“It changes,” their daughter, Jessica says. “You take it breath-by-breath, and then step-by-step; day-by-day, and then week by week. And then some days it is back to step-by-step.”
One Sunday in October 2014 at the Clear Creek Community Church Egret Bay Campus, the pastor invited anyone in the congregation who had a relationship with Christ to take the next step of baptism that very day. George and Carrie Sutherland had already been attending CCCC for several years, but had never been baptized. It was their 20-year-old daughter, Clare, who spoke first.
“Mom, I want to go. Will you come with me?”
“Of course, I will,” Carrie said. “I’m right there with you, baby.”
Leaning over to inform her husband, George too said, “Okay, I’m in!” And the three of them got in line to publicly express their faith in Jesus Christ.
About two weeks later, Clare’s headaches began.
During one particularly debilitating episode, Clare was driving to class at nearby San Jacinto College. She pulled her Jeep Liberty to the side of the road and called her mom, in tears.
“Mom, my head hurts so bad, I can’t stand it.”
“Okay, I’m on my way.”
Unable to get a doctor appointment quickly, they headed to the emergency room. After a CAT scan, the doctor delivered the news.
“We need to do an MRI. She has a mass — a tumor.”
The week of Thanksgiving, doctors performed brain surgery to remove the mass. But, they weren’t able to remove it all.
Carrie, a sonographer in Maternal-Fetal Medicine, shared Clare’s pathology report with one of the oncologists she worked with. The co-worker gave a very direct response: Clare had 32 weeks, maybe 52. That was it.
“We knew that we could lose her,” George admitted. “But at the same time we didn’t know that. So we didn’t live there until we knew we were out of bullets. The statistics were not good, but statistics are just numbers, you know? Maybe we’ll be an outlier, we thought. We weren’t ready to give up hope.”
In January 2015, Clare began her first round of chemo. But shortly into treatments, her doctors realized there was little, if any, progress being made.
“Each time, we thought, Okay, this is bad news, but maybe it’s not,” George said. “And through the whole thing, it was a lot of prayer — a lot of faith. It was always, we can’t control this, but we know it’s in God’s hands. What can we do? What’s the next step?”
Doctors began talking about targeted therapy and clinical trials.
“It felt like to me that step 1 didn’t work, so ‘Let’s see what the latest emerging research is that we might be able to throw at it; it’s not proven, but let’s go there,’” George recalled. “And I just thought, Oh, dear God. It’s too early for a Hail Mary.”
“I knew that the only way that Clare would survive would be God’s miracle,” Carrie said, fully understanding the medical realities. “And I knew that was possible, but that it might not be what he wanted. He had already given her back to us once.”
At birth Clare had an Apgar score of 1 on a scale to 10 — a score of 7-9 being normal, and a score of 0-3 requiring immediate resuscitation. So Clare, with a heart rate of 40, received CPR upon first entering the world. Yet, she breathed. And she breathed on her own, as though making the bold statement, I’m okay! A statement Clare went on to live her life by, even throughout her fight with cancer.
“We knew that if God was going to call her to him (which is kind of what it felt like he was doing), we had to say, ‘okay,’ too,” George said.
As George and Carrie walked with their daughter through her suffering, Clare trusted that they would let her know the things she needed to know, but there wasn’t much that Clare really wanted to know. She didn’t want to be over-informed.
“Clare’s comment through the whole thing was, ‘I know God’s got me,’” Carrie said. “You could really feel that the Holy Spirit was holding her… it was like a presence.”
“She wanted to wrap her faith around it,” George explained, “and she had such a peace around her. She knew where it was going, there was no misplaced hope, she just didn’t know the statistics. So she just kept life as comfortable as she could, and wanted to do the same things that she usually did.”
Clare didn’t want to make a bucket list. Instead, her mantra became Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” In a time when the wrecking balls of doubt or fear inside her brain could have potentially destroyed all belief, Clare faced her fight with this song and an impenetrable shield of faith. At times, even when others felt like unraveling, it was Clare’s faith in God that held them up.
“Her walk with God through the whole thing was beautiful,” Carrie said. “It was beautiful.”
“She was magnificent,” George added.
Clare’s older brother, Clay, was living in Baton Rouge at the time of her diagnosis. He was running a restaurant and church was not a part of his lifestyle anymore. Over the years, he had grown a distaste for organized religion and “church people” and had fallen away from any relationship he once had with God.
“When my sister was battling cancer, she called me one day and challenged me to ‘just go to church, any church,’” Clay said. “At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about or why she would even ask such a thing of me.” Clare would even text Clay’s girlfriend, Candie, “Can you make sure Clay goes to church?”
“Clare kept saying, ‘Mom, if anything good comes out of this, I hope it’s that Clay comes back to church,” Carrie said.
While Clay wasn’t ready to go back to church, he did find a way to shift his schedule so that he could split his week between Baton Rouge and League City. He and Candie began spending half the week in Louisiana and half the week with Clay’s family in Texas while Clare underwent chemo treatments.
Clare’s older sister, Jessica, remembered how normal Clare made it seem like to be going through chemo. She would drop her off for her treatment and afterwards Clare would suggest a trip to Starbucks before heading home to play with her nephew, Luke.
“She truly remained herself through it all, including her everything-is-going-to-be-okay mentality,” Jessica said.
But there were many times Jessica and her mom longed to say more.
“We wanted to have conversations about faith and where we were, and where Clare was, and how we were feeling,” Carrie admitted. “But Clare would just say, ‘I’m in a good place, Mom.’ I think it was harder for us to not have those conversations than it was for her. We needed that.”
“I remember feeling kind of a guilt that we didn’t have those deep detailed conversations to try to help her understand it, but she didn’t want that,” George admitted. “So that was me feeling guilty for me. As a parent, I kept wondering, how do I best help lead my child through this?”
In those last days, as Clare began losing her eyesight, she was still cracking jokes with her eyes closed, as she laid in the hospital bed in her parent’s bedroom.
“She kept her phone near her playing Christian music, just looping; just kind of resting in it,” George recalls. “Her faith in God held her, and she just relaxed in it, like a hammock.”
“I honestly never believed she was going to die until the minute that she did,” Jessica said. “I kept thinking Is this really happening? Did she really just die? Are we really picking out flowers for her funeral?”
One of the things Clare wrote about in her journal was that she was most concerned about her family. I’m worried about my family — if they’re going to be okay, she wrote.
“I told Carrie a long time after Clare had passed that my faith felt kind of wooden,” George said. “I had no interest in picking up a Bible or learning. Didn’t feel like picking up [the guitar] to play music. I was in this place where I was just spent. And that lasted several months.”
“I can’t say that I was angry at God. I knew his decisions were all good, but it wasn’t what I wanted, so I just needed a time out,” Carrie admitted. “It was like, I love you, Lord, and I know that you love me, but I don’t know what to say to you right now.”
“And I still believed that God was good, but I was numb, and it was hard to pray,” Jessica said. “It was hard to accept that he chose not to heal my sister.”
“How do people who have no faith deal with something like this?” George wondered. “For many of them it’s a bottle of whiskey in the fetal position, which I have to admit was tempting, but when you sober up — and you invariably do — that problem is invariably there.”
The Sutherlands began to find healing joy in even the smallest reminders of Clare, like eating chicken curry.
But, they remember, while Clare loved the Indian cuisine, she had a love-hate relationship with one of its most prominent spices, cumin.
“She hated the smell of cumin, because she thought it smelled like body odor,” George chuckled. “And you know, she’s kind of right. But it sure makes your [food] taste good.”
It’s impossible to separate the odor from the flavor.
“The pain and the joy [of loss] are the yin and the yang,” George realized. “They are so inextricably interwoven. And so, you can’t have one without the other. If you try to numb out the pain, then you also lose the joy.”
“You know, I just saw, through the whole thing, so many answered prayers,” George said. “From the time this thing started, we had people jumping in to help and support. And where did all those people come from? It was a cumulative experience of the past 20-plus years of our lives. It’s like God was saying, ‘The Sutherlands are going to need some help — not for about 21 years, but let’s get started now.’”
Some of the same people who they befriended in the bleachers at their kids’ YMCA sports games, were the people who just showed up with groceries and started cooking.
“You can’t see God, but you can see where he’s been, like leaves blowing through a tree,” George explained. “That’s how it felt for me. I could see God just kind of working on this whole thing, sort of orchestrating our lives. So God was at work bringing people into our lives over the years long before we knew we would need the help.”
The key was letting people in.
“A lot of people, when tragedy strikes, they close their doors,” Carrie said, “But I knew from having lost a family member already, that people want to love on people, and that those people need closure, as well. So I don’t think our front door was locked for months. People just came on in.”
Their small group, in particular, had committed to work together to provide consistent meals and keep the house stocked with tissues. Since the door was unlocked, they quietly came in and did what they thought needed to be done without disruption.
“The funny thing now is that friends will come over now and I’m like, ‘Why did you ring the doorbell? Didn’t you learn anything?” Carrie joked.
“Towards the end of Clare’s battle with Cancer, it got really hard,” Clay admitted. But these ”church people” he had never even met before, approached him, hugged him, and told him they had been praying for him for a long time.
“It was such a stark contrast from our community back in Baton Rouge,” Candie said. “We did not have that group of faith and love and support because the way our friends dealt with difficult things was by escaping or avoiding dealing with them.”
“That’s when it really started to hit me” Clay said. “I was seeing two different worlds.”
“We watched people wrap their arms around George and Carrie,” Candie recalled. “People were there all the time and just loving on them. And I had never seen that. People were living out the Word and not just talking about it.”
“I spent most of my life justifying not going to church because of the people,” Clay said. “But I watched these people who had a faith that can weather really hard storms versus people who didn’t. And we decided that we wanted to be closer to people like that… I really wanted to see what it was all about.”
After Clay proposed to Candie the Christmas after Clare passed, they both started job hunting in Houston, and by spring they were packing up their lives in Baton Rouge and moving to League City.
“Moving [to Texas], I was still dealing with a lot of really dark things,” Clay said.
It was then that Candie finally got Clay to go to church. Through a couple of sermons that he says spoke right to him, Clay became more open to seeking out this tangible faith he was witnessing in his parent’s community, which was now his community. Clay and Candie did their premarital counseling through Clear Creek Community Church and eventually joined a small group.
Roughly two years after his sister passed, Clay became the first person baptized at the East 96 campus. But, as George and Carrie Sutherland reveled in their son’s newfound faith on that June Sunday in 2017, it wasn’t without the shadow that Clare couldn’t be there to celebrate with them.
“I get it now,” Clay said, about Clare asking him to go to church. “Through dealing with a faithless grief, I learned about that ‘rock bottom’ thing that people frequently reference. Thankfully, the good Lord placed some amazingly patient and loving people in my life that helped me to experience Christ’s love and my need for him as my savior.”
Clare got her wish.
On the first anniversary of Clare’s death, George penned his reflections in a letter to close friends and family.
“I wrote that the loss is like a hole in your heart that you can never fill in,” George recalled. “But surrounding that hole there’s so much joy, and love, and laughter, that you learn to love the hole. There are a lot of bad experiences in your life that you can just put a box around, and just, you know, put in the back of the closet — a bad relationship, a bad job experience, a bad this, or a bad that — and just forget about it, and get past it, and never worry about it again. But this is something you have to hang on to, and it changes you forever because you can’t let go of the hurt. You just can’t… It always becomes a part of you.”
People still ask the Sutherlands, “Does it get easier?”
“We’re all still pushing through it,” Carrie said. “It still stings, but it’s going to sting. So you own it. And actually, in a way, you don’t want the sting to go away.”