Our nine-month-old twins are sick and the batteries in the swing are dead. No one’s going to get any sleep at this rate, so I volunteer to run out for batteries. On the way I to the store I call a friend whose father was recently diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer. She tells me her father believes he’s dying; all of his relatives, save one sister, have at one time or another had cancer.
I called this friend because I wanted her to know I care, but also because parents with cancer are right up my alley. My Mom is 4 years into remission from non-hodgkins lymphoma and I have several other close friends whose parents have died from cancer.
Died. Dead. Like my swing batteries. I think about it as I hang up, get out of the van and head toward Walmart to buy some more “life” for my machine.
Cancer. “His whole family,” she’d said. I think about my own family as I cross the parking lot. My family littered with cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure. I wonder how long it will be until I’m diagnosed with something? Until John and I drop everything to head to the nearest teaching hospital hoping, praying to buy more life for our “machines”?
Crossing a dirty mound of mulch in the barren parking lot I suddenly feel the urge to run, jump, skip. It occurs to me that I’m not dead, not dying. I’m alive and the bleakness of my friend’s father’s diagnosis makes the joy of my own life incredibly clear. My heart-pumping, blood flowing, running, jumping life surges within me and I wonder how I can live so unaware of it so much of the time?
* * * * * *
I remember a similar thing happening when I worked as a chaplain. One of my first on-calls found me sitting with a woman and her deceased husband. His body was covered with a sheet, his head exposed. He was recently dead. Enough so that his wife still caressed his hair, his face and kissed his lips as she talked about his life. I had a difficult time staying in that room. It was one of my first experiences with death. I don’t remember being scared or weirded-out, but I do remember wondering, “How long do I have to sit here? How soon can I leave without seeming impolite?”
There’s so much in us that keeps us from wanting to linger with the dead. It was a discipline for me to stay at that bedside. But as I sat and took in the reality of the lifeless body I felt the same surge of joyful energy that I experienced in the parking lot the other night. I sat there quietly as my whole being shouted, “I’m not dead! I’m ALIVE!” It was all I could do to keep from jumping up and running out shouting for joy.
* * * * * *
I’m part of a young church. A community of 20 and 30 somethings who live far from our extended families. Gracefully, thankfully, death has been far from our little community. I wonder though, if we aren’t missing something in our isolation from the dead and dying?
Maybe we should simply be thankful to be spared this difficult detail of life for the time being. But I wonder if the absence of death in our lives doesn’t somehow leave our lives a little less, well, alive. Many of us spend most of our lives only partly alive. Maybe a simple encounter with death is what’s needed to help us see that. To help us embrace the gift of life.
When our second twin, Baby B, was born there was a moment during which he didn’t breathe. My husband told me later that he stood listening, waiting for the cry of life as Drs and nurses swarmed around the tiny body. How long did he wait? Minutes, seconds? All the while wondering, is he dead or alive?
The line between life and death is so frighteningly thin, like ice on a lake in early spring. Only a fool would venture out onto the shifting, creaking mass. But no one could blame you for feeling a surge of joy at having made it across if you do.
* * * * * *
I hurry on into the store. Past the young man crouched down in his hoodie smoking outside the door. Past the Mom with two kids, pausing at the soda dispenser. I have to ask for help to find the batteries. D batteries. Big ones. Expensive. Our swing goes through them like crazy.
I get my butt in gear and hurry home to the babies who’re not yet asleep. Isaiah is ba-ba-baa-ing to beat the band in a voice that can be heard throughout the house. The older kids are half-pajamad swarming around the living room dropping clothes and papers and toys as they pass. My house is full of life, “teaming with life,” I like to joke.
The only thing dead here is the swing and soon, thanks to the batteries, it’s running again. It’s not dead yet and, thankfully, neither am I.