I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. Perhaps it is because it seems like 2014 was a year of loss, and while many of those losses did not come in the form of physical death, their impact was enough to make me think of and relate them to physical death.
This past June marked the tenth anniversary of my father’s death. Ten years later, I can still recall exactly where I was in our house when I got the phone call. I remember hating myself so much because I had debated whether or not to spend money we didn’t really have to fly back east to see him. I reasoned that numerous times before this he had been in the hospital and had always pulled through. I rationalized my staying in Minnesota by pointing out that if I did spend the money to get home and he once again pulled through, only to pass away not too soon afterwards that I would not have the money to return for his funeral. Hours of debate and discussion with my husband and phone calls to my mom and siblings (one thing death does is force people to put aside their hatred for one another and talk in a civilized manner) finally led to the decision to fly east. The ticket had just been purchased for me to leave that evening when the phone call came telling me that my dad had passed away within the hour. I was too late.
Last week my daughter and I visited the graves of two beautiful lives taken too early. One was an amazingly beautiful and talented sixteen year old redhead named Emma. We met Emma when she was very young, probably seven. She was a gifted photographer and had a heart for people that stemmed from her unwavering love for Jesus. A little over a year ago, she left her driveway like she had done many times. Only this time, she didn’t get to her destination. Instead, her life was cut short by a run in with a truck at a difficult intersection on a busy highway in rural Buffalo. Her earthly light was snuffed out and, as the Bible tells us, in the twinkling of an eye she was in the presence of her Savior. Buried with her is her baby brother, Andrew–born thirteen months after her but lived only a few hours before returning to his heavenly Father. Their names and death dates etched in stone and covered by a shallow blanket of fresh white snow made it all too real for my daughter and me.
The other night my husband had on the television. I was half paying attention to it when I heard the name Robin Williams mentioned. A talented man who could make people laugh with little effort, Robin Williams committed suicide this past year. I thought of a sixteen year old boy from our town who also took his life this past year. Another’s life was lost due to a skateboarding accident. One minute he was having fun, riding down a hill; by the end of the day, his parents were told there was no hope. The head injury was too severe and another young life was gone. I was reminded once again of death and the fragility of life.
Today, after getting some much needed errands done, my husband and I were on County Road 35 heading home. He was driving because I was, once again, not feeling well enough to do so. As we passed Iffert Avenue, I recalled the exact spot eight years ago this month where I had my own run in with death. The scene is as fresh in my memory as if it were yesterday: a rain/snow mix, falling temperature, slushy roads, and an old green Dodge Caravan crossing the center line coming right at our purple van. I was driving, my then fifteen year old daughter was in the passenger seat and her brand new saxophone was sitting behind her seat. We were on our way to her weekly lesson in Brooklyn Center and she was so excited to show her teacher her new, black saxophone she had affectionately named Klaus. We didn’t get there. Instead, the two of us (and her saxophone) went the other way in an ambulance to Buffalo Hospital. Many bruises, some blood, a few broken bones, a pair of cut jeans and a totaled van later, we were both home. Death did not claim any victims that day, but the scars–both physical and emotional– are still there to remind me how quickly that can change.
As I think through all that I have written, I can feel my heart beat faster. It sinks in, once again, how little control I really do have over anything. I like to think I can control my life. I used to like to think I could control and micromanage the lives of my kids. The reality, though, is I have precious little control over things. Yes, I can drive carefully and even avoid driving when I don’t feel I can safely do so (something that happens all too often lately and didn’t happen enough when I was self-medicating with alcohol). But, even if I am doing everything right, something can still happen because someone else isn’t taking the same precaution. I can’t lock my children away in a bubble to protect them from everything in this world. I suppose I could do that to myself; I could stay home all the time where others’ bad decisions cannot affect me. I’ve actually tended to do that a lot lately, although I question if that is really how life should be lived. Even taking that measure doesn’t come with a guarantee. When one lives with constant vertigo and nerve pain and weakness, a fall is never out of the question (and that has happened several times in the last several weeks), and in our house, a fall down our flight of sixteen steep steps could result in serious injury or even death.
The bottom line is there is no earthly solution to cure death. Medical science has come a long way. Diagnoses that used to be death sentences now are not necessarily so anymore. Yet, for as far as medicine has come, no doctor can raise a dead person back to life. No man or woman who dies and is buried for a few days can walk out of their grave after being brought back to life by a medical breakthrough. A horrific car crash can send a person to the hospital where life support can be given, but sometimes, there is just too much damage for human hands to fix. Only God is the author of life and death. Psalm 139 tells us the God plans all our days before we are even born. Maybe it’s just me, but I struggle to wrap my mind around that fact. God already knows when I will die. December 2006, despite the perfect conditions existing for me to do so as a driver crossed into my lane head on, did not result in my death. Doctors told me the airbags, the seat belts, and the design of my van saved my life. I believed them. I still do, only now I also know that it was more than technology of a modern vehicle that kept Sara and me alive that day. God has our days planned. I don’t know when my day will be to leave this earth, but I know that God knows. I remember when Emma passed away. I was out of town and my daughter texted me with the news. Tears. Instant tears. And later on, a text back to her saying, “Jesus was not surprised when Emma walked through the gates of heaven that evening in July. In fact, He was waiting for her. He had been expecting her arrival and was waiting to welcome her home.” He knows the same about me and will be waiting for me too. One of my most favorite songs right now is one written by the worship team at our church. The words go like this:
“To thy name we call out, To thy name we sing;
Death has no victory, Death has no sting…
Lift your voice to God, He never changes,
Yesterday, today, His love remains;
And praise to the One who is to come, Unfailing Father,
His love remains.
If life be long we will be glad, That we may long obey;
If short, then why would we be sad to soar to endless days;
Oh, give way to trumpet sound, mystery revealed,
The dead are raised, God be praised;
Victory is sealed.”
As my body struggles more and more with disease, the thought of death isn’t far from my mind. I am thinking through things I never thought I would at this point in my life–things like, what songs I want sung at my funeral and how will people remember me. The answer to that last question is not a good one and that hurts my heart more than words can say. It is something I want God to change in me.