Cook: Tumors, orphans and new mercies each morning

Cook: Tumors, orphans and new mercies each morning

September 12th, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Dr. Jeff Ligon has a brain tumor. A cruel one.

"It's the kind of tumor that usually wins," he said. "But that doesn't mean it always wins."

About the size of a few bullet casings or a cracked walnut shell, the tumor is in his frontal lobe, the same part of his brain that also serves as a neurological trunk of memories:

Of nights reading bedtime stories and saying prayers with his yawning children, kissing the three of them goodnight as the white moon rose outside their Lookout Mountain home.

Of falling in love with his brown-haired wife, Elizabeth, at medical school in Memphis.

Of the first time he saw his new adopted daughter, Abby, who three weeks ago was living in an orphanage in Ethiopia.

Ligon's tumor is a wrecking ball, for it has taken a family's normal life and broken it into pieces that may never be put back together. It feels not unlike a plane flying into a tall building: One day all is fine in the world, and the next moment, life is crashing down.

"It's your worst nightmare," Elizabeth said. "But I have filled pages of my journal describing ways that God has taken care of us throughout this. We are given new mercies each morning."

The Ligons want to tell their story only so you can read those words: God provides. Their story is one that belongs on Sept. 11, a day of confusion, violence and sorrow. But it also a story for Sept. 12, the day of rebuilding, of response, of something stronger than fear.

"Hope," said Ligon.

"Definitely hope," said Elizabeth.

On April 5, Ligon, a dermatologist, and Elizabeth, an anesthesiologist, landed in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital and home to the orphanage where Abby lived. Earlier in the day, Elizabeth had met the girl who would become their daughter, but Ligon had stayed behind, not feeling well.

That night, around midnight in their

rented guesthouse, he collapsed on his way to the bathroom. His body shook in a seizure.

"There wa ps no 9-1-1," Elizabeth said.

The next 24 hours were a tornado. Ethiopian doctors ran a CAT scan, found the tumor and urged the Ligons to rush back to the United States. Landing a day later in Washington, D.C., Jeff underwent surgery in which doctors removed part of the tumor, then told Elizabeth her husband probably wouldn't be able to speak again.

"Two hours after surgery, he was talking to the nurses," she said. "It's a miracle."

So far, that is the family's theme: hope. After weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, a recent MRI shows the tumor has shrunk somewhat.

It's not the first time the family has faced disease. Six years ago, their son, Foster, developed leukemia. He's now healthy as a horse - or a normal sixth-grade boy - and is running cross-country (and biding his time until lacrosse season) at McCallie School, healed after three years of treatment and chemotherapy.

"I am a better father these days," Ligon said. "I used to come home, crash on the couch and fall asleep. Now, it's rare for me to miss bedtimes."

Eighteen days ago, Ligon watched his new daughter, Abby, walk inside their home for the first time. Most of her life had been spent in an orphanage, abandoned by her biological family who could no longer care for her.

On Labor Day, she turned 5 and ate birthday cake and opened presents - new tennis shoes, white with blue and pink glitter - with her new family. She knows enough English to count to 40, and her favorite word - the one she uses the most - is "Mama."

"I always hope she knows the story of her daddy going to get her," Elizabeth said. "It's tremendous."

When Foster kicked leukemia, the Ligons threw a party with lots of confetti. Curren, their daughter and a natural poet who turned 8 over the weekend, wrote about that day.

"It took a long time to clean up the confedy," she wrote. "Foster and I played with the confedy. We through the confedy at each other."

This is the meaning of life for the Ligons: No matter what happens, throw confetti. Love each other. Believe the hand of God works for good, always and forever.

Even on days when planes fly into buildings, early-morning trains barrel down on the tracks, tumors strike in an Ethiopian guesthouse, and where nearby, a little girl stares at the night sky and wonders if she will ever have a mother or father again.

"I want our story to be a witness for what God has done in our lives," Elizabeth said. "We have to find goodness in every step."

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org. The Ligons discuss their journey on caringbridge.org.