “Sorry, no. Well just this book that somebody left behind,” the technician answered, handing him a small storybook. The man read the short story about a dream, a conversation with God, and a choice to be sick in place of a child.
“I would make that choice,” thought the man.
He thought of his kids. He looked at the machine.
“Its not so bad,” he thought.
The technician returned with another injection.
He thought of his daughter’s almost irrational fear of needles.
He motioned to his right arm and pulled up his sleeve.
“It’s not so bad,” he thought.
His stomach growled and a wave of dizziness washed over him. He thought of his son’s unquenchable appetite.
“It’s not so bad,” he thought again.
“Maybe I had a choice,” he said out loud.
And he found peace.
All of Jeff’s supporters pray together for Jeff at noon on Fridays. If you like, join me in lifting up Jeff, Susie and the kids.