I wrote this during the fall of '09, when several friends were facing what appeared to be the end of this mortal life. I post it here in love and honor for them.
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave.
Psalm 49:7–9, New Revised Standard Version
A woman I’ve known for a year is dying of ovarian cancer, which is one of the cancers I have. She has fought this disease with grace and determination, meeting one of her goals for survival—she has seen her youngest child graduate from high school. She’d hoped to live for his college graduation, but that will not happen. She is being treated at a famous cancer center here in the nation’s heartland, and the doctors are doing their best for her. But ultimately, they do not know how much longer she will be the bright presence we have known and loved.
She has shared her gifts generously with the group of women cancer survivors we are both part of. On my right wrist I wear three bracelets she has made, their crystals catching the sunlight. She is going to die, probably soon, and—after the surgeries and the clinical trials—there is nothing to be done about it but weep.
In remission myself, it’s easy for me to forget about the toll this disease takes, my own death waiting for me. You pay with your life, because, the psalmist says, that life is so valuable that we can’t amass enough wealth to stave off the end of it. What’s comforting to me about this is recognizing that our lives ARE valuable in God’s sight. The beauty of them is their very transcience, as the poets tell us. Each autumn the trees burst into a final glory of color before the leaves die and drop.
Perhaps that is all we can hope for, a last brilliant color before we fade. In the old rites of the Episcopal church, we prayed to make a good death, asked that death would not come upon us suddenly or unprepared. It may be that this final season of my friend’s life is a mercy, a chance for her to see death coming at her and to meet it prepared. I suppose that’s one good thing about cancer rather than a fatal car crash or a heart attack: whether we die of it soon or late, we know it’s coming. Cancer in this sense is a “severe mercy,” to use a term from C. S. Lewis. We think about dying and have time to say and do the words and deeds most important to us.
My bracelets remind me to pray daily for my friend who made them and for each person I know struggling with this disease. When my friend leaves this life, at least she will have left behind great beauty.