Last month, Elizabeth wrote a comment on this blog that has stayed with me ever since. She said:
“One can die ‘safe in the arms of Jesus.’ One can die and not be afraid. ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for THOU art with ME.’ In the relationship of ‘I/thou’ with God or with those who know and love us, as described by Martin Buber, we can face death with equanimity.”
The week before Elizabeth wrote her comment, an x-ray revealed an “area of concern” on my lungs. The young resident prescribed antibiotics, although neither she nor I thought I had pneumonia. It was simply the first step in reaching a diagnosis of what could be “anything from scarring to lung cancer.”
The resident was quick with cheery assurances that non-smokers like me were unlikely to get cancer. But her good cheer was lost on me. I have known three women my age – all non-smokers, two from my immediate neighbourhood – who started with non-descript coughs like mine and died within the year.
I went home to tell my husband, Paul, who had been anxiously hoping I would visit the doctor. And that night I sat in my rocking chair, and began to contemplate a different future than the one I had taken for granted.
The night in the rocking chair
It was a revealing night. I think I had always imagined that the prospect of an early death would terrify me. I am not a brave person. I am not the one to walk along the cliff’s edge or sled down anything but the bunny run. I snivel through sentimental movies, and even a touching obituary about a stranger will make me cry.
But as I sat rocking, I realized that I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t hoping that I didn’t have cancer. I was sad for my family’s sake, but not that much for my own. I didn’t feel like fighting back. I didn’t want to beat this thing. My chief response was, “Oh well. These things happen.” or in the words of a running joke between Paul and me, “Worse things happen at sea.”
What I felt, to my great surprise, was a sort of contentment. There is a 102 year old woman at Quaker meeting who often stands up, proclaims, “Most of the things we worry about never happen,” and plunks down in her seat. She is right. The prospect of an early death does indeed sweep away petty worries. I remembered Allan Reeve urging us to “live as if we were already dead.” Now I had a glimpse of how freeing it might be to live as if there were no tomorrow.
Paul and St. Paul
I also gained a new appreciation for both Paul and St. Paul. I recognized, as I had known only superficially before, that I would much rather be the sick one than the caregiver. Illness absolved me of responsibility – no-one expects much of the sick. Paul would have to care for me, console our children, earn a living, face financial loss, somehow juggle his own life, and face prospects very different from those he had imagined.
I also realized that I had misjudged St. Paul. I have always found his “to live is Christ and to die is gain” statement rather suspect. He says he doesn’t know what to choose, to live and do fruitful labour, or die and be with Christ. It is really only for others’ sake that he feels it necessary to live. My reaction had always been, “Yeah right, Paul.” But sitting in my rocker, I felt pretty much the same.
My non-Christian readers might be surprised that I have not mentioned a hope in going to heaven. I do believe that our lives do not end with our last breath. But I don’t have a clear picture of what that will look like, and I don’t think the Bible offers one. We simply know this: that we will be with God; that we will be changed; and that death will be swallowed up in victory.
(I particularly love one homey, undramatic passage from John 14, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
Being where God is. It’s a beautiful picture of both life and the life hereafter. Death, where is your sting?
The postscript: A few days after I started on antibiotics I began to get better. A follow-up x-ray found that the “area of concern” was entirely gone. I probably had pneumonia. I definitely don’t have lung cancer. I am glad at the outcome. But I am also very glad for my night in the rocking chair.
Friends, I’ve describe one night’s thoughts. I know many of you have faced the question of death far more deeply than I have. Your reflections would be most welcomed.