Living and Dying

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).

 

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155 Responses to “Living and Dying”

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Comments:

  1. 101
    Melany says:

    PS-I like what you said about our time on Earth being remembered in Heaven. I’ve always thought it will be, too, because what happens in this life matters.

  2. 102
    Sabrina says:

    Beautifully conveyed! A lovely tribute to a dear friend. Thank you for sharing, Melissa.

  3. 103
    Alisha says:

    Melissa, I am so sorry for the loss of your friend. Unfortunately I can relate to this type of loss. It’s been almost three years since my sister-in-law passed from cancer. I get the priviledge every week to help my brother by watching their daughter Kylee who is now 4 years old. But I have to say it’s still very hard to deal with. When her Daddy comes to pick her up after he gets off work it usually takes me a few hours to work through my slightly depressed state. Depressed because she will never know her Mom, how she loved her with all her heart, etc. The loss of Kelly changed my life forever. I so understand the pain…..

  4. 104
    Jillianrose says:

    I am so very sorry for your loss. It can be very difficult to gather an understanding for the loss of the young. My brother has suffered through the loss of two of his three children. The first, his son, at age 9 in a car accident. Then 6 yrs ago his oldest daughter, of 27 to a rare leukemia. She like you friend was very loving and outgoing. She loved life and every one important to her knew it. Even sadder is how it soured by dear brother on the Lord. He has been left very disappointed. He and his wife chose different ways to deal with their grief and are now divorced. We have very little family. It has been quite a struggle. I believe he is coming back to the Lord and will one day again attend church. Please pray for that. The two girls may have already become acquainted and having grand time.
    Again I am very sorry for the loss of someone so dear.

  5. 105
    Janet says:

    Melissa, I read this poem years ago when one of my patient’s died, and it has always given me comfort. “I am standing upon that foreshore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails in the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” “Gone where?” “Gone from my sight, that’s all.” She is just as large in the mast and spar and hull as ever she was when she left my side; just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at that moment when someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming & other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

  6. 106
    Leticia says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your heart. My 88 year old friend died last summer, and I also lost a 19 year old friend, both are now in the arms of Jesus. The thing is even though one was 88 and the other 19 there was no difference in the pain of the loss. I HATE DEATH. It was not meant to be this way, God intended for us to live. To me death is not a natural part of life but a corruption of what He meant for us. May the God of all comfort wrap His arms around those who mourn just a little tighter today.

  7. 107
    emily says:

    Melissa,

    Thank you for putting the complicated spin-cycle known as grief, into words. It’s so hard to reconcile the way the world keeps moving & spinning – yet all of the sudden makes no sense, and just feels wrong.

    • 107.1
      Judy says:

      I find it amazing that when death knocks that our world stops and looking around we see the world keep moving. I think moving and spinning is a good way to put it.

  8. 108
    sweet anomnymous says:

    Dear Melissa,
    Sorry for your loss…praying for you and the family of one who was obviously so beloved by all. I was so touched that her Mom came and commented and the song that we know played just for her. Jesus is so tender to us when our hearts are breaking. I pray that you will feel his love and tenderness toward you as you grieve. Take Care Sister.

  9. 109
    kitty says:

    Well if you ask me there is nothing like cancer to make s long for His return.

  10. 110
    Heather says:

    Oh Melissa, I am so sorry about your friend. I know how hard it is to lose a loved one…and bittersweet. How beautiful that Lindsey’s service ended with clapping! And how neat to know that she opened her eyes with joy while she was about to go Home. A week ago today, I watched one of my best friend’s daughters go into the arms of Jesus. She had severe cerebral palsy and her biological parents did not want her so my friend adopted her at the age of 2 weeks. She was only supposed to live 2 years, but with a lot of love, lived to be 17. Right before she took her last breath, she too opened her eyes wide. It was so amazing to me! I was overcome with joy knowing that she was running, playing, and talking for the first time with Jesus on the streets of gold. Tears just flowed thinking of what she was doing for the very first time and tears also flowed for the sadness of her no longer being in this world and especially for the devastation of her parents losing her. Her funeral was such a celebration of her life! Pink balloons, letters from loved ones, children singing, etc. It too was a beautiful day! She is finally free and HOME!! One day, we will be there, too, and what a glorious day that will be!

  11. 111

    Dear Beth Moore,
    You are an inspiration to me. My entire family did your Believing God study a while back, and due to my addiction, I did not. I have been clean now for 2 years and really want to do this fantastic study. However I simply cannot afford the books. Can you help me out somehow? I would be forever grateful. God willing I will hear back from you. Debbie

  12. 112

    I understand, Melissa. Last November my longest friend (of 38 years) died at the age of 50. We had been friends since the 7th grade. It was and continues to be one of the hardest things I have dealt with. I don’t know if she was saved and that tears my heart out because I feel like I did not do what I should have as a believer. She left behind two kids that are 18 and 20. Their dad is not in their lives. I pray for them often.

  13. 113
    Denise Untersee says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this moment with us.

  14. 114
    Syneva says:

    Thank you for sharing, Melissa. Your insights into life and death made me want to cry with you and for your friend’s family, yet rejoice for the promise of life with Jesus. Thank you for taking my thoughts about life and death to a deeper level.

  15. 115
    patricia Pulgarin says:

    Miss Melissa ,
    I understand the sorrow that comes with the death of a young ,friend,family, The feeling we have for those around us regardless of age though is heart felt. I am blessed to be around those who are many times at end of life. The gift I receive from them is far greater than i ever share with them. The feeling of peace many receive can only be from God. No other has the ability to give us such peace.
    May God give you Grace in this time of mourning.
    In Christ Faith. Pat

  16. 116
    Jaime says:

    I know exactly how you feel. I lost my grandmother on May 1st, 2012. We celebrated her life legacy on May 3rd and I felt anything but joy. She was my rock and she had a big part in my decision to follow Christ. She was ready to meet Jesus face to face and I know the minute she saw him she beamed with joy. It has been a hard few days but I know that my Lord will carry me thru and the SON will shine in my heart. The one good thing that came from my grandma passing is several of her children and grandchildren made the choice to get up Sunday morning and go to church. Some haven’t been in YEARS!!!! Praise the Lord for his faithfulness….as tears stream down my face!

  17. 117

    Melissa, What a great post and I am sorry for you loss of your friend. Thanks for sharing from your heart.

  18. 118
    carla says:

    Melissa, I am so sorry for your loss. I too lost a loved one 1 month ago–my mom. It’s hard to convey the pain you feel even though your hope is in the Lord. I’m praying for you as I ask that you pray for me. Though my mom was 70 it was still suddenly and even now I miss her so. If I only had 1 more day…..love and prayers

  19. 119
    Joyce Watson says:

    Each morning my boy’s would get ready for school and get a ride on the bus. It did not matter how early it was, they were always eager and excited to see the nearby pond, the deer in the woods, the racoons that left their trails and hear the stories that went along with their little adventure just before school started each day. The boy’s did not have their own grandfather nearby to spend time with them, but they had a dear friend whom they loved and who passed away today…Mr. Jack the school bus driver. We will always remember him. We are praying for his family today.
    We live in a small community and Mr. Jack was a dear friend.

  20. 120

    Melissa,

    She was so young to die, but the way you describe her as courageous and full of faith until the end encourages me. What you said about how she seemed to praise Him at the end, that really moved me. She KNEW in those moments that to live is Christ, and to die is gain…I can see where life here on earth can be breath-takingly beautiful, and I really want to take in those moments too…but to see His Face, to be completely transformed, ever to be His, with Him forever with every tear and every fear wiped away and then there is only Light, only Peace…Your friend has a beautiful testimony to His Glory.

  21. 121
    Julie says:

    My sister was killed in an automobile accident 16 days ago. Your post spoke to my heart in so many ways. Thank you for sharing. I know my sister is with our Lord and Savior. I don’t claim to understand the reason why she was taken home at only 51 years of age, but I know He had a plan and it was her time to join Him. For now, that is enough…
    Isaiah 55:9
    “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

  22. 122
    Barbara Ball says:

    Thank you, Melissa, for sharing this. I just recently found out my Precepts bible study teacher has been diagnosed with abdominal cancer (she is in her early 50s, close to my age). This came on very sudden and I’ve been struggling dealing with this news. This blog blessed me today.

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