Monday, February 14, 2011

The Power of the Grave

Remember, LORD, how short life is, how frail you have made all flesh. Who can live and not see death? who can save himself from the power of the grave?
Ps. 89: 47, 48

Well, I thought I would. I’d been trained to appropriate Scripture for my use, to regard it as God’s love letter to me. I’d never believed this passage applied to me; it was much like being forbidden to eat bacon or shellfish. Despite all evidence to the contrary—beloved pets that died, the unexpected deaths of students in automobile crashes, the abundant roadkill every spring, the seasons and their passing—I was not going to face death. Not any time soon.
My father died young, when I was 24, much too self-absorbed to think death might one day apply to me. My mother’s death when I was 47, however, sobered me a bit. I made sure I had a will and people who knew what I wanted done with my possessions. As contemporary author Haven Kimmel put it, I was next in line at Death’s ticket window. Still, until my cancer diagnosis eight years later, I didn’t really believe all this dying stuff was pertinent to me.
We had a guest choir at church yesterday, young women from a nearby university who sang lovely hymns for us. At Eucharist, one of their songs was about “going up yonder,” and I struggled not to cry. February is my worst month anyway—my father’s death, a bad breakup, the beginning of chemo, the first of the seizures that would claim a dear cat’s life. I can go on and on. It’s not that bad things don’t happen in other months; I’m just more aware of them in weather-bleak February. When, after church, a friend lightly asked, Tell me a story, I went blank. Because the one-year anniversary of a friend’s death is also this week, all I could think of was cancer, and I didn’t want to talk about cancer.
But Christians believe that cancer and death are not the end of the story. My rational mind may taunt me that heaven isn’t likely, but I still see my dear ones, going about their work. This morning it was abundantly clear that my mother was crocheting baby clothes and shawls, and I’m confident the friend who died last February is happily eating her way through the great smorgasbord of heaven.
I have a friend who is a seven-year survivor, but also realistic about death. She’s told her husband to look for her in moments of perfect joy after she’s gone, because that’s where she will be dwelling. For me, perfect joy will include a cat on my lap, a cup of tea, a pad of paper, and pens that won’t smear. I love Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted,” about being a visual artist after death. I tweak the closing line a bit, but I like the idea that when my frail flesh is gone, I shall write “the Thing as I see It, for the God of things as They Are!”

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