Well, it is here. My grandma is dying. I mean, we are all dying. But the day of her actual death seems to be near.
It’s cliché to say, I know, but this woman seemed indestructible. Triple bypass. Cancer. Several heart attacks and stents. Knee replacements. Back surgery. She “beat” it all. She has a fierce spirit. She has a will that will bend whatever life throws at her towards the outcome she chooses (I know this isn’t true, but it often seemed to be true). But not this time. The end is coming.
It was sudden, but it wasn’t. Fever, chills, an episode in which she became so confused while driving that my grandpa was worried for their lives. She was admitted to the hospital. Possible gull stones and an infection? There was discovered a mass in her abdomen and a blockage. Whispers of pancreatic cancer, but hope would not allow us to say that. Transferred to the University of Michigan hospital. The doctor was almost certain it was cancer. Pancreas and liver were blocked and there was fear that it had spread. More tests and then this: surgery was not an option, the mass had encapsulated the ducts and blood vessels. Six to ten months they said.
I know she would fight if she could. That’s the hardest part. She said to me on the phone at the time: “I just don’t have anything in me.” I had to hold the phone away as I began to cry.
And yet she did have it in her. That was back in July and in the months since she has tried to fight, convincing herself she was getting stronger so she could endure chemo treatments. It was left to my mom and my uncles to break her heart and tell her that despite what her mind and heart were telling her, she was not getting stronger. She would not be able to do chemo or radiation. There was no “beating it” this time.
This is the woman who grew up with four brothers and was determined that she would do anything they could do. She would never ever call herself this, but she was a feminist before the feminist movement. She would kill me if she ever saw me write that. She was a wood-worker, a motorcyclist, a bus driver, a leather worker. She was independent to a fault. She broke down gender stereotypes like it was her calling in life. She wasn’t going to let anyone tell her she couldn’t do anything.
But there will be no Promethean moment here. No, she too is a finite human being, mortal and all that. Death stalks us all and no one can escape, not even my grandma. And that is as it should be.
She fell yesterday morning, hitting her head. My mother once again found herself driving my grandmother to the ER, an unfortunate but common routine the past five months. My grandmother has bleeding on her brain from the fall and an EKG showed that she was having a heart attack. By last night she was opening her eyes when touched, but not even trying to talk anymore. It could be hours or days/weeks.
I spent two days with her just a month ago, but it wasn’t enough. It is never enough. She was frail then, sleeping a lot. I tried to tell her how much I loved her and how much she meant to me. But I am human after all, too. Words don’t seem to do the job when trying to capture what those closest to us mean to us. I am angry about that. When I hugged her I could feel her ribs and spine on her back, something I’ve never felt on my stout grandmother. I held back the tears until I could get out of the house and then I just sobbed. “I love you grandma, I’ll see you at Thanksgiving” are the last words I will probably ever say to her.
And so I will preach a sermon here in a few hours—gathering with the body of Christ for what every Sunday is: a little “mini-Easter” in which we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26)—and then I’ll jump in my car and make the ten and a half hour drive back to Michigan with a heavy heart.
Growing up on a farm I encountered a lot of death. I had to learn how to deal with it at a young age. I grew attached to animals that we butchered or sold. I can’t tell you how many stray dogs we had that would show up one day and disappear the next. As a pastor I encounter a lot of death. As a pastor of a small and aging congregation I encounter a lot of death. But again, we’re all dying.
And yet I can’t seem to figure it out. Aren’t Christians, in the light of the resurrection and Christ’s triumph over death, supposed to be stoic and calm in the face of death? Aren’t we to face it bravely? We talk a lot of “dying well.” As Christians can’t we even taunt death?
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
— 1 Corinthians 15:54-55
And yet, and yet, is not death the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26)? Is death not something we are called to protest? A sign that the world is not as it should be?
One evening earlier this week I was reading one of Plato’s Dialogues aloud with a friend. I was troubled by my own talk and thoughts of “dying well” when realizing how stoically and brave Socrates faced his death compared to Jesus who trembles and agonizes and prays: “Take this cup from me…” Christ’s death is not calm and serene but is tortured and agonizing and bloody.
My grandmother lies in a hospital bed seven hundred miles away, surrounded by machines and professionals full of technical language. They will make sure she has the drugs needed to have a “peaceful” death. And yet she is surrounded by my family. Modern ways of dying may be dehumanizing, but for us humans left witnessing it, we are still left with trying to make sense of it, to come to terms with it.
For we are all dying. We are born, we live, and we die. Yet for those in Christ, death is an end and a beginning. Or, to put it another way, we die in order to live. This is the gospel promise.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the daed by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
I recall Ben Myers once saying: “And here is a mysterious thing. When you were baptized, you were baptized into what? Into Christ’s death. It’s as if the death and resurrection of Jesus has completely turned the whole picture upside down. By nature all of us are on a journey from birth towards death. But by grace, we are on a journey from death—a sharing in Christ’s death—toward birth, into fulness of life, into the joy and unbounded life of the risen Lord . . .”
We are all dying. But united to Christ, death leads to life. And so we die in order to live.
My grandmother, in her baptism, has already died with Jesus. Her death will sting. It will be an end to her life with us. I won’t take it as stoically as I ought. I won’t be as brave and as sure of the resurrection as I should. But her death will be a beginning for her. It will be the beginning of her life and union with God. For it is the triune God who holds her—who holds us—even now. The love of Jesus is stronger than death. And for that I will give thanks and praise the God who keeps us in life and in death.