Her skin is cool and feels like dry paper. Her muscle tone is gone, and her hair has been cut short. The woman I knew who could power walk for miles is now lying in a palliative care bed waiting to die.
We spoke quiet words with one another today. She had been a remarkable encouragement to me, even without knowing it, when I acted as her education assistant at our local post-secondary institution. She was a substitute high school teacher — a job only the rarest of courageous spirits could maintain — so I counted it a extra pleasure when I was able to be with her in the classroom.
Then we were placed in a professional development course together, along with a handful of other people. A certain degree of personal disclosure was required of all us, and I got to know her story a little bit. She got to know mine…a little bit. She got to know Katie, Romania, and that I journeyed life with this odd man named Jesus.
Evangelism was certainly not on the forefront of my mind. In fact, I had already begun to check out at church. I showed up out of form; I showed up so I could keep up with the youth; I showed up because perhaps I didn’t know of anywhere else to go. Church seemed so bleak, and yet to not go at all seemed even more lonely.
But she didn’t know this.
Nor was I aware of the Spirit’s movement in her own life.
As I entered new phases of my life and she into hers, we would take long walks out on the island; then we would pull up lounge chairs on her cabin’s property and sip on refreshments while the sun set over the lake. She would talk about our first encounters with each other years ago — back in the classroom, back in that course. Many of the moments I had long forgotten, being mundane to me, turned out to be profound for her. I was never sure whether to be humbled in her presence or encouraged. Perhaps this was a lesson for me in needing to be both.
Whatever her life circumstance, she radiated kindness to me and affirmed again and again and again that I mattered in the world and that God had not given up on me. No matter how badly I screwed up, she simply refused to see the bad in me or the mistakes. She saw beauty and made sure I knew it.
Now cancer is eating away at her internally. Life is a matter of days for her, or hours.
She, herself, is praying for hours.
Final arrangements have been taken care of; family members are with her 24/7; people have visited, prayed, wept, and laughed. The time is close.
As one who is supposed to believe in miraculous healings, I feel a heavy guilt wanting the death the she wants. Aren’t I supposed to believe the impossible is possible? Am I not the one to advocate physical healing? Aren’t I the one to not give up?
I have absolutely no idea. Not in this moment.
She is at peace. She is ready. As easy as those words are to type, I know they are not easy realities to even speak, much less accept especially for her family. Yet I find myself wanting to walk with her on the journey she is ready to take, as far as the road will allow me. No more pain. No more tears. No more treatments. No more.
Desiring death is not always the release of hope. We furiously work to stave off every shade of death throughout our entire lives, so that even when death stares us in the face we fight to cling on to who and what we know.
There are times to fight death; there are times when we do not give up pursuing life as we know it here for it is the loving, just, and good thing to do; there are times when we refuse to let death its due because the world is already so full of death’s grieving wake, that we must create and nurture life with our whole beings.
But there are times when peace and intimacy with God whisper that we usher one another on to what comes next. At some point we must let go of the hand, commending all life to God, and find beauty in this journey. I speak of this journey not as an eternal optimist, but as one who has had to walk various forms of this path. In the midst of grief and sorrow, the journey is anything but beautiful and profound.
There are moments, certainly, when the beauty and light break in. And these are the moments I look back on and become transformed by later in life. During the journey through the shadow of death, however, the world is icy, dark, and bleak.
So perhaps the miracle here is that death, not having the final word in our existence, is one more way we can be miracles to one another. We become witnesses to divine breath moving from one place to an eternity; we become witnesses to God’s beloved straddling this reality and infinity; we choose to be wounded because we love so hard and love so well, that as the wounds become scars, we are able to breathe that divine breath with others.
I can’t speak for all deaths and all losses in all times and in all places. I can speak to the truth that surrounding one person during their final journey home is one of life’s most potent moments. Whether we approach death with courage or cowardice, love or hate, peace or angst, the truth is we can approach it without guilt or shame.
We can hold hands at the beside and know we are on holy ground.