We were never meant to understand...
Last night I was reminded that there is another language that I am not fluent in, that none of us are fluent in: the language of grief, of death, of sorrow. Words like “bury her son,” “courageous teenager who battled disease all his life,” and “leaves behind his parents and teenage sister” – those kinds of phrases ought to be used only in the movies. But this is no fictional account.
Last night my dear friend, Suzanne, lost her son to complications from devastating, inexplicable, unnecessary, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. He was only nineteen years old, but he had fought a long, brave, and painful fight for ten years. Suzanne had taken him to countless doctors’ appointments, kept him home from school for countless days to give him priceless and boundless love over these long years. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for her to watch her son suffer for so long. I cannot imagine how much she prayed for his pain to be taken away and for him to be able to get up and walk, run, play, even slam the door and drive away to nurse his teenage angst and wounds in the arms of gentle and caring friends. But far more than that, I cannot imagine how horrific, deep, and inexpressibly acute her pain was last night when she felt his spirit get up, walk away, run, play with the angels, and close the door quietly, but firmly behind him, leaving the angst, wounds, pain, and crippling effects of disease forever.
When I read the email last night announcing his passing, I wanted to believe it was written in Swahili, and my brain’s translation into my native English was amiss. But no one could possibly be that bad at translating; not even my tired, weak, tear-filled eyes could misread such bad news. I immediately cried out: "Lord, have mercy on Suzanne, on Carolyn and David, John’s sister and father as well. Give them the courage and the room and the support they need to grieve openly, fully, and unapologetically. Give them comfort, peace, and the presence of dear friends bearing gifts of food, tea, and quietness of spirit so that they will not be hungry, thirsty, or alone at this unspeakably difficult time. Kyrie Eleison."
When the first wave of sorrow receded and I was able to dry that first outpouring of tears, I remembered something I’d read last month on the perpetual calendar above my kitchen sink. “The twists and turns of life have a way of reminding us – we aren’t home here. This is not our homeland. We aren’t fluent in the languages of death and disease. The culture confuses the heart, the noise disrupts our sleep, and we feel far from home. And you know what? That’s okay.” The word that best describes my darkest, saddest, most disquieting moments is “homesickness.” I find myself longing for a home I’ve not yet been to, but I feel certain that it’s gotta be better than this one where I must watch a dear friend mourn the loss of her son. It’s gotta be better than this one where I must watch, love, and support two families that are in a pitched battle against the very aggressive enemy known as childhood cancer. It's gotta be better than this one where I am watching helplessly as a local homeschooling family of five nurse their mother back to health after she underwent surgery to remove stomach cancer earlier this week. There’s gotta be something better than watching crowds of tsunami victims wrestling for food and water that is tossed from helicopters. There must be a place where there are no words for “tidal wave, famine, earthquake, transplant surgery, suicide, and alcoholism.” There must be a country where translators shrug their shoulders and shake their heads in obvious confusion when words like “abuse, suicide, cancer, and roadside bomb” come up in conversation. There must be a country where flags will never fly at half mast and mothers do nothing but dance with their children. That’s the homeland I want to call my own and long to inhabit.
During the Christmas holidays, Steve and I attended a rather large and festive benefit dinner at a local hotel. There were several bands performing that night, none of which I was familiar with before that night. One group called NewSong performed a song entitled, “Arise, My Love” that had the following words as its chorus: “Arise, my love. Arise my love. The grave no longer has a hold on you. No more death’s sting, no more suffering. Arise, arise, my love.” As the lyrics of the song drew the word picture of God the Father looking down at His son who had died and was in the tomb for three days after the crucifixion, I recalled the scene from “The Passion of the Christ” when the enormous tear fell from heaven and the earth split open because of God’s sorrow.
Although that song was conceived as an Easter hymn, it seems equally fitting now as I think of the death of Suzanne's son. As I allowed my mind to wander heavenward and waxed poetic in my thinking, I saw God looking down into a quiet and darkened room as John lay in bed last night at the Westchester Medical Center in New York State. As he struggled to breathe and Suzanne listened alertly for each rattly inhale, I heard God speak out of the silence into the ears of that long-suffering, lion-hearted, exhausted, hungry, and homesick teenager, “Arise, my love. Arise, my love. Disease no longer has a hold on you. No more pain’s sting. No more suffering. Arise, arise, my love.” Those are words we can all understand.
Bye for now, John. Save a dance for me.
Suzanne, I love you.