Last night, our county’s Hospice program lit up the “Tree of Life” to start its annual fund raising season. Though we always enjoy seeing the lights when we drive by the tree at night, we don’t usually attend the ceremony.
This year was different. One of Claire’s best friends and also her former debate partner were chosen, along with their family, to light up the tree in honor of their mother, Susannah Kelley. Moms can die young, and Susannah, mother of four, did so this summer at age 48.
It seems she was not alone. This summer brought a series of losses to those we know. Barely a year or two ago, one of my husband’s mentors at work was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was one of those men who was an exhorter—someone who supported novices with promise and pointed them toward reachable goals, and then followed through when times required diligence in the hard work of details and persistence. Though beaming encouragement to others until the very last days, he too was one we bid goodbye only a few months ago.
And there are more to come. Another work friend—someone who partnered with Chris through thick and thin of difficult assignments, someone we knew had an inoperable tumor that just seemed to hang fire in his brain—suddenly got the verdict: go home and rest. The tumor had resumed growing. He has anywhere from a month to a year remaining. And that’s it.
How do you handle news like that? It certainly was hard for his coworkers to hear about it. But what about being that person? How do you handle the news when it is about you?
Fortunately, for each of those we lost this year, faith played a strong part in their lives and in their passing. I have no clue how people could handle it otherwise. But even with faith, the passage is not effortless. With cancer, for instance, there is the drawn-out agony of pain and waiting, perhaps a sense of being deserted or of wondering, “Why?” There is also that languishing yet dogged hope of being rescued: that this will be the one time that the Lord chooses to perform that miracle healing.
It seems so hard, being on the healthy side of an encounter with someone in this position. What can be said? Do we speak of healing to be an encouragement? To avoid dragging the poor soul’s spirits down? Or does that cancer-ridden friend ache for the pretenses to be dropped and just allow freedom to say, “This is it,” without fear of being branded as faithless? What does a person who is slowly dying need to say?
I remember being party to the other side of the equation when my first husband was dying of complications from heart surgery. He was young; no one believed he was seriously in risk of dying until the moment was nearly upon him. Not a word was exchanged about that possibility. Once he slipped into a coma, though, I became his proxy, his mouthpiece. People were so kind, so nice…but it was such a comfort to be free to jump the track from scripted orthodoxy to plaintive stream of consciousness. The jibberish of feelings may seem useless, but without saying something, how are the others to know how to break the silence, cross beyond the fear of stigma or taboo, and speak the words of life to the desperate dying?
I have never known the nearness of death (although I have thought I did at times), but somehow I wonder what would be the best ministry to those in whose place I’ve never been, when that place is near death. I’ll never be able to know without asking—and how do you ask someone in that place, when that person may not be able to face up to that reality themselves, right now?
Susannah was one who was in that place, and I never took the time to ask, to learn from her what she saw as the biggest need. I did observe one thing: she seemed to have died with a smile on her face. If that was what God had required of her life, that was what she was willing to do in her service to Him. Many do handle this turning point with philosophical reflections of returning to one’s maker, or of going to a better place—but rarely does one express the willingness to go through the process that brings us to that other place. It takes a servant’s spirit, a yieldedness, to submit to the risks of that ordeal. When Susannah realized it was time for her to “go home,” she took hold of the grace given to see us through whatever turmoil we face, and discipled herself to her spiritual mentors.
When I was a child, summertime twilight calls from my mother, “Time to come home,” were both times of protest and times of realizing good possibilities. Playtime couldn’t possibly last as well after dark—besides, there would be another day—and once home, a comforting bath and story time awaited me. Realizing the fleeting playtime I was leaving behind was insignificant in the face of the cozy comforts yet to come, it wasn’t all that hard to go home when the time came.