A little over a week ago I sat in the pews of a nearby Houston church for the memorial service of a high school friend. Next to two girls I’ve known almost fifteen years, I mourned from a place so deep I feared I would drown in all the sorrow. She died at barely 29, a little over two years after she was diagnosed with the beastly disease. She and I were co-captains of our volleyball team. In those days, we had dated boys who were good friends; we went to homecoming and then prom together, in the same big ole party bus. Truth be told, we had not been particularly close or even kept in touch all these years after high school. But now all I could think about was her contagious laughter and that remarkable brightness in her eyes. I sat there in that pew trying to remember the way her hand felt when we high-fived after a good play all those years ago. I thought about how she was a fighter, both on and off the volleyball court. How, with tears, she had pulled me over to the side one day to tell me my dear friend had an addiction to prescription drugs. She wanted me to know the truth. Mostly, I so desperately wished I could have been with her just one more time.
“This sweet madness, oh this glorious sadness, that brings me to my knees.” *
We were asked to wear bright colors, teal specifically, since it signifies cervical cancer, the disease that took her. The family asked that the service be a celebration of life. But I couldn’t even celebrate much less think a coherent thought because I was just so terribly sad. They said she had been ready to go. She had been in unbearable pain. I wiped the tears from my eyes enough to watch the video montage. It physically hurt to look at those photographs flashing across the screen. I felt a piercing in my chest; I felt like I couldn’t properly hold air in my lungs.
“The sharp knife of a short life.” *
A few years ago, I heard a story that shocked me at the time. Apparently a woman, maybe in her late forties, had died unexpectedly. The minister, a family friend, went, reluctantly, to relay this bitter news to her elderly mother. Well, right there in front of his eyes, the mother had a heart attack and died. The horror of this story initially surprised me but then a few months ago my Pappaw almost had a heart attack at his own brother’s funeral. Perhaps emotions are more profoundly connected to the physical body than we acknowledge.
Anyway, at the memorial service, the minister who had gotten to know my friend pretty well through her battle with cancer, said that when her life was nearing the end, when she was very much in and out of consciousness, she would suddenly, just out of nowhere, start smiling ear to ear—beaming—even raising her arms and clapping her hands.
What is going on here? My mind raced at the thought.
“When Christ shall come
With shout of acclamation
And take me home
What joy shall fill my heart” *
Remember, in the fourth gospel, when the sisters sent a message to Jesus?
“Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
Jesus responds with an assuring word that Lazarus’ illness would not lead to death but rather to God’s glory and He takes his sweet time getting to Bethany. When He finally gets there Lazarus has already been in the tomb four days. “Lord,” Mary said, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus sees Mary and the others weeping over Lazarus, the text says He becomes greatly disturbed and deeply moved. The Greek verbs here are notoriously difficult; scholars puzzle over whether Jesus’ response here is an outburst of anger or a display of grief. Lots of them say Jesus is angry about the perpetual unbelief of Mary and the others. But then something happens. He asks Mary, “Where have you laid him?” Somewhere between where Mary had knelt at Jesus’ feet and Lazarus’ tomb Jesus began to weep.
Why was Jesus weeping?
Had the sadness overtaken Him all the sudden? Here, regardless of whether Jesus was angry about human unbelief or not, Jesus enters the madness of it all, the dizzying pain and confusion of human death. And the total despair of those He loved. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Maybe Jesus also wept, in part, because he knew His own death was very soon to come. Funerals remind us of our own condition too, that our bodies will indeed be defeated by death before they’re ultimately raised to new life.
At the end of the service last week when the precious family, a family who had been through so much heartbreak, arose to walk out before the rest of us, the father stopped and looked at all of us who were either crying or staring blankly. He suddenly motioned to the hundreds of us gathered in that sanctuary, and, he began to clap. I don’t know why he was clapping. Here we were at the memorial of this man’s beloved twenty-nine year old daughter and he was clapping.
“I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up… To more than I can be.” *
All I know is this gesture was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure how or why it all happened the way it did but we all joined in right with him. Clapping had never felt so good. Maybe we were clapping for Lindsey’s life or maybe we were clapping for life itself. Perhaps we were clapping for all the pain that her parents had to watch, endure, and even survive. Or then again, maybe we were just clapping because God had somehow allowed us to make it through the incredible sadness of that service alive. I suppose most of us were clapping because we still seemed to have some kind of miraculous and collective hope even after all of the dumbfounding and unspeakable suffering Lindsey had endured.
“Faith still creates miracles,” her family assured us.
My two friends and I left the funeral quietly, in something of a daze. But the three of us went out to lunch, nonetheless, and there we toasted our friend. We talked about how brave she was. How she never gave up her faith and how she never grew bitter. We spoke admiringly about how much she just simply loved human existence and how so often we worry about things that just don’t matter one bit. And I couldn’t help but think about the fictional main character, the Reverend John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, who is dying from a heart condition in the narrative. Knowing he has only a short time left, Ames writes an account for his young son. At one point he says:
“I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly . . . I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try” (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead).
So the three of us talked and talked about how she really lived and courageously died. We spoke about how strange it felt to us that some of us die young and others of us just go right on living. I hadn’t really noticed until that moment but it turns out it was a uniquely beautiful day. Arguably one of the most beautiful days in Houston all year. I didn’t really even want it to be, honestly. I kind of wanted it to be dark, ugly, and muggy outside. Where was the rain, anyway? Instead, everything was dazzling like a thousand diamonds under a huge bright expanse. Low seventies, a tender breeze, clear skies, birds singing, butterflies dancing, everything blooming; the air everywhere was infused with fragrant magnolia. There in that moment, I couldn’t escape the downright beauty of it all, even if I had intended to.
Please note the quotations in italics with an asterisk following were all songs played at the memorial service (Angel by Sarah McLachlan, If I Die Young by The Band Perry, How Great Thou Art as performed by Carrie Underwood, and You Raise Me Up by Josh Groban).