Monday, April 28, 2008

A quality of days

I've thought a lot about death today. I met with a medical researcher this morning and within about twenty minutes she'd told me about how her dad died a couple years ago, and I told her about my dad's death. We shared a few tears at the similarity of such loss. And I told her of the 19 year-old-student of the university where SK is also a freshman who died after being taken off life-support. On Saturday morning, the car he was a passenger in swerved into oncoming traffic, to avoid hitting a deer darting across the highway. "You're always told you should just hit the deer," SK told me when I talked to her, "but I'd have done the same thing--tried to avoid it. Anyone would." SK didn't know him well, though she'd met him a few times because he was good friends with her roommate. But still, she's been hit hard with it. They all have, SK and her friends. When I talked to SK yesterday, she and her friends were outside, laying on the grass, barely talking to each other, just looking at the sky.

Anyway, the medical researcher looked at me this morning, and said, "You really like to talk about heavy-duty things, don't you?" I kind of laughed. "I don't live in the shallows, that's for sure," I told her. So she asked me, "OK, then tell me, why did it happen? Because it just makes me so mad." And I nodded, thinking of my conversation with SK yesterday while she stared at the sky.

This is the first time the death of a contemporary has shaken my daughter's world. She's lucky that way, I guess. And she's asking the same question that medical researcher did, "Why?" He was a good kid, she told me. He loved Jesus a lot. At a prayer vigil held the night before he died, when his life was in the balance, other students had spoken of his faith, prayed fervently for the saving of his life. So she's wondering why God didn't do anything to prevent his death, why He let this boy--Dan--die.

I'm not a big fan of the question why, I told SK. There are many unanswerables in life, and SK, Dan's friends and family, the medical researcher--all of us--have run smack dab up against the most fundamental of them. We live and we die, and there's mystery in it. Until we know fully rather than seeing in a mirror dimly, we can't know. That's all there is to it. The Psalms tells us "Our times are in your hands, Lord," and in the end, we have to trust that. I know this sounds trite when I say it, and it barely helps. But I have to say there isn't help in the question of why, because on the other side of the question of why is the question of 'why not?' Why shouldn't we die? Why shouldn't we suffer? We live on this planet where there is sickness and disease and finally death, and we all have to face it, one way or another, at some point in our chronos.

It's hard to say this to a 19-year-old who's hurting, with friends who are grieving a big loss. Death is hard, and I'm not trying to sound cold when I write this way. Shoot, I've done plenty of my own grieving. I know, I know how it hurts. And the death of a healthy 19-year-old is certainly harder to understand and accept than the death of a 66-year-old, even one in such good health, he hadn't even retired yet. But we even put ailing 90-year-olds on church prayer trees. We can't bear to let anyone go--we have to have our white-knuckled-grips pried off the lives of our loved ones, no matter how old and ready for their home-going they might be. I'm telling you when I see that, sometimes I think, there are only two options when it comes to death: now or later. It's not a matter of either or. Not for me is living until I'm old and infirmed--I want to go home sooner than that. Really I do. Some days I can hardly wait, to tell the truth.

But this is not about me. It's about a young man who seemed to have his life ahead of him. Apparently, though, he lived his whole life. It sounds like he lived it well--lived it for Christ. And in the end, isn't that what we most want to have said about us? Not a quantity of days, but a quality? Not the length, but the depth and breadth of them? Isn't it? And in the end--whenever that is--don't we want to go with the Lord, too thankful to be sad?

Don't get me wrong. Grieve long and hard. I'm a believer in grief. Lean into it, I say. Pour your heart into it. Learn, as someone once told me about my dad, 'to live in the presence of his absence.' Take as long as you need to learn what that means. There's no time frame for grief, no matter what a calendar says. Sit shiva as long as you need, SK and friends. And hold onto the quality of days.

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