The month of January has been a tough one for our family. My 57 year old sister-in-law Nancy, is in her home confined to a hospital bed because uterine cancer has overtaken every part of her tiny body. She is dying.
Since she was informed two weeks ago that there was nothing left that doctors could offer her, she summoned her children ages 18-29 and they came to her side. But they are not alone in this. They are part of our larger extended family with cousins, aunts, uncles and even grandmother who hold vigil at her house every single day.
This may sound horrific, but in fact it isn’t. There is a sweetness about the days. When I am at home and not with Nancy and her kids, I want to be there- in the house with my nieces and nephews, mother-in-law, two other sister-in-laws, the dogs and the neighbors who bring banana bread and casseroles. We do things together that people never do anymore. We talk about things we have done together and we talk about the children that my nieces and nephews will have one day. We tell stories of Nancy and the silly things we did together. Her kids find photos of her, blow them up and put them around the living room. Nancy taught each of her children to knit (even her sons) and we knit together. My nephew made a coat for his dog, another made a hat for his girlfriend, one niece made a hat for herself and another sister-in-law made a scarf for her daughter. We watch movies and talk, knit some more and then eat.
My niece awakens in the night to help her mother to the bathroom and in the morning, the family begins their vigil again. Never have I experienced so much conversation, connection and warmth in one room. Nancy stays in bed and loved ones rotate through her room. She thinks clearly and speaks slowly. She smiles, tears up and then smiles again. “Are you afraid to die?” I asked her once. “Oh no,” she resolutely said. “I’m not afraid.” The look on her face made me believe her. She is not afraid.
At first I felt strange asking such a question. How do you speak with someone about something painful that will happen any moment? I believe that it may be harder for us who watch, to speak about death than it is for her. She is living the dying process. After she said she wasn’t afraid, she went on to tell us why. Because she loves God she said. She believes in heaven and she knows that she’s going there. That’s it. Her faith is simple and clean. And yet, something else is going on. I can feel it.
There is something palpable in the home and at first I couldn’t put my finger on it. It is a mysterious calm- almost joy- present that defies logic. After all, children are grieving. A mother is losing her daughter. And yet we are knitting and laughing. Not just us, but Nancy too.
So what gives? God, I believe. I have been close to death enough times to know that He shows up. Rather, we see Him when we didn’t before. It is a mistake to believe that God appears and then disappears. He doesn’t. He is present- always -but when we need to know that He is there, we see Him.
Nancy speaks of death with a transforming calm. She doesn’t have to but she does. She believes that God is present. Now I believe (as do my other family members) that God is present but our belief is different from hers. We believe in our minds and hearts. She believes in her gut. She is gripped with it and her life after this one depends on it.
The smile on her face is peculiar too. It is the look of trust in a God who will not disappoint her. She trusts that He will not abandon her children when she is gone. He will not let her suffer alone nor will He keep her from heaven. She trusts Him these days with all of her might because she chooses to. She could turn away and say that faith is a bunch of bunk for those who can’t handle life but she trusts because something deeper is a work in her. She is not controlling her trust- God within her is. He is infusing Himself amongst her cancer and taking over. He is quieting her because that’s what a gracious God does. He shovels beneath the doubt in our souls and packs in peace. This is what He is doing to Nancy.
God gives life and joy to those who are dying. We know because we see it.