I should have written this weeks ago, or even months ago.
Why do we wait until someone is dead or dying to tell them what they really mean to us?
My dear friend Caleb Atnip has been battling colon cancer for almost two years, and last week, I got the worst message I could have gotten.
His family said he only had a few days left to live.
I said, “No,” over and over again at least 10 times followed by, “I don’t want him to die.”
I cried thousands of tears while my fiance comforted me. My heart hurt for Caleb and for another dear friend of mine, his wife, Savannah.
My fiance (my Caleb) and I went to see them at the hospital immediately the next morning. I had all these things planned out that I wanted to say. I wanted him to know that his love and friendship meant the world to me, that I was so thankful that he was always my cheerleader and always on my team, that he saw the best in me in a world that likes to tear people down, and that he and his wife are such an example of a God-centered marriage. I wanted him to know how strong and courageous and faith-filled he was and how deeply and unconditionally I loved him like a brother.
But, instead, we talked like normal, laughing and joking around, and when we went to leave, I grabbed his hand and simply said, “Caleb, I love you so much, and I just want you to know that you are one of my favorite people in the world.”
He looked me dead in the eye over his oxygen mask and nodded his head. I knew he heard me and I knew he understand.
I have beat myself up a million times about not saying more. I wish I could’ve talked to him for hours about how wonderful he is. A few months ago, I showed his wife my wedding dress and offered to show him, but he said, “No, I’ll wait until the big day.”
I never got to show him my dress, but I know he will have a much better view of it that day.
The preacher at his funeral said it best when he said, “Don’t have regrets about what you should have said or done because he lived the very best life and was very happy.”
But it made me think. Why don’t we tell each other how we really feel while things are going right? Why do we wait until a crisis to love? Why don’t we just love every single person like they’re dying?
That’s how Caleb loved people. He poured out love and faith in God even when he was dying. He had joy even through his pain. He had empathy for others when he was going through the worst possible scenario. He loved his wife every second of every day, and continued to put her first until his final breath.
He just wanted people to love people and to love Jesus. And he was ok with dying if that meant that his story would save lives.
His wife slept in a hospital cot by his side every single night. I rarely saw her cry. I rarely saw her sad. Even when they would get bad updates, she would have a smile on and would outwardly trust God.
At his funeral, when the final song came on, she was the first to stand up, lift her hands high, and worship her God – make sure you catch that – a woman who had just lost her high school sweetheart of 10 years, her new husband, and the love of her life all at age 25 lifted her hands to thank and praise God for all He has done and will do. THAT is faith. THAT is love. THAT is humility.
There are people we meet who make us better. Caleb and Savannah are those people – the kind of selfless people that don’t make you feel bad, ever. They make me feel loved and enough yet push me to be better and love bigger and do more all at the same time – that’s a God-gift.
Caleb’s dad hugged me and told me that Caleb talked about me and bragged about me all the time. When I worked as a news reporter, he watched me from the hospital every morning.
I said to my Caleb and my mom, “He just thought I was way more awesome than I even am,” and they said, “No, he saw the best in you. He saw what God sees in you. He saw that in everyone.”
Throughout my life, I have always cared too much what people think and have let negative thoughts and words from others totally crush me. With Caleb, I never worried what he thought because I knew how much he loved me.
Caleb was the second person I had to say goodbye to on the last day of their life. My beloved professor Dr. Nelson was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, and I had to sit and hold his hand and tell him how much I loved him in one short sentence, too. I prayed I’d never have to do it again, but I’m glad, in a way, that I had to. It changed me and made me even better – and this time, it hit me that I HAD to start loving people bigger and telling them how incredible they are on any and every random day for no reason whatsoever.
Both Caleb and Dr. Nelson were people who lifted me higher than I could ever lift myself and loved me the way I know God loves me, so it hurt me deeply to lose both of them and didn’t seem fair at all.
I said to my Caleb, “The whole time he has been sick, I prayed and just KNEW he would be healed. I knew he would live.”
My Caleb said words that I know God gave him: “He is healed – just not how we thought he would be healed, but God’s ways are so much higher than ours.”
I said, “Why do we have cancer? Why did man have to sin? Sometimes it makes no sense,” to which he said,”If we didn’t have sin, we’d have nothing to compare grace to.”
Those words and that conversation are exactly what Caleb Atnip his story of fight and faith to initiate.
Luckily, Caleb’s powerful story lives on through his legacy, through his family, through his friends, and, mostly, his awe-inducing, powerful, strong, breathtaking wife.
This is a post from his Facebook page on Jan. 9:
I haven’t made an update in a while and today I make one that is definitely not easy to say. We have decided to stop chemotherapy and any other treatment for the cancer. According to my oncologist with the way my cancer has progressed and the way my body is slowly starting to get worse they think I’ve only got about 3 months left to live so I want to protect what quality of life I might have left by not torturing myself with any painful and sickening treatments. Even though this isn’t the news or results we had hoped for me and Savannah are going to be ok. I am confident in where I’m going if I die and I know Savannah will be taken care of here if I do. I am thankful for the life I have lived, the friends I’ve made and the memories I have. More than that I am thankful for Jesus creating a way for me to go to heaven. While I am not excited about leaving my wife, family and friends I am so excited to see my savior and experience heaven in all its glory. We know God is still capable of miracles and He could decide to keep me around for much longer but we do want to be prepared in case the worst does happen. Thank you all for supporting me and praying for me through this journey. I wanna say that if cancer does take my life it does not mean that I lost my fight to cancer. I am simply being called home so that I no longer have to deal with the pain and suffering of this world. Thanks again and please be understanding if I’m not able to answer every call, text, or message during this crazy time.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God ; believe also in me. My Fatherʼs house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
John 14:1-3 NIV
He wasn’t scared because he knew where he was going, and he just wanted everyone else to know that, too.
A firefighter, a friend, a husband, a brother, a son, a hero, Caleb Atnip changed the world and will keep changing it without even having to be here physically.
As I watched his mom, who is battling breast cancer, take care of her dying son hours before his death, I saw Jesus. I saw one servant caring for another servant and it was a visual of Christ’s love and his plan for the world. I saw Jesus in her and I saw Jesus in him at the same time in that moment. And I saw where he learned to be such a servant.
To be able to paint a picture of service and love at a time when it would be acceptable for you to break down is moving and powerful and a testament to the strength the entire family finds in Jesus.
His wife, his mom, his dad, his brothers, his in-laws, his best friend – I could continue to list people that were in Caleb’s circle and they are all exceptionally incredible people and I can’t help but think Caleb and Jesus both have a lot to do with that.
The preacher had us thank God for Caleb at the funeral and that made it all make sense – we thanked God for a gift we didn’t deserve just like we thank him for the grace we don’t deserve. All of the best things He gives us are things we did nothing to earn, and Caleb was no exception.
Now, we will continue to live in thankfulness for lives like Caleb’s by living out our own God-story and holding on to faith until the end just like he did.