I am certain that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth nor any creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ, Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39).
For the last five weeks Val and I have perched on uncomfortable chairs next to her mum as she goes through the last stages of a cancer that right now seems imminently terminal.
It’s been a rigorous journey
And now she can’t speak at all or communicate her joys or even her pain. A couple of days ago she was able to squeeze our hands to acknowledge us. Now even that has gone.
It’s so strange, the death of a loved one. We all discover quickly enough, as we grow, that there’s an expiry date on our time on this planet, that sooner or later, we all journey to “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns” and yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone close. I read somewhere that it was like going upstairs and expecting another stair. You put your foot down and there’s a tiny tremor of surprise as you readjust to a new way of thinking of things.
And you never get used to it, the idea of someone you love being gone. Just when you think you’re reconciled to the idea, some spare moment, old photo, snatch of conversation, hits you all over again, and shocks you into awareness.
We still talk to her, and I’ve brought a guitar into the bedroom. We sing songs, pray. Val now sleeps alongside her, listening to her rasping breath, the whirr of the fan in the hot room. She sprays her lips with a gel, checks the oxygen cylinders next to the bed. We plug a new one in every four hours. She’s on a driver for morphine and so, presumably, exists in a relaxed cocoon of sleep.
What do you make of such things?
We took the decision to move in with her. Val quit her teaching job and I take a few days each week to continue working and I carry on writing. Each weekend I drive a couple of hundred miles, do my stuff and then drive back, but right now it feels like my real life is here, in this little house that has become a hospital suite.
Maybe we don’t have time for grief just now, just a busy schedule of meds and drips and listening. Long hours of listening.
Paul died at the hand of a Roman executioner. The last years of his life –and most of his amazing writings- come from that period, under the shadow of imminent death. And yet he claimed that even death couldn’t separate him from God’s love. Somehow, in these grey weeks, I have come to know a little of what he meant.
Because, as Mitch Albom said, so wisely, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” “Love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.” And if that is true in a human sense, that love is, after all, stronger than death, then it is also, profoundly true in a spiritual sense. I know there is no glory in illness. There is no meaning to it. But I also know that mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.
Here’s Paul again –in a passage that seems custom-written for where we are tonight- “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
You can’t really mock these moments away. Mark Twain said: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” It’s just a quip. It doesn’t really help. Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” It’s just a rather trivial ho-ho, to mask the moment. I think I’d rather listen to Paul, speaking out a prison cell, acknowledging that the most real thing about life was the God who created it, and the love that prompted its creation, and the love that will not let us go.
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us…”
God is for us. Don’t ever doubt it.
Love is the most real thing about us. And it’s forever.