By Leslie Criss/NEMS Daily Journal
A diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer has the awful power to destroy the lives of all those touched.
One Tupelo family, however, took the diagnosis dealt and turned it into a thing of pure grace.
When the love of his life received the horrible diagnosis in February 2007, Keith Merritt eventually turned to emails to keep the parishioners of St. James Catholic Church up to date on his wife Gayle’s condition.
It was also a way of letting folks know specifically how to pray for the Merritt family: Gayle, Keith and their three children, Emily, Tracey and Drew.
The emails were not puff pieces written to paint an inaccurate or promising picture – they were raw and realistic.
“I told it like it was,” Merritt said.
It was only after Gayle’s valiant battle ended Dec. 6, 2007, that Merritt realized just what a powerful – and appreciated – gift his emailed updates were.
“There were people at Gayle’s visitation who told me I should turn the emails into a book, that they had touched so many people,” Merritt said.
His emails were forwarded by those on the St. James email list to others who were facing struggles of their own. He learned this when he began receiving emails from people all over the world whose lives had been impacted by hearing of one family’s journey.
“I was actually horrified at the thought of making money off something like this,” Merritt said. “And I didn’t even save the emails. But about 20 people started sending my emails back to me.”
So Merritt put the emails in a Word document, called them “Emails from Heaven” and “sat on them for a year.”
In December 2008, Merritt was asked to speak to the annual meeting of the board of directors of Sanctuary Hospice House, where Gayle – surrounded by family – spent her final days. At that meeting, he read some of the emails.
“There was not a dry eye in the house,” he said.
It was then Merritt decided to put together a booklet of the emails, including a few testimonials from friends and a forward by the Rev. Henry Shelton, then pastor at St. James.
“It sold for $10 and opened the way for me to speak to local clubs and churches about God and the way he took care of all of us,” Merritt said. “It was a way to evangelize our story.”
Every penny made from the sale of the booklet went to Sanctuary Hospice House.
from booklet to book
At some point, the booklet ran its course and the story of the Merritt family and Keith’s emails found their way to Cathedral Foundation Press.
“They told me they wanted this book,” Merritt said.
Because the hand of God had been felt clearly in the relationship of Gayle and Keith since they’d first met as 2-year-olds through a chain-link fence as their mothers hung clothes on their backyard clotheslines, Keith felt compelled to tell his family’s story, once again, to help others.
“From start to finish, it took eight days to finish the book,” he said. “It was grueling, for lack of a better word, reliving every moment. But I hunkered down and it was like the Holy Spirit was guiding my hand.”
“Emails from Heaven: One Couple’s Journey from the Altar to the Cross” is what came from Merritt’s eight days of being still, listening, reliving both joy and pain.
“People are hungry for the truth,” he said. “My prayer is that those who read this book will feel the reaffirmation that God will be there for them like he was for us. The book will go wherever God wants it to go.”