A parishioner died recently, after a six-year battle with cancer. There were years when she held out hope that this cup would pass her by. Treatments seemed to work beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Then there were setbacks, blood tests indicating the cancer’s rapid return. New medications would again bring promise, and we would all celebrate. Then, more setbacks. Up and down like that for years. And finally, the reality set in – she was dying; even if a miracle drug appeared, her body could not take any more treatment.
Throughout these years, parishioners cleaned her apartment, brought her food and drink, and took her to the hospital and back. Her constant refrain was, “I don’t know what I would do without you. Thank you for everything. I am so blessed to have you in my life.” In fact, her last words were, “Thank you.” Among the many things people took away from their friendship with her during these last years was the life-giving way of gratitude.
In her final days, when she could no longer be left alone, parishioners took her into their home and provided for her care. She could no longer keep down even a spoonful of the softest, blandest food. The nausea and pain were relentless. But she found delicious pleasure in sucking on an ice cube made of Cherry Coke, and her special treat was to sip on a Cherry Coke Slurpee. Never mind that this, too, came up in the relentless waves of nausea. The treat was worth it, she said.
“It’s amazing how the simplest things, like a Cherry Coke Slurpee from a friend, give me so much pleasure now,” she told me in her weakened voice, just a couple of days before she died. “It reminds me of when I was a child, when the smallest thing could bring me the greatest joy and delight, all day long. That’s what this is like for me now.”
This reflection reminded her of how her grandfather, who also died of cancer, loved to go deep sea fishing in the prime of his life. But at the end, when she was just a little girl and he was dying, he told her that he no longer cared about the boat and all the expensive rods he had acquired. All he wanted then was to sit by a lake or river with his bamboo rod, a hook, and a worm. Heaven: the simplification of desire and the magnification of delight.
Toward the end, when the woman couldn’t talk much anymore, she still cherished having friends visit. What she wanted most was simply to lie in bed and enjoy her friends in quiet. I suspect this was awkward or uncomfortable for some of her friends – it’s hard for us to move from the active world of so much talking and doing, into the still and quiet world of simply being with a person who is dying. We naturally want to do something useful, hardly suspecting that our silent, loving presence is precisely the soul-enriching joy that the person has been craving all day long.
Just before she died, she told me in her ever-weakening voice that she was still wrestling with God. She said she knew it was almost time, but she wasn’t quite ready to go. It felt like one of those Gethsemane moments that make up so much of our lives, times when we struggle to surrender. It’s just so hard to believe that what God wants for us and will provide for us is “more than we could ask for or imagine.” At least, it’s hard for me. I’m terrible at Gethsemane moments. I tend to beg and plead with God for what I want and am sure that I need, and I rarely get around to the Jesus part: “Yet, not my will, but yours be done.”
This final Gethsemane moment for this parishioner was not so much an agonizing struggle as it was a gentler wrestling with God. She was finding joy and gratitude in simple things, and she wasn’t ready for that to end. Anyone who knew her could see plainly how she was showing us, even in her struggles, a more excellent way. I have no interest in romanticizing death, but my experience is that the dying often do this for us. The words of the Gospel so often become flesh in them: losing becomes finding, letting go becomes gaining, and weakness so often brings a peculiar kind of strength.
The dying so often show us, as this parishioner did, the way of dying before we die. She has me praying that my own Gethsemane moments might result in the simplification of my desire, an abiding gratitude, and a trusting openness to whatever comes next, whether in this life or in the life to come.