By Jim Phillips, F158824
National Vice President, Northwest Area
It was a Tuesday like any other Tuesday. My wife, Ann, and I had attended the FMCA international convention in Redmond, Oregon, a few days before. Being installed as the national vice president from FMCA’s Northwest Area had been a momentous occasion for me. It was a real high, and we were slowly getting back to earth, as the reality of our responsibilities began to reveal themselves.
We were back at our home in Oregon starting the day with our first cup of coffee when the telephone rang. Father Theodore Dorrance was calling. Father Ted, as I like to call him, is a charismatic person. Actually, calling him charismatic is somewhat like calling Mount Everest tall, because he is so much more than that. That is why when his opening words to me were “Jim, I need a favor from you,” I answered, “Sure, Father Ted, anything you want.”
“You may want to think this over,” he said “It isn’t a simple thing I need from you.” The Sunday before we had been at our home church, St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox church in Portland, Oregon, where Father Ted is the priest. Instead of delivering a biblical sermon, Father Ted had told the congregation about his experiences of the past week. He had been in Atlanta, Georgia, at a cancer center where a 21-year-old woman was battling a ferocious cancer. Father Ted had explained how Ioanna had been diagnosed with leukemia more than two years before. Despite the many treatments she’d undergone and optimistic diagnoses that reported she had no signs of disease, the monster came back again and again. It had metastasized to her organs and settled in her bones. Her parents had taken her to Atlanta in a last desperate effort to save her life. When it became apparent that she was going to lose the battle, Father Ted flew to Atlanta to be with her and her parents, shortly after which they brought her back home to Portland.
He went on to say that Ioanna was not your ordinary teenager when the cancer first struck. She had faithfully attended church ever since reaching the age to make decisions regarding her life. Simply put, she believed in the hereafter and was determined to live her life appropriately. She was 19 years old when she learned that she was in for the fight of her young life. Unlike most people, Ioanna took this horrible news as a challenge, a test of her faith. She was not going to look at this as a curse, but as a trial that, for reasons unknown to her, was taking place in order to assess her faith in God.
As the weeks and months went by, Ioanna underwent test after test, and treatment after treatment, each time resulting in optimistic statements by her physicians that she had won. Then, inevitably, the cancer returned. She would have the same symptoms, but to a greater degree. The cancer reached a crucial stage, at which time, with her consent, her parents took her to Atlanta to fight one more desperate battle. She underwent a series of bone marrow transplants, each more painful than the one that preceded it. But she never complained. Neither did her faith waver. She remained confident that God had a plan for her, and, although she didn’t understand it, she accepted it.
As I listened to Father Ted tell this story in church, I remembered reading an article that Ioanna had written some months earlier, published in a monthly church bulletin. Father Jim Retelas of Portland’s Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church had relinquished the space for his monthly message to Ioanna. She wrote of her cancer in simple terms, never giving it the prominence it had in her life. She stressed how it had strengthened her faith. I had never met this young woman, but I was fascinated by her view of life, her depth of character, and her willingness to suffer whatever was dealt her without losing her faith. Father Ted’s homily put it all together for me, although I didn’t know what was in store for us.
On the phone that Tuesday, Father Ted explained that Ioanna didn’t have long to live, and she wanted to see the ocean one last time. “Her physician says she is in such terrible pain that the only way she can travel is by ambulance or in a motorhome,” he said. I said, “Of course we’ll take her; we would be honored to make her wish come true.” Ann and I agreed to be at her home on Wednesday, the next day, at 2:00 p.m.
At about 1:45 p.m. we parked our motorhome in front of the house. Father Ted came out and told us it would be awhile before Ioanna could come out, because the visiting nurse was getting her ready for the trip.
At 4:00 p.m. she was still in the house. I went to the door and told Father Ted that it was getting late, and that since I never drive at night, except for emergencies, I would like to take her the next day. “Jim,” Father Ted said, “tomorrow may be too late.” I didn’t know what else to do, so I said, “Okay.” Within a half-hour, Ioanna’s father and her brother came out, carrying four oxygen bottles. Then they went back into the house and came out with Ioanna in a wheelchair. They carried her into the motorhome, put her on the recliner, attached her morphine and oxygen, and settled down for the ride. Three of Ioanna’s close friends also came with us. By 4:45 p.m. we set off with our precious cargo.
The weather that day was strange; not what I would have wanted for taking a look at the ocean. It was cloudy, with rain showers every few minutes, and rather gloomy. Ioanna didn’t seem to mind. Before we had gone 10 miles, she fell asleep in the recliner. We reached the Pacific coast at approximately 6:00 p.m. and turned north toward Seaside, Oregon. At the south city limits, I saw a road that went toward the ocean several blocks away. I didn’t know if we would have a view from there, as I hadn’t done the necessary reconnaissance, but I gambled that it would work. When we got there, we found a lookout point with ample parking. Since the weather was so stormy, there were no cars in the lot. Ann got out and helped me park the motorhome so that Ioanna would have a fine view of the ocean.
The rain stopped suddenly. The clouds were still covering the sky. Huge breakers were pounding the shore, and waves were visible to the horizon. The ocean was covered with foam, which only accented its wild nature. The Pacific Ocean was at its majestic best, beautiful in its fury and with a persistent roar that was impossible to ignore. At that moment, Ioanna woke up. She turned her head, then looked out the window for a full minute. Then she looked at us with the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen. She was totally thrilled. We were all smiling with her, but in truth, it became a little difficult to see her through the tears in all of our eyes. We stayed there for almost a half-hour, during which time not one drop of rain fell. Her view was complete. Nature’s performance for an audience of one stayed at its peak the entire time.
We hadn’t left the ocean five miles behind us when Ioanna dropped off to sleep. We had finished climbing the Coast Range and were on the highway heading back to Portland when the clouds parted, revealing a rainbow. But to call that particular sight a rainbow would be far short of the truth. All seven of us looked at the rainbow in awe. It was the brightest, most vivid display of celestial color any of us had ever seen. The red was the reddest, the blue was the bluest, and so on. And this was a double rainbow. We’ve seen them before, but the second one was almost as bright as any single rainbow we had ever seen. The display lasted for several minutes until the clouds came back together and took it away from us.
We concluded that the rainbow was not just a rainbow. It was a message from above telling us that He was in charge and that Ioanna was in good hands. You didn’t have to be a religious person to sense the incredible power of that moment. We were absolutely convinced that we had been privileged to have participated in a miraculous experience, one that would live in our memories forever.
We arrived at the house, watched as they took Ioanna back inside, and saw her unbelievably beautiful smile one more time as she thanked us for having taken her to the ocean. We drove home in the darkening twilight knowing that we had been blessed with the privilege of doing something that really mattered.
Ioanna died in her sleep just before noon the next day.
This is not a story about religion. It is a story that depicts how a motorhome is a tool, a means of bringing happiness to others as well as to those of us who have the good fortune to live this wonderful lifestyle. We love motorhoming. We are traveling beyond any scope we could have imagined when we started. Never did we dream that we would make a last wish come true for someone to whom it meant so much. God bless you, Ioanna. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to bring this little bit of joy into your life so near the end. We will never forget you.