Notes on a death

I arrived late to the funeral. It was already the homily, which I didn’t really catch. But I stood at the back of church and looked out over the heads of all the parishioners who were present. Sitting in the back row was a friend, just in front of me–a friend who had survived breast cancer several years ago.

I wondered what on earth you’d think if you’d beaten cancer and then watched someone you’d known for twenty years succumb to it. ‘But for the grace of God, there go I’? No. As soon as the sentence occurred to me, I rejected it. Was the grace of God not present with S. ? Was God’s grace not attending her every step along the way? From the diagnosis through the treatment, during her reprieve and in hospice, there can be no doubt that the grace of God was constantly present with her.

Twice I went to the hospice: once to say the rosary with S. and the others from the rosary group (plus a few), and once to visit her, taking along a cake for her husband’s birthday. On both occasions, the peacefulness of the place, and of S.’s countenance, struck me. Even though she never woke during my second visit, I was very glad to have seen her. She seemed completely at peace. And I said goodbye.

I suspected it might be the last goodbye, and so it was. The next week, before I had a chance to get back to the hospice, she died. Her family were all around her. And I have no doubt about God’s presence, God’s peace and grace, being there with her.

Being nearby, but not very close, I am not at all certain what it is really like to accompany someone through their last weeks and days. The romantic part of me likes to think it is as CS Lewis describes the easternmost part of the voyage of the Dawn Treader, as they approach the end of the world. The seawater has become fresh and sweet–and so nourishing that food is no longer required. What’s more, the dazzling brightness of the sun increases day by day. Only the richness of the water strengthens the travelers enough to bear its overwhelming light. As they near the end, the world’s end, they are being fortified. The crew of the Dawn Treader are not going to the world’s end to stay, however. They are all accompanying Reepicheep, who is going to the end and not returning to Narnia. Reepicheep was bound for Aslan’s country. So only he was really going to the end (though, as it happened, Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace also departed back to England at the end of the world), yet all those accompanying them share in the water and the light that prepares them to meet the end when they reach it.

I do not know, but I hope and pray that S.’s family had some experience of that journey, which despite being deeply sad may also somehow be full of grace. From a little ways off, it seemed to me that the light shone brightly, despite being difficult to bear. The few times I saw S. and spoke to her in the final few months, I found her matter-of-fact attitude bracing. When I asked about how she was doing in the longer term, she discussed going back to work (her health had improved that much). But when I sounded too hopeful, she reminded me: ‘I still have terminal cancer’, as matter-of-factly as if she were talking about plans for the next summer holidays. Her concern was for the family.

Always, she bore it well. And she carried on doing things for the family and in the community for as long as she possibly could. How could anyone say anything other than that the grace of God remained with her through the illness and in the moment of her death? Death cannot separate us from God’s grace. Cancer cannot separate us from God’s grace.

If anything, I ought to have looked at her coffin on the day of her funeral and thought, one day, by the grace of God, there go I.

Deo gratias.

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Not making sense

One of the things I’ve written about a bit is ‘making sense.’ It is, or so I argue, one of the themes of the theology of Rowan Williams. Theology isn’t in the business of giving definitive answers to difficult questions about life and death and God, but about making sense of ourselves and God in the light of Christ and in the situation in which we find ourselves. We do the best we can–theologians and non-theologians alike.

Sometimes the best we can do falls short of ‘sense,’ insofar as sense means finding the ‘reason’ implied in the saying, “everything happens for a reason.” (By the way, the most convincing reason I have ever seen is “physics.”) To say I enjoyed reading a piece by Kate Bowler in the New York Times today is perhaps not quite right. In “Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me,” she talks about the intersection of her life experience (being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer) and her academic work (on the history of the prosperity Gospel). Her husband’s response a neighbor’s suggestion that “everything happens for a reason” cuts right to the heart of the problem. “I’d love to hear it.”

Of course, the neighbor had no response to that. Who would? Some things don’t make sense. When, as a (somewhat idealistic) 24-year-old, I suggested that there might be a way of solving the problem of evil, my professor asked me, “If there were a reason for the holocaust, would you want to know it?” That professor was Miroslav Volf, who inducted me into theology. I’ll always be grateful for that question, though of course at the time I didn’t realize how long it would stay with me. When a woman in her thirties is diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, there is no reason that would be reason enough. There can be, this side of our final redemption, no justification for the pain and loss.

The temptation is always to make sense of things that refuse to submit to our powers of interpretation. We long for the answer to our plaintive, ‘why?’ And it doesn’t come. I hate that. But I would hate the answer even more, I think. Why does my daughter have Down Syndrome? Plenty of good has come of it, yet none of that justifies the difficulties she has faced and will face in her life. There is no reason that is reason enough. 

I wish I knew what to say–for I have a friend, a bit older than Kate, who is also dying of cancer. Maybe more slowly, but certainly. A former student, only 30, died last year. I know just one thing, and that is that I am grateful for Kate and all those who narrate some piece of the journey, because that is the way I too am going. I may be a little behind or a lot, but I am on the same road. Death is a part of life, and we cannot live fully without it.

Thank you, Kate. Thank you, Jess. Thank you.