Though it is the season of rebirth and renewal there has been a lot of sickness and death swirling in and around my life this spring. This isn’t unusual for me, as many of you know, as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death all the time. In pastoral care work, in hospice work, death is lurking nearby constantly, often accompanied by its best friend, illness. And though I am well acquainted with those words from Psalm 23, on everyone’s list of Biblical Greatest Hits, I actually do fear some evil. A lot of the time I wonder just what the hell is going on.
Why so much sickness? And why, in recent times, so much truly catastrophic sickness? People aren’t getting the little cancer scare, they’re getting the “Stage 3-4” shitty news. Last night while I was working on my sermon I read that Rachel Held Evans, whose voice and religious writings I have admired, had died. She was 37 and she went into the hospital about a week ago with flu symptoms and a UTI. The meds they gave her caused seizures … coma … brain trauma … death. She had two little kids, she had important things to say, she lived a good and altruistic life. Dead at 37? Wtf?
Is our world killing us? Or is it the other way around and now we are coming full circle? All of the toxic sludge and indifference and wanton consumerism and greed generated by us seems to have created an environment that is hospitable for every imaginable little bug, but not for us humans. I wonder sometimes if we are the pestilence and we’re being eradicated in a kind of slow-motion cleansing. Is there evil lurking in there somewhere? I think so. In the hearts and minds of the people who pepper our food with the pesticides that leech into our water and ground and fall down on our heads in the rain, giving us cancer. In the corner offices of the pharmaceutical giants who send rivers of opioids into our communities, creating a generation of junkies. In the mindset that every bad feeling, every discomfort is diagnosable and that there is a perfect pill to make us well. These evils I fear.
In recent weeks it’s felt like I can barely keep up with the prayer requests. No matter which direction I turn there is someone there who is very sick or news of a recent death: a friend’s brother, dead at 59; a friend in her 50’s with advanced cancer; a friend’s brother in his early 60’s being admitted to hospice care.
Truly I did not come here this morning to pull a blanket of misery over your day. There are no answers to life’s most pressing question: what the hell? There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason when it comes to life and death and the sickness that often moves us from one to the other. And certainly the dreary weather this spring has not made things easier.
Is there hope? I have to believe. Otherwise, why? What for? So we can exhaust ourselves, rack up debt, buy a bunch of crap, spend our nights looking at a screen, pop a prescription med and try to sleep, then do it all over again tomorrow?
What’s the point? I don’t know … the Grand Canyon, the unfurling fern, a baby’s chubby fingers, the softness of a lover’s lips. The Sunday Times, a genuine hug, clean sheets, the curled-up dog. Blueberry pancakes with butter and maple syrup. When someone holds the door. Watching your kid figure it out; the constellations. Bookstores, Redwood trees, naptime. Grilling season, campfire, the view from the top. Swimming, french fries, the sound the peepers make in the spring.
It’s what’s not known, I think, that makes the whole shebang worth the suffering, worth the pain. It’s all the magic that dwells in the unknown, in the not knowing, in the never, ever being able to know.
The other day I sat vigil for a while with a woman who was dying at the hospital in Rutland. This is a hospice thing; when someone is without family we try to line up people in shifts to sit with them so that they don’t die alone. It’s nice. No one should die alone in a hospital.
I had not met this woman previously and when I went to be with her she was already unconscious and her breathing was a bit labored. I try to imagine, when I enter a situation like this, what the person was like when they were not in a hospital dying, when they were young. I try to figure out who they were, what they loved, how they spent their days. I chat with them, ask them questions, sing to them and I usually rub their hands and feet. It seems that no matter what state we’re in we all love a good hand massage.
When I pulled back the covers to rub her feet I saw that she had perfectly painted toenails, bright pink. And I thought … well, girl, you’re ready for whatever party awaits on the other side, well done. And though she was deep in the mysterious well of neither here nor there, her breathing changed just enough to tell me that she was enjoying my hands on her feet. A simple act, really, moving a person out of this world and into the next, with a bit of love, a bit of shared grace. It’s a two-way street, though, birthing the dying into their next realm; the gifts I receive are treasure, too.
When I was done I covered her pink toes back up, greeted the person who came to spend the next two hours with her, then walked out into the rainy day, grateful to be the very most simplest thing of all: alive, still.