Country Music singer Joey Martin Feek went home to Alexandria, Indiana to die, three years after recording a haunting single called, “When I’m Gone.” The cancer she has is not responding to treatment. This is a post about how Joey and her husband Rory are facing this situation. This also considers issues in evangelicalism when it comes to death and dying.
On Monday I will write about the membership of Ambassador Bible Church, a local Evangelical Free Church in the D.C. area. If you want to practice discernment you still have the weekend. That discernment quiz here is for you to look at and analyze.
“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”
Pope Paul VI
“The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.”
“Sometimes there just aren’t enough surgeries – or doctors – or chemotherapies – or prayers. And you have to wipe the tears from your cheeks and say the words that you were hoping to never have to say…enough.”
2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…
Last week one of my friends contacted me and told me that his grandfather passed away in his sleep. He had suffered a severe stroke a week earlier and what made it all the more challenging is that he suffered from Alzheimers. When my friend visited his grandfather he was not recognized. What made this difficult situation harder is that he also lost his other grandfather in the last six months. Recently within the past two years I have had to contend with death myself. I had a cousin I was close to who passed away suddenly. The day I thought of calling her is the day that she passed. Then on top of that her son later committed suicide. I had wanted to get to know him better and was shocked at the news. What overwhelmed me is hearing the details and the length to went to end his life. I had no idea that a person could go to that effort, it shocked me to hear the meticulous effort a person can put into ending their own life. Death is around us and I have noticed it more and more as I age. While this topic, which I acknowledge is uncomfortable, is difficult I’ve considered tackling it. What brought this post about is a story I saw on CNN about Joey Martin’s situation with cancer and her dying process. I knew it was time to tackle this topic.
A Haunting Song by Joey Martin that would Forshadow What is to Come
In case you are not familiar Joey and Rory are Rory Lee Feek and Joey Martin Feek. They are an American country and bluegrass duo who are singers and songwriters. Rory plays background vocals, and Joey is the lead vocalist. I believe they have released 6 albums and the only song that made the Top 40 is from their initial album “The Life of a Song” called “Cheater, Cheater.”
On July 31, 2012 their fourth album was released called “His and Hers.” Rory described the album by saying he following. “We made an album that doesn’t sound like anybody else’s record. It doesn’t sound like we’re going to try to head down an even more commercial way. Instead we’re trying to head down a more authentic way. We’re not as worried about moving records as we are about moving people.” One of the two main singles from the album is haunting, difficult and a strange foreshadow of what is to come to Joey Martin Feek. The song is called “When I’m Gone” and deals with the death of a partner, and how to go on after someone you love has died. In the song the wife is singing to her husband saying, “you’ll be okay when I’m gone.” The song itself was written by Joey’s friend Sandy Lawrence. Sandy wrote the song to her mother who was in the process of passing away. Rory described the song in the following manner. “She wrote that song by herself and she wrote it about her mother who was dying. She was watching her mother pass, and she was so badly needing her mother to tell her those words. She needed affirmation that everything was going to be okay after her mom died and she wasn’t able to get it from her, but she wanted to write this to leave to her son and to her husband and to let them know that if anything were to ever happen, everything is going to be okay when I’m gone. It just knocked me out. When we recorded it, it was just magical. She came in while we were recording it in the studio and then I had her sing the harmony vocals on it with Rory and then when we shot the music video, it just seemed so fitting that she played the piano.” Joey Martin Feek described the song as the following. “I was devastated, absolutely devastated when I heard it and what it meant and coming from the person who is leaving their loved one. That concept was just something that I had never heard or thought of before and it really struck me.” The song is meant to comfort and help others when it was released in 2012, and no one had any idea as to what would sadly come to Joey and Rory.
A Battle with Cervical Cancer
Early on in 2014 Joey Martin gave birth to their daughter Indiana, who was diagnosed with down syndrome. Then in May 2014 in an annual check up Joey learned she had cervical cancer. Here’s how Rory Martin wrote about the cancer diagnosis on his blog. “In May, at a routine appointment with her gynecologist, Joey’s doctor discovered something that concerned her. She said there was a mass on Joey’s cervix and that she wanted do a biopsy, and would let us know the results when she got them back. A few days later, Joey woke up from a nap with a message from the doctor, asking that we come in and talk with her that afternoon. When we walked into the her office, the doctor was clearly upset. Before she could even say the word “cancer”, her eyes welled up with tears and sobbing she said, ‘I’m so sorry Joey…’. My wife bravely smiled and said, ‘ it’s gonna be okay, just tell us’. And so she did.” In this same post Rory writes how they processed the news and coming home from the doctor that day. “When we got home and the news finally sank in, Joey only worried about one thing. It wasn’t ‘why did this happen to me’ or ‘am I going to be okay’, or a hundred other questions that I would’ve had. Joey only thought of our baby. She cried and cried worrying about Indiana, and what this might mean to her… what if she couldn’t continue breastfeeding her, or will Indy’s sleep schedule be interrupted, or worse yet…what if she won’t get to watch this precious gift grow up? I can honestly say that in the six months that we’ve been off the road and taking a break from the music business, I haven’t picked up a guitar once and Joey and I haven’t sang a single song together. But when I came in the house that day and saw Joey holding Indiana in her arms, singing ‘I Need Thee Every Hour’… I went into the closet, pulled out a guitar and came and sat beside her. For a half-hour straight, we held our little one and we cried and we sang these words over and over.”
I need Thee every hour, in joy or pain
Come quickly and abide, or life is in vain
I need Thee, O I need Thee
Every hour I need Thee
O bless me now, my Savior
I come to Thee
Afterward the doctor recommended an immediate hysterectomy to deal with the aggressive cancer. They had the six hour surgery in Centennial Hospital in Nashville and afterward she was cancer free. Here’s how Rory described it. “It’s been five days now, and Joey’s getting stronger every day. Her swelling is going down and spirits continue to go up. We had a follow-up appointment with the oncologist yesterday and he said that the margins and the lymph nodes he removed came back clean, so there’s no more cancer in her body and she won’t need chemo or radiation. There in the waiting room after the appointment, we held each other and our baby, and we cried once more.” I honestly wish I could say that is where the story ends, but a year after the surgery the unthinkable happened.
The cancer came back and showed up in her colon. This time it is more aggressive, growing fast and when contemplating the new situation this is how Rory wrote about it in June 2015. “The doctors say there is a 9 cm tumor in Joey’s sigmoid colon. Even though the cancer is now in the colon, they said it’s the same cells as before (she was diagnosed with cervical cancer last year and had surgery last June to remove the tumor), and that the original cancer has now spread to a new organ and the tumor and cells are rapidly growing, so that is the big concern.” Joey resumed her treatment which included chemotherapy and radiation. Rory again writes of the prognosis and how they look at the new situation. “With six weeks of chemo and radiation, the tumor may reduce in size and possibly even go away completely, and if so, she won’t have to have any further surgeries. If the chemo and radiation doesn’t work like they hope, Joey will be in for an even tougher road ahead.
Here’s what Joey and I know…
God has a plan, and His plan is our plan. Each day that we’re given is a beautiful gift from Him to us. And while we will pray each day for a miracle, we’re gonna live each day as if it’s a miracle. And it is. “Lord, as believers… we trust you completely and pray for your will to be done. Not ours. But as flesh and bone, husband and wife… we pray for complete and total healing in Joey’s body, so we can grow old together, holding hands in rockers on our front porch watching the sun go down. So that our sweet little baby Indiana can not miss one precious moment with her mama. Amen. Amen. Amen.'” On July 9, 2015 Joey faced cancer surgery again to remove the tumor growing inside her. Rory writes about how on the morning of the surgery he rolled over in bed and saw his wife covered in sweat. And Joey turned and told him, “this is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it”. In that same post Rory writes about preparing for surgery, signing a living will, kissing his wife, and waiting through the nearly 10 hour surgery and how the doctor believed they removed what needed to be removed. What as scheduled next is an aggressive chemotherapy and treatment for 18 weeks. During this time and treatment Joey would sing her favorite hymns like this one.
While at the Cancer Treatment Center for America outside of Atlanta Joey resumed her chemotherapy. Rory wrote about the staff, the treatment and process they endured. After 5 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation she finished another round of treatment and got to “ring the bell” which signals the end of radiation treatment . This is how Rory captured the moment on his blog on October 3, 2015. “It’s a day my bride has been looking forward to since we got here in mid-August. Though we will continue to come back here for more, even stronger, chemo treatments that Joey will get in the coming months… all of her radiation treatments are completed and that’s what Joey got to celebrate today.” On October 22 Joey had a CT scan scheduled to see how the treatment is working. It was also hoped that they would learn that all the cancer was removed in the surgery a couple of months prior. To their disappointment, despite all the treatment, the CT scan showed cancer still in her body, and it was learned that she hasn’t been responding to the treatment. The doctor opened up the conversation by saying, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this…” With that news Joey and Rory decided to suspend the cancer treatment. They had done all they can possibly do through surgery, medicine, and explored every option. Rory explained the decision in a blog post, which I am largely going to lift from this post.
Sometimes there just aren’t enough surgeries – or doctors – or chemotherapies – or prayers. And you have to wipe the tears from your cheeks and say the words that you were hoping to never have to say…
Joey had been feeling pretty good overall the last week or two, and was ready to start the next phase of treatment. This whole thing has been very hard on her, but she knows it’s all part of getting better, so she’s been a trooper and has stayed incredibly positive through it all. She’d done everything she was supposed to do. Followed every instruction that she’d been given and has taken every hard-knock that has come her way, and got back up and kept fighting.
Before the next round of chemo was to start on this past Thursday in Atlanta, the doctors scheduled a CT scan to be done the day before. This was her first major scan since before she had the big surgery in July. So the goal was to see how her body has responded, after the removal of the all the cancer and the first five weeks of treatment. To make sure that there were no signs of the cancer still around.
But there was.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this…” That’s how the conversation began.
Then the doctor explained that the scans revealed that two quarter-sized tumors have already grown back in the same area that they had been blasting daily with chemo and radiation. And that many more smaller tumors were visible all throughout the abdominal region. She said that the cancer was aggressively spreading in spite of all they’ve been doing.
So we did what you do when the medicine isn’t working, and the doctors are at a loss…and when the ‘statistics” say you can do more chemo, but it will only buy you a little time…
We came home.
Not to die. But to live.
To put our hands in each others and sit out on the back porch and watch the sun set as our sweet little baby girl plays on a blanket in front of us. To bask in the glory of the beautiful life He’s blessed us with, and try not to question why we can’t have more of it together. And why He is allowing this to happen.
The doctors gave us an estimate of how much time they believe that Joey has, and we both looked at the calendar that hangs by our kitchen door, then I took the calendar off the wall and threw in the trash can.
So we don’t have forever. We’ve got right now.
And that’s enough.
To say my wife is broken-hearted is an understatement. And to tell you that we’re not scared would be a lie. This is the kind of thing that happens to somebody else, not us. But then I have to remember… we are somebody else to somebody else.
Joey has been mostly sleeping these past few days since we’ve been home. Partly I think because of the medicine, but also because I think she’s trying to process what’s happening and even more so, what’s going to happen. I can’t process any of it. I can’t. All I can do right now is think of her and want to make sure she’s taken care of and knows how much she’s loved be me, and by so many others.
I’m not going to tell you that I’m okay with this because ‘God has a bigger plan’. Or that ‘we’ll understand His bigger purpose somewhere down the line’. That logic doesn’t really work for me right now. I’m not angry at God. I’m not angry with anyone. I’m just disappointed. I hoped that Joey would get to be one of the lucky ones that somehow overcome stage 4 cancer and get to hear words like ‘remission’ or ‘cure’, instead of ‘I’m so sorry’.
It’s hard for me to feel slighted, when I know that the career that Joey and I have had – this amazing last 7 years or so – has only been, because God reached out His powerful hand and chose us. He lifted us up from our little farm. and let us see and do things beyond our wildest dreams. And you can’t be in awe of an amazing road that God leads you down, and then be any less in awe of a corner that He has you turn.
I think in the end… the good and the bad, He just wants us to give it to Him.
And so we do.
One of the mantra’s that I always try to live by is to have incredibly “high hopes, but low expectations”. So, even though we know we’ve reached the end of what medicine can do – and while we prepare for what God has put in front of us… Joey and I will continue to pray for a miracle.
We ask for your prayers too. For a miracle.
And even more so, for peace with His decision.
That is enough.
Joey Martin Feek returned to her hometown of Alexandria, Indiana to live out her days. She is back in the house she grew up in and surrounded by family in hospice care. Rory writes as to how he holds his wife’s hand while she is frail and weak in bed. Then in his post of October 31, 2015 he wrote the following about his wedding vows. ” For better or worse. I said those words to her at the alter on June 15, 2002. But today and each day since our wedding day has been my opportunity to show her that I mean those words. And I do mean them.” For the past three weeks Rory has written about a number of things, he’s reflected on the situation they have dealt with in life, and God in the midst of this cancer. He writes about her pain, her frustrations and her crying about not seeing her daughter grow up. On the November 12, 2015 blog post Rory wrote about losing a friend of his to cancer that spread to his liver from his colon. Here is the part of the post about Tim Johnson’s battle with cancer.
Three years ago I had to say goodbye to one of my very best friends – Tim Johnson. Tim and I had been buddies since I first showed up on Music Row in Nashville with a guitar-case full of dreams. Like me, Tim was a songwriter. He was one the greatest this town has ever seen and he loved a great story. He and I were fortunate to write some wonderful songs together – some of them big hits on the radio. As a matter of fact, the first song I ever had recorded, the one that ‘bought’ our old farmhouse, I wrote with Tim.
Fast forward a dozen years or so, and Tim had a pain in his lower back that wouldn’t go away, so on Father’s Day. before he and his wife Meg went out to dinner, he stopped by a clinic to have it checked out.
I remember his phone call to me.
Cancer, he said. It had already spread from his colon to the liver.
Neither he, nor I could make any sense of it. How could that be? He was still young and had two young children and a beautiful wife and more songs to write – more stories to tell.
His next year or so were tough, like Joey’s. They did what they could, but in the end, it was what it was.
Tim kept writing songs all the way through it. That’s what great songwriters do – they draw from their life experiences and create meaningful stories to tell the world. But during this time of Tim’s life, it seemed different. He didn’t have to create a fictional character that had something extraordinary to say… he just looked in the mirror and the truth came pouring out of him.
In July of 2012, three months before Tim passed, I asked him to come be part of our television show. To perform a song or two and let us interview him. I was a not only Tim’s friend, I was also a big fan of his voice and his pen and wanted to make sure the world got to see what a gift he had and what a gift he was. Most of the time songwriters go unknown. They write the soundtracks to our lives and then pass away with little acclaim and no applause.
I wanted to make sure that Tim was remembered. And something told me that his song might help someone in their moment of need. Little did I know that in a short time, that someone-in-need would be me. And Joey. Tim and Megan’s story has become our story and the words he breathed into his song are now our words.
We all want one more, don’t we?
One more day… one more year… one more chance to be the person we know we should be… one more ride for our child around the house in her mama’s walker…
Like my friend Tim… I want my wife to be remembered.
By me. By others who love her even though they’ve never met her.
I guess that’s why I write this blog. I want her sweet voice and her love to live on. And not just outlive her… but to somehow outlive me, and our girls, and even their children.
And so today, as I sit beside my her. I remember my friend Tim and his life and what an inspiration he was to me, and how his words and music are helping get me through this time and speaking to me just when I need them.
And someday when your moment comes with someone you love… maybe, just maybe, you will remember Joey and her words and voice and life will comfort you…
and her song will live on.
That is how the situation has been for the Feeks. Joey is back in her hometown facing her death and singing and talking about the Lord, and her frustrations and disappointments. In an interview with the Tennessean, Joey says the following about her situation. “I wasn’t mad at [God], I wasn’t upset,” she explained. “I was just greatly disappointed. I really thought we had it. I thought, ‘I’m going to be that exception. I’m going to be that statistic that stands out and says, ‘She fought it.’ We did the most extreme surgery we can do in the gynecologic world, and she did well.’ But for whatever reason, it wasn’t enough, and God had different plans. I was disappointed. I was exhausted.” In her interview with Nashville’s newspaper she began to cry and continued saying, “More than anything, I felt like I failed at something. I thought I did everything. But God decided for me that my job of singing for people down here is my legacy, and he needs me singing up there. That’s how I look at it.” Rory has been writing at his blog and pouring out his emotions of how this battle has gone, and of the situation that Joey faces. Fans of the Feeks are trying to get her song, “When I’m gone” on music charts again as a tribute to her. Newspapers and social media has been talking about Joey suspending her cancer treatment and going home to live out her life. Here are a few articles for you to read from UPI, Fox News, Examiner, Daily Mail, and USA Today.
Contemplating Other Situations…
There is so much to say, and as I was hearing about this on CNN I was glued to my Android while in a motel room in New Jersey last weekend. I spent a lot of time reading Rory’s blog. Then this thought came to my mind…what would have happened if Joey and Rory left a church like Sovereign Grace Fairfax or another SGM/SGC church, or a place like Calvary Temple? What if the family she had in any of those churches shunned and treated her as dead? Can you imagine? You have this person dealing with terminal cancer who is in the process of dying, and yet some would be treating her as if she is already dead. What is wrong with this picture? Is that how faith is supposed to work? Is that how its designed to function? Whatever you want to call it, its not a faith that honors or glorifies God. Instead it mocks and insults the Lord instead I firmly believe. If such a situation developed is that something that a person should have to deal and wrestle with? Does a person dealing with a terminal disease need to deal with a shunning on top of facing their own death? I ask this question in light of the stories I have heard and what some people have told me. Then there is this additional thought…what if such a thing happened how would the outside world or Joey and Rory’s relatives react to such a news? Do you think that would draw family members and friends toward the Lord or repulse them away from God? There is one other point I want to make as well. This post that I wrote earlier this year talks about John Piper and “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.” Now I have a question…what is more edifying and honoring to the Lord? A shock track by a pastor drunk on attention when he has prostrate cancer, which has a 99% survival rate? Or watching the Feeks talk about and face their battle with cancer together when Joey is in hospice care toward the end of her life? While dealing with this situation they discuss their marriage, fears, their disappointment, but also their faith and God in the entire situation. So who honors the Lord more in this scenario? I think the answer is pretty clear cut. Death and dying I believe shows the absurdity of fundamentalism. It also reveals its irrelevance and its pain. Its not something that is needed or honoring. All it does is leave people with a spiritual black eye that jilts all parties eventually. Those that feel it first are those that are subject of it, but those who participate in the shunning will come around and deal with it at a later point. However, by that time the person is deceased and long buried, and the opportunities to work things through are forever lost. After all death is permanent and cannot be undone. Its with that in mind that I would like to write about evangelicals and death.
Evangelical Christian Culture and Death and Dying
Recently I learned of another church plant in the D.C. area. I am not going to name the church but let’s look at what is says on its website. “We’re looking for families, young professionals and college students to be a part of a church that will reach the communities of Washington, DC. If you have a heart for DC, have family or friends in DC or have ever wanted to be part of a service driven church, we want to connect with you. We would love to show you how God could use you in His plan to plant a gospel centered church in one of the most strategic cities in the world.” Now here is my question…if you have cancer or are 65 would this church welcome you? Do you belong there? Especially if the focus is on recruiting young professionals, families, and college students? I think this reveals the problems with evangelical Christianity and death and dying. Evangelical Christianity is choking on idols. Its suffocating, and it doesn’t discuss or deal with death or dying well at all. Quite frankly the evangelical Christian church doesn’t know how to deal with death and dying. But these are some other points that I want to make about this topic.
- Our society doesn’t know how to treat death and dying. Since many parts of evangelical Christianity duplicate society, and the commercialism of it only makes this problem worse. By designing and building churches that are hip and trendy they neglect or chase away elderly people. Honestly there are some elderly people who should stay away from parts of evangelicalism.
- By segregating American Christianity the older people are being denied interacting with young people and often cast aside. That is part of the loss, as they are treated like they are disposable. On the flip side the young are denied lessons of death, wisdom, and faith by keeping the elderly away from many churches.
- Too often in evangelicalism there is this “get over it mentality” when it comes to death and dying . Grief is handled differently and uniquely by different people. As I have learned with my grandmother’s death you learn to live with the grief and it is something that remains with you. Whether it be the death of a spouse, friend, or grandson, each person will respond to death differently.
- Pastors in many situations are expected to be served and not serve. In that context many don’t know how to serve or walk with families in a crisis due to death or grief. Very few can do this adequately.
- Prosperity theology in some parts of evangelicalism makes some parts of Christian pain, suffering and grief worse. You shouldn’t have to deal with a mentality that says, “well you just don’t have enough faith…” as the cancer treatment isn’t responding to medicine and prayers seem like they are ignored.
- Death is brutal and ugly and many evangelicals are naïve as to what awaits them. I’m sorry for being blunt, but diseases such as pancreatic cancer, a brain tumor, liver cancer, ALS, etc.. can be hard to deal with and watch. The reality of the situation is that we all will face out own death and suffering
- Death I would suggest is not only physical. There is a spiritual element to death, such as when one undergoes a faith crisis. Its a part of spiritual growth which requires death. My old faith had to die and my faith crisis was necessary to get through that point. Then there is spiritual death that happens through something traumatic in a spiritual context. For example when I faced a false accusation on May 8, 2013 a part of me died. I actually felt it and still feel it in many ways. I would suggest that some people who leave or deal with a traumatic church experience deal with a form of death.
Why We Need to have Life in Perspective
This is a difficult post to write. A year or so ago my mother told me that in 10 years I am going to have to get regular screening for pancreatic cancer. Since my mother had it I am at a higher risk for getting the disease. I cringe as I write this but I know reality is reality and its not something you can flee from. We all have to deal with death, illness, and dying. Every single person who reads this will have to bury their parents one day. We also have to realize that we will have to bury siblings…brothers and sisters as well. Where death doesn’t make sense for me is when its a parent burying a child, or a grandparent burying a grandchild. Those are things I don’t understand, as that seems so backward to me. But remember and consider this as well…each day is a gift. Its a gift from God and something to be cherished. Today I remember the final call I had with my grandmother on the telephone. I was at work in October 2009, and I spoke with her and affirmed my love. I had no idea it would be my final conversation with Isobel. But we were at peace and each of us affirmed our love for each other. When she died that helped me make sense of the situation. While I still grieve her loss, there are no regrets, no “I wish I would have told her…” It helped my mourning much more because I wasn’t stuck on things that I wished I could tell her. Fundamentalism threatens all this and comes to steal, kill and destroy. We need to have things in perspective, so that when our individual time for death happens we aren’t being hurt by the pain of fundamentalism in the process. I know this will be a hard post for some to think about as no one wants to think about death or face their mortality. Having written all that I am going to leave you with a classic from Mike and the Mechanics. As always I love you guys!