“Some day we are going to travel to Third-World countries. I am going to build schools there and you are going to teach in those schools.”
“Where did that come from??”, I thought, as I listened to my husband Paul’s bold assertion while we were quietly whittling about in our backyard garden in Surrey, BC. My second thought… “Wherever it came from, that sounds absolutely perfect! I can’t wait!” But life is busy. So that dream got tucked away, and back to work we went, Paul as a contractor, and myself as a school teacher.
Then. The “dark night of the soul” attacked. Inexplicably. Those dear, those beloved, started to fall. First, my mother passed… then my father passed… then my sister, Geri… then my brother, Harvey… and then in late 2007, my beloved husband, Paul, ended his battle with cancer… I turned to 14-year-old Kira, whom I had brought home in my arms when she was just a six-week-old puppy, and said, “You can’t leave me too. I can’t lose both of my sweeties at the same time.” So Kira held on. For a couple more months. And then she passed on New Year’s Day 2008.
The tsunamis of sorrow crashed over my heart and mind until I could hardly tell who was left on earth and who wasn’t. In pain, I cried out to God, “If you still have any purpose for me, please show me!”
God heard my prayer. He promised me healing and softening of my grief, fulfillments of my dreams in His time, and new beginnings when I was ready.
And He has kept His promises. He always does. He has woven miracles of wonder and delight! And he has connected me with amazing people.
It started with the (at the time, somewhat unwelcome) prodding from a dear friend (who is aptly named, Joy) to read an intriguing new book about grassroots education programs in the Middle East. The following year, it just so happened that the author of that very book was passing through southern BC, which another good friend noticed, and invited me to the book signing. About two years after that, a passionate young Burman University undergrad, who had also been inspired by that very same book, came to speak at a school in Sidney, BC. Joy was impressed by her talk and felt I should meet her. Her name was Azalea Lehndorff, and her ambitious goal to build 100 classrooms in Afghanistan greatly intrigued me. And through this project, I was introduced to A Better World Canada (ABW), and its co-founder Eric Rajah, and I began to get excited about the amazing humanitarian work that ABW was doing around the world. Later, to my surprise, I was even able to contribute to ABW’s 29th anniversary celebration in Lacombe, Alberta, as the keynote speaker in April 2019.
But first, back to February 2012 – my first trip with ABW was to Kenya to help set up a teacher education program. I met students and teachers who faced incredible hardships, and yet somehow, lived every day with a smile on their faces and joy in their hearts.
Several months later, I journeyed to Kenya again, and then to Afghanistan, a country that left footprints on my heart. I had the joyous opportunity to sponsor and contribute to the construction of Kinara Secondary School and Quanchugha Girls High School in northern Afghanistan, and in doing so, I gratefully reminisced… I thought the dream had died along with Paul. But God never forgot. And He resurrected that dream. And now when I give to the schools, I remember Paul. In the last 2 weeks of his life, Paul set the tone; he set me free to go on living my life. Paul said he didn’t want to leave me, but he was ready to leave this earth. It was very hard for me to hear that. But he assured me that he wanted me not just to exist, but to live. And to carry on what we had started, and what we had dreamed together. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do. For the last 12 years.
Life had stabilized to some extent, and I was enjoying some of my new educational projects.
Then an odd feeling of numbness on a Saturday morning led to a hospital visit and a tiring battery of tests. They all came back normal. More than ready to get back home, I was convinced to stay for just one more test, which would almost certainly come back normal, as all the others had.
It did not.
It was a scan that revealed a 5 x 7 x 2 cm mass on the lining of my brain, which was later estimated to have been growing there for 20 to 30 years.
“By chance” (though I believe it was not chance at all) I was able to get an immediate appointment with a doctor. Who turned out to be the top neurosurgeon in British Columbia. “By chance” he was able to fit me in for surgery, within a month, just before he went away on vacation. He skillfully performed the brain surgery, and sent the massive tumour for testing.
It came back.
That phone conversation was about a year ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday…
“So, it’s good news, Dr. Lee?”
“Yes, Gail. It’s very good news!”
Close friends have put many labels on me and my experiences. (Usually complimentary, thank goodness.) One of those labels is, “overcomer”. I really appreciate that encouragement. And it is nice to know that there is such a positive perspective “from the outside”, even if it doesn’t always feel like it “from the inside”.
I feel like I have been through a lot, certainly. But then when I look at those beautiful young Afghan girls who’ve been targeted simply because they want to attend school – they are the true warriors.
In the past, I have attempted to explain why I sometimes felt a sense of kindred spirit with those young Afghan true warriors, and why I sometimes felt like an outsider in my own country.
Given that this explanation has proved so challenging, perhaps it begs the question, why do I want my story to be told at all?
Well, truth be told… I don’t.
I would rather not have to re-live all the excruciating details of my “dark night of the soul”, unexpected brain surgery, and the other related very painful experiences.
But “the teacher in me” unequivocally asserts that there are valuable life lessons here to be shared. So I tell this story, not because I am looking for pity, or feeling sorry for myself. I tell it because there is a bigger picture. Atrocities happen. The unthinkable can happen. But, somehow, God can weave it all together for good in His time. As my good friend, Pete, puts it, “Faith means little if it is unable to hold or contain us in our moments of utter dislocation and bewilderment.”
Sitting out in that same garden where this story began, I sometimes reflect… on the one hand, I am a woman of faith. I believe in Romans 8:28, that all things “work together for good to them that love God”. And yet on the other hand, I have spent so many nights looking up at the stars, wondering (and not understanding) why. Maybe I never will understand all of it. But, whether it was on the one hand or the other hand, I was fixing my eyes on the One who holds my life, and hanging on to His promises. This is my Father’s world. And it is a beautiful world!
Life is moving forward. Again.
Is it finally stable now?
Well, let’s just say that I believe that there are purposes, adventures, and projects still awaiting me. I’m moving and dancing forward into a continuum of hope, light, and laughter, with renewed purpose and calling. All praise to God. I’m feeling alive again!
Every one of you has a story to tell, and we are truly connected with each other on this earth for many purposes… one of them being that God will walk with us and make the connections with others, so that in spite of everything we go through, all together we can still make our world A Better World.
Note: If you were not able to join us for the 29th Anniversary Celebration of A Better World Canada in Lacombe, Alberta, in April 2019, and you would like to read the <keynote speech, you can find it here>.
Canadian Writer/Correspondent living in Malaysia