strange fires

When You Can't Come Back

by Dave and Jan Dravecky, excerpted from their book "When You Can't Come Back" (Harper)

The story of Dave Dravecky's battle against cancer and his triumphant return to pitch for the San Francisco Giants in 1989, as told in the Gold Medallion Award-winner Comeback, touched the hearts of thousands. But the battle had barely begun ..

On August 10, 1989, I pitched my comeback game against the Cincinnati Reds. It was the highlight of my major league career. The crowd at Candlestick Park stood and cheered as I came onto the field. I couldn't believe the outpouring of love I felt that day. The scoreboard framed their feelings with the words: WELCOME BACK, DAVE!

I waved my cap to the crowd, then stepped off the mound and bowed my head to give thanks. I've never seen Candlestick Park so charged with emotion. Each inning I took the filed, they cheered. It was like a dream, like the best dream you've ever dreamed in your entire life. And there I was, standing in the middle of it, a kid from Ohio, right smack in the middle of his biggest boyhood dream. Five days after our 4-3 victory over the Reds, we traveled to Montreal. There was no stadium full of fans cheering me. There were no scoreboards welcoming me back. It was just another game as far as the Expos were concerned. Business as usual.

When I stepped onto the mound, I was ready to get down to business, too. For three innings I threw well and didn't give up a hit. I felt no pain. By the fifth inning, though, I found myself rubbing my arm. It's hard to describe the feeling. A tingling sensation. It ran halfway between my shoulder and my elbow. I asked myself if something was wrong, but I shrugged off the question. I shouldn't be surprised if my arm didn't feel quite normal. After all, my arm hadn't had quite a normal year. 

I looked at my catcher, Terry Kennedy, and he signaled for a sinking fastball, low and away, on the outside of the plate. I nodded to him and started my windup. But when I brought my arm over my shoulder, I heard a crack next to my ear. It sounded like a brittle tree limb snapping in two. It was so loud even the people in the stands heard it. The ball went sailing wildly somewhere between home plate and first base. My arm felt as if it had been chopped off with a meat-ax and went sailing along with it. Instinctively I grabbed my shoulder, but my forward momentum sent me tumbling face first to the ground, where I landed on my back. I groped for my arm, the pain knifing through it like a jagged blade. As odd as it sounds, I wasn't discouraged as I lay there, because with the excruciating pain came a strange sense of exhilaration, a sense that God wasn't finished with the story he was trying to tell with my life. It was weird. There I was gritting my teeth, biting back the pain, and I was thinking, Okay, God, what's the next chapter gonna be? Then I suddenly became overwhelmed at what God was doing in my life, and I realized what he was doing was much bigger than baseball.

Our first baseman Will Clark was the first to reach me. My other teammates, the coaches, the trainer, all flocked to my side. "It's broken," I said, grimacing, and they brought out a stretcher and wheeled me off the field. Everyone knew I would be out of the lineup for a while. But my teammates were all rooting for me, even my doctor. He said the bone would heal to become even stronger because of the calcification that would build up around the break. Another comeback was certainly possible. I had done it before; I could do it again.

Or so I thought.           

My arm was set and put in a brace and a sling in time for me to watch the Giants clinch the 1989 championship that sent them to the World Series. After the final pitch of that game, I ran with my teammates to the pitcher's mound and was caught in the crush of the celebration. Someone bumped me from behind and my arm broke a second time. I was in a lot of pain and felt frustrated that I had been so careless to go out on the mound. I immediately made an appointment with Dr. Bergfeld at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Bergfeld, the orthopedic surgeon who had originally diagnosed the tumor in 1988 was not optimistic and referred me to Dr. Muschler. When Dr. Muschler studied the X-rays, his face grew serious. There were two distinct breaks. The bone was lining up okay, but what concerned him was a large lump that appeared just above the location of the previous tumor. The doctor scheduled me to come back in three months for another exam.

On the ride home from the doctor's office, the conversation Jan and I were having took a wrong turn and the road started getting bumpy. "Don't you think it's time to retire?"

"No," I said sharply. I had been a baseball player all my life. It was all I knew. I couldn't give it all up just like that. I couldn't just let it go. Not without a fight.

"If I were in your shoes, what would you tell me to do?"

"Retire," I answered coldly. I'm stubborn but I'm not stupid. I knew the facts; I just had a hard time facing them. Deep in my heart I knew she was right. I just couldn't admit it. I talked to a couple of old friends, Atlee Hammaker and Scott Garrelts. Both echoed Jan's advice, and I finally admitted to myself that it was time. So on November 13, 1989, I announced my retirement from baseball, the game I loved since I was seven years old.

The dream was over.

Jan Dravecky: It was late November when Dr. Brennan examined him. He studied the X-rays and the MRI, then felt Dave's arm. He was certain the tumor had returned. He wanted to operated as quickly as possible and gave us the option of scheduling surgery either before Christmas or immediately after it. Dave opted for after. Not exactly the way you want to start a new year, with more surgery and more uncertainty. More stress. More strain. How much more could Dave and I take? I didn't know, but I had a feeling we were getting ready to find out.

Dave: We left with my parents for New York two days later to check into Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital. The next day, January 4 (1990), Dr. Brennan took me into the operating room. He made a T-shaped incision and found that I had extensive wounds on the remaining deltoid muscle, the muscle that extends from the shoulder and tapers into a V midway down from the upper arm. He also found that the tumor had returned. He took the rest of the deltoid, leaving only a small portion intact to cover the curve of my shoulder. He also took ten percent of my triceps, the muscle on the underside of the upper arm. To kill any remaining cancer cells Dr. Brennan, assisted by Dr. Harrison, inserted nine brachytherapy catheters, a form of radiation therapy.

During recovery someone asked if I would visit the fifth floor - the children's floor. On that floor I met a woman named Linda. She was thirty-nine and the mother of three, a boy and two girls. She had had gastric problems since the summer of 1989 and had lost a lot of weight as a result. The doctors didn't discover her tumor until Thanksgiving. By that time, it was too late to operate. Instead they gave her radiation treatments and chemotherapy. She was Catholic and we talked a lot about the Lord. From the way she talked, I could tell she knew the Lord in a personal and intimate way. We talked about her kids and her husband, and her face lit up as she told me how much she loved them, how much they meant to her. They were all very close. She was a good woman, and she had everything to live for. But cancer is an indiscriminate disease, blind to good and evil, blind to a young boy or a mother of three.

A remarkable thing happened when I reached out to others in that hospital in an attempt to help bring a portion of their suffering to an end - a portion of my suffering was brought to an end. Not the physical part, but the mental and emotional part, which is often the worst kind of suffering. The relentless throb of introspective questions. The sudden, stabbing pain of realizing the meaninglessness of your life. The dull ache of loneliness. I was spared those kinds of pain.

I had a lot of time to think. I thought about how little control I had over my life. Other people told me when to eat, when to get out of bed, when to take medicine, when to turn out the lights. I realized my life wasn't in my hands anymore. It wasn't in the doctor's hands either. My life was in God's hands. It was in his hands all along, but you don't really realize that until you see a shrouded gurney wheeled past your room on its way to the elevator.

On January 16, I said good bye to the staff at Sloan-Kettering. I said good-bye to Linda. "Keep in touch," she said. "I will," I answered, and waved good-bye. Sometime after Linda returned home, I called to keep my promise, to keep in touch and see how she was doing. Her dad answered the phone. When he found out it was me, he started to cry. Her mother came to the phone and told me the news. Linda was dead. She had died a couple of weeks earlier. Her mother said that Linda was at peace in heaven. After I hung up the phone, my heart was in my throat.

(Later), an ulcerated hole surfaced on my upper left arm. I didn't pay much attention to it at first, because it was small. But it grew bigger, like a sinkhole. It deepened until eventually you could see the humerus bone. Eventually I did call Dr. Brennan. He wanted to see me right away, so once again I flew to New York. He scheduled me for surgery to clean out the hole and repair it. But the surgery would be more involved than that. He wanted to take a muscle from my back and graft it into my arm, fillling in the space left by the missing muscle.

We had a few days before we had to go to New York for my surgery, so I took the time to read through some of the mail. The majority of mail I have received has been positive and encouraging. But a few of the letters were unsettling. They came from sincere people, I'm sure, people like the man below who just wanted to help:

Dear Dave, I'm writing to you in  hope that you'll receive the Word of God in faith and receive your total healing. I should have wrote you a year ago but I felt you knew the Word of Faith. Then I heard you on James Dobson and realized you were going to lose your healing by what you were saying ... Dave, you could be still pitching if you don't reject this teaching and you act immediately ... A lot of religious teachers condemn this message but praise God it works every time, because it's God's living Word ... The Bible says ye were healed by Jesus' stripes. "Were" is past tense so it's already done! Jesus bore our sicknesses and diseases for us, the Bible says. Jesus healed everyone who asked it of Him while He was on earth. God's will for us is health everytime ... He loves us all and He will heal any believer who has faith in what He's provided for us in His Word.

The letter quoted several Bible verses and pointed me in a direction that would lead out of the wilderness and into a promised land brimming over with health, wealth, and prosperity. At one point in my life, getting a letter like that would have made me angry. I didn't get that way, but I did feel that the person was trespassing on private property. From spending so much time in hospitals, I've learned that when we walk through someone's door who is suffering, we have to respect the sanctity of that room. When we cross that threshold, we should be careful not to violate that person's life. Something sacred happens when a person is suffering. There is a turning to God, turning to Him for assurance, for answers, for comfort. What goes on in that room is between God and that person in the hospital bed. I felt this man had violated that relationship when he came barging into my room. He intruded without showing me the courtesy of knocking, without even asking if he could come in. What struck me is that this guy had so many answers for my life, and he didn't even know me. He was a complete stranger, yet he was confident he had a road map from God for my life.

It seems to me that the journey of faith is not such an easy-to-follow map. It is a one-step-at-a-time kind of experience. When God called Abraham to leave his hometown and follow him, Abraham was given no map, no set of directions. He didn't even know his destination. God just said, "Get up and go to a land that I will show you."

Abraham was expected to go where God led him, a step at a time, a day at a time. There were no guarantees that the journey would be easy. He had a lot of heartache along the way, his share of danger, and the painful introspection of living with postponed hopes. Yet he is remembered as a man of faith.

God doesn't promise us a life full of mountain-top experiences. There will be valleys to go through, too. Dark valleys. Disorienting valleys. Valleys of depression and despair. What he promises is not a road map that will give us a detour around those valleys, but that he will walk through those valleys with us. When we emerge from those experiences, we look back and realize that that is where the growth is. It isn't on the mountaintops, above the timberlines; it's in the valleys.

As I was traveling across the country, I had another person point me in a different direction. I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, speaking at a chapel service when I was approached by a man in his twenties. He told me I had cancer because there was sin in my life. He told me that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that God had a special plan for me - to be a preacher - but first I had to get rid of the sin.

His line of reasoning wasn't very convincing, so I asked him about some biblical characters who had undergone suffering: "What about Joseph? Was there sin in his life that kept him imprisoned for so long? Was there sin in Paul's life when he prayed three times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed and it wasn't?"  

To me the issue was not whether I had sin in my life. I don't think we need any great revelation to convince us that we're sinners. The issue is not our character but the character of God. Is God the kind of God who gives people tumors when they sin? Does he dole out diseases when we fail him? Say, maybe, cataracts when we lust or hardening of the arteries when we hate. Does he punish us with leukemia and muscular dystrophy and blindness?

The Pharisees thought so. When they came across a blind man, they asked Jesus, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus respnded by saying "Neither," and proceeded to heal the man. In moments of compassion like that, Jesus mirrored the picture of God revealed in Psalm 103:10-14:  

He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As  a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.

Is that the picture of a father who takes a belt to his children when they spill their milk or wet their pants? Is that the picture of a God who gives people cancer when they sin? I don't think so. I didn't get angry with the man. I felt sad that he was carrying around such a distorted picture of God. And I wondered how that picture would get him through life when one day he would have to walk through his own valley of suffering.

Another arm pointing in still another direction came at me one night when I was speaking in Youngstown, Ohio, just a little ways from my hometown in Boardman. After I spoke, a woman came up to me and told me how she was once down-and-out with a drug addiction - until someone told her about Christ, and she became a Christian and was healed of her addiction. She told me that God wanted all his children to be one hundred percent healthy.

But does he? Think about that for a minute? What would God's children grow up to be like if their lives were one hundred percent healthy and happy, if all the bumps in the road ahead of them were made smooth? Albert Schweitzer, who spent his life alleviating suffering, pondered that question:

Look back at those hours which passed over your life so calmly and contentedly  ... If the whole of your life had been a succession of hours like those, do you know what would have become of you? You would have become selfish, hardhearted, lonely, without regard for higher things, for the pure, for God - and you would never have felt blessedness. When did it first dawn on you that we men don't live unto ourselves? When did the blessedness of compassion bring comfort to you? In suffering. Where did your heart come so close to those who were so distant and cold to you? In suffering. Where did you catch a glimpse of the higher destiny of your life? In suffering. Where did you feel God was near to you? In suffering. Where did you first realize the blessedness of having a Father in heaven? In suffering.

Cancer introduced me to suffering. And suffering is what strengthened my faith. Yet that woman implied I was suffering because I didn't have enough faith. She seemed to be saying, Have enough faith and get the life you want. But that struck me as making God into some kind of cosmic vending machine, where, if you pushed the right button, you would get a sweet life, free of suffering.

That type of faith also denies the constructive role suffering plays in our lives. The Bible tells us to rejoice in suffering because it helps to shape our character (Rom. 5:3-4). We all want character. Few of us, though, want to go through suffering to get it - especially those of us who are Americans.

Someone once said that the difference between American Christianity and Christianity as it is practiced in the rest of the world has to do how each views suffering. In American Christians pray for the burden of suffering to be lifted from their backs. In the rest of the world, Christians pray for stronger backs so they can bear their suffering. That may be an oversimplification, but I think there's a lot of truth to it.

The truth is we live in a fallen world, and suffering is an undeniable reality in that world. But suffering is not a very pretty sight, and illusions are a lot easier on the eyes than the reality. That's why we look away from the bag lady on the street and look to the displays in the store windows. That's why we prefer going to the movies instead of to hospitals and nursing homes. At least that's what we do in America.

The physical condition of Dave's left arm continued to seriously deteriorate. He suffered greatly for almost a year and a half as the doctors attempted to control infections and the cancer, which returned, through surgery and radiation therapy. He was informed that an amputation would be necessary if he began to lose the use of his arm.

On June 7 (1991), I flew back to New York for my three-month checkup. My arm was almost immobile. I could move it only at the elbow, and then only about twenty degrees. My shoulder was extremely sore. I experienced a few sharp pains, but most of the time it was a dull ache. It wasn't so much the pain that bothered me as the lack of mobility. All I could do was write, but to do even that I had to pick up the arm up with my right hand and place it on the table. It was as though the muscles had lost their memory and forgotten how to move.

Dr. Brennan came to the conclusion that it looked like it was time to amputate. He scheduled surgery for June 18, 1991.

Jan Dravecky: It was Saturday and I was frantically rushing around the house, trying to get everybody packed before Dave and I left for New York. I was packing the kids' clothes at the time. They were going to stay with Dave's brother Frankie and his wife, Missy. I bounced back and forth between their suitcases and the telephone like a ping-pong ball. Back and forth, back and forth. It was driving me crazy. A lot of people called to give advice about healing: 'Do this; don't do that. Believe this way; don't believe this way. Drink this; don't eat that. Pray, fast, repent, believe, tithe.' One prescription after another.

Then at five o'clock the doorbell ran. "Who on earth could that be?" I grumbled to myself. I marched to the door with my fist clenched and my eyes glaring. I pulled open  the door and there stood the stranger, a man in his thirties.

"You don't know me, ma'am," he said, "but I'm from Cleveland and I have the gift of healing."

I looked into his eyes. This was a man with a mission. And it wasn't to help me with my packing. My heart sank.

"Your husband just needs more faith," he said.

I leaned against the brick wall, thinking, God, I can't handle this.

"I've had cancer twice," he explained, "and I've been healed. Ma'am, I'm here to tell you that your husband doesn't have to have his arm amputated.

That's when I started to cry. And when I started to cry, I lost it. I mean, completely lost it. I jumped on him like a pit bull on a postman. "I'll tell you something! My husband may not be perfect but he loves God and he has faith! Tell me why there's suffering in the Bible, will you? Why wasn't Paul spared from suffering? Didn't he have enough faith? And how about Job? And ... and ... and Joseph? What about them? Huh? Did they lack faith? Is that why they suffered?"

The man burst into tears.

Oh, no, I thought to myself, not a crying man on my front porch. Please, God, not this.

"I - I'm sorry, Mrs. Dravecky," the man stammered through his tears. "I'm, eh, new at this thing ... (more crying) ... I  just wanted to help. I prayed to God when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, and he healed me ... (sobbing profusely now) ... then God brought it back. I don't know why, but he brought it back. I don't understand it. The second time I prayed about it, I was led to take radiation treatments."

While he was crying, I was thinking to myself: If God healed him, why did the cancer come back? And why would God heal him the first time cancer appeared and then lead him to radiation treatment the second time? My heart went out to the man; he was more confused than I was. I put my arm around him and tried to be of some comfort as I walked him to the car. "Thank you, Mrs. Dravecky. And I'm sorry I bothered you."

"That's all right. I appreciate your concern."  I went back inside and plopped on the couch, thinking, What a day!

After the amputation and a successful recovery, Dave and Jan hosted Barbara Walters for an interview in their home that was later aired on ABC's 20/20 newsmagazine in October of 1991. One particular question was most pointed.

Barbara asked me several questions, all of which I had answered sometime or somewhere before: "What came into your mind when you heard the word 'tumor'? ... What did you feel like when the arm was off?"

Every time she lobbed me a question, I took a swing and got a pretty good piece of it. Then she threw me a curve: "Why does God make you suffer?"

It caught me totally off balance. I hesitated a second then started to take a swing at it: "So I can give people that hope ... " But I cut short my answer and told her honestly: "Good question, Barbara."

Haltingly, I tried to follow through with an answer: "I don't focus on 'Why me?' but what good can come out of it and how I can help others." Swing and a miss.

I don't think she was trying to throw one past me. I think she really wanted me to step up to the plate and knock that one out of the ball park. But I hit nothing but air. Since then I've had a lot of time to think about that question. I've asked it over and over again: Why does God make us suffer? Does he make us suffer? I've received letters from people who think he does.

One of those letters came from a woman who aspired to be a national champion skater. Two weeks before the finals, a wheel fell off her skate and she tore up her ankle. She had numerous operations and tried to make a heroic comeback, but her ankle just wouldn't let her. She can no longer move her ankle from side to side and can't play any sports anymore. After she became a Christian, she looked back on her suffering and had this to say: "I was picked to have this pain so I could eventually be born again in Christ."

Another letter came from a  man who had lost his wife of forty-seven years to leukemia: "Why her? I asked. But I came to realize she was chosen to suffer beyond what most humans experience, and in so doing, demonstrate a quiet faith that was a sublime example of the relation of a Christian to God." Another letter came from a person who had lived with epilepsy since she was sixteen. She wrote: "I believe it's just something God has given me to deal with. I truly believe that I would not appreciate my life as much without it."

Did God pick out that skater and cause her ankle to break? Did he choose that man's wife to suffer beyond most human experience? Did he give epilepsy to the one woman when she was sixteen years old?

Jesus said, "Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from the Father's will." By saying that, is Jesus implying that God is the cause of the sparrow's death? Is he saying that God sits in heven and says, "Okay, it's time for that pigeon with its nest on Second Avenue to die," and then puts the bird in the cross hairs of his rifle and squeezed the trigger? Sounds silly when we put it like that, doesn't it? But that is what people imply when they say God picked them to have pain or chose them to suffer or gave them a disease. So why do people say things like that about God?

When great pain comes into our lives, it's devastating. When C.S. Lewis lost his wife to cancer, for example, he said his faith collapsed "like a house of cards." When it did, he questioned God's character: "Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, 'So, there's no God after all,' but, 'So this is what God's really like.'"

When suffering crashes into our lives, we have a hard time understanding how a good and powerful God can be at the helm of the universe. Didn't he see it coming? Couldn't he have steered clear of it? Didn't he know how much pain it would cause? Didn't he care? We fear asking such questions because we may come "to believe such dreadful things about Him." We fear coming to the conclusion: "So this is what God's really like."

To protect God's character from the assaults of such questions, we look for ways to explain the suffering. We may look to ourselves, saying the suffering came because we deserved it, because our sin was so great or our faith so small. Or we may look to a higher good, saying that the benefits derived from the suffering outweigh the pain inflicted by it. If you look at the three letters, that's exactly what the writers do: they look for the higher good. Aren't the skater's broken ankle and broken dreams small things to exchange for eternal life? Doesn't the lasting exmple set for others by the woman dying of leukemia outweigh the temporary pain of her death? Isn't epilepsy a small price to pay for a true appreciation of her life?

I believe the problem here is that these people are confusing the result of their suffering with the purpose of their suffering. Let me give you an example.

When I went back to see Dr. Brennan for a checkup, I asked him what they did with my arm after they amputated it. I didn't want to take it home or have it bronzed or mounted on the wall or anything like that; I was just curious. He said it was sent to the pathology department and was sectioned for research. As a result of my surgery, the hospital got a specimen it could study to advance its knowledge of cancer. That's a good thing, because what they learn will be used to help others with the disease. It wouldn't be such a good thing, though, if the purpose of my surgery was to provide an arm so that the pathology department would have a specimen to study. If a doctor performed an unnecessary amputation on a healthy person, even for a purpose as noble as medical research, he would be ruled a sadistic butcher by the hospital board and lose his license. And yet we indict God as being that kind of surgeion when we confuse the results of our suffering with its purpose.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles." If we turn things around and say that the good which comes out of our suffering is the reason for our suffering, we confuse something more than results and purpose. We confuse the character of God and turn things around there, too. He then becomes not the Father of all compassion but the Father of all chastisement; not the God of all comfort but the God of all trouble, who troubles us in our comfort. That's why our understanding of suffering is so important. It affects how we view God. And how we view God affects every area of our life, from how we worship to how we raise our children.

God willed a world that is as mysterious as it is majestic. I believe God rules over that world, but I don't believe he gave me cancer. He allowed it. Why? I don't know. I don't know the purpose of my suffering. But I do know the results. When I compare the Dave Dravecky before cancer and the Dave Dravecky after, there's no comparison. I used to see everything in black and white; now I see the shades of gray in between. I used to be dogmatic and think there was an answer for everything; now I realize a lot of things don't have answers. I used to think I could put God in a box; now I believe his ways are too deep for any box to contain. I used to depend on myself; now I depend more on God. I used to be preoccupied with my own needs; now I am learning compassion for the needs of others. I used to view Christ's death on the cross intellectually; now I view it more emotionally. Through my own suffering I have become more aware of his. And I love him more as a result.

"Why does God make you suffer?"

Good question, Barbara. A very good question.  

Dave and Jan Dravecky are the founders of Endurance with Jan and Dave Dravecky

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