Owen Frederick McMasters
I learned long ago that there’s no crying in Surgery. Forgive me if this is an exception.
I’ve learned a lot over the past few years. I’ve learned that there is a huge difference
between being a doctor and being a caregiver. I studied for many years to learn
the former yet knew nothing about the latter. There are many saints in the field
of Pediatric Oncology disguised as nurses. There is no more demanding job, and those
who devote their lives to children with cancer deserve our unending support and
I remember when Owen was very young, at Sunday school (CCD class). The theme of
the lesson was: “What would Jesus do?” The teacher asked questions to demonstrate
the kinds of things Jesus would do to show his love and compassion for mankind.
After going around the room and getting all of the obvious answers from the other
children, there was a pause as they all tried to find other answers to the question.
Owen raised his hand and said, quite matter-of-factly: “amputate.”
I’m sure the Sunday school teacher was somewhat taken aback and knew not what to
think about this (trust me, the New Testament contains no mention of Jesus performing
amputations). To put it in context for you, I had been on Trauma call at University
Hospital the prior weekend, and in a single terrible night, three badly injured
patients came in, all who needed their legs amputated. Owen had overheard me talking
to Beth about this the next day and was properly horrified, wondering why I would
do something so terrible to these people. I had to explain that I had to do this
to save their lives, so it was actually the compassionate and right thing to do.
Amputate. That was pure Owen.
I have spent the last 4 years, 3 months contemplating and studying and struggling
with the age-old question: “How can a loving and merciful God allow evil and suffering
in the world?” How can He possibly allow children to suffer with cancer?
God watched his son suffer for several hours before he died a terrible death, surrounded
by many people who wanted him to die. I watched my son suffer for several years
before he died a wonderful death, surrounded by many people who wanted him to live--enveloped
by family, friends, dogs, and tremendous love. God and I are still comparing notes
about this experience; we are still working on answering those questions.
They say that love is the strongest of all human emotions. I now beg to differ.
Grief is the strongest of all human emotions. It is the greatest of all emotions
because it is the most powerful expression of the strongest love in the world.
The shortest verse in the Bible is John, chapter 11 verse 35.
Jesus had gone to see his friend, Lazarus, who had been ill and had just died. Overcome
with emotion when he confronted Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha sobbing, Jesus
didn’t just get a little bit teary-eyed--he wept. He sobbed and bawled and cried
tears of sorrow and grief. Jesus, who understood better than anyone the glory of
Heaven, the magnificent splendor of the place where there is no pain and suffering
and where his friend Lazarus would spend eternity, wept nonetheless. Jesus knew
the grief that comes from the loss of those we love.
So it’s OK for us to grieve for Owen. Grief is an expression of love; it is what
makes us human. Go ahead and have a good bawl if you want—I’ve found that it actually
feels pretty good (unless you do it until you get a cramp, like I’ve done). We will
never forget Owen, and like the many scars he bore from his illness, we will forever
bear the scars of his loss. What we cannot do, however--what Owen would never allow
us to do--is allow our grief to descend into despair. Throughout his long struggle
with cancer, even during his darkest days of misery and anguish, Owen always found
joy in every day of his life. He never, ever, gave in to despair. So we need to
ask: “what Owen would want for us?” (Austin and Steven, I’m talking to you now).
He would not want us moping around feeling sorry for him and for ourselves. He would
want us to squeeze as much joy and love out of every day of life as possible, to
work and play hard, to chase outrageous dreams, and experience all the wonders of
life that he couldn’t.
Owen was brilliant. He was funny. He was sarcastic and quick-witted. He loved playing
video games and snowboarding and playing tennis and basketball. He loved to go to
our farm in Casey County and play in the fields and the woods and the creek. He
learned to play poker before he could tie his own shoes. Nearly a generation of
Surgery residents has lost money to Owen at the annual New Intern party at our house,
which usually degenerates to a poker game on the deck. Many an unsuspecting adult
has fallen victim to a child barely big enough to hold the cards in his hand.
Owen loved his friends who were so good to him throughout his illness, especially
his buddies from Trinity High School. They had sleepover parties at our house frequently,
including a recent New Year’s Eve party that apparently became quite a bash despite
our frequent patrols. Chloe Scoggins and Shelby Ferriell were his great friends;
he loved you very much. He loved his aunts and uncles and cousins. He loved and
admired his older brothers, Austin and Steven. Whenever Owen was feeling at his
worst, his brothers would visit and bring an immediate smile to his face, a gleam
to his eye, and a funny comment to his lips. His brothers were with him often, and
he cherished his time with them. He loved Suzy Marino, who donated her bone marrow
to try to save his life. She is with us today from California. He loved Molly King
Lusk, who took care of him when he was very young; it was beautiful to watch Owen
hold her baby Georgia in his final days. Owen especially loved his Uncles Jimmy
and Kenny, who devoted so much of their lives to helping to care for him. He loved
his grandmother, Ruth (“Gronny”) immensely. He loved all of you who have prayed
for him and bled for him to give him lifesaving blood products.
Most of all, however, he loved his mother. It is impossible to describe the love
between Beth and Owen. They hugged and cuddled and laughed and cried and dreamed
together. To witness it was the closest thing to glimpsing into the eyes of God
I will ever know. This gift can never be taken away. Owen will always be with us.
Every day he was with us was a gift we didn’t deserve. He was on loan to us from
God; we had no right to expect to keep him with us forever. He is finally at peace
and can suffer no more.
We love our children more than anything in the world. We love our children more
than our parents, more than our siblings, more than our spouses, more than ourselves.
We love our children more than life itself. We love our children in the way we are
supposed to love God--but few of us do.
Perhaps therein lies the answer to the questions I have been asking God. For just
as it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice a limb to save a life, perhaps sometimes
it is necessary for God and others to lose a child to save our souls. Watching the
absolute grace with which Owen bore his burden, his suffering, his pain, and witnessing
his love was as close as I will ever get to knowing God. He never complained—never.
He always had faith. He always had hope. He never became bitter. He just loved.
In his final days, he told everyone who came to visit him how much he loved them.
Maybe, just maybe, if we can learn to love God just a fraction as much as Owen loved
us, and we loved him, we will be granted the privilege of joining him in Heaven.
So shuffle up and deal, Owen. Put our blinds in for us ‘till we get there. We’ll
be there as soon as we can.