I don’t sleep well. It is one of the unwelcomed side effects that has come with the cancer. Sometimes, when insomnia strikes, I lie in bed making up silly songs or having serious conversations with God. These moments are comforting, a nocturnal gift. But sometimes, I examine my life, the mistakes I have made, the powerful regrets for what I wasn’t brave enough to do. Those moments become difficult. To clear my mind, I will get up, walking the darkened rooms of my home much like a phantom in the night. But as I often find, there is a clarity that accompanies the darkness with no distractions, nothing to divert my attention from my feelings. I have come to understand that silence is never quite silent. There is always something whispered in the stillness. And it is here that I have explored what it means to live.
We tend to be greedy about life when there are limits placed on it. Bounty always triggers something within us that allows us to take the banquet table spread before us for granted. Only the threat of starvation forces us to pay attention, to do the necessary foraging for substance that insures survival. But in the process of digging deep and tapping into our resources, we learn something about ourselves and our world. Sometimes, we even get a peek behind the curtain of our own hearts. And so metaphorically speaking, being sick has made me aware of how precious time is, that each day is a gift to be enjoyed.
I have been in academics all of my life, so I tend to like answers, and I continually search for the right one, the perfect word or phrase to fill in the blank. My pragmatic side is often at war with my spiritual side as I explore deeper meanings to circumstances. And experience has taught me that curiosity isn’t a bad thing, especially if it leads to knowledge.
I have lots of unanswered questions about death. Let’s face it: doctors will outline treatment, control symptoms and prescribe drugs, but they never broach the “D” word. And yet, more often than not, if you have a life threatening illness you want to know what the end of your life might look like. Being sick doesn’t make me unique: our bodies, the physical presence to which we become so fiercely attached, is programmed to self-destruct. At diagnosis, I bristled at the label of terminal in relation to having Stage IV cancer, but I soon realized that we are all terminal, since none of us knows when our return ticket will be validated.
Quite frankly, the subject of death terrifies most folks. I understand. The mystery has hung in the air, chased me around for almost two years now. But I am not unique. Even the Biblical prophets knew little about what awaits us when we cease to exist in physical form. And while Jesus promised us eternal life as He left this earth to prepare a place for us, He didn’t go into much detail, as though it was some marvelous secret, a prize reserved for the faithful. And so we wonder.
I have prayed for some insight, a privileged glimpse into this universal mystery that nags at all of us. And oddly enough, it came to me as I was cleaning out my closet, organizing my many pairs of shoes into neat rows. I was particularly pleased with the project, filled with pride over what was mine. Given the current circumstances of my life, it felt rather shallow and foolish. But the understanding that came during that moment, was nothing short of a Divine gift.
So here was the real epiphany for me. When I breathe my last breath, I won’t have lost my battle to cancer, or whatever else is plaguing my body, because the disease dies, so really, I will have defeated the beast. That makes it the ultimate victory. And while death brings about the stark reality that physical healing is not possible for anyone who is sick, it allows us to truly remember and honor the person’s existence, which in retrospect seems like one big marvel. Life suddenly feels miraculous.
In the end, when we face our Maker and exhale our very last breath on this earth, what we owned will not matter. What we did or experienced won’t be important. What will remain is the answer to the most basic of questions: how did you love? Because, you see, in the end, love wins. There is this beautiful, loving God, who crosses all dimensions of time and space to find you, to take you by the hand and lead you home. That’s the real deal. And it is all any of us need to know.
Until then, time continues to be precious and important. Most certainly, illness has taught me to be present, to live each moment in gratitude. And as I greet each new day, I am, most certainly, hopeful.