When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 48, DR JOHNNY MARR was a highly successful specialist surgeon, a father of three and a husband to SUE. He lived for just two short months after this diagnosis and died in May 2011. Before his death, he talked to Thislife Online about his journey of faith and what death meant to him. Two years later, Sue talked to Thislife about living with the loss of her husband and the father of her children, and we publish her story here with Johnny’s.
Dr Johnny Marr: ‘Life is about two things: love and faith’
‘I grew up in Knysna, the second of five children. My mother was a teacher and my father was a GP who subsequently went into farming. My childhood was rich in experiences. Every Sunday, our parents took us all to church. I didn’t have an issue with Jesus but I probably went to church a bit resentfully as I preferred to run around the farm on a Sunday!
I was sent to Western Province Prep School as a boarder in Standard 4 (Grade 6), which for me was like turning a tortoise on its back – I never quite got over the loss of growing up on a farm! I was in the choir, which involved singing at St John’s Church in Wynberg every Sunday. I dressed in a red and white tunic and a stiff white collar. I suspect that killed the love of God in me for a while because the happiest words in the whole service for me were the final blessing “May the Lord bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you…” Oh, the joy of knowing we were only two minutes away from getting out of church!
In high school I prayed most nights and as I was involved in various leadership roles, I was conscious that swearing, drugs and too much alcohol were not right – but that was about the extent of my faith. At university I knew that Jesus loved me and still prayed most nights, but maybe more out of habit than anything else. Obviously I knew the history of Jesus but I didn’t really have a sense of who he was, or take him very seriously, and I certainly didn’t tolerate ‘bible punchers.’
I met Susie at Forrie’s, a student pub, and she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It took quite a while to connect with her again as she was at Stellenbosch University, but we eventually got it together. She had a very strong faith but it never really impacted on me. I was unaware that Susie was praying for me daily. I didn’t really have an interest in exploring my own faith until our oldest son, Oliver, was about to be born and I came to realise I wanted our child to grow up knowing Jesus. We had started attending a nearby church for baptism classes for Oliver and they introduced the concept of the Alpha course there. The time felt right to explore and we signed up.
That first Alpha didn’t make a huge impact on me. My overwhelming memory of it is not in the least spiritual. As part of the course we went away for a weekend and all I really remember is sharing a bungalow with a lovely man who used the bathroom a lot in the night! The part I enjoyed the most was the worship. I’m a little bit musical and related to the beautiful music, mainly traditional hymns. I don’t remember much else having an impact on me. However a little later, some friends starting going to the Church of the Holy Spirit, a new Anglican church in Kirstenhof. As our church was temporarily without a minister, we too started going there. The church also ran an Alpha course and it was then that I took a leap of feaith in a big way. Finally, everything just made sense. It got me to a new level in my faith. In fact it brought me into a relationship with Jesus that taught me how to pray confidently to him and talk to him one-on-one, which I didn’t know how to do before. I started to know him as my friend and understand what it meant for him to be my saviour.
It’s quite astounding because when I look back, I’m not aware of any prayer that hasn’t been answered. Look, I might pray in desperation when I lose a golf ball and not find it, but I mean serious things. There was a miraculous healing of a young chap with severe arthritis that really encouraged me, as I had prayed for him. There was also the recovery of my son Matty who was dangerously ill at one time with an intra-abdominal abscess.
Not long afterwards, I had a career-threatening problem with my neck when a disc prolapsed, causing nerve entrapment. I was off work for six weeks and started reading ‘Chasing the Dragon’ by Jackie Pullinger, a lady who worked with drug addicts in Hong Kong. She talked about the power of the Prayer of Faith mentioned in James chapter 5: Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
Jackie Pullinger wrote that in many cases, this simple prayer had been successful in getting people off heroin. I thought that if she could do that with this prayer, anything was possible. I was due for an op but kept praying and on the Friday, three days before my operation, the pain disappeared and I never had to have it.
Happy days with daughter Jeanie in Cape Infanta
I was now at a stage where I was confident that God was in control of my life. But I didn’t always call on him in the stress and busyness of daily life. There were many times when I lost perspective and would try and get through my daily routine without him – I certainly wasn’t a ‘model Christian’! Eventually I would get to the realisation that I wasn’t going to cope on my own and would pray for God’s help and guidance, and usually things would come right again.
It’s not always easy to get to church, especially as your children grow up and start having their own favourite places to worship on a Sunday. And when you’re not plugged firmly into a particular church, there are times when your faith is not the number one thing in your life. It’s like a flame that gets a bit low. At these times I found doing another Alpha course or a marriage enrichment course based on biblical principles was the ideal way to rekindle that flame and help bring back things into perspective. Once Jesus became my top priority again, my relationship with my family and everything else, including work, would flow positively from that. It’s easy to lose track of that perspective but it’s actually the most important thing in life.
I’ve been involved with a men’s breakfast group on a fortnightly basis for nearly 10 years, on and off…but mainly on! This has been the most important thing for me in terms of my faith. It’s a time when we can be honest and intimate with each other in a completely confidential setting and can spend time in a relationship with Jesus whether praying or studying the Bible or writings around the Bible: the support all stems from God’s word.
Johnny with sons Oliver and Matthew at a family wedding shortly before he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer
On 26th March 2011 I was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, following a CT scan the day before for a minor stomach niggle. I was physically really strong at the time. The weekend before, I had been surfing with my son, Ollie, diving for oysters and even managing to catch some fish, so to say it was a shock to get the news is an understatement.
There are very few survivors of this cancer, so as a family we’ve been dealing with the situation and the radical shift in our lives ever since. I have started chemotherapy and we’ve been overwhelmed with love and support from friends and family, which helps hugely. The cancer has done two things for me. The first is to bring back perspective in life again on what’s really important and what’s trivial. It’s becoming blatantly obvious to me that so much of what we chase in our everyday lives is so unimportant. I bumped into a friend walking on the beach the other day who asked me how I was doing. I answered that in some ways the cancer has been amazing in bringing me perspective on life. He asked me to sum up that perspective in one word, I said no – but I can do it in two! Life for me now is about love and faith. Everything else is trivial.
The second thing is that I have discovered my faith is unwavering. I’ve never been more acutely aware that my life is held firmly in the hands of Jesus. I can’t understand why this illness has happened to me or try to explain it, but I find it doesn’t matter as I know God has a plan for my life, this is part of it and I’m happy with that. Many people have questioned it and said what’s the point in loving Jesus if you are going to get cancer and die or whatever? I’m saying: don’t question it. I’m completely convinced God is real and right and I trust him, whatever happens. While I am sad because of what I might have to leave behind, and this certainly makes things harder, I’m not scared at all. While I accept my future – the facts and figures for my type of cancer are dismal – I know that Jesus performs miracles and I’m praying that ‘Prayer of Faith’. I firmly believe that God will perform miraculous healing through this situation. The miracle may have nothing to do with me, it may be that so-and-so comes to know God through this or it may be beyond my understanding, or it may be inner healing in me! I’m not scared of death because I know I’m going to be with Jesus. I’m not scared of the whole process of what could happen between now and then, and I’m leaving it to the big guy. I trust him completely.
Why do I believe in God? I know that Jesus died on the cross for me. That’s all there is to it. When you go on Alpha, you examine things like the historical evidence for biblical events, but the main thing for me is simple gut feel. I don’t know how a man could cope with the pain of what we are going through without the grace of God which gives us hope, gives us strength, gives us comfort and gives us the courage to fight on.’
Losing a spouse has to be one of the most traumatic things that can ever happen to a person, and it was no exception for Johnny’s wife, Sue. Here, she tells of how she got through the experience (thislife originally published this story in 2013 and Sue has added fresh thoughts at the end)
Johnny and Sue: ‘We faced the situation head on’
A fashion shoe agent, Sue was born and raised in Durban. After Johnny died in 2011, she moved with the children to Rondebosch, where they still live today. Sue and Johnny’s three children, Oliver, Jean and Matthew were 17, 15 and 12 at the time of the photograph and interview below.
‘I guess it’s not to be recommended, but I actually did meet the love of my life in a pub. We were both students at the time. I was studying at Stellenbosch, and Johnny at UCT. I liked him immediately and was a bit taken aback when he stood me up on our very first date! He had a good excuse (mis-timing a cycle training ride) and, luckily, I forgave him. We were together 25 years, and married for 21.
We had a great marriage. He was an independent spirit and so am I, yet I believe we were soul mates. We fought, that’s for sure, but we also shared many interests such as gardening, cycling and the beach. Of course, our three children only strengthened the bond we shared. I remember that early in our marriage, I asked Johnny to choose between us and his bicycle as I needed him to spend more time with me and the children! He graciously complied and chose not to pursue his cycling beyond casual participation. A memory I treasure is of us doing the Argus together, and him placing his hand on the small of my back, pushing me up every hill.
We were shocked when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Johnny was a specialist in the area, so for him, there was no illusion as to the terminal outcome of such a diagnosis. Looking back, this actually helped us deal with it. He never kept anything from me or the children. Every time there was another test result or procedure, he would explain the best and worst case scenarios to us. Although we constantly prayed and hoped for a miracle, we faced the situation head on, right from the start. We had incredibly frank, open conversations. Obviously, these were often very emotional. I’m so grateful that during the short time he was ill, he was able to speak of his great pride in each of our children, assuring them of his love. Nothing went unsaid. Throughout his illness, Johnny’s faith was unwavering. He was sure of where he was going, so never for a moment did he fear death. This helped all of us deal with the inevitable.
Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night and realise afresh that the love of my life is no longer with me. However, it’s not long before I’m comforted by God’s presence, and the knowledge that I’m never alone.
After Johnny died, I think some people almost expected me to turn my back on God. The fact is, God never promised any of us that we would live forever. In life, the one thing we can be sure of is death! Thankfully, there’s something else we can be sure of: He will never leave us or forsake us. This promise is repeated over and over in the Bible. Through this tragedy, I’m learning what it is to really trust God. He’s my lifeline.
For several years, Sue Marr and family found comfort in continuing their Monday morning pancake ritual
Even so, coping with loss and grief is very exhausting. We have an incredible circle of friends who have supported us from the day Johnny was diagnosed, such as with a steady supply of meals and help with school lifts. These practical considerations have been extremely helpful, and seeing how much people care is a great comfort in itself. Our family meets with a close group of friends once a month to share life and a meal together – something we look forward to for its comfort and security. For two years, I limited myself to seeing a small circle of very good friends, and only now am I beginning to feel confident enough to accept social invitations.
I was given excellent advice not to make any major changes for the first two years after Johnny died and have tried to keep life as normal as possible for our family. Luckily, we weren’t financially forced to move house or change the children’s schools, though we have now decided to move closer to one school. I’ve kept my job, which in itself has been a blessing. We try to eat together as a family, and on Monday mornings we stick to a favourite family ritual: pancakes for breakfast. This has always been our way of easing the blow of a new week.
Another great help was a book by Jerry Sittser called A Grace Disguised – How the Soul Grows through Loss. This shows how it’s ‘possible to live in, and be enlarged by, loss.’ I would recommend it to anyone, as loss touches all of us at some stage.
My favourite quote at the moment is one I’ve slightly adapted from the novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: ‘I miss him all the time. I know in my head that he has gone but I still keep looking for him. The only difference is that I am getting used to the pain. It’s like discovering a great hole in the ground. To begin with, you forget it’s there and you keep falling in. After a while, it’s still there, but you learn to walk round it.’
Ollie, Jeanie, Matt and I are learning to walk around the huge hole in our ground.’
UPDATE BY SUE, 2017:
‘Oliver is now 21, Jean 18 and Matthew 15 and we still live in Rondebosch, close to Matthew’s school. We no longer do Monday morning pancakes – only because the kids are older and each have their own breakfast agenda! But I do try to make life as close to what it would have been if Johnny was still with us.
I mentioned in the original article that ‘nothing was left unsaid’. Before he died, Johnny and I discussed the probability of me meeting someone else one day, and he strongly encouraged that and did not want me to be alone forever.
The real update of this article is that I have recently met an amazing man who sadly also lost his spouse to cancer. We are completely crazy about each other and both feel particularly blessed and so grateful that God has brought us together… perhaps one day this story might be material for another article!’