I have so many thoughts I want to flesh out in writing–some feel like mountains to scale, some like pebbles to point out. But there’s a weight I’ve carried since Chris died, and I think Holy Week is as good a time as any–maybe the best time–to articulate more about this difficult burden: the experience of Chris’s physical suffering. His suffering unto death.
I wonder sometimes if it seems to people–to people who weren’t with him in his last weeks and days–that Chris’s suffering was characterized by peace, even faith, an acceptance of death, maybe a vision of what was to come. I can’t say that there was no vision, no measure of internal peace, no confidence in God’s presence. I don’t know what was happening in his spirit at the end. I can only say what was manifested to me.
When Chris found out he had cancer, his life, as I see it still, flamed out into something transcendent, like shining from shook foil. He was Chris, but he was Chris on a different plane. He embraced–not just hugged, but embraced–every person he came in contact with. He got out of the car in the morning carpool line to embrace the head of the kids’ school. I remember watching another friend awkwardly receive Chris’s embrace, giving him a few pats on the back like, OK man…love you too. Chris wanted people around all the time, to pray, to talk. He wanted cell phones put away. Every evening he set up an icon on the rug by the fireplace, lit a candle, burned incense, and kneeled to pray with whomever was around. He wanted relationship with people and relationship with God.
Then his belly started to swell. He became uncomfortable and tired. It was harder and harder to get around. He didn’t have energy for people. He began to retreat, from the front porch to the living room, to his office, to our bedroom. The flame was diminishing. He was becoming just a man again, a faithful man, a praying man, but just a man, in pain.
He remained an intentional, faithful, meditative man in the hospital. For a while. He really couldn’t read, so he would listen–to taize songs, to a friend reading the lectionary Scripture passages, to another friend chanting the Psalms. He didn’t pick up his phone except to listen to these things. He wanted to remain connected not to devices but to the people in the room. I would read him texts he’d get, which he did relish.
Then one day he turned on the TV. About anyone else this would be hardly worth noting. But those of us who were spending time with Chris then knew that a real shift had occurred. He watched hours of Storage Wars and Pawn Stars each day (wouldn’t have been my go-to’s, but I celebrate our differences). Chris’s strength was gone. His mental energy, his spiritual energy, certainly his physical energy. All he could do was remain.
Maybe this is a surprise to no one. Maybe no one would have expected anything more or less. But I see now that there was a kind of luminescence around the idea of death in my own mind, or, more specifically, the idea of Christian death. As if some of the glow from that initial flame would crown his head or be on his lips like hot coals. But there was no wisdom or wherewithal left in him.
Those last days, once Chris was in the ICU, were the steepest decent into the valley of the shadow. It hurts me so much to remember. I remember, then feel somehow a guilt that I let it be that bad for that long, those days. Guilt for not understanding or believing how desperate his body was to be released. Then I remember even harder and recall how the days played out, what we truly didn’t know, what I couldn’t have done differently with no hindsight. And I remember where Chris is now, and that he’s OK.
But my point is that he was in the valley of the shadow, and the journey ended in death. The journey ended in Chris descending, crying out for mercy, and falling, crumpled on the valley floor. There was no triumph. The flame died out. The flame was killed. Chris was defeated.
I’m not saying anything about what has been won for us in Christ’s resurrection. I’m not saying anything about the great opening into ultimate life, about the light on the other side of the divide–the light that can’t die. I don’t mean to be foolish in disregarding that reality for now. But I just need to look at what we can see here for a moment. We can only see the descent, the battle that takes place on this hard ground, and who wins that battle. It’s a fearful thing to behold. I can only imagine what a fearful thing it is to experience.
As Christians, our faith is in the Resurrection–our faith is in what we can’t see, and that faith buoys us through this life lived on such hard ground. We keep our eyes fixed–or try to keep them fixed–on eternity. But before Chris got sick, something had been missing in my understanding: Dying is a fearful, unceremonious, merciless thing. While I know the experience must vary between people, I feel compelled to state this clearly. And I wonder, Where is the meaning, where is the comfort for it found?
I had breakfast with one of our best friends last week. As I processed some of this with her, she said, “Sometimes I think maybe the answer, or the comfort, is simply this: Christ on the cross. No words about it, no commentary. Just Christ suffering and dying on the cross.”
And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, Jesus began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me….”
I can’t say for certain that Jesus was afraid of his death. But I think he was. At the least he was in agony at the prospect of his suffering. He fell on his face, tormented, pleading. He didn’t want it, presumably because he knew how awful it would be. He knew it would be, quite literally, unbearable, unendurable. Death would kill him.
Some things don’t need fleshing out. Or their fleshing out has already happened; they just need to be seen.
Christ on the cross. Christ on the cross.