Letting Go: A Sister Story

Ronna Terrell-Bailey Colorado, 2002

Ronna in 2002

“Ronna has cancer and isn’t expected to live through the weekend.” It was the call you never wanted to get and the news came out of the blue. What would I do now?


 

I had been in graduate school all of two weeks and was still recovering from syllabus shock. What in the world had I gotten myself into with this degree? I tried to remember when I had taken that swimming test in college. The first time I got into the pool to prepare, I was so discouraged I called home. There was no way I could swim the specified distance in the time allotted. When I told my family this, my oldest sister Ronna laughed.

“You just started,” she admonished me. “You can’t expect to do it the first time.” Then she reminded me to set smaller goals as I trained for the big event. I could always count on her to help me put things in the right perspective.

I’d had another worry that second week of graduate school. Ronna had mentioned in passing that she’d been to the doctor on Tuesday to have her leg checked. It had been bothering her for a while and she decided it was time for an official diagnosis. The doctor was running some tests, but it was probably nothing. No one else was worried, but for some reason I couldn’t dismiss it so easily. All week I wrestled with God.

“You can’t have her. Not yet. Please, Father, don’t take her yet.” There was no reason for such drastic thoughts, but I just couldn’t shake them.

Still, I had work to do. I went to my new classes and dove into the initial piles of reading and assignments, trying to meet new people and not get too overwhelmed. By Friday, I was ready for the weekend and deciding what church to visit that Sunday. As a new resident of Ft. Worth, TX, I had a lot of options.

Then the phone rang and my life changed forever.

“Do you remember that Ronna went to the doctor to have her leg checked out?” Yeah… My stomach was tightening again and desperate prayers flashed through my mind. “Well, it turns out it’s severe cancer of the brain and lungs and she’s not expected to live through the weekend.” The world stopped spinning for a moment. Then, as I let go of my fears and accepted the inevitable, an unexplainable peace filled my spirit.

As I discussed plans with my family, I had a growing sense that I could not and should not go home that weekend. I couldn’t really explain why and the only person who really understood was Ronna.

She was twenty-one when I was born and really helped me through my middle- and high-school years. Ronna knew me better than anyone else. She had a special knack for figuring people out, knowing what they needed, and encouraging each one. She wasn’t perfect, but she called out the God-given greatness she saw in others. This made her one of my biggest heroes.

To everyone’s surprise (except maybe Ronna’s and mine), she lived through that weekend. In fact, she had treatments and lived through the end of January. She used that time to put her affairs in order. The rest of us appreciated the extra time to tell her how much she meant to us.

Her family and friends gathered November 1 for her “Celebration of Life.” (She had it early because she wanted to be “part of the party.”) I came back to Colorado for that and as often as my school schedule allowed. I skipped January term and spent the extra time at home. The day I left to go back to school, Ronna and I both knew it was the last time we’d see each other here on earth. Hard as it was, I knew it was time to let go and say goodbye.

The final big phone call woke me up Saturday night, January 25, 2003. I’d not gotten a lick of work done that day. Something inside felt very wrong. It made me stressed and unsettled. I finally gave up pretending to work, deciding to take a shower and go to bed early.

In the shower, I tried to wash my worries down the drain like Ronna taught me. It wasn’t working very well. I didn’t want Ronna to leave. I didn’t want to let go this soon.

Then came another thought, seemingly out of nowhere: “Would you really want her to stay?” Ronna had lived a full life and touched so many people. Now she had lost all of her beautiful, long hair. She was so weak she could no longer speak. Did I really want to prolong that suffering for my selfish desire to not let go?

Heaven is such a better place. There she would be free from pain, sorrow, and death. She’d be in the presence of her Lord and Savior. Could I really wish her less than that when her pain right now was so great? Could I really say I needed her more than the Lord if He decided it was time to call her home?

I finally let go, surrendering my sister into God the Father’s all-powerful and all-knowing hands. Then I broke down into soul-wrenching sobs. Completely wrung out, I fell into bed and slept hard.

I was wakened by the phone. Who could be calling in the wee hours of the morning? Still half-asleep, I gave my cousins directions to my apartment and pulled on some decent clothes. I still hadn’t fully wakened when they knocked on the door. The three of us stood blinking at each other in my living room. Finally, my cousin broke the news that Ronna was gone and held me as I cried tears I thought had been used up earlier. Then they took me to their house.

The next morning I stared emptily at the TV screen, trying not to think about how much Ronna loved football. She’d not even gotten to see that year’s Super Bowl.

The road after that was a hard one. I didn’t know how to keep going after one of my strongest supporters left. I denied anything was wrong for nine months, but I couldn’t stuff my feelings forever.

When they finally broke free, it was almost more than I could take. I didn’t want anyone around me or anyone’s help. I even moved back home mid-spring, finishing my few classes as independent study. People got tired of my horrible attitude and I did too. Still, I couldn’t get out of the pit. I couldn’t let go of the pain, confusion, and darkness.

Finally, God stopped me in my tracks with this powerful truth: If you love other people and let them in, it is true that you could get hurt. Something like this might even happen again. But, if you never love again, you will miss all the good things as well. Think of all the memories you treasure of your time with Ronna. You wouldn’t have those if you’d pushed her away. Also, God is love and His love is perfect. If we rest in His love, we have nothing to fear.

“There is no fear in love. Instead, perfect love drives away fear. That’s because fear has to do with being punished. The one who fears does not have perfect love” 1 John 4:18 (NIRV).

When you turn away all love, you refuse God too. That means no love, no goodness, no beauty, nothing that comes from God. Yes, love is a risk, but it is worth it.

It was time to let go of my fear and learn to love again.


Are you in a dark place? There were times I couldn’t even read my Bible. The one passage I could read was Psalm 139. I pray it reminds you as it did me of God Almighty, who never leaves us or gives up on us. Try some other Psalms as well. They were written as heartfelt songs and prayers that still ring true today.

Related Links:

  • Learn more about Nancy here.
  • Here are some books and resources by Nancy which include family devotionals and small-group guides.
  • Click here to read some of Nancy’s blogs.
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