Before going to bed that night, Cory stopped in his daughter’s room and kissed her sleeping face good night, as he had done every night since she was born, two years ago. He then padded into his own bedroom and quietly slipped in beside his wife, who had gone to sleep shortly after putting their daughter to bed.
Sleep usually came fitfully to Ann, who was eight months pregnant with their second child, but tonight she was resting soundly. It was Cory who was anxious, although he didn’t know why. Though he had no worries, his mind was charged, like the air just before a thunderstorm. He thought about his job, his friends and his growing family. His life was at peace yet he knew that tonight especially he needed to be alert to something.
Sometime in the night, he awoke with a start, as if something had touched him, a presence felt but unseen. Ann was still sleeping soundly, and the house was quiet, save for the clock in the living room counting down the seconds. Cory got out of bed effortlessly, gliding across the bedroom floor and into the hallway. He looked in Margot’s room and, despite the presence of another person beside her bed, felt no fear.
“What do you want?” he asked the Stranger.
“Do you know who I am?”
“I know of you. But I expected a shroud and a scythe.”
“I move with the times,” the Stranger said, smiling slightly.
“What do you want? You can’t have her, you know,” Cory told the Stranger.
“That’s not for you to decide,” replied the Stranger. “Besides, this will be a quickly forgotten dream for you. All you’ll know is that you shouldn’t have put the shelf over her bed. She won’t feel a thing.”
“No,” said Cory. “You can’t want her. Why don’t you take me?”
“Oh, your time isn’t for quite a while. And besides, why should I? You know who I am and what I do. What can you offer me that’s better?”
Cory looked at his beautiful daughter, then at the shelf above her bed.
“Oh, don’t try and cheat me,” the Stranger said. “If not tonight, I’ll get her soon enough.”
“But if you take me,” Cory said, “you’ll have one less soul working for the Lord.”
The Stranger looked surprise. “Contrary to popular belief, I do not work for the enemy. I merely take them. Where they go is out of my control. But you intrigue me.”
“Then let’s strike a deal.”
“No,” said the Stranger, “no deal. But this is what is going to happen. Your daughter will live to have children and grandchildren of her own. But you will never see them.”
Cory paused. “I understand.”
“No you don’t,” said the Stranger. “You think you are doing something grand and noble. But you will never know. You will be stricken and you will weaken and eventually I will come for you. And all during that time, you will ask ‘why me?’, never knowing that this is the trade-off, never knowing that tonight, I traded your daughter’s life for your own. Get that shelf fixed, as I can’t be everywhere always. And I’ll see you in due time.”
The next morning, Cory woke up and, reaching for his slippers, strained a muscle in his back. He could barely walk, let along stand up straight. He called the doctor for an appointment and left work early.
The physical examination was cursory and the doctor waited until the x-rays were returned before prescribing medication. The muscles appeared fine, but the doctor was angry, as it appeared the technician had smudged the print. He ordered more pictures taken and this time he was sure.
The cancer appeared as a small spot in the back of his neck. Had the camera moved a quarter inch lower, it would have been missed entirely. Though it was found malignant, the surgery later that week seemed to remove all of it. Now was the waiting game.
Camille was born a beautiful, blue-eyed angel, like her sister. Medical procedures for Cory continued as the girls grew. The family found a church home and Margot startied school.
The week before Camie started kindergarten, the family joined in together in an “end of the summer” camping trip. They had much to celebrate, as it appeared the cancer had been beaten. As they were unloading the car, Cory slipped and twisted his ankle sharply, shooting the pain up through his knee. No stranger to sports accidents, he wasn’t to concerned about the injury. That night, he slept on the sofa, his ankle iced and elevated.
The pain had made him slightly feverish, though the air conditioning kept the house cool. He hadn’t been to the doctor in about a year and during that time, unbeknownst to him, the cancer had re-appeared.
The Stranger stood beside him, as he had many years before in Margot’s room. The cancer riddled his body and the Stranger knew that Cory’s time had come. He reached out to the sleeping body, once strong and athletic but now racked with pain. His hand, inches from the face, was stopped by the voice.
“Not yet,” the voice said.
“Not yet?” the Stranger asked.
“No. You may take him as was your agreement, but My work in him is not yet done. He still has much to teach.”
“As you wish,” the Stranger said.
Soon the family learned that the cancer had returned. Cory and Ann were faced with many difficult decisions. They were guided by learned physicians, loving friends and the strength of their faith. Ann kept as normal a life for the family as was possible. Cory continued to work for as long as he could. He participated in the church activities and, more than once said, “If I was given the choice to not have this cancer, I would not make that choice. This illness has brought me closer to God and made me stronger in my faith.” His family and his friends were supportive at all times, being with him at home and spending time with him in the hospital.
Eventually his time did come and the celebration of his life filled one of the largest churches in the city. Years later, his friends still remember him fondly, keeping close within their hearts the lessons he taught them – to love life and to share that love.
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