Recently I went to the hospital because a friend was dying of cancer. Actually, he had already passed about an hour before, and I was going to visit his wife, who was waiting in the room with her husband’s body for whatever came next. As my husband drove us to our destination, I inwardly cherished the opportunity to say one last goodbye to my friend, who had stood in as a father and friend when I really needed one. I also dreaded it, not knowing if I’d be ready to deal with what remained of him in his cold, defeated state.
As we navigated our way through the parking garage, I happened to look down and see a gold chain on the ground. Costume jewelry laying in a broken circle, the two ends of the clasp splayed inches apart. Part of me thought I should turn it in to the hospital in case it mattered to someone. Most of me was too distracted to care about the hypothetical sufferer of this loss. On I marched, unimpeded, thoughts racing forward until we hit the crosswalk connecting the garage to the main building. A few steps into the structure and I came across a second object in my path: a flower. A purple hyacinth blossom, broken off from its source but not yet trampled. I noted its presence with less attention than I had given the necklace. Hospitals, after all, are places where lots of flowers pass through the premises for lots of reasons.
Next thing I knew I had stepped into my friend’s room and was staring down at him in his bed much as I had a week earlier. At that point he had been enduring great pain in a way that was literally sucking all the life out of him and emotionally plundering the rest of us. Now, though ashen and still, he seemed at peace. Like he was sleeping, unmolested by affliction at last. As I talked with his wife, I kept glancing over at him, expecting to see his chest rise and fall beneath the thin gown. It didn’t. And I didn’t come up with anything profound and perfect to say to the woman who had loved me alongside her man, and who was now facing the impossibility of The Worst having happened after months of brave and tumultuous battle.
Soon it was time to say goodbye as she was packing up the room to go home. As my husband and I took our leave and retraced our steps back to the car, I ran across the gold chain again. Oddly enough, I felt strongly compelled to pick it up, as if it would speak to me. Squeamishness over retrieving anything from a parking garage floor won out, however, and it is only now that I retrieve the object with my thoughts.
Most immediately I feel a seeping bitterness that life on earth as we know it is so inherently broken. Even if things are going well and we remain free of that which eats us alive, we will be sundered from all that we love sooner or later. We will lose those golden strands that are dear to us, that have become part of our very being due to such intimate contact. We will be laid bare upon the concrete, waiting to trampled by suffering and loss. This is a reality so incontrovertible that we recite its inevitability in our marriage vows, however joyous. Death does all of us part. Period.
To say that this state of affairs sucks doesn’t even begin to touch the white-hot rage I feel if I think about it too deeply. Why evils both passing and permanent should befall us is explained by the texts I hold sacred. Adam and Eve ate the apple. Jesus promised tribulation would befall his followers until he comes back to fix it. I get it, but I don’t like it. In fact, I hate it, hate watching those I love struggle, even when they win their battle rather than lose it. In my adolescent heart I get angry at the God who allows such pain more often than I remember that it wasn’t scripted into the original, Edenic plan. That the Author has been doing something about it all along and will make it right in the end.
I see this in the faces of those who have played such an important part in my healing from some pretty severe emotional wounds. I see it in the steadfast commitment of my husband, who unconditionally supports me even when I’m critical or self-centered. I see it in my son’s ability to live in the moment, leave hard and scary experiences behind him and enjoy whatever good thing now has to offer. For some reason he seems to trust that life will keep handing him gifts, even if they are simple and small ones. Will he hold his deficits against God some day? It’s possible, but I don’t think so. He’s just not built to hold grudges.
If I likewise let go of my bitterness for an instant, the chain and the flower begin to look different to me. The chain reminds me that love—both human and divine—runs through my life like a golden thread. And though my experience of its flow might get severed by hardship, it will eventually come full circle, whether here or on the other side of eternity, where I know my departed friend resides. The flower reminds me that evanescent gifts are still worth having. We don’t resent flowers for perishing quickly. We value them all the more for the love they convey with all their might until they can no longer. Just like the ones who love us with all they have until they can no longer, and we must relinquish them to a Creator who we hope is as generous with his love as he is with his beauty.
I don’t know about you, but I choose to believe the narrative that promises that one day, that which is lost to us will be found, and that which has fallen will rise. For now, we have to be honest about the darkness that we do see, in order to see something more, something worth keeping close to our hearts while they still beat within us.
Rest in peace, friend. And may those who miss you most find peace—flowing freely and in full measure—too.