Clayton Bjelan is talking with me about his mum Rhonda who died two years ago, after a shock cancer diagnosis that ended in her death – three months later.
Clayton loves his mum and misses her. The few stories he shares about Rhonda reveal how many more stories he could share, and how important she has been to him. As someone whose Christian faith couldn’t help but flow out – like counselling total strangers at the supermarket ,when she just popped in for one thing – Rhonda certainly left an eternal mark upon her son.
While plenty of us do NOT want to talk about disease, death or grief, Clayton is able to. Rhonda could do it too, and Clayton’s podcast Incurable captures the deep, vulnerable and hopeful conversations this mother and son had in the months before Rhonda died.
Yes, in time for Mother’s Day, Melbourne radio host and respectful son Clayton has released a podcast series where all of us can hear their intimate family chats. We are invited in, to sit at Rhonda’s hospital bedside with Clayton, or in the car or lounge room; wherever the microphones were set up to take down important final moments.
“Incurable is actually us having a conversation, because we wanted to try and allow it to be not just from the [cancer patient’s] perspective, but what families go through as well,” says Clayton, a longstanding presenter with the ‘In Conversation” program Melbourne’s TheLight FM.
“We had this intent that this was actually a joint mission. Even though it was me interviewing Mum, we were both wanting to help people.
“It also did allow, in this setting, for me to ask questions which perhaps are a bit uncomfortable when we get closer to death. Because we had a podcast set up, I was able to ask a question that maybe you wouldn’t ask your Mum as she gets closer to death – about how she’s dealing with [about] what it means to be alive, or about grief, or regret.
“So there was a depth to that, that maybe you wouldn’t get if you just sit with somebody during that time of life.
“We deliberately pushed each other.”
‘It had just come from nothing …’
Before you think it, Rhonda was not pushed into the podcast. But Clayton and his mum’s joint decision to document her final days came about fast and out of the blue.
When Rhonda went in for her last appointment before a scheduled knee replacement, she came out with an incurable cancer diagnosis. Tests revealed she only had months to live.
Having survived breast cancer five years earlier after a lump was cut out, it had returned. Ferociously. Rhonda had even had a check-up two months earlier that had been all clear.
“It had just come from nothing to completely ravaging her body and there was nothing to do about it,” says Clayton. “It was really quick.
“By the time [doctors] got to her, it had spread to lungs, lymph nodes, the liver is what took her in the end – but it was just spreading everywhere.”
“Even when Mum’s gone, it will actually be that she gets to speak to people.” – Clayton Bjelan
Clayton is a seasoned broadcaster who has interviewed everyone from prime ministers to sports stars and former mafia bosses. Reeling from his mum’s diagnosis, Clayton also thought about how Rhonda loved to help people. A podcast of candid conversations came to his mind, fuelled by a long-distant memory that had resurfaced.
“Part of me remembered something Mum had said about 30 years earlier. She felt like God had called her. She had this vision – that would be a better word – of one day standing in front of a stadium full of women sharing her story. This was so real in our family, but God had never had this happen with Mum.”
“So it was almost like, well, maybe this is the fulfillment. Even when she’s gone, it will actually be that she gets to speak to people.”
A few days later, Clayton talked to his Mum about the podcast idea, without mentioning the vision. Clayton primed himself for Rhonda turning him down. He expected she would need much convincing to chat over microphones “from now until you die”.
“She said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ I said, ‘Oh, wow. And by the way, Mum, remember that vision that you talked about 30 years ago – that was sort of in my mind when I came up with this.’
“She said, ‘I can’t believe you said that. I haven’t thought of that for years. But as soon as you mentioned the podcast to me, that came back to me as well.”
The appeal of Rhonda
Although she had never spoken at a stadium, Rhonda drew a crowd. Wherever she went, Clayton remembers, people would be drawn to her. She was real, her son simply explains. A “rock” who was the centre of her family, Rhonda had an everyday magnetism – something she had had to come to terms with.
“She had this sensitivity to God’s Spirit that she would just be, ‘Rightio, I’m here and I’m open,’ says Clayton about Rhonda’s openness to connecting with others. “But she also had a heap of health problems. So for 30, 40 years, she had massive back issues – multiple, multiple, multiple health issues. She was really slow and she hated that; she had to be with a walker, you know, all that sort of stuff.
“But she said that because she was slow, it almost gave God a chance to have people talk to her … that actually meant God was able to use her.”
Clayton feels that he understood Rhonda perhaps better than anyone else by the end of her life. I guess that happens when you record hours of audio together with your mum, that then takes about 18 months to assemble. That’s a lot of mother-son time. Valuable relational time that Clayton’s not only sharing with us all – through Incurable – but with his immediate family. They have kept the conversations which didn’t make it to the podcast; precious offcuts the family can have to themselves.
“Faith can have those scared moments in it – and it’s still faith and it’s still real and it’s still true.” – Clayton Bjelan
Clayton’s family became Christians when he was born. Put that another way: his parents became Christians that same year. As their faith blossomed and developed over the years, so too did the faith of their children. A faith Clayton sees was inspired by his mum and dad, but one he came to claim for himself.
Clayton discovered something unexpected about his Mum’s faith through their recording sessions.
“There is this one classic part that we share in the podcast, where she talks about ‘I’m not scared of where I’m going. I’m fully at peace that I know I’m going to heaven. I’m completely scared about the process of dying.’
“To have her speaking openly about that, it was a learning about her and how faith can have those scared moments in it and it’s still faith and it’s still real and it’s still true.”
Pray for healing, or peaceful death?
They also disagreed about some matters of faith. Revealed in Incurable, Clayton and Rhonda had different views on holding out for miraculous healings, or preparing for inevitable death.
“I think the healing versus the peace thing was an interesting one,” he broadly outlines about Rhonda and her son not seeing eye-to-eye about what to pray for during her final days.
“In those last few weeks when she realised this is the end now … she moved to a spot of ‘We just have to believe, not doubt and pray, and God’s going to heal me because there’s more for me to do.’
‘I don’t get it. I feel like I’ve got so much more. I don’t understand why God would take me.’ – Rhonda Bjelan
“I wanted that desperately and she’s my Mum … but there was part of me that just couldn’t get on board with that as much. I would pray for [healing] – but I was also desperately praying for peace for her.
“ To me, it felt like, ‘Oh, do I sort of want her to go? Because I’m praying for peace more than healing?’
“What I liked about that is it’s still real faith So often with Christianity, we try and polish it so beautifully for anybody who doesn’t understand what we are talking about as we follow Jesus – but we’ve left all that in; the podcast includes all of that, so that we’re not trying to say it’s perfect. We sort of don’t get it.
“We were on different pages here, but both of us were trusting Jesus in whatever this is.”
Clayton and Rhonda also dived into a related and common question around suffering: Why is this happening? Clayton is almost apologetic about the conclusions they came to, conclusions which speak of honesty and humility, not easy or textbook answers: “I think that’s a question that doesn’t have a nice answer. I think it stayed confused; that’s perhaps the best answer I can give.”
“We put it in the podcast where Mum says, ‘I don’t get it. I feel like I’ve got so much more. I don’t understand why God would take me.’ But then we go to the next question: ‘But I don’t understand what five-year-old kids die of this stuff too. That doesn’t make sense to me either.’
“She didn’t leave this life going, ‘Oh, I have completed this life well. I’m ready to go.’ That’s not what happened. She went saying, ‘I don’t want to go, I don’t want to leave my family. I don’t want to leave this life. I don’t want to do this, but I will trust God anyway.’
“So that was very much our message from the start and then it intensified. We didn’t labour that aspect of it but the disappointment of leaving did intensify as well.”
Are you open to this?
Incurable is unafraid and unapologetic about delving into emotive issues flowing from death, disease and despair. Clayton, though, feels that his “18 month conversation” with his Mum – as he assembled the podcast – has helped him work through his grief and loss. He hopes Incurable offers similar help to those who listen to it, just as Rhonda wanted. Made for people “going through the cancer journey”, or who are curious about genuine matters of life and death, Incurable demands one thing from everybody: vulnerability.
“I think even somebody choosing to listen to the Incurable podcast is a step of vulnerability,” says Clayton. “[Listeners must] understand that this means I have to be opened up a little bit, to be willing to hear some of his stuff.”
“… There’s something strong about knowing you’re not alone.” – Clayton Bjelan
“Mum realised, and I certainly did this as well, that we have these moments in life that if we want to actually be closer to people – have influence in their lives, but also have them have influence in my life – it starts with me being vulnerable. It starts with me opening up some of myself.”
Another Incurable aim is companionship. For anyone who has been in a similar boat to Rhonda’s family, “there’s something strong about knowing you’re not alone”, according to Clayton. While he realised during his Mum’s final months that people all over the world experience such cancer battles as well, Clayton “still felt like our family was alone in it”. He wants Incurable to be a stark reminder of not only being in this together with so many others, but also with those nearest and dearest with you.
“Grab your family, hold them tight, treasure them as you go and make sure that as we go through this part of what the world is, we hold tight to God, we hold tight to who Jesus is.”
Rhonda held tight to Jesus and she had peace about where she was going after she died. Clayton describes this as a “trust that she always had in a God who loved her”.
“We sort of deep down know there’s a part of us that’s searching and longing for purpose and all of thar sort of stuff. But even with the disappointment about leaving [this life], that peace part was still completed – and that was because of Jesus.”
To live is Christ, to die is gain
The New Testament book of Philippians was important to Rhonda and Clayton as her life on earth was coming to an end. What he calls the “peace section in Philippians 4” took hold of Clayton and his Mum. But there was another statement in that uplifting letter – “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” (1:21) – that they spent a lot of time discussing.
“I had a conversation with Mum during this time and then it stuck with her: If you are to keep living, then we are to live it to Jesus – to share our faith – but if we’re going to die, then we’re going to actually gain more of Jesus.”
“Mum had never sort of looked at it like that and I just wanted to share it with her. And that’s such an awesome positive; Jesus is the greatest that there is, so to have more of him as we die is something to be comforted by.
“She was comforted by that verse, as well as sort of constantly challenged by it as well. Even in the last couple of days when she was not able to communicate, we were able to read the whole book of Philippians at her bedside.
“That had me in a lot of tears as I was reading – but that was really beautiful.”
‘I would tell everybody about what God’s done’
Clayton and Rhonda did a lot of talking and thinking about dying – and living. Perhaps more than you or I. Clayton is unsure why dying – such an inevitable part of every life – remains hard to face or raise in polite conversation. But he and his mum went there, and something that sticks with Clayton is weighing up what you would do if you had an incurable disease … and you were miraculously healed.
His Mum’s answer? “I would tell everybody about what God’s done.” Clayton agrees that this would be the most important information to pass on, so is left to wonder if such a stark realisation on death’s doorstep can translate into how any of us live. How Clayton lives. Right now, and until it’s his time to be with his Mum and Jesus.
“I reflected on the fact that actually, that’s my opportunity,” says Clayton about being able now to share the saving faith he and Rhonda share.
“As someone of faith, as someone who believes in Jesus, am I going to wait until I’m in my last month?
“Or can I keep critiquing and looking at my life – and how can I share the love of Jesus more?”