Perhaps I should start at the beginning. After all, isn’t every good story supposed to start at the beginning? Settle in. Grab a cup of coffee and let’s go back to the point at which a shy young girl of 18 first met a quiet young boy of 19.
It was September of my Freshman and John’s Sophomore year of college. For some crazy reason I decided I was going to audition for the Freshman ensemble at the Baptist Student Union (“BSU”). I had never sung in an ensemble in my life and although I can hit a note here and there, hitting notes collectively to complete an entire song has never been my talent. Nonetheless, I signed up to audition. John Ammons was one of the interviewing judges. I remember little about meeting him that day. I was much too nervous about the audition. But John always told the story, stroking my self-esteem, about how I took his breath away and how he made sure that before the interview was over he knew my name. A week or so later, we met again at a BSU weekend retreat. John ended up in line behind me at dinner. He said it was intentional. From there we ate together. We walked and talked and before he left he asked me to lunch the following Sunday after church. I agreed. Thus, sparked our romance. We were engaged about 6 weeks later and married the following August. Oh, and by the way, I did not make the Freshman ensemble.
If this was a story about dating, I’d have to insert the fact that I went to that particular BSU retreat hoping to catch the attention of another fellow. But God had a different plan for me. He had already chosen John, well before I did. So ladies, young and old, who are seeking a mate, don’t rely on your own selection but trust God who takes great care of his children. Even knowing this moment how life with John would end, I’d do it all over again. Yes, I’d cherish more memories. I’d be slower to nag and hopefully less selfish but I wouldn’t trade those years with John for anything. God was good to introduce that shy young 18 year old to the quiet young 19 year old.
John and I were married in August 1992 in his hometown. Our wedding was not large but neither of us cared. We went to Santa Fe, New Mexico for our honeymoon. He actually got pulled over for speeding that day. I remember the officer asking him what his hurry was and him replying, “I just got married, sir, I guess I’m a little anxious.” That shy young girl of now 19, almost died of embarrassment when he said that to the officer. Our first years were much like the start of any young marriage, I’m sure. We lived in a small duplex near campus and had little money but we didn’t care. We enjoyed life and we enjoyed each other. We spent the first 3 years of our marriage as college students both of us graduating in December 1995. After college we moved to Oklahoma City where we bought our first house and became active in various ministries at our church. In the summer of 2001 we felt God calling us to go over seas with a mission organization. At this point we had already been trying for years to have children and had been told by our doctor that we would never have them naturally. We were not opposed to other means of fertility treatment by any stretch of the imagination but we did not feel God’s peace in pursuing it at that time. Then one day, while serving as sponsors at youth camp, we knew God was calling us to missions. We went whole heartedly. We sold our house in less than 48 hours, signed our contract saying we would go overseas and 2 weeks later found out we were pregnant with our first child. God is good!! And His timing is perfect!! We still went. I remember our supervisor telling us that babies were born all over the world every day. We arrived in Russia in March 2002 and Elaina would be born in July of that year. Nineteen months later we would be blessed with Kaitlyn.
We spent almost 3 years in Russia. Those years were filled with challenge for sure but they were a tremendous time of growth for us both Spiritually and within our own marriage. We truly learned to rely on and trust God first and each other second. We expanded our world view and we learned how very privileged we truly were to have come to know Christ and to have walked under his umbrella of protection at young ages.
We returned from Russia in December 2005 and spent two years in Kansas City, Missouri where John attended Seminary. Through an unusual chain of events, that we could only attribute to God, we were called to Louisiana. John took a job with the Louisiana Baptist Convention and I stayed home with the girls. These were good years, when the girls were young, our income was steady, and life, although not without daily struggles, was for the most part easy. In those years, God blessed us with our third daughter, Hailey. John led music at a small, but passionate, church in Marksville. We started our homeschool journey. We bought a beautiful house. Life was good for the Ammons family.
John’s life verses for our family had always been the story in Leviticus where the Israelites followed the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. When the cloud stopped, they stopped. And when it moved, they moved. Sometimes it would be in one place for quite sometime and others it would travel quickly. We cherished these verses and made our decisions based on them. I can remember feeling God’s peace in all of the major decisions we made, except one.
In late 2012 we were given information about being foster parents through the Louisiana Baptist Children’s home. We decided, because it was such a good thing to do, to pursue this opportunity. We went to the classes, filled out the forms and got our house up to par for inspection. But we never felt God’s peace. I remember talking with John about the uneasiness I felt and him sharing that same uneasiness. But yet, we continued to pursue it. In January 2013 we were placed with 3 year old twins, a boy and a girl. Beautiful babies that, in my guess, had lived with more hurt than I’ll see in a life time. We were not equipped to meet their needs. The stress on our children and our marriage was tremendous. There were many nights when Hailey, then 4, put herself to bed because I was trying so desperately to get the twins down. I remember how it would break my heart to see her curled up under the blankets knowing that I was not able to meet her needs.
Then in March 2013 a huge blow to our family. John came home from work early. I could tell there was a problem and I’ll always remember the look on his face when he told me he had been fired. For seven years he worked there with no known negative evaluation. He was let go immediately and when he asked if there was anything he did or could do all he was told was, “You aren’t what we are looking for in the future.” I was in disbelief. We had 3 of our own children, plus 2 foster children and now, other than the part-time job I worked from home, no income. The stress was mounting. And we had no idea that it was not even near peak yet.
John had not been feeling well since January. He had been to the doctor several times but they treated him for some random things and sent him away. Ultimately, the doctor decided it was all stress related. We could buy that. Our lives were extremely stressful. We decided to send the twins to another foster home. It was the only source of stress in our lives that we had any ability to control. That was a heart wrenching day. They clung to me crying, “Momma we want to stay with you”. At 3 they understood what was happening. And we fully understood the consequences of making a decision that was not accompanied by God’s peace.
Stress mounted as John looked for a job and his “grace period” of income ended. I tried to pick up more hours at work. And then May 17, 2013, John came home from his 4 mile walk (trying to reduce stress) to show me a spot on his leg which was hot to the touch and hard. He said it felt almost bruised. I didn’t have any answers so we just moved on. That hot spot would, one week later, prove to be a blood clot that would almost end his life. As that day went on, the pain in his side got worse. By bedtime he could hardly get in the bed. I offered to take him to the ER but he decided to wait until morning to go to the Urgent Care clinic. I remember crawling into bed that night annoyed. I had no idea how serious it was going to end up being. From my stance, it was one more thing. We had not paid for the COBRA insurance, so we had no insurance to speak of. Finances were already strapped, the family was stressed and now we were going to have to go to another doctor who would find nothing wrong and tell us it was all stress related. Yes, I believed that it was stress. There was much stress in our lives at that point.
The next morning we woke early. We took the girls to a friend’s house and John to the urgent care facility. I was, in fact, still extremely annoyed. I didn’t even open the door for him to get out of the car (one of the rungs on the ladder of guilt I carry today). We went in, filled out the paper work, slid the credit card and saw a doctor within 20 minutes. The doctor almost immediately concluded that it was his appendix and we needed to be at the ER. My annoyance was now replaced with concern. What about the stress diagnosis we had been getting for the past 5 months? Appendix, not such a big deal though, right? We were off to the ER and then shortly admitted to the hospital. Test after test came back inconclusive. It was finally determined to do exploratory surgery to remove what they knew to be a “mass” at the spot of his appendix. The cancer word never once came up. But wait, we have a blood clot remember. The doctor knew the blood clot was there before surgery but determined that surgery could wait no longer. The blood clot at this point, took up the entire length of his left leg. I remember the doctor coming in after surgery to talk with me and his almost excitement at having removed a “softball size” mass from his appendix. Some of his colon had been damaged as a result of the mass so they had to do a resection but other than the fact that he’d dehydrate more easily we’d see no real life changes. He said that they were sending the mass off for testing but that he was cautiously optimistic that it wasn’t cancerous. There it was the cancer word but said in such a way as to convince me that that was not our concern. The fear now was the blood clot. And it was a fear not to be contended with.
The following day, John would use his legs to help reposition himself in the bed. Almost instantly he started sweating. He turned gray. His blood pressure dropped. I called for the nurse, nothing. I went to the hall to get a nurse walking by and within minutes we had a team in the room asking questions, giving him oxygen and preparing to move him to ICU. I just stood in the corner, answering questions and trying not to get in any one’s way. When we reached the ICU door, the doctor stopped me. He told me he was sure the blood clot had broken off and gone into his heart and lungs and the next 24 hours were critical. He asked if I had anyone to call and left me standing there. I called my pastor first and then John’s sister. I felt helpless and scared. What was happening? What did this mean? I spent that night in the ICU waiting room sleeping in a chair waiting for the 6am visiting hours. It would be several more days before they would come back and tell us that the tests came back positive for cancer – stage 3 cancer of the appendix. The doctor reassured us that they had gotten it all. Never mind the fact that he didn’t even think it was cancerous when he first removed it. He would do chemo for precautionary measures but he assured us that they had gotten it all. John was going to be just fine. I tried to fill my thoughts with those of gloom and self pity but John was so stinking optimistic, I couldn’t. He kept saying that God would not allow him to survive a blood clot through the heart and lungs, if he was going to take him with cancer. His faith was strong, very strong.
When John was released from the hospital we decided to go home to Oklahoma where our family was. The doctor in Oklahoma wanted to start chemo as soon as possible just to be safe. So we packed and left in a week taking only what we needed for the time being. Filled with hope that God had pulled us through the worse, we would go to Oklahoma do the chemo and start to rebuild our lives. But that hope was short lived. Tests, upon arriving in Oklahoma, confirmed that not only had they not gotten all of the cancer, he was a stage 4. Cancer had already spread to his liver. His type of cancer was very aggressive and chemo treatment was not only necessary but we couldn’t wait much longer before starting it. “IF” she could get him through the first year, he had a really good chance of making it 7 or even 10 years. These words instilled a great deal of fear in me that day. We started chemo.
In September they scanned him again. This time the test came back clear. The chemo was not only working it had basically rid him of the cancer. In the words of the doctor, “you are cancer free!” The glitch, however, was that he was very sick at this point. Sicker than he had been when we first arrived. I remember the doctor telling us she was certain that the test would come back saying the cancer had gotten worse because of how sick he was. The clear test meant there was another problem. So we were sent to CT scan to try to figure it out. An abscess had grown near the site of the original surgery. We had it drained and he started to improve but a few weeks later another abscess. The fevers kept coming and he kept getting sicker. He lost a tremendous amount of weight and the pain was getting worse. It was now believed that his colon, basically, had torn and was leaking bile into his abdomen causing the abscesses. This was a rare side effect of one of the chemo drugs, the drug, in fact, that had proven to be the most successful. We were sent to see a colorectal surgeon who admitted us to the hospital that very day. He was hesitant to do surgery. He told us that John was well below the health limit for even considering surgery but there were really no other options and to anticipate he would spend time in the ICU again afterward. The next day was surgery. We gathered in the waiting room, anticipating the doctor’s return and his words that they would watch him closely and we would soon be back on the road to recovery. When the doctor met us after surgery, he did, in fact, tell us that they had taken him to ICU and would watch him closely. Those words were followed with the fact that they had found more cancer. It was all in his back, bowels, abdomen and liver. “And this is what we can see from opening him up” were his words. “There is no way to tell where else the cancer has gone.” WHAT??? What about the clear, cancer free scan we had only 5 weeks ago? What did this mean? What will I tell my girls? I walked out of the room in disbelief desperately trying to process what I had just heard.
Hope was fading, fun was long gone and stress was higher than ever…..
The next few months were filled with ups and downs. After John’s surgery, the surgeon suggested there was nothing more he could do and the oncologist wouldn’t see us. It was a vicious cycle, oncologist says we have to treat the infection – talk to the surgeon. Surgeon says, infection is caused by cancer. Kill the cancer. Kill the infection. We were at a huge crossroads of despair. The surgeon suggested we call hospice and try and get his pain under control. He called the oncologist and made his suggestion and she agreed to see us. Her plan, a hail mary pass at chemo again. It would not cure him but it would likely buy him more time. On the flip side, chemo for an individual this sick (malnutrition, known infection, recovering from major surgery) is very risky. We were warned that it could back fire and ultimately bring about his demise faster. But John was a fighter. He did not want to give up. So we took the chance – and a month later, we saw definite signs of improvement! We were filled with hope once again. The chemo was working. The chance for comfort and normalcy to return to our lives was visible. We even let ourselves dream about moving into a place of our own again and functioning as an American Family.
Then Christmas Day saw another decline. His health would decline from this point forward. There would be no more good days health wise for him. By New Year’s Eve the pain would be so great, he would be moved to a continuous morphine pump and before January was over he’d be on hospice.
I have never known anyone to suffer as much as John did. And I have never known anyone to hold to his faith like John did either. Yes, he was frustrated that his hands would not work to button a shirt or tie a shoe. He grieved at the idea of not being there for his girls. He even begged me to make sure that they don’t forget him. But he never took his eyes off of God. He was convinced that God was going to heal him but would always follow it with “even if he does not, Sharon, I will follow Him.” He was a spiritual rock in those last days. He clung to the hope in Christ trusting that God knew what was best for us. Trusting that God would take care of his wife and girls if he didn’t pull through. Just trusting in a God that loved him enough to save him from his sins even if that meant pulling him from this world. I want my girls to know and live the deep faith that their daddy lived.
They say time heals all wounds. I will be interested to see if that holds true. To have loved deeply means to have lost deeply. (I know this is a famous quote from someone, but I didn’t take the time to look up who.)
I look forward in life with the realization that it is possible that my life is not yet half done. Of course we are not guaranteed tomorrow but it is likely that there will be many more tomorrows for me and my girls and quite possible that the number of tomorrows will exceed the number of yesterdays. What will my tomorrows be filled with? Will cancer, although seemingly gone, continue to steal from my tomorrows?
There is only one constant for me to cling to – God. I can not pretend to understand the reason behind the events of the yesterdays or to imagine the events for the tomorrows but I can proclaim to know the One who does. Faith, my friend, is stronger than understanding. I can not pretend to know whether the events of tomorrow will bring laughter or more tears but I can rely on the One who does. Hope, my friend, is stronger than despair. I can not pretend to know how the events of the yesterdays will play on my girls tomorrows but I can trust the One who does. Trust, my friend, is stronger than fear.