This post is in loving memory of
Denise Michelle Henson
December 7, 1972 – April 19, 1998
If you’ve ever had a loved one whom you thought it impossible for God to save, you’re not alone. I believe this testimony of my best friend, Denise, will encourage you.
The Soul I Thought God Could Never Save: A Miraculous Testimony of Salvation
Denise and I met in grade school where I found myself lovingly hand-picked by her. I never understood what attracted her to me, as I was quite unremarkable as a grade-schooler. I was a thin, red-headed, plain-as-paper girl who was rather awkward. And Denise, being who she is, was insistent. All it took was one overnight, and our friendship blossomed.
I actually spent more time with her at her parent’s house than I did at my own. And despite our sisterly friendship, Denise and I were very different people. I was the level-headed one. Denise was eccentric, daring and adventurous. We were both artistic. I was thin and flat. Denise was overweight. I was a red-head. She was a blonde. I was more reserved at times. Denise was always living on the edge. I held her back and reigned her in while she urged me to forge new territories. I came from an upper-middle class background, and she came from a struggling family. I grew up in an immaculate home. Denise’s house was often messy and filled with cigarette smoke. Odd as one may think, I was actually more comfortable in her home than my own.
I loved her. We were extraordinarily close.
Her parents eventually “adopted” me and I called them “Mom” and “Dad”. The relationship was intimate, as we spent every waking moment together and shared everything. Truly, we were inseparable. Our parents finally gave up. Until I could drive, our parents took turns shuffling us back and forth for visits after school, which lasted until bedtime, and occasionally overnight. But once I had earned my license, I didn’t waste time calling the moment I got home – and out the door I went straight to Denise’s house.
Denise was a fun-loving, easily excitable, sanguine personality. She was the purest sanguine I’ve ever known. She laughed easily and was always the center of attention and the life of the party. In fact, with Denise everything was a party. She was flamboyant and fun; colorful and charismatic. She loved adventure and lived on the spice of spontaneity. She put the capital “G” on gregarious and was the typical social butterfly. Yet despite her outgoing personality, she had few close friends.
A Troubled Past
As fun as Denise was, she was equally unstable and unpredictable. Denise grew up with many unresolved issues such as obesity, a troubled father-daughter relationship, and bipolar disorder to name a few. As we grew, things intensified throughout her teenage years. Denise experimented with things such as casual sex, illicit drugs, and even dabbling in the occult. Needless to say, she was a troubled soul in desperate need of help.
On more than one occasion her family found it nearly impossible to restrain her from manic outbursts and depressive episodes. There were frequent bouts of rage, theft, rabid spending of money on stolen credit cards, suicide attempts, and even a homicidal threat against her father whom she blamed for much of her despair. As a result, Denise found herself in and out of the local psychiatric ward on numerous accounts, which was much like a revolving door. Upon her release it wasn’t but a few days until she relapsed into fits of mania and depression, nearly taking her life or living it to the hilt.
The demons she fought were many and diverse. All of us knew these were issues we could not resolve for her. And the worse she became, the more Denise openly declared her hatred for God. She blamed him for everything that ever went wrong in her life. The deeper her bitterness against God – the more rebellious she became. Her behavior and temper were out of control. Overeating became bulimia and anorexia, cigarettes became cocaine, casual sex became prostitution, and dabbling in the occult graduated to full-blown Satanic worship.
By the time I went to college at the age of eighteen, Denise and I had drifted apart. The rift was large. Yet I never stopped loving her. As you may guess, Denise never went to college. She worked odd jobs at odd hours, which she failed to keep, and continued to struggle at home. She had a myriad of boyfriends who both threatened and abused her, all of whom her family and I were afraid.
I was scared as anyone would be, and I chose to keep my distance. However, I would occasionally talk to her and her parents on the phone.
By the time I was nineteen I had found the Lord and my life radically changed. I became involved in church, and did campus ministry. I had a whole new circle of friends who became close. I began to grow as a young Christian in the Word of God with an insatiable hunger for more of the LORD. My personal relationship with Christ was young yet strong, and I knew He was the only answer for Denise.
Yet how He would reach her, I did not know. I wondered if it was even possible.
During the summer I would visit her hoping for old times. Yet I found we had nothing in common. These visits were intense, short, and strained. Denise had become volatile. She was increasingly uncomfortable in my presence and would often fly into fits of rage upon seeing me read my bible, or at any mention of God. All of this was clearly a demonic manifestation, and I understood what was happening. I would silently listen to Denise, watching the pain in her eyes which clearly revealed the broken, confused and hurt little girl who was love-starved and despairing.
The more I tried to explain God, the more verbally aggressive she became. As always, it was her mother that calmed her down.
The Daring Prayer
As a young Christian, I knew prayer was the only solution for Denise. As I sought God for her I wept, wondering what would become of her. Although we were no longer close, our sisterly bond was very much intact. I was scared for her. After carefully pondering what to do, I finally knelt at my dorm room bed and did the only thing I knew to do. I prayed the most daring prayer I had ever prayed. It’s one that has been etched in my memory.
I didn’t know what it would take to save Denise. I feared what it would take and I didn’t even know what to ask. So, I asked God to save Denise no matter what it took – even if it meant my own life. In my ignorance as a young Christian this was my only understanding of ‘laying down my life for the brethren’ according to Christ’s teaching. I knew I was already saved and that my life belonged to God. In my estimation, God had the right to use me as He pleased. This possibility scared me at the time, but I was willing, believing that God was able to perform a miracle, although I did not know how or when.
With that, I surrendered her to God. I never prayed for her again. It was a done deal. My faith was settled and sure.
I visited Denise during the Summer of 1993 one last time, and it’s no exaggeration to say our relationship was hanging by a thread. As I stood in the living room watching her converse with her mother, I silently asked the Lord, “Lord, will she ever be saved?”
Suddenly I heard Him reply, “By the skin of her teeth. At the age of twenty-five she’ll die of cancer.”
I was so startled at the clarity of His voice that I didn’t know how to respond or what to think. For fear of what He said, I dismissed the word entirely. I simply did not understand, as I was too young in the Lord to discern these things fully.
I was twenty years old. Denise was twenty-one.
Denise and I continued to drift throughout my college years. I hardly came home. And upon graduation I moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the fall of 1996. My initial surrendering of Denise to God did not waver. I had peace that surpassed all understanding which was unshakable, and I knew it was from the LORD.
I never questioned Him about her again.
As years passed, Denise fell out of my life completely. I hardly thought of her as my new life began to rapidly unfold. Until one day I received a phone call from my mother. She told me that Denise wanted to talk to me and that it was urgent.
When I called Denise I was unprepared for what I was about to hear, despite the word God had so clearly spoken. She said, “Erin I have cancer.” There was no mincing of words, skirting subjects, or prefacing such a statement with diplomatic conversation. It came out of her mouth as if we had just spoken yesterday. She was scared, crying, and in need of a friend. I was her only one, and she was desperate. The word God had spoken years prior was not yet quickened to my memory. I had no recollection of it whatsoever in that moment, nor in the days and weeks to come as I paid her visits.
Denise and I talked and we made immediate plans to get together at her home. I wondered how any of this could be true, and by the time she finished her story over a long night of dinner and coffee at Perkins it made sense.
Denise was diagnosed with Stage IV Melanoma, which had its origin in a large black mole on the back of her calf that grew more ominous as she aged. It had plagued her all her life, until finally she decided to have it removed. To our astonishment they never biopsied it. And within a few short months, tumors the size of baseballs began to develop all over her body.
Her family didn’t have the money to pursue a legal case against the malpractice. It was never addressed, and they knew they had no energy or time to expend upon it. Their daughter was dying, and in rapid decline. Any money or time they had, they wanted to invest solely in her. They knew no amount of money was going to save Denise.
I saw Denise a hand-full of times between that Fall and the next Spring when she finally passed. It was like old times again. Gone was her bitterness against my Christianity, and she was no longer practicing in the occult as far as I knew. She had been working a fairly steady job and living with her parents. We talked and shared stories as we always had. But there was little we had in common, save for the old memories we shared.
I remember helping her undress and seeing her abdomen swollen to the size of three pregnant women, while her gaunt cheeks were sunken to the degree her glasses no longer fit her. I tucked her into bed having pulled off her ted-hose from her massive swollen legs, and I retreated to the living room where I hung my head and cried.
There was nothing we could do.
Finally I received the phone call that I knew was inevitable. One sunny afternoon in Tulsa, just a week after Easter, I received a phone call from my father who was en route from Germany at the airport on business. His voice was distant and tense. I knew something was wrong, as he never called me or anyone else from the airport.
He said, “I just talked to Mom and received word that Denise passed away. She wanted me to tell you.”
Why my mother deferred this message to him, I still don’t know. Immediately I made plans to attend Denise’s funeral. When I called for details her mother made it clear, “Now be sure to wear something bright and flowery. No black. Denise wants us to throw a party.”
I nearly laughed.
I wore a white Spring floral dress with pink roses – Denise’s favorite. I will never forget what I encountered upon entering her home where we had made so many memories. She was everywhere. She was in the laughter, the cake, the food, the candles, the family members, and the loud music. You would have thought it was a graduation celebration. Her father greeted me at the door with a tear and a smile and kissed my cheek. I saw it in his eyes: the reality that I was the closest thing to his daughter he had seen since her passing. His embrace was all too telling.
I called him “Dad” and he called me “kiddo”. Her “Mom” and I embraced and talked. Smoke filled the house as people chain-smoked their way through grief with roaring laughter. Pink roses, her favorite, were everywhere. And her father had even planted a new rose bush called “The K. Denise Rose” in the backyard for her.
But the greatest moment of all came when I had a private conversation with her pastor who was kind enough to share with me her last moments. He told me that he had visited her on Friday evening and asked if she wanted to make her peace with God. He told me of how she looked around awhile with that lost distant look she often bestowed upon us in conversation, and finally quipped with startling clarity, “Okay, fine.”
That Friday night Denise had prayed one prayer, prefacing the terms of agreement by making it clear she wasn’t going any further than a simple confession, and said, “Lord, I confess to you that I am a sinner, and I accept you as my Lord. Amen.”
He said that once she lifted her eyes she looked at him squarely, or through him rather, her countenance being effectively altered, and soberly declared, “I know that I’m going to die either tomorrow or the next day.”
A Peaceful Passing
Feebee Henson found her daughter at four o’clock in the morning on Sunday, with her glasses off, looking toward heaven with a smile on her face as she lay in her bed. She said it was the most angelic look she had ever seen on Denise’s face in her whole life. Denise habitually slept with her glasses on, which allowed her to catch glimpses of the TV throughout the night as she slept. But that night was different according to her mother. She had refused them outright. And that’s when she knew it was time.
Denise drown in her own body fluid which slowly filled her lungs.
That night at the funeral I wept as her mother took my face in her hands and said, “We both know it was either going to be like this, or a suicide, a murder, a drug overdose… This was God’s deliverance. It brought her to Him.”
Denise died one week after Easter, on a Sunday before sunrise, exactly as she predicted – less than forty-eight hours after she had made her peace with God.
I went home and slowly went about my life, but continued to question the authenticity of her experience with God. Denise was good at pulling the wool over people’s eyes. She could be such a player, and I wondered if she had fooled her pastor. Simply said, I questioned the sincerity of her heart.
That’s when she came to me one morning in a dream between wakefulness and sleep. I was surrounded by a circle of friends – all those I had come to know and love throughout my entire life, some who remained, and others who did not. Suddenly Denise cut in the center of the ring. She was at the age when we met, young, vibrant and wearing her glasses. She was full of joy and tears as she exuberantly threw her arms around my neck and breathed into my face, “Thank you!” And disappeared.
I awoke immediately, being acutely aware of God’s presence and her promised salvation. That was when the Lord quickened His word to me. It became just as clear as if He had spoken it fresh.
The astonishment I experienced cannot be articulated.
I spent that morning weeping – not with tears of grief, but overwhelming joy. Denise was safe. She was experiencing the presence of Christ, and the wonders of heaven. I knew that her joy was full. I knew she was whole, healed and free. I also knew in that moment that God’s word was true. She was indeed saved by the skin of her teeth, after dying of cancer at the age of twenty-five – precisely as He had spoken.
Her mother teased me laughing, “You know she’s up there with her thumb to her nose, saying ‘I beat you!'” I knew she was right. And I can’t wait to see her again.
It was a severe mercy. That day when Denise threw her arms around my neck and said thank you, was the day God reminded me of the one prayer I dared to pray. To this day I am humbled to know He dared to answer it.
Cheers & Shalom,
Above Photo: 1988 | L to R: Erin Pavlicek, age 15 and Denise Henson, age 16