The Shadow.

I was carrying a large pizza.

It was dark outside-after ten o’clock at night. I had been sitting at home waiting for news-any news about Ian all day long. Just that morning we had been told that he did not, in fact, have mono or an odd strain of the flu—he had cancer. Wait until we call you to come, my Mama had said. And so I sat alone in the brown chair and stared at my silent cell phone all day long, willing it to ring.

It only needed to ring once. We’re at UNC Hospital and Ian wants pizza. He’d listed off the toppings that he wanted, and shaking, I ran to my car to race to a local pizza joint on my way to the cancer center.

My voice trembled as I stammered the order. Pepperoni, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, green peppers. Please, please hurry. Black-aproned college students were wiping down tables and stacking chairs, so I stood outside waiting. A gray-haired manager noticed me, lip-quivering and wide-eyed, and walked out to the sidewalk to ask me if something was wrong.  It all came spilling out. He’s only 21 years old. Just diagnosed this morning. I don’t know anything except he wants a pizza. I think sometimes angels must be disguised as sweet gray-haired pizzeria managers, because the man gave me his card with a note scrawled on the back that said “Good for one free pizza at any time.” He wrote a note to Ian on the front of that pizza box—We’re rooting for you buddy! Fight hard.

I parked in a massive concrete parking garage and ran towards the hospital. Glass doors welcomed me to “UNC Cancer Center”, and whitewashed halls grew blurry as tears filled my disbelieving eyes. My heart could not understand where my legs were taking me. He can’t have cancer. How is this possible?

He was on the third floor, with our Mom and Dad. I wiped tears away and then burst through his door with a wide grin. YOU DRAMA QUEEN. You couldn’t just get the flu—you had to get CANCER.

Ian rolled his eyes and slowly grinned back, then reached for his pizza.

I would spend the next five months doing my very best to make him laugh. I refused to cry around my little brother, and I didn’t let anyone else do it either—going so far as to tell my own Mother to step out into the hall and get it together. The big sister in me desperately didn’t want Ian to be scared. I would tease him, goad him, demand that he stop being so lazy and let me ride in his wheelchair for once. But never did I let him see me cry.

When Ian was admitted into the ICU for the last time, I had the flu and was not allowed to see him. For days I sat a fifteen second walk away from him in the waiting room, asking my parents to remind him over and over again that I was there, just steps away, and I loved him. One bleak midnight I staunchly refused to leave and Kellan had to pull me, sobbing, towards his waiting car.

When I was finally allowed to see Ian, he had already been intubated. A ventilator breathed air into exhausted lungs that were too weak to do the job any longer. As I stepped into his room alone, the heavy door closed and clicked behind me and I stared at my pale little brother. Tubes masked his gaunt face. Cancer had left her calling card, and the kid lying on the hospital bed in front of me looked nothing like the one that just months before had picked me up and done curls with me in the kitchen. He looked so small.

My brave façade crumbled, and I grabbed his hand, laid my head down beside him and wept. Voice breaking, I told him for the umpteenth time that I loved him so much, and with tears streaming down my face whispered that if he needed to go, that was okay.

Sitting there beside my little brother, I begged God to let me take his place. If I could have crawled into that hospital bed and shoved the tube down my throat instead, I would have done it. Given the chance, I would have joyfully handed Ian every last second that I had left to live. Jesus, He’s too little! I can do it. Let it be me. Crushed, I begged, and as clearly as I have ever heard anything I heard Jesus say Ashley, I have already switched places with Ian.

This Thursday, Ian will have been gone for one year. His friends are doing all sorts of things to remember and honor him—from raising money to fight cancer to going dancing in his memory. And while those things are great, this big sister would just love it if today, you would remember that Jesus switched places with you too. Jesus took the full weight of death into His body so that you and I and Ian would only ever need to experience its shadow. If Ian could tell you one thing today, I know that He would look you straight in the eyes and promise you that there is nothing in this world more valuable than knowing Jesus. Our deepest need is not for a healthy body or a head of curly hair or Christmas with six instead of five, our deepest need is for Christ Himself. One year later as I stand amidst the wreckage and tearfully survey the damage, I, with Ian, am adamantly convinced of that too.


  1. Gee I love your writing Ashley. I’m sad that you have first-hand experience of so much pain to be able to write so well. It’s almost as if my heart breaks with yours every time I read. But your faith never ceases to amaze me and I know you are a source of encouragement to so many.
    It sounds like Ian was an incredible young man. Thinking of you today (it’s the 26th here in Aus) as I will every year. It’s my daughters birthday and as I remember you and your family it encourages me to do everything I can to encourage her to love Jesus. I pray she will live and love with the kind of passion, faith and grace I find in your beautiful words.

  2. John Peterson says:

    Another beautiful entry Ashley. Thank you for helping me to take my eyes off of myself and my grief, and to put them where they belong – on Jesus, who switched places with me!

    John Peterson

  3. Beautiful! Our hearts are with you this week Ashley.

  4. Beautifully written. I do not personally know your family but somehow saw this on fb and followed his illness. Your family will be in my prayers this week!!!

  5. Ashley,

    I know we only met a couple of times but thank you for the reminder. I’ve been thinking a lot about Ian lately as the one year is coming closer. You are a brave sister and I too wished that I was in Ian’s place at times. But thanks again for the reminder that Jesus has already won that battle and that we should be thankful for what we have now.

  6. PRAYERS ABOUND! A little over year ago a mutual friend here in Apex asked if I would donate my quilting services to your mom to make your family a memory quilt. I would love to, if you are ready. #MadetoOrderbyMaria


  8. Been thinking + praying for you and your family this week, friend.

  9. Ashley, we’ve never met, but I’m a friend of Laura Hartley’s and I think I left a message for you via her Facebook last year. I began reading your blog just after your wedding and more than once it’s left me with tears running down my cheeks. Tonight, I’ve been writing up notes about a hospital chaplaincy placement I’ve been on and the thought of Jesus having swapped places with each of my patients is an awesome one.
    I’ll be praying for you & your family this week from over the pond in London. Your words are amazing, keep writing!

    • :) Thanks for this, Liz. What an incredible opportunity you’ll have to point people to Jesus in the midst of possibly the hardest time of their lives. Praying for you, tonight!

  10. My brother died of cancer 21 years ago. He was 27. My only sibling. I know the pain of losing a brother so well. I don’t know why God allowed it to happen, but I no longer question it. I actually became a Christian through my brother’s death so from his death, I gained something that I might had never done if he was still alive. My brother was a Christian so I know there will be a great reunion one day. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Funny, my brother’s favorite food was pizza. Every year on his death anniversary (May 16) and his birthday (Aug 4) we eat pizza in his memory. 21 years of eating pizza for him….;)

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your brother, Karen. I’m confident that he would be thrilled that it was through his death you came to know Jesus–I’m excited for you to get to see him again one day! Y’all can finally eat pizza together. :)

  11. Debbie Mayo says:

    very sweet !!

  12. Praise God for his love. Thanks for this beautiful reminder.

  13. Kristen Via says:

    Awesome post as always! I pray for you Ashley because even though I knew this in my head, when one year rolled around of the passing of my Dad, my heart temporarily forgot it. It was hard but we got through it as a strong family just as I know you will with your family. I just want you to know that I love coming here. Your posts inspire me and I just feel like I can relate to so many of them. Take care and God Bless!

    • :) Thank you for your note, Kristen! I appreciate you taking the time to reach out. I’m so sorry to hear that you lost your Dad–I can’t even imagine. I’m sure you’re ready to see him again!

  14. Sarah Woodruff says:

    amazing writing. thank you for sharing.

  15. Brian Wagner says:

    Beautiful, honest, transparent writing. We don’t know each other, but the writing was so great that I feel like I know you and Ian. Sorry for the loss of your brother. Grace abounds. I’m glad you have the Peace of the LORD; I’m not sure how people make it without the Hope we have in Jesus!

  16. you are a remarkable big sister! thanks for your transparent heart and the reminder that Jesus has most definitely already switched places with all of us :) praying for you this day.

  17. Debbie Birkey says:

    Tears . . . I never knew Ian but I now know his big sister and she is one precious person with a powerful pen that poignantly points to Jesus. I love you, Ashley.

  18. Oh sweet Ashley. Words can be very powerful and I love the way you and your mom use them to express yourselves and to touch my heart. People are praying for you all.

  19. Ashley, you don’t know me, but I’m a friend of Hannah Stone’s. Reading your post, I am sitting in my office surrounded by coworkers and crying because I know (in a small way) what that pain is like.

    I also know that what you’ve said about Jesus is true. Nothing, NOTHING is more important than that relationship.

    Thank you for sharing the truth, even when it hurts.


  1. […] and broken. Very hardest of all, two years ago it carried her into a dark ICU where she held her 21-year-old baby’s hand as he died of […]

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