“Where O Death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?”
That was the litany that wove itself throughout the worship service at my church this Easter Morning.
And it can’t have been an accident that it came as I stand staring down something I’ve wanted to avoid for a while:
A fear of death.
Friends and long time readers know that 7 years ago my Mom died of lung cancer. And that it pretty much rocked my world. I was 24. My oldest was four months old. My husband was gone off and on just prior to her death and deployed for six months a month after.
I grieved hard and long. Longer than many were comfortable with. Some people told me that you have to get tough with yourself after about six months and not let it overwhelm you anymore. Some people just intoned in hushed words that “they were very worried” about me.”
It took time. Really, I find that grief is a lifelong thing. Even if the active mourning is more or less over, I still have moments and days where I grieve her. I suspect I always will.
All I know is that when she died part of my foundation was lost. One of the anchor points of who I am had drifted out of the world. As a dear friend of mine described it, I was “unmoored.”
One of the most important things I learned in that journey was that it’s ok to call a spade a spade. Death? Is bad. Grief? It hurts. Sickness and pain? It was not in the original plan for the world. I became increasingly frustrated with Christian messages that told me to redefine the bad things that were happening to me as GOOD things. I was supposed to wrap things up in a pretty little bow and say, “This was the hardest experience of my life, but it’s ok because I am stronger for it. Isn’t God good?” Or, “What a gift these trials have been to me because they have refined my faith.”
I could then and I do now vociferously get behind the idea that God was in ALL of it. That he was unraveling and unwrapping goodness even in the badness. That he was using the ashes of my decimated soul to bring about a new and different kind of life. That he could WORK all things for good. But I could not get behind the idea that all things–losing my mother, watching cancer take over her body, the grief and loneliness that turned me inside out–were BY DEFINITION “good.”
Fast forward five years and there is a third baby on the way and I am a nervous wreck because months prior I’d lost a babe to miscarriage and there is a lump in my neck and the doctor has just had to wikipedia the diagnosis.
The physicians and medical journals dither and dally about how to classify the kind of tumor that I had, but it lands in the ‘cancer’ category eventually. For the last two years I have been in various stages of living with the specter of paraganglioma. Initially it was diagnosed and I was jumping through hoops trying to find doctors who understood the disease. And then I was shuttled into a high risk group for pregnancy and told that labor could cause a hypertensive crisis and that I could not under any circumstances actively push my baby out. And I had an amazing doctor and the most beautiful birth ever but it was rife with uncertainty and fear.
And then I had the surgery 3000 miles away at an amazing but foreign institution and parts of it were so hard.
And then I was grappling with life after and loose ends and extra questions. At first they believed I had another tumor on the other side. And we were ruling out genetic causes. And one by one we crossed the questions that could be answered off the list until on this past Friday, Good Friday, in some capacity we could finally say, “It is finished.”
But still guardedness, caution, anxiety…. fear… hang about me. I want to be carefree and happy about the good news I have received, but the truth is. I am still scared. And I don’t want to be too happy only to find out that the journey isn’t over yet.
Furthermore, lately it occurs to me in a deeper way that I am a daughter–an only child–who lost her mother to cancer. Who sat by her side as tumors ate away at her… who watched the ugly stages of the progression of the disease.
And I am a woman who had cancer come knocking at my own door.
Stacked together, that’s really kind of huge.
My endocrinologist listens to me patiently. Answers my long list of questions. Affirms me for how much I have learned about my disease and how active I am in my care process. He tells me, “I will be the objective one who realizes you are a patient who is scared of cancer and scared that this will come back. We will talk things through together.”
I want to reject it outright and tell him that I have done my darnedest to be objective and to write my questions and present myself outside of that fear.
But I swallow hard and realize that he is right.
So I sat this morning and I listened to my pastor say over and over again, “Where O Death is your victory? Where O Death is your sting?” and I tried to find my place in it. But instead I felt the fear.
I am a believer. I believe in the resurrection. I believe in the redemption of all things… Of me and my heart…. The redemption of the ugliness of things like grief and death and disease. I believe that I will see my mother again.
But death? It stings me. I have felt the raging ache of loss at my core. I have cried animal like sobs and lain awake at night re-living my mother’s last days. I know what it is to move through life with a gaping hole where she should be.
I fear death. Though I know if it comes to me… If any of the subsequent aches and pains that I have that scare me enough to go to the doctor, or if any of the scans that I have come back and read that this disease or another kind has come knocking at my door and this time I am not able to stave it off…. I know when the inevitable comes that I will be with Jesus and it will be the most glorious of glorious days.
But I also know my children will know the ache of life without a mother. And I know that if I can anticipate it’s coming I will grieve the loss of time with them, with my family and time in this beautiful, aching world.
I know, though I haven’t wanted to look at it up to now, preferring instead to keep it in mental generalities and spiritual platitudes, that I AM afraid of death.
I’m just not sure what to do with that right now. I want to say with Paul and the Psalmist and my pastor, “Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?”
Right now though I am grappling with the enormity of losing my mother to cancer and then staring it down myself.
Incidentally my other pastor preached the Good Friday sermon. He asserted that as Christians, we are more free to allow ourselves to feel and express our grief, our sadness, our hurt, and our fear because we know in the end there is victory… Because we know that what undergirds us always is Christ’s victory over sin and death. We can feel it all fully because on the other side of that darkness there is hope.
So maybe, in some backwards way, if I let myself sit here where I am… And if I give myself the chance to do the work and process it, I am still grasping firmly to hope.
In the midst of the fear and the grief and the hurt… In the midst of the enormity of living on the other side of all of this. In spite of the fear and the sting I DO feel it is the hope that will allow me the peace and the defiance to say those words to death. Even if this Easter Day I feel the fear more than the victory.