In this article, Thy Cameron, former Christian radio journalist and wife of a South African pastor, shares about the heartbreaking but hope-filled journey that led to her writing a book to relate a God-glorifying story that her daughter, Shirely, set out to tell a week before she died of lung cancer at the age of 39.
My country bleeds and suffers. So why this book at this time? I don’t know – but I ask God to use it to bless and encourage.
Passed the baton
Anyway, why write a book? Five years ago, in my fresh grief, as Shirley had just died, I had a dream. It was a relay race and at the baton exchange I realised that it was Shirley running. And she passed the baton on to me.
A week before our only daughter died of lung cancer at the age of 39 she had said: “I want to do one last thing for God. I want to tell my story to glorify Him.”
So two media students from Oxford had moved in to video her testimony, told haltingly as she needed many, many breaks to breathe and rest. So I understood my dream to mean I was to help her tell her story and to do it by writing the book.
About six weeks before she died in her home, she called me over. “Mum,” she said, “you are not going to like this. You know I am dying?” I don’t know how but I did say: “Yes”.
“Mum,” she went on,” please help me die.” Of course, I promised to do everything I could for her, fully knowing I couldn’t do it in my own strength but confident in God.
Shirley’s story begins in 1975 when, much to the surprise of our gynaecologist, who believed conception was impossible, she was born to two delighted parents. Her dad, who is a pastor, had to preach the day she arrived and he did it in a daze. To be a mother was so wonderful to me but, sadly, not too much later a shadow appeared. She found life really hard, was always crying and suffered more deeply than others when childhood relationships proved beyond difficult. So she always saw the glass as half full and struggled, it seems, with either bipolar or clinical depression.
Hit and miss
Although, at the age of four, she had “given her heart to Jesus” on holiday in a caravan at Blyde River Canyon her relationship with Him was “rather hit and miss” – her words. So while at Stellenbosch University she decided what she perceived as God’ s stern demands that she perform “or else”, were the cause of all her misery and ditched religion.
Four years of marriage – she claims that she met Mark “falling through the air” when they were skydiving at Citrusdal – ended in him leaving her in February 2004 because she was such high maintenance. Nine very troubled years followed. They had moved to the UK, so I was at the receiving end of very many, long, dismal phone calls.
Often she would say: “There really isn’t any hope is there?” She had begun praying again and would ask God to take her and then be very disappointed when she was still alive in the morning. I knew she wanted me to say: “No, there isn’t,” but I kept pointing her to the clichéd truth that at the end of one’s tether is God.
‘All you have left is God’
One gloomy night she came home so distraught that she flung a tumbler against the wall in her kitchen and slashed her wrists with a sliver. The next morning when she phoned I knew immediately what she had tried to do. Totally aware of the six thousand miles between us, I also knew that all I had was words. So I shot a prayer to heaven and said: “Well, now you’ve tried everything, so all you have left is God.”
Many had prayed and prayed for her with me over the years. In desperation, I had prayed: “Lord, whatever it takes.”
Early in 2013 Shirley bumped her leg on her desk in the IT firm in Bracknell near Reading for which she worked. Because her physio didn’t like it, tests, scans and biopsies followed. And her right thigh began to swell – ominously.
Her Dad and I were at Satara in Kruger when she sent the text – the only form of communication we had. “I’m so sorry to have to tell you,” we read, “but I have osteosarcoma stages 3 and 4 and also many mets in my lungs.”
We were beyond devastated. Not surprisingly we threw in the holiday and came home to Cape Town. We weree hardly through the door and being licked by a happy Labrador when Shirley phones. “Mum,” she says, “I’ve decided to factor God into my life again.” It’s the best news ever.”
Six months of very radical chemo, plus an operation to remove her diseased femur and replace it with a titanium prosthesis, lie ahead. How is she going to handle all this? She phones again: “Mum, I’ve decided to cut my crap and do it with God.” More wonderful news.
Her dad had to stay as he was working but I spend eight of the next 11 months, in three visits, with Shirley in her home in Wokingham. So I experienced not only changes in myself but the steady transformation taking place in Shirley. (The book focuses on her and not me – my journey is a whole different story). From a hit and miss relationship with God, she moved to true dependence on Him. “Is God trustworthy?” she asked herself. “Because if He is, I can believe all the promises He gives us. I can stand on those promises.” And that’s what she did, especially when fear came in to cripple and to maim.
I saw her slowly abandon her belief that she was not lovable as God poured in love – through friends, all the caring and loving, praying – and bringing meals and flowers. “Don’t worry, “they told her, ”when you can’t concentrate we’ll do the praying for you – we’ll hold up your arms.” God blessed her with an amazing financial package she signed up for six weeks before diagnosis.
One night in hospital God woke her because, somehow, her drip had been switched off which, if undetected, could have ended her life. Caring people flooded her with Scriptures, and when she was woozy from the morphine and couldn’t concentrate she felt God’s presence and that He was holding her hand. The friends sat on her bed and worshipped with her which she loved. All of this so that in her last days she keeps saying, “God loves me … God loves me … God loves me.” What an illustration of the verse, “Love drives out fear”!
I watched her become happy. I’m so aware of a conversation in 2012 when I asked her about being happy. She said, “Five years ago I was unhappy. Now I’m just five years unhappier.” And now? Her friends and I marvelled every time she said: “I’m so happy.” She kept saying it and we could see it was true.
What I found truly amazing was her journey as far as accepting death was concerned. Of course, she wanted to live – at first. She had been devastated when her close friend Nick suggested God might not plan that.
God confronted her on this again when, after the op on the leg, her consultant left us with the clear understanding she was aiming only at winning more time for Shirley. Then, on January 18 2014, after dreadful results of scans, we drove home from Oxford weeping and, once home, Shirley got into bed and did not move for the rest of the weekend.
I felt the huge struggle going on for her soul and prayed and prayed and prayed. When, on Sunday afternoon, I crawled in behind her and put my arms around her, she said, “It’s okay, Mum – if God doesn’t want me to live I’m okay with that.” What a struggle, what a surrender, what a triumph!
Out of her love for Him Shirley had her story videoed a week before she died “because I want to do one last thing for God and glorify Him.”
Watch Shirely tell her story in her final week:
(You can watch more videos here)
In more love for her, God had her dad, a close friend and mentor Christine, Nick and I sing, pray, talk lovingly, kiss Shirley and play her beloved worship songs to her as she slipped further and further away. She died in the early hours of the morning of May 6 2014. Her ashes are scattered on Middlefell beside Wastwater in the Lake District because she said: “It’s on the mountains that I meet with God.”
In a bleeding South Africa we need a story that shows that not even the very worst things can defeat God and Jesus. Jesus said, “It is finished“and that is His triumph – complete and perfect. Not a single thing can happen – even in South Africa — that can make victory for Him impossible. So, shall we not rejoice in the Lord – always? Even here and even now?
With His help on the tortuous journey to get to this point we can. Shirley did, and said at the end of her life: “I’m busted and broken on the outside but inside I am whole and know peace and it is well with my soul.”
You can get my book and the videos recorded a week before Shirley died on my website: www.mumpleasehelpmedie.co.za
The book is also available through my publisher, Onwards and Upwards, in the UK. They have put it on Amazon and various other online booksellers.
In South Africa, Christian Book Discounters will be launching it in November and it will be available at their book stores