I am moving across the country in two weeks, so June, my best friend of 30 years, drove 300 miles to visit me this week. She took two unpaid vacation days to do it. We had to pack in quite a lot of memorable activity and talk in just a short day and a half, so we headed up the Columbia River Gorge to get started. The first day’s plan was: 1) hike, 2) soak in the mineral water at Carson Hot Springs, 3) eat at Skamania Lodge, 4) sit in the adirondack chairs at Skamania and talk till the moon came up over the gorge. Continue reading
That title is a headline from The Onion and it succinctly calls attention to the elephant in every room: we are all going to die. It’s not a topic we discuss much, but maybe we should, since it’s the one unifying experience of all humanity — indeed, of all life.
I am on a plane somewhere above Nebraska, flying across the country to see my mom. She has dementia. She is dying. We say that of someone we expect to pass soon, but in reality, it’s true for each of us; we are all dying and the fact is we don’t know how or when death will find us. I’m sitting next to a psychotherapist from Washington D.C. whose wife died of cancer this year. Death is hard on the living. Which is perhaps why we try so hard to avoid thinking about it.
I’m not afraid of death. But it’s easy for me to say that, because at the moment, I’m healthy and “too young to die.” If the plane’s engines suddenly stopped roaring and we plunged to the plains below, I’m fairly certain I’d feel afraid. Like most of you, I’m not afraid to BE dead — but I’m not too thrilled at the idea of dying painfully. Like you, I hope to go to sleep one night when I’m really old and feeling complete and simply not wake up, passing gently in the night.
I have a firm belief in an afterlife, confirmed by sacred experience. In fact, I look forward to that life after; I am spending my mortality preparing for it. Perhaps it’s just the transitions that make us nervous. Birthing is beautiful, but difficult and often dangerous, not just for the mother but for the child as well. We don’t generally think of dying as beautiful — at least not in our Western culture — but I suspect we’re missing something important by not recognizing the holiness of the transition from this life to the next. It’s easier to see as we sit by the bedside of a dying loved one who is ready to go, easier than dealing with the shock of the sudden or violent death of someone we love. It brings up the unanswerable question: would you rather know you’re dying, so you have time to say goodbye and get ready, or would you rather go instantly, to minimize the pain?
I have little experience with death first-hand. Much of my ruminations on the subject are theoretical. I am aware of the risk I’m taking to talk about it here, when so many of you have buried parents or children, siblings or friends. Please forgive any boorishness. But Death is on my heart lately because I am not prepared for my mom to die. Are we ever? As I was praying for her yesterday, I could not bring myself to ask God to heal her of her latest physical infirmities. She’s been in the hospital and the rehab unit for almost four weeks now, and Memory Care for months before. She can’t walk. She’s not eating. She’s just aware enough to realize that her life is no life. I wonder if she is trying to die, perhaps unconsciously, but intentionally. And what right do I have to insist she stay, just because I don’t want her to die?
The paradox of our modern world is that we can keep people “alive” indefinitely, but what does that say about our relationship with Death? We spend far more money on end-of-life care than on any other medical need. And for what? When does our regard for Life and our collective fear of Death become untenable?
My mother-in-law died well. She had colon cancer, which she knew would kill her without treatment. She went to a couple of chemotherapy sessions, then said, “No more. I choose to let this cancer take me.” And eight months later, it did. I asked her once, “Are you afraid?” She replied emphatically, “No!” And I could tell she was telling the truth. Toward the end, we could see a new clarity and light in her eyes, as if the veil was already lifted and she could clearly see the glorious path ahead. But that’s all conjecture. I only know that she died in peace, even joy, her life complete. She embraced the transition fearlessly, with faith and a humble eagerness. We mourned her passing, of course. We still miss her, years later. But her example of dying well will remain in my heart forever.
Believing Mormons have a clear, joyous narrative about Life and Death, which makes our funerals not-so-somber and our conversations about Death almost flippant. Some think we are unfeeling because our grief does not generally manifest in extreme ways. But the peace that accompanies our understanding of Death as simply one more transition in our eternal lives is real and soul-sustaining. Our grief is certainly just as real. But we hear enough and have enough inter-world experiences with our dead to make it all somehow bearable, even beautiful.
I have much to learn. Much to yet experience. Our stories of Death are important, the difficult as well as the divine. We will all die, after all, but it’s hard to talk about because we know so little of what’s beyond. I believe those who live well tend to die well, so maybe that’s all we can do. Maybe there’s no difference, really. All we can do, perhaps, is help each other live well and when the time comes, die well.
How would you describe your relationship to Death? What are your fears, your hopes, your experiences?
In the world of Harry Potter, a boggart is a shape-shifting creature that hides in enclosed spaces like closets or cabinets. When released, the boggart takes on the shape of its victim’s worst fear. At school, Harry and his friends battle boggarts that look like giant spiders, disappointed teachers, or bloody mummies; in one particularly poignant scene towards the end of the series, Molly Weasley confronts a boggart that keeps turning into each of her family members dying, in turn. I’ve got a boggart in my closet, and it seems to change shape too. Sometimes it looks like the crazy cat lady from The Simpsons, spouting gibberish and flinging cats at anyone who tries to approach her. Other days I think it might be Eponine, patron saint of lonely third-wheels perpetually stuck in the friend zone. Perhaps it’s Miss Havisham, moldering away in her wedding dress. Continue reading
My heart won’t stop hurting. I’m sure you’ve all heard the news that Kate Kelly and John Dehlin have been summoned to church court for their activities related to the Ordain Women movement and the Mormon LGBT movement. I’m not upset because I’m an ardent supporter of either movement. I’m upset because I firmly believe that every Saint deserves to have a voice in our community. I’m upset because I am so grateful to people like Kate and John who are willing to say “dangerous” things out loud, when so many of us want to, but are too afraid to. I’m upset because of the atmosphere of fear that enters into our faith community when this sort of thing happens. What can I safely say? What causes dear to my heart will be “approved” by my respected church leaders? Do I trust my own spirit to hear and interpret the voice of the Holy Spirit, or do I leave that solely to my leaders, who I am sure listen to the same Spirit? What do I do when those spiritual interpretations collide? This sort of conundrum causes all sorts of self doubt. Some walk. Sometimes I wonder if the best of us walk, and if my choice to stay is foolish or faithful. I’ll say it right here at the start, though: despite all its man-made quirks and flaws, I love the Church and am convinced it holds the power of full salvation. So I stay. But right now, it just hurts. Continue reading
When my husband Chris and I were dating he sent me a love note with this observation of my character. He wrote, “You are always striving for excellence and never quite attaining it.”
Happily, I knew already knew that Chris was a very literal person and what he probably meant was something more along the lines of “You do ambitious things with enthusiasm and still want to improve beyond that.”
But Chris’s first version was right, too. I know I am incapable of doing things quite as well as I hope to do them. All of us who are disciples of Jesus, if we are honest, are in the same predicament. We make covenants – and we’re still not as “excellent” at keeping them as we’d like to be. Continue reading