life and death
This summer, I opened the pages of Nina Riggs’ memoir on living and dying, The Bright Hour, the same day that I walked into a cancer treatment center for the first time in my life. I’d waited for the publication of this book after reading about her embrace of daily life in Greensboro, N.C., as she faced a terminal diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. During the short period chronicled in the book, the author watches her mother and her best friend Ginny die of cancer: To say that Riggs — and here I just have to call her Nina — has a familiarity with grief is a bit of an understatement.
I’m a hospice volunteer. I visit several patients each week, just sit down and chat about stuff. I do it primarily for me – it’s who I am, how I’m wired, and I suspect that I get a lot more out of it than the people whom I visit. They share some of the most poignant and difficult and joyful moments with me. And their final days.
I had a birthday over the weekend, and I was reminded of a funeral joke. (OK, so this is a little weird, but hang with me for a moment.) Here’s the joke:
Three older guys are talking about what they would like the minister to say at their funerals.
“Well,“ says the first man, “I hope the minister stands in front of my casket and tells everyone that I was a good man who loved his family.”
The second man says: “I hope the minister stands in front of my casket and tells everyone that I tried to inspire others with my life.”
The third man thinks for a moment.
“I hope the minister stands in front of my casket and says, ‘Wait, look! He’s still moving!’”
Yeah, bad joke. But it touches on something important nonetheless.
We need to keep moving.
Let me tell you about Steve the neighbor.
When my sister and her family moved some years ago, they quickly learned that they had a lot of retired people as neighbors. Steve lives next door, a former postman who had to retire because of a balky hip. Big and strong, a little rough with the language — all part of his charm.
Steve and two retired buddies on the street spend a lot of time together, grilling together, helping each other through the many challenges that come with getting older. And if anybody needs assistance with anything, they are there to help.
They often say: “We’re neighbors. It’s what we do.“
Steve knows when my sister’s children get home from school, so on snowy days, he’ll rev up the plow and clear her sidewalk and driveway so they can get through without getting stuck. He does it without prompting. Anything else I can help with? The garage door is shimmering? There’s a shrub that needs to be dug up? Be right there with my buddies.
You know those people who make you feel better just because you’re around them? How their upbeat attitude rubs off on you? You leave them with a smile on your face? That’s him.
As my brother-in-law puts it, Steve is a perfect neighbor. Concerned, but not nosy. Willing to help, but never pushy. No payment is accepted. The feeling that they’ve helped someone is thanks enough.
They’re neighbors. It’s what they do.
For some months now, I have been ruminating on the writer John Podhoretz’s eulogy in Commentary magazine for his sister Rachel Abrams upon her death, from stomach cancer, at age 62. Commentary effectively being the Podhoretz family house organ, and the Podhoretzes effectively being the mythological family of the origin of neoconservatism, the essay would be of interest to anyone interested in cultural and religious sociology — or at least to me.
I, too, come from a family that has also tended to think of itself in somewhat mythological, contrarian terms — This is what Langstons are like — so a meditation from the heart of another large, bustling family is an immediate and natural draw for me.
But lay that all aside. The eulogy wins, and haunts, because it is the passionate remembrance of a sister by her brother. Despite their being part of a prominent East Coast family, its focus is relentlessly on the small acts of family and home that transfigure quotidian existence. Podhoretz dwells lovingly on Rachel as a housewife, a lifetime foul-mouth, an exuberant and dedicated mother, an artist, and finally a writer who let loose with political commentary in her late fifties as online blogs began gathering steam.
“I loved you, Rachel,” he concludes poignantly, in words I could read over and over. “I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.”
So much of that poignancy is derived from direct address to his sister, who is no longer there to receive it. Having just hit 45, Dante comes to mind: midway-through-the-journey-of-our-life-I found myself within a dark wood for the right way had been lost. Who can know how our days are numbered? The lesson for me is that I should tell of how I love my brother John, even as he lives.
How’s this for an unlikely scenario? One of the characters in Keith Huff’s new crime comedy, Big Lake Big City, is a petty criminal named Stewart who ends up not quite dead after a screwdriver accidently gets embedded in his skull. If the doctors try to remove it, he will die; if they leave it in, he will die. But somehow he isn’t dead yet. For a few days he walks around in a liminal space between life and death, more like a walking corpse than anything else. The sign of his violent demise is there for all to see but he manages to hide it under a Shriner’s cap. A pretty funny sight gag because you have to ignore that fact that the hat is kinda floating off kilter slighter off his head in order not to know something is terribly wrong.
Big Lake Big City is having its world premiere at Lookingglass Theater in Chicago this summer. After seeing the show and interviewing the lead actor Phil Smith for Voices of Peace Talk Radio here at Raven, I couldn’t help but see parallels to another unlikely scenario: a crucified man is resurrected with the marks of his violent death on his body for all to see. I’m pretty sure that Keith Huff did not intend to write a Christian allegory, but the themes of life, death, and resurrection reverberate through the play. Oddly enough, I think Stewart’s story can function as a parable of sorts for understanding the radical shift in the human relationship to death and violence that was made possible by the resurrection. Stay with me, now!
My friend Mike died last week.
We were the same age. We grew up together in Marinette in northeast Wisconsin. Worked our way through Boy Scouts together. Played at each other’s houses. Studied in the same classrooms. And then, over time, we drifted apart. Until this past year. That’s when I learned that Mike was dying of cancer.
In less than 12 months, we re-established a friendship and Mike and his wife, Nancy, taught me amazing lessons about living with the prospect of dying.
In our initial contacts, Nancy wrote of Mike:
“He is doing well with his treatments. I am amazed, each day, how well he handles this journey we are on. Never once have we asked ‘why us?’ We feel so blessed that we have each day to love each other and enjoy our retirement one day at a time. Not everyone is so lucky to have a long goodbye with the one they love.“
Nearly eight years ago, professor Richard Lischer got a call on his cell phone that would tear at his heart and test his faith.
It was his grown son, a successful lawyer, telling him his cancer had returned.
The ensuing 95 days in which Lischer — a man used to offering pastoral advice to others — stood by his son, Adam Ewers Lischer, as he lost his battle to cancer is now the subject of an eloquent memoir, Stations of the Heart.
Grief as the subject of memoir is now commonplace. But this volume, written by a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School, conveys not only the anguish of grieving families, but also offers testimony to a faith that is tested but survives.