BookTrends - Letters from the Land of Cancer
By: Walter Wangerin Jr.|Published: March 17, 2010 7:10 PM
We had just buried Phyllis’s father. The death had not been sudden. He had been an elderly gentleman, failing for a while, then dying neither in pain nor in disgrace.
After the other mourners had left the cemetery, I stood beside the woman awhile. She laid a pale rose on the cylinder hump of the coffin. Phyllis Falk: her fingernails were as translucent as the skin of her fingers, making the nails almost invisible. Her blonde hair, blue eyes, and closed, foreshortened mouth caused me to think of Shirley Temple, but gaunt and world-weary.
Finally the attendants couldn’t stall their duties any more.
Phyllis and I watched them crank the casket and her father down to the bottom of the hole. She held a hanky to her nose. I asked whether I could give her a ride home. Foolish question.
What else would she have done? I don’t remember why she was left alone. Where had Bernie gone—her husband of eighteen years? Well, maybe he expected the low, black Cadillac that had brought Phyllis to take her back to the church at least. But even the funeral car had departed without her.
She said yes.
I had a green Volkswagen bug. Only a slim space between us. I drove soberly into the city, and slower than the speed limits. Halfway home, I turned onto
Suddenly Phyllis slapped the windshield and screamed.
I looked over. Her face was enraged: the back of her neck blotched a furious red. She was glaring out at the shops.
“Phyllis! What’s wrong?”
“Those people!”she cried. “Those people!”
Yes. There were a few people walking the sidewalk with shopping bags.
“How can they just...go about their lives like that? How can they walk into stores and buy things and walk out of stores as if nothing’s happened?”
I began to understand. I didn’t blame her anger.
Mighty God, the world had just cracked. In her world (but to her that was the world). From the grave, through the city, a fissure was splitting the ground beneath her feet.
How could her father’s death not toll the great blue bell of the skies? Nothing would ever be the same again. Why didn’t these people stop and cover their mouths, subdued?
Her daddy had died.
Her life had been interrupted by death.
All things, all things on this natural earth had been shaken and changed forever.
Suddenly—in the midst of a life fresh and green and full of dreams—death intrudes. Your death. The real thing. Das ding an sich, as the Germans say: “The thing itself.”
And what may in the past have been a warning, perhaps a multitude of warnings, has suddenly become a dead-eyed decree. No longer is it the caution, “You will die.” Now it is the absolute mandate: “You are dying.”
And with that sentence comes “the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.”
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die. You shall not recover.’ ”
Oh, God! My God! What is left for me?
“My flesh,” shouts Job, stunned into the recognition that no consolation can serve him any more. Neither wealth nor status nor a good family nor even his personal righteousness
Protects against The Ending. “My flesh,” Job cries out, “is clothed with worms and dirt”—his flesh is a cloak of worms feeding upon the dirt of his corpus—“my days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope.”
Set your house in order!
When these are our conditions and our attitudes, when we remain unprepared for the Ultimatum certainly to seize us, then the death that interrupts our daily lives is monstrous. Fight against it with all your might. Hate it. Be filled with envy and anger for those who are still healthy. Wail, plead, beg, make deals with friends and with the Infinite. Sink into despair. Lie down in hopelessness. Die, then—even before you die.
Or else, prepare. Long before that final confrontation, prepare.
Herman Thomas tells me the story of his father’s passage into death.
Herman is a member of Grace Church where I spent nearly fifteen years as its pastor. African American, central city, independent, profoundly humble, profoundly dignified, deeply faithful, the members of Grace bore me up more than I did them.
I knew his father finally as a gaunt man, stringy and slightly bowed in the shoulders. His head was smaller than his son’s, his complexion not so rich and dark—a little powdered, it seemed, by a layer of sickness.
“I sat with him, Pastor. This day and the next one. He lay still. Straight up and down on the sheets. Didn’t say the first word. But I hummed. Kept it soft. Hummed in my nose. And I stroked his little hair. And didn’t matter if I sat in a hospital or else a house, ’cause Daddy made the room his bedroom and whatever the building, a home.”
Herman is a short, placid man. He sits with his hands fitted each to a knee. When he stands he’s no higher than my nose. Because of the earnestness of his messages, he raises his eyebrows when he speaks, puckers his forehead and widens his eyes. His expression is meant to convey assurance: Yes, yes, this is true and very important. Yet his natural smile gentles the persuasion.
“And then it was a shadowy afternoon when he came to die. Pastor, Daddy opened his eyes. His eyes roved around the room. Left and right without a turn of his head. Down and up. Then he picked out a high corner of the ceiling, up and off to his right.”
Herman’s sight goes inward. He is nodding, and all his features are softening.
“He never took his eyes down from that corner. He reached and took my arm. And then he talked. After days, the first time he talked.
“Daddy said, ‘Herman, you can’t see her. I’m sorry you can’t see her. But there’s Mama. She’s waiting for me.’ ”
Soon thereafter, a man of no complaint, fully trusting in the light of Jesus, closed his eyes again and died.
Nor did his son take sorrow from the scene.
“It was Jesus took him to the heaven of my Mama and his wife.”
It’s evening. All the church lights muted. People move forward from their pews to the railing around the altar. They kneel. They fold their hands and bow their heads.
A pastor meets every one of the worshippers who kneel before him. He places his hands on each bowed head and bends low in order to murmur to that one alone.
“Memento, homo,” he says: “Quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.”
The pastor turns to an assistant who carries a small metal box of ashes. Into this he dips his finger. Then, turning back to the worshipper, he draws in black two small lines, each intersecting the other. This is the cross which she shall wear out of the church and into the world again—the cross in the midst of her daily life. Here is a sign of Christ’s death, into which by his grace we may ourselves die. Here too, if we would accept it, is the sign of our own final dying, the death at the ends of our lives. And see? They have been made one. What have I to fear?
“Remember, mortal,” the pastor murmurs, defining the sign, expressing our need for the crucified Savior: “Remember: you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
This is Ash Wednesday. This is the ritual which my worship tradition has repeated year after year after year, allowing the cross to appear on our foreheads in private and in public.
How mournful. Oh, how depressing, do you say?
Perhaps. I won’t argue the mood of the moment. But I rejoice in its effect! For this is one way by which the church calls Christians to “remember” what is to come; to awaken even now to the End (“for night is flying”); to contemplate each his and her own iniquities and therefore to repent; to see and to believe that we shall, when we die, die into Christ’s victorious death—and so to hope.
All of which, you see, is to prepare.
More times than I can count, I’ve spoken the following words by the graves of members of my congregation.
Phyllis’s father lies in his shining casket which, under a floral bouquet, lies on the straps and the structure by which he will be lowered into the sheer pit below.
But first we must acknowledge this death—and therein, our deaths too.
The words I speak are meant to comfort Phyllis and the mourners gathered around the grave with us. Wind flaps the edges of our canopy. A whirling rain causes people to duck deeper into their coats. In order for all to hear me, I have to raise my voice.
Whether they are meant to or not, they change my soul, these words, enlarging my sense of death and, therefore, enlarging my sense of life. Because I must say them so often, because I say them in the heat of crises and certain emotions, they drive as deep as roots into me.
I’ve said them when there were no more than three of us beside a tiny hole in the ground. Three: myself, the mother of a stillborn child, and the child in a white casket so small I have carried it in two hands.
I’ve repeated exactly the same words for the young man shot to death by other young men. No reason. Mistaken identity. And for the old, and for the well-diseased, and for the deeply weary—so often, they have prepared also me to receive the news of my lung cancer without horror, without some other hopeless mortification. But with a certain valid equanimity:
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.