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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Think on These Things

Well, apparently, I've had a hard time getting back to writing in the past couple of weeks, even though I keep sitting myself down at this computer everyday with my fingers hovered over the keyboard.

It's not as if there hasn't been a lot of "life" happening around here about which I could write. And it's not as if my mind has not been whirling with questions both big and small.

I've spent time in the last couple of weeks gathering with friends suffering deep grief at the loss of a young father and friend to many in my community. I've also spent time in the last couple of weeks laboring over decisions regarding kitchen countertops, backsplashes and paint colors.

In the last two weeks I have watched two different baseball games while chatting with three different moms, each of whom have lost a child to cancer. In those same two weeks, I've also fretted over which size jeans to order and lamented the fact that the JCrew top I really wanted is out of stock.

In the last two weeks I've prayed every day for a young boy who is entering his last weeks in a seven year battle against cancer whose mama would just like to see him get to another day. And I've prayed for a boy's SAT score to be high enough to get him into the college I - ahem - he wants to attend.

Life is weird. It is mundane and ridiculous. It is important and profound.

My life is no different than anyone else's really. It's just that when I'm contemplating the meaning of life or of my haircut, I generally find myself here. And when life is that weird and that confusing, it's difficult to create sentences that don't sound either too trite or too dramatic. It's hard to find meaning when everything you do seems meaningless. Or maybe it's the opposite. Maybe the frailty of life reminds us that every breath we take, every decision we make, simply must have meaning. Anyway, I sat down to write many times, only to find myself stuck because absolutely everything and nothing seems different since I was startled by our friend's death. Everything. And nothing.

One thing I usually do when I feel the need to spill words on the page and they won't come is to read others' words. Normally, I always have a book at my bedside, but lately I just haven't gotten started on anything.

Oddly, though, last week, for the first time in all of 2016, I started and finished an actual book. It's a curious thing really. I had checked the book out of the library about three days before our friend passed away. I hadn't been to the library in months.

The book? Well, it was about dying. For real. It was about finding meaning in life - more specifically how to live life - when one is dying. And here's the thing, friends. We're all dying.

In When Breath Becomes Air Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old neurosurgeon diagnosed with cancer, writes,

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” 

Unsettled. Yes. That is how I've been feeling. I think the fact is that we all personalize tragedy. It's quite selfish really. I have watched my husband like a hawk in the past 17 days. I called him three times a day while he was gone for the weekend. I checked the calendar to wonder when we went to the doctor last. If a child mentions an ache or a pain, my hair stands on end. I don't normally do this. I am a mother, so of course, I worry. But I'm generally not this . . .well, unsettled. And perhaps when we are leveled by grief and loss there should be an unsettling. There should be a period of contemplating. There should at least be some semblance of thought given to why we are left here when others are not and what we're going to do about that.

In contemplating (i.e. fearing) the inevitability of death and grief in the past two weeks, I find I have focused too much on the fact of the moment of death and much less on the many moments that make up life. I'm certain that living with fear and doubt and hand-wringing are not how God intends me to live out these moments. I'm certain that this is not the beauty in the ashes that I have found it so necessary to seek in the aftermath of suffering that is so difficult to bear. So again, Kalanithi's words spoke to me.

“I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I'm dying, until I actually die, I am still living.” 

So what does this "still living" look like? Should we create a bucket list? Should we go skydiving or sail around the world?  Should we hunker down to read the classics or write that book we always said we would? Should there be some focused effort to fit it all in? Or should this "still living" be not so frantic? Should we simply commit to finding what the author did which was that  “life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form."?

It might sound pretty basic - that we ought focus on who we are and who we share our time with rather than what we do and accomplish. That we might focus on who the person we miss was and what his life was about rather than what happened to him. This really becomes for those left here a shift in perspective in the wake of grief. And I would imagine that for spouses and parents and siblings who have buried their loved ones, this shift might take months or years.

Still, I can't help but repeat over and over the sentence written by Kalanithi's young widow in the epilogue. She writes, "What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy."

I've been focused on the tragedy. The emptiness. The loss. And more personally, the fear and anxiety that there is absolutely no way that I can be sure to avoid tragedy for my husband, my parents, my siblings or my kids. In remembering those we've lost we ought do everything we can to focus on the beautiful triumph of the many moments of their lives and less on the moment of their loss.

So today, I hope to keep at it with the reading of books. And I know where I'll start. I'll start in a book whose pages are worn and underlined and highlighted. I'll start at the 8th verse of the 4th chapter of Philippians:

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is any thing worthy of praise, think about these things."

These things. These things are the people we've lost and the people we fear losing. Kate Rhoades, Mathias Giordano, Gavin Rupp, Tom Morrison. These people were not tragedies. These people and the relationships they formed were triumphs. The moments of their lives were true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and commendable, no matter how much we despair about how few those moments might have been. And as those of us left behind continue to "still live" even as we are certainly dying, we must think on these things - not on tragedy, not on fear, but on the triumph of a life filled with meaningful, beautiful, victorious moments.

Our friends were hope and goodness and joy and they were LIFE. They were all these things. Today, let's think on that.



1 comment:

Ann Woodruff said...

"Life is weird. It is mundane and ridiculous. It is important and profound." Thank you for helping us to focus on that for a few minutes....and for helping us to view the verse in Philippians as a bit of a filter through which to bring our thoughts. Once your child or any loved one has had cancer, lost a loved one with cancer, or as you have walked so closely with friends who have, there is a beauty in a friendship so thoughtful, prayerful, and loving. Thank you for this post.