Cuero man dying of cancer says he will be born again in death
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Dec. 14, 2012 at 6:14 a.m.
Updated Dec. 15, 2012 at 6:15 a.m.
Editor's note: This is Part I of a two-part story. Part II of Andrew Heard's story will be published in the Victoria Advocate's Dec. 22 Faith section.
Leaning forward on a plush gray recliner, Andrew Heard reached for a thin throw blanket and draped it across his bare toes.
He sank his head into the chair's pillowtop and stared forward at a pair of ajar French doors. In the adjacent living room, Heard's 2-year-old daughter's toys are scattered along the carpet from an earlier play session.
"Ellie Bug," is away at preschool. And Heard's wife Bailey, 28, is out settling one of the couple's recently acquired real-estate properties.
Heard sits alone in the calm, surrounded by family and wedding portraits smiling back at him in all directions.
"I stay in this room when I'm sick," he said, barely turning his head to speak. "Ellie doesn't understand or handle it very well, so I'm sort of quarantined from the baby until I feel better."
He's experienced many sick days in this bedroom. It's the same room where he learned 10 years ago, he was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
He was supposed to die then, his doctors said.
But he survived their predictions of expiration.
This time, however, he may not.
Heard, 30, a lifelong non-smoker, was diagnosed in September with stage four lung cancer. Though he survived the lymphoma, his cells mutated over time and developed cancerous tumors in his lungs and shoulders.
Near the recliner, Heard reached for a thick folder containing medical records, X-rays and chemo procedures to date, including the printout displaying his chances of survival.
"I have a 4 percent chance of survival," he said. "In medical terms, that may as well be zero."
For a second time in Heard's life, he is expected to die and doctors estimate he has six months to live.
"I was sitting on that couch when I found out I had cancer the first time," Heard said, motioning to the couch next to his chair. "I prayed for God to speak to me the way he did in the Old Testament and basically I heard God tell me I was going to die. I started crying and ran into the living room. I told my father I was going to die ... and he just told me I needed to keep praying."
He confessed that during his first cancer diagnosis, he thought somehow he deserved to die. He believed he had not done what God required of him and that he had taken advantage of his lifelong relationship with Christ and the Baptist church.
But this time he doesn't feel deserving of death nor anger with God. He's aware there's a divine plan in motion. And he's at peace not yet knowing what it is.
Heard has no energy for smiles today, but he continues to try anyway, forcing his lips to illustrate whatever pleasantries he can muster.
He pushes back on the chair to lie down slightly and gazes forward at a flat-screen TV displaying a frozen scene from "Men in Black."
As his body moves downward in the chair, a glass encasement containing Heard's athletic trophies is exposed.
"There's a lot of them. I played every sport there is in high school," he said. "I was quarterback in high school and at Texas Tech. I was slot receiver at Baylor."
For someone who has always been in good physical shape, debilitating chemo is both physically and mentally challenging.
He visited MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston the day before for another round of chemotherapy. He's only got a few hours before his body will be ravaged by the treatment.
For now, the pain is tolerable. Oxycontin and other prescriptions will sustain his physical misery, and he'll be able to keep food down for a while longer.
He knows it won't last.
He knows that by nightfall the chemo treatments will kick in and replace his calm with uncompromising vomiting and fatigue.
"It'll feel like I was hit by a truck. It's a real physical struggle, and I feel nauseated for days. It also messes with my eyesight for some reason," Heard said.
But when the nausea subsides, Heard will return to a regular life with Bailey and Ellie. He'll go back to work at Regency Nursing and Rehabilitation Centers as a senior recruiting coordinator. And he'll continue to visit as many Texas churches as he can in the time he has left, sharing the story of God's love and grace in times of great tragedy and uncertainty.
But the story of Heard's message and profound trust in God is ironic, really.
A year ago, he was working as a licensed youth pastor in a Baptist church in Dallas, struggling with depression and theological uncertainty. He'd begun his doctoral program in ministry at Baylor, where he'd also received his masters in divinity, yet he was internally struggling with God, and even more so, struggling with God's followers.
"I'd grown a lot intellectually and theologically ... and I saw things in my faith that didn't seem to converge with what I saw going on in the local churches," Heard said. "I had questions about a lot of things that I wanted to discuss openly and basically I would get laughed out of the room."
Conflicted by his questions, and unsure of his future in church leadership, Heard resigned from his position and decided to move his family home to Cuero.
"I couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't preach something to those kids that I wasn't sure I believed anymore," he said. "I had basically become a functional agnostic."
He remained secretly non-Christian for many months.
It took a second bought with cancer and a death sentence to reconcile his relationship with Christ.
"What I realized was that maybe I just wasn't very Baptist, and maybe I didn't need that sticker on my wall," he said.
Yet in his last few months of life, Heard has never been more convinced that the God of the Bible is who he says he is and that he is listening to Heard's pleas.
"The reality of God has overwhelmed me through this. When God gets in your face like that, any questions you have about him don't matter as much anymore," he said, forcing a smile. "Right now, I'm just a guy who loves God and someone who is sharing his story with as many people as I can."
Heard is also writing a book about his faith struggles and divine questions, "A Gray Faith," which is expected to publish in the spring through Carpenters Son Publishing.
"The book is about the problem of pain and suffering and how to walk through gray moments where God doesn't promise you what the outcome will be," he said. "There's no place in the Bible that says Andrew Heard will survive Stage 4 cancer a second time. That's not in there. But I want people to know that in the midst of our struggles, they can know that God is real and we have a way to function in those moments."
Heard said in what are predicted to be the final months of his life, he's found peace in a renewed relationship with God. He's discovered that he's finally sustained by his faith in ways he's never known before - without knowing or understanding why he's been selected to die.
And though he's showing some medical progress - his left lung tumor recently shrunk by 50 percent - he's living as a man dying; a man who believes his next life will begin shortly in the kingdom of heaven.
He admits he doesn't have all the answers. But it's OK, he said. For the first time, he trusts that God does.
"I don't want to die. I don't want my wife to be a widow at 28. I want to see my daughter grow up, and I don't want to know that my parents are grieving. But what if me dying helps the kingdom of God somehow?" he asked. "If God is the great redeemer ... it will make sense in heaven."