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The Toad

Our home, like so many Midwestern houses, has a basement. It’s where Stacey and I have an office. My desk faces an exterior wall with a swinging casement egress window, complete with stairs and surrounding walls to keep the area clear for an emergency exit. The whole space is approximately four feet deep and the base is a one-yard square.

I often look out that window, whether during a counseling session when I consider a client’s question, or when writing while I struggle to get something flowing. One day, during one of those moments, I noticed a toad. It was a mature toad, roughly the size of a small orange, who had made his home in a small hole in the sand under the southeastern corner of the egress square. He appears to be thriving, based on his size and activity, but I can’t help but wonder how he got there. Perhaps he was a young toad in pursuit of a fly who fell into the hole. Maybe he was dropped from the talons of a bird who forgot to hang on tightly. Regardless, the toad is in the hole and will be for the rest of its life. There is no hope that it will escape the vertical walls nor burrow away to somewhere else. Three-foot by three-foot day after day, season to season, year to year. A small space to make a home with visions of nothing else. 

I don’t think toads long for much, nor have an imagination. The toad is quite content in its very small world. 

The Window

A few weeks before Christmas last year, we had a visit from a good friend from Gallup, New Mexico. Although Bob and I have only seen each a few times since our family moved eight years ago, we have been on the phone together in regularly irregular intervals. He had just retired, and one of the first things he said he wanted to do was visit us and spend a few days. He also admitted that he had never been to Michigan. He was interested in seeing the state because, through the work of the Christian Reformed Church, Michigan has had a profound influence on Gallup and northwestern New Mexico. I did my best in the few days we had together to show him some of the highlights of our area, with Lake Michigan serving as the focal point. Nothing differs more from the desert Southwest than the sudden and total expanse of the Big Lake, sprawling as far as the eye can see. Or so I thought until I heard differently in our living room.    

We spend a lot of time in our living room’s comfortable space and its familiarity has made it assumed and without spectacle. But Bob, seated on the couch and looking out towards the undeveloped deciduous forest in the lot across the street, immediately and repeatedly found so much more beauty than we typically see. His admiration rivaled a forest researcher.

Although I initially attributed his exclamations to his Midwest flora and tree naiveté, his effusiveness piqued my interest. When Bob says something, he means it, and coming from the Southwest, where the phenomenon of “Michigan nice” does not exist, perhaps doubly so. It was only after he left that I sat where he had and noticed how the front window completely and perfectly frames the woods. From that vantage point, an image is created of the lot as a dense, never-ending forest beyond comprehension. Seen through a desert inhabitant’s eyes, the tightly packed evergreens, towering oaks, and swaying pines must have appeared mystical and wondrous. 

Bob saw more than I usually see.

Modern Medicine

I have a complicated medical history with leukemia, a bone marrow transplant, and transplant rejection disease that has necessitated many medical office visits. A few months ago, I had a double-header—not only were my medical appointments in the morning and afternoon, but the first appointment was in Grand Rapids and the second in Ann Arbor. Both of the appointments went well enough, but they were typical in their respective complicating of my treatment course. The physicians offered differing points of view and scheduled further procedures and tests. This is not unusual, it is what I have come to expect navigating my medically complex life. What I didn’t expect was the sheer number of patients at both places. At Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion in Grand Rapids, it took twenty minutes just to enter the parking garage because of the day’s population surge. There was garage gridlock where I normally just roll in and park. At the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, we drove for what seemed like forever in one of their five bustling and bursting parking structures before finding a spot on the fourth tier. We then waded through crowds to find my dermatology office and appointment. 

All of these people, with all of this disease, filling those places. I wonder: did those patients with whom I rubbed shoulders share a common perspective of yearning and hoping while struggling? Or were they just going through the motions, appeasing family obligations, hemmed in by their prognoses so much they dare not hope? In those crowded hallways and waiting rooms, was there sight beyond the ordinary, like Bob saw from our couch, or the deadening calm of seeing only the immediate, like the walls of a basement window egress? I felt both extremes through the grimaces and smiles, sighs and laughter, groans and greetings of my fellow patients during those office visits. 

I spent most of February in the hospital and the experience of feeling both walled in and perceiving beyond the obvious intensified. There were two 10-day stints less than a week apart. The first stay was on 5C, the bone marrow transplant floor, and was marked by physical pain. Sepsis and various issues hurt my abdomen and liver, causing me to grow weaker over the stay. The second hospitalization was marked with emotional angst and strain. Part of that stay was on a trauma and orthopedic reconstruction floor. The patients there had experienced life-altering car collisions, falls, or other trauma. Few left their rooms, and those who did moved slowly and hesitantly, testing how well their new skeletal structures and supports worked. There was no escaping the visible brokenness everywhere. 

Halfway through, I was transferred up a floor to 5N, an oncology floor, a floor I am well acquainted with. Here the brokenness is not just skin and bones, but blood and organs. I ran into a former student of mine on 5N, a fellow patient. He was in one of the last classes I taught before my cancer diagnosis, and now was in a room sharing a wall with the room where I was first diagnosed. I had run into his mother, who encouraged me to visit him, but I didn’t recognize him right away when I stopped by; he was no longer the middle-schooler I remembered. Tall, bearded, and still with long hair, he was in the midst of the first of four cancer treatments. Just days before we met, he had celebrated his birthday in the hospital. He walked a lot around the building, talked on the phone with his friends and his girlfriend, and told me he really wanted to get home to be with his dogs and drive his truck (even though the transmission is going out). There were a few advanced Lego sets in his room that he worked on whenever the chemo or fatigue or burning neuropathy didn’t have him in bed. The day I left, I stopped by to say goodbye and he was in bed, too exhausted to move. He is 20.  

A Question

What are people like me and my former student after? And not just us, but all the rest of the patients in that and every hospital? The obvious answer is health. To be free from disease. To change the “new normal” back into the “old normal,” or at least what we still remember as “normal.” We submit to the medical interventions individually and en masse in an act of hope to be free from disease. We are willing to endure a lot (and pay a lot) to be healthy. 

There is a belief that physical health brings a pleasant, comfortable, and valuable life—which the presence of illness diminishes. This is a lie. There are plenty of people in excellent physical health living miserable lives filled with anger, spite, broken relationships, and envy. Healthy does not mean happy or fulfilled. 

I am seeking more than physical health. 

I’ve submitted to endless rounds of treatment and taken buckets of medications for one thing: Life Moments. By that, I don’t mean the completion of a “bucket list” of meaningful experiences. I mean Life Moments as the intentional investing into something outside of myself that brings joy. 

The ultimate is to experience what it means to be truly alive by living for more than simply being alive. This is a different way of seeing, not unlike what my friend Bob opened my eyes to looking out my living room window. It’s not so much a thing to decide as it is a thing to discover, not a belief to hold as much as a behavior to emulate. I used to have a bumper sticker on the white board in my classroom that read “Faith = verb.” Same idea here.

An Image

There are helpful images of this kind of life found in Isaiah 11, images of shalom.

The wolf will live with the lamb,

    the leopard will lie down with the goat,

the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

    and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,

    their young will lie down together,

    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the cobra’s den,

    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy

    on all my holy mountain,

for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord

    as the waters cover the sea.

We live in a world far removed from this vision, where “might makes right” and “survival of the fittest” dominates. Those power dynamics play out across society, in our culture, homes, and even churches. Our economic, political, and social structures, which seem natural and perhaps even inevitable, are founded on these Darwinian ideas. Isaiah points to something else, a time when natural desire and instinct are not repressed or magically replaced but supplanted by something better. The wolf doesn’t lie with the lamb because it lacks the desire to eat mutton. Instead, the presence, majesty, and grace of God have filled it to the fullest. The viper is calm when its nest is invaded by the fumbling, bumbling hand of a child. Impulse changes into selflessness, hunger into contentment, and self-preservation into communal consciousness. And this is with animals—Jesus demonstrated even more with his ministry.

While under the thumb of Rome’s political might and interfered with by the squabbling and judgment by the religious elite, Jesus affirmed the presence of a divine kingdom in the present tense 126 times. The kingdom of heaven was something he encouraged his disciples to seek, and when he was asked how to pray, he included asking for the kingdom to come. These messages are paradoxical but not contradictory: he instructed his followers to pray for the kingdom to come as he insisted the kingdom of heaven was at hand. It still is.  

The kingdom of God is unusual—a lion may eat straw, toddlers are safe around snakes, bears will graze with cows, and leopards lie with goats.  May we see it. Through us, may others see it as well.

In the words of C.S. Lewis, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” 

We don’t have to be toads stuck in a basement box. 

May we live for more. May we see more.

Dirk Hollebeek

Dirk Hollebeek lives in Holland, MI with his wife Stacey and their three children. Formally an educator, Dirk currently runs a small private counseling practice.


  • Lydia Frens says:

    It’s always inspiring – and humbling, too – to read your reflections, Dirk. Thank you for this hearty meal of “food for thought.”

  • Lydia Frens says:

    John 10:10. It seems you are experiencing and writing about “life to the full,” Dirk.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Thanks, Dirk. Your journey has impacted so many people, including me. Your challenge to “see better” comes at the perfect time for many of us.

  • Dennis Van Andel says:

    Thank you, Dirk, for once again sharing your insights on seeing the kingdom of heaven at hand and “living life to the full.” Glad that you were able to have that special time with our mutual friend, Bob.

  • Henry Hofstra says:

    Dirk: I don’t know you, except through your wonderful, sensitive writing. But I do know your parents, having grown up on the west side of GR. I can only imagine how they must thank God for having given them a son who can write so eloquently and impact so many other lives. Thank you, and may God be with you.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Most excellent.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Dirk, I love this piece. So beautifully written, so wise. Thanks, my friend.

  • Lance Engbers says:

    It was early Wednesday morning (about 6a.) when I observed the most glorious sun rising through the trees from the east. It was glowing so brightly I needed sunglasses to maintain my view. My eyes were locked on this phenomenon of beauty. The glowing penetrated deep within and reinforced my convictions about a recent book by David Brooks – How to Know a Person – The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. The physical joy of really seeing that sunrise spoke to me of the importance and vital nature of relationships with others. Both instances – relationships and the sunrise reveal images of God. Our paths cross occasionally your children and my grandchildren – always a pleasure. Hope to “see” more of you! Thanks my friend for connecting from Western New Mexico to Western Michigan.

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