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Benevolent cancer

A twist of providence

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Sixth in a once-a-quarter series of short short fiction …

Larry had been a hospital patient only when he was 17 and had his tonsils removed. Now a distinguished professor at 57, he knew prostate cancer was common and not a herald of imminent death—but when his doctor on April 1 told him surgery was essential, Larry thought the words at first were part of a tasteless April Fools’ Day joke.

The operation was “picture perfect,” and the pathology report said “cancer-free.” But day after day over the next month, Larry still felt imperfect: Nothing was gnawing at his body, but he missed feeling one flesh with his wife.

He read a purportedly uplifting book by Stuart Scott, the ESPN announcer surprised by disease who wrote: “Cancer wants to take control from you. You’ve got to very purposefully stand your ground. That’s what going to the gym is to me. I decide, cancer. That’s what going to work is. I decide, cancer.” Sure, Larry thought: Scott died of cancer at age 49. Who decided?

Larry had thought his faith in God would bulwark him through recovery, but he felt God had let him down. For years he had attended a vibrant megachurch, Optimal, and heard sermons about how God wants us rich and healthy: “Name it, claim it by faith, and it is yours!”

At the university Larry had been a hero to feminists as he led the battle against colleagues who took sexual advantage of students. He had also seen that sometimes such an accusation is a potent weapon in the hands of a young person who wants to smear a professor. With his own students he kept the office door open throughout office hours and steered conversation away from personal subjects.

Sad thoughts filled Larry’s head: What if the cancer comes back? Why is God doing this to me?

When Larry published a pro-life book, though, some of his former fans turned hostile. That was depressing, and even though he knew most of his students loved him and his wife loved him even more, sad thoughts filled his head: What if the cancer comes back? Why is God doing this to me? What’s the next bad thing to come along? Lord, give me a sign.

Instead of a clear sign from God, he encountered more confusion from the university gods. Last year the provost emphasized the need to keep a distance from students. This year the dean of students spoke of the need for closer relationships and more mentoring opportunities.

Larry was conflicted. He knew that Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman at the well and left Himself open to charges of inappropriate behavior. As a Christian, he wanted to show care for all his students. He worried about communicating fear by telling a young woman to leave the door open when she came into his office, or opening it if she did close it.

So, for the last meeting of his graduate seminar, Larry took the students out to eat at a restaurant off campus. Afterward, it was raining, so Larry offered to drop off one student at her home. It was dark and the downpour intensified, so he held his umbrella over Barbara’s head as he walked her to the front door. No one else was around, but he didn’t think that was a problem until … suddenly it was.

The campus newspaper later that week headlined the story: Larry, former defender of students against sexual harassment, faced a rape charge. Talk shows latched on to a man-bites-dog story. First came a formal university hearing, and the trial itself would be even worse. Larry wondered: First the prostate surgery, now this libel. Why, Lord, why?

The dean of students walked Barbara through her testimony. Even Larry’s wife thought he was in deep trouble as the trembling student spun a tale of clothes ripped off. Then Barbara dramatically added more and more detail, graphically describing her professor’s sexual vigor. After a minute, Larry and his wife caught each other’s eyes and began laughing, very inappropriately. The dean’s face reddened: “Do you think this is funny, professor?”

“No,” Larry responded as he thought, Thank you, God, for preserving me. “Not funny at all, but a clear case of false witness. As my wife will tell you, as my doctor will tell you, the prostate surgery left me unable to commit this crime.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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