They had been married for 47 years, raised two boys and two girls, and seven grandchildren. High school sweethearts, married at age 20, and now, all those years of love, family and life had come down to this: she was in a Critical Care Unit with cancer. Nearly unconscious except for the slow, painful moans that forced their escape from her parted lips, she sought relief from her body’s agony. Cancer, like an evil spirit, was speedily consuming her from the inside out. Her name was Josephine. Only days before, though sick, they believed she had more time. Then her feeble health suddenly collapsed. Death was near.
Bob, her husband, called her Jo-Jo. And now he was bending over her contorted form, gently rubbing her head and calling her Sweetie and Darling repeatedly, like some incantation of hope. Too weak to speak, she would open her eyes and stare at him. Her lips would move, but there was no sound.
I was a volunteer chaplain, and I had been summoned by the hospital to see what I could do. These were always unpleasant, messy, hurtful moments where we earthlings seek ‘professionals’ to help us make sense of them. Disturbed, my own soul pleaded for leave from this heartbreaking moment of stricken humanity. Regardless of our life’s journey, this is our destiny; this is where life takes us. Our finitude is certain.
I noticed her fingernails still bore the evidence of a careful manicure, pink in color, filed ends, signs of a caring, thriving self, shadows of a time when life was full and vibrant. Her eyes colored a light bluish grey and her hair short, mangled, bed-worn. Bob wore oversized glasses and a poorly fitted hairpiece; his clothes draped his frail frame as if dangling from a hanger. Though retired for many years, he still elected to work for a large power company, as a consultant, for sheer enjoyment.
He whispered to me, "She is afraid to die." (My heart heard him say,"I’m afraid, she’s leaving me"). His eyes, behind the oversized glasses, began to fill with tears, and in a mournful, faltering tone, he pined, "She never complained about anything. She was the most unselfish person I have ever known. She always thought of the kids and me, never herself. I feel so selfish compared to her."
His hand nervously, adoringly stroked her head. Every so often she unleashed mournful cries of cancer pain; it was more than he could take. He rushed into the hallway, just around the corner, out of ear-shot, crumbled against the wall and wept. I found him and placed my arm around him. Words refused me.
Life is this. We don’t sail into the sunset on happy endings. Most of us will find ourselves, in one way or the other, in shattering, heart-rending scenarios like Bob and Josephine. This is the part of existence we spend our entire lives trying to repress and avoid. We’re only here for a short duration, and the end is as real as the beginning. We don’t want to hear it.
Poignant moments of looming death often transform the notion of everlasting life into hoped-for reality. There must be more. Life and love can’t end like this. Bob and Josephine’s love begs the question, why an ending at all? Doesn’t true love last forever? The poets and songwriters have lied to us. We come to the marital altar to have the officiating person promise that we’ll love each other ‘til death do us part,’ but we never really hear or consider that death does do us part. Something deep within us reaches for eternity, love like Bob and Jo-Jo’s, so tested and endearing, can’t simply be over. Isn’t that what we all want to believe? In our hearts we believe our love will never die, but sadly, in this life, death looks us in the face, we quiver in terror, as it rips both life and love from our grasp, daring us to do something about it.
My mind fought to resist this thought. Reality crushed me deeply. If there is no eternity, then life ends in a cruel joke. All the efforts to grow and mature; to overcome and refine; to become and achieve are, in the end, for nothing. Solomon had a point when he cried all was vanity. Our culture is mad with its attempts to hide from and bury this hard fact of life’s disturbing destiny. Everything we do, it seemed, was an effort to deceive ourselves, to ignore, deny, what I was witnessing in that hospital room. We just can’t accept something so dark, so depressing, and so fatalistic. But without exception, we will.
In that awful moment, I keenly felt God’s necessity. Only He could assuage this conundrum, only He could give meaning where my being found none. Only He could promise another try at life, another beginning. I had been taught that with God our ending means new beginning. If there was no God, what could I do or say to console Jo-Jo’s terror of imminent death, and Bob, with his unthinkable loss?
I decided to pray, to point them to hope. My mind wondered if I was only continuing the practice of denial and repression of death’s ugly confrontation. I prayed anyway. I touched her shoulder, said something about resting in God. I looked at Bob, his teetering form struggling to hold up under such heavy pain; I assured him this was not the end of the story, and I hugged him. I had stayed as long as I could; they needed time alone; I quietly said ‘good-bye’ and left.
Josephine died in the morning.
Greg Prout is father of three, grandfather of two, and has been happily married for 31 years to Mary Ventresca.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6606