Natasha Meyer Turner passed peacefully into the arms of her Savior on January 25, 2013, at the age of forty one. She is survived by her loving husband Mark and daughter Zoe; parents Galen and Thelma Meyer; brother Christian, his wife Alison, and their children: Elizabeth, Catherine, and Henry; sister Becki Veal, her husband Jim, and their children: Josephine, Ramona, and Isaac; parents-in-law Darrel and Jane Turner; sister-in-law Beth Turner McLeod, her husband Jamey, and their children: Vivian and Francine; and many wonderful friends, uncles, aunts, and cousins.
Tasha earned an English and teaching degree at Calvin College where she was editor of Chimes her junior year and a master’s in guidance counseling at Western Michigan University. Over the years, she taught in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Madison, Wisconsin, and served as an admissions counselor for Calvin College. From 2004 to the present, however, she was a guidance counselor at South Christian High School where she regarded her work as a sacred calling and regularly experienced God’s love through her colleagues and students.
Her family and friends know her as a brave heart, intelligent, wise, witty, articulate, compassionate, and always ready to have fun. She liked to tease her parents, joke with her husband and siblings, cuddle her daughter, read a good book, get her nieces and nephews laughing and rowdy, spend serious and silly time with friends, quietly revel in the love of her mother, do a project with her dad, go thrifting with her sister, fuss over her big dog Birdie, learn to quilt with her mother-in-law, watch a movie and eat pop corn with Mark and Zoe in the basement rec room, and find something to enjoy each day. “I have cancer,” she used to say, “but I am not dying today, so what shall I do instead?”
There were no platitudes or schmaltz in her faith, just the recognition that much of life is sheer mystery and so is God—but He can be trusted. She knew his love for her through Christ and found as well serendipitous expressions of His grace in the world and people around her.
Thank you to Beth Peterson, Tasha’s oncology nurse for nearly ten years who not only administered chemo, but became a friend, sharing family stories, hugs, and some good “Jesusy” talk now and then, as Tasha described it. Thanks as well to oncologist Dr. Mark Campbell, a one man SWAT team when it comes to fighting cancer, but also a man of tender heart who knows what it is like to have family members dealing with the illness, and who put his arm around Tasha’s grieving mother near the end and assured her that Tasha would be healed, though not in this life. And thank you to palliative care physician Dr. John Mulder who doesn’t mind “getting a little theological” and delivered some truly pastoral medicine to Tasha and her loved ones. Thank you to Dr. George Bruins, Tasha’s uncle, who stepped in so many times at all hours during crises. And thank you to so many others who walked this journey in so many ways with Tasha, Mark, and Zoe.
“Don’t ever say that I lost my battle with cancer,” Tasha once said. And she didn’t. The gospel is true. The cancer is dead. Natasha lives. And we will see her again.
Funeral Services will be held, Tuesday, January 29, 2013, at 1:00 pm at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church (514 Eastern Ave SE, Grand Rapids) with Rev Mary Hulst officiating. Visitation will be held at the Zaagman Memorial Chapel Sunday 2-4 & 6-8 pm and Monday 3-5 pm.
Natasha delivered the following speech to South Christian High School students, faculty, and staff on Tuesday September 11, 2012 …
My favorite chapels have always been those in which one of you shares your story of faith. It seems to me that when we share our stories of how God works in our lives, we draw closer together as a community. It’s my hope that when I share my story today, you are able to relate it to your own story. And that you, too, will share your story with this community of faith.
When I offered to Mr. Kuiper that I would lead a chapel, I didn’t expect him to take me up on it so quickly—or for it to be scheduled on such a significant day. September 11.
A day eleven years ago now when our country was dealt a devastating blow—the ramifications of which we are still enduring. You were very young when the terrorist-piloted planes hit the twin towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. You may have no memory of the day at all. And yet, most of your life has been lived in a country at war as a result of the attacks on those days. Phrases like “war on terror” and “since 9-11” have been part of your vocabulary for a majority of your life.
My story, too, involves a September 11. September 11 is my husband Mark’s birthday. Today he is 40. But his birthday is marred not just by the terrorist attacks that occurred on it, but also by something closer to home. 9 years ago today, on Mark’s 31st birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I was 32 at the time. It was a normal day. I knew I had a lump in my breast, but all signals pointed to it being nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, I needed to get it checked out. I recall leaving my computer on at my job at East Grand Rapids Middle School thinking that my jaunt to the Betty Ford Breast Health Center would be quick. I did not expect to be alone and sobbing in my green station wagon 5 hours later.
Just as your lives have been lived in the shadow of our country’s Sept. 11, so has my family’s life been lived in the shadow of our own Sept. 11. The day I was diagnosed, our daughter, Zoe, was a year and half old. I doubt she remembers a time in her life when cancer was not part of our family vocabulary. When phrases like “chemotherapy side-effects” and “oncologist appointment” have not been in our lexicon.
In the months after my diagnosis, I endured surgery, staggering chemotherapy, and radiation. They remain without question the hardest months of my life.
After this, however, I was cancer free for 2 years. These were joyful years spent at home with our lovely kid. I had every expectation for them to continue.
However, on our daughter’s 4th birthday, I learned that the breast cancer had returned. Not in my breast this time, but in a life-threatening spot—my lungs. I received this diagnosis during my first year of working here at South and this community rallied around me. You have continued to rally around me as I’ve dealt with the different side effects of my on-going treatment. I have been living with cancer in my body for 6 ½ years now. I have no intention of stopping.
This is a strange place to live—this living with cancer place. Most of us think that people who have had cancer are either in remission (cancer free) or actively dying. I am neither of these. I am living my life the best that I can while I have cells within me that threaten my life. I trust my oncologist implicitly and he has been able to give me treatment upon treatment that have sustained my life. For the most part, the cancer has been held in check. My treatments have varied from highly tolerable to rather miserable, but for the most part, I’ve been able to do the important things in my life. Be a mom to Zoe. A wife to Mark. A counselor here with you.
And yet, there are these cells. These rogue cells, if you will, that are hell-bent on destruction that have taken up residence in my lungs and liver.
My story may have the dramatic moniker of “cancer,” but it seems to me that we all might have something in our life that threatens us. Something within that seems ready to overtake our lives if given the least provocation. Anxiety. Guilt. Addiction. The list goes on and on.
So what can I share from my experience that may help you with yours?
Let me begin with what I have learned of God during this cancer journey of mine.
Throughout Scripture, God reveals himself to us as father, as parent. This can be a difficult image for some of us whose parents have disappointed us in different ways. I know that I am fortunate in this regard. For me, the way my parents have walked with Mark and Zoe and me has given me a good idea of what God means when he calls himself our parent.
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my parents were both still working. Dad was teaching here at South and Mom was working in adult education. There were days when I was enduring the blows of initial treatment that my mom would call to see how I was doing and would show up at my doorstep minutes later. Her gracious employer allowed her to use her own sick days to care for me and she did it perfectly. Dad would stop by right after school to check in on me and do whatever needed doing. They have now both retired, but they still do this. Mom comes to every treatment with me. Dad comes over at the drop of a hat. This winter, when I was quite sick from fluid building up in my lungs, Dad came over so consistently in the morning that our dog still expects to see him if the phone rings before 8 o’clock. Right now I am on a three week treatment cycle in which I can count on one exceptionally miserable Friday every three weeks. My parents have been with me for every one—doing my laundry, cleaning my house, being present with me when I simply need to know I am not alone.
I could spend the rest of our time here and more enumerating the real and tangible ways my parents have taken care of me. They are beyond exceptional. What I have learned from my parents each and every day since my diagnosis is that they would do anything in their power to ease my burden. That they would happily and eagerly take my disease unto themselves so that I didn’t have to deal with it. That they are in it with me through and through.
And it seems to me that this is why God reveals himself to us as father, as parent. Because at their best, our earthly parents are in it with us. Doing what they can to ease our burdens. Wishing they could shoulder the whole awful thing and carry it away.
And isn’t this was God in Christ has done for us? Shouldered the whole awful thing and carried it away? Hasn’t God taken those things in our lives that threaten us and asked us to offer them up to him? Taken the eternal effects of a fallen creation and redeemed it on the cross? Hasn’t God given us his Holy Spirit to comfort us to be present with us in our devastation here on earth? In our misery? In our suffering and disappointment? It seems to me that he has.
Not one of us here lives without disappointment. Without some suffering. Without some grief. And yet, God is in it with each of us. God is present. God shows up.
This brings be to the second thing I’ve learned about God on my journey. I’ve mentioned the Holy Spirit a few times. In my journey of faith, the Holy Spirit was a member of the trinity about whom I was the most confused. Being neither the Father nor the Son but something else. Something Other.
My experience with cancer has given me a more concrete idea of the Holy Spirit. There is a whole lot of waiting in fighting cancer. Waiting for the doctor. Waiting for the IV to finish. Waiting to fall asleep. Waiting for energy to return. A lot of time to spend in one’s own head.
This is not a good thing for me. Time in my own head gives me time to worry. Time to wonder about my future and what is going to happen to me. To my family. To Mark and Zoe.
It has been in these times of waiting and worry that I have felt the work of the Holy Spirit. Verses of Scripture that come into my head with no reason and run directly counter to the worry that was threatening my peace. Lines from hymns. Questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism. Even bits of poetry. If there ever were a reason to memorize Scripture it seems to me this is it—so that when we are vulnerable and hurting, the Holy Spirit can bring it to us as comfort and truth.
So on this journey of mine, God has revealed himself to me through my parents, through the work of the Holy Spirit, and in another meaningful way. Through you. Through God’s people.
I hope that each of us has experienced this. To have the love of God come to us through the love of people. I mentioned before that my dad was teaching here when I was first diagnosed with cancer. This community came around him, prayed for him. Prayed for me. Many of the people who were praying for me had never even met me.
My second diagnosis came when I was working here. You have prayed for me. You have brought my family meals. You have offered assistance in so many ways. You have laughed with me and cried with me. You have shared your own burdens with me and allowed me to be part of your lives. You have allowed me to pray for you.
This is the love of God to me—this living in a community of faith. It is real and beautiful.
I would be remiss if I did not mention, too, love of my husband Mark and our daughter Zoe. It takes great courage to love someone with cancer. It takes great courage to love those who are struggling mightily with anything—to watch a person dear to you wrestle with addiction, beat back depression, swim upstream against feelings of worthlessness and despair. As I have struggled, Mark and Zoe have somehow conjured the courage to remain beside me. Their job is much harder than mine and they do it with such grace I doubt anyone would know the difficulty. This, too, is God’s amazing love to me and I have done not one thing to be worthy of it.
The last thing that I want to share with you about what I’ve learned of God in my struggle with cancer is a long lesson. It began when I was a student here. I was a senior and was taking English Lit. It was taught by my dad and I loved the class. Dad is a firm believer in memorization and I memorized a whole lot of poetry that semester. One of the poems was by John Milton and was titled “on His Blindness.” John Milton was a renowned English scholar and poet who had a profound disability. He was born with sight but as an adult was slowly going blind. He increasingly depended on his daughters to read to him and write for him. In this poem, Milton struggles with his own worth in light of his disability. How can God possibly use him, he wonders. What kind of meaning does his life have when he can no longer do the things he had always felt so called to do?
Milton explores what it is to serve God, he imagines the power at God’s behest “angels at his bidding speed” he writes. And then he concludes, “who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best” and then, “they also serve who also stand and wait.”
I can remember quite clearly Dad’s animated teaching of this poem. Relating it not only to Milton’s own blindness, his dependence on his daughters, but also to us. We were healthy high school seniors, but Dad assured us that this would not always be the case. There would be times we would only be able to “stand and wait” and this was service to God as well.
It was a long lesson for me and what I still struggle with the most. That standing and waiting could be service to God. That my life was just as valuable to God when I was lying in bed waiting for my pain medicine to kick in as it was when I was here talking with you. That nothing I could do could increase my value to God. And nothing I could do could decrease my value. I was serving as I stood and waited.
Perhaps you are a high school student like I was. I filled my calendar with delight. I signed up for committees, I tried out for sports teams, I ran for student council, I was in constant motion. I think if I were to ask myself back then I would say that I did it for fun, but in the back of my mind I also did it to be of more value. To have significance. Had cancer not entered my life, I would happily be living full throttle: working full time, signing up for church committees, being the room mother for my daughter’s classroom. I would have thought that those activities somehow made me more significant.
And I would have been terribly wrong. I would have failed to see the value in my life for simply being a child of God. No more and no less. Chairperson of this and organizer of that would not increase my value in God’s eyes. They may increase my joy and help me serve others, but elevate my standing in God’s eyes? No. Not possible. Decreasing my standing in God’s eyes? No. that’s not possible either.
What a huge comfort that is for me and perhaps it is for you too. That reminder that we are simply and only and eternally children of God. It was a good lesson for me to learn.
Now, breath. Our word for the month. What does my story have to do with this? Well, I have cancer in my lungs—my liver too, but my lungs mostly. I have been breathing for 6 ½ years with lungs that are constantly threatened. For most of this time, I have breathed easily. More recently, fluid build up on my lung required the installation of a drain. Many of you prayed for me last winter as I battled for breath and for energy. I am feeling much better than I did last winter. I can walk up the stairs and not gasp for breath. My lungs are not producing so much fluid that I need to live with a drain attached to my body.
But it isn’t the nitty gritty of living with cancer that makes me think about breath, it is something a bit bigger.
When I found out that the cancer had returned and set up shop in my lungs, I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me—perhaps a bit how Jon felt in the story he shared here last Thursday. I remember wanting to just disappear. To not have to put my family through this. I wanted to seep between the floor boards and slowly dissolve.
But this didn’t happen. I didn’t disappear. I didn’t dissolve. I kept moving. I kept swinging my legs over the side of the bed for one more morning. I kept working here. I kept being Zoe’s mom and Mark’s wife.
And this, of course, was not of my own doing at all. This was simply and only the sustaining grace of God. When I finally learned that I could do nothing to control the number of my days…In fact, that none of us can do a thing to add a day to our lives, I could breathe again. I could look around me with joy and expectation. I could live in that one moment with gratitude and peace. And then the next moment. This breath. And then the next one.
And each moment, each breath, has added up somehow to six and half years so far. Each breath a gift from God—mine to simply accept. Not mine to control. Not mine to worry over whether the next one will come. To simply be in this moment grateful to be a beloved child of God.
So it comes to this. See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God. For that is what we are.
Shall we pray:
Lord God, our times are in your hands. You have created and sustained us. Your hand of grace upholds us. Your mercy guides us. Your love surrounds us. Accept our praise and gratitude today and each day. With each breath. In each moment. Amen.
Joshua 1:9 reminds us of this:
Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.