It Builds Character                       Frank Forsyth

 “Are you sitting down?” Not really the words you want to hear from your son on the other end of the phone line, late at night after he’s just spent several hours on the road driving back to college. But with Tim we were somewhat used to the unexpected. His tone belied his jovial demeanor though and we sensed a touch of tension in his voice when he intoned, “Don’t worry.” Don’t worry! How do you not do that as a parent? Isn’t that part of the job description? And it’s just what we’re going to do when you tell us not to. Anyway, don’t worry about what? Those thoughts raced through our minds in the split-second before he continued. His next words only magnified our anxiety: “I’m okay BUT.” Oh, that dreaded conjunction that negates everything that is said before it…No, he is NOT okay…what happened? A myriad of tragedies swept through our minds as we tried to focus on his words. Our senses were on heightened alert despite the late night hour. His next words struck deep and tore at our very souls… “I’m at the hospital and they just found a lemon-sized lump in my brain.” Silence, deep breath, exhale slowly…what do you say without being able to put real arms around our son? He is 230 miles away on the other side of the state – a real stretch for loving arms. Worry sets in, but Tim told us not to worry and so did God. Tim IS in His loving arms. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). We hastily made travel plans for the following day and breathed a prayer of thanks to God for Tim’s safety. Just think, he had driven four hours on the interstate and the seizure that numbed the entire left side of his body occurred just minutes AFTER he left the interstate. He arrived early at his apartment for the new semester and so did his roommate, who insisted on taking him to the emergency room – even though Tim didn’t think he needed to go. God is good all the time and all the time, God is good.


Over the course of the next several weeks we discovered that “lump” was a very aggressive cancerous tumor that was lodged perilously close to the speech-center of Tim’s brain. Because of the nature of Tim’s case, he was transferred to the care of the neurosurgery department at the University of Wisconsin (UW) hospital in Madison where the best in the business would perform a delicate surgery to remove most of the tumor. They used a brain-mapping procedure in which they actually woke Tim up during surgery to ask him questions while probing the tumor to determine what they could excise and what they had to leave alone to avoid removing Tim’s ability to speak. God certainly designed an amazing brain. During the grueling six hours of surgery, several friends and our pastor kept a constant vigil of prayer with us in the waiting room while literally hundreds of family and friends around the world  interceded for Tim before our Father in Heaven as well. When the head of surgery appeared in the doorway with a smile on his face, anxious hours melted into thankful tears as the doctor delivered the joyous news that he successfully removed the majority of the tumor. It would still be several hours before we could see our son but the relief was overwhelming. Six weeks of radiation followed surgery and soon Tim’s hair was a distant memory; “It builds character”, he said with his ever present smile. A friend bought him an outlandish shaggy blond wig, and Tim, never on the shy side, wore it proudly to many events.


Tim worked hard and made a remarkable recovery returning to the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse for the spring semester. He required a few accommodations because he still had some speech and memory problems to overcome, but considering he was only four months from major brain surgery, it was a blessing from God that he was even in school. Each and every time he faced a new challenge and someone would ask him about it, Tim would come back with his patented phrase, “It builds character”. Tim had always been an adventurous sort and to celebrate his graduation in June 2004 (1½ years after returning to class), he went to India on a trek through the Himalayan mountains – a dream he’d had for some time (we all thought it was over because of the tumor). It wasn’t always easy but, as Tim always said, “It builds character.” When he returned from India, Tim wanted to use his degree in outdoor recreation management and I mentioned applying to the Armed Forces Recreation Center in Europe. Soon, he was winging his way to Garmisch, Germany to work at the Edelweiss Resort as a Lead Security Officer.


We had always wanted to return to Germany since being stationed at Ramstein AB back in the mid-80s and what better time to visit than when your kid is living there. So mom and dad along with daughter, Jenny, and son-in-law, Carl, packed our bags for Deutschland in the summer of 2005. What a wonderful family time of rest and relaxation – truly a gift from God! We revisited many of the places we had seen when we were stationed there and our time went all too quickly. Soon, we were back in the US of A and Tim was back at work seeing to the needs of our soldiers, sailors and airmen – he thoroughly enjoyed his “job”. We looked forward to Tim’s eventual return to the States…but it did not happen the way we expected.


Because of an inner-ear issue I have, quick awakenings from sleep can cause vertigo problems; the whole room can start spinning around me. I usually sleep very soundly so I was quite puzzled when at 0210 hrs on Jan 30, 2006, I inexplicably woke up – I was wide awake and alert too. I sat up and stared at the bedside phone, expecting it to ring…and it did. Reflecting on the incident, God was my alarm clock in that early morning hour preparing me for the heart-wrenching news that Tim was about to deliver from Germany – his cancer was back. My wife was quickly on the extension and we talked to Tim for quite a while knowing that God is good even when we don’t understand His ways; “It builds character”. Less than a week later, God came calling again with another early morning wake up call. As I sat up in the early morning hours of Feb 5, again waiting for the phone to ring, the chaplain of the base chapel where Tim attended called to let us know that Tim had just experienced a grand mal seizure and was in a German hospital undergoing some tests. We made some early morning calls of our own and shortly thereafter received a call from Tim; he was “fine” but would be in the hospital for a little while. With his accrued vacation time, Tim was just four days short of completing his 18-month contract with the AFRC-Europe in Garmisch so he was able to make arrangements to come home shortly after he was released from the hospital. Unfortunately, he had to cancel his planned trips to Egypt and the Turin Winter Olympic Games but God was so gracious in not allowing Tim’s seizures to occur while he was travelling. “It builds character.”


We met Tim’s flight into Milwaukee on February 10, 2006 and he looked really good. A friend had cancelled his plans to attend the opening ceremonies at the Turin Winter Olympics to accompany Tim home – the doctors didn’t want him flying alone. My wife and I were planning to fly over to pick him up but Tim insisted that he was okay and that a friend was going to stay with him all the way (it was still hard not to pull parental rank and go anyway). Several doctors’ appointments immediately followed his return and they confirmed the return of multiple tumors. Surgery was not an option. Chemotherapy seemed to be the best course of action and proved extremely effective in the initial stages. By April the tumors had virtually disappeared from the scans. Tim had good days and not-so-good days and some down-right bad days but…“It builds character,” and he never took his eyes off Christ, his strength and Redeemer.


Gradually Tim’s strength returned and he was able to help with the Summer Leadership School for my Air Force Junior ROTC program which we held annually at Fort McCoy and Devil’s Lake State Park.

Tim’s favorite part was instructing rock climbing and rappelling at the state park and he was in 7th heaven to be able to do it once again. As always, my students followed Tim around like little puppy dogs (especially the young ladies). He was just a delight to be around and they peppered him with questions about his adventures and his tumor. Tim didn’t shy away from talking about anything and everything and he was very easy to talk with.


When we returned from Summer Leadership School, Tim and I buckled down in our training for the Spirit of Racine half ironman triathlon that we were scheduled to compete in – just over a month away. Swimming, biking and running were on the agenda most days. Throughout this time, Tim continued on his chemotherapy and anti-seizure drug regimen; “It (definitely) builds character.”


Tim also loved photography and was an accomplished amateur photographer. The Downtown Racine Group hosted a lakefront arts and craft show for local artisans and Tim took a spot to showcase his photography. We built some display stands and hauled his framed photos down to the show. On the 2nd day of the show, I hung around a little longer than I had planned to talk with some friends who had stopped by to see Tim’s work, and just as I was getting ready to leave…my heart sank. I could tell Tim was struggling…a seizure was starting. I called my wife and she immediately contacted Tim’s doctors. On their advice, she rushed an increased dose of his seizure medication to us at the lakefront. The seizure began to subside after what seemed an eternity but in reality was a matter of minutes. Although Tim relaxed, this seizure was obviously not a good sign. We took him to the local emergency room and, after the doctors consulted with his neurosurgery team in Madison, Tim got a sweet ride with Flight for Life to the University of Wisconsin Hospital – he always liked to do things big. We were on the road to Madison as well but we had to drive. Lord, things were looking so positive; what happened?


The tumors were back and they seemed to be very aggressive. Pulsed low-dose radiation therapy seemed to be the best option for Tim but the doctor’s words trailed off and gave little hope. The rollercoaster ride continued. We know the Great Physician and He can work miracles – where there’s life, there’s hope. Tim took the news in stride – “It builds character”.  After he was released from the hospital, many return trips to Madison followed as Tim endured more and more radiation. At times it took a toll on him, especially when he had to cancel his participation in the triathlon. Even then he looked for ways to bring a smile to the faces of those around him. One day he went to his radiation treatment wearing his neon yellow, glow-in-the-dark mountaineering boots so he could enter a contest about “My Koflach boots are so comfortable, I wear them to ____.”  We made quite a show of setting up and taking pics with everyone available.


The next few months provided several peaks and valleys but we could see a gradual, steady decline in Tim’s overall health. Despite his physical deterioration, his ever present smile never left his face and his tenacious faith in the goodness of God never wavered. In October, Tim experienced some severe pain which required an emergency trip back to Madison. This time some blood clots were the culprit instead of Tim’s brain cancer. The medication for the clots, we were told, could have a therapeutic effect on his cancer. Was this a new sign that things were going to turn around? We were back on the rollercoaster. This “good” news was short-lived and it was soon apparent that the medication would not positively affect Tim’s cancer. Later in October Tim was placed under the care of a wonderful hospice team in our home. However, you only go into Hospice care when you run out of curative options – “It builds character”.


God gave us a wonderful month with Tim as he slowly edged toward eternity. Our daughter came out from Colorado to spend this time with us and her husband was able to hop back-and forth several times. As the tumor gradually took over various parts of Tim’s brain, he lost the ability to do things that we take for granted – walk, talk, eat. Through it all, he let God’s love shine through Him to all who came in contact with him. I remember when our pastor looked him in the eye and said, “This isn’t what you signed up for, is it brother?” Tim, who had lost the ability to speak by this time, looked at him and shook his head “no,” but he was at peace and knew that he was going to a far better place where his suffering would soon be over. On November 22, 2006, Tim lost his battle with brain cancer and went home to be with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His death tore a mile-wide hole in our hearts that won’t be repaired until we’re reunited one day in Heaven – yes, Heaven is for real! John 14:1-6 tells us, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God;believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ’I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s what I love about Scripture – it tells the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly. God doesn’t hold anything back. He tells us that we blew it and that we’re separated from Him and therefore we’re under judgment…BUT, He also tells us what we can do about it.


My last assignment in the Air Force was in the Current Operations section of Air Mobility Command as their Airspace Manager. As a team, we put together many contingency plans to respond to crises around the world – peaceful and hostile. Our training at the Air Force Academy was geared to that; planning ahead, to meet any challenge, to oppose provocation (hmmmm, sounds familiar—that’s our Class Motto). I can’t count the number of contingency plans that crossed my desk during my tenure in Current Ops but they all pale in comparison to the ultimate contingency plan – what happens when we die? It happens to everyone, so it’s best to be prepared just as our son and so many of our classmates were.


When I planned air routes into and out of combat zones, there were certain procedures a pilot had to follow if he went comm out. If he didn’t follow them, he would be identified as an unfriendly, targeted and shot down. The pilot couldn’t make up his own rules and enter friendly territory his own way – it didn’t work like that. That’s the way it works in eternity as well. Proverbs 14:12 tells us “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” That isn’t very good contingency planning. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Friends, the only way to plan for eternity is through the shed blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin. Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 6:23 follows that with “the wages of sin is death.” Fortunately, Romans 6:23 doesn’t end there; there is the divine conjunction “BUT” that follows the word death: “BUT the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Have you gotten your ultimate contingency plan in order? Tim was only 27 when he turned the last page on his ultimate contingency plan. God had been building character into his life for all those years and when it came time to turn those last few pages, he was ready because he had put his faith and trust in the shed blood of Jesus Christ for salvation and was at peace with God. Are you?



Bill Van Horn

9491 South Johnson Court 

Littleton, CO 80127


303-948-8435   work

303-596-3615   cell


USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!



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